“I knew it,” Leonas said, and Minnow could tell that he was on the verge of hysteria. “I knew what he was doing, I knew it and I did it anyway. I can take comfort in that when he kills me, that I was right about everything the entire time.”
“Leonas,” she said. She was holding his arms twisted behind his back, sitting on him. She had managed to tackle him only halfway through the garden. He should have been able to outpace her, his legs being as long as they were, but he’d been trying to dodge a tiny rooster. “You need to come inside so I can explain, if you’re yelling out here someone might hear.”
“Minona?” called a voice over the hedge. “I think I saw someone trying to break into your garden.”
“Yes, thank you Suzan,” Minnow shouted back, venomously peevish.
Ari was a Rootboar, sitting in the grass and watching them both. He looked ready to attack at any moment, which was how all Rootboars looked in the wild. It was still funny to see such an angry white orb, snoot twitching.
“Let me go,” he said, though now he was hissing through his teeth to keep his volume down. “Either let me go so I can run, or let him kill me and get it over with.”
“He isn’t going to kill you,” Minnow said.
“I might,” Ari said.
“You’re not helping,” Minnow said, having to hold Leonas still beneath her.
“If he’s been hurting you,” Ari said, “I’m going to kill him.”
“He hasn’t,” Minnow said.
“That you know of,” Ari said.
Leonas was breathing harder. Minnow worried that the circumstances might be enough to throw him into a fit. She bent down to be closer to his ear, though Ari would hear her anyway. “I’m going to let you up,” she said, “but you shouldn’t try to run. You wouldn’t make it far, and I don’t think you want to get caught again.” He stilled. Minnow hoped he was remembering how bad he was at running. She knew he hated to be embarrassed, and getting winded and then tackled right out of her garden gate would be the most embarrassing. “Okay?” she asked.
She let his arms go, getting up from where she’d been straddling him and sitting on the ground beside him. Slowly Leonas pulled himself up, kneeling in the grass and trying to brush off his shirt. There were green stains on the elbows. His eyes darted around the garden, as if monsters might be lurking in the bushes. They stopped at the statue.
“Why is there a statue of Toast.”
“Why wouldn’t there be?” Minnow asked.
“What have you been doing with her teeth,” Karzarul asked, surprising them both with the face of a Shadestalker snarling practically nose-to-nose with Leonas. Minnow hadn’t been watching to notice him losing shape, reforming so close. Leonas scrambled backward, his witchmarks flaring and dimming irregularly.
“Ari!” Minnow scolded. “Personal! Space!” She pointed at the spot where he’d been sitting before. He growled, but retreated, sitting back down. “Teeth are not the issue here,” she said.
“I disagree,” Karzarul said. The snake of his tail was lashing behind him.
“It isn’t as if she’s using them,” Leonas snapped, rubbing at his chest. “I even replace them, it’s better than if I didn’t take them.”
Karzarul growled again, louder this time.
“Ari,” Minnow said sternly. “Stop assuming Leonas is using my parts for blood magic.” Ari shifted on his forepaws. “Leonas,” she said, turning back to him. “Are you using my parts for blood magic?”
“No,” he said, recoiling from her. “You’ve got—they got remineralized, in the Faewild. That’s why they look like that, it’s why you don’t get any cavities.”
“She doesn’t even know what a cavity is,” Leonas said in the direction of the Shadestalker, gesturing at her, as if this proved something. “Ordinarily you only find those properties in pixie bones, but those are hollow, so it takes about five pixies to get enough pixie dust to do what can be done with a single powdered tooth.”
“There,” Minnow said, nodding. “You see? An explanation.”
“That he grinds the bones of dead pixies into dust?” Ari asked.
“I don’t,” Leonas insisted, irritated. “I never even did it myself! I bought pixie dust, pre-made, and even that I haven’t done in years.”
“Because you’ve been taking her teeth.”
“Not taking them!” Leonas wasn’t quite yelling, but it was close. His annoyance had overridden his fear to the point that he could address Ari directly, gesticulating in a familiar way that Minnow found reassuring. “I’ve never had to take them, she loses them! All the time, she loses teeth. The fact that they still grow back with as much magic in them as before defies logic. Most of the time she isn’t even fighting when she loses them.” He pointed at her. “She ate a rock,” he said, with that same tone of presenting evidence.
“You shouldn’t let her eat rocks,” Ari said.
“If she wants to eat a rock,” Leonas said, “there is nothing on this or any other plane of existence that I can do to stop her from eating the fucking rock.”
“I spit it back out,” Minnow said. She was regretting ever telling him about the rock. “Can we move on, please? I would like to move on.”
