Hindflux 11th, 1029

“Hey, Juniper?”

“Yes, Clover?”

“Instead of a story…can you tell me where Thauma comes from?” It wasn’t as if she didn’t love his stories; he had so many of them, after all. But he was starting classes about Thauma, and she was curious about it after watching him pour himself into studying.

Her brother smiled down at her from where she was tucked into her bed, nodding, “A long, long time ago,” Juniper said, sitting on the edge of Clover’s bed, “There were eight Gods. Two of the Cosmos, the Sol and Lunar Gods. Six of the Wilds: Seiche Carving, Remedy Posie, Refuge Bunting, Frond Peter, Fillip Arabella, and Ash Rossingol,” he recited without stumbling, “The Sol and Lunar God tamed them, taught them to care for humanity, and those six offer us their Thauma– their magic–for us to be able to work wonders. They drop it into our temples to them, and it pools up, then we can dilute it and use it.”

“Why do we do that?” she asked.

“Because if we used raw Thauma it’d be too strong. Their nature is still wild, much too wild for humans to handle. They are creatures of the Upper Realm, and everything there is much…more, there.”

“Oh…” Clover mumbled. “Why don’t the Sol and Lunar Gods offer us their Thauma, too?”

“Well, they’re busy managing the other six. And running the Quasar Ceremony, so the universe won’t wither away... So, Clover, are there any of the Gods in particular you feel drawn to? When you get a bit older, you can choose to study a hue of Thauma, if you want.”

“Um…I don’t know,” she said noncommittally. “Maybe…maybe Fillip, so violet Thauma, like you’re gonna study?”

Basal 56th, 1042

The way her brother had beamed with pride at that still filled Clover with guilt. She had just said it because she hadn’t wanted to tell him the truth, that she had never felt drawn to any of the six minor God’s gifts. As she lay in bed in River’s cabin, that memory replayed over and over in her head.

She hadn’t slept well at all; neither had Aspen, but he hadn’t been in a talking mood, choosing instead to sit on the windowsill and watch the horse pasture in the distance. When she came out of a half-hour of restless sleep, he was gone from the room entirely.

Two hours before the morning hour of three-o-clock Clover gave up on sleep. She slipped out of bed and walked to the adjoining bathroom. A brief and soft rap on the door was met with Aspen yelling at her that he was going to be taking his ‘morning bath’ for the next hour and to ‘go bother someone else’.

Clover was admittedly too tired to bother arguing. There was another washroom downstairs.

It seemed like she and the prince weren’t the only ones awake already, by the sweet smell wafting from the kitchen.

“Azaleon?” she asked quietly. He smiled once he saw it was her.

“Clover, good morning! I…couldn’t sleep well, so…are you hungry?” he gestured to the cinnamon rolls he was making in a skillet. She was starving.

“I would love one. Or two. Or…did River say you could use her kitchen?” she asked. “Because I don’t think getting on her bad side is a good idea.”

“She did, yeah. She’s on the porch having a smoke. Kuiper’s out there, too, reading. She said I was welcome to do all of the cooking for the duration of our stay, and that she was planning to ‘put all of us to work in one way or another’,” he said with a small laugh. “Which I’m glad for. I would’ve felt like a freeloader otherwise.”

Outside it was already light, though the sun was blocked by an overcast gray sky. It was forecasted to be like that for the next handful of days, rainstorms on and off. It wouldn’t be pleasant weather to travel in.

“I…don’t know if I'll be staying,” she admitted, walking to the cabinets to look for plates.

When they arrived last night, she had been too overwhelmed to really look and take in the style of the cabin. It was eclectic, even the dishes being all sorts of different sizes, and all shades of colors painted on them. There were candles, stones and letters tucked on top of shelves lining the top of the walls. There were plants in nearly every room, and none of the colorful furniture matched. Less so now that the dining table that was in front of the kitchen window was glass. Now that she looked at it, the legs of the table were a gaudy gold color and shaped like feathers.

“...Do you believe anything Alouette said?” Clover asked.

“I do,” Azaleon sighed. “If only because Kuiper and I– neither of us could sleep, so we got up and talked about everything over stew. The thing is, no matter what the ‘truth’ is or what we believe, he and I are really only here on His Highness’ behalf; if he decides to leave, or to report all of this, we’ll have to go along with him. Though I think I’d like for him to believe it, personally.”

