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Salt and Sea and Weathered Stone

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Moon sat on the roof of the upper cabin of the wind ship, idly throwing pebbles back into the sea. He'd been doing it for hours. Some sealings had even made a game of it, tossing him stones and pearls from the sea bottom. The prettiest he'd set aside for the Arbora at home. He'd traded them for silver disks from a bracelet that had somehow ended up in his pants pocket before he'd left the court. Arbora were always tucking odd bits of things into his clothes.

He wasn't sulking, whatever anyone else said. He was thinking. He hadn't grown up with a busy court or a nosy family. He came to decisions best when he was by himself.

Merit settled a bit away from him but Moon ignored him. No Arbora he was familiar with hesitated to let him know if they wanted his attention. But it went against something ingrained in his bones to ignore a quiet Arbora for long, so he sighed and flipped one of the multicolored pearls into Merit's lap.

“What's wrong?” he frowned.

If anything was seriously wrong, Merit would have been helping wounded or scrying. But everyone had been through an ordeal with the Hians and Merit and Bramble had born the brunt of it all. If Merit wanted to talk, the least Moon could do was listen.

“Nothing,” Merit said absently enough that Moon believed him. Merit held up what he'd been fiddling with. “Do you like it?”

“Sure,” Moon shrugged, a bit baffled.

It was a light sketch of what would probably be a necklace. The sketch was rougher than most Arbora work he'd seen and he could barely make out tight swirls at the bottom and a bold swish at the top that was probably be symbolizing the wind.

“It's the first draft,” Merit said hurriedly, turning it back to study it himself. “I'll make sure it's perfect before I hand it over to Merry. And I wanted to make sure you like it, first.”

Moon got that weighty feeling in his chest. “Why does it matter if I like it?”

“Because it's for you,” Merit said, like it should have been obvious. Moon looked at him, startled. “You've saved my life at least 3 times. I want to make something for you.” He looked confused for a brief moment. “You don't really keep anything unless you think you earned it.”

That was true. As a consort, he was given a lot of stuff. His bower at court wasn't the least bit bare, but very little of it did he consider to actually be his.

“In most groundling groups, you only got things when you'd earned them,” Moon tried to explain. “Or if they belonged to your family. People didn't just give you things.”

“Yeah, you and Delin have both mentioned that,” Merit said, shaking his head. “But we give people things all the time.”

Moon sighed. He'd been trying to explain this since he'd come to Indigo Cloud. Finally, he managed, “Some things, I'm given because I'm a consort and everybody thinks I'll need it. And some things just seem to come back from the wash in my pockets. Those are things that belong to the court and I'll wear them or use them because I'm part of the court. But they're not mine. Mythings are things that no one else can have unless I give them to them. Because they're mine.”

“That makes sense,” Merit nodded. “But only because you're Moon.”

“As long as it makes some sense,” he sighed. Then he frowned. “Three times?”

“The Dwei hive, the escarpment, and the Hians,” Merit ticked off on his fingers. He looked at Moon, terribly serious. “You've been saving my life since you came to court. I'd argue with your mother if it meant we got to keep you.”

Moon considered that, even the bold claim about his mother, and felt warm. “Well, you don't have to argue with anyone, now. I belong to Indigo Cloud just as much as I do Opal Night.”

Merit looked pleased by that but stubbornly added, “You've belonged to Indigo Cloud since the day Stone brought you to court.”

Moon had learned, over the turns, that arguing with the Arbora when they truly had their hearts set on something that was best left to Queens.

Instead, he asked, “Do you have a spare pouch? I accidentally ended up trading some sealings for some sea stones and pearls.”

Merit gave him a look that said he knew exactly what Moon was about but shrugged and got up. “I'll go find one.”

He tossed the multicolored pearl back into Moon's lap as he left.

Moon sighed and laid back, letting the warmth of the sun heated roof lull him to sleep.
***

He woke up to the quiet scratch of quill on parchment and opened his eyes. A pouch lay beside him and Delin sat a pace or so away, looking better than he had but still projecting a tiredness that hadn't been with him before this trip.

“The others have gone off hunting,” Delin said, frowning down at the book in his lap. “Jade told them to leave you to rest.”

Moon grimaced, sitting up. Jade had been a little protective since the thing with the Fell queen hybrid. He was hoping that wore off by the time they reached the court.

