It starts around the fourth time Moon shows up to a public greeting between queens still faintly reeking of drain water and wearing what appears to be the only set of formal clothes he has: dark, midnight-blue silk and a gold-embroidered belt-sash. It clashes completely with the red-gold bracelet, his consort gift, and so of course Moon inflicts the sight on them all every chance he gets.
Chime is, apparently, useless. No one else seems to notice or care that their first consort wears almost the exact same jewelry to every formal event.
Really. It's been years. He's still wearing the same outfit.
So River takes matters into his own hands.
The first step involves idling nonchalantly by the set of interwoven channels and tiny pools where the Arbora dip the laundry and spread it out on smooth heated stones to bake dry. Back at the old colony, they used to hang it out to let the sun dry it, but not enough light comes through the heavy growth of the suspended forest.
All told, there's not a lot of it. Most of the colony's clothing is either only for special occasions, or good to wear more than a few times if you don't shift back after a hunt still covered in gore. Which means most of it is Ember's or Moon's, depending on the day.
Warriors loaf around all the time when they're not flying patrols, especially in the afternoon. It shouldn't have earned him more than a wry glance. But this is River. At the sight of him, the two Arbora, Ash and Sorrel, duck their heads and exchange that significant look that Arbora have all mastered before they leave the nurseries, before Sorrel clears his throat. "Did you want to help?" Ash asks, pointedly, as she rises from her crouch.
It's fine. It doesn't matter. River is well aware that no one really wants him hanging around. He's already seen what he came here to see, anyway - the neat arrangement of Ember's jewel-toned clothes, scattered across multiple surfaces and rinsing channels, and the lone dark tunic on its own drying rock. All its faults aside, Indigo Cloud knows cloth. But even the rich blue-black dye has started to fade from wear, and time. River grimaces on reflex.
Sorrel clears his throat again and Ash's chin juts forward as the two Arbora take it as him slighting their laundry work. River bristles on instinct - then catches himself. He shifts and takes off before the way they can see the grimace deepen and twist into something else.
It doesn't deter him.
Later, he confirms his worst suspicion. It takes some doing. When Sorrel climbs up to the consorts' bowers to dump everything off, though, River is there to witness how he tucks Moon's shirt in the single woven-reed basket. On top of the three (count them: three) other formal shirts their first consort has to his name.
Conveniently positioned so that the next time Moon has to change in a rush, he'll pick that shirt up first. Every. Time.
The situation isn't as dire as it could be. After their first clutch and the accompanying crisis, the colony showered Moon in gifts to soothe his nerves: pretty trinkets and carvings and jewelry, most of it deep-green amber, crafted by the finest Arbora artisans in the court. River can see it when he cranes his neck around and squints into the bower from a safe distance. There are necklaces, earrings, arm bands, and anklets enough to fill the single shelf on the wall, scattered in between odder things like scraps of fabric and twigs.
Moon's just not wearing any of it. Possibly, River admits, because the Indigo Cloud court exists in a perpetual state of casual, comfortable disarray. Any time they receive an envoy from another court it seems to come as a surprise, and everyone has to scramble to get things in order. Their first consort is just the prime example - how many times has Sunset Water seen him wear that exact same outfit? Courts have a long memory, and River is sure that soon tales of Moon's signature look will be just as cemented in the annals of Emerald Twilight's history as their time-honored grudge over Indigo and Cloud.
Moon was a feral solitary, raised without any idea how a consort is supposed to act and set an example. He probably thinks it's fine if he defaults to the same jewelry.
River shudders at the thought. He turns away from the bower entrance; he needs to creep back down to the lower levels, before -
He nearly runs right into Bramble. She's standing right there beside him, eerily silent and perfectly still in the way only an Arbora hunter can maintain, and he didn't hear anything. She stares point blank at him, her eyes wide and unblinking and glinting in the half-light of the corridor.
River flinches so violently that he rams straight into the wall.
"River," Bramble says, mildly. She folds her arms in a way that makes her shoulder muscles flex under her sleeveless shirt. "What brings you up here?"
"Nothing," River hisses, mortified, and flees.
No matter how unobtrusive he tries to be while slipping down the central well, taking alternate paths and stairs whenever possible, he can't outdo the Arbora. When it comes to prowling, they're simply the best there is. River hunches his shoulders, huddling spines he doesn't have in this form, very aware of the eyes of the court watching him in passing.
They've always been unimpressed. Now, River has no buffer between him and the consequences of his own actions. Drift and his own stubborn pride can only do so much.
Chime is Moon's favorite, because Moon is physically allergic to acting normal for more than five minutes.
A consort might accumulate multiple favorites over the years, or choose only one at a time, as they gradually - inevitably - outlive a warrior's lifespan. That's not the problem. Of all the warriors in the court, he had to go and pick the one who has no idea how to be a warrior, let alone a consort's closest, chosen companion and confidant. Chime brings Moon mentor concerns instead of warrior concerns, Moon nods along absently without passing any of it on to Jade, and together they go gallivanting off to do dangerous things, dragging half the court along to keep them from getting themselves killed.
River would know. These days, he doesn't even have to corner Moon and insist on going along. Moon just jerks his head to the side, wordlessly making eye contact, and River falls in with a long-suffering sigh. Honestly. He's too young to be one of the most seasoned warriors in the court when it comes to dangerous excursions into the unknown.
Maybe that's unfair. Moon is Jade's consort. Maybe the only sister queen of a court shouldn't be flying off into danger, either. Emerald Twilight might judge them for that, but it's not like Indigo Cloud has queens to spare. But no matter how many turns of experience as a solitary among groundlings Moon might have, that's still not an excuse for her to keep bringing a consort along for the ride. He should be at home, caring for the royal fledglings, safe - it's enough to make River tear his spines out.
Chime is just the most…accessible one to pin it on. Yes, fine, Moon has no idea what he's doing, they get it. He has an excuse. But if Jade is content to let Moon act more like a line-grandfather than a young consort, Chime should be the one picking up the slack.
At the very least, he should be the one making sure Moon rotates through his shirts. Really. What kind of an impression does that make?
River's mistake is trying to point this out when Chime is down in the teacher's workroom, painting leather covers for books. The whole room smells like paste and paint, and River wrinkles his nose. Chime sticks out among the actual Arbora like a sore thumb - too long, too lean, his fluffy, straw-colored hair a head above even the tallest of the teachers. Needle and Snap, curious, both glance up from their work, but Bell is the one who frowns faintly when River enters.
Even now, years after the fact, Chime sits like he doesn't know what to do with Aeriat-proportioned limbs. He doesn't fit. He shouldn't be in here at all. River can barely remember what Chime used to look like - can hardly recall looking at Chime at all, except in passing, at the old colony - but the discomfort in Chime's posture sets River's teeth on edge. The irritation is vague, formless, nameless.
It doesn't go well. It rarely goes well, but he and Chime especially aren't exactly on good terms.
"What? I'm not going to tell Moon what he has to wear," Chime says, exasperatedly, as though this is the most unreasonable thing he's ever heard in his life. He rubs his nose with a thumb, leaving a smear of bright green paint right in the middle of his face. "Moon is right - we really do complain about so many things for no reason."
River shifts his weight, restless. The frustration of it all leaks into his voice, and he's aware that it's coming out wrong even as he keeps pushing. Just a little too sharp, a little too impatient. Chime hasn't done anything except sit there, as deeply unimpressed with River as any of the Arbora, and River can't stand it. "Would it really be so hard for you to make sure he wears something other than that bracelet?" he demands, riled. "You have no idea how other courts must see it, when our first consort dresses like all we can give him are the same rags -"
Chime bristles, affronted. Bell cuts in. "Can you two take this outside?" he demands, and if his stern look of disapproval lingers a little longer on River, it's probably just because he's the one who started it.
But Chime's gotten better at ignoring provocation from other warriors (read: from River) over the years. Or at least feigning it. Which actually goes a long way toward him acting convincingly like a first consort's favorite. He settles back on his heels with a huff, and bends back over the leather canvas with eloquent indifference.
From another warrior, it would be an insult. From a favorite, it's a tacit dismissal. But deep down, at the core, it's Chime acting like he's still a mentor dealing with a petulant Aeriat, and River can feel it sticking in his throat like a sharp shard of bone that he has to swallow. Just because the behavior looks the same on the surface doesn't make the instinct go away.
He chokes it down with a snarl, and leaves.
River misses the days when things were simple, and normal -
But he cuts the thought off there. Things were never simple, never normal.
At the next opportunity, River leaps in with grim determination.
Since Pearl - took Ember, River's influence over and within the ranks of the Aeriat dropped out from under him. In hindsight, that support network was built on smoke. As the court haphazardly shifted into its new, slapdash configuration, the warriors started to follow Balm's lead, instead, encouraged by the fact that it was no longer a choice between Pearl and Jade. It's more natural to fall in with a female warrior of a royal clutch, anyway.
And Balm didn't speak to him for turns. So they all took their cue from that.
Between that and the Arbora being thoroughly fed up with him, River has to make a deliberate, conscious effort to be…involved. No one else, except Drift, will reach out for him.
Thankfully, when the chance arrives, Drift is more than happy to serve as a distraction. As soon as the Aeriat patrol wings in to report that the expected envoy from the Storm Fire court has arrived, River slips past the bustling, chattering swarms of Raksura.
He storms in right as Moon's yanking that damn shirt over his head. "Not that one," River says, aggravated enough that it almost comes out a growl. He jabs a finger at Chime as he stalks past them to reach the baskets. "Fix his hair."
"I - what?" Chime stutters. The fact that they're both too startled to throw River out is the only advantage he has. He loses a precious second deciding to pull out the second shirt in the stack - black with green threads worked in - and flings it directly at Moon while he's still mid-turn.
Moon snatches it out of the air and eyes it doubtfully. Like it's not his own shirt. Possibly because he's never worn it, and therefore doesn't recognize it. Then he transfers the scowl to River, his beautiful face sharp with a suspicion that a well-bred consort like Ember is too polite to ever display.
When Stone glares, it's with the weight of generations of care behind it, no matter how cranky he gets with you. When Moon glares, there's always a trace of something...not familiar. Remote. Like the ties that bind a court together are more of a concept than a reality to him, after so long alone. Like River is somehow a stranger, still.
It's maddening. But while Moon's still sizing River up for a fight, figuring out how furious his snarl is going to be about this intrusion, River has time to hook the nearest baubles off the shelf and storm back toward them with the first one held out like a guard. "Fix. His. Hair," River insists, and when Moon intercepts the first bauble River has a band of smooth, polished green-gold amber lumps waiting to wrap around his arm. He shoves the matching torc into Chime's flailing, flustered hands, the amber framed by gold Aeriat wings, and then bounces back out of reach right as Moon yanks away.