Ari huffed, but didn’t argue.
“Leonas, why did you come here?” Minnow asked. “Why would you leave Castle Astielle?”
He rubbed at his face, raking his hair back with his nails. “Because I’m a fucking moron,” he said, and Ari snorted.
“Okay,” she said. “But you’ve never done this before.”
“Thanks,” he said. “Travelling through dreams is witchcraft, I don’t have books about witchcraft, I can’t request books about witchcraft. Waiting for Karzarul to make a move was bad enough when I thought he was lurking somewhere in secret. But as soon as he was back, really back, he knew who I was and where I was and there was nothing I could do about it except wait. He left me alone while you were with me, but you were out here and he—did you go to the beach?”
This felt like a non-sequitur. “That was where the ruins were,” she said. “That was where I was going the last time you contacted me.”
“Right.” Leonas rubbed at his forehead. “Okay. So that was real, then. Great. Fantastic.”
“You wanted your books?” she asked. “The old Grimoires, and things?”
“I don’t know what I wanted,” he muttered. “It was only that I. I couldn’t. I waited for so long and then he was there. All I needed to do was keep waiting, a little longer. But you were out here, and I just. I couldn’t. I thought it might work, if I… Lilock Village isn’t so far from Fort Astielle. If Karzarul came to kill me, you’d be there. And I could help. I could try to help, instead of waiting.”
Minnow contemplated this, bending forward to idly hug her knees. “Like when you’ve been travelling,” she said, “and you think you can wait, but once you see your house you have to pee immediately.”
Leonas rubbed his face again. “No,” he said, muffled. “Not like that.”
She still thought it sounded like that.
“Heir,” Karzarul said suddenly. Minnow looked, and realized he’d taken his Impyr form, sitting next to her lupines. One of his knees was bent upward to rest an arm on it, the other on the ground, the panel of his skirt falling between them. His tunic was done back up, gloves on his hands and the Moonbow on his back. Minnow was briefly distracted by his calves, the short fur by his knees and the long fur that nearly covered his hooves. “Where is the Sunshield?”
Leonas swallowed, absent-mindedly running a fingertip under his eye to check the state of his face. “Don’t—don’t talk to me.”
“Don’t be rude,” Minnow chided. “We’re having a polite conversation.”
“He has already threatened to kill me at least twice since I got here,” Leonas said through his teeth.
“That was an honest warning,” Minnow said. “If we couldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be a polite conversation, it would be a passive-aggressive one.”
Leonas opened his mouth, then shut it.
Minnow had never thought to wonder about the Sunshield. What would he need it for, staying in his room? He never used the Rainbow Doors, or fought monsters.
“You should have brought it with you,” she said. “Getting here by the roads without having your shield was much more dangerous than if you’d come through the Door right over there.”
Leonas shifted where he sat, looking at his nails. He pushed at his cuticles while Minnow waited. “I don’t have it,” he said finally. He turned red as Karzarul started to laugh.
“Ari,” Minnow warned, turning to look at him. He had a grin on his face that she hadn’t seen before, sharp and infuriating, running his tongue over the tip of his fangs. She felt her face get hot, but she resisted the temptation to hide by curling into a ball this time. Barely. “You. Don’t. Nice.”
That was not a sentence, but her tongue had stopped working right, so she was working with what she had.
Ari looked at her, his expression softening into something she could handle. “I can nice,” he said.
“Good,” she said, her heartrate returning to normal. “Leonas, why don’t you have it?”
He seemed to debate how much he should say. “It’s the ward,” he said. “It’s built into the ward around Fort Astielle.”
“That’s not possible,” Ari said with a frown. “Only the Heir can use the Sunshield. Warding an area like that would require you to be wielding it constantly.”
“Astielle has always been ruled by powerful enchanters,” Leonas said, his eyes on the ground, “each building on the work of the last. My father designed a mechanism that allows the Sunshield to protect the city without my intervention. There is a ritual every year, so that it’s still… connected to me. In a way.” He curled a fist in the grass. “I won’t say more than that,” he said. “Not in front of him. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Minnow chewed on her hair. “But you had your shield,” she said. “When you got me. I saw it.”
“The ward went up on my fourteenth birthday,” he said. “I came to get you while everyone was busy with preparations. I thought that if I could find you, it would fix things. You’d find Karzarul, and I could have my shield back. Things could go back to the way they were.”
“Witch-prince,” Ari said, leaning closer. “What is your magical instrument?”