“Are you feeling better?” he asked.

“I'm fine. Well enough that I wish everyone would stop asking, anyway,” Delin said pointedly, glancing at him.

He bit back a wince, stuffing his sealing treasures into the pouch as he asked, “Do you really think taking the Kish into the courts is the best thing to do?”

“They have to learn that while the Raksura and the Fell share a common ancestor, they are now two separate people,” Delin said firmly. “The best way to do that is to show them your courts. No one who sees them could mistake you for Fell.”

“The Fell don't build or craft or create,” Moon said, giving in and laying down again. “They only take and destroy.”

“They are the Raksura's opposites,” Delin nodded. “You are fierce but kind, intelligent, and curious people. And nothing exemplifies that better than your courts.”

Moon couldn't argue with that. “So you think, if they see the courts, they'll leave us alone.”

“Oh, no,” Delin said, shaking his head. “Quite the opposite. Once they no longer fear you as they do the Fell, they'll want to trade with you and study you. The time when the Reaches could stand apart from the world is coming to an end, I'm afraid.”

Moon groaned, thumping his head against the roof. “Court politics are difficult enough without mixing in groundling politics.”

“True,” Delin agreed. “But I have found the Raksura to be incredibly adaptable.”

Delin had only really dealt with Indigo Cloud, which always seemed to be in a state of flux, and Opal Night, who did what had to be done to survive. The courts that had never stepped out of the Reaches were incredibly inflexible.

“Maybe,” Moon said, letting it go. He wasn't interested in arguing about worries that weren't on them, yet. Besides, something else had caught his attention. “Nice bracelet.”

“Oh, thank you,” Delin said, lifting his wrist to show off the neatly braided leather strips holding a metal medallion to his pulse point. “Callumkal gave it to me. Apparently, to the Kish, it means I'm an honored scholar. Bramble made the straps to hold it, but I don't think she's happy with it.”

“Not enough intricacy for an Arbora's work,” Moon nodded. An idea settled in his mind. “Do you think we'll stop by than-Serest on the way home?”

“Possibly,” Delin said, eyeing him. “Would you like to?”

“I think I need to trade for something,” he said, weighing his pouch.

Delin nodded and stood. “I'll let Rorra and Niran know.”
***

than-Serest was exactly as he remembered it, bustling and unperturbed by strangers.

Stone followed after him, munching on the fried dough he'd insisted they get from the first booth and glancing idly at the groundlyings that passed them. Stone always seemed to work some weird magic on strangers. They didn't know him and they sensed something different about him, but they trusted him.

They'd at least left Kalam on the boat this time and Jade had the honor of herding the rest of the Raksura through the market. What he wanted to do would be difficult enough without spectators.

He made his way through the dark oblong building to the stone pool they'd visited last time and the sealing in it immediately sank beneath the water. Moon didn't have to wait long for the larger, in charge sealing to rise up to lean against the walls.

“Didn't think I'd see you again,” she said, peering behind him. “Changed your mind? Want to trade the pretty one for isteen? Or more information?”

I'm here to trade with you,” Moon said, annoyed, as he squatted at the edge and pulled a jangly anklet, a necklace, and a trio of rings out of his pockets that he'd found tucked into his things. “He's just here to make sure you hold up your end of the bargain.”

Stone smiled at her and she sank into the water a bit.

“Why trade here?” she demanded. “Why not the markets?”

Moon smiled this time and she inched away from them. “I like trading with people I know. And I wanted to thank you for the information last time. It was very helpful.”

She stared, measuring his words, before waving them away. “Fine. Show me what you have and tell me what you want.”

He laid out the jewelry, far enough away that she couldn't grag it and flee, and said, “I want to trade these for pearls and precious stones. Nice ones.”

She nodded, lips pursed, before sinking down under the water.

“You know, trading is what the markets are for,” Stone said lightly.

“She'll have better stuff,” he said, shrugging.

He hadn't had many dealings with sealings, but he knew plenty about trading. The suppliers always kept back the best stuff.

She surfaced in a swell of bubbles and poured jewels, stones, and pearls at his feet.

“These are the nicest of my collection,” she said, propping herself up on her arms. “Much better than what's at market.”

Moon nodded and started to sort through the jumble. Stone nudged a bright blue jewel and Moon set it to the side, along with several others.

