High up in the canopy, on a platform far enough from the Arbora so as to not to disturb them as they worked the plant beds, Moon faced off against Ember.
“If you get eaten, Pearl will kill me,” he said, hands propped up on his narrow hips.
Ember nodded sedately. “Possibly. I still want to try.”
Moon never should have mentioned that he was teaching the fledglings the basics of hunting. He made one last effort to save them both the trouble this was going to cause. “Didn't they teach you at Emerald Twilight?”
“Not like you,” Ember said, a hint of stubbornness starting to shine through.
“Unless you're going to be a solitary for 30 turns, you don't need to hunt like I do,” Moon said, exasperated.
Ember had mostly stopped being afraid of him as soon as he figured out that Moon tended to lump him in with the royal clutch. Moon was kind of regretting that now.
Song landed beside them before Ember could rally and blurted, “There's a messenger from Opal Night.”
He saw her wince a bit at the bluntness but that had become peripheral. Everything came to a sudden halt in his mind as his world narrowed down to one thing: his birth court.
Ember shot him a slightly sullen look. “We're not finished with this, but I'd best go see if Pearl needs me.”
He shifted and leapt off the platform, his Aeriat guards that had been staying well back out of the way hurrying to catch up with him as he arrowed towards the knot hole.
Moon turned back to Song to find her biting her lip as she watched him.
“Do you know what they wanted?” he finally asked, shaking off the malaise that had overtaken him.
“No,” Song said, shifting like she was in a hurry. “They want to talk to you.”
That explained it; demanding to speak to a Consort, especially before anyone else, was a huge breach of conduct which would have set the whole court on edge.
“Alright,” he said and nodded for her to precede him off the platform. He wasn't certain whether he should go directly to the messenger or to make them wait. Following Song would be the easiest way to figure it out without asking.
Song hesitated, though. “Chime's waiting for you in your bower. He'll help you change into something suitable and accompany you. Don't go anywhere alone with the messenger.”
Moon stiffened and felt his frills lift at the command in her voice. If it was Jade or Balm or even Pearl, he possibly wouldn't have been as irked, but, while Song was comfortably familiar, she wasn't someone he'd normally take orders from.
She must have read something in his body language because she hurried to explain, “We have to prove that we know how to take care of you. So that they don't...”
She stopped before bringing up what had become known at court as The Incident, and Moon let himself relax. Song was solidly in Jade's faction, and, as Jade's consort, Moon was integral to Jade's prominence in court, at least here in the Reach. That, and most of the court, especially the Arbora, hadn't been too happy when he'd been sent back to his birth court the first time at his mother's insistence. He wasn't certain they'd stand for it a second time.
“Fine,” he said, waving at her to go ahead. He wasn't positive, but he was pretty sure there was some rule about letting a warrior lead him about.
Song stopped, though, tilting her head at him. “We won't let them take you again.”
“Right. Jade's going to go against a court the size of Opal Night for me,” Moon snapped before he could bite it back.
“After spending a month convincing your mother that we were good enough for you, she certainly would,” Song said, lifting an eyebrow at him. “We would.”
Moon leaped off the platform. He knew that Song followed him by the snap of her wings opening against the wind and the feel of a predator at his back, but he didn't slow down and he didn't acknowledge her. He headed for Stone's bower, which had the heavy window covering pushed back, instead of the knot hole that would have probably taken him past the messenger.
Stone was standing, arms crossed, leaning against the doorway when Moon lighted on the windowsill with a soft thump, jumping down so that Song would have room to follow.
Stone lifted an unimpressed eyebrow at her before turning back to Moon. “Jade and Pearl are talking to the messenger now. You might want to hurry before Pearl just decides to eat him.”
Moon rolled his eyes but hurried towards his bower. Pearl wasn't a cannibal, but she didn't always bother keeping the firmest grip on her temper either. If they weren't used to prolonged exposure to Malachite, the messenger was probably ready to piss their pants by now.
Chime had three outfits lying on top of baskets but Moon didn't get to pick which one to wear before he was unceremoniously shoved under a heated spray of water to wash away the sweat of the day.
“Sorry, we have to hurry,” Chime said over the rushing water, using one of the rough sack clothes the Arbora made to scrub at Moon's scales. Moon shifted back to human in annoyance and his clothes soaked through. Chime just went at his hair, tugging a bit at the clothes to indicate Moon should remove them. “It took Song awhile to find you and the messenger has been with the queens almost since she got here.”