The bower's window is closer than the corridor. River shifts, wings tightly furled, and drops out. "River, what the shit?!" Chime calls, his baffled voice carrying after River as he weaves in between the branches. He darts down to where Drift has a door open before anyone can question him. Moon could probably catch him - consorts are faster than warriors, and Moon stoops like a predator, with the kind of silent speed he inherited from his terrifying mother-queen.
But with the greeting to attend, no one follows.
The relief is visceral. Like he scratched an itch so deep he had to rip up scales and skin to reach it, and now there's blood in the air for predators to scent.
"What was that about?" Drift asks, one brow arched. His coppery scales flicker in the light filtering through the central well as they dart across to the warriors' living area.
River shrugs restlessly. "It doesn't matter," he mutters.
When the envoy takes off from the edge of a suspended platform the next day, though, Moon is wearing it.
Green amber matches Moon's stupid green eyes, and the Arbora have loads of it, for some inexplicable reason. Why wasn't he wearing it before?
Someone's got to do it, pain in the ass though it might be.
The gaps in this genius plan become apparent the next time a court catches them off guard.
Rain drums down, filtering through the upper canopy of the mountain-tree to fall on the platforms in heavy streams, so anyone without anything better to do is down in one of the gathering halls to hear Merit read a new story aloud - freshly copied from a borrowed Opal Night book, apparently. It's not very interesting, and River has mostly tuned it out. The noise of Merit's voice has lulled a few of the Arbora to sleep in a twitching pile by one of the bookshelves. Stone is up on the ceiling, a dark blur that envelops most of the upper arches, and River's pretty sure that if he died in his sleep up there in his shifted form no one would be able to tell. Beside River, tucked into the alcove by the entrance, Drift picks at his claws, restive and bored. They'll probably leave soon to go stare out through the grey veils of rain outside their bower instead.
Except Balm sweeps in, rain sheeting off her scales, and at her signal Jade stands at the front of the room and vaults over half the audience to reach her. Tempest of Emerald Twilight and an escort, apparently - and while everyone grits their teeth about it, that's an important enough alliance that everyone involved ignores the fact that Moon causes a minor diplomatic crisis every time he walks into the same room as them. He needs to be there for things like this, as first consort, and since Emerald Twilight is close enough to show up rudely unannounced without consequence, there aren't a lot of formalities involved before he'll be expected to show up.
Which means, to River's jolt of horror, that Moon is already judging the arc Jade took through the air with a speculative eye. He and Chime were right at the front of the crowd, as usual, slumped in such a way that it politely looked like they were still listening to Merit while they dozed off against Jade. The shirt's fine for a meeting with a court that already holds them in cordial disdain, but Moon looks like he's fresh from a nap, groggy and irritable and not wearing so much as a single ring.
The Arbora around the room are quick to improvise their own solutions - swapping clean tunics, chattering amongst each other to figure out who has a decent enough set of earrings to let Heart borrow them. They form an impenetrable swarm of bodies, disorganized only to the untrained eye. River's hand shoots to his own pocket before he realizes what he's looking for. But he has nothing on him.
The spike of panic he feels is entirely irrational. He's not important enough to need to dress up, most days. But any second now Moon's going to bound out of here, and if they're lucky Chime will keep pace well enough to tug his shirt straight for him before he walks into the queen's hall.
It's enough to catapult River to his feet, shifting so abruptly that Drift jolts. "Move!" River snarls, loud enough for the nearby Arbora to hear him over the general bedlam, and tries to ignore the note of panic in his own voice.
Some of his alarm must make it to his face. Heart takes one look at him, seizes Plum and Spice by the collar, and tosses them bodily out of the way on blind instinct. "Where are we going?!" Drift yells, bewildered, but River rapidly loses him as he plunges through the center of the Arbora swarm. They close ranks behind him as seamlessly as they open before him. Only a few of the younger hunters and flailing warriors are too slow to clear the path.
"Oh, your hair!" Chime exclaims, right as River surges out of the pack. He catches Moon by the arm to hastily pat his dark, rumpled hair down.
River doesn't even know why he bothered. He glances around frantically, but he can't summon a nicer sash or bracelets out of thin air. He's going to have to start carrying jewelry around, isn't he.
But now he's here and worked up into a proper frenzy over absolutely nothing. He ducks around Moon's far side, where Chime can't see him, and yanks the hem of Moon's shirt down to lie straight as he casts around in a blind panic.
Moon whirls around and stares at him, brow furrowed. Chime peers around Moon, perplexed. River throws out his empty hands to either side and shrugs. Uselessly.
Someone slaps a bracelet of silver and pale green stones into his waiting palm. River blinks. But they're there and gone again, lost in the crowd. But good enough. He hooks the chain around Moon's wrist and then backs off, hands up again.
They're still staring at him. He avoids eye contact with a vengeance. Finally spying a clear line of escape, River shoots away.
There should have been two consorts in their clutch. But they didn't survive.
Stillbirths happen. It's a fact of life, particularly in mixed royal clutches. Usually the warriors don't make it. Queens and consorts develop more quickly and are ready for birth faster, and the underdeveloped warriors emerge premature. But Amber held out to give them all a better chance, and so instead of River and Drift and Branch dying, poor Meander and Wave died in the brief spate of lung sickness running through the colony as soon as they arrived. A prelude to the longer bouts of sickness to come.
There were other consorts, still. Dust and Burn, and a few consorts born to Amber turns before. Most of them were still fledglings, young enough that they hadn't left the nurseries yet. Rain was alive, and Pearl almost in the mood to clutch again. She didn't associate royal clutches with failure and grief, then. Jade was the only queen of their generation born so far, but that wasn't a warning sign - there was still plenty of time. Stone was gone more often than he was home, but line-grandfathers were just like that. Even without consort clutchmates, River and Drift and Branch spent those first years happily playing with other fledglings and baby Arbora, blissfully unaware of much outside of the colony. Dust and Burn would visit every day, letting them tug on their earrings and turn the shiny baubles in their soft baby claws for closer inspection. And Amber, a golden sister queen webbed with crimson, who let all the overexcited fledglings climb her mane of frills.
Then they started to die.
One by one, and in waves, to sickness and predators - and under it all, the creeping, imperceptible taint of Fell influence, sinking in around them like an undertow. Amber died, and even after they left the nurseries Jade couldn't take the place of a sister queen in the court. Rain died, after one stillborn clutch too many, and as Pearl grew more and more closed off envoys from other courts stopped visiting.
Little by little, the court fell…askew. Too many Arbora, too few warriors. Too little interaction between the castes, too much gossiping behind each other's backs. Pearl's temper terrible, uncertain, volcanic, increasingly at odds with Jade in a way that divided the court along fracture lines, so that the Arbora elders began to carefully work around her. When warriors jockeyed for rank and responsibility, as they would in a less dysfunctional court, there was an extra, sour undertone, knowing that it inevitably meant picking a side.
And soon, there were no consorts at all. Pearl drove off the ones who survived, her rage indistinguishable from her despair.
River was too stupid and blind and arrogant to realize, when she took him.
He was a symptom, not a consort.
Easier to lash out at other, easier targets. Other people who didn't fit right, in an increasingly small and insular court. Chime, out of place, no longer an Arbora and without any rank among the Aeriat, who still called himself a mentor and didn't even try to fit in. Moon, a solitary dragged in by Stone instead of a normal consort, high strung and cynical, an intimidating combination of ignorant and independent.
Pearl didn't like any of it either, with an intensity that cut deep into soft innards. Change was just a reminder of how futile all her efforts seemed to be. It gave him leeway he shouldn't have had. Every night she'd vent her pent up frustration - to him, on him - and the next day River would go out into the court and repeat what she told him, contemptuous. She kept him close at hand, and he let it go straight to his head. The other warriors reordered themselves according to his favor as a reflection of Pearl's, and he never realized how reluctant they were. How they chafed under him. The way they really looked at him.
He probably should've noticed, the first time he copped an attitude with Stone. Stone just shook his head and turned away, like River was nothing.
At the time, it didn't feel like he was doing anything wrong. He was just saying what everyone thought - voicing what Pearl wished she could - reporting back to her side whenever he thought she needed to hear that Jade's faction was hiding something.
And with every word he slipped into her ear, he made it worse instead of better. Worsened Pearl's temper, aggravated her relationship with Jade. Repeated things that Pearl had told him in confidence, probably with the expectation that he wouldn't pass her secrets on to anyone else. Even when he told himself it was what she wanted, some guilty, small part of him made sure he never did it when Pearl herself was around to hear him.
He was the exact inverse of what a consort should be.
(Now, of course, he's keenly aware of the irony. It's bitterly obvious, in hindsight.)
The Fell influence concentrated Pearl's despair and frustration into a hard knot of sickness inside her - and River stood right next to her all those turns. Maybe it affected him, too. Made all his impulses worse. It certainly crept through the connection the court had to Pearl as a queen, weakening the ties to her heart when they needed each other most.
When the Fell influence ended, it was like a fresh breeze soughing through the mind of the court - clearing their heads, loosening all the problems and bitter grievances that seemed so dire before like an unclogged drainage channel. It didn't happen all at once. In so many ways, it was gradual.
River wasn't ready for the sharp, cold shock, the day that Pearl took Ember. It felt like he'd plunged his head into ice-water. Ember is everything a proper consort should be - everything River railed against Moon for not being - and Pearl falls into a new, relaxed ease that feels horribly right. Balm and Floret and Coil asserted more responsibility as Pearl made it clear in-fighting was no longer going to be tolerated between factions. And again, it felt natural. Inevitable. Drift folded a wing around him, like a consolation.
She didn't look back at River, even once. He can't remember the last time she spoke to him except in passing.
River was the thing that was wrong. He was the one who didn't know his place.
River catches himself lurking in the gathering halls closer to the consorts' level, after a while.
Usually he avoids the area like the plague - Moon doesn't like him, and Ember is painfully, earnestly nice. River can't look at him without feeling sick.
The change earns him a few sideways looks from the Arbora, but River is used to that by now. He played a role in turning the whole court against each other, and he doubts they'll ever let him forget it. It's probably what he deserves. Drift comes with him by default, but when River just grunts in response to his more probing questions, Drift rolls his eyes and goes out to fly and roughhouse with the other young male warriors when he loses interest. Ember's retinue ignores him. Unlike Moon, Ember has actually made an attempt to integrate himself properly.
