Stone glared at Pearl. She glared back at him.
He had been avoiding her since her consort had died and she had refused to even look for a replacement.She was even worse now that she had sent the last of the unclaimed consorts away.
On a personal level, he understood her decision. He missed his queen Azure like the other half of his soul and couldn’t imagine accepting another. Plus, being a widowed line-grandfather had been a revelation: he could leave to explore the greater world whenever he wanted to. He reveled in the freedom available to widowed line-grandfathers.
But Pearl was the ruling queen of a dying court. If she didn’t want a consort, that was her decision, but she couldn’t then refuse to lead the court to safety while it lacked a consort. Except apparently she thought she could.
At least half of Stone’s anger was directed at himself, because he had made the exact same mistake as Pearl was, thinking he could leave the court without a consort. A line-grandfather had the freedom to travel away from the court and visit strange lands, but that freedom didn’t just come with age. It was supposed to result from the presence of a younger generation of consorts to take over his responsibilities.
But there were no other consorts here. Instead, the empty consort bower felt like a tomb, empty of life, decorated by the choices of those long gone. Once bright colors were muted with age. The only new items were things he acquired himself on his trips.
He would continue to have responsibilities until the court had a proper first consort and a second consort, too, to support the first. Now though, the consort bower was empty and the court as a whole was dying for that lack.
Stone found that, for all his enjoyment of his independence, he could not ignore the needs of his court any longer.
He glared at his young descendent who was somehow stuck between blindly thinking the situation would fix itself and fatalistically thinking that there was no point in struggling against fate. He found himself snarling, “Pearl, if you won’t lead us away from these cursed lands without a consort to support the court, then I’ll go and acquire a consort. Be prepared to move when I return.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“No, it’s not. But it is what I’ve agreed to.”
He stalked out of the chamber.
He didn’t want to acquire a young consort. He didn’t want one any more than Pearl did. Unfortunately, for the good of the court, they would both have to do things they didn’t want.
A young consort would be delicate and gentle and need to be coddled and protected. Someone would need to keep him company in the consort bower and provide proper chaperonage. And unless Stone could acquire more than one consort—even more unlikely than Stone acquiring even one—Stone would have to be the chaperone.
He felt like he was marching himself to his doom, actively working to create his prison. He would go out exploring the land one last time, in order to find the person who would keep him confined once more to the court’s consort bower. He snarled to himself and ignored the way the few Arbora in the hallways vanished down crossways to avoid him. After so many years of not even having Azure to curb his impulses, Stone hated that his own sense of responsibility was forcing him to give up his freedom. But he would do it. It was necessary for the survival of the court, so he would do it.
It was just too bad that Pearl refused to. For all their bad luck, at least the court had a sister queen who knew her responsibilities better than the ruling queen did.
Stone managed to get his emotions somewhat under control by the time he reached Jade’s chambers.
He knocked lightly on the door, then entered.
“Stone. How did it go with Pearl?” Jade did not sound optimistic.
“I’m going to find a consort for you.” Stone avoided answering the question directly. His statement was answer enough.
Jade grimaced. She wouldn’t be as troubled by a consort as Stone would be, but she likely had planned to choose her first consort for herself rather than sending Stone begging on her behalf.
Well, it was too bad for both of them. They would do what they must for the court to survive.
“Do you have a consort gift for me to bring or shall I get one from one of the Arbora?”
“If we’re going to do this, then let me do at least something right.” She went to her jewelry box and dug through it a bit before finally pulling out a heavy bracelet of red gold. Her face was expressionless when she handed it to him.
It was a beautiful piece, but more defined by the perfect lines of its molding than by the delicate work more common to consort gifts. It would look like a gift for a specially favored warrior if it hadn’t been for the pattern of springtime flowers etched into it, symbolizing fertility and clearly marking it as intended for a consort. He looked at her questioningly. She answered, her voice as expressionless as her face, “I wanted something worthy to give to my chosen consort when I found one.”
He nodded in understanding. They were both giving up something in this process. He would give up his freedom from the bowers and she was giving up her own dream for a consort strong enough to match this bracelet.
He had probably given her false expectations by being one of the only consorts around. Young consorts weren’t like line-grandfathers. Even most line-grandfathers weren’t like him.
He thought of telling her that any consort who chose to return with him would be more adventurous than most. The truth, though, was that any consort he acquired would be even more fragile than most. Only a consort no established court wanted would be allowed to go to such a troubled court as Indigo Cloud. He could not offer false hopes. He said nothing.
They would both put aside their false expectations and save their court, though. They would do what needed to be done.
“A consort is a male warrior. A fertile male warrior who can breed with a queen,” Flower explained.