Which meant that Pearl was almost definitely ready to say something unfortunate. Moon started to strip quickly. “I told you and Jade where I'd be today.”
“You said up in the canopy,” Chime said wryly, and Moon winced as Chime pulled him out from under the spray of water and into the cooler air before tugging a comb through his wet hair. “There's a lot of canopy.”
Moon quickly dried off, flapping the towel at Chime to get him to quit fussing with his hair, and headed for the pile of clothes. He noticed that they were all things he'd gotten from Indigo Cloud. He fingered the pile of silky, impractical cloth and bit back an annoyed grimace. He got that they were trying to lay claim to him, to show that they could care for him, but there were other things to consider, too.
He pulled out the sash he'd gotten for saving Plum, his bracelet from Jade, and the piece of necklace that had once belong to his father that he'd only let the Arbora make a proper chain for instead of prettying it up, layering them on top of black pants and a black vest with intricate gold stitching. Chime sighed but only made a couple of aborted moves to keep trying to straighten Moon's long, dark hair.
Moon swept out of his bower and rolled his eyes when Chime and Song fell into step behind him. This was going to be an unbearably long day.
When Moon entered the Queen's bower, he relaxed a tad. Rise, as a part of Malachite's faction, was perfectly prepared to handle moody queens. Pearl also seemed relatively calm, which might have had something to do with the fact that she had her tale curled around Ember's slim form possessively.
Moon should have possibly asked someone if he was supposed to address Rise directly or wait until he was told to because stopping in the doorway and waiting for Jade to indicate what he should do made him feel like an idiot.
Jade smiled at him, though, and said, “Moon, you have a visitor.”
If Rise had known Jade better, she'd have noted the tension leaking out of her. Moon stepped around Rise until he could settle a little beside and behind Jade and watched her shoulders relax. Chime and Song sat behind and to either side of him.
“Rise, how are you?” he asked as the very tip of Jade's tail swished back to nestle against his hip. All he wanted to do was to ask her what she wanted but that would probably be rude.
“I'm fine, thank you,” she said, looking a little freaked out.
“Good,” he said, nodding, and decided that was enough pleasantries. “What do you want?”
Pearl shifted and he couldn't tell if it was because she wanted to know, too, or she was annoyed with his abruptness. Knowing Pearl, it was probably both.
Rise relaxed, though, smiling at him. “Malachite is coming for a visit.”
Moon's eyes widened, and Rise's smile went a little wicked. That she had chosen to focus on him was probably smart on her part because Pearl and Jade's frills both lifted in alarm and aggression.
“Well, that's--” Moon groped for a word that wasn't 'terrible' and weakly said, “Interesting.”
“Moon, take Ember and go back to the Consorts' bower,” Pearl ordered something hard in her tone.
Moon normally would have argued just because it was Pearl and he couldn't not argue with her, but he was freaked out and there were undercurrents of tension going on that he couldn't quite figure out, so escaping seemed like the wisest idea.
He gripped Ember's shoulder as he passed and pulled him along behind him, Chime, Song, Vine, and Floret following hastily behind them. Ember shook him off his shoulder only to reach out and clutch his hand. Moon gave what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze and led them up to his bower. Stone was lounging against a cushion in front of the fireplace like it was his room, and he raised an eyebrow as Ember shifted bury his face in Moon's neck, shaking a bit. Moon fought the urge to stiffen and pull away.
Chime blurted, “What do you think she meant?”
Moon rolled his eyes, relaxing and patting Ember's back. “She didn't really beat around the bush about it. She said Malachite's coming for a visit, so my mother's coming for a visit.”
Stone went still, seemed to stop breathing, and, yeah, that was awful because nothing got to Stone. Then Stone blew out a breath, and all the tension ran out of him. He gave Moon a little smile as he nestled back into his cushion. “This should be interesting.”
“Why, exactly, is everybody freaking out about this?” Moon asked, settling his chin on Ember's shoulder because the kid was shivering.
“Reigning queens don't just visit other courts,” Chime said, starting to pace a little. Song and Floret, who had plenty of experience with Chime in terrifying situations, scooted out of his way. Vine, who'd only dealt with it once, got ran over a couple of times, with a distracted wave for apology, before huffing and leaping up to settle on a ledge high above the ground. “They can't really afford to be away from their own courts for long stretches. The only reason they make treks like this is to take over the court they're 'visiting' or to steal a consort. They don't do this.”
