“The tailor got my order in!” Minnow announced, kicking in the door to her own house. Her arms were overflowing with packages. “Leonas, you won’t have to wear my extra shirts anymore!”
“Oh, thank the Sun,” Leonas said, joining her in the front hall immediately. She dropped everything to the ground instead of trying to hand it off with grace, since they were clothes and couldn’t break. She had been able to coax him a few times now into staying home alone with Karzarul so that she could get supplies. He accepted the necessity more quickly now, if no less sullenly.
“And I got a longer dressing gown to sleep in,” she added. “Even though you look cute in the other one.”
Leonas turned pink and his witchmarks glowed, but he continued looking through the different shirts and trousers she’d bought. Since Minnow was shorter than Leonas as well as wider, she thought the two dimensions evened out reasonably well. Leonas disagreed, and washed his old clothes to keep wearing them as often as possible.
“Ari,” she called, pulling the largest package out of the pile. “I got you a dress!”
“What?” Ari called from the kitchen. He’d been entertaining himself by trying to make the strangest desserts in her recipe collection, consistently resulting in horrors. It kept him busy, and from pestering Leonas, so she didn’t complain.
“I told the tailor it was for a quest,” she said, bringing it with her, “to explain the measurements.”
“I have clothes,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, “but they’re always the same clothes? Magical moonlight clothes. I thought it might be fun to get you different clothes. I assumed you wouldn’t be able to wear pants. Was I right that you can’t wear pants?”
Ari was holding a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl full of something purple and gloopy. He looked down at one of his enormous hooves. “That’s accurate,” he said.
“I thought so,” she said. She opened the paper with a touch of hesitation. “You don’t have to wear it,” she said.
“I’ll wear it,” he said, the bowl already set aside, unbuttoning his tunic. She didn’t understand how his clothes worked. They disappeared when he changed forms, and when he came back they weren’t always the way he left them. When he left them laying around, they seemed to disappear on their own. In the morning, he liked to trot around the garden as a Rootboar, sunning himself and rolling around in the grass, leaving the robe she made him wear to bed on the floor. It did not disappear on its own. Then when he took Impyr form again, all his clothes were back and pristine.
She might not have noticed, but Leonas had a secret and angry page of notes about it. She only read them because he hid them, which meant they were interesting.
Ari pulled the dress on over his head, his clothes in a pile on the kitchen floor. Minnow clapped her hands together, biting her lip to restrain excessive gleefulness. He smoothed it out, examining the fabric. It had holes at the shoulders so that she could see their shape, a neckline deep enough to reveal most of the fur on his chest. It flared at the waist and down to his knees, and when he turned it had a swish to it.
“Interesting choice of color,” he observed. She’d picked out something in a deep blue-black, set with tiny chips of gold all over; the skirt gradually lightened to a true blue at the hem.
“It makes sense,” she insisted, fidgeting with her hair. “Because the moon is in the sky.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, because her eyes kept falling to his chest. “So this isn’t, for instance. Marking your territory.”
“No,” she scoffed, too loud and too slow. “I thought, it would look nice on you, is all.”
“In your colors.”
“I don’t own colors,” she said. “They’re just colors.”
“It fits well enough,” Leonas was saying, coming closer to the kitchen, “but the colors—”
He stopped inside the kitchen door. Minnow had to cover her mouth to restrain a shriek at the sight of him. His cravat was a confection of fluffy lace. The sleeves of his shirt were trimmed with more lace at the wrists, longer than was practical, hanging downward. His trousers were fitted tight in deep blue black, and the bottom of his vest matched it, gradually lightening to true blue at the top. It was set with tiny chips of gold all over.
“Ah,” Leonas said, once he’d finished processing what Karzarul was wearing.
“Hm,” Karzarul said.
Minnow couldn’t stop giggling, backing away enough that she could look at them both at the same time. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that she wouldn’t be able to get away with this unnoticed. It was not subtle at all. Her giggling transitioned into a high-pitched sound without any conscious decision on her part.