(They're part of Pearl's retinue, too. But River tries not to think about all that anymore. He ignores them, they politely ignore him, and everything is fine.)
It's not like River knows what he's doing. This - he's not going to get anything out of this. He doesn't want anything out of it, except maybe some small sliver of pride for the court's public image. But it's apparently the task he's assigned himself, for lack of anything better to do with his life. So here he is.
Whenever there's a trading visit or a formal augury or a clutching celebration, River stalks into Moon's bower, grumpily chucks a comb at Chime, and lays out a new outfit. Chime might be willing to let Moon wear whatever clashing color scheme he feels like, but River has standards. Once everything's arranged to his satisfaction, he dodges before either of them can get a word in edgewise. Moon watches him dart in and out of the bower with acrid, wary resignation, like River's a pest that Moon is too lazy to swat away. Which is fine, because it's basically the same look Stone has always given him.
Moon's retinue is eclectic, though, which makes it easier to blend into the background around them when he's out and about in the colony. Balm shoots River wry looks, but otherwise seems content to let it lie whenever he shows up to lean against the nearest column or hang about the same balcony overlooking the central well. Root - quieter now, but still obnoxious - is the only one who flat-out asks River what he's doing; River just ignores him, too. The day he lets Root have any status over him is the day he becomes a solitary. When Drift comes to spend time with him, River can almost pretend he's completely nonchalant about the whole thing.
It's not like he gravitates toward them consciously. It just makes things simpler.
The real stumbling block is obtaining supplies without being painfully obvious about it. River doesn't exactly have an in with any of the senior Arbora artisans, these days, and they're the only ones he trusts to do work of the quality they need to impress other courts. River's got a passingly good eye for gems and settings after they're made - a natural consequence of being raised around young consorts, for however short a time - but he doesn't wear much himself. Plus, a lot of his collection includes pearls, and there are so many reasons why that will never happen.
Moon has enough assorted jewelry to work with in his bower. That doesn't help when they've got to get him ready in a hurry elsewhere in the mountain-tree. Moon broods a lot, even for a consort. Often, he vanishes into some obscure recess of the colony for hours at a time.
There are probably easier ways to do this. Most of them would involve consulting Chime.
"Just - keep track of where he hangs out all the time," River asks Drift, wearily. "Don't let on."
Drift side eyes him. "You are acting so weird. You know that, right?"
River half-heartedly raises his spines and fans out his wings, and Drift goes.
(Branch was always subtler than Drift. More friendly, more likeable than the two of them put together. Drift took it hard - is still taking it hard, years later.)
Thankfully, when River starts sidling around the open gathering hall and makes his first forays into swapping his stash out, people are happy enough to trade with him, even if they don't like him. He gets lucky on his second foray: when she sees the string of turquoise and fresh-water pearls, Bead claps her hands together. "Oh, Wake is out hunting - come back this evening, I'll get out what I have stashed in my bower -" she chatters, and then takes off.
When River awkwardly returns - half certain that it was just Bead trying to get rid of him - the hall is full of Arbora and Aeriat bartering amongst themselves in good cheer. A shimmering rainbow of metal and beads and gems floods the center slab. It's crowded enough that the scrum spills out into multiple corridors leading away from the hall.
Apparently River awakened something. Sometimes, Arbora are terrifying.
Gold isn't there - her masses of curly hair make her easy to track - but her apprentice Merry is, and once River finds a corner of the jam-packed hall to squat in, he keeps an eye out for their mark. He has no idea how the Arbora keep track of it all. For the most part, though, jewelry is just a pretty thing, communal. No one's concerned about assigning value like that in a court - it's more a social gathering than anything, as the Raksura gossip about when and where they remember picking up this piece or that, and about everything else under the sun. Bead slogs through the middle of the fray to reach River, beaming, and spends the rest of the evening conversing and laughing with Blaze to his right. When she asks River something, he grunts in response - he's too overwhelmed just tracking the progress of the pieces he wants as the Arbora pass them around and try them on.
Maybe it's luck again. There's a decent amount of onyx and jet, and more than a few figured pieces that are clearly Gold's intricate work: anklets and coiled bands and ear cuffs in her namesake metal. One by one, they make the rounds of the room and find their way to River without anyone else claiming them. Other artisans have broken out their best work, too, and River slowly accumulates a small pile of miscellaneous rings and chains that drop on the floor occasionally, lost and overlooked in the general melee. There's even a comb carved from dark, smooth wood, the grip carved in the shape of a curving wing in flight. When he tries to pass some of them back into the circuit, Bead just shakes her head, distractedly, and River gives up.
Somehow, he comes out with more than he offered at the start - but that's normal, with so much held in common. Everyone leaves satisfied, some of the Arbora empty-handed and some of the younger crowd draped in enough to make them clink as they climb the well, and River walks out with more than enough to work with.
Once Drift reports back with his observations, a few weeks later, River sets out.
Conveniently, most of the areas in the teachers and mentors' levels of the colony already have hidden caches. One of the perks of the Arbora - once they settle in, they find all the best nooks and crannies. The trick, though, is finding niches that aren't already in common use. River spends the better part of a week crawling around the ceilings and curved corridors, pressing at random divots and panels in the wood of the tree until he finds sections that are split or shaped to hold things. He tucks a few pieces of jewelry in every dusty, ancient cubby he finds. Some are more obvious than others - as he goes along through the gathering halls, he finds more than a few hanging open already when he gets to them. But they've clearly gone unused since the court left the colony-tree generations ages ago.
It gets trickier after he leaves the Arbora-riddled areas, though, and the hidden compartments become fewer and farther between. The nurseries need a decent collection, because Moon has finally caught onto that part of being a consort, and River gets tackled by the entire Sky Copper clutch when he makes the mistake of trying to venture there in daylight.
(Thankfully, the fledgling consorts and queen are still young enough to be bribed with shiny objects.)
As he works his way up through the formal greeting areas he comes across caches that are already full. River recognizes some of it - not because Stone has actually worn any of it in River's entire life, but because when they left the old colony Rill needed four Aeriat to help her carry all the baskets laden with very old, very delicate jewelry, most of it milky moonstones and sunstones and deep azure gems. River gives them a wide, wary berth, and moves on.
Drift puts his foot down when River steps out of their bower window and eyes the canopy high above. The female and older male warriors claimed the inner rooms along the central well for themselves; River doesn't know why they wouldn't want a window to the outer platforms. It's more risky, but the view is better.
"It's too dangerous to go alone!" Drift insists, exasperated.
Of course it is. Which is why Moon goes there and sulks by himself all the damn time, in the highest reaches where the thinning branches are only a few paces wide and you can see clear daylight through the woven crown of the mountain-tree. River hasn't been all the way up since the court first arrived in the Reaches - a trip that might only take a consort or queen a half hour will take longer with a warrior's speed.
"Fine. Come along, if you want," he snaps, with a flick of his spine, and leaps off the edge of the balcony. Cursing, Drift wings after him.
They don't go all the way up - that would be stupid. Instead, River sticks close to the main trunk of the mountain-tree and lands on a branch near enough to the upper canopy that there's a clear view of the sunshine streaming through the cracks. Another branch overlaps a little, forming a protective alcove. It still feels weirdly exposed and bright, compared to the cooler light of the lower colony. Neither of them shift to their groundling form while they're out here; Drift keeps a weather eye out, scanning the small, scattered suspended platforms for signs of predators. River picks a section of bark and starts prying it up with his claws. He's not an Arbora; he can't make it look pretty. It just has to fit a few pieces, for a real emergency.
But even while he's supposed to be on watch, River can feel Drift watching him. The silence is weirdly hesitant, uncharacteristic. River raises his spines, then forces them back down as he hacks a deeper cavity into the wood with his disemboweling claw. The chopping sound is too quiet, compared to the vast, open reaches of the mountainous forest around them.
"You know," Drift says, too quietly, between the beats, "you don't have anything to prove. Not now. You've done so much - more than enough. This - whatever this is, you don't have to make yourself do all this. Especially if they just take it for granted, that's -"
River kicks his claw into the wood hard enough that Drift shuts up.
From the way Drift says it, he knows exactly what this is. What River's doing. How pointless it is, when it's clear how things stand. The humiliation sears through him.
River bites back a reflexive snarl. Drift doesn't deserve that. Then he grimaces as he realizes that he's jammed his disemboweling claw so deep in the wood that it's wedged in there. He yanks his foot free with a hop and a grumble. It's fine. He takes the leather packet he carried up here and unfolds it, letting the jewelry fall out. It's all durable and plain, harder metals and stones that he picked because they're more likely to survive the elements. No one will miss them. Probably. He tamps the bark back down over the hollow, and glances around for some moss to pack around the edges.
When River glances up, an immense shadow hangs over them.
He freezes. For a moment - too long a moment, he stops breathing, perfectly still, as if that'll keep the predator from noticing them. Something this huge - a kethel? - shouldn't have been able to get past Drift. He can sense Drift stiffen behind him a fraction of a second later, as he reacts instinctively to River's alarm.
Then the moment passes, and River recognizes Stone.
The tension leaves him in a rush. Drift's wings sag in ardent relief. Their line-grandfather's shifted form is a consort grown out of recognition, more ominous shadow than substance when you try to make out features, and large enough (and cranky enough) that very few things even in the suspended forest would be willing to cross him.
After a moment, Stone snorts, deep and rumbling, and crawls around the outside of the upper branch so he can take off without clipping either of them. The blowback from the initial beat of his wings ruffles them, regardless. He dips down out of sight, without a sound.
"Can we go home now?" Drift asks, faintly.
River nods. It might have just been Stone, but still. Too close a call for them to stay out here any longer.
That night, River sits bolt upright in a cold sweat in the bower, and has to crawl out to lay beside the warming hearth in a cocoon of blankets to recover. Drift mutters incomprehensibly in his own hanging basket, then drops out in a half-asleep heap. He doesn't even open his eyes all the way as he comes over and flops out beside him, hauling River up so his head rests on Drift's legs. "Wha's wrong?" he mumbles, patting the side of River's face blindly.
"I'm fine," River lies. Line-grandfathers are so rare and infrequent that there's barely any lore on them. They only know a few other courts in the Reaches that have a consort so ancient. Stone is an exception in more ways than one.
And yet River is suddenly, horribly certain that Moon is next. If he doesn't get himself killed, he's going to outlive them all. He already acts like Stone. He skipped straight to doing whatever the hell he wants long before he came to Indigo Cloud. They're going to be stuck with him forever.
