Try Try Again (80/80)

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To Ama’s great disappointment, Miro did not ask Ardent to marry him at dinner time, or on the next day, either. The day after that, Ardent returned to Try Again, alone, at Miro’s insistence. “You have work to do, that will not wait, and which I have kept you from for weeks already. I’ll be well enough to travel in a few days. I shall join you very soon, my lady. I give you my word.”

Four days later, Ardent was at home in her little kitchen, surrounded by the smell of fresh bread and simmering curry. The kitchen was well organized and spotless, as was the rest of the house. She’d built an extension for the house with aether while still in the Sun Etherium, and Jinokimijin had lent her a golem so she could haul it back to install. The new extension was almost as large as her original house. It included a second bedroom, a living room, and a new workroom with ample built-in storage. Ardent moved everything from her original workroom to the new one, and turned her front room into a dining and sitting area instead.

Now she was making dinner, and looking at acres of reaped ground through her kitchen window. A few dozen of the new barbarian fey that Jinokimijin had made out of mortals had chosen to settle in Try Again after hearing Ardent lived there. They’d harvested her crops for her; many of them had experience with farming. So she’d had plenty of time to get the house in shape. And wonder when Miro would arrive.    

“Mmm,” a voice said behind her. “That smells delicious. Did you make enough for two?”

Ardent spun about, crossed the kitchen to the doorway where Mirohirokon stood, and swept him into her arms. “You came.”

“Where else would I be?” He kissed her, holding on tightly. “This is the best place in the world.”

“Mmm.” Ardent kissed him in return, then rubbed her cheek down the side of his face and nosed at his throat. Miro was a little taller now, she thought, and broader through the chest and shoulders. He looked vibrantly healthy, like any fey fresh from an Etherium with a renewed body. “You smell like aether.”

He relaxed in her embrace, tilting up his head to allow her better access. “Would you like some, my lady?”

Ardent pinned him against the wall, one arm under him to support his weight, and licked his neck. “Love, Miro, how do you do that?”

He flattened her hair under his hands, cradling her head closer. “Do what?”

“Be so tempting.” She nipped at his skin. “I shouldn’t waste it.”

“Aether spent on your pleasure is never a waste, my lady,” Miro murmured. “Also, it may be easier to replenish than you think, if the phoenix rose is still around.”

“Mmm?” She licked his throat again, distracted, and he whimpered with desire.

Breathing faster, Miro pulled a trinket from his jacket pocket, a hoop of white gold and rubies. “I brought the teleport extractor. Perhaps the phoenix rose will oblige you on a trip or two.”

Ardent blinked at it, and laughed. “Maybe.”

Miro wrapped his legs around Ardent’s waist and pressed a kiss into her hair. “Does my lady have any other objections?”

She held him braced against the wall, ran one arm over his side, feeling the strength in his lean, strong body. “I’m afraid of hurting you,” she admitted, her breath warm against his skin. “Are you sure it’s safe?”

“I’ve been casting spells and reabsorbing aether at a normal rate since yesterday. I’m sure. And if it hurts, I will tell you to stop. And you will,” Miro said, relaxed, confident.

Ardent pressed her lips to his neck. The tide of aether brushed against her mouth like his pulse, and she opened herself to let it flow in. Miro gasped in pleasure, his body eager and pliant in her arms, as she drank him in, sensual, slow.

Some minutes later, the curry on the stove began to burn. Some minutes after that, Miro flicked aether over the stove fire to extinguish it, and the two of them continued what they were doing, unabated.    

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The Only Thing I Really Want (79/80)

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After breakfast, Miro and Ardent went for a walk along the palace’s parapets, which were more akin to a decorative walkway than a mortal fortification. They walked slowly, and Ardent made Miro promise he would stop before overexerting himself. The high vantage offered a magnificent view of the city. Now and then, they’d stop for Miro to point out landmarks of significance to him, and sometimes teleport to them for a closer look. “Everything’s changing now.” Miro gestured to one of the spires that stretched to the sky above the palace. “The old Sun Queen would never have tolerated that.”

“How would she stop it? She couldn’t force people to stop building, could she?”

“Not the way Dad stopped her, no. But she didn’t have to. Lots of people agreed with her that the architectural unity of the city was its glory and must be maintained. They’d’ve ostracized any who tried to violate it. That combination was always enough to deter it.” Miro rested his arms on the parapet rail and looked at some of the colorful additions sprouting on buildings below.

“Are you gonna miss it? The architectural unity.”

“I don’t know. I always thought I hated the sameness of it, but…the unplanned, haphazard layout of the Moon Etherium was overwhelming. Perhaps Sun will settle on something in between. I can hope.” Miro looked up as she leaned against the rail next to him, then slipped a hand around her waist and leaned against her side.

Ardent put her arm around his shoulders and bent her head to place her face against his hair. “Are you really gonna ask me to marry you at dinner time?”

“Yes. Unless you’d rather I didn’t. I can ask you right now instead. Or tomorrow. Or in two years. Or never.” He closed his eyes and breathed in the clean pure warmth of her soul. “I know it’s too soon. I should not have brought it up.”

“Hon, it’s fine.” She lifted him into her arms to embrace him and look into his eyes. “It does seem a little soon. And sudden. All right, a lot soon. I’d been basically living with Whispers Rain for eight months before I asked her to marry me.”

“That’s very sensible.” Miro looped his arms over her shoulders. “Just what I would expect of you.” He pulled himself closer to her, pressing his cheek to hers. “I do not need you to promise me eternity. That is, I am confident that I would like to spend eternity with you and that I shall not change my mind. But I am happy to take each day as it comes, and to be grateful for that.”

“‘Grateful’.” Ardent made a face at him. “Miro, honey, I’m already over seven feet tall. I’m a little uncomfortable about this pedestal you keep putting me on.”

“I assure you, I have an entirely realistic view of your perfection,” Miro said, earnestly, then laughed at her expression. “My apologies, Ardent. I shall attempt to bridle my admiration. In the interests of planning on a less grandiose scale: how long did you wish to stay in the Sun Etherium? Do you need to return to the Moon Etherium soon? Or to Try Again?”

“Ugh. I’ve missed half the harvest by now. I really should go back to Try Again, if only so Relentless and the others know I’ve not forgotten them.” Ardent set him down on the parapet rail, and rested her chin on his shoulder. “Skein wanted me to stay longer in the Moon Etherium.”    

“She forgave you for not telling her about the phoenix rose? Or did she never learn the whole of it?”

“She forgave me, more or less. I’m afraid there might still be mortal slaves left there. Found several and freed em, but that doesn’t mean ‘all’. And there’s more mess, but there’s always been more mess and that never kept me there before.” Ardent exhaled, and circled an arm around Miro’s back. “To be honest, sugar, the only thing I really and truly want right now is to be with you.”

Miro closed his eyes and squeezed her. “Thank you for that.”

“I should’ve come for you sooner. That ridiculous vow. I should’ve known…”

“Pft. That ridiculous vow was my idea. So was violating it. You are not responsible for the consequences of my actions,” Miro said. Ardent screwed up her face, unconvinced, so he kissed her. “I love it when you make faces at me. Ama is right: you truly are adorable.” Ardent stuck her tongue out at him, and then they were both laughing and embracing.

After a long pause for caressing and kissing, Ardent spoke again. “All right. I don’t know exactly what I should do next. I’m thinking, ‘Go back to Try Again and harvest whatever I can before the weather turns. Then hike back to the Moon Etherium and see how things are going there and if I can actually help.’ Long term…I miss Try Again. I dunno if I can explain the barbarian life in a way that makes sense. I love the aether and the power and the easy Etherium life, but the longer I stay in one the more I feel like…I don’t know. Like living in one makes me insulated and isolated, wadded up in cotton and unable to touch anything real. That doesn’t make sense. Of course you’re real and I’m touching you right now. But…”

Miro kissed her as she trailed off. “It’s all right. I don’t expect you to move to the Sun Etherium for me. You know, I’ve always spent a lot of time out of the Etherium. I never resigned my affiliation, of course. But Dad’s research meant a lot of hours traveling, in the Broken Lands and even into mortal worlds. Mortal culture is fascinating. So different, from world to world.”

“I know! And their stories! They’re so short-lived, and they spend so much of their lives scrabbling just to stave off death a few more years. I can’t help feeling bad for them. But there’s so many more of them than fey. Millions upon millions, maybe billions of them, I don’t know. The fey shard is so small. You ever think about staying on a mortal world after the fey shard passes? On one where the shard comes back regularly to it, so you’d know when to come back. But just travelling the whole of the Old World for a hundred and twelve years, really seeing it.”

Miro smiled. “You make Dad’s exile of our enemies sound almost pleasant for them.”

“Heh. Exile beats dying, anyway.”

“It does. And I think I would enjoy exile, were I exiled with you.” Miro laced his fingers through hers. “But we can start with Try Again, first. Perhaps you can make a barbarian farmer of me.”

Ardent lifted his fingers to her lips and kissed them. “Is that something you really want to do, Miro? Or are you just saying it to please me?”

He smiled at her. “I’ve spent most of my life plotting to overthrow my mother. Well, no reason to do any more of that. I am in need of a new purpose, my lady. Yours sounds interesting.”

Ardent studied his face. “It’s just. About marriage. Eternity’s a long time to promise. And I guess…I think I’m asking too much, hoping you’ll love me enough to love a hard life. I don’t want to do to you what I did to Rain. And let’s be honest here: she may’ve been the one to suggest divorce, but I’m the one who left. I could’ve gone back to the Moon Etherium instead, but I wouldn’t.”

“I am not Rain. I like the Broken Lands. But I can wait to convince you. Besides.” He leaned back and pointed over her shoulder. “Life in Try Again may give me the opportunity to study the only free phoenix rose in history. Since you’re the only person it likes.”

She glanced back, to see the bird perched on the rail of a tower balcony several yards above and to one side of them. It cooed querulously at her. Ardent turned to face it, leaning back against the rail. She conjured up a dish with some cacao pulp in it and cooed back. The phoenix rose flew down to land on her outstretched arm. It pecked at the dish a bit, then ignored the rest in favor of settling on her arm with its feathers fluffed. “What do you suppose it wants?”

“To bask in the glory of your soul.” Miro snuggled against her side. “What more could anyone want?”

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author’s other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.

