Ember was wondering what the correct protocol was for a taken consort when approached unbidden in the gardens by an ally queen. Particularly one of the court's most powerful allies. Should he greet her as if it were normal? Perhaps he could pretend he hadn't seen her and head back to the consorts' bowers? Would she take offence?
Malachite studied him silently for long moments. She was like Moon in her bluntness and like Stone in her acerbity, but harder to read than both. Ember was becoming concerned that he was coming up short in her estimation.
"You are the second consort, while bonded to a reigning queen," said Malachite, at last.
Ember nodded. It seemed the safest response.
"It's unusual," she continued. "Wouldn't you prefer to be first consort?"
He recoiled from the thought. "No! I don't want... I'm not ready to take on the responsibility of an entire court yet."
"Are you sure? You don't think Indigo Cloud needs a first consort who understands how consorts are supposed to be?"
Ember twitched, and clasped his hands behind his back. "There isn't one way to be a consort." Which she already knew, and he wasn't going to fall for an obvious leading question like that.
Malachite watched him carefully for a moment. "No," she admitted at last.
"Indigo Cloud needs Moon," said Ember. He took a deep breath. "But I think it needs me, too."
Ember's first few days in the Court of Indigo Cloud were a mess of uncertainty.
The consorts' chambers were elegant and spacious, well-maintained and comfortable, and Ember was currently the sole occupant. He thought back to his home court and how his age-mates would talk eagerly of accepting a queen, moving to another court where they could spread their wings, and he curled himself up into his bower as small as he could.
He did end up taking Moon's advice to work his way down to the teachers' hall. They cooed and treated him like he was barely out of the nursery, but their easy affection was a nice counterpoint to the rest of the court. The Sky Copper clutch were conspicuously absent whenever Ember was in the nurseries, but the Arbora babies were more than happy to use Ember for climbing practice.
More than their single, fraught conversation, Ember was picking up an impression of Moon from the hole he left in the court, and he knew he'd never be able to fit that space. The members of the court were divided into three groups: those relieved to now have a "real" consort in the court, those who resented him for taking the place of Moon, and those who were too busy to pay him any attention at all.
The teachers were always eager to feed him, both with food and stories of their flight from the east. Their Line Grandfather, he learned, had left on a flying boat. They explained what that was several times, and each explanation left Ember more confused. But he was glad for the tea and a place he could curl up and just be a part of the scenery.
A blue warrior entered the teachers' hall, glancing past Ember without noticing him. Ember wasn't familiar enough with Indigo Cloud to guess at his bloodline.
"Oh, Chime," said Bell. His gaze flickered up and down, taking in the droop of Chime's spines. "How is Jade?"
Chime hissed through his teeth. "She's stable. We... the mentors think she won't be flying for a week at least." He looked at the wall like he was contemplating committing violence against it. "I wish I could help."
Bell and the other teachers murmured in sympathy. Ember shifted in place, drawing Chime's attention. Chime's eyes widened as he recognised Ember. He hissed through his teeth and Ember shrunk back against the wall.
Chime turned away again, then paused and turned back. "Are the warriors giving you trouble?" he asked, spines twitching in resignation like he expected the answer to be yes.
They weren't: those that approved of Ember were perfectly solicitous, and those who didn't were content to ignore him so far. He shook his head.
Chime looked disbelieving. "You don't have to be polite to me. Warriors are irrational, it's not your fault you're here."
Ember swallowed. "Thank you, but I haven't had any trouble."
Chime stared at him with narrowed eyes for a moment. "Fine." He turned back to Bell, a clear dismissal.
When the Line Grandfather finally arrived several days later, he barely glanced at Ember before growling at Pearl and demanding to know where Moon was. He accepted the explanation with rising incredulity, then declared that he was leaving to fix this.
Ember had a moment of horror before he realised Stone meant that he was going to bring Moon back.
He wondered if they'd send him back to Emerald Twilight. It was hard being here, but it would be worse to be sent home in disgrace.
Malachite accepted Ember's declaration with an ironic flicker of her spines. The breeze stirred the decorative flower beds, threatening to carpet the ground beneath them in loosed petals.
In a flurry of wings that set the petals flying again, Stone landed in front of Ember, who edged off to the side so he could see around him. Stone stayed in Raksura form, not saying a word. Malachite inclined her head, and shifted to her own winged form.
"I thank you for your indulgence, Ember," she said. Her own departure barely stirred the flowers.
Stone gave Ember a look.
Ember took a moment to think, choosing his words with care. "You have my gratitude," he sad, "for your timely arrival." That sounded neutral enough.
Stone remained silent. He never spoke in his Raksura form, but this silence felt weighted.
"I'm not Moon," Ember added, after a moment. "I'm not you. But I'm not useless. Just because I'm not the kind of consort you were doesn't mean that I'm not important. That what I do isn't important."
Stone stared at him for a long moment, then gently cuffed him on the back of the head before he flew off.
Ember stood alone in the empty garden and tried to remember what he'd been doing before he was interrupted.
"That's how he shows affection," explained Moon, later.
Ember held back his feelings on that with a polite, neutral expression.
Moon rolled his eyes. "I know. But he's been like this as long as I've known him. As long as anyone at Indigo Cloud has known him, as far as anyone can tell me."
But Stone liked Moon, because he and Moon were cut from the same cloth. Ember slumped up against Moon's side, until Moon slipped an arm around him and ruffled his hair.
"I'm glad you're back," said Ember.