“Why is that?” Clover asked. She finally found six plates reasonably similar in size, and sat them around the table, pausing at where Alouette had sat. If they really were somehow a God– and the thought still did not sit comfortably with her– did they even need to eat?

“If the Quasar Ceremony isn’t used to benefit humanity, but to keep the six-erm, five minor Gods from escaping some sort of…confinement? Then neither he or your brother need to go through with it, and Fern Helion would have an assured heir to the throne, unless…there’s a good reason those Gods should be confined,” Azaleon explained, sounding as unsure about it as Clover felt. He at least had a twinge of optimism in his tone. Clover struggled to muster that much because she didn’t want to think her brother would have left willingly. She could understand him not telling her back then, but he should have at least told their mom.

Then again, she had no idea what her mother would’ve done if he had told her, ‘hey, Mom, I’m the Quasar of Fern Helion; so is His Highness, and we’re not sure why that is instead of someone from Lacus Mare, but don’t worry, I’m going to be the first Quasar to ever not go through with the Ceremony. Oh, don’t worry about the universe, the Gods are liars! One of them came here and told me so!’

“Well-trained as His Highness is, I don’t think that’s a concern either way. My brother has never been a fighter.” Clover sat down at the table, laying her head on the cool glass surface. “You think the Sol or Lunar Gods would punish them for not going through with it?”

“There’s never been Quasars that have refused the honor, so I couldn’t say. Maybe visiting their temples and trying to reach out to them would be worth a shot?”

“Maybe,” she said. She didn’t really want to do that; she wanted to find her brother and let him decide what to do– ask what his plan was. Just to avoid Aspen until the Quasar Ceremony’s deadline passed? From the moment they got picked, they had twenty years to meet and go through with it. Twenty years– so eight left to wait. That was hardly fair to him– he deserved to live a better life than one spent in hiding.

And Clover wanted to see him again before then.

It occurred to her that she was already thinking about what Alouette had told her as if it was the truth. She wanted to believe it. It would mean, like Azaleon had said, that neither her brother or Aspen would have to go through with the Ceremony. Prickly as the prince was, she didn’t want him to die. And she obviously didn’t want him to sacrifice her brother, for the greater good or otherwise.

“What do you think you’re doing?!”

Both she and Azaleon jumped at the sudden exclamation. There, midway on the stairs, was Alouette. Dressed in very ornate purple robes, completing the absurd look with a tall pointed hat. Both the robe and hat were decorated in gold trim. Yesterday, they looked like a half-drowned rat. Today, she could almost believe they were trying to present as a God. Or a parody of one, maybe, with how over-the-top they were dressed, rivaled only by the prince’s outfit from yesterday.

“...Cooking,” Azaleon finally said.

“No, no, no! I was going to cook a feast for all of you this morning! None of you are supposed to be awake yet!” they hopped down the stairs, taking two at a time, before landing in front of Azaleon. They eyed him up and down warily before planting a hand on his chest and giving a small push. Azaleon blinked at them and allowed himself to be pushed back by about two feet away from the stove, even though Clover seriously doubted Alouette had the strength to actually push him.

“If you want to take over, you can,” Azaleon said, “But they’ll burn if you leave them on much longer.”

“I know that! Sit, or go wake everyone else up,” Alouette tried shooing him away.

“Everyone is already up,” Clover informed them, “Aspen is still upstairs taking a bath. River and Kuiper are outside on the porch.”

“Oh.” They put their hands on their hips. “Well. That’s odd. I thought you’d all need more sleep. Anyway, I am very sorry for transforming your weapon without permission, Azaleon. I don’t usually do that, and I won’t do it again.”

“No, I should be apologizing for hitting you,” Azaleon said, exchanging a baffled glance with Clover once Aloette turned their back to the two of them. Clover was glad he had picked up on it, too. Last night Alouette had been all over the place. This morning they were trying to take charge and holding themself much more confidently.

“It’s fine! I do heal fast, and I’m a pacifist myself, so I never know how to deal with Seiche’s favored people…” Alouette trailed off. “But I wasn’t upset. River did say I should’ve just waited here, anyway, and that a castle guard was gonna land a hit some day.”