Parental Blessing (78/80)

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Miro slept soundly for the first time since his return to the Sun Etherium, and knew why when he woke in Ardent’s arms. He smiled, stretched, and curled into a ball against her. She kissed the top of his head. “Good morning, love.”

He burrowed in against her. “You’re real. I didn’t dream you.” For the past week, he’d been haunted by his obligation to her, the rope of it knotted black by his betrayal, by his separation from the person he’d given himself to. He’d felt as though it were strangling him: he’d belonged to her. He’d had no right to keep himself away from her. Miro had been physically too weak to make the journey of a hundred eighty miles to the Moon Etherium, and even so he’d set out more than once. Only to pass out within a quarter of an hour; Ama or a golem would then drag him back to bed. All that balanced his desperate need to fulfill his vow against his body’s weakness was Ardent’s order: “Don’t die.” Which meant that taking care of himself at least technically fulfilled one of her commands. It had nonetheless made recuperating an unsteady process, as his physical inability to fulfill his vow itself made him sicker and weaker. Being freed of that tangled, corrupted obligation was a weight off his soul. Miro knew he was not yet healthy, but he was far healthier. He could feel the reserves of aether that had soaked into him during the night: still low, but enough for true spellcasting and not just glamour.

“Nope. Absolutely real.” Ardent took his hand and placed it against one breast. “See?”

“Mmm.” He caressed her through the thin silk of her sleeping gown and pressed his face against her breast to kiss the upper curve. His hand slid down to her waist, discovered the gown had ridden up, and stroked the soft fur of her hip. Miro uncurled to slide one leg between hers, and cupped her rear to pull himself hard against her. “I want you,” he whispered. He nipped at her breast through the gown, sank down to find her nipple stiffening against the fabric and tongued it.

She arched into him with a whimper. “We probably shouldn’t.” Ardent stroked a hand over his hair and cradled his head to her. “You’re still sick. I don’t want to wear you out.” But she parted her legs for him and let Miro roll her onto her back to nuzzle at her other breast.

“I know.” He knelt between her legs and pressed his clothed hips against her bare skin, stifling a moan at the inviting warmth of her, his body attenuated with need. “I do feel much better. You can’t imagine how much of a relief your presence is. Just to have you here, Ardent…everything is easier.” Miro sank down against her, squirming an arm under her to hold her close.

Ardent canted her hips into his and wriggled, making him tighten his grip. “Maybe if we were really careful…”

“Love, Ardent.” Miro gasped, and stripped away his nightshirt with a flick of aether. “Yes. Please.”

“Hey, you supposed to be casting spells? Are you all right?” Ardent asked, freezing in alarm.

Miro kissed her in answer. “I did say I was much better. If I promise not to overexert myself, may we…?”

She whimpered as he slid against her. “Yesssss. But you better be careful…”

They made love gently, with Ardent moving to the top in short order. She and aether did most of the work while Miro meekly deferred to her lead. The frustration of feeling both physically and magically inadequate as a lover melted away under Ardent’s obvious pleasure, and the joy of union with her.

As they cuddled afterwards, a folded paper messenger in the shape of a white-and-purple bird interrupted them. “Want to have breakfast with my dad?” Miro asked Ardent, after reading it.

“Will you be there?”

“Yes. I think I’m even up to sitting at a table for a while.”

“All right, then.”


The Sun King had breakfast laid out for them in a garden courtyard, on a gold and crystal table. Flower beds with peonies, daffodils and tulips in bloom surrounded them, in defiance of the autumn season. A spell spun their fragrance into ethereal music: light, airy, sweet, uncomplicated. Jino’d invited a couple of other fey, and Miro introduced them to Ardent properly this time. “Ardent, this is my sister, Prin – sorry, Chancellor Amalatiti. And this is our friend, Layotaloyon. Did you get stuck with a new job yet, Talo?”

Talo shrugged. “Technically. It doesn’t come with a title, though.”    

“I can give you a title,” Jino offered. She’d taken a female form today: short but more adult and curvaceous than the form Fallen had forced on her, not to mention far more formally dressed. Her face was similar to Jino’s male one, but softened, with a narrower jaw and larger eyes. The circlet on her brow identified her to Ardent.

Talo made a warding gesture. “No, no. Thank you. I’m good without a title.”

Jino offered her son a put-upon look. “Mirohiro, I begin to see Ele’s problem. None of the people I will trust with power want it.”

“You’ll manage, Mom.” Miro bent to kiss her forehead, then pulled out a chair for Ardent before taking one beside her for himself. The furniture resized itself to accommodate the satyress’s larger form.

“I suppose it’s not too late to attempt the artificial incubation of a phoenix rose,” Jino said, glumly. Then she looked at Miro and brightened. “You look well, my child. You’re not just faking it this time.”

Miro chuckled. “What need have I for pretense? Ardent is right here.” He took Ardent’s hand, and beckoned over one of the drifting serving trays.

At Ardent’s raised eyebrows, Ama said dryly, “Miro’s been trying to convince us for five days that he was well enough to travel, if we’d just give him a little magic to help.”

“Really?” Ardent eyed him. “Honey, you were barely well enough to cross the room last night.”

“Some days have been better than others. But I truly am better now. Look, magic.” Miro snagged a couple of stuffed pastries from a tray with aether, and floated them to his plate. Ama applauded, and Miro gave her a mock bow, then offered one to Ardent. “These ones are my favorite. Stuffed with cheese and aether berries.” Miro fed it to her from his fingers after she bent her head to accept.

Across the table from them, Ama laughed. “Oh, Ideals! You two are ridiculously adorable. Will you have no consideration at all for our delicate Sun Etherium sensibilities, Miro?”

“I’m sorry, is there someone other than the five of us?” Miro made an elaborate show of looking around for more, while Jino and Talo grinned. Ardent licked berry juice off his fingers and sat back.

“There’s me!” Ama protested. “What about my delicate sensibilities?”

“You? Perhaps I’m misremembering, but are you not my sister Amalatiti who took a barbarian lover? As a dragon? While flying over the Sun Palace?”

Ama shook her fist. “That was almost good enough to dislodge Peli from last place, too!”

“What did Peli do?” Ardent asked, incredulously.

Talo and Ama laughed, while Jino sat back in her chair and rubbed the back of her neck. “We don’t generally talk about it.”

“They seduced Dad,” Ama said, jerking a thumb at Jino.

“I would like to note that I am not related to Peli in any way. Nor was I at the time,” Jino commented. “Also, they’re twelve years older than me. It’s not as if I lured my vulnerable young former step-child into bed.”

“It was three days after the divorce,” Miro told Ardent.

“In my defence, I didn’t know they were going to brag about it to the entire Etherium. In song form. At a concert for the Queen,” Jino said.

“That was a great song,” Ama said, wistfully.

“I loved that song,” Talo said. “Do you think Peli’d perform it for Jinokimijin’s ascension celebration?”

“Ooh, I should ask! I hope they still remember it.”

“So these are the members of my family that I like, my lady. In case you wished to reconsider your association with me,” Miro told Ardent.

“I’m not a member of his family,” Talo pointed out. “Just a hanger-on.”

“You’ve been hanging on since you were five. You’re family,” Miro said, in a tone that brooked no argument.

“Not reconsidering. You’re gonna have to do worse than this, sweetie.” Ardent had her eyes on Miro’s, a smile on her lips.

“Good,” Miro said, and leaned in to kiss her, then nibbled at her berry-flavored lips.

Too adorable. When will you ask her to marry you, Miro?” Ama teased.

“Dinner time.” Miro kissed Ardent again, then glanced at Ama, who was being uncharacteristically silent. She blinked at him, stunned.    

“Are you in truth?” Talo asked, on her behalf.

Miro nodded, watching Ardent again. She was smiling at him, the corners of her black eyes crinkled up.

“Ideals, Miro. Um. Sorry to ruin the surprise, Ardent,” Ama said, at last.

“Oh, it’s not a surprise. She told me to ask then.”

“I was thinking dinner time yesterday. Didn’t realize how late it had gotten.”

Miro glanced at Ama again, and said to Ardent, “We’ve rendered her speechless again! I am not sure this has ever happened twice in the same year before. Don’t worry, Ama. I’ll give her some time to come to her senses before we wed. If she accepts me.”

“This might be a little abrupt,” Ardent agreed. She leaned back and broke her gaze on Miro to ask Jino, “So what about you, your majesty? Didja have a better match in mind for your crown prince than a barbarian from a tiny village?”

“Me?” Jino touched her fingers to her breastbone. “A better match for my son than a fey of power and influence among mortals, barbarians, and the Moon Etherium alike? Than the fey who saved his life and mine, and gained me my throne? No, I cannot imagine a better match.” She took a sip from a crystal goblet of orange juice. “Well done, Mirohiro.”

“Thank you, Mom.” Miro had a bite of his own roll. He sought Ardent’s hand with his free one, laced his fingers through hers, and squeezed.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author’s other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.

Reunion (77/80)

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“Let me go in first.” Jinokimijin had teleported them to a golden antechamber, decorated with relief carvings in white marble. “Just to let him know.” Ardent acknowledged with a nod, and the Sun King opened the door.

A woman’s voice inside said, “—the Etherium, you’re delusional. Please lie back down before you fall over.”

“I am not delusional, Ama.” Miro’s voice sounded thready, but she recognized him at once. Ardent’s heart clenched, and suddenly she was glad she hadn’t ported in next to him. I’m not ready for this. “Ardent’s here, I just need a flight spell to…uh…” He sounded confused.    

“Good afternoon, Mirohiro,” Jino said, walking in. “What’s the matter?”

“Hello, Dad. Did you bring Ardent with you?”

“He keeps insisting Ardent Sojourner’s in the city.” The woman sounded put upon. “I don’t know how he thinks he’d know.”

Ardent eased the door open and moved into the doorway. It was a Sun Etherium bedroom, bright, cheerful, full of gold and crystal and alabaster decorations. A Sun Host woman was walking away from a rocking chair in pursuit of Miro, while Jino had a hand out to intercept his son.

