Chime walked into the bower reading. He was hoping he could convince Moon to sit still for a reading lesson if Moon were feeling relaxed. Chime missed teaching; it wasn't something warriors did, and so it was the sort of thing that made the people around shake their heads sadly or give him sympathetic stares. Moon was unlikely to be an easy student, but he wouldn't look at Chime like he was clinging to the past.
He’d expected Moon to be alone, but slowly the smell and sounds of several Raksura filtered in, and he looked up. There were three of them gathered around the hearth not speaking.
A sewing basket sat lopsided on top of a cushion, a roll of flimsy pattern paper wedged next to it. Moon’s hair had been pulled up into a messy yarn ball bun, his chin lifted to let Weave wrap a measuring tape around his neck, which he endured with an air of restrained violence, staring fixedly at the ceiling. Nearby, Ember had his hands pressed delicately to his mouth, fingers lost in silk sleeves, watching Moon with wide-eyes like he couldn’t quite believe his own gall.
Moon had no problem ignoring every other Raksura in the colony when it came to advice on consort behavior, but somehow one wobbly look from Ember could get Moon sitting quietly in the queen’s hall, three separate necklaces, assorted rings, and a jewelry ear cuff adorning his body while the Arbora ran through the list of trade goods to be sent in next week’s shipment.
It didn’t mean Moon was ever happy about it though.
Chime closed his book, flinching as Ember and Weave turned to look at him. “I’ll come back later.” Much, much later.
“No,” Ember said, his hand outstretched. His eyes were wide and lovely, lined in cosmetics. Next to him, Moon looked like an Arbora farmer pulled off the platforms for fitting practice, dirt on his knees.
“Are you, uh, going somewhere?” Chime couldn’t think of a reason to pressure Moon into new clothes when he was annoyed unless there was a deadline.
“Emerald Twilight,” Ember said a little wistfully. “You’re going, too.”
“Oh, no I am not,” Chime said kneejerk, even as he thought instantly of endless bookshelves filled with the unbroken history of the Reaches. They hadn’t even let him into the room last time.
“You have to go,” Ember said, matter of fact but not urgent, like it hadn’t occurred to him Chime could say no and he didn’t really believe Chime’s protest.
Moon turned to glare at Chime like he’d bore a hole through him with his eyes. Weave and her measuring tape twisted awkwardly out of the way.
Chime glared right back at him. He wouldn’t be any help on a diplomatic visit except as someone for Moon to commiserate with. And maybe Moon wanted someone to share his misery, but Chime really would prefer to support him in ways that weren’t guaranteed to be miserable and unproductive besides. Which admittedly was probably where the glare was coming from.
Chime sighed. “What’s the occasion?”
Maybe he could convince himself he had something to contribute.
Moon gave him a desperate look. “I don’t know.”
Chime blinked at him. Moon sounded like he had resigned himself to going before he even knew why, and that hit Chime deep in the chest. When did you start taking what you were told about necessary court behavior on faith? Like the court was home and Moon trusted the people in it. Chime had to blink a few times and look away.
“It’s a formal court visit,” Weave said, having given up on the measuring tape, “to thank them for Ember. You need to help Moon navigate all the Emerald Twilight frills.” Her mouth twisted with polite distaste.
Ember didn't look offended. He was nodding in agreement.
Chime rolled his eyes. “If Moon needs someone to navigate Aeriat frill and frippery, why am I going?”
Weave opened her mouth and shut it again frowning. Her eyebrows lifted thoughtfully and she nodded: good point.
Ember looked between them, baffled. “But who else -- does Moon have any other favorites?”
He sounded embarrassed -- as though he’d missed an official announcement. Moon meanwhile turned red. Chime preened.
“No,” Weave said. “I mean -- I’m not sure what your definition…”
Chime felt much more willing suddenly to talk about the possibility of accompanying Moon. He still wasn’t going. But he’d accept everyone assuming he should. Chime had known immediately that Indigo Cloud should keep Moon; he hadn’t needed Moon to save him from the Fell first like almost everyone else. Everyone should know that Moon liked him most. Well, him and Jade and the fledglings and the clutch and Stone.