Sure enough, if Clover really looked, there were no traces of bruises or anything from yesterday’s scuffle.

“Okay…well, I’ll step out to the porch and let River and Kuiper know they’re about done, and…I guess His Highness can come down when he pleases,” Azaleon excused himself. Clover wanted to curse at him for that. She felt extremely awkward, left alone in Alouette’s presence. Which was rare for her– she loved people, socializing, learning about them…under normal circumstances, a cabin full of experts on various Thauma types would be an exciting new opportunity to make friends and learn.

But then, Alouette was supposedly a God. One she’d insulted quite a bit last night, to their face.

“Hypothetically,” she started, trying to break the tense silence with something other than the sound of them finishing the cinnamon rolls off with icing, “If we do believe you’re…Ash Rossingol, the God, should we be…addressing you in some kind of way?”

“What?” They looked over their shoulder at Clover with wide eyes, blinking owlishly. “You believe me?”

“River kept calling you ‘Alo’. But isn’t Alouette just, you know, a…” A moniker from the media since they were anonymous; not one with very nice connotations, either. “...A nickname,” she settled on.

“Oh! No, no, I love Alouette! I love any offerings, nicknames are no exception. In fact, it’s my first nickname from humans, so I’m very fond of it. River thought it’d be better to roll with it, too, and make sure I could respond to it. I guess calling me Ash in public might raise some eyebrows! …If we went out in public enough for it to be an issue, haha.” They awkwardly flexed their wings.

“Okay. Um, about my brother. Do you remember anything specific he said? I mean, you said he told you he was leaving, so can you remember any clues he might have said about where he was headed, or…?”

“I have no idea where he was going, I’m sorry. I want to be of more use to you in finding him, but I really only told him what I told all of you last night. That the Quasar Ceremony is to keep the other five sealed somewhere in this world, and that I wanted to help both them and y–”

Azaleon came back in with Kuiper and River, who tuned into the conversation immediately.

“They’re all sealed somewhere in our world?” Kuiper interrupted. “What do you mean by that? I assumed they got sealed somewhere in the cosmos or Upper Realm.”

“Yes?” They frowned. “What does it matter where they are? The seals can’t be broken through normal means either way. Should someone go tell Aspen the food is ready?”

“You’ve tried?” Clover pressed.

“No, I’m not trying to get yelled at–”

“No about the food, tell them about the seals,” River clarified. “And he can come down when he likes, food can be reheated; goodness knows he’s old enough not to need so much minding.”

“Oh. Well, I…I only really know the location of two of them. I could faintly hear them, but it was impossible to affect them as I am now.”

“What does that mean?” Azaleon asked.

“It means humans wouldn’t be able to get close, either. It means breaking the Quasar cycle is the only real way to free them.” They took the skillet and started distributing cinnamon buns onto the plates around the table. Clover’s mind was reeling; if Alouette wasn’t the only God in this world, and Juniper knew as much…

“Which Gods did you know the locations of? Did you know Fillip Arabella’s? He was devoted to her; violet was always his hue of choice. My brother is smart. If there was some other way to break the seal, then maybe– maybe he’s trying to do it. He’d be trying to find his God of choice to help him.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t know where they stuck her. I know where Refuge is. She’s out on some moor in Lacus Mare, but she was intangible to me, and couldn’t understand when I asked how I could help. It was as if I didn’t exist to her at all, and the people in the area told me it was cursed. I also know where Seiche is. You know that tidal power plant they built off the coast of the Atlas Islands? Because the waves were really intense all the time? Pretty sure he’s under the sea around there somewhere, kicking up storms about it. I…didn’t work up the nerve to try and calm him down yet,” they admitted. “Like I said, I’m a pacifist, and it’s his nature to be. Um. Violent, so, I’d probably get yelled at…” they trailed off, wringing their hands, their confident mask slipping. “Do you really think your brother is trying to do something like that?”

“It’s really hard for me to get in the same mindset he would’ve been in,” Clover admitted. “At the very least he’d be trying to gather as much information as he could. Which would probably involve finding all of the Gods locations at the very least. He was big on documenting stuff. He wanted to become a librarian.”

