There was a watchtower near the outside of Fort Astielle with a Rainbow Door in it. She wasn’t clear on who in Astielle’s history had put a Door in the tower, or what would happen if the tower fell. Looking at old maps suggested that what was originally a fort had expanded into a city, had expanded outward until it met what was once a distant tower suitable for scouting.
She tapped her Seeing Stone, but didn’t hold it. It was a good way to make Leonas’ stone chime just once, to let him know that she wanted to come in.
He chimed back once, but didn’t actually make contact. That meant he was awake, but it was a bad time. She sighed and went to the watchtower window.
The city had grown so much even since she was young. It had reached the limits of the warding, now, and expanded upward. As monster attacks grew worse, more and more Astians with the means to do so moved out of the villages. There were no wards out there, only passing adventurers and sometimes a Hero. A large enough village or town could withstand it, but not the little lonely places.
Out on the other side of the tower were the farms, farmers who decided they’d rather live in town and travel to their fields than risk the alternative. They were pretty enough, but these days there were guards, and that made it awkward to wander through stealing carrots and the occasional melon. Which was too bad. There’d been a man with muskmelons growing that she very much liked to steal. She’d rather not have someone reporting her melon-theft to the King.
Her Seeing Stone started to chime in earnest, so she picked it up. “You brought tea?” Leonas asked, looking ill.
“I got a jar,” she confirmed.
“Bring it,” he said, severing the connection.
Minnow climbed to the outside of the watchtower and onto the roof, standing at its highest point. Unfolding her glider, she jumped, soaring over the small houses that filled the outer streets of Fort Astielle. Rather than aim straight for the castle, she angled herself to hit the first Sun Shrine she saw. Sun Shrines liked to have spires on top of their domes, which made them good checkpoints for her. And there were enough of them that she could almost reach the castle.
Her usual route was through a specific guardhouse built into the outer walls of the castle. It saved a lot of time over the sneaking through the aqueduct that she used to do.
“Hey, Phil,” she said, passing the guard working on a number puzzle.
“Hey, Min,” he said, not looking up. “Kill the King of all Monsters yet?”
“Workin’ on it,” she said, climbing onto his shelves to wiggle through the window into the garden. From there she could go into the laundry, up one of the chutes, back out, then over a parapet onto the tallest tower. She was intimately familiar with the stones along the outside, which ones made the best footholds and which were too smooth. Pulling herself up onto the balcony, she stayed sitting on the rail, because Leonas was already standing there.
“You didn’t wear the new dress,” he said.
“You said you didn’t like it.”
He paused. “Give,” he said, holding out a hand.
“No,” she said.
“Do you have the tea or don’t you?” he asked.
“I do,” she said. “But you can’t have any until you’ve slept.”
“If I wanted to sleep, I wouldn’t need the tea,” he said.
“The Old Man said you need real sleep.”
“Piss on the Old Man.”
“Not literally,” he snapped. “Don’t you start with that. You’ve been out of the Faewilds for twenty years, you know good and well when something’s idomatic.”
“It hasn’t been that long,” she said. “Has it?”
“How would you know? You don’t even know what day it is. Is the jar in your bag? It must be in your bag.”
She slid off the balcony railing and past him, avoiding him as he tried to grab her pack off of her. “I’m not giving it to you yet,” she said.
“Then why are you even here,” he said, shutting the balcony doors and following after her.
“I want to make sure you sleep,” she said. “I brought other things, too.” She dropped her pack, digging around until she found a small drawstring bag. She held it out for him, and when he took it he looked inside.
“Is this part of a molar?” he asked. He squinted at her jaw. “What did you even do?”
“I read this soup recipe that said it was traditionally made by taking hot rocks and putting them in a skin so you don’t need a metal pot, and I tried it, but some of the rocks I used were too small and they blended in.”
He stared at her.
“I didn’t swallow them,” she added, in case he was worried.
“I got you these lizards, too,” she said, presenting him with a glass jar full of what initially looked like dried chilis, but were on closer inspection desiccated lizard corpses.
“… the lava lizards?” he asked. She nodded. “I asked for those four months ago,” he said.
“I waited until I was going through the mountains anyway,” she said. “I was being efficient.”