It was very good to look at.
“Are you okay?” Leonas asked. She nodded vigorously. Leonas looked at the clothes on the floor. “Are you going to pick those up?” he asked Karzarul.
“No,” Karzarul said.
“What are you making?”
“Right. I’m not wearing this right now.” Leonas turned to leave the kitchen, but Minnow made a sound of protest, grabbing him by the arm. He jumped, startled.
“Please?” she asked. “Just this once? You won’t be able to wear it on the road anyway, it isn’t practical.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Why would I be on the road?”
“Oh! Right. We’re taking a trip.”
“We are?” Leonas asked.
“Are we?” Karzarul asked.
“We are,” Minnow said. “That thing you said about the fake Heirs bothered me, so I went and talked to Hettie—she’s out by where the old general store used to be, before they built the new general store—because she’s super-old and she loves scandals. She gets special newsletters in the mail for gossip. It’s horrible, and not usually useful. But she gave me some names and dates that I was able to cross-reference with historical data, and one of the estates is only a few days’ ride from here. According to my maps and journals I’ve even been there already, years ago. I don’t remember it, so it can’t have been interesting, but it’s on my map.”
“Wait,” Leonas said. “I don’t understand what this has to do with anything.”
“Neither do I,” Minnow shrugged, “but, like I said, it was bothering me. Now we’re gonna go look!”
“Were you going to ask how anyone else felt about this?” Leonas asked.
“Why?” she asked. He stared at her. “I know I’m going,” she said, “and if I’m going, then Ari is going.” Ari nodded. “And if we’re both going, then you’re going, because otherwise you’d be alone in a house only a few days’ ride from Fort Astielle, while I was alone with Karzarul.”
Leonas opened his mouth, then shut it. “You have the option of not going,” he said. Minnow shook her head.
“Hero’s intuition,” Karzarul offered helpfully.
“I already added it to my quest journal,” Minnow said.
“That means nothing,” Leonas said. “You can erase it from your quest journal.”
“That’s not how the quest journal works,” Minnow said.
“Respect the quest journal,” Karzarul agreed.
“Don’t say that like it means something,” Leonas snapped at him. “We both know that doesn’t mean anything.”
“We’re going,” Minnow said firmly. “I bought a wagon and two horses, so you can bring books along and keep working as we go. We can get packed up tonight, you can figure out which books you want to bring. We leave first thing in the morning.”
Leonas rubbed at his temple. “I. Okay. I guess.” He gave up on arguing, leaving the kitchen to head back toward the book room. He’d been spending most of his time there since arriving, despite Minnow’s attempts to get him to join her in the garden. It wouldn’t hurt a book to be in the garden.
Now he would have no choice but to work outside in the sunshine. It wasn’t why she was doing it, but it didn’t hurt.
“Should I bring a book?” Karzarul asked.
“If you want,” Minnow said, although he was clearly teasing. She followed Leonas, in case he needed help with something heavy.
“Maybe I’ll bring some of those art books,” Karzarul suggested, following after her. “With the orgy detective.”
“Please don’t,” Leonas sighed ahead of them.
“Have you found the ones with the monsters yet?” Minnow asked.
Karzarul stopped. “What?”
“With the pirates!” Minnow said, and Leonas also hesitated before forging on ahead. “It’s a whole series about this sexy Abysscale, and all the pirate crews that he seduces.”
“Oh,” Ari said.
“Did you really not find it?” she asked. “I thought you were looking through all of those.”
“I browsed,” Ari said. “I didn’t read them all.”
“Here, look,” Minnow said, moving ahead to the proper shelf and pulling out a volume. “The joke is that he’s bad at being a monster, because whenever he attacks a pirate ship, he gets distracted having sex with all the pirates.” She opened it up to a particularly graphic page and held it aloft. “This was the only thing I’d ever seen with a talking monster in it, before I met you,” she said. “I thought they made it up so the pirates wouldn’t be gross perverts doing sex crimes, but these ones are pretty old. Could it be based on a real monster? Since the monsters used to all be able to talk like you?”