Leonas started to turn red again. Minnow looked between the two of them. Leonas had a silent set to his jaw. “What am I missing?” Minnow asked Ari. She knew enough to know about magical instruments, the item that a witch bound themselves to in order to channel their power. A big staff with an orb on it, or an interesting animal bone, or a really good stick. However, the relevance was escaping her.
“An Heir who is a witch would usually bind themselves to a sword,” Ari said. “A Hero might choose a shield. Something that complements their legendary weapon. If someone manages to disarm them of the one, they’ll still have the other. A legendary weapon has the potential to act as a powerful instrument—”
“—but that would be a fucking stupid thing to do,” Leonas interrupted, “yes, we get it, it takes a special kind of moron not to predict losing access to his legendary weapon for over a decade. Only a fool would tie the channeling of his magic to a shield literally tied to his soul, as if that means he could not lose it, this is all very funny for everyone.”
Minnow leaned sideways, reached out to touch Leonas’ hand. “Do you need it?” she asked. “Can you do magic without it?” She felt like a witch ought to be able to do magic without an instrument to channel it through. She didn’t know why she felt that way, and had no facts to support it.
“I can,” Leonas said. “I just, I might explode, is all. Is something that happens. To witches.”
Minnow looked at Ari. Ari nodded. “Explode?” she asked anyway. Ari spread out his fingers and wiggled them to pantomime an explosion. She stopped touching Leonas so that she could sit back down. “What the fuck.”
Leonas had a tired resignation about him.
“Leonas,” she said, “can I ask you a question?”
“Do you think your dad might be evil?”
Leonas looked at her. He looked at Karzarul. He looked back at her. “Yes,” he said, baffled. “Obviously yes. Of course he’s evil. He’s a king. What do you think a king is?”
“Okay,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we were on the same page.”
“We’re not,” he said, “because you’ve decided to ally yourself with… that.” He gestured vaguely at Ari, who sneered. She added it to her mental list of facial expressions she had trouble looking directly at in mixed company. “Whereas I, personally, still prefer the evil king whose machinations are about saving the kingdom rather than burning it down, as well as—this is key—not murdering me.”
“Oh,” Minnow said.
“Which I also have some questions about, by the way, if we’re sitting here in our little circle in the garden having a conversation before he cuts my fucking head off,” Leonas continued. “Such as: what the fuck. And: when did this happen, exactly?”
Minnow shrank in on herself, wringing her hands in her lap. “It’s complicated,” she said.
“I would never have guessed,” Leonas said. Ari growled like a Shadestalker, though the form was all wrong.
“I only found out who he was the other day,” she said.
Leonas stared at Minnow. He looked at Karzarul. He looked back at Minnow. “Was he in disguise?” he asked.
“He, uh. He was a Tauril, at the time. But he didn’t have any kind of threatening aura? Or try to kill me at all. He wasn’t in a lair, there weren’t other monsters there. I sort of assumed, if I met Karzarul, he would be in a lair surrounded by other monsters and a threatening aura, trying to kill me. And he wears gloves, so I couldn’t see the, the mark.” She pointed at Ari’s gloved hands.
“Okay,” Leonas said. “What I’m asking is, was he, at the time, a moon-white monster, who can talk, wearing a moon-patterned tunic, with moons on his gloves.”
“… what?” Minnow looked at Ari, then back to Leonas. “No.” She stood, walking over to Karzarul and picking up his hand. “This is a circle,” she said, pointing to the back of his glove. “Lots of clothes have circles, this isn’t anything.” She looked closer at the silver embroidery set into the white fabric over Ari’s chest. Ari preened a little, perfectly happy to let her manhandle him to look at his clothes. “This is, like. A cool bug, or a lobster. Abstracted. It’s. Okay. I can see how this might be moons, now that you’ve said something. Like this is the full moon, and these are the crescent moons, and.” She pressed her lips together into a thin line.
It seemed obvious now.
“You met a Tauril,” Leonas said, “who was white, and covered in moon patterns, and he told you he definitely wasn’t Karzarul. And you said, what? Makes sense? Seems fine?”
“Technically I don’t know if he ever told me he wasn’t,” Minnow admitted, still looking at the embroidered moons. She couldn’t actually remember. “You have to be nice to me,” she said before Leonas could respond. “I ate rocks.”
“I told her the truth,” Ari said. “Which is that the monsters she knows, which cannot be reasoned with, are not true monsters. I have no interest in your kingdom. If I want you dead, it is only because I believe you pose a danger to Minnow.” Leonas snorted. “She’s told me some of what you call history. I don’t expect you to believe me. If Minnow wants to protect you, I am willing to tolerate you until such a time as she has realized her mistake.”