Alouette dropped on the floor beside her chair abruptly, and Clover was shocked at how serious they looked when they reached out and grabbed her shoulder.

“We will find your brother, Clover. I– and all of the other six minor Gods– live in the service of humans. And if he’s doing something like that, it’d be better to find him sooner rather than later. I absolutely wouldn’t have let him go if I had known he was possibly planning anything that would have endangered him.”

“I agree, but why do you say that?” Clover asked. They seemed very worried all of the sudden. “If he’s the other Quasar, he can’t be killed by anyone except His Highness.”

Aspen’s words from yesterday rang in her ears. He had said he could still get hurt, but it would just heal quickly. She was suddenly filled with dread; he was alive, no doubt, but…

“When I found Refuge years ago, she wasn’t in her right mind; whatever the Sol and Lunar Gods did to seal them affected their psyche, and that could very well put him, and any other mortal who stumbles across their confines in danger. I assumed he was just going into hiding, but– there’s a good reason you all can’t use undiluted Thauma, right? Imagine those consequences, but a million times worse, and if he can’t die from that? If I thought the others were in control of themselves, it would be fine, but I doubt that’s the case. So…” they took a breath. “I will find your brother for you and assure his safety. You are free to return to your home, and I’ll notify you when I–”

“No.” Clover said. “I’m not going home yet. I told my mom I was going to find him. If I have your help, then great, we can go together.”

“Clover, this isn’t simply a trip Alo is talking about. I couldn’t in good conscience let you try something so dangerous while you’re unequipped to protect yourself,” River said.

“I made up my mind to do it alone before; I was going to try regardless.”

“Then I’ll do what I can to help and to keep you safe. So, finding them should be, well, not easy! But if my hunch is right, they’re all probably affecting their environment in some way; both the areas I know of were considered ‘cursed’ or just unusual, so we could start with places like that–”

“When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. You can all get swindled by these honeyed sentiments, but I’m not gambling with the whims of a childish person–God or not.” Aspen finally decided to grace them with his presence. He was sitting on the staircase, and she wondered how long he’d been listening. His clothes were no less ornate than they had been yesterday, but were at least more suited to the weather, short cuffed sleeves this time.

“You can believe what you want, and so can we.” Clover rebutted him. “My brother–”

“I have a sister, you know, so you can stop with the overly-sappy talk.” Aspen interrupted her. Clover knew that; Princess Saros was some years older than Aspen, and had been married off to another princess, the youngest of three in Lacus Mare, to strengthen the relation between their kingdoms. “If she went missing, I wouldn’t run around blindly searching for her; the fact you’re able to do so speaks of someone with no real responsibilities or obligations, you know. It’s a luxury to worry over one, but I have the privilege of worrying over not only everyone in Fern Helion, but also, the very fate of the universe.”

Clover felt a hot flash of anger in her chest. The fact he had large-scale worries didn’t make her small-scale ones less real for her. Both she and her mom were sick of not knowing Juniper’s fate. Her mom– she had practically smothered Clover in worry, had begged her not to leave, too. Her mother had grieved so much. For Clover’s father, for Juniper. What was a luxury was Aspen’s detached attitude.

“Yes, but I already told you the universe will be fine if the five are unsealed; the Quasar Ceremony is a lie,” Alouette tried.

“And let’s say you’re right, and all of this is true. Let’s say Clover’s brother and I don’t go through with it, and the minor Gods are all unsealed. What will your plans be then? What will you do if we don’t get to that point, if the Sol and Lunar Gods step in and force it, or stop you at any point? I’m starting to believe everyone here simply floats with the currents of the wind, brainless and never stopping to form proper plans. ‘Hope’ is not a plan. If you are a God, you are a pathetic one.” Aspen stood, leaning on the railing. Alouette had gone from standing at Clover’s side to wilting, seemingly trying to melt into the floor in shame.

“Ah, I’m starting to understand why your father sent you here.” River said so softly Clover was sure Aspen couldn’t have heard it.

“Hey,” Azaleon tried, “There’s no need to–”

“I wasn’t speaking to you, either, nor was I finished,” Aspen waved a hand.

“They’re trying their best. We all are. What would you do?” Clover snapped.