“Are you implying,” Leonas said, moving books into different stacks, “that Abysscales used to roam the open seas, seducing human women?”
“And men!” Minnow said.
Ari had taken the book, and was slowly paging through it. Minnow could not interpret the look on his face. She sidled up next to him, rising up on her toes to look along with him. “Is it accurate?” she asked, on a watercolor involving much longer tentacles than the ones Ari had.
“No,” he said, slamming it suddenly shut. “You shouldn’t read these,” he added. “They’re… slanderous.” He held it out of her reach. She squinted at his face.
“Are you glowing?” she asked.
“If returning the monsters to their previous state of being,” Leonas interrupted, “means we’re going to be replacing the rampaging murderbeasts with rampaging fuckbeasts, I’m not helping you anymore.”
Leonas sat under the willow tree again, and listened to memories of birdsong.
“These roads are a nightmare,” Leonas said. “That’s the first thing I’m doing when I’m king, I’m fixing these fucking roads.”
“These are actually some of the better roads,” Minnow said, “since we’re close to a village.”
“Sun above,” Leonas said. He was sitting on a pile of the bedding Minnow had brought along, and had given up on being able to take notes on anything. Karzarul was a Rootboar again, sitting in the opposite corner of the wagon.
“It’s less noticeable when you’re on a horse,” Minnow said. She was sitting up front to hold the reins. “I don’t think you have a lot of practice riding, though.”
“I ride in parades,” Leonas said.
“That doesn’t count.” She waved as they passed a merchant carrying a cart. “If we did this on horseback you’d be even less comfortable.” The wagon jolted over a stone.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he grumbled.
“The good part is that I’ve gone through this way a bunch of times,” she said, “so we shouldn’t have to stop too often, unless I see something rare.”
“Hooray,” Leonas said, watching the trees pass them by.
The horses slowed to a stop.
“Okay,” Minnow said, reaching back to find a large wicker basket. “I know what I said, but I only need a minute, this one time.”
Leonas watched her bend over the foliage that edged the road, then turned to see Karzarul watching him watch her. Leonas opened his book, and tried to read as long as they weren’t moving.
Minnow returned with her basket overflowing with wildflowers, daisies and sweet peas and foxgloves and violets. “Here,” she said, holding out her fist and waiting for him to accept whatever she had. Leonas held up his palm, and she dropped raspberries into it. “Most of them weren’t ripe yet,” she said, “but these ones looked good.”
They were small and slightly crushed, staining his skin red. “Thanks,” he said, and she beamed, pulling herself back up onto the wagon with her basket next to her. Leonas found the raspberry that looked most intact, and tentatively placed it on his tongue. It was tart enough to make his mouth water, and the taste lingered.
Karzarul was watching him again, snout twitching. The end of his nose looked like an angry leaf.
Leonas ate another raspberry, then leaned forward to drop the rest onto a trunk strapped down into the wagon between them. He settled back into the pillows, frowning at the stain in the middle of his hand. He licked it before finding a handkerchief to wipe the rest of the residue away. Karzarul snorfled up the offered raspberry remains in an appropriately piggish fashion. Knowing that he could still speak made it weird.
Leonas watched the trees again, and the birds, and the little signs of wildlife. Chipmunks and squirrels and other small things. He leaned over the edge of the wagon to get a better look at a turtle near the side of the road. He considered mentioning it to Minnow, in case it was in danger of being trampled, but thought better of it. She wasn’t the kind of person to not stop for a turtle, if the turtle was worth stopping for.
She dropped something onto his head.
Leonas removed it with great caution so that he could look at it. She’d taken some of her wildflowers and woven the stems together, forming them into a little wreath crown. He sniffed at the sweet peas, and tried to decide if he could pull it off. He’d worn simple black trousers with a white double-breasted shirt, with as small a cravat as he could tolerate. Keeping it simple for the road, and the looming specter of camping. It was basic enough that it was difficult to clash with, so he put the flowers back on. He turned to see that Minnow was still multi-tasking, a loose hold on the reins while she continued to braid flowers.