Miro stopped halfway between the bed and the door, eyes locked on Ardent. “My lady.” He looked like a sickly mortal: too pale, gaunt, eyes sunken. He stepped forward again, half-staggering, but nonetheless evaded the grasp of both Sun fey and approached Ardent. He dropped at her hooves, in a move that mixed kneeling and falling; Miro had to touch the fingers of one hand to the floor to catch his balance. “I – I don’t know what to say, my lady. I’ve wanted to see you for days; you should not have had to come to me. I deceived you and betrayed your trust in me, and I don’t know how to apologize for it. I hated doing it, but I did so intentionally and I would do it again. I crave your forgiveness, but how can I ask for it when I cannot even repent? I…” He trailed off, voice shaky. “I needed to be a better servant to you.”

“Oh, Miro, honey—” Ardent bent to touch his shoulder, then dropped next to him. She curled her legs beneath her and drew him into her arms. “You did not betray me. You did great, honey. You did everything I wanted you to do. I release you. You hear that? You don’t owe me anything. No more vows, no obligations. I release you from them all.”

Miro sagged into her embrace, letting her pull him unresisting into her lap. He whispered, “No, you don’t understand what I’ve done.”    

“Well, if you lured me here so you could trap me as your Moon Host channel, fraid I already quit Moon again. So it ain’t gonna work out.” Ardent curled him against her chest as he gave a half-chuckle. “You’re still free. I don’t even care if this whole thing is just an act to make me feel sorry for you and let you out of your pledge. I never wanted that Justice-deprived oath anyway.”

“Oh,” the unfamiliar fey woman said. “And I was so confident Miro had to be exaggerating about how kind you were.”

“I’m not that kind.” Ardent crinkled her nose. “Just don’t take advantage of people.” She shot Jino a glare. “Whether they deserve it or not.”

The Sun King wiped tears from his eyes and bowed deeply to her. “Thank you, Lady Ardent.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t do this for you, either.” Ardent kissed the top of Miro’s head, then stood with him in her arms and carried him back to the bed. “Can we talk in some privacy here, or do I need to swear three times that I’m not going to abduct your crown prince first?”

“She’s not going to abduct me,” Miro added as she set him down. He shifted to sit up, and the bed rose at his back to support him at a comfortable angle. “Also, Ardent, I want you to know that for almost the entirety of my life I have been perfectly capable of walking under my own power. Since you seem to have known me exclusively in the small fraction where my mobility has been questionable. Just so you don’t think this is typical.”

Ardent laughed. She perched on the bed beside him and took his hand, twining their fingers together.

“Come, Ama.” Jinokimijin touched the fey woman’s shoulder. “We can leave them in peace for a bit. Farspeak if you need anything, Miro. Lady Ardent, if you would do me the great kindness of letting me know when you leave? Miro should not be left alone while convalescing, and inconveniently forgets this from time to time.”

“All right, Dad. Nice almost-meeting you, Lady Ardent.” Ama gave a little wave. Jino motioned a pair of golem attendants out the door, and then the two Sun fey teleported away.

Now that they were alone, Ardent felt unaccountably nervous. She shifted on the edge of the bed, so that she sat sideways with one leg curled before her, facing him. “I like the lack of teleport blocks in your Sun Palace,” she said, to cover it. “And here I thought Sun Etherium would be more conservative than Moon in all things.”

“It used to be. Dad took the teleport blocks down this week. As long as he’s king anyway, he wants to get rid of some of the pointless, inconvenient traditions so that people will think of change as a good thing. And perhaps give up their own bad habits more easily as well.” Miro smiled a little. “We are not altogether confident of this reasoning, but at the least, less unnecessary walking.”

“Heh.” Ardent lifted her free hand, wanting to touch his face, and then put it down on the bed again instead, not sure if she really knew where they stood. “How are you, Miro?”

His brown eyes brightened, lighting on hers, and he squeezed her hand. “You are here. I could not be better.”

She chuckled. “No, tell me truly, Miro. What did your dad mean by ‘convalescing’? You don’t look exactly healthy. And you’re still depleted. Why don’t you have any aether in you?”

“Aftereffect of too much channeling. My body is rejecting taking aether in again. That’s why I look terrible, as well; trueshifting doesn’t work properly on me right now, either. It’s getting better, actually. I’ve soaked in a little aether since yesterday, enough to cast a glamour or two. Not much, but enough to give me hope I will not always be this crippled. And in any case, I’ll live.” He smiled. “Ardent’s orders.”

“‘Don’t die,’” she quoted, her voice low. “Thank you for not dying, sugar.”

“It was the least I could do,” Miro said, and hesitated.

Ardent caressed his fingers with hers, then moved her hand deliberately to cover her other one against the bed. “So. You and your dad hatched a plot together to use the phoenix rose to depose and exile the worst person in the Sun Etherium. While you were at it, you just happened to take out the worst person in the Moon Etherium, too. Way I see it, you did the Moon Etherium a favor. That happens to be the way every decent person I talked to in the Moon Etherium sees it, and some of the questionable ones, too. Even Skein’s happy.”

Miro smiled. “Is she?”

“Yup. Don’t know that she’s earned it, but maybe she’ll’ve learned a lesson from all this. Anyway. You didn’t tell me you wanted to give the phoenix rose to your dad because you figured I wouldn’t’ve trusted him. Which is, y’know, true enough. Your dad’s reputation didn’t exactly engender trust.”

“He did that on purpose,” Miro said, quietly. “He wanted fey to underestimate him.”

“Sure worked on Fallen.” Ardent shifted on the bed, a slight, stifled movement. He was so close; it made her heart ache not to hold him. “Point is, you were right to think your dad could be trusted with the phoenix rose. He did let it go. And you were right to think I would not have trusted him, or helped you get it to him. I’m all in favor of Truth, but he’s not my highest Ideal. Justice is, I guess. You probably noticed me messing with poor Truth quite a bit while we were in the Moon Etherium. I got no cause to complain that you did, too. You made the right decision.”

“Thank you.” But Miro’s brown eyes remained troubled. “If you think we chose correctly, why are you angry at my father?”

“I think you chose correctly. Your father’s a monster who almost got you killed.”

“I am a grown man, Ardent. My father did not coerce me into any of this. It was my idea to find a former Moon Etherium barbarian to escort me in and use me as a channel, in fact. And that it be me, specifically, because I was High Court and would be a more powerful channel than my father. We did discuss inverting the roles – myself making the bargain with Fallen, my father going to find you, or another barbarian enemy of Fallen’s. But it would not have worked. My talents were better suited to opposing Fallen, and Dad’s better suited to handling her.” Miro raised a hand to cup her cheek. “To be honest, I had by far the better end of this situation.”

She tilted her head into his fingers. “I bet you’re a lot more fun than your dad is,” she murmured, then fought to clear her head and ask the things she needed to know. “So how much of this whole thing did you plan? You knew all along about the phoenix rose, right?”

Miro lowered his eyes, indigo lashes shadowing his gaunt cheeks. “In essence, yes. Dad has been researching unusual forms and applications of aether for forty years or so, with an eye towards deposing the former Sun Queen. I started to assist in his research when I was thirteen or fourteen, but he did not explain the reason for his interest until I was almost thirty. Strictly speaking, he did not tell me ‘Shadow of Fallen Scent has already found the phoenix rose you and I were looking for, so we need to enact a contingency plan’. But only because he wanted me to be able to tell you truthfully that I didn’t know it was a phoenix rose he’d been trying to get to. So I wasn’t certain. But based on the circumstances, I suspected that’s what had happened. Fallen discovered the plant-nest, took the bird, and did not take the root, which Dad knew she’d need later. So we waited in the area until she came back for it, and then we staged the whole false-race affair. So she would take Dad. Then I went back to the Sun Etherium to pretend I was exhausting my resources there in a desperate effort to free him. And then to you. In fairness, my desperation was quite genuine.”

“And you had to go back to the Sun Etherium because…?”

“Verisimilitude. If I’d come first to you, you would have wondered why I was so well-prepared with a plan to cover an event I’d supposedly been unable to anticipate. We’d made a list of eleven former Moon Host barbarians who might be able to help. One of the others was even in Try Again. So the plan didn’t depend on you specifically agreeing. But you were at the top of the list. Especially after I saw you.” He smiled at her then, and the look of adoration in his eyes made her forget everything else for a moment. “Anyway, when I told you ‘no one in the Sun Etherium will help me get him back’, that was true. But mostly because our allies would be needed in position in the Sun Etherium upon Dad’s return. I don’t think anyone but I and perhaps Ama knew he planned a coup. But Dad had a lot of sympathizers in his distaste for Mother and her laws. So I spread the word that something big was coming and they should be positioned to provide support and keep the general populace calm. A propaganda war, as it were.”

“Heh.” Ardent shook her head. “So your dad didn’t intentionally let Fallen get the phoenix rose first, did he? That wasn’t a deliberate gamble to get him a Moon High Court channel as well as the phoenix rose?”

Miro hesitated. “I…am certain it was not. That is to say, yes, we’d been aware for decades that Fallen was also researching the same subject. When we discussed contingency plans should Fallen find the phoenix rose before us, we were aware that this contingency had certain advantages. First that Dad would have a channel to draw on when he returned to the Sun Etherium, and second that the Sun Etherium itself would likely be weakened. However, the phoenix rose alone would have sufficed. Fallen and the low sun aether were lagniappes, but there were far too many risks and variables to this plan. If Dad had found the bird first, he would have claimed it.”

She eyed him. “You say you’re certain, sugar, and yet it sounds like there’s a ‘but’ in there.”

Miro sighed. “Dad did kind of pick Fallen to be our rival in the Moon Etherium.”

“What? How do you ‘kind of pick’ a rival?”

“There have always been other researchers in this field. Dad had some tidbits about the possibilities make their way to Shadow of Fallen Scent decades ago, to gain her interest. He figured she would drive out the competition in the Moon Etherium, because she was very good at social and political manipulation. But she was neither a good researcher nor experimenter, so she would not be a truly dangerous rival herself. And she had many enemies; no one liked her. So if she did pose a threat, it’d be easy to recruit allies against her.”

“That’s…seriously twisty reasoning.”

“I did mention the part where Dad cultivated the image of incompetence for forty years so he’d be underestimated, right? He’s had a long time to work on this plan. And phoenix roses are only born when the Old World and the fey shard intersect. We always knew our first chance at it would be this season.” Miro smiled. “And granted, we very nearly failed at the end. But we did not.”

You almost died at the end. “And now you’re crown prince, instead of ninth-to-eleventh favorite.”