The image won't stop haunting River. If this is what mentors deal with all the time, River doesn't want to know.
Drift screws up his face, and sighs. "Okay," he says, skeptically, as he pats River's hair.
It's not fair to Drift. Drift is fiercely, unwaveringly loyal to River. Just like he was to Branch, as he would've been to their consort clutchmates, if they'd only lived. They were fledglings, but something about those two empty spaces in their lives left a brittle mark in Drift. When Branch died - so abruptly, badly, in a way that cast doubt on him that no one deserved- it cracked that part of Drift wide open.
River got angry, because anger is all he has. Drift got scared.
(When it came out that Balm was tricked by the Fell, they picked at her all the harder afterward. Lashed out - unkind, unfair, vindictive - because it wasn't Branch, Branch was more loyal than half the people here, and everyone should have known better.
In hindsight, it makes him cringe.)
Still. It's gotten less raw, over the years. But River is uneasily aware that for a while there, Drift was scared for him. After Pearl dropped him, River thought he'd handled it - fine. As well as anyone could have, really. The reigning queen had a consort again; the natural order of the court was restored. He made himself useful. He volunteered whenever the court had to deal with a crisis, even if it meant swallowing his pride and begging Moon for a place. Over time, the blistering sense of stricken pride, the stinging awareness that everyone in the Indigo Cloud court thought he deserved this, eased.
Raksura aren't meant to be alone. He wasn't. Even when all they had was each other, Drift never left him.
And still, Drift worries.
"You have friends who love you. The past doesn't matter to the others the way you think it does," Drift had insisted. Maybe he'd even believed it. He'd begged, "Just promise me you'll be careful," on the verge of tears, distraught in a way that had crept up on River from behind and hit him unawares. All Drift could see was River going out on the most unsafe, dangerous trips, again and again, risking his life to prove a point to people like Moon and Jade (and maybe, just a little, to Pearl). To Drift, the fact that his clutchmate was being careless with his own life was all that mattered. All he needed to understand.
River hadn't been able to respond to it. Not really. All he could do was promise to come back, every time.
(Sometimes, he wonders if the Fell influence affected him at all. Maybe, at his core, he's just - like this. The kind of person who bullies others around; who lords his advantage over everyone else, given half the chance. Someone contemptuous. Too sharp, too arrogant, too caustic, too quick to anger.
The kind of person that no one in a court of hundreds really wants to be around.)
It's so worth it, the first time River rips open a compartment in the wall of the library and whips a layered bracelet of onyx and malachite around Moon's wrist. Chime nearly goes bug-eyed. River chucks the matching ear cuff at Chime's head to snap him out of it.
Moon snatches it out of the air without batting an eye. Whatever. Point made.
Yet it's mildly disconcerting the next time River opens a cache in a hurry and finds a bundle of fabric neatly knotted around the jewelry. He's distracted as he races to catch up with Moon. He assumes one of the Arbora tossed it in there on a whim. But when he unknots the bundle, it's a sleeveless silk tunic with a flight of Aeriat Raksura embroidered up the side in gold, with a matching sash. Somehow in a panic he and Chime manage to wrestle Moon into it before River fully processes what's happening.
It's. Fine. You can't hide anything from the Arbora.
He'll glance over his shoulder - but the corridor behind him is always empty.
River can't shake the feeling that he's being watched.
"Decided to be useful, huh?" Stone says, cryptically, in the middle of breakfast. River doesn't even know where he came from.
Then Stone shoves River's head with more affectionate force than usual, and ambles out of the gathering hall.
River has no idea what that's about. But the ominous thought that one day Moon might be the next Stone abruptly revisits him, and he's forced to sit with his head between his knees for a minute while a deeply concerned Plum brings him a cup of cold water.
Soon, it's routine.
River forgets to be careful about making a clean exit every time. About remembering where the boundaries need to lie. He can't afford to relax about things like that when he's the only one being sensible of them.
So when he first catches himself slipping, he checks himself with ruthless efficiency. He cuts himself off in the middle of whatever inane conversation they're having, crams it down inside, and leaves before it can get worse. It's not like anyone tries to stop him. For a while afterward he snaps and snarls at even the slightest irritation, to the point where Drift eventually just steers him outside to find a place to brood over nothing.
But over time, River…slips. Relaxes his guard. They're being social, right in his face. He gets drawn in.
He'll start off lingering a few paces away, always at a distance. He can make up an excuse for why he needs to loiter right there, specifically. Then Moon's frowning glance will flicker back at him, or Chime will make a naïve enough comment that River has to inject some reason into the conversation. Or Balm will raise a wry brow and mention him - "River knows all about that, I'm sure" - and a surly River will have to grudgingly contribute, well aware that he's being poked.
When the circle around Moon widens enough that River gets caught in the fringes - that's when it's hardest to remember. The motley inner circle - he's not one of them. He's never going to be. Not when Moon sometimes makes eye contact with him first, a silent appeal for River's opinion on a warrior from Pearl's faction. Or when the Arbora (and Chime) start daisy-chaining a conspiracy out of thin air for fun, and River snorts acerbically, and he hears a matching, almost imperceptible huff of laughter snort from Moon's nose as the Arbora stop conspiring and start accusing River of being no fun -
"How long are you going to keep this up?" Moon says, with an irritable twitch of his shoulder.
River stiffens. He's in the middle of braiding all of Moon's hair back with a red-gold chain - because the visiting court brought their reigning queen and first consort, and Indigo Cloud will have standards - and if he lets go it's all going to come undone. Chime might try to redo it, or he might just get distracted halfway through again.
Chime stares at River, just as frozen. There's a guilty, anxious look on his stupid face. "Moon -" Chime starts to say, nervously.
River starts braiding again. By the time he gets to the end he's yanking too hard, but he can't seem to make it stop. Moon outright growls at him at the last jerk, but then it's over and River can rip away with a snarl in his throat. Then he's gone and away, shooting out the window instead of staying to make sure -
It's stupid. It doesn't matter. No one has ever given a shit about any of it except River.
He's so angry he could choke.
He's not going to be Moon's favorite. Moon already has one. He and Chime have been inseparable since they met. Whatever his faults, no one can argue that Chime adores Moon with every ounce of clumsy enthusiasm in his body.
A fledgling could do that math.
River doesn't care. It's fine. He's not trying to be one. He knows exactly where he stands, finally, and he's not going to mangle it with some stupid attempt to climb into a consort's lap. Look how well queens worked out for him.
It's not like Moon will ever notice, unless someone goes and tells him. Moon can be excruciatingly oblivious to basic facts of court life. Forget the subtle stuff. From the moment Stone brought him home, Moon stalked around acting like he was a first consort already. He was perfectly oblivious as he defused conflicts (through intimidation and confrontation) and brought potential solutions to the queens' attention (such as the Fell poison) and knocked uppity, trouble-making warriors (like River) off their perch when they disrespected the royal Aeriat. And he did it with no context, no prior experience, and no damn clue that both Pearl and Jade were drawn to him like a magnet, with a personality that contradicted everything about how a young, sheltered, delicate consort would normally achieve those goals. A normal consort would never have been able to do it in time to save them all.
It was maddening. Their first consort is as dense as a rock. He doesn't know what it means when a male warrior keeps fussing over him like a lovesick fool.
It can stay that way.
The Aeriat patrolling for the evening are a skeleton crew of reluctant warriors either doing their duty or being punished for roughhousing by missing out on the excitement. The eldest female, Myrrh, eyes River skeptically when he offers to take someone's spot. It's a damp, windy night, and none of the other scouts feel like talking. By the time River lands, the dark, clammy flight has sapped most of the anger and restless energy out of him. River didn't see any sign of the visiting court flying away en masse, so the mountain-tree will probably be alive and teeming with excited activity through the night as the Arbora prepare for the foreign queen and her party to stay. The rest of the patrol shakes the water from their scales and troops in to get something warm to eat from the kitchens, some of them still optimistic that they'll catch a glimpse of the visiting queen and consort.
River skirts around the outside instead. He's not in the mood to catch a glimpse of anyone, or deal with whichever peppy Arbora kept the mulled juice warm in the small greeting room tonight. He sits on the ledge outside his own bower window instead, the occasional shiver running through his scales as he twitches his tail and broods.
Drift finds River, hours later. They have unspoken spots that they go to. The one time River stayed away too long, out of sight on a well-concealed platform, Drift reacted - badly.
Drift steps out. The dark tea cupped in his hands is hot enough that steam is visible in the cooling air. When River reluctantly accepts it and takes a sip, it scalds the back of his throat. "Some of that was to share, you know," Drift says dryly, when River passes it back empty. It's an old joke. Branch always pretended to sound mournful when he said it.
But River can't think of anything to respond with. He just feels - wet. And tired.
"They can't treat you like this," Drift adds, quietly, when River doesn't answer. He's resentful on River's behalf. He shifts and awkwardly wraps his wing around River's far side, hissing as he scrapes the damp bark of the tree.
They don't treat him like anything at all. And that's just fine. The last thing Moon wants is to have River by his side.
It doesn't change anything. River shows up the next day, snappish and irritable, because the visiting court won't go away just because he's in a mood. Since the consort of the foreign court is here as well, Moon has a responsibility as first consort to host him. Thankfully, Ember is good at keeping that side of things running smoothly without making it obvious that he's the one running things. River just has to mash a casual but luxurious outfit into Chime's hands and then slink back out, his shoulders knotted tight with tension as he waits for someone to call him on it. Either for neglecting something that isn't actually his duty, or for overstepping - he's not sure which.
He'd gotten complacent. Hanging around too long, bickering with Chime over jewelry choices while Moon was distracted by the coming social events. Pearl was always the same - grimly bracing herself for the dark ordeal of needing to talk to someone who wasn't family and was too important to be ignored.
River just needs to be curt. To the point.
After that, Drift stays with him. It's easier to brood against a pillar and do other things and not get drawn into the circle of activity around Moon when Drift is there to provide a counterweight. The two of them can awkwardly close ranks and make an exit together whenever a conversation wanders enough to tug on River.
It works, right up until Bramble stalks over to their chosen pillar in the main gathering hall, folds her arms, and dramatically flops back against the column.
River and Drift stare at her pointedly.
Bramble adjusts her shoulders. "I don't get it," she admits at last. "Moon? What's the appeal of brooding dramatically, again? Is it an Aeriat thing?"
River is starting to genuinely wonder if he did something to piss the Arbora off. Apart from the obvious.