“You're reacting like my mother's a normal queen, though,” Moon said, and everybody in the room stopped and looked at him. “My mother's not normal in any way. Odds are pretty good that she's really just coming for a visit.”
And he felt the last of his tension run out of him because that was actually very true. Ember stopped shaking against him, just nestling in, instead, and Chime seemed to go loose at the thought.
“Are you turning into an optimist?” Stone asked and seemed to be disgruntled by the very idea.
Moon snorted. “No. I just think trying to predict what Malachite will do by judging what other queens do is stupid.”
Stone nodded and stood. “Good. I'm gonna go try to keep Pearl from eating the messenger.”
He left, and Moon started to try to pry Ember away from him, but the kid stubbornly clung. Considering that the only people in the court that ever seemed to touch him were Moon and Pearl and that he'd just had an upset, that was reasonably understandable. Still.
“I'm not standing here all day,” Moon said, patting Ember's back to soften the rebuke.
Ember nodded. “Let's take a nap.”
And that hadn't been at all what he'd meant, but it seemed like a good enough idea so he nodded for Chime and Song to go on up to his swinging bed and only raised his eyebrows when Vine and Floret followed them in. Ember let go of him long enough to shift and fly up to the bed, waiting until Moon was settled before he curled up against his chest. Moon sighed when Chime curled against his other side, Vine shifted until his head was sharing Moon's shoulder with Ember, and Floret flung an arm over Ember to fist her hand in Moon's vest. He felt Ember smile right before he went loose in sleep. The others sank into sleep quickly, too, and Moon stared at his ceiling until the feeling of being watched crawled over him. He turned his head to meet Song's eyes.
She reached around Chime and pressed her hand above Floret's. “You're ours, now. You realize that, right?”
He grimaced at her. “My mother's not coming to steal me.”
She smiled and patted his chest. “That's not what I meant.”
He just turned his head away and closed his eyes. Song snorted quietly in amusement but settled down.
The court was in a frenzy over the next few days, warriors trying to figure out how they'd protect their queens and consorts from invaders stronger than they were and the Arbora rushing around them trying to prepare for guests. Moon decided now was the perfect time to teach Ember to hunt and took them as far away from the hustle and bustle as Pearl and Jade would allow, six Aeriat following them closely instead of the usual two.
When their entourage flew back in on the third day, Ember victoriously handing over his catch to Bone, who deemed to smile at him, the court was subdued, and Moon got a creeping feeling of impending doom, especially when Root alighted beside them in a hurry.
“You have to go change,” he hissed, making shooing motions at Moon and Ember. “They're here.”
“Relax,” Moon said, even though his guts were twisting into knots. “Consorts are always the last to be introduced. It's procedure or whatever.”
Root made a dismayed sound. “She's already demanding to see you, and I don't think the queens are going to be able to keep her from searching the colony for much longer without starting a war.”
“It'll be fine,” Moon said and took off before anyone could argue with him, Ember on his heels.
He stopped at his room only to pick up his father's necklace before heading out again. His mother had seen him mostly-drowned, covered in Fell stench, and half dead from poisoning. She wasn't going to bat an eye at what his clothes looked like as long as he looked healthy.
He stepped into the meeting room, noting the tea that no one was touching and the icy atmosphere, and sighed loud enough for it to carry. Malachite immediately turned away from Pearl and Jade, which made Pearl bare her teeth in impotent rage, and strode towards him.
Her eyes were drawn to the necklace and her jaw clenched before she shook it off and reached for him. It was still awkward, being hugged by his mother. It felt so much like home, yet so foreign at the same time. He relaxed against her when he felt her pet his hair, letting his arms wind around her and pressing his face into her collarbone. Moon didn't think affection would ever be easy between them, but she was his mother.
She finally pulled away and studied him, gaze skipping over the necklace. “You look fine.”
“I'm good,” he nodded. “It's good here.”
Malachite grunted and released his shoulders. “Your queens have been telling me of your court's progress.”
She sounded kind of dubious, which put Moon's back up. “We're doing a lot better now. The Arbora have started clutching, the plants and hunting are prosperous, and things have been quiet for awhile now.”
“But still no clutch of your own,” she said, and he could tell she wasn't trying to be invasive or difficult, but Moon still felt offended.
“We're working on it. You said it would take time,” he said belligerently.