“And Dad’s king.” Miro rubbed the back of his neck. “After the way we manipulated you, I imagine we deserve no less than for you to think that power was our motive.”

Ardent looked away. “No. If power’d been your motive, you’d’ve kept the phoenix rose. Unless it dies after two weeks in captivity or something, and you just didn’t tell me.”

“No. He could have kept it. Fallen’s notes would tell you as much, I imagine, if you do not trust ours.”

“I trust you.” Ardent took a deep breath. “Maybe I shouldn’t. But I do. So! You said earlier that I didn’t understand what you’d done. Any other details you want to fill me in on that I missed?”

Miro rested against the angled mattress, thinking. “I believe we covered everything I’ve lied to you about. Am I still forgiven?” He watched her, eyes earnest and worried.

“Yeah, you are. So you and your dad didn’t discuss how you ought to bed your Moon Etherium native to ensure her goodwill?”

Miro laughed and shook his head. “No, and if we had discussed it, it would have been ‘on no account should you risk your host’s goodwill by attempting to bed her’.”

“Not even if she’s throwing herself at you in the most pathetic way imaginable?”

“That is not how I remember events at all.” Miro circled a hand behind her neck, fingers curling against tightly-kinked hair. He drew himself forward and kissed her. She leaned into him, wanting this to be real, to be true, even if nothing else had been. He broke off after a moment, breathing heavily, and touched his forehead to hers, under her horns. “Ardent, my beautiful lady Ardent,” he whispered. “I have done nothing to deserve anything at all of you, least of all this. But if you are asking if my interest in you was feigned: no. Rather, it was understated. I have never wanted anyone as much as I desire you, never known anyone so worthy of admiration, of love. I can ask nothing of you, not after all that I’ve taken already. But if I could ask one thing, it would be the opportunity to see you again, and again. To become someone worthy of your love, and thereby perhaps to gain it.”

Ardent shifted position to lie beside him and gathered him into her arms., She ran one hand down the length of his body and clung to him with a breathless half-laugh. “Miro, I don’t know if your opinion of me is too high or of yourself is too low or both, but you’ve definitely got something out of whack there. Also, I don’t care which it is. Also also, I love you, and you can see as much of me as you like. And I didn’t mean that as innuendo but it works either way.”

Miro pulled his head back to look in her eyes, astonished. “And you say I am mad,” he said, then kissed her.

“You are.” She kissed his lips in return, then his cheek, jaw, throat. “Wonderfully, lovably, utterly mad.” Ardent shifted to straddle him as he ran his hands up her soft-furred thighs and lifted the hem of her chiton. She kissed him again, then sat back on his thighs, her hands on his chest. “You’re probably too sick for actual lovemaking still, aren’t you?”

“Probably,” Miro admitted. “I am open to making the attempt anyway, or to cuddling instead, as my lady prefers.” Ardent shifted to snuggle in against him, pillowing her head against his chest. He dipped his head to rest his face against her hair. “I have missed you so much, my lady. I was sure you’d be furious with me. Are you quite sure you’re not furious?”

“Pretty sure. I was furious when your dad first disappeared with you, but mostly because I thought you’d tricked me into helping with some plot to use Fallen as a channel and sabotage the Moon Etherium. Once it was obvious what you’d really done, I didn’t mind so much. Also, it was hard to stay angry when I was afraid you might be dead.” Ardent nuzzled her cheek against his chest and pushed his robe open to caress his far side. “Love, but I am glad you’re alive.”

Miro stroked her curly hair, traced the curve of one caprine ear. “Me too. Sorry, but, earlier – did you truly say you loved me?”

Ardent giggled. “Yes. I love you. In case you needed to hear it again.”

“Oh. It just seems so improbable. I am having a difficult time crediting it. You’ve only known me a handful of days, and you seem to have such excellent judgment otherwise—”

Ardent laughed and thumped his chest playfully. “You haven’t known me any longer than I’ve known you, and you said you loved me first. Well, strongly implied that you loved me, anyway.”

“I love you,” Miro said at once. “But it’s different for me! I can see your soul.”

“What difference does that make?” She turned her head to rest her chin on folded hands and look up at him.

He smiled, slow and sensual and sweet, and Ardent almost forgot her resolve not to exhaust him with an attempt at lovemaking. “Because your soul is amazing, Ardent. You have the most astonishing, beautiful, pure soul I have ever seen.”

Ardent raised her eyebrows, giving him a skeptical look. “Pure? Me? Hon, I think your soulsight’s busted.”

He laughed and bent for a kiss. “That is the trouble with being the only person I know with this talent. I can hardly verify it with anyone else. Only my own experience. Which has born out my impression of your soul, in every particular.”

“Uh. You were paying attention to all those times I lied back in the Moon Etherium, right? Deceived my own queen because I didn’t want her to have the phoenix rose? Let my ex-wife believe I’d come back for good so she’d drop by and fool around with me? Almost killed you? I’m no paragon, sweetie.”

“I know. Life does not admit paragons.” He hugged her, pressed his lips to her shoulder. “You did what you thought was right, not what was most convenient or would make your life easiest. If you’d done that, you would never have taken me to the Moon Etherium. You are the most wonderful person I have ever met, and from the first moment I saw you I have wanted nothing more than to remain by your side forever. Is it too soon to ask you to marry me? It’s too soon, isn’t it. I should give you a chance to come to your senses first.”

She curled a hand behind his head and giggled. “It’s too soon. You should wait until at least, I don’t know. Dinner time?”

“I had dinner before you arrived,” Miro said. “Oh, wait, you mean dinner tomorrow. Very well, I shall ask then.”

“Is it that late already? Today kinda got away from me.” Ardent stifled a yawn. “At least you didn’t. Mmm.” She set her head against his chest again, rotating an ear down to listen to his heartbeat, slow and steady. “Is it all right if I sleep here with you? You wanna farspeak your dad that I’m staying? Wait, can you farspeak your dad?”

“I would be extremely disappointed if you did not sleep here with me, and yes, I can message him. With the same farspeaker enchantment you made for me. I am growing quite accustomed to a lack of magic. In case you feared I could not adapt to a barbarian lifestyle.”    

“Hah. Guess we can figure that one out at dinner time tomorrow, too.” I should probably eat something before I go to sleep, Ardent thought. She used a flicker of aether to change her chiton to a nightgown and get rid of her underwear, and then drifted off to sleep anyway.    

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Another Private Audience (76/80)

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Jinokimijin brought them to a greenhouse garden in a crystal cupola surmounting a palace tower. The garden was overgrown but with a wild beauty to it, a fascinating blend of organic growth with the regularity of aether. The Sun King took a seat on a curved bench, one of two, and waved a hand in invitation to the other. He glanced at her now-empty arm. “Oh, good, it didn’t come with you.”

“It’s been hanging around me for the last hundred miles. Did you give it a flight speed spell?”


“It’s got one now.”

“Ah.” Jino looked out the cut-crystal walls of the cupola at the sky around his Etherium. “I am certain it can’t access its own powers without an extractor. But of course it’s fey now, so it can use aether. Records do say that animals would do so instinctively, back in the days before the Sundering, when Etherium rulers sometimes affiliated beasts.” He paused. “For the record, I am absolutely confident that bird cannot trigger another Sundering-level catastrophe all by itself. But if it does, I am truly very sorry.” Ardent eyed him. Jino covered his face with one hand. “Miro says it has a soul.”

“It does?” Ardent blinked.

“Yes. Not like a fey or mortal soul; more like one of the rare golems who do. Still. After that, I was even less inclined to kill it, and Miro said you and he had agreed to free it. It seemed the best solution. Perhaps I applied it too hastily.”

“Huh. So mortals have souls, too? And golems?”

“Not most golems. Just a few. He didn’t tell you?” Jinokimijin took his hand from his eyes and watched Ardent.

“He didn’t tell me he could see souls until the day before you took him away. We didn’t have a lot of time to talk about it,” Ardent said.    

“Ah. Well. Mortals have souls just like fey. Exactly like fey. As in, Miro cannot tell fey and mortal apart by soulsight.”


“Isn’t it, though? Ever think about what you would be like if you not only had no aether, but didn’t have fey invulnerability, or evasion, or elusiveness, or immortality?”

Ardent smiled briefly. “When I was young, fey weren’t immortal. So that one’s pretty easy.”

“Yes. We weren’t always as good at the rest as we are now, or at least so all these quasi-historical immersions would have me believe.”    

“That, I don’t remember. White Rose agrees, though, and they would.”

“Oh? Who’re they?”

“The Moon Etherium’s Archivist. They’re, um, about a century older than me, so around 350 now, I guess.”

Jino blinked at her. “In truth? I didn’t know there were any fey that old still alive.”

“There’s no one older who argues with them, anyway.” Ardent shrugged. “They were old when I was a little kid, and that was back when old fey still showed their age. White Rose was the oldest fey anyone knew then, too. When the Moon King made himself unaging, I used to ask White Rose if they already knew the secret of immortality, and the Moon King had taken it from them. I don’t think they did, but they never would answer me about that.”

“I wish I’d had a chance to talk to them while I was in the Moon Etherium.” Jino sighed. “Not likely to be back any time soon, under the circumstances.”

“Hah. Why did you let the phoenix rose go, Jinokimijin?”

“Because I’d done what I needed to do with it. And Miro had told you he would see it freed.”

“‘What you needed’ being the Sun Etherium throne?”

“No. That was just a means to an end. I’d step down if Miro would take it. He’d be a better king, but he’s too smart to take the job. I don’t suppose you fancy the post, Lady Ardent?”

She laughed. “Hah. Not a chance.”

“I knew it. He said you were clever.” Jinokimijin spread his hand over his breastbone. “I needed the Heart of the Etherium to free the enslaved mortals, and I needed to stop Ele before she brought the entire Etherium down to her level. It kills you, you know, living with injustice, day after day, year after year, and pretending it’s fine. Because it’s not happening to you. Because they’re only mortals, and it’s not like they had great lives before. Everyone knows mortals do worse to each other, right? Or they’re just ordinary fey, and destroying their reputations isn’t like killing them. They’ll live. I mean, if they don’t kill themselves, and if they do, it’s not your fault. You didn’t stab them. All you did was watch. And maybe laugh a little, just so the ones in power would know you were on their side, and not take you next. Or maybe you laugh a lot. No one else thinks it matters, right? So what gives you the right to judge? And bit by bit, your soul sickens and erodes.”    

