“I hold it like this if I don’t want to spill?” Charcoal asks Moon, starting to tip the teapot.
“No,” Moon says, and adjusts Charcoal’s grip. “Like this.” Then he adds, “Unless you want to offend; then go ahead as you just did.”
Charcoal, gangly and awkward as any fledgling despite his status as a consort from the first clutch of sister-queen Alabaster and her consort Shade, freezes just as he begins to pour. “Why would I want to offend?”
Moon nudges the teapot’s spout up again. “Maybe they were rude. Or maybe you want to seem clumsy.” It was a ploy, in fact, that Moon had used several times before Charcoal came out of the nurseries, when Moon wanted to discourage any visiting queens from expressing interest in him.
(This had led to some ironic exchanges between Dusk and Malachite. “He’ll run away next,” she predicted to Dusk after the last queen left empty-handed. She then added, “He’s just like you.” Moon replied pointedly, “I just want to make my own choice.” “That is a distinction without a difference,” Malachite said.)
Charcoal corrects himself with an embarrassed twitch. He starts to pour the tea into the delicate cups Moon has readied—Twig’s best set yet, pale cream with streaks of purple that match the morning jewelbugs—when they are both distracted by the cluster of Celadon and her warriors winging back to the colony.
But where they had gone out as a group of five, Dare, Rime, Leaf, Sand, and Celadon, they return as a group of six, moving swiftly toward the broad overhang that serves as the colony’s main entrance, halfway down the bluffs from the ledge where Moon and Charcoal sit.
Moon stands abruptly, looking at the strange form at their center: blue with a silver-gray overlay. A queen. “Get inside now,” he snaps at Charcoal, shifting and pushing the younger consort into the colony ahead of him. Charcoal’s squeak of dismay falls silent as Moon swings the heavy portway closed behind them, dropping the beam into place that secures it.
Grabbing Charcoal by the wrist, he whips them through the bower that Moon, Night, and Star share, down a curving stone passage that takes them deeper into the bluffs, and into the main consort’s hall. Dusk sits there with Marble, Night, and Star, and looks up with a frown wrinkling his scales as Moon drags Charcoal into the space and shifts.
The sister-queens’ consorts, Shade and Agate’s Midnight, are not in evidence; Midnight is probably in the clutch-heavy Agate’s bower. “Celadon’s back. With a queen,” Moon says, and before Dusk’s look can shift to one of irony, Moon adds, “She’s alone.”
Dusk flicks his spines in acknowledgement, and stands. “You stay here with these,” he orders Moon, and leaves.
Moon grits his teeth to keep from twitching his spines in aggravation, and crosses his arms.
“Why would a queen be traveling by herself?” Charcoal asks naively, slowly sitting next to Marble, his clutchmate.
Night bundles the book they were sharing into a nearby chest, and Star and Charcoal and Marble stare at Moon. “So what are we going to do?” Star asks after a moment.
“Because she attacked Celadon and Celadon killed all her warriors,” Marble says to Charcoal, spines bristling.
“Are we really going to stay here?” Night says as he closes the chest.
Star looks at Moon, and Moon can tell he’s thinking of the trouble that a fight between queens would indicate.
“I don’t know,” Moon says. He looks down the passage Dusk took, where the honeycombed caverns that riddle the bluffs begin to interconnect. There’s no more noise coming up through them than is typical for the colony. Making up his mind, he shifts to groundling, the others immediately following. “Let’s go listen from the nook.”
A few days later, Malachite and Alabaster having sent warriors to a dozen courts to pass news about the arrival of the strange queen, Moon is on the verge of an argument with Celadon. “We had planned to take the fledglings out for a hunt today,” Moon reminds her.
“I don’t know if we should,” Celadon says, lowering her brows. “It could be dangerous.”
Moon would rather not lose one of his few opportunities to leave the colony, even if Celadon and Peridot never take them that far. Moon says impatiently, “There hasn’t been enough time for word to get beyond the nearest courts yet, let alone time for them to come here. And you know they won’t—none of the closest colonies will know anything about hers any more than we do.”
“I am here,” Jade says shortly. “And my colony was destroyed. There’s no news to be had.”
Celadon glances past Moon, exchanging a long look with one of her warriors. Then she turns back to Moon, tilting her head and giving him a dry glance.
Moon keeps his spines settled despite the aggravation of the world’s most overprotective clutchmate. “Jade isn’t going to steal me,” he growls.
“Steal?” Jade asks, startled, looking between the two. She’s the only one in her Arbora form; Moon thinks Celadon had pointed out the shift etiquette to Jade a day or two before, but if she had, Jade didn’t seem to give it any importance, and clearly preferred her Arbora form. She’d claimed it most resembled the form of the Sericans who’d—so she said—had raised her, apparently somewhere far southwest. “Why would—I wouldn’t, and where would I take him anyway?”