There was a disturbance at the doorway before Bell, the head of the teacher's caste, came in. He nodded to Moon and his mother, but went to kneel beside Pearl and whisper in her ear. Unfortunately, Malachite's hearing was uncanny, and her eyebrows went up at what she heard.
“I thought there wasn't a royal clutch here,” she said, turning back to the queens.
Bell stiffened at her attention until Pearl waved him away as she answered, “We rescued them from the Fell. They belonged to Sky Copper until their colony was set upon by the Fell shortly before Moon came to us.”
There was a sour twist to Malachite's lips. “How fortuitous for you.”
Pearl's frills lifted, but Moon cut in before they could come to blows. “What's wrong with the clutch?”
“It would seem they've escaped the nursery,” Malachite said, and Moon fled from the room as soon as she finished. The colony tree was frightening for some of the oldest of the court, and Bitter was still refusing to fly. They couldn't have gotten far.
He almost ran over them as he rounded a corner leading away from the queens' bower. He dropped to his knees in front of them and said harshly, “What do you think you're doing? What if you'd gotten lost?”
“We heard that the mean queen that took you away last time had come again,” Frost said, crossing her arms. “I'm a queen. I'm going to meet her, then tell her to go away.”
Moon slumped a little and only curled his arms around them when Thorn and Bitter settled into his lap. “Fine. You can come meet her. But she's my mother, so be nice. She's just visiting, anyway.”
Frost rolled her eyes. “Queens don't just visit.”
“Mine does,” he said and sincerely hoped that was true. “Come on. Find out for yourself.”
He held out his hands to her but she tilted her chin up and marched ahead of him. Bitter snickered into his neck as Moon sighed and smoothly stood, following after her.
When Frost stopped in the doorway, beset with a sudden case of nerves, Moon bent and lifted her, letting her curl around Thorn, and walked them close to Malachite. Frost's nails bit into his skin as he said, “Malachite, reigning queen of Opal Night, this is Frost, fledgling queen of Indigo Cloud, and her brothers Thorn and Bitter.”
Malachite's face was passive as she stared at them, and Frost blurted, “We're Moon's clutch. He found us, so we're his.”
“I see,” Malachite said, a shadow passing over her face before she looked at Moon. “You could have said you had a clutch. I would have let you come back sooner.”
Moon sincerely doubted that, but he just shrugged. “You asked if Jade and I had clutched, not if I had a clutch.”
“Fair enough,” Malachite said before holding out her hand, fingers still covered in clawed jewelry. “It's nice to meet you.”
Frost blinked at that and Moon raised an eyebrow in surprise. Thorn surprised them all by reaching out and delicately taking her hand, saying, “Nice to meet you, too. I'm Thorn. You can't have him back. He's ours, now.”
“I'm just visiting,” she said, a little twist to her lips. “No one will be taking him away again.”
Moon saw Jade relax minutely, although Pearl still seemed livid.
“Good,” Frost said, squirming until he set her down, although she reached out to clutch at his pants leg. “Then we can go back to the nursery. It's almost lunch time.”
She pulled at his leg but Bell, thankfully, arrived to hustle the fledglings away.
Moon watched Malachite watch them go before she turned back to him with a curious look on her face. “A clutch, a queen, and a court. My son has done well for himself.”
Moon tried not to let the lightness or the uneasiness at the thought welling up in him show through. “Yeah, well. It was bound to happen some time.”
“Of course,” Malachite said, nodding. “Take me on a tour. I'll only be staying for a day or so before I head out. Celadon can only keep Onyx in check for so long.”
Moon nodded, shooting a look over his shoulder at Jade. “Sure. I can do that.”
Jade pulled him to rest against her chest. “Trust your mother to turn this court upside down over nothing.”
Moon shrugged, then turned to nip just below her neck. “Do you really want to talk about my mother right now? She's gone, to return in one turn, and we have clutches we're supposed to be making. After all, Frost has convinced my mother that if you and I don't clutch, she'll have to send a consort from Opal Night for her, and who knows who we'll end up with.”
Jade smiled against his forehead. “I don't know. Besides having to deal with your mother, that court turned out you, and you're wonderful.”
Moon flushed and turned until he could press along her front, hiding his face in her neck. “Can't we just make clutches, now?”
She laughed but her grip on him changed, and she flipped him onto his back, grinning down at him fiercely. “As you like.”