“Adorable, in a cruel kind of way,” Katsura had said to her. Ardent said, “Miro said the Sun Etherium was worse than the Moon.”

Jinokimijin nodded. “It was.” He turned over his right arm to look at the smooth, unbroken golden skin, where Fallen had once branded him. “Even for me. Believe it or not.”

Ardent shuddered and leaned back. “You really think deposing the queen will fix everything?”

Jino laughed. “Oh, no. No. If only. It’s a start, though. At least slavery’s illegal again.”

“Wouldn’t that be easier to enforce with the phoenix rose?”

“Yes. Everything’s easier with overwhelming force. Would you trust yourself with that power, Lady Ardent?”

She shook her head.

“Me either. That’s why I had to let it go now. As soon as I put the seven of them into exile. Ele, Fallen, and the worst of Ele’s cohorts. I used the phoenix rose to remove their invulnerability, evasion, and elusiveness, then scattered them thousands of miles away. It’s so satisfying to just act. To be the one to judge and then put that judgment into action. For six days, I was the one unstoppable force in the Sun Etherium, and when people tried to oppose me, I showed them just how futile it was. I could have used another two weeks of that, my lady. Or two months. But the worst are gone. And somebody needs to be able to check me, or I’ll be a worse tyrant than any of them.” Jino spread his hands. “So I let it go. It was convenient that I could fulfill my son’s oath in doing so.”

“Huh.” She watched him, skeptical, considering.

The Sun King dropped his eyes first. “I know you did not choose to help me. I used you, as I used my son, as I used most of the people in my life, without giving them all the details. Because I would not risk the exposure of my plans, or my pawns. Mistrust is the price I pay for that now. Understood. But—” He lifted his head and met Ardent’s gaze. “I know my son pledged his service to you, my lady, without limitation. If you feel he wronged you, then please know he did so because I asked him to. With all the persuasive force a father can muster over his only child. If you wish revenge, then take it on me. Please spare him.” The Sun King stood, only to kneel at her hooves. “I know I can’t stop you from doing as you will with him, but I beg you to free him instead. Name your price, and I will pay it. Please.” He closed his eyes. “Please.”

Ardent resisted her first impulse to sympathy. “You went to the Moon Etherium as Fallen’s prisoner deliberately. You always knew she had the phoenix rose. You knew Miro would ask me for help, and when we got the phoenix rose away from her, you planned for him to give it to you.”

Jino flinched at her tone, nodded. “Yes.”

He could have died. Ardent leaned forward, and said, very softly, “Little late now to convince me that Mirohirokon is the most important thing in your life. Your majesty.

The Sun King closed his eyes, still kneeling. “Please.”

Ardent stood. “I want to see Miro. Now.”

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Think of Everything (75/80)

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About a half-mile outside the city, the phoenix rose took off, though she caught glimpses of it overhead now and again.

Ardent arrived at the Sun Etherium in the late afternoon, and was amazed by how little it had changed since the last time she’d been here, a decade ago. Half of the Moon Etherium would be brand-new and different every time she saw it, even if it had only been a year or two since her last visit. But the Sun Etherium was still a glittering jewel of cut crystal and gold and white set in its bed of aether on the plains. The Palace of the Sun was still its tallest feature, a fanciful palace in a crystal globe at the top of a spire.

No, wait, she thought, as she closed on it. It’s no longer the tallest feature. Three other towers rose higher now, at asymmetrical heights and angles. And a pair of skyships floated in the once-empty Etherium skies. New colors bloomed among the gold and white, like flowers: red, indigo, blue, pink, as roofs or accent colors on buildings

The main thoroughfare through the city, the golden spoke that led from the outskirts to its center, had been as popular as the Moon Etherium’s Promenade as a place to see and be seen. When Ardent entered the city by it, she realized it still was. As she walked the street, she slowed, taking the measure of the city. The other streets were deserted, but many fey used this one. With its little sidewalk cafes, shade trees, and park benches, it was a pleasant place to while away the time. Individual appearances varied more than Ardent remembered. Adults ranged in height from just under five feet to almost seven, and builds varied from delicate to plump to brawny. She wondered if that had changed, or if she’d grown more attentive to minor differences after her time with Miro. More Sun Host fey sported non-human features as well, although the city was still homogenous in comparison with the Moon Etherium. The greatest variety came from the occasional barbarian in their midst.

The Sun Host fey watched Ardent; with curiosity, she thought, not hostility. The mood in the city was far livelier than she’d expected, given the recent coup. With enhanced senses, she caught scraps of conversations. To her surprise, folks spoke openly of the coup: some in praise of their king, and some condemning his use of force to subdue his enemies. “At least he hasn’t killed anyone,” one waitress said. “And I’m sure he could have.”

“That’s what you think. I heard the crown princess is dead.”

“She is not. I took her aether signature myself. She was exiled with her mother.”

From a different group: “What’d that Fallen character ever do that we should be exiling her? She’s not even Sun Host!”

“I heard some stories, let me tell you…”

Others discussed Ardent herself: “Is that Ardent Sojourner?” “No, it can’t be her. Some imitator of her look.” “I heard she helped the King catch the phoenix rose.” “Oh, so this mess is all her fault, is it?”

About halfway to the palace, a fey man teleported onto the street a few paces away from her. “Welcome to the Sun Etherium, Lady Ardent Sojourner.”

She glanced at him, and stopped with her heart in her mouth, because he looked so much like Miro had when dressed for the Moon Court. The biggest difference was this stranger had Miro’s everyday indigo hair, instead of white-blond locks. And the face was – similar, but different, more squared-off. He offered an apologetic smile so like Miro’s that her heart twisted. “I forget, I have the advantage of you; I wore quite different features the last time we met. I am Jinokimijin, King of the Sun Host.”

“Your majesty.” Part of her didn’t want to kneel, but Ardent did anyway. “I am honored. Does your majesty personally greet every barbarian visitor to the city?”

“Only the ones who saved me from durance vile and assisted in my ascension to the throne. Please, rise, my lady.”

Ardent stood. She folded her arms and took a step closer to tower over Jino. “I wasn’t trying to help with your coup.”

“I know. But you did mean to rescue me, and I thank you for that, Lady Ardent.”

“I didn’t come for your thanks, either. I came to see Mirohirokon.” Her voice broke on his name. She swallowed and fought to ask in a level tone, “How is he?”

The Sun King’s expression sobered. “Alive, my lady. But not well. I will not keep you from him. But I would speak with you first, if I may?”

Movement in the sky caught her eye, and Ardent glanced up to see the phoenix rose perch on the rail of a balcony overlooking the street. She took a step back from Jinokimijin, raised her arm, and clucked. The phoenix rose glided down to land on her forearm. It cooed. Ardent looked to Jinokimijin. “All right. Talk.”

The Sun King stared at the phoenix rose, verified it, then stared at Ardent. “How could you – it’s fey – how did you catch it?”

“Didn’t. It came to me.” Ardent held her index finger out to it. The bird pecked at it, then rubbed the side of its head against the tip.

“Hah. Ah hah. Apparently, I did not think of everything.” Jinokimijin offered his hand. “Will you come with me to the palace to talk?”    

She eyed his hand, considering, then gave a mental shrug and took it. The phoenix rose flapped away from her arm just before Jino teleported the two of them away.

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The Fey Phoenix (74/80)

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Ardent had been walking for an hour or so when she decided to take a break. She was in one of the nicer sections of the Broken Lands. The well-trodden path wended through a forest of tall trees in a bizarre mix of varieties: towering redwoods next to bamboo and palm trees. She’d made her ears goat-like again days ago, fashionable or not, but forgotten to restore her callouses when she left the Moon Etherium. Her subconscious probably hoped she wouldn’t want them at the Sun Etherium. She sighed at herself. At least her hooves were still as tough as ever, and with modern traveling boots, the journey would only take a couple of hours.

Ardent sat on a fallen log beside a break in the tree cover, and took a beef-stuffed bun from her pack. She ate part of it, noticed a few sparrows watching her eat, and tore off a few little bites to throw to them. A few more birds arrived to fight for crumbs, so she tore off more pieces for them. Then she noticed a big cream-white bird circling overhead, with purple streaks outlining its pinions, and long slim tail feathers streaming behind it in the wind. Ardent stared. “No.”    

She walked into the clearing, still staring up at the sky. The cream-and-purple bird dropped lower, and landed on a branch of one of the conifers, peering back at her. Ardent clucked at it, and held out a bite of bread in one hand.

The animal glided the several yards between them to land on her outstretched arm. Fey-invulnerable skin dented beneath its purple talons, but didn’t mar. The phoenix rose poked its beak at the bite of bread, but sat back on her forearm instead of eating it. It ruffled its feathers as it settled in. “What. All right. Just. What. There is no way I stumbled across a phoenix rose in the middle of the fey shard. One who just happened to decide to perch on me. You’re a fey in phoenix-rose shape?” She cast the verification spell to learn its aether signature. It did have one. The signature had a few of the properties of a Sun fey turned barbarian, but otherwise looked nothing like any aether signature she’d ever seen before. Ardent spent aether to put a cage around the animal.

It evaded the cage to circle over her head, with an irritated coo. “Jino did not.” She tried to pin the bird with aether, and it evaded her spell again, then came down and landed on her head. “You must be a fey. I refuse to believe that Jino affiliated the phoenix rose with the Sun Etherium and then kicked it out.” She shook her head, and it jumped off, then landed on her shoulder. “No. That’s just…no. He worked too hard to get that bird.” Ardent cast spell after spell to enhance her senses, to reveal spellwork, to pierce any glamour or shift. She even checked for a trueshift, although the animal was far too small to be any trueshifted fey older than a toddler. The phoenix rose possessed fey evasion, fey invulnerability, and fey elusiveness, so it could not be touched, harmed, or imprisoned against its will. It did not have fey immortality. It had a spell to increase its flight speed and maneuverability. And that was it. It was exactly the bird it looked like it was.

Ardent threw her head back and laughed. The phoenix rose gave a querulous coo, then buried its head in her thick mass of kinky hair. Still shaking her head, Ardent continued on her way to the Sun Etherium.    