Now it’s Moon’s turn, and he flicks his spines in arch response to Celadon.
“Oh, fine!” she surrenders. “Then you are going to be the one to teach them how to bleed their kills.”
“Alright,” Moon says agreeably, pleased that he made his point.
In accordance with Malachite’s instruction that Celadon chaperone Jade, the solitary queen accompanies them, along with the excited gaggle of Malachite’s youngest clutch, fledgling queen Tourmaline and her warrior sisters Beryl, Amber, Pine, and Frond.
Star, as usual, excuses himself so he can go linger invitingly in the presence of Jet, whom the Arbora have been hinting is near to choosing a consort, and Shade had taken Night with him to go visit Agate and Midnight’s tiny new royal clutch.
The flight from the bluffs to the plains is not too taxing for the fledglings, who land on a bare spot of earth amidst the grasses where they’d taken kills before. Moon, Jade, and Celadon land with them, while Celadon’s warriors move off to one side.
“I want to go first!” Tourmaline demands, and her warrior sisters scuffle among themselves for a moment, before Pine shoves her way out of their knot of spines and flailing wings to stand at Tourmaline’s shoulder. “Me next,” she states.
“You’ll go when Moon determines you’re ready, and not before,” Celadon says, and Moon tries to look stern rather than cross at Celadon’s easy assumption that she can determine his role.
The noise of the squabble is, however, just enough: in the moment, the warriors give up a shout, leaping into the air and staring past him—Moon whips around and, in response to some barely-perceived warning, ducks in front of the fledglings just as a fanged herdbeast leaps out from the concealment of the grasses. And where one of these hunt, others follow—Moon and Celadon flare their wings and Celadon leaps up and gains height with heavy wingbeats, clearly intending to stoop on it from above.
With barely a thought, Moon flings himself forward and to the right shoulder as Jade follows and breaks left. The fanged herdbeasts are long-backed and low-slung for better concealment in the grasses, with armored plating creating a broad neck frill too thick for Moon to break through. He rakes its flanks with his disemboweling claws, as the warriors shout and Celadon sheers away rather than stoops on the herdbeast—there must be another.
His attention breaks as the herdbeast snaps its long neck around and tries to gore him with its fangs; Moon jerks back just in time.
And then the beast whips its head to the other side as a blue blur claws into the soft underside of its throat: Jade, who holds her wings tightly furled as she tears flesh open to the bone, leaping free just as the beast collapses.
Moon breaks off and glances around; warriors have urged the fledglings into the air and safety, while Celadon finishes off a third herdbeast. Moon’s gaze slides back to Jade. Back in her Arbora form already, her spines are fully flared as she shakes blood off her claws. She pins him with a fierce gaze, her glance moving up and down. “You’re alright?”
Moon’s throat feels dry, but he flicks his settling spines in assent.
“Good,” she says, and turns her attention to the others, assessing them.
When they arrive back at the colony and the fledglings dart back to the nurseries to share their story with all the other eager fledglings, Moon stops by his bower, then tracks down the Arbora Sandstone.
A moon later, Moon slips into Jade’s bower and leaves behind a bracelet of round opals set in a broad silver cuff chased with the intertwining silhouettes of Raksura.
“What?” hiss Peridot and Celadon when he discloses this to them before the night’s singing.
Dusk cuffs him not long thereafter, giving him a sharp glare.
“Isn’t he doing this all backwards?” Charcoal asks Night and a smugly-taken Star.
"Foolish," says Alabaster.
“No,” says Malachite.
A gigantic line-grandfather arrives at the colony not long after Jade begins wearing Moon’s cuff.
Jade, impervious to the cold shoulder and hisses Celadon has been giving Jade ever since Celadon learned of the existence of the bracelet, sits down across from Moon at the feast the night before her departure. Seated on his other side, Peridot snarls at her, which Jade also ignores.
“Stone says Indigo Cloud is rebuilding, back in their original colony tree,” Jade says.
Moon looks up at her, raises his brows, then returns his attention to the meal.
“Stone says . . . it’s a long trip, and the colony is still re-establishing themselves. Things are not easy, and they need me. I—understand that.”
Moon tips his head in acknowledgement as he eats one of his favorite Arbora dishes.
“Moon,” Jade says in exasperation, “what do you want?”
Something in Moon warms in satisfaction at the question. Ignoring the heated glares of Celadon, Peridot, and their warriors, Moon looks past her to Malachite and Dusk, who watch him narrowly. He gives them a bright smile, then says to Jade, “I want you to take me. And take me with you.”