Moon glances up at the sound of his name. His resting expression of vague discontent sharpens a fraction when it lands on Drift - somehow, the two of them get along even worse than Moon does with River, and the issue is handled through the time-honored tradition of Moon ignoring Drift's existence whenever possible.
But Moon just says, mildly, "It's something to do."
"That explains nothing at all, because you're not doing anything when you do it," Bramble protests.
Balm rolls her eyes. "Just a male Aeriat thing," she corrects, which just sets off Chime. Somehow both River and Drift get hauled into the now heated debate for their perspective, while Balm escapes the consequences of what she's unleashed with the excuse that Jade needs her. Reluctantly, they both get drawn in.
There's - a non-zero amount of friction. It's not a coincidence that most of Moon's friends among the warriors and the Arbora are those who caught the worst of it from River or welcomed Moon into the court when Pearl was at her lowest point and wanted nothing to do with him. The people who bring problems to Moon's attention (and Jade's by extension) are the ones who felt unheard by Pearl in an unnaturally stratified court. Chime still slings the occasional barb too tart for it not to rile River. But it's mellowed as they adjusted to uneasy truce over the past half-year. It works better when they don't talk. They can communicate solely in headshakes and nods of grim, harried approval, and everyone involved has a less stressful experience.
Drift snaps back. He takes things personally on River's behalf. Even when the banter is lighthearted, River can tell from the way Drift bristles and hisses that he's getting quicker to lash out. Drift has a short temper, and neither of them have ever been good at judging when an insult is real or imagined. Probably because their own insults were always too harsh from the start. Before it can escalate to the point someone bites the others' head off, Moon will stir himself and growl in warning. River catches Drift and reels him back in, because whether you like a consort or not, when one of them growls you damn well listen. It's innate. Moon, in this as in most things, takes after Stone - he's not afraid to knock heads together to persuade warriors to cool off.
But Drift simmers all the same.
"Leave it," River can tell him, wearily, but there's not much he can do to make Drift listen short of a fight. It's just not worth it. River can't always predict what's setting Drift off, either. His temper seems to shift and surge sometimes when no one's saying anything at all. The two of them are the odd hangers-on, here; they don't need to piss everyone off over nothing at all. Not when they've only now stumbled into a social life again.
But that's not true. River knows full well what's setting Drift off constantly. It's just not something he can do anything about.
They fly out to greet the Golden Islanders' ship over the Reaches, Jade leading them, and catch a ride the rest of the way back as Jade and Moon catch up with their odd groundling friends. The Raksura bask in the clear sunlight on the deck, dozing off in warm piles - Jade curled around Moon, Chime with his head pillowed on Moon's hip - and it's the second part that means River spends the trip at the prow of the flying ship, Drift sprawled out at his feet, trying to ignore the way the vibrations from Drift's continuous, rumbling growl travels through the deck.
River doesn't expect or want anything. There's nothing to be jealous over. But it's harder to steel himself against the lure when Drift keeps getting indignant. It just picks at the scab.
Chime rouses as they drop beneath the treeline to approach the colony-tree, and nips Moon's shoulder, and River averts his gaze.
River finds a woven-reed basket on the step that leads out of their bower one evening. He kicks it halfway over by accident, and the cover slides off as he mumbles a curse and hops back. He glares down, vaguely offended, and moves to nudge it out of the way with a foot. Someone probably forgot it there and will come hunting it down in a bit.
Then he squints, and actually looks at the contents. Someone's scrawled a note in brisk script on a scrap of fabric rather than paper. Everything underneath it is in dark, rich colors that River would never wear. [Please take these to Moon!!!] the note reads, when River glares at it harder.
This is deliberate. Someone is rubbing his face in it.
The anger is a genuine gut punch. That cramped, mean part of him wants to just kick the basket down the spiral stairs at the end of the corridor. Whatever the shit else River's done in his life, this isn't fair. His mind leaps furiously to the first candidates he can think of - but this had to involve an Arbora, and Arbora aren't supposed to enable things like -
But whatever. Whatever. River snaps the lid on his temper, just as he jams the lid back on the basket. He's better at that, now. Stiffly, he strides out, not quite trusting himself to shift and cross the central well to reach the consort level. Too many people will still be awake to watch him. He won't give them whatever entertainment they're getting out of this.
Even sticking to the back corridors, however, River catches a giggle from around the corner halfway up. Then a chorus of shushing noises.
He knows if he looks back, he won't see anyone there. Feeling the back of his neck flush with embarrassment, River shifts and launches himself the rest of the way up in the tight confines of the hall.
Seven nights out of ten, a consort stays with their queen. Of course this would be an evening that Moon is in his own room. River barges in, too distracted and humiliated to check first, and there's a shriek and splash as Chime slips and falls right into the cold water bathing pool.
Meanwhile Moon, in one of the hotter pools large enough to accommodate a shifted consort's wingspan, raises all his spines, too still, his arms braced against the edge of the pool and his wings sluicing water as he stares River down. River freezes, pinned in place. Belatedly, around the startled blank in his head, he shifts down to groundling form and stills the growl caught in his chest. His feet feel cold against the wood floor. He's not trying to challenge a consort; he tries not to be that damn stupid anymore.
You're not trying to challenge a consort, his own voice mocks, internally. It's almost enough to goad him into shifting back and making a deliberate mistake to cover something more embarrassing by far.
Chime erupts from the cold water, spluttering. His clothes are sopping wet. Without blinking, Moon twitches his tail and gets Chime with a flick of warm water.
The situation's salvageable. River grits his teeth and lets the basket drop. Not on the shelf, but he just needs to leave now -
Another slosh of water, and there's a large, dark figure rising out of the pool to take a stalking step toward River, and some part of River's mind - stalls.
Not a queen. Obviously. Moon is still a young consort no matter how he acts. But something about the weight of him - the way Moon's step rolls, prowling, with intent, and the way River has to fight not to drop instinctively -
River bolts. Out the window.
Wrong instinct. For the first time, after half a heartbeat of blind panic, River detects the crash of a consort diving after him. Stupid - he probably set off Moon's prey reflex, fleeing like that. Moon weaves through the overgrowth; at a consort's speed he's going to overtake River before he makes it halfway to the nearest solid cover. The longer the chase, the more advantage a consort has over a warrior.
River hits the nearest balcony hard and lunges through the open archway midshift. In his peripheral, he sees Moon hit the top of the nearest branch fast enough that it would've flattened River, and reposition himself to lunge after River.
It's one of the rooms claimed by the Arbora for weaving. Mostly because the room looks like it was grown for the purpose when the colony was originally inhabited, with benches and hooks arranged in such a way that suited the looms perfectly. No less than three Arbora startle and shift as they jump back from their work. River darts between them. Anyone with an entry looking outside the mountain-tree tends to be on alert, and they tense in the expectation that there's some predator soon to follow. Before they can realize their mistake and realize there's just a feral consort on his tail, River skids to a stop behind a finished length of sea green cloth and ducks down.
He wishes he could blame it on Moon being raised a feral solitary, isolated and alone. But no. The problem here is River. Why the shit is he running?
In any normal court - in any court - a warrior wouldn't be running from a queen or consort unless something was deeply wrong. Tension and arguments and scuffles are part of life, especially among the Aeriat, but in the end, Arbora and Aeriat alike always know and trust that their queens and consorts are there to fall back on - the first and last line of protection, strong and beautiful and fierce, the ones who will protect their court to the bitter end. Raksura who would prey on others in the court, in whatever way that means, don't tend to last long. The Arbora won't tolerate it, from anyone. Solitaries are like that for a reason.
Yet his heart won't stop hammering in his vulnerable groundling chest, and when the fabric all billows and the natural light through the window dims sharply, blocked by Moon in the archway, all River can think - bitterly - is that there really is something wrong with him. Already the nearest Arbora - Weave - is glancing down at River now that she realizes who he was running from, her expression startled and uncertain. She's still crouched, ready to spring at need.
"Moon? What's wrong?" Blossom asks, carefully; when she shifts back to groundling, the other Arbora automatically follow her lead.
It doesn't matter that River's out of sight, when he's bleeding fear-scent like this. Everyone in the room damn well knows where he is.
But after a moment, Moon says, "Nothing."
The faint pad of feet on wood - then a crack of wings, as Moon takes off again. In the distance, River can make out the sound of Chime yelling as he struggles to catch up.
He can't afford to sit here. He's sick of suspecting that the entire court is entertained by this. Weave edges toward him, her hand reaching uncertainly for his shoulder, and River shoves away from the counter to escape the room.
The shushing sounds too familiar, as it follows him through the well.
It takes too long to reach his bower. The noises come out as snarls while he's in his winged form; when he finally gets there, he's sobbing, and that just pisses him off more.
In the morning, there's another basket on the step. The same weave and make as the first.
Drift retrieves it and slides the lid open by the hearth bowl. River squints down from his hanging bed, when what he really wants to do is shred the basket into a hundred furious pieces without looking. It doesn't matter what's in it.
A muscle twitches in Drift's face. River can read him too well. "What," he snaps, dully.
"That berry bread you like," Drift says, with the kind of grimace you'd wear looking at a rotten, Fell-tainted carcass, "and some baked apples." Then, like it comes out against his will - "And a note."
Probably the same unfamiliar handwriting, too. "Well?"
"'Feel better soon,'" Drift reports. He turns the paper over in his hands, grimaces, and crumples it up.
He was never afraid of Pearl. Not once.
Nervous at first, maybe, but that got quickly overridden by his own swollen pride at the honor. She'd cover him, blocking out the rest of the world as she pressed him down and bit his neck, and River clung to her until he couldn't breathe.
She'd hold him absently, after, her voice soft as night as she murmured her worries and frustrations and fears. Maybe to River. Maybe just to herself, River a wrung-out, forgotten afterthought cradled in her arms. Other nights she'd send him out with a hiss if he tried to push it, so she could dwell on her darker thoughts in private.
Pearl was bitter and heartsick. He was a fool if he thought he was helping her. There was something toxic in the court, and he was part of it.
Now, no matter how he comes at it, River doesn't trust himself. That paranoia, that fear that the oldest and most respected elders of Indigo Cloud were turning on Pearl because they didn't trust her anymore, watching her every move, spying on her - he fed that, didn't he? He's doing it again, right now. Assuming the worst. Mistrusting the rest of the court.
Give him an inch, he thinks, and he'll just keep taking.
Maybe they're still mocking him. Maybe it's a consolation prize, now that River's proven just how much of a wreck he is, these days. If he's lucky, that little debacle was Moon's way of chasing him out once and for all. Show's over.