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Goodbyes (73/80)

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Ardent returned to her apartment to grab a few things to make traveling the Broken Lands less annoying, and to leave her aether-hungry locket and other items behind. It wasn’t hard to pick out the things she wanted to bring. She’d been a barbarian for the last fourteen years: she travelled light.

She sent messages to several people to let them know she was leaving and wasn’t sure when she’d be back, and didn’t respond to most of their replies. Ardent answered a few from the Queen, who wanted to know if she should be worried about the Sun Host army (“1: it’s not an army. 2: No.”) and when Ardent was coming back. “If and when I feel like it, Skein. I know, it’s a mess here. But you know what? It’s not my mess. And I think it’s past time I started dealing with the mess I did make. Love, Ardent. PS: I’m resigning my affiliation again, so you don’t need to threaten to kick me out.”

But when Rain messaged her, Ardent stopped packing to invite Rain to the apartment.

The satyress sat at the dining room table, picking through the contents of her locket, when Rain appeared above the collection, butterfly wings fluttering. Ardent leaned back to look up at her. “I guess you always knew I wasn’t staying.”

“Are you going to find out what happened to Mirohirokon finally?” Rain asked.

Ardent half-smiled. “Yes.”

“Good.” Rain nodded decisively. “You’ve been moping around here too long. And you care about him.”

“Mph. What makes you think I care about him?”

“You call him ‘honey’.”

“Honey, I call everyone honey. In case you didn’t notice.”

A sudden smile lit Rain’s blue lips. “No, you don’t.” She landed on the table before Ardent, and crouched to touch Ardent’s mouth. “You call everyone ‘sugar’. And ‘kid’, and ‘sweetie’. You only call the people you love ‘honey’.”

“Oh.” Ardent blinked at her. “Really?”

Rain nodded. “For thirty-two years, Ardent.”

“Guess you know I still love you, then. Honey.”

Rain slid into Ardent’s lap and rested her head under the satyress’s chin. “I knew that when you never got married again.”

“You’re hard to replace, love.” Ardent closed her arms around the other woman’s slight form, butterfly wings folding neatly under her embrace. They looked so delicate, but they weren’t. Not at all.

“It’s not a matter of replacing.”

“I know.”

“I wish…I wish I’d said no to Fallen a long time ago, Ardent. I especially wish I hadn’t let her use me against you. I’m sorry.”

Ardent dipped her head into Rain’s silky blue hair, and breathed in her scent. “I wish you hadn’t, too. But I still love you. And I’m glad you came to face her with us at the end.”

Rain nodded against Ardent’s chest, and sighed. “All right. You go find Mirohirokon. Tell him I’m sorry, too. I never wanted anyone to get hurt. And if there’s ever anything I can do to make amends…let me know. I love you too, Ardent.” She sat up and pulled Ardent’s head down for a long, lingering kiss.

Then she was gone.

Ardent sighed. After wrangling her hooves into a pair of traveling boots, she announced three times to the aether: “I am quit with you, Moon Etherium.” It was all the ritual required to dissolve an affiliation. It always felt like there should be more. Ardent sighed and ported to the edge of the Etherium.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author’s other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.

The Sun Army (72/80)

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It had been a week since Jinokimijin had taken his captive and his son from the Moon Etherium, and only Duty kept Ardent there. Duty and, perhaps, Justice.

She’d rescued nineteen enslaved mortals from the Moon Etherium, which was work worth doing even if nothing else was. They deserved better than glamour-addled minds, sexual slavery, and the particularly vile ‘games’ that one secretive club had used them as playing pieces in. It was work that would have been much easier to do with Miro there to help.

She missed Miro, and hated herself for missing him. In her mind, she went back and forth trying to decide if everything he’d told her was a lie, or if he’d been a dupe of his father’s, or something else entirely. And was he still alive? He had to still be alive. If the phoenix rose could steal the Heart of the Etherium from its queen, it could surely cure someone of over-channeling. He’d still been alive when Jino took him. The news from the Sun Etherium had frustratingly little about Mirohirokon, but he was the crown prince now, the King’s only son. If he’d died, that would be news.

In spare moments, Ardent pecked at the other questions that badgered her. Folks who’d been to the Sun Etherium agreed with Miro’s assessment of his mother. She’d run the Sun Etherium openly the way Fallen had run the Moon Etherium covertly. Some felt sorry for her, being deposed, or reviled Jinokimijin for his illegal coup. But none of them actually wanted the Sun Queen back on her throne.

Play Until Collapsing Dreams started farspeaking Ardent again after Fallen’s dismissal from the Moon Court. Ardent invited the other fey to drop by her apartment.

“I see you haven’t fixed the wards yet,” Play remarked, as soon as she teleported in. She was still all in white, and wearing a tall, muscular form instead of her more usual slender self.

Ardent shrugged from where she sat, sprawled in her couch pit. It’d only taken a few minutes to repair the cosmetic damage to the walls, but ripping out the ruptured wards and replacing them would take hours. “Too busy with everything else. I’m not keeping anything valuable here.”

“Except yourself.”

“Yeah, well, anyone who can get through fey invulnerability won’t be deterred by a few little spells, either.”

“It’s not just about stopping intruders. It’s about giving you some warning.”

Ardent smiled at last. “It’s good to see you haven’t really changed, Play. How’s Storm?”

“Grieving.” Play sighed and slid into a feline curl in the couch pit across from Ardent. “We’ve got recorded images of The Marvel, you know, but it’s…not the same. He could rebuild it, in less time that it took to make it the first time, but it’s years of work. And what if something like this happens again? I need to be able to promise him it won’t. That nothing like this will ever happen again. And I don’t know how to do that. Short of capturing my own phoenix rose. Which has occurred to me, believe me.” The white catgirl stared at Ardent. “Is Fallen coming back?”

“I don’t think so.” Ardent sighed. “I was as perceptive as a flying mole when it came to Miro, mind you. But they were definitely using me to target Fallen. They hauled her all the way to the Sun Etherium. She’s useless to them now, but I don’t see them letting her run home to lick her wounds and plot revenge.”

“Good.” Play bared pointed teeth in a snarl. Even the inside of her mouth was white. “I hope they kill her.”

Ardent crinkled her nose. “That’s a lot of retribution for one sculpture, sugar.”

“I’m not talking about just one sculpture and you know it. She’s poison. She deserves death.”

The satyress didn’t argue further. She wouldn’t’ve killed Fallen herself, but she sure wasn’t going to mourn her. And it was out of her hands, anyway. “Oh, right.” She fished the tracer golem and Ocyale mirror out of her locket and rose to hand them back. “It was still tracing Fallen for a couple of days after Jino grabbed her, before it ran out of sun aether. She never left the Sun Etherium.”

Play made her gesture of ownership over the tracer golem as she accepted it. “I have to get myself one of those Sun channels for experimenting, one of these days.”

“Hah. I don’t think they’re gonna be so easy to come by as they were a week ago.” Ardent moved to sit beside Play, and put a hand on her side. “Play, thank you. For helping me out. I never would’ve gotten the phoenix rose out of Fallen’s hands otherwise.”

Play met her eyes. “You figure it’s better off in Jino’s?”

Ardent crinkled her nose. “I dunno. Yes. I think so. Fallen meant to destroy an Etherium. If Jino had planned to do that, he would’ve already, when the Moon Etherium and the Sun Etherium were both depleted. Now there’re no High Court channels in either Etherium. I dunno if he’ll be any good for the Sun Etherium, but this’s better for us.” I hope. “And if it was a mistake, it was mine, not yours, and I appreciate you helping me just the same. I’m sorry I got you and Storm hurt.”

“Yeah.” Play dropped her gaze. “You know I didn’t blame you, right? You’re not responsible for Fallen being a vicious little monster. It was just…I was scared.”

“I know. And you did right, helping me without letting Fallen know that’s what you were doing.”

“Heh. So you did notice that.”

“You know I did.” Ardent smiled, then sobered again. “And…Storm? Does he blame me? He doesn’t have me blocked but I haven’t heard from him since.”

“No, he doesn’t blame you.” Play’s voice was low. She swallowed. “I think maybe he blames me, though. Not in so many words. He hasn’t really talked about it. But I’m the expert. I’m the one who’s made him live in a fortress for years because I want to be careful. And then I let this happen.”

“‘Let’ ain’t exactly the word, sugar.” Ardent gathered Play up in a hug. “I don’t know how anyone would protect against what Fallen was doing with that bird. Storm’s gotta understand that.”

Play leaned into her and sighed. “He does. Maybe I’m the one who doesn’t. Garbage like this isn’t supposed to happen, Ardent. You know I’m not the type to throw up my hands and say ‘no help for it!’ I am not quitting. There’s a counterspell that’ll work even against exceptions like that Justice-deprived extractor. And I’m going to find it.”

Ardent held her close, smiling. “I bet you will, too, sugar.”


Ardent had seen Whispers Rain a couple of times in the ensuing days, too. They tried to talk. It didn’t go very well. Ardent wanted to forgive her. She came to my side, at the end, and risked herself to stand up to Fallen. Even Miro’d told her he forgave her.

But: Rain betrayed me, and he could have died because of that. He could have spent the rest of his life as Fallen’s slave.

And: he lied to me. Why should I care so much about what might have been? Why should I hold a grudge when he didn’t?

A part of Ardent still loved Whispers Rain, but she didn’t know how to trust her again.

I just want to go back to Try Again and forget all this.

But Ardent stayed anyway, doing what she could to fix the mess in the Moon Etherium, and wondering if it wasn’t as hopeless now as it had been when she’d been there fourteen years ago.

On the afternoon of the seventh day, the army from the Sun Host arrived at the outskirts of the Moon Etherium. Its leader wanted to speak with the Moon Queen, and with Ardent Sojourner.


Ardent teleported to the ridgeline to see for herself. She half-expected the whole thing was a prank by the random Moon Host denizen who’d passed the message along. It was not a literal army, fortunately. It wasn’t even mostly Sun Host. There were twenty-one Sun Host fey, plus a hundred or so of the most mortal-looking barbarian fey Ardent had ever seen, plus a couple hundred actual mortals. They were a disorderly mob, gathered in conversational groups. By their appearance they covered the entire range of mortal ages, from babes-in-arms to small children to stooped, elderly ones.