“I know more Aeriat etiquette than Moon,” Chime told Ember, “but that’s an unbelievably low bar.”
“That’s true,” Moon said.
“No, you--” Ember cut himself off, upset, his hand fluttering in his sleeve. “The most important thing is to have someone at your side that you trust completely.”
“I trust everyone in the colony,” Moon said, squinting at Ember.
For Moon values of ‘trust’ that was probably true. Huh, Chime thought.
Ember’s gaze dropped. “Yes, of course.”
Moon frowned at Ember. Slowly, he said, “So I can bring one of the warriors who was of age when Rain was alive, someone who knows about etiquette in courts with normal consorts. Like Vine.”
Chime frowned at the side of Moon’s head. Vine was a good choice. But Moon had given a pretty clear you’re not getting out of this look earlier, so he didn’t believe Moon had really changed his mind.
“He would be knowledgeable,” Ember said meekly.
“Or you could recommend one of the warriors in Pearl’s faction that you think is,” Moon moved his hand in a circle, searching for the words, “...good at being polite.”
Ember pressed his lips together. “Coil, maybe, but…”
Chime watched the both of them carefully. Coil was young and also someone who'd been pretty low ranked in Pearl's faction for a while, back when River had been in favor. He didn't stand out from Pearl's other warriors except he'd never been an asshole to Moon, at least publicly. Maybe Ember was using the suggestion to stall. He'd settled well into Indigo Cloud’s small informal court, but sometimes they ran into the remnants of the much stricter formal etiquette he was used to. Now, for example, when he clearly wanted to disagree with Moon but wouldn’t.
Ember apparently couldn't handle stalling for long. He backtracked in a rush, “But Chime would be -- you won't come?” He gave Chime a confused, worried look.
Moon didn't give, watching Ember stubbornly. “I would trust River to tell me how to impress Emerald Twilight.”
Chime couldn’t keep himself from grimacing. Ok, What in the three worlds are they fighting about. Weave mirrored it right back at him. Consorts.
“Weave,” Ember said suddenly, “could we continue the fitting tomorrow?”
Weave shot Chime a look, eyebrows lifting. “I think we’re done, really. I can work up some patterns to show you tomorrow?”
“Thank you,” Ember said. Weave started carefully packing her supplies away. First the pattern paper needed to be annotated and sorted and then the measuring tape rolled up and put into a bag of its own that had to be carefully tied. She dumped the basket out to meticulously rearrange the contents from the bottom up.
Ember stared at her. Weave looked up, raising a curious eyebrow as she folded the pattern paper into precise quarters. “Are you hungry? Do you want some tea and snacks up here?”
Right, Chime thought, Ember is really not used to how blunt Arbora are in a colony as tiny and desperate as ours.
“Here, I’ll help,” Chime said, picking up the basket and also Weave with a hand under her elbow. When she blinked at him, he mouthed Consorts. Weave blinked, face clearing in understanding, and she mouthed Thank you.
Chime looked at Ember and gestured after her: Should I follow?
“No, please stay,” Ember said. To Moon: “He has to stay. He’s your favorite, it’s his job.”
Moon gave Chime a look that said, I have no idea what he's talking about. Is my feral showing? Chime shook his head minutely. No, Ember is insisting on this more than I would. But then again, Chime hadn’t been raised Aeriat.
“Why does it have to be Chime?” Moon said.
“I told you,” Ember said.
“You think somebody here would help Emerald Twilight hurt Moon?” Chime asked. Moon was right, even River wouldn’t let that happen. Emerald Twilight annoyed him more than Moon did.
“No, no, of course not.” Ember directed a lost look at the sleeve-covered hands in his lap. “It’s not about Emerald Twilight hurting you.”
“Indigo Cloud is my court,” Moon said, setting off another victorious burst of warmth in between Chime’s ribs.
“Now it is,” Ember mumbled.
Moon’s face flashed with hurt, hidden immediately by a flat expression. His shoulders tightened like he’d be lifting spines in his shifted form. The only thing he’d heard when Ember spoke was feral, but Chime suspected Ember meant something else. He squeezed Moon's wrist: Wait.