He wants to squash the bread under his heel. But it is his favorite, and for some reason the thought of smashing good bread in a tantrum makes him feel disgustingly weepy again. Possibly because, as Drift points out, River hasn't ventured out to eat meat in a day and a half, and Raksura get irrationally upset and overwrought when they do that.
It's soft, and tart and sweet, and it makes him cry anyway, which is the last straw. He stops wallowing and storms out in a dark cloud of fury, accompanied by Drift, and eats the first raw kill one of the hunters lets him have so fast that they all stare at him in faint alarm.
Only Bramble seems unfazed. She dumps another fresh hopper in front of him and perches on the table to watch him eat, critical. She blatantly ignores Drift's glare. Inspired by her daring, Salt and Spice keep peering out from behind her shoulder.
"Done brooding yet?" Bramble asks, not unsympathetically. When River snarls, she shrugs. "I'm just saying! Balm said Jade's not touching this one with a ten foot pole, so you guys better sort things out soon."
That's fair. Maybe he was just waiting for that, too - a tacit hint that soon, someone like a queen might put her foot down and just flat out order him to stop.
River can simplify things for everyone.
It's not like there's a shortage of things to do, to keep him occupied. Indigo Cloud is a growing colony, and there are always scouting patrols to fly, Arbora hunting parties to escort, some unending project to do with drains and roots out on the more unstable suspended platforms that are safer if someone who can fly is there to provide a safety net. All things warriors participate in, as part of the community. Maybe just not so many in such a small span of time. By the time they stagger back in each evening, Drift is already ready to drop straight into the afternoon nap they've pushed off and roll that right into sleep.
It's more dedication than they ever used to show at the old colony. So long as they do their duty, it doesn't matter to Myrrh how standoffish they act. No one can complain about River's instincts on how to chase off a predator.
He makes it two weeks without any unfortunate encounters. The bitter upside to being too familiar with Moon's usual routine and territory - River knows exactly how to avoid him. When in doubt, Drift goes ahead to check that the coast is clear.
There are a few odd near misses, though. Like that one time River gets roped into helping Merit and Thistle measure the ceiling space of an unused library hall to see if it's good for a new mosaic, and a sudden avalanche of Arbora and Aeriat pour through the entry for a story-telling session, with Chime tugging Moon in the middle of the swarm. River had to spend the next fifteen minutes pretending to have deep, heretofore unmentioned opinions about how the mosaic will look, staring directly up at the ceiling with grim determination, before Merit declares that they're going to listen as well and River has a chance to slink out of the too-crowded room. Or the numerous times that he assumes it's safe to cross the main gathering hall, only to almost ram right into Root as that entire group spills out over the balcony.
And some idiot keeps leaving jewelry on his step. When River ignores it, they get creative - he starts finding bracelets by the hearth bowl and rings stacked in a tiny pyramid on the floor under his bed. They're clearly consort quality, the same kind of style River traded for. When the amount of spare jewelry left in a heap by the bowl starts to get ridiculous, River gathers it all up and angrily stuffs it into the nearest cache until the compartment can barely shut. Chime knows where at least half of them are now - if Chime can't figure out how to dress Moon without River's help by now, they're beyond hope.
But two weeks in, there's an anticipated visit from another court. Now that Pearl trusts Jade to handle a sister queen's duties, she's more inclined to let alliances and trade happen rather than trying to chase everyone off in search of self-destructive peace and quiet. They want to be on good terms with other courts.
In anticipation of it, River tracks Myrrh down and offers to fly escort for the Arbora hunters going out to take fresh kills right before the visit. He won't be able to succumb to the instinctive itch to go help if he's not here. Myrrh arches a brow and says, "It's up to Bone." Bone won't care.
Except that the day arrives and when River reaches the hunters' usual platform, Myrrh shakes her head. "You just missed them," she says. "Plum wanted to get an early start."
For River not to have caught on, they'd had to have left when it was still dark out. There's still ages before the other court is expected to arrive.
Then someone glides down. If the reflective blue wasn't a dead giveaway, only Chime lands that badly. "You!" he exclaims, panting. "There you are! We need your help!"
The timing is obvious. Also, Chime is a terrible actor. River growls - and caves.
Chime babbles a lot of nonsense on the way up, all of it incoherent when you actually pay attention. "What am I doing here, again?" River interrupts at last, feeling deeply put-upon, when they flit in through the window. Moon is standing under the stream of running water in the shallow end of the pools, and there's no rush here. At this rate, they have hours to get him ready. Moon will just wind up pacing awkwardly in his good clothes for ages while they wait for the other court to show up.
"Hair!" Chime chirps. He's pretending to be deeply engrossed in digging through a clothes basket, which means River will need to vet everything he chooses. River's learned that lesson the hard way. If they were doing this efficiently - the way they've been doing it - the roles would be swapped.
It's fine. Except that it's not. At the sound of River's voice, Moon twitches, and he still hasn't turned around. River casts a skeptical glance back out the window.
But whatever. He'll do this and get out, and figure out a less obvious way to be absent next time. He scoops up the sliver of good soap from the bowl and stalks around until he has no choice but to step into shallow water to reach Moon.
Normally, Moon complains about this because he thinks it's fine to show up to greetings with hair that hasn't been combed in a week. But the second River reaches up Moon twitches again. "Chime," Moon says, sharply, with just a faint edge of a consort's growl in his voice. River stops dead. But it wasn't a request for Chime instead of him; it was a warning.
Chime ignores it the way only an Arbora should be able to. It's the little things like that that make Chime so…frustrating. The Aeriat instincts he never picked up, the stubborn Arbora instincts he never shed. It makes him come off as impertinent or oblivious, even when he's not, and Moon doesn't care. "Uh huh?" he replies, clearly pretending to be distracted on purpose.
"Leave it. He doesn't have to be here if he doesn't want to be," Moon says. He still hasn't turned away from the stream of water to look at either of them. He sounds resigned, like it's an argument that has come up before and Chime blew it off then, too. River can't see how.
Chime throws up his arms as he turns, awkwardly waddling around on his knees. "Do you want to help or not?" he demands, directing his scowl at River as though he's the problem.
What River wants is for this conversation to not be happening right in front of him, where he has to be embarrassed by proxy. He avoids eye contact with Chime and starts scrubbing Moon's hair in a fit of desperation. He tries to keep his face locked in a sour scowl. Moon tosses his head once, irritably, then subsides.
"There, see?" Chime announces, like he's won, and goes back to picking through Moon's long silk jackets.
Maybe now it actually will be fine.
River finishes Moon's hair automatically. But because they have time he also drags out the tub of scale balm on autopilot, and Moon shifts with another resigned flick of his spines. The balm melts into grainy oil in Raksuran body heat, and River works it into most of Moon's shoulder scales and the leading edge of his wings, smoothing and scraping away any excess, before Moon shifts his weight with a content, drowsy rumble low in his chest.
Unthinkingly, River leans in and nips the curve of Moon's shoulder in response.
Because River is an idiot.
Moon growls, rousing, and rolls over, all lean muscle and black-bronze scales as he leans in over River, his green eyes dark. One clawed hand lands on the ground by River's hip, flexing restlessly -
River yanks away. He stumbles over his own feet as he whips around, face on fire. He needs to be - not here, not burning, not weak. "Hurry up, Chime!" he says, voice hoarse, and he makes it angry because it's easier to channel the energy into impatience. Chime jolts as River blows past him, startled. River yanks open one of the new wooden cases full of jewelry and grabs - anything. Gold, Chime laid out the midnight black jacket with gold trim and dark pants, it'll work fine -
He's not being chased away. Which is terrifying. Things were easier when he and Moon hated each other. Before River wound up in a suddenly too-small bower with an interested consort watching him panic over something so stupid, the force of his stare intent on River's back.
Except when River shoves the case closed and turns around, Moon isn't looking at him at all. He's over by Chime, fully engrossed in tugging on his tunic in a way guaranteed to wrinkle it. It gets a little more obvious when Moon reaches behind him, groping blindly for the long jacket for a full five seconds before Chime gives up and passes it to him.
Then Chime cracks.
"Ugh! You're two of the most emotionally constipated people I've ever met!" he yells, making both River and Moon jump. Chime jabs a finger at River, and River bares his teeth instinctively in a snarl. "Do you want to be here or not?!"
"Chime, stop," Moon says. It could be a growl, or his voice could just be rough. He still won't look at River. River's not sure if that helps or not.
"This is silly, though!" Chime protests.
That's unfair. River feels too many things; that's the whole damn problem. "You're already here!" he retorts, accusingly, and immediately cringes at how it comes out.
Moon bristles. Chime rocks back on his heels, taken aback. "What, that's the problem now? Your problem is with me?" he says, incredulously.
Chime should have a problem with River. That's not the point. River gestures uselessly. "No! It's - you're here!" he repeats angrily. Chime can be as weird as he wants to be - River is the one who's superfluous, who's shitting toxic. All these two would accomplish by letting him worm his way into this is -
River lets his hands drop. He's shaking with the strain it takes not to fly apart at the seams. He closed his hand on an earring, and there's a pinprick of pain in the center of his palm. "Forget it. This is stupid. You can figure it out on your own. You don't need me here," he says, wrestling the emotion out of his voice. It probably doesn't work when his face still feels flushed.
Chime holds up a hand. "Wait a minute," he says, slowly, something dawning in his expression. Something River doesn't like. A mentor's kind of realization. "When's the last time you had sex with anyone? Other than Pearl, because we all know when that stopped -"
Maybe the last rambling comment is deliberately aimed to provoke River into snapping back. It works. "I don't know - maybe right around the time I started sleeping with Pearl and alienated everyone in the colony and made a complete ass of myself?" River replies, tightly.
Chime looks horrified. "But that was years ago!"
Moon has the expression of someone doing the math in his head, and who is vaguely uncomfortable with the number he's getting.
River can't take it anymore. "I am not having this conversation with you," he mutters, unable to look at either of them. There's a difference between pity and pity.
He walks out through the door for once, and no one stops him. Balm, Floret, Merit, Bramble, Vine, and Root are all on cushions in the sitting area connected to the consorts' bowers, and the assortment of half-drunk and finished tea cups just makes it more obvious that literally everyone River knows is in on this. Merit looks guilty at being caught in the open. There's another cup, too, by a recently vacated cushion.
He's less sure than he was a minute ago that that's necessarily a bad thing. But still. Root opens his mouth. River growls to head him off, and stalks past the rest of the group before they can pull rank - or worse, in the case of the Arbora, try to pull something entirely too reasonable.