A couple dozen of the barbarian fey wore armor of mortal styles and bore mortal weapons. There was no cohesion to them – the armor and weapons were those of a dozen different worlds. Ardent could not think of a single sensible reason for this. If the Sun King wanted a fight, he had the phoenix rose. What difference would a handful of armed fey make?

She shrugged inwardly, landed at the top of the ridge, and walked down to meet the host. Moon Host fey gathered within the aether to watch. Every fey was used to being immortal, invulnerable, and impossible to imprison, but the events of the last week had shaken everyone’s confidence. Ardent knew they were nervous. She didn’t feel great about this situation either.

Members of the mob of newcomers whispered amongst themselves as she approached. For no reason, some started to bow in her direction, after a dozen different mortal fashions: dropping to one or both knees, or pressing forehead to the earth, or curtseying, or bowing with arms together or at their sides.

One of the Sun fey, a large man dressed in their high court regalia, walked to meet her. His only concession to the aether-poor Broken Lands was his long white hair gathered into a doubled braid instead of floating behind him. One of the strangely mortal-looking fey walked next to him. She wasn’t wearing armor, but instead a multi-layered gown. “I am Tiqodomiqon, Justiciar of the Sun Host,” the Sun fey said. “Do I have the honor of addressing the Lady Ardent Sojourner?”

“I dunno how much of an honor it is, kid, but yeah, that’s me. What’s going on?”

“May I verify you?”

“Be my guest.” She waited while he cast the spell to take her aether signature.

“Lady Sojourner.” He kneeled to her, with a motion to the crowd behind him. All the ones who weren’t already kneeling did so. The barbarian fey next to him lifted her layered skirts and curtsied with her head bowed.

“Uh. If this is for my benefit, please stop,” Ardent told them. “What are you doing?”

“Please allow me to present Diani of Cairwelint,” Tiqodomiqon said, with a flourish to the barbarian fey beside him.

“Uh.” Ardent stared at Diani. She looked like a mortal from Cairwelint, with their characteristic death-like pallor to her skin, barely tinted with pink and orange, and a narrow, raised ridge of a nose. She had wrinkled skin around her eyes and mouth, like a middle-aged mortal. Stubby mortal ears.

And she brimmed with aether, like a fey.

“My lady.” Diani rose from her curtsey. “We have come to express our gratitude to you, for securing our freedom.” She spoke the fey language well, but with a distinctive accent.

“Diani is a mortal name,” Ardent said, stupidly.

“Indeed, for I am…or at least was, until three days ago…a mortal woman,” Diani said.


Diani smiled, adding more wrinkles to her face. “The King of the Sun Host, Jinokimijin, may the gods honor his name forever, freed the mortal slaves of the Sun Host. When he did so, he offered us several choices, at your behest. We could go to the mortal world here, what you call your ‘Old World’. Very few of us were from this world. We could remain in the Sun Etherium and wait until the fey shard travels back to our original worlds. We understand that in most cases, the fey do not know when this will be, or if it will happen in a mortal lifetime. We can try to make a life for ourselves here, in the fey shard, either in an Etherium or in the Broken Lands. And, if we wished to remain permanently in the fey shard, we could become…fey.”

What,” Ardent repeated.

“If I may?” Tiqodomiqon glanced to Diani, and she nodded. “One of the powers of the Heart of the Etherium is to affiliate fey with the Etherium. It is rarely used, because fey can affiliate themselves. But King Jinokimijin discovered, or perhaps rediscovered, that the Heart may be used to affiliate…non-fey. Making them fey. All the barbarian fey you see here were mortals who chose affiliation with the Sun Etherium, and then chose to unaffiliate. Making them barbarian fey, beholden to no Etherium.”

“Free,” Diani added. “Like all fey beings. We who chose this path can no longer be harmed, caught, or held prisoner. Because of you, Lady Sojourner.”

“I swear before Duty and Justice that I never talked to Jino about freeing you,” Ardent said. “I had no idea there were even this many of you.”

“Ah, but you spoke to his son of it,” Tiqodomiqon said. “My brother, Prince Mirohirokon, gave you his word. King Jinokimijin wishes you to know that the Sun King will honor his pledge.”

Without thinking about it, Ardent took a step towards Tiqodomiqon and grabbed him by the front of his coat. She hauled the tall, broad-shouldered fey to the level of her face. He allowed it, looking a little bemused but unafraid. “Is Miro—” dead – she couldn’t say the word, couldn’t say did I kill him? Justice, just tell me, “—tell me he’s alive,” she finished, in a choked whisper.

He dropped his eyes. “He is alive,” he said, but she still held her breath, certain there was a but coming. “Yet gravely ill, with a sickness aether cannot treat.”

Ardent set the Sun fey down and took a step back. “I have to see him.”

“I have a mission to speak with the Moon Queen first, and deliver these people to their destinations, but I will be glad to escort you afterwards—”

“No,” Ardent said. “That’s fine. I know the way. Lady Diani—”

“Just Diani, my lady. I am no noblewoman.”

“Me either, Diani. Me either. Anyway, it’s great to meet you, and awfully nice of you to have come all this way just to say thanks, and wow, that’s a lot of walking boots you must’ve brought, good on Jino for that.” Ardent turned to the rest of the crowd too, and raised her voice. “So, you’re all very welcome for whatever small part I played in getting you free. And I don’t know if anyone’s apologized to you yet for you being captured in the first place, but let me apologize for that. It was a crappy, unjust, wrong thing to do, and against every fey Ideal, and you don’t owe me – or anybody else – gratitude for fixing that. We owed you that. We owe you a lot more than that, and I don’t know if you’re ever gonna get back enough to make up for the time and homes and families we took from you. And I’m sorry for that too. Uhh.” She waved vaguely to them, and some of them, especially the children, waved back. “Anyway. Good luck to you all, and I hope I get to see you again someday, but I gotta go now. Bye!”

They looked confused as she waved again and backed away. Then one of them started cheering her name. Soon they all were, despite that being a terrible congratulations-you’re-free speech. Ardent didn’t stop to question it. She had to go.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author’s other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.

The Reckoning (71/80)

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After several days, Jino felt as if he’d been working as the Sun King forever, and yet that he’d barely made a start on all that needed to be done.

For many years, Jinokimijin had been accumulating information for this coup: not just on the phoenix rose and other potential weapons with which to overthrow Ele, but on the people of the Sun Host. Taking power was the least important part of his plan. Far more crucial was what he did with power once he had it. One of his tools had been frequent conversations with Mirohirokon to learn what his son’s soulsight taught him. Jino had taken careful notes on whom he could trust, what their weaknesses and strengths were, who was beyond hope of reform, and more. He’d spent years piecing details together because he had not wanted to give Miro the obligation of being judge and jury over the Etherium. Miro didn’t trust his Gift with decisions of such weight. Accordingly, Jino had intended to take that responsibility for himself, and never tell his son how much he relied upon his judgment. Not that Miro’s soulsight was Jino’s only source, but it was perhaps the one he trusted most.

A side benefit of having conducted most of his determinations in advance was that he didn’t need Mirohirokon’s aid now. That was as well, given that such aid was not available.

His new Justiciar, the former prince Tiqodomiqon, had been zealous in freeing captive mortals. Their plights varied, from abused creatures tormented by sadistic fey, to bloodsport gladiators, to the pampered, glamour-confused pets of one of his older sisters.

Jinokimijin had separated the abusers among the Sun Host into a few categories. Fey who’d been peripherally involved in abuse, of either mortals or fey, he took no particular action against beyond making it clear that his regime would be different. If Jino was to be fair, the category of “peripherally involved/tolerated” included most of the Etherium, including himself. It wasn’t practical to take preventative measures against them all. The next category involved those who’d been integral to the abuse – slavers and fey like Fallen, who’d manipulated fey into torturing themselves. Some of these, Jino judged reformable and their faults relatively minor, based on Miro’s insight and his own research. With that group, Jino used the phoenix rose to rob them of fey evasion and elusiveness, but did not imprison them. Instead, he put them under tracer watch, and made sure they knew that the only thing that would keep them safe from captivity was the good will of his reign. If they didn’t want to end up in chains, they’d need to behave. With worse offenders, and ones that Jino had little hope of improving, Jino also constricted their ability to hold and use aether. That rendered them much less of a threat to any mortals they might find.

All these effects were reversible, Jino informed his victims, if their behavior and character improved.

Then there were the ones Jino had no hope for: ex-Queen Eletanene; ex-crown Princess Sivakavivi; ex-Justiciar Wodorarava; ex-Chancellor Ovaratata; two exceptionally cruel slavers, Gonoqatoto and Polavatova; and Shadow of Fallen Scent.

He had mixed feelings about including Shadow of Fallen Scent among his victims. He’d released her from their pact after she’d been forcibly unaffiliated from the Moon Etherium – no point in taking the chance of her somehow gaining ownership of a phoenix rose again. But he was still holding her prisoner. On the one hand, he had no doubts that Fallen was a dangerous, vicious monster. The torture she’d made him personally endure was among the least of her crimes. On the other, she wasn’t a subject of the Sun Etherium. Since her crimes had been committed in the Moon Etherium, it’d make more sense to let them punish her. It would’ve been a good political gesture to offer the Moon Queen their criminal back. But returning her to the Moon Etherium for trial meant putting her among her allies. That they’d cast her out in her absence did not guarantee that the Moon Etherium had either the capability or the will to neutralize the threat she posed in person.

In the end, the deciding factor was that Jino had the power to make sure Fallen could do no more harm to any fey. He had no legitimate claim to authority beyond raw power anyway, so why let the lack of jurisdiction stop him now?

Jino had the seven brought, bound and gagged, before him during full Sun Court. His court proceedings were open, so they had hundreds of onlookers, including many whom Jino knew despised him. But they were all silent for this, stunned by the sight of fey who were now as helpless as mortals. Tiqodomiqon presented the seven by name, and lists of their wrongdoings. The Justiciar read every charge aloud: mortals they’d enslaved, or killed, or had killed, fey they’d bullied – many to suicide – possessions they’d seized or destroyed, fey lives ruined, and so forth. It took over an hour.

