Smoke found Moon hanging by his tail from a stout branch toward the the top of the colony tree, high enough that no one would see him unless they were determinedly looking for him.
“Was that story true?” he asked.
Moon glared at him, but Smoke wasn’t put off. Smoke had had a certain fondness for the cranky and eccentric Moon from the very first time he had visited Indigo Cloud, and he still wanted to know more about him.
Indigo Cloud had a reputation not only for favoring but also for producing more rugged consorts, but Smoke himself certainly was not one. He fit the traditional mould of pampered consort so well that there were some days he was honestly surprised that Verdigris chose him out of all of Sunset Water’s consorts — not that he would ever complain about that, since the two were perfect for each other — but that didn’t mean he was a pushover.
Moon rustled his wings, and Smoke braced himself for Moon to fly off — the wash from Moon’s sixty-pace wingspan was even more powerful than any queen’s he had ever met — but instead Moon continued to glare at him. Eventually Moon sighed, plummeted down to the nearest platform, and shifted to groundling. Smoke followed.
“It’s true enough,” Moon said after the last of the surprised Arbora had retreated to the door.
“Without actually being true,” Smoke replied.
Moon stared at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be a delicate consort scared by feral solitaries?”
“I’m terrified of them. I’ll let the court know if I ever see any,” Smoke replied drily.
Moon bared his teeth and growled, “Then why are you still talking to me?”
Smoke flinched but didn’t step back. He wanted to tell him that he was impressed by his self-confidence, or that he knew that Moon wasn’t as gruff as he pretended, or that the story of Jade claiming Moon back from his birthcourt was one of the most romantic he had ever heard. Instead, he said, “You’re not a feral solitary, you’re a line grandfather.”
Moon stood there silently, then turned on his heel and strode to the edge of the platform.
“I know that wasn’t only a story to you,” Smoke said. “You lived it. The court is strong and healthy thanks to you. Without you, Indigo Cloud would have died out.”
Moon dropped down to sit on the edge of the platform and flicked a few pebbles away. Smoke made his way to Moon’s side and eased down next to him.
Voice barely above a whisper, Moon said, “I still miss Jade. I miss them all.”
Smoke started to say something, but Moon silenced him with a look.
“You don’t understand. You can’t,” Moon said. “You moved away from your birthcourt, but they’re still there, and you can visit. Over the years, you’ve lost, what, a teacher or two who helped raise you? A well-regarded mentor? And you’ve gained another entire court, along with a queen who spoils you rotten.”
Smoke almost gave Moon a gentle nudge of comfort, but hesitated at the last moment and pulled his hand back. Moon had always been a bit weird about touch, although Smoke never knew why — it was simply one more of the line grandfather’s quirks, and, apparently, line grandfathers always had quirks. With Moon, it was hard to tell whether he was the way he was because he was a line grandfather, or whether he had always been like that and being a line grandfather was a convenient excuse. Smoke suspected it was a bit of both.
Moon continued, “I don’t know what’s worse any more, that I still miss them, or that I’m used to missing them. It usually doesn’t bother me, but then some Arbora gets the bright idea to have story time, and they pick the tale of how Indigo Cloud returned to the Reaches, or the story of the falling world, or,” and he looked pointedly back at the door and the Arbora peeking out flinched, “how Jade reclaimed Moon from Opal Night. Then I remember that I’m never going to lie in a bower with Jade again and have her hold me close. Chime’s never going to read me another story. Merit isn’t going to get all giddy about some new plant the Kek gave him. Ember’s not going to be there to be all the things I’m not. I watched my clutches grow up and grow old, and their clutches, and their clutches. Of course, Stone’s probably still out there somewhere.” He snorted and added, “And I know it’s bad when I even start to miss Pearl and that shit River.”
The two of them sat there, feet dangling over the edge of the platform. Smoke didn’t know what to say. To his knowledge, the line grandfather had never been this open in front of anyone before, much less him. He didn’t want to ruin the moment, and tried his best not to look like he was waiting for him to tell more of his story.
“I left, you know. After Jade died,” Moon said. “They tried to comfort me, but what did they know about how I felt? I picked a direction, and I flew. I don’t even know how far I went. I saw so many things: an entire city made from giant bones; trees made of glass; a floating village suspended by air bladders; windswept dunes; shallow seas with coral castles. I tried to settle in a port city where I wouldn’t look out of place and make a life for myself there, but it had been so long that I had forgotten how to live with groundlings, so I came back. Still, there’s so much of the three worlds left to explore. I’m sure some of the Golden Islanders wouldn’t mind having me around.”
“Then why do you stay?” Smoke asked.
“For the fledglings,” Moon answered.
Smoke gave Moon a skeptical look, and Moon said, “What? Someone has to teach them how to survive out here.”
“Isn’t that what the teachers and the older warriors are for?” Smoke asked.
Moon looked at Smoke like he was an idiot. “They do well enough,” Moon said, “but I don’t entirely trust them to get it right.”
Smoke thought that wasn’t the only reason, but, since it still had the sound of truth to it, he didn’t press.
They sat together quietly for a while longer, the awkward silence gradually turning companionable instead. Without warning, Moon reached his arm around Smoke and pulled him in close.
Not having anything at all to say to that, Smoke nestled back against Moon, and the two of them stared out into the forest.