Once, River mocked Moon, informing him scornfully that the only reason Jade had taken him was because Moon was the first adult consort she'd seen that she wasn't related to, ever, in her life.
Ha. Guess what.
Honestly, he's never gonna live this one down.
Balm sits down beside him mid-morning, the next day.
As a general rule, River and Balm don't mix. He thinks they've mastered the art of politely ignoring each other, which causes fewer arguments than aggressively ignoring each other did. Whenever Jade and Moon go off on one of their adventures, Balm is always her first choice and right hand; they can't exactly avoid each other. The boundaries between Pearl's and Jade's factions have blurred to the point that even if River were still Pearl's Balm probably couldn't complain about him. Any animosity lingering between them has mostly faded, over the turns. Neither of them wants to see the other eaten by a predator, and that's good enough.
In warrior form, her scales are the same vivid gold as Pearl's, without the web of a queen. A glimpse of it in his peripheral always makes him jerk to attention. As she lands and folds up her wings to sit, one leg folded and one hanging over the edge of the platform, River tries to dredge up the willpower to not sound tetchy. She'll only think he's copping an attitude.
"Really don't want to talk about it right now," is the best he can manage. He sounds exhausted and strained, which is a step up from surly.
"That's fine. I'm not really here to talk," Balm says, with a dismissive flick of her spines. She inspects her claws instead, apparently content to sit here openly while River mopes.
After about a half hour, Balm finally tips her head back, leans back on her palms, and sighs. "Jade's official word is that she still doesn't consider this any of her business." Balm rolls her head to look directly at him. "You don't want her to consider this her business, River."
"Good talk," River says, rubbing his face. He can only imagine how a queen like Jade might decide to resolve an issue like this. Queens tend to be…alarmingly direct. If all this has been the result of a mixed group of Arbora and Aeriat trying to help, in the typical convoluted way Arbora get without direction, it could escalate exponentially.
And it's increasingly obvious that the only one who realizes this might be a terrible idea is River himself.
"No problem," Balm says, with a sunny smile. She playfully nudges him with her shoulder, hard enough to make him sway. "We're rooting for you, whether you like it or not."
Then she takes off, leaving River to his surly thoughts.
In the end, he supposes it's an easy choice to make. He's sick of working himself up over nothing.
If Chime doesn't mind and Moon doesn't mind and the entire damn court doesn't mind, then River is the one making this harder than it needs to be.
Of course, once River makes up his damn mind, he has another three days to work himself up into a panic over it, while he waits for the visiting envoys to leave. He can handle helping Chime get Moon ready in the mornings, but there's no further opportunity when Moon spends the nights in Jade's bower. It leaves him plenty of time to lose his nerve, get angry at himself, and finish the cycle by pacing around their bower while a beleaguered Drift begs him to go to sleep.
"Huh, you're wearing that shirt again?" Chime asks. He bites his lip with a dubious, reluctant look. "Okay, that's fine -"
To his credit, at least he thinks to ask nowadays. "Stop enabling him!" River hisses, grappling Moon until he finally gives up the damn shirt.
"I will never wear all this," Moon comments. He squints at the pile as River and Chime frantically sort through it for the matching sleeve. He looks deeply skeptical. "Why do I need this much jewelry, again?"
"Ha," River says. "You think jewelry is just for wearing."
"Stone hoarded his for fun," Chime agrees, distracted. "He hadn't worn any for generations. If you ever feel the overwhelming, instinctive drive to start concealing shiny things around the colony, let us know, I'm sure we can find a few spots River hasn't taken over yet -"
"Haha," River repeats, sourly.
The final day, after the queens see the visitors off, River runs out of excuses. Jade's out with Balm and an escort and will probably stay out, stretching her wings for the first time in ages.
He starts up the winding, sloped back corridor up to the consorts' level. It's clear - not an Arbora in sight, which is suspiciously normal these days. He doesn't feel like he's being watched -
River stops and turns his head to look back the way he came.
The walls and ceiling of the corridor are swarming with Arbora. At least fifteen of them. All hushing each other.
They frantically scramble back around the curve when they realize he's looking back at them. From the sound of it, there are others just out of sight.
River is going to just…pretend he didn't see that. Swallowing hard, he faces forward and starts walking again.
He falters a step when he reaches Moon's bower and realizes Chime's not there yet. There's no rush or anything after visitors leave. But on the scattered occasions when River bothered to come up here and help after a longer day, Chime has always been a fixture.
Instead, Moon's alone. It takes River a second to even place him. There's a dark, inky shadow under the surface of the water in the wider hot water pool that he almost skims past.
River should wait for permission before venturing in any further, but he stomped all over that bit of etiquette from the first day he barged in here. While Moon lingers under the surface way longer than seems normal in his shifted form, steam rising faintly off the surface of the pool, River picks the simple soap and oil and scraper and a fresh towel out of their basket, in case, and then goes to crouch by the side of the pool.
It's not brooding. Bramble's definition of brooding is way too broad. But he must zone out for too long, because a clawed hand wraps around his ankle and yanks him into the water. River splutters and manages not to shift on impulse - the pool is built for it, but that's a good way to injure a wing. He lashes out through the water and catches nothing. When he surfaces, fuming, Moon is on the far side of the pool.
River shifts with a huff; the temperature feels better on scales. Grumbling, he sits down on the low step so most of his spines are submerged and tries not to look mutinous. He's not plotting how to dunk Moon. Clearly.
When it becomes obvious that neither of them is going to say anything, River flexes his claws under the water, watching the blue undersheen of his green scales ripple in the late afternoon light.
Chime is right. This is silly. But it takes two people to not say a word to one another, and River's not gonna crack first.
When Moon speaks, it comes out nowhere. "If you don't want to be here, I'm not asking you," Moon says. The low, rasping edge of a consort's growl rumbles under his voice, which is distracting when River can't figure out if it's an indication of anger or something else.
River should probably know better by now. It's anger. "I don't always understand how courts and roles work," Moon goes on, weirdly deliberate and so inexplicably bitter, "but there is no obligation. Not to me. There never will be. I won't take advantage. I know what that's like."
Then, without warning, Moon crawls over the stone barrier between this pool and the next and slithers in headfirst, his tail vanishing last as water sloshes over the side.
Sometimes, the way Moon thinks is so alien. He spent thirty-five turns moving from one groundling community to the next, and a good number of them had the most bizarre ideas about sex. It takes River a solid thirty seconds to parse - what it is that he's implying, about Indigo Cloud, about Raksura, about River's apparent willingness to be here.
I know what that's like - shitting hell. The snarl comes unbidden to River's throat, his whole body bristling and claws unsheathing with the urge to tear something apart, because that's what you do - what anyone in the court would do - when someone hurts or touches a consort like that without consent. Touches anyone.
He suddenly has a lot more sympathy for Jade and Chime. Everything about the way Moon came to Indigo Cloud made this a mess. Even when he's making horrific, sweeping assumptions about Raksura as a species, he does it with terribly straightforward, clear-cut reasons. They made an embarrassing first impression. The implications are distressing.
When Moon finally surfaces on the other side, his wings partly furled as he drifts with his face still mostly underwater, River swims over to the barrier with a kick of his feet. "This is why you're a terrible consort. You don't know anything. A good court would never work like that," he informs Moon, pointedly.
Maybe they're still not a good court. But they're better than they were. Definitely, in any reasonable person's opinion, better than Emerald Twilight.
Moon rises up and meets River at the barrier. Even when he keeps his head level with River's, instead of looming, River's mouth goes dry. "Then do you want this or not?" Moon demands, with a trace of frustration.
"Yes!" River snarls back, absolutely incensed by this point, and Moon spills back over the barrier in a wave of scales and wings to bury him.
Moon is dizzyingly warm, and it's too much in exactly the way that undoes River. Not the same as Pearl - it can't be, nothing is as overwhelming as that. But Moon watches him too closely, intent in a way that belies how careful he is about where he's putting his hands. Consorts pay too much attention. It feels mortifyingly like being seen, being known, and it makes River feel like he's drowning and exposed at the same time. Skin shouldn't feel like a shock. Not to this extent. River nips Moon's neck in an attempt to distract himself, but each breath is a gasp, and Moon nuzzles him instead of biting back.
He wants to blame it on how long it's been. This is embarrassing.
"Finally!" bursts out of Chime, to announce his return. "Oh, wait. Should I go, or -"
Moon pulls back, pushing up on his forearms. The part where they shifted back and where Moon pressed him down against the dry wood floor beside the pools is a little…fluid. River missed it completely. "No, come here," Moon says, resignedly. "I think I'm doing something wrong."
"Right, right, coming, sorry -" Chime babbles, before River can process that. As far as River is concerned this is fine, whatever. But Chime bustles over to kneel beside them with a look of deep concentration, and when he leans over and pushes River's hair out of his face River realizes his cheeks feel sticky. "Here, let me see -"
"It's fine," River says, hoarsely. He turns his head toward the touch, reflexively, and Chime smooths River's hair back for him again, his hands coming to rest gently against his face and neck. "Just happens sometimes. Doesn't matter." It's true, and it doesn't matter, but of course it would happen now.
Chime exchanges a glance with Moon. They both look reluctant - Chime in a worried way, Moon in a long-suffering way.
River pushes up on an elbow, pissed off, and wraps himself back around Moon with intent. Chime doesn't participate, but he stays. He supports River's head gingerly in his lap while River clings to him, his cool knuckles stroking down River's neck with care. At one point he tries to angle River's head back to get a better look at his face; River takes a snap at his fingers, and Chime avoids his teeth with a roll of his eyes and a ruffle of his hair.
"He's fine," Chime reports, afterward. It took Moon very little effort to haul both of them up into the wide hanging basket, even considering the fact that Chime was coherent enough to pull himself up. "It was just a lot. Honestly, the two of you deserve each other. You brood like no one else I know. I'm glad I'm a nice, rational mentor -"
That's too much. Moon rumbles ominously and pounces on Chime to exact revenge, which appears to have been Chime's end goal. River rolls over and helps.
They curl up in a pile and doze off, warm and content and comfortable, and apparently this is the part that River can't handle.
Now, he thinks, one hand loose on his stomach as he slowly tenses. Pearl would start talking now -
But they don't.
The anxiety won't stop. He catches himself drumming his fingers. Too close, too similar.
He slips out. Which is a challenge, somehow. He maneuvers over Chime and drops off the side harder than he means to, with a thud. He keeps going, knowing that at least woke Moon up, if not Chime, and doesn't look back.