He rubbed at his eyes. “Right. Right. Great.” He took the jar out of her hand, turning his back to her and heading to the desk where he kept most of his current projects.
Minnow wandered through his shelves while she waited, trying to determine if any of his books on magical theory were about monsters. She could ask, but she didn’t want to raise his suspicions.
“Drink,” Leonas said, between the shelves with her and shoving a vial in her hand. She downed it in one shot, having gotten better at pouring it straight down her throat. He held out a handkerchief. “Spit,” he said, and she whined, stomping her foot, because her tooth was still growing back and the root had gone deep. Then she spit blood and bits of molar into his hand. He rolled up the handkerchief and stuck it in his pocket. “Open.”
“Aaah,” she said, sticking her tongue out. He pushed it out of the way with a small copper stick, squinting into her mouth.
“Good,” he said, letting her shut her mouth again. “All better, nothing weird.” Nothing she’d healed with one of his potions had ever turned into anything weird, but there was a first time for everything. He gave her a perfunctory peck on the forehead, but lingered there.
“You’re unwell,” she said, and he sagged, not backing away from her the way he ordinarily would have. “Promise me that if I leave the jar of tea, you’ll go to sleep as soon as I’m gone.”
“You don’t have to leave right away,” he said, not modulating his volume for how close he was standing.
She frowned. “You’re very unwell,” she said, because he was always telling her to leave. Go, and find Karzarul. Go, and kill Karzarul. Get rid of Karzarul, and he could finally leave the castle, leave his tower, go anywhere at all without having to worry about being murdered and leaving the Kingdom without an heir or an Heir.
He came close enough that she was pinned against his shelves, his arms on either side of her. It was, to put it mildly, unlike him. “I want to experiment,” he mumbled against her hair.
“You’re ill“, she reminded him, frowning at his cravat because she couldn’t see his face.
“Sleeping,” he said. “Stay here, while I sleep. I am the Prince of Astielle, and I—I order it. I order you to stay.” He pressed against her, nearly collapsing.
“Don’t say it’s an order, I’ll bite you,” she reminded him, trying to help support his weight.
“Well then what are you even good for,” he snapped at full volume again, standing all at once as if being pulled by a string, turning on his heel and stomping away. She blinked after him. “Leave then,” he said. “It was a stupid idea anyway, it wouldn’t have worked. You don’t know anything. All you have is a sword, you can’t stab dreams.”
“I can stay,” she said.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t want you here. Go away.” He was already heading up the spiral staircase to his loft. “I’ll order better company, you’ll only be in the way.” She followed him, and found him laying over his covers fully-dressed and sideways, staring at his ceiling. It was painted with a mural of the sun. She pulled herself up onto the mattress beside him. “Get your disgusting boots off my bed,” he said.
She carefully worked his circlet out of his curls, while he pointedly shut his eyes rather than look at her. Then he covered his face with his hands. “Go away,” he said again, muffled by his palms. She ran her fingers through his hair to catch it all as she lifted his head, wiggling sideways so that she could set it back down in her lap. She leaned back to rest her head on his too-many-pillows.
“I’m not looking,” she said. She felt him lower his hands, and turn his head.
He was asleep quickly enough that she was sure it had been days. She wondered if she could ask Ari to ask the Moonlight Monster to leave the Prince alone. She doubted it would work. But she could ask.
“What if you stayed?” Leonas asked, looking out the window.
“I did stay,” she reminded him, yawning.
“Longer,” he said. “Our first plan didn’t work. You didn’t find Karzarul in time. There’s no point running all over trying to find him. You might as well stay.”
She gnawed at her lip. The thought of staying in this tower was suffocating, but she didn’t want to say so. He’d slept for so long that it had gone from day to night to day again. It felt like too much time to be here. But he was always here.
He’d curled into his window seat with a cup of lemon tea, no special herbs in this one to keep him awake. His witchmarks were shining again, if not as bright as she was used to. She’d opted to sit on the floor, so that she could be close without being too close. Personal space.
“I can’t stay,” she said.