He had three piles when he finished but he still wasn't happy.

“There aren't enough of these,” he frowned, lifting a stone that would've been a simple purple stone if it hadn't been for the bright blue stripe of crystals through the middle. He nudged the biggest pile. “And none of these are right.”

She studied him, then swept the unwanted stones into a sachet and sank out of sight again.

Stone sighed, finally sitting beside him. “You're gonna make us look bad.” Moon startled so hard he nearly fell into the water, wide eyes shooting to Stone's face. “The Arbora are gonna wonder why Consorts haven't made them trinkets before.”

Moon calmed, shifting his shoulders like he was settling spines. Stone wasn't disappointed in him. He hadn't shamed the Court in some weird, incomprehensible way. He was just doing something new and different.

Stone flicked his ear like he could read his mind. “You're already the Arbora's favorite, you know.”

“I'm pretty sure you are their favorite,” Moon said, relaxed again. “And it probably won't be up to their standards.”

Stone shrugged. “It'll be unique and probably considered a sign of favor. Arbora are funny that way.”

Moon shifted his shoulders. Being unique meant being noticed and being noticed had been disastrous when he'd lived on his own. Old habits died hard and he still preferred to be left alone.

He picked up the gem Stone had pushed aside and said, “Rorra?”

“Mm,” Stone nodded. “I was going to ask the Arbora but I like this idea better.”

The sealing flowed up again, spreading her bounty in front of them. “These are the best I could find.”

Moon nodded, and began separating again.

When he was happy he had enough, he shoved the excess at her and lifted the anklet, cupping his hand over the stones he'd picked. “These for this.”

Her gaze sharpened and he smiled. He'd kind of missed bartering.

Stone sighed and stretched out beside him as Moon prepared to properly haggle.
***
Stone helped, more than Moon had actually meant for him to, checking the small wooden beads Moon carved to make sure the Raksuran characters were correct, shifting stones and gems around depending on who the piece was for, and watching with mild fascination as Moon worked the leather with the meager skill he'd picked up over the turns.

Nothing about the pieces was extraordinary, but he was proud of them nonetheless.

Stone surprised him when he'd completed the last piece, handing him a stack of small leather pouches, shrugging as he said, “I bought them at the market while you were arguing with the wood vendor.”

Moon wasn't going to explain haggling again. “Thanks.”

“Have you decided how you're going to present them?” Stone asked, crouching beside him

Moon blinked, then said, “I figured I'd slip it into their packs. It works for the Arbora at home.”

Stone heaved a great, put upon sigh, and said, “How're they supposed to know who it's from if you don't give it to them?”

He felt that frustrating awkwardness creep up on him. “I don't need credit. I just wanted to give them something nice. And they've seen me making them, so they'll know.”

Stone stared at him for a moment, then rolled his eyes up to the sky. “This is one of those court politics things. You have to do it right.”

Moon grimaced at him. “You're making that up You said yourself that consorts don't make things for others.”

“But they give plenty of presents,” Stone said blandly. “Especially when they're favorites.”

He slumped. Arguing with Stone was like arguing with a mountain: absolutely useless. “Fine. I'll give them out when we can see the Reaches.”

Stone grunted and stretched out beside him. Nap time, then.
***

The Arbora sashayed around proudly, jewelry on full display, and most of the Aeriat were just as thrilled. River had sniffed at the gift, but Moon was pretty sure he hadn't taken it off since he'd gotten it. Neither of them talked about the fact that Moon had made the necklace long enough to hide under clothing.

Stone had been the most surprising, though. He'd taken the bracelet with a grand sense of gravitas and wore it all the time.

“I told you,” Jade murmured when he'd brought it up before their nap. She played with his hair. “He likes you best.”

“But why?” he asked, baffled.

She smiled, letting her eyes close. “Maybe you remind him of somebody. Or maybe because you're not blood related to him. But probably just because he's Stone.”

And that did explain a fair bit. Stone did whatever he wanted to do, 100 percent of the time.

“Well,” Moon muttered, letting Jade's warmth lull him. “It could be worse. I could be Pearl's favorite.”

Jade snorted, caught off guard, then tugged his hair. “Go to sleep. Stop thinking of impossible things.”

He was tired, so he obliged her.