When he finished, Jino spoke. “To ensure that you can enact no more cruelties of these kinds, you have each been stripped of fey evasion, elusiveness, and invulnerability. I have also severed your connection with aether. You will be exiled to the mortal world, where you will remain for one hundred and twelve years, until the fey shard returns with the next cycle. This is not a death sentence. You remain unaging. You will not die of exposure, dehydration, or starvation. It is a kinder fate than many of your victims received, and better than you deserve.” And I don’t do it for you. “But you will not be invulnerable. I suggest you learn to respect mortals, if for no other reason than because they can kill you now.”

Jino paused for a moment to let that sink in, then continued, “If you wish, I will give you new trueshapes of your choosing. You may find life in the mortal world easier if you look like one of them, but I leave this up to you. You may express your preference now, and say any final words you have for the Etherium. We’ll begin with – oh, you, Polavatova.” He motioned to Tiqo, and Tiqo used a flick of aether to dissolve the gag on the former slaver.

“This is a joke,” she said. “I haven’t committed any crime, and you are no King. You’ll always be a disgrace, Jino.”

“I really don’t care, Pola. Do you want a new trueshape for your exile or not?”

She flared her nostrils. “Yes. Male, human, large and strong as possible, handsome, of the dominant ethnicity for wherever you’re dumping us.”

Jino shaped a homunculus for her, and set it to one side.

The next slaver didn’t bother complaining about the process. He had the same gender and ethnicity preference as Pola, but asked for average size and high overall fitness. Then Gonoqatoto licked his lips and said, “You said this wasn’t a death sentence.”


“Most mortals of the Old World die of disease long before age claims them. May I have our fey invulnerability to disease restored?”    

Jino considered this, embarrassed that he’d not thought about disease at all. “Yes. All of you will.”

Gono bowed. “Thank you, gracious Sun King.” Pola glared at him.    

When she was ungagged, the crown princess spat in his direction – to no effect, given the twenty feet between them. She cursed him, the court, the Etherium, offered some consoling words to her mother, and rejected the offer of a new trueshape. The ex-chancellor was much the same, and the ex-Justiciar added in some threats to his posturing.    

When it was Fallen’s turn, she asked, “Which mortal country are you leaving us in?” Her spirit had broken when the Moon Etherium threw her from their High Court and unaffiliated her. Jino assumed she was plotting, or trying to, but she’d given up complaining.

Jino smiled and stroked the phoenix rose, which he had perched on the arm of his throne. “It’s a surprise, Fallen. I shan’t ruin it for you.”

She sighed, softly. “Then a human woman, beautiful by whatever the local standards are, and as fit as possible given that constraint.” Fallen swept her gaze over the court. “You are next, you know,” she told them. “What your King does to us…it’s only a matter of time before he does it to you. Or maybe it will be worse for you. He sacrificed a great deal to get the power he has now. You know he’ll never let it go, don’t you? You’ve bowed to a tyrant. You’ll never know freedom again. How long before you start beheading your enemies, Disgraced Jino?”    

“I’m not beheading you, Fallen. I’m pretty sure the rest of the Etherium is safe,” Jino said, dryly, and moved on to his ex-wife.

Ele stood erect, as haughty as the queen she’d once been. “Better to live free in the Old World than under the thumb of a slimy, treacherous slug like you, Jino,” she said, scornfully.

“Slugs don’t have thumbs. Do you want a new trueshape, Ele?”

“No. Let the mortals see me for what I am. Let them learn respect. I am Queen Eletanene of the Sun Host, and fey powers or no, they will learn I am a force to be reckoned with.” She surveyed the assembled, and sniffed. “You will all learn.”

Jino wondered for a moment what Ele’s real body looked like, and if she would still be proud if he stripped away the tall elegant golden form she’d assumed. This isn’t about punishment, or humiliation. This is about making sure they can’t hurt anyone again, he reminded himself. He gathered the homunculi he’d made for the others. “Great. Who wants to come with me to see this lot off? It’ll take a few hours.”

Amalatiti and Tiqo both wished to come; Jino let Ama do so but asked Tiqo to stay and keep an eye on things. One of Ele’s husbands, Ivotinono, wanted to come, even though Jino wasn’t visiting her punishment on any of them. Two of Jino’s other partisans asked to join them: Miro’s old friend, Talo, as well as Jino’s Surety, Tari; he let them. Jino asked three other individuals to attend: Kimikireki, Ele’s second husband; a deposed Chancellor, Deqavaneqan; and Manemafate, one of Ele’s pet bards. All three had been open in their condemnation of Jino’s coup, although they’d not been on his list of those who needed to be curbed. They were not pleased by Jino’s request, but they agreed to come. Probably because they assumed he’d make them if they declined. How much harder will this job become, once people realize I’m not going to force compliance with my requests? Guess I’ll find out when that happens.

Jino took the phoenix rose on his arm. He pulled out one of his extractor rings, and used it to restore just the part of fey invulnerability that protected them against disease. Then he gathered the seven prisoners and seven witnesses together, and used the bird to teleport them fourteen miles east-by-northeast. A second later, he jumped the group again, and again, with only the occasional pause to orient himself via scrying ball. While every fey was used to teleporting around the Etherium, teleports in quick succession like this were rarely necessary outside of a few specialized games. After a score of jumps, Ele complained, “Surely we’re outside of the Broken Lands by now? This doesn’t look at all familiar.”

Jino teleported them again. “I’m glad you’re lost already. We’ve only a few hundred more jumps to go, don’t worry.” He followed that statement with another port.

Talo paled. “A few – hundred – more teleports?” he asked, his words taking on a staccato rhythm as they were interrupted by ports. “I regret – volunteering – already.”

“I did tell you it’d take a few hours,” Jino said, before his next teleport.

“I thought you – meant walking.” Manemafate grimaced.

“And leave them just a few hundred miles away?” Jino triggered another port. “No. Where they’re going, they won’t be able to get back before the fey shard moves on.” An hour and a half later, Jino stopped in the midst of a vast plain of tall grasses and brush. A wide, winding river snaked past them, while a few strange twisted trees dotted the landscape. Jino transformed Polavatova into his new mortal form and unbound him, then left him behind as he teleported the rest of the group away. “You’re not even going to exile us together?” Ele said, stunned.

“No. You’ll have years to find each other, if you want to. Think of it as giving you purpose,” Jino said. “You and Sivaka will stand out, anyway.”

“Please, your majesty.” It was the first time Sivaka, Ele’s daughter, had acknowledged his title. “At least let me stay with Mother.”

Jino looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head. “No, Sivaka. Your worst problem is that you’ve spent too much time with Ele already.” He teleported them onwards.

He left them scattered across thousands of miles of land, in wildernesses some miles from the nearest mortal habitation. Fallen asked for a mirror after Jino transformed her, and he provided her with one. “I look like death,” she remarked. Birdsong and the chirping of insects echoed in the forest around them. “This is what these people prefer, is it?”

“The paler the better, as I understand it. I can change you to something else if you prefer. It’s of no matter to me,” Jino told her.

“It will do. I wonder what hideous tongue the locals speak? I suppose I shall find out, if wild animals don’t kill me first.” Fallen turned from them and started downstream alongside the wooded river they were near.

Ele was the last exiled. Jino stopped the group in a forested glen, and she turned to her husbands. “Ivo, Kireki – come with me. My prince-consorts. You still have all your powers. He has no legitimate authority over you. Don’t look at him. Look at me. You pledged yourselves to my side. You owe it to me.”

Despite her words, Ivo and Kireki both glanced at Jino, nervously. Jino didn’t speak. He didn’t want to leave Ele with a fey tool at her disposal, if only because the humans did not deserve a tyrant. But Ivo and Kireki were not monsters. He wouldn’t punish them for what they might do under the influence of their wife.

“Are you testing us, Jino?” Kireki asked directly. “Why did you bring us here? Do you seek an excuse to exile us as well?”

Jino shook his head. “No. Witnesses. That I did as I said I would. That they were exiled, not killed.”

Amalatiti had taken a seat on a fallen log, and smiled at them. “Of course I’d back his majesty up, but at this point, everyone expects me to back Jino. No one expects you to.”

Ele spat at her daughter. “You treacherous little beast. I should’ve strangled you in the womb.”

“I hate you too, Mom. Can we go now, Jino?”

“Wait,” Ivo said. He took Ele’s hands, and kissed her forehead. “I loved you once, Ele. But you drove our child away from us, by your own actions. And this…you brought this on yourself. I won’t go down with you.” He stepped away.

She curled her lip at him in disdain, then turned from him to Kireki. She took her fourth husband’s face in her golden hands. “And you, my love? You know I’ve always favored our daughters. Do you think they will forgive you for deserting me?”

By Sun Etherium standards, they were not alike: Kireki was a strong, broad-shouldered man with dark brown eyes and an oval face. Ele stood a few inches shorter, her frame lean and willowy, her face carved in smooth, delicate lines, eyes amber-bright. But they both had gold-dusted skin and long white-blonde hair, long fey ears, both tall by human standards. They were a matched set. Ele had always insisted her husbands match her. Kireki drew her hands from his cheeks and clasped them between his own. “They already have,” he said, softly. “Your favoritism did not make them your selfless minions; it merely spoiled them. Ele, there is no justice here. Jino is a usurper, a destroyer, a tyrant. I know. But that he is wrong does not mean that you are right.”

Jino listened with the same bland expression he’d worn for all the other insults he’d endured. He’d thought, after everything he’d been through, that words had lost their power to wound. He’d thought himself beyond the need to defend his actions or impress the populace with his righteousness. But Kireki’s quiet, flat condemnation stung anyway. In the earliest days of Jino’s marriage to Ele, Kireki had been his favorite fellow-husband, the one who’d been kindest to him, the one who’d been most fatherly and attentive to Miro. Of course, Kireki had scorned him as much as anyone after the divorce. I truly could not care less what Ele thinks of me. But I guess part of me still misses the friend I thought I had in you, Kireki. He tensed his jaw and let the scene unfold.

Ele had curled her fingers around her spouse’s. “I am your wife and your Queen, Kireki! I command you to stay!”

“I will not.” He freed his hands. “The pledge we once exchanged, I long ago repaid, and you long ago betrayed. I owe you nothing. Goodbye, Ele. And…may the Ideals show you the way.” Kireki turned back to Jino. “I am ready to depart.”

As Ele launched into an obscenity-laced tirade against them all, Jino teleported himself and his witnesses away.

Don’t want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author’s other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.