Leonas stared at his tea. “I can’t sleep,” he said. He drummed his nails against his teacup. “He knows where I am. He knows he can’t come here, the wards are too strong. He’s figured out how to… how to pull me out of my dreams, into nightmares. Not even the usual nightmares, he doesn’t—he does kill me. But mostly it’s, it’s mindgames. Trying to manipulate me into going out, since he can’t come in. Baiting me.”
“Can you put up more wards?” she asked. “Dream wards?”
He sipped his tea. “It would be safer for you to stay,” he said quietly. “I think he might be watching. Through monsters. You need to be more careful.”
She thought of Ari, and swallowed. Was she okay with that, if the Moonlight Monster was watching her through Ari’s eyes?
Through a friend’s eyes?
“Do you have any books about monsters?” she blurted.
He looked at his library, the tall shelves and wall shelves all full. “Yes,” he said. “So do you, unless you’ve gotten rid of them.”
“I think there’s something wrong with them,” she said.
“… the monsters.”
“I’ve found some things, exploring,” she said. This was not technically a lie. “Have you ever heard of monsters talking?”
He tilted his head. There was a grogginess to the motion. “Did you hear a monster talk?” he asked slowly. “Was this before or after you ate rocks?”
“It was one rock,” she said. “I think…” She wrung her hands. “I think monsters used to be people.”
He froze. “Human?”
“Not human,” she said. “People.” He relaxed. “Like, Brutelings throwing each other birthday parties. Bullizards with houses. Taurils that speak Astia, and wear clothes.”
“How would a Tauril even wear pants.”
“I didn’t say pants!” she huffed. “I said clothes. A nice shirt. You know?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Monsters are soulless. They’re weapons, made to destroy. They kill people.”
“I don’t think that’s right, though,” she said. “I mean, it’s right that they kill people. And all the monsters I’ve fought have seemed pretty soulless. I don’t think that’s normal for monsters, though. Some of the stuff…”
She couldn’t say ‘that Ari has been telling me’. That would be a whole conversation she didn’t want to have right now.
“The stuff I’ve been finding,” she said instead. “What if monsters aren’t supposed to be like this? What would that mean?”
Leonas rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything like that.”
“I’m not making it up.”
“I know,” he said. “If there was a change, it happened a long time ago. Karzarul could be doing something. Or not doing something. No one knows how his resurrection works, how he rebuilds his body. If he recreates himself using the souls of other monsters, that could explain it. An increase in violence as he demands more resources.”
Minnow chewed at her lip. That didn’t sound right, either. If that were the case, Ari would know what was happening. She couldn’t say so. And this was raising even more questions she hadn’t considered. Killing Karzarul might hurt all the other monsters. That wouldn’t be a problem, except some of the monsters were people. Having to lie to Leonas made everything complicated. Who else could she even ask these kinds of questions? She sighed.
“Asking you to stay was a bad idea,” Leonas said suddenly, setting down his teacup. “I’m sure I can find something to help me ward my dreams, I can take care of it now that I’ve rested.”
“You don’t have to do it alone,” Minnow said. “That wasn’t what I meant.”
“You’re annoying me,” he said, standing. “You breathe weird. Your nails are filthy. I don’t want you touching my things. I can figure this out, I just need to think. I can’t think with you here.”
“I’ll try to be better about picking up the Seeing Stone,” she said as she stood, but he waved her off.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, running his thumbnail under nails as he stared into the middle distance. “Go home, don’t eat any rocks or talk to any monsters.”
There were no monsters left inside the ruins at Magdedyne. Minnow could only assume that Ari had been coming back to make sure it stayed emptied. She’d stopped by her house before returning, to drop off some things and swap out her clothes. She’d taken a nap, though not on purpose. It hadn’t been restful, lying in Leonas’ bed while he twitched in his sleep. Napping wasn’t restful either, having woken in a panic trying to remember where she was supposed to be.
It was late now, closer to morning than to evening. The empty ruin was eerie, and the temptation to stop and look at weeds growing through the bricks was high. But she’d left Ari waiting, and she wanted to see him again. To ask him about old monsters, about Karzarul, about souls and dreams. To see if he knew where to start.
By climbing to the top of the ruins, she could glide across the gap in the bridge. Crickets chirped along the road and small animals rustled as she picked through the woods trying to find Ari’s camp. She wracked her brain trying to remember if he’d given any more details, some better way to orient herself.