“But I’m not—“ Moon stuttered.
Flower looked at him kindly but insisted, “You are.”
Moon shook his head. “No.”
He wasn’t a consort. He couldn’t be a consort. He wouldn’t be a consort.
He had come into this society already knowing that he would need to avoid the queens. Stone had told him how they were capable of keeping him defenseless and imprisoned.
He knew how to fit into the outskirts of a society and make a place for himself and avoid the people in power. He had lots of practice doing just that. He couldn’t be part of some cloistered center to their society, expected to sleep with some queen, kept bound and defenseless in his groundling form, unable to fly or escape.
These people may be his species, but he didn’t know who they were. He couldn’t rule them and he couldn’t be ruled by them. He just couldn’t.
But… what else could he possibly do? Where else could he go?
He had been thrown out of so many places, and these were his people, whether he knew them or not, whether they wanted him or not.
Even when he ran away from the revelation, there was only so far he could go. He didn’t bother to push it, only going a bit up the river, but staying within easy eyesight. He was out of options, as bound now as he would be once a queen got to him.
“Come back and rest,” Flower tempted him. “And talk to Stone. You’ve come all this way, and you have nothing to lose.”
She spoke more truly than she knew. He didn’t have anything to lose, because he didn’t have anything at all. It still felt like he was giving up when he agreed to stay for even a day longer rather than flying away as fast and as far as he could.
He would be caught and kept and given to some queen. He could only hope that it was a fate better than being eaten by Tath, as his mother and siblings had been.
“Please.” Ember whispered to Tempest. “Please. Don’t leave me here.”
He knew he was acting like a baby. He had always known he would go to another court at some point. He had even been looking forward to being claimed by a queen one day. But not here. Not now. “Please!”
He clung to Tempest’s hand and begged because he couldn’t not. He couldn’t stay here in this broken down court with a queen who wouldn’t even look at him. He had grown up knowing that some people, Tempest included, saw him and his clutchmates as a reminder of Fade, the consort who had given her their clutch. But it had never been a bad reminder. Fade was always destined to die young. Ember and his clutchmates were a reminder that Fade had once lived at all.
Now, Tempest planned to leave him in a court as a visible symbol of their missing first consort. He would be the reason why their consort had gone.
“I’m sorry, Ember.” And Tempest really did look sorry. She also looked uncomfortable. “I wish I could find a better court for you, but we’ve harmed this court and need to make up for it.”
“They don’t want me here.”
“They don’t know what they want. The only consort they know is some feral. You will do us and them proud.”
Ember wasn’t sure if that last was intended as a reassurance or a command.
“And,” Tempest continued, as if offering something he wanted, “you’ll be first consort.” Tempest cupped one of his cheeks in her free hand, and smiled down at him, her smile as soft now as it had been when he was just a fledgling. He had once complained that she didn’t think he was an adult. But now, he just wished she still thought he was too young to go to another court. “Just think how much fun you’ll have decorating the bower, now that you’ll be in control.”
“But Moon isn’t going away permanently. Right?” Ember asked. Shadow certainly hadn’t thought so. Ember didn’t mention Shadow’s advice on how to work with Moon to Tempest.
Tempest snorted dismissively. “How could any queen possibly want a feral back?”
Ember knew that tone. Tempest knew best and nothing Ember could say would change that. But no matter what Tempest said, Ember thought rather rebelliously, he didn’t want to replace the consort that he’d seen so briefly. That consort scared him, no matter that Shadow had told him he needn’t fear the other consort. Moon looked half-feral and angry enough to attack a queen, and Jade had looked like she wanted him anyway.
Tempest carefully disengaged his hold from her, although she continued to hold his hands for a bit longer. “You will be fine. I know this is hard, but it’s part of growing up. Fade was a wonderful consort, and you will not disgrace his memory by being anything less.”
Faced with those declarations, Ember couldn’t even whisper his pleas anymore. He looked down submissively. He would try.
Later, alone in the consort bower, he tried to reassure himself with remembering what Shadow had told him. Jade would get Moon back before she would even consider taking a second consort. And once Moon was back, he would need help in being a first consort to the court. Ember understood how to maintain a consort bower and, as second consort, he could provide advice and assistance. Back in Emerald Twilight, it had seemed like a challenge. Here in Indigo Court, in consort bowers that hadn’t been used in generations, it seemed impossible.
As he sat alone in the consort bower, trying not to cry after watching Tempest fly away, he couldn’t help shivering with unhappiness. He had never felt so alone. But that didn’t matter, he told himself. He would try not to cry, and he would try to do Emerald Twilight proud.