Further down the road was a commotion in a nearby field. Minnow pulled the horses to a stop again. Karzarul had his trotters up on the edge of the wagon, and looked ready to leap out. “Wait here, I’ll be right back, ” Minnow said, jumping down from the wagon.
It was a pack of Brutelings, descending upon someone who was trying to defend himself with a cheap sword. Leonas looked at Karzarul, but the Rootboar’s gaze was fixed on the Brutelings, snout twitching again. His trotters hit the sides of the wagon impatiently, yearning to ignore Minnow’s directive.
Minnow unsheathed the Starsword, and took the head off the first Bruteling before they’d taken their attention off their target. She skewered another one through the middle, then cut the arm off of one about to hit her with a mace. She split its stomach open, knocked another one down with her foot at the same time and stood on it while she cut the head off another. The torso of the one she stood on seemed to cave inward. When a Bruteling jumped on her back, she grabbed it, flinging it with such force at a nearby tree that they could hear the crack of it from the wagon.
She waved goodbye to the man she’d helped as she returned to the road, hair escaping from her braid again. “Sorry about that,” she said, wiping blood from the flat of the blade onto her thigh. She sheathed the Starsword again, hopping back up into the wagon. Leonas offered her a clean handkerchief from his bag. “Oh! Thank you. Sorry, am I a mess?” She wiped blood from her hands and a splatter from her face. “Did I get it?”
Leonas took the handkerchief back, and dabbed at her forehead. Then he took her by the shoulders to turn her around, and undid her hair so that he could fix it. “You look like shit,” he said.
“I know,” she pouted. He started braiding at the crown of her head instead of at the nape of her neck.
“A lumberjack cutting down trees has more technique than that.”
“It works, though.”
“If you ever have to fight—” He paused. “Anyone important,” he said. “Cutting through them like a thicket is only going to get you hurt.”
“I have techniques,” she said. “Advanced techniques.”
He tied off the end of her braid, and took an orange poppy from her basket to tuck it into her hair. “Running in a big circle around them isn’t a technique.” He kissed the top of her head before remembering that he shouldn’t, recoiling as if he’d been burned.
She huffed and started the horses again, waiting to resume her flower weaving. Leonas sat back down, and tossed his bloody handkerchief over the edge of the wagon rather than have to clean it later.
“We should be far enough out that you can change,” Minnow said.
Karzarul jumped out of the wagon, growing larger while he did so that his hooves were massive by the time they hit the road. The horses protested and tried to pull away from him, but Minnow tugged the reins until she had them under control. Leonas empathized with the horses.
“That’s what he looked like?” Leonas demanded, pointing at Karzarul. “When you met him, he looked like that?”
Leonas had never had the misfortune of seeing a Tauril in person. He’d known that they were large, which was different from riding in a wagon alongside one. It felt unnatural that anything so large could be mobile. The thought of striking up a conversation with such a thing was baffling. It would trigger a fear response even if he didn’t recognize him.
Recognize the Tauril more clearly than he’d ever recognized the Impyr, knew that face and had seen it kill him. Kill him again and again, night after night, more nights than not for years on end.
That was fine. He was over that.
But Karzarul’s tunic had that embroidered moon motif again, full moons on the backs of his gloves, silver crescents along the holes in his earlobes and an impossible silver longbow on his back. Which had, again, a lot of moon imagery. All of which was more obvious due to the sheer size of him.
“We already talked about this,” Minnow said. “He was nice. I thought he might be monster royalty? Like a prince.”
“Not that there’s anything wrong with being a prince,” she said.
“There’s plenty wrong with it,” Leonas said. “Being a monster prince would also be bad,” he pointed out. Karzarul raised an eyebrow. “In theory. If Karzarul were planning to kill you. Which we’ve decided he’s not.”