“He does have a point, though,” Kuiper muttered while he poked at the cinnamon roll in front of him, fork tapping against his ceramic plate. “‘Find all of the Gods and hope to stumble into Clover’s brother along the way’ is a sloppy idea at best, dangerous at worst. You may yet be a God, but you…come off as young. A bit reckless. And it would go against our job to endanger His Highness.”

Thank you,” Aspen said, obviously relieved, which shocked Clover. “I’m not interested in being nice, I’m interested in efficiency. River, there is a communications center in town, correct?”

“It’s beside the grocery market,” she confirmed.

“Wait– before you contact King Alder, maybe we should–” Azaleon tried again. Aspen raised a hand, silencing him.

“I’m not contacting my father. I’m going to contact my sister and let her know I’ll be visiting the Lacus Mare castle in Moonvale. Their records of the former Quasars are more thorough than Fern Helion’s, and less loaded with propaganda. If there really are unexplainable circumstances around each God’s location, I’m sure there will be records of those, too, there; Lacus Marian’s are much more superstitious than we are.”

He waltzed down the stairs, picking up the cinnamon roll from the plate that was still untouched with two delicate fingers, then turned to go back up the stairs.

“I’m going to pack, then we can leave. The slidebuggy can extend to seat at least twelve people, but if you’d all prefer public transit, don't let me stop you. However, I suggest you actually sit and make a real plan on the way no matter how you get there. Gathering as much information as possible should always be your first priority; Clover, if your brother was smart like you seem to think he was, that’s what he would’ve done first.” It took Clover a moment to process the fact he was inviting them all along.

“I–I thought you didn’t believe me-!” Alouette sputtered. Everyone was as baffled as Clover felt, then, except maybe River, who’s expression stayed steadily neutral, and Kuiper, who looked mildly curious at best.

“Don’t insult my intelligence, and don’t equate believing with liking. I don’t like being lied to, by Gods or otherwise.” Aspen tapped a single finger to the Cachet on his hand.

“Your Highness,” River said, “In this house we eat at the table.”

He stopped midway up the stairs, and Clover expected him to argue. But he turned around and walked back down, sitting at his place at the table. He offered no thanks for the food, but she supposed it was something that he had even listened at all. River looked pleased. Alouette sat beside him, looking giddy and beaming like a little kid.

“King Alder…what will you tell him if he tries to check up on you? Er, we can’t just lie to him, Your Highness,” Azaleon said. He exchanged a nervous glance with Kuiper. Aspen shrugged.

“He expects weekly updates; I didn’t believe I needed Thauma lessons in the first place beyond those I’ve already received at the castle, so I’ll tell him I found them pointless and left to visit Saros. He won’t be happy, he’ll likely pour poison on my garden, but I suppose I’ll live–”

“No. I believe there are things you can learn, and I’m still willing to teach. As far as Alder needs be concerned, I’ll still be your teacher, and I decided a road trip would be the best way to go about that. You’ll find that that’s in line with his impression of my methods. Unless we have to worry about your guards saying otherwise?” She raised a brow in their direction.

“Our exact mission was to escort His Highness to you and protect him while he studied under you. I don’t see any contradictions,” Kuiper said with a roll of his shoulders.

“Oh, you’re right. I guess it’s fine then.” Azaleon hummed. He stood up, gathering everyone’s plates, seemingly having designated himself the cleaner and cook both.

“Thank you,” Clover said, and Aspen rolled his eyes.

“No one is doing this solely to find Juniper. Like I said, I don’t like being lied to, so–”

“I was thanking Azaleon for the food and grabbing my plate, Your Highness,” Clover corrected him.

“Well you should be thanking me. For not letting you stumble around and get yourself killed. And giving you a ride and access to my resources.” Aspen waved a hand, “I’m being very generous to all of you.”

“Goodness, of course. I should also pen letters to your tutors for gifting you with so much wisdom to share with us peons, and the curators of those resources you plan on sharing, along with the engineers who built that slidebuggy then, right?” She leaned on her hands. “C’mon. We’re gonna be stuck together for a while longer, you can try to be nice, can’t you?”

“The day I’m willingly nice to any of you is the day I die, mark my words.”

Clover laughed. Somehow, she believed he believed that.

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