Leonas was white-knuckled, his eyes on Minnow’s hands. They were still lingering on Karzarul’s clothes. She pulled back as soon as she realized.
“I think,” Leonas said, “that you’re taking advantage of the fact that she doesn’t remember you.”
“Oh?” Karzarul asked, cocking his head. “You remember me, then?”
“I remember dying,” Leonas said.
“I remember a sword in my back,” he said. “I remember an arrow through my heart, I remember an arrow through my throat,” he counted them down on his fingers as he spoke, “I remember a Howler ripping out my throat, I remember a guillotine—there may even have been a trial, that time, but the only ones there were Brutelings. I remember everything going dark because I couldn’t fucking breathe, again and again—”
“Is that it?” Karzarul asked.
“That’s all you remember?” Karzarul asked. Leonas said nothing. Karzarul stood, rose up to his full height with the sound of bells; Leonas, still on the ground, flinched. “How convenient for you,” Karzarul said, “not having to remember the blood on your hands.” Leonas looked away, didn’t bother trying to get up. “Would you like me to tell you what you’ve forgotten?”
“Didn’t I kill you?” Minnow asked. Karzarul froze. “I don’t remember,” she said. “But you didn’t offer to tell me about it. You never seemed this angry with me.”
Karzarul was still glaring at Leonas. “You never asked.”
“What if I did?” She reached out, but Karzarul pulled his arm away.
“Not yet,” he said. “I’ll tell you, if you ask, but not yet.”
Minnow looked between the two men. She sighed. Then she bent down next to Leonas. “I don’t want you to go back to the castle,” she said. “I want you to stay here, with me. With us. I know this wasn’t the plan. It’s just, this feels like something to me. Figuring out what’s happening with the monsters. I want your help. I want to keep you safe. If I promise not to let him hurt you, will you stay? Or do you think I’ll hurt you?”
“Minnow,” Leonas said. “He is going to kill me.”
“I’m not,” Karzarul said. Leonas didn’t acknowledge him. “If it makes you feel any better,” Karzarul said, “she’ll kill me if I do.”
Minnow opened her mouth to deny it, then shut it again. Unless circumstances changed drastically, she supposed she would. She didn’t know what Leonas could do to make killing him feel warranted, if anything. Killing Karzarul?
“That isn’t better,” Leonas said. “I don’t want that, for her.”
There was a pause. One of the hens sang an egg song in the bushes.
“Good,” Karzarul said. “We should get along fine, then.”
“Minona?” Suzan called over the gate. Karzarul was, abruptly, a Rootboar. “We’re getting complaints about the noise levels, if you’re having a party you should have applied for a permit last week.”
Minnow stood wordlessly. She turned on her heel, disappearing inside the house. A moment later she re-emerged, carrying the Starsword.
“Nonononono,” Leonas said, hopping up to his feet and forgetting whatever else he might have said. “Minnow, put the sword down.” He held out his hands, trying to block her path. “We’re not doing this again, just let it go.”
“No judge in Astielle would convict me,” she said, moving left and right but unwilling to push him out of her way.
“That was a one-time thing,” Leonas said, “we’re not doing that again. That’s not going to work if I’m in hiding instead of the acting Prince, okay?”
Ari watched the exchange with interest. Then he trotted over to the wooden gate, and started slamming his trotters against it with loud, angry squeals. Suzan’s scream grew distant. Minnow nearly dropped her sword.
“He can make the sounds!” she gasped with wide-eyed delight. “I didn’t know he could make the sounds!”
“Yes, and now the problem is solved,” Leonas said. “Go put the sword away, and we can all go inside.”
“You’ll stay?” she asked hopefully.
“I’ll stay,” he confirmed. “For now.”
“Oh, good.” She got up on her toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll go put this away, then we can figure out how we wanna do this.”
He didn’t follow her immediately. Instead, he turned, and dropped down to a crouch, blocking Ari’s path into the house. He made serious eye contact with the little white monster and its big silver eyes. Leonas pointed to the memorial statue.
“That,” he said, “is Toast. When Minnow was eleven, she stole a piglet. She refused to listen to anyone who told her why she shouldn’t have a pig. Because it was a regular pig, it became very large. Minnow, as you can probably guess, was very small. I do not, to this day, know how she rode a pig. Pigs as a rule do not tolerate that kind of thing. But she did, and she loved that pig very much. When Minnow was fifteen, Toast was hit with an arrow, and she died. So Minnow butchered her, and ate her.”
Leonas stood. “She’s practical, that way.”
Ari followed him into the house.