“He isn’t,” Minnow confirmed. “Like how I’m not planning to kill either of you, and you’re not planning to kill either of us. Right?”
“Right,” Leonas said.
“You said the King was planning to kill you,” Karzarul reminded her. Even his voice was bigger in this form.
“Yeah,” she said. “He was, right?” she asked Leonas.
“He strongly implied that you would kill me if I didn’t have the good sense to kill you first,” Leonas said. “You know how he is.”
“I don’t know why he thinks I would,” she said. “It isn’t guaranteed that we kill each other. I know what Leland says, and I know what Ari said before.” Karzarul grunted. “But it seems like it’s mostly Karzarul that gets stuck in a kill-or-be-killed. You and I only kill each other sometimes.”
“If I kill you both first, that doesn’t count as not killing each other,” Karzarul said. “There’s no way of knowing what you might have done if you had the chance.”
“Even still,” Minnow said. “Sometimes the Moonlight Monster is defeated, and the Starlight Hero and Sunlight Heir go their separate ways and it’s fine. You knew it was going to be fine, right? That I wasn’t going to kill you?”
Leonas shrugged. “It was always a possibility.”
“Leonas,” Minnow said, scandalized as if he’d admitted to not washing his hands.
“I’m not saying I wouldn’t deserve it,” he said. “I wasn’t planning to deserve it. No one plans to construct a tax policy so disastrous they become known as a tyrant king. Things happen, mistakes are made, kings are beheaded and sometimes the Hero does it.”
“I wouldn’t behead you because of taxes,” she said.
“You can’t promise that,” Leonas said. “You’ve never even paid taxes. Pay taxes, then see what you’re willing to behead me for.”
“If you need money, I can give you money.”
“It isn’t about the money,” he said. “Taxes are an example. There are a lot of ways to fuck up being a king, that’s why kings are a terrible idea.”
“I think you’ll be a good king,” she said.
“That’s not a thing,” Leonas said. “The best we can hope for is unremarkable. Boring. That elusive middle-ground between conquering and conquered, where there aren’t any wars and everyone’s getting fed but no one’s happy about it. Years later historians focus on what must have been wrong with me anatomically because they’re desperate for something interesting.”
“Should I let people know that there’s nothing wrong with your anatomy?” Minnow said. “So the historians know.”
“Minnow,” Leonas said, “are you suggesting that you are going to approach strangers, say ‘the Prince of Astielle has a normal dick’, and then leave? Because I don’t think that’s going to have the effect you think it will.”
“Oh!” she said. “I thought you meant they’d say you have a secret peg-leg. Because you’re part pirate.”
“… even if piracy were genetic,” he said, “a peg-leg isn’t something you’re born with.”
“Gerry said they were born with theirs.”
“Don’t listen to Gerry.”
“Who’s Gerry?” Karzarul asked.
“They’re a pirate,” Minnow said.
“They bring her quests, sometimes,” Leonas said. He didn’t try to sound catty about it, but he also didn’t try not to. “Given what Minnow’s collection has taught us about the predilections of pirates, I’m sure you’ll get along wonderfully.” Karzarul did not respond, the tips of his ears flicking, which Leonas had not realized they could do.
“You’re part pirate,” Minnow reminded him.
Leonas felt his face warm. “It’s not genetic,” he snapped.
Minnow held out her finished flower creation toward Karzarul, because she couldn’t reach to place it on his head. He took it gingerly, and had to place it behind his horns, hoofbeats slowing as he tried to get it right. He checked that it would stay in place before he lowered his hands. The flowers looked much daintier on the head of a Tauril. Minnow giggled like an arrow straight to Leonas’ heart.
“Where’s yours?” he asked, noticing her basket was already empty. If they were going to be a matched set, it only felt fair that it be all of them. That Minnow wear flowers instead of just blood.
She giggled again. “I don’t have one,” she said. “Heroes don’t need crowns.”