“Indigo Cloud is a very small court, Ember. We’re not like Emerald Twilight,” Chime said. He added, guessing wildly: “We don’t have enough Raksura to banish anybody to backwater courts just because they’re politically low ranked.”
Ember shut his eyes, fingers closing tightly around the edges of his sleeves. When he spoke, it was like he had something sticky in his throat. “Maybe they can’t banish you, but they could be cruel, crueler than you think, and -- “ He looked up, adding fiercely: “I’m not unhappy that I’m here.” He rubbed at his eyes, leaving a damp spot on his sleeve.
Moon’s expression had gone from defensive to flabbergasted. Ember reflected Moon’s look with one of horrified embarrassment and deepening misery, which in turn made Moon’s brow pull down thunderously. Chime knew it meant Moon wanted to hit Tempest with a teapot again, but Ember didn’t know that. Instead, he was dissolving into heartbroken tears, water running down his cheeks as he pressed his lips together in a failed attempt at composure.
They had accidentally broken something open, a deep, paralyzing fear Ember had only allowed to surface because he’d been driven to protect Moon from the same danger. That in and of itself made a good argument for why Moon didn’t have to worry about faction in-fighting, since Ember himself was the only person in Indigo Cloud who could really move against Moon politically.
“That isn’t going to happen,” Moon said.
“Why not?” Ember said thickly.
“Because -- ” Moon shot Chime a confused look as Chime’s hand tightened on his wrist.
“Right, because logical arguments always work on you,” Chime said with exasperation. He leaned forward and gripped Ember’s fingers with his other hand. There was a time when Chime had expected to be responsible for the health and well-being of the entire colony, and he felt himself falling back into old habits and responsibilities.
To Ember, he said quietly, “Who’s your favorite?”
Ember blinked away moisture, cheeks red with mortification. “I don’t. I -- Coil, maybe?”
Chime pulled the both of them up by the wrist across the hall to Ember’s bower. Ember went easily like Chime knew he would. He caught Ember shooting startled glances at Moon as Moon let himself be dragged along too. He pushed Moon down into the pillows and rugs around Ember’s hearth. Moon lifted his arm obediently so that Ember could be settled in next to his ribs, head against Moon’s chest like the fledglings that Moon visited so often.
Ember had his eyes fixed on his hands, very clearly trying to absolve himself of any fault in this. Moon looked up at Chime, exhausted and frustrated and probably as annoyed as he ever was with the entire Raksuran species. Chime gave him a pointed look in Ember’s direction. Moon settled his arms around the younger consort, tightening as Ember leaned further into him.
“Sorry,” Ember muttered.
It was easy to flag down an Arbora from the well outside the Consort’s bowers. “Tea,” Chime said, “and sweets. And send Coil up here.”
“Coil?” Rill asked. “He’s not outside, is he?”
If he had any idea of his status to Ember he'd better not be outside while his patron was meeting with Indigo Cloud’s First Consort. But maybe he didn't know.
“No idea,” Chime said. “And bring some new heating stones as well, please.”
When he got back, he heard Moon saying stiffly, “ -- good that you came here. We needed someone to tell us what to do.” Good. Moon had realized Ember needed to be spoken to, not glowered at protectively.
Ember gave a soft laugh that only sounded a little forced. “You fit in here. Everybody’s very embarrassing -- by -- by Emerald Twilight standards.” He was whispering like someone delighted to say something scandalous.
“We’re all ferals, huh.”
“Yes, obviously,” Chime said. “If you were less self-centered, you’d notice.” They probably were, compared to Emerald Twilight. Chime pushed down the usual resentment that he was just fine at mentor etiquette. He crawled into the pile of pillows next to Moon, and pulled a blanket over himself. “Tell me when the treats get here.”
He felt Moon shift against his back as Ember straightened. His voice was serious, his hand pressed flat over Moon’s heart. “You can take Vine or River if you want, but you have to take Chime too.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Moon said, “he’s going.”
Chime turned his head just enough to bite Moon through the worn fabric over his shoulder and opened his book.