If he looks and Moon asks him to stay, he'll go right back. The thought of staying there, Moon and Chime cuddled close - he can't deal with that right now.
If he paid attention, he'd probably be able to hear the soft sounds around him in the bowers - people together, two or three or four to a hanging bed, snoring gently, because for Raksura that's normal. None of them have any trouble with close quarters and dozy piles.
Something's just wrong with him.
It's late enough that no one's in the bathing room down in the warriors' level. River sinks into the cold water, feeling weirdly over-sensitized, and then creeps the rest of the way to their bower. He's not under any illusion that he sneaks out unnoticed - but the Arbora probably don't know what to make of this yet.
Drift can still scent it when he gets back to the room. Maybe not Chime, after the dunk in the pool, but consorts are fairly distinctive. He must've tried to wait up for River; his mumble is only a little sleep-dazed. "Are you and Moon still being dumb?" Drift asks, sleepily, as River jumps and slings himself into his basket. Then Drift tenses, inhaling. "They didn't let you stay with them? They can't use you like that," he hisses.
"Didn't want to stay," River replies, stiffly. "Just - it's fine, Drift."
That doesn't quite cut off Drift's muttering, sullen growl. But he goes quiet enough that River is able to arrange himself until he's exhausted enough to feel at ease.
It's more than just the proximity of bodies, after so long isolated and alone. That would have felt nice. But if River's not there, he figures, he can't ruin it by opening his mouth.
He thinks he hears a faint thmp as he falls asleep. But he can't quite stir himself as Drift goes to do - whatever.
When River wakes up, Drift is passed out in his bower, one arm hanging limp over the side. Even when River slaps his palm to wake him up, Drift just groans and rolls over to bury himself in the bedding again. River shrugs - and almost steps right into the small pile of baskets and bundles outside their bower.
He nudges the top basket open with deep trepidation. There's a wide length of cloth on top of a puffy cinnamon pastry. [Congratulations[?]] someone has written, with the question mark hastily tacked on top with another scrap of fabric. Another is full of soft shirts and linens in colors that River has liked probably since he was three turns old.
They've been here, all along - the Arbora. Marshalling their forces, conspiring against him out of the bone-deep Raksuran need to meddle. Though they'd probably call it helping. It would be heartening - touching, even - if River wasn't at his wit's end.
Right. River needs to get out of the colony-tree. Just for a day.
He stops by the smaller kitchen to grab something. At once, Blossom prods Chime in the shoulder to wake him up. He's apparently fallen asleep slumped over breakfast. "M'awake," Chime protests. When he sees River he points an accusing finger. "You! When did you leave?! Where did you go?"
"To sleep," River replies.
This response leaves Chime speechless. It lasts long enough that River escapes without anyone collaring him. He bounds out of one of the nearest balconies, and soars down to find a scouting group of young warrior males too dumb to question why he's there.
When he gets back at midday, Drift is trying to pick a fight with Chime.
Which is excellent. Fantastic. A very good way to make a sister queen think this is officially her business. River doesn't need a heart attack like this right now.
Thankfully, Drift still has the self-control to pull this stunt in Chime's bower. Which is about as private as a meltdown like this can get. But by the time River walks back in word must already be spreading through the court like wildfire - Bramble launches herself from one of the climbing wells to intercept River the moment he sets foot in the tree and seizes him by the collar flange. She yanks him into a sprint. "Your clutchmate is trying to pick a fight with Chime. Make them stop!" she hisses, tugging River around each corridor leading to Chime's bower, giving him no room to hesitate or stumble or ask questions.
He can hear the distant, muffled sounds of Drift and Chime's voices as they round the last winding corner. Bramble flings him through Chime's curtain of beads without waiting for a response.
"If he doesn't want to stay, we're not going to make him!" Chime insists, impatiently. Possibly because it sounds like the two of them are arguing about two completely different things.
"He doesn't deserve to be neglected -" Drift fires back, lunging. Chime bounces clumsily out of the way. "- just because he made mistakes in the past!"
Chime throws up his arms in exasperation. Which opens him up long enough for Drift to tackle him around the waist.
River wades into it before either of them (but mostly Drift) can do anything stupider. He hauls Drift away from Chime in a headlock. "Drift, calm down!" he exclaims, when Drift just keeps squirming.
But there's something weird about the whole setup. Something…
Chime straightens up, scratching the back of his head vigorously, like Drift isn't trying to decapitate him still from three paces away. He glances at the window instead, which looks out at the well and the knothole a few levels above. "Oh, good, you're here," he says distractedly. "Now we just need -"
Moon lands on the balcony.
He takes one stern, deeply annoyed look at all of them, grabs River, and takes off again in a clap of wings.
River personally thinks this is unfair. Drift clearly should have been the one stolen for a stern lecture from the first consort. Stone's always go something like I'm not mad at you, just disappointed - and also reproducing was absolutely a mistake on my part. Just communicated solely in a look and a grunt.
Speaking of Stone. River is getting that sinking feeling again as Moon wings up to one of the disused platforms high about the colony, where the mountain-tree's natural branches start to form the crown, and dumps River on the mossy, overgrown turf as he comes in for a landing.
"Pulled a leaf out of Stone's book?" River asks, warily, as he picks himself up. When Moon just shoots him another impatient look, River clarifies. "This. Hauling me off to some random branch for a scolding. A real Stone move."
Moon snorts. "Tell that to Malachite," he says.
Yes, everyone already knows that Moon takes after both Stone and his birth-queen. Yes, that's still terrifying to contemplate. River steels himself. "I'll talk to Drift. I didn't ask him to do that. It's my fault. He's just worried over nothing."
There. A vague explanation taking responsibility for the dumb mess, and a plan of action. Done. River's gotten very good at to-the-point apologies ever since he lost the ability to ignore the consequences of his actions. Moon can take that back to Jade, and Balm won't have to show up at River and Drift's bower a week from now with a new ultimatum.
"No point. He and Chime have been strategizing for weeks," Moon says, grimly, as he starts to pace. "The Arbora got to them."
…River is going to strangle someone.
Before that, he's going to sit down. The noise coming out of his mouth must not be normal, because Moon is eyeing him like he can't decide how to make it stop. So River shuts up. "How did you find out?" he asks, sighing.
"Chime can't actually keep a secret." Moon prowls another circuit of the platform as he shoots River an impatient look. "Just spit out what's wrong. Before it gets worse."
On the one hand, River can't think how the court could possibly escalate this ridiculous nonsense any further. On the other hand, Moon is absolutely right. Raw Arbora energy can't be contained. Even a queen can only channel it. As their hopeless first consort, Moon can only knock so much sense into them. River doesn't stand a chance.
River sighs again. "I can't be a favorite," he says. That makes no impact on Moon, because Moon doesn't have a clue. With a growl of frustration, River elaborates. "I'm…I don't trust myself. With that kind of influence. Just look at how I shitting well acted around Pearl. I'm not good for the court if I start doing that again."
Just thinking about it makes River feel sick. Most days he can't look people like Pearl or Bone in the eye.
"What, acting like a bitter, cynical bastard?" Moon says, dryly. When River glares, he shrugs. "You do. You are. You say exactly what you think, the same as Root. Just more bitter."
River is too stunned to remember to be grim. "Did you just compare me to Root?"
Moon ignores him. "Any paranoid, unreasonable thing you've thought, assuming the worst about people? I've thought worse. Sometimes it's good to know I'm not the only one thinking it." He pauses. "And before, most of the things you said were about me being a terrible consort, anyway. I'm used to ignoring it when you say something stupid. You're better about it, these days."
"That's because you are a terrible consort," River mumbles, belatedly. It's almost light-hearted. It just comes out wrong. He winces. "Joke."
"And your advice can't be any more lousy than Stone's," Moon finishes, ignoring him. "So."
From him, that's almost an inspirational speech. Between Pearl and Moon and Stone, the court's standards for it are very low.
More importantly, something huge rumbles an unamused warning, directly overhead. Before River finishes flinching, Stone has detached himself from the side of the branch over them and dropped away.
It helps more when River has to crawl out of the hanging bed again, skin crawling with anxiety. Instead of walking out, he climbs into the coldest pool in Moon's bower and sits there until he starts shivering, and the cramped knot of self-loathing and anger in his chest feels less important than crawling back into the warmth and falling asleep. "Why have you done this?" Chime mumbles, mournfully, as River struggles to get over his knees. He stuffs a blanket on top of River's damp hair, grumbling about lung sickness, and only subsides when Moon rolls over on top of both of them and tells them to go the hell to sleep.
Moon is more likely to ask River's opinion silently, with eye contact or a quiet tilt of his head, during the day. He accepts River's input, even if sometimes it's with a deeply ironic, stoic mask.
It's been like that for a while.
So maybe River is doing better than he thinks.
"Finally!" Drift yells, a primal shriek of relief, when River walks into the gathering hall the next morning.
It is blatantly obvious that he's spent way too much time around Chime, and needs to be taught a lesson.
River wrestles his clutchmate into another headlock before Drift confesses. That's just life.
It isn't until a few weeks later that River fits the last piece into place.
To be fair, he stopped looking. He assumed everything was okay now. The court is settling down, and he can finally go five steps without a silent mob of Arbora hunters tailing him through the colony. Chime is hopeless, River is too curt, and between the two of them Moon doesn't have a normal favorite between him.
Life is good.
"…How long has that old groundling been here," River asks, squinting. They're all out relaxing, today - Jade is here, and Balm, and River has done everything in his power to radiate virtuous relaxation and calm. Which mostly equates to River sitting on Drift - unnecessarily, Drift complains - and gazing out through the suspended forest.
But there's also the groundling, golden and soft and elderly in that odd way groundlings get. Delin-something. River can't believe he missed that he was out here in the first place. No one else seems to think there's a problem, though, despite the fact that River assumed the flying ship had left ages ago. Other courts have visited since then; no one kicked the groundlings out, apparently.
"I dunno. A while? A few months now?" Chime says, unhelpfully. He's engrossed in a book, but he twists around to look up at the groundling. "Delin? You got here before the cold season set in, right?"
The old scholar strokes his beard with a small, reminiscent smile. "Oh, yes. I have been honored with the chance to spend a great deal of time among the Arbora and assist with some of their intriguing projects," he says. His eyes twinkle a little as he turns his smile back to his book and starts annotating again. "Such fun we have had."
And River is struck by the abrupt realization that he knows exactly what project that was.
"Delin is our friend, River," Moon reminds him, without looking back over his shoulder.
River did not sign up for this.