She stopped to pick one flower, but only one, and only because she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen it before. She didn’t want to waste time checking. Fortunately, she noticed that the forest had gone quiet in one spot. That felt like a sign of something.
She was sure she’d never seen a Tauril sleep before. Ari had rolled onto both of his backs, his hooves curled in the air and one arm under his head, the other draped over his chest. He’d left his tunic hanging in a tree to keep it clean.
Minnow didn’t always notice when people were naked. She forgot that it was a thing, half the time. But Ari, without his tunic, looked… very naked. If this was how other people felt watching her take her clothes off, it explained a lot.
She crept closer, and tried not to think about Taurils with their underbellies exposed, her sword sliding between ribs. She considered how he might react if she touched him without warning. She crept back.
“Ari,” she said, hoping that would be enough.
He yawned, his mouth opening wide enough to see all his sharp teeth.
“I’m back,” she said, and he hummed something that could have been a greeting. He looked warm and cozy in all the ways Leonas’ bed never did. She thought about sleep, and personal space, and the lack thereof.
“Can I join you?” she asked.
He sleepily murmured an assent, the tip of his tail flicking against the dirt.
She kicked off her boots and socks, but thought she’d better keep the rest of her clothes on. Ari was already naked, and it seemed like they ought to take turns. Tentatively, she knelt down next to his upper half, touching his side to see if he’d protest. When he didn’t, she tilted sideways, nestling dangerously close to his armpit so that she could rest her head on his shoulder.
She felt like she was getting away with something. She didn’t know if cuddling meant anything to monsters. It didn’t mean anything to fairies. It didn’t always mean anything to her.
She wanted. If he were human, she’d know what she wanted, but he was a Tauril and that left her frustrated and confused. The wanting made her jaw hurt which made her think that what she wanted was to bite him. Experience said that wouldn’t end well, even if it was satisfying in the moment. She wanted to know what he tasted like, knowing that the answer was ‘skin’, which never tasted as good as she wanted it to but there was something very good about running her tongue over it all the same. She wanted to bite his fingers and the tips of his ears and scratch her nails through the fur on his chest.
What would that mean to a monster? Anything at all?
She sat upright, and gnawed at the knuckle of her thumb. It didn’t help.
She got up and added a log to the fire, poking at it with the Starsword until it was at a full blaze. Then she sat on the side opposite of Ari.
She was feeling precarious.
After more gnawing and pacing and poking the fire, she gave up. She’d missed him, after all. Monsters and kings and dreams aside, they were friends now, and she’d missed him. She was allowed to have missed him, even if she was being weird about it. He didn’t have to know that she was being weird about it. If he noticed, she could blame it on being a changeling. No one knew what was normal for changelings, least of all changelings.
Determined to be bold this time, she nudged the hand on his chest until she could wiggle underneath it. She straddled his stomach and rested her face under his chin, and tried to hear his heartbeat over her own.
He patted her hair. A small sound escaped her before she could swallow it, pressing her fingers into his skin.
“You okay?” he asked, his voice rolling through his chest.
She walked her hands higher until she could touch his beard, raking her nails along his jaw.
“Sorry,” she said, but she didn’t stop. She pulled herself higher to sit on his chest, wanting to see his face. He still looked half-asleep. She traced the shape of his nose, and the arc of his eyebrows. She ran her thumbs over his cheekbones, then held his face to bend down and kiss his forehead.
His hand was resting at the small of her back when she sat back up. “Did something happen?” he asked.
Wasn’t something always happening? “No,” she said. “You just smell good.”
“Ah.” He brought his hand out from under his head to touch her cheek. She pressed her face against his palm, her whole brain lighting up when his thumb touched her lip.
It was a lot.
“Did you bite me?” he asked.
“A little,” she admitted, contrite. She licked the pad of his thumb like that was better. She took his wrist in both her hands, because she didn’t want him to take it away. “I want…” Her voice hitched as she struggled to identify something actionable. “To be close to you.” She nuzzled at his palm, and resisted the temptation to bite him again. There was a tightness in her belly that made her want to scream, and sitting here like this she could pretend there wasn’t too much of him for her.
She pressed her palm to his palm, laced her fingers through his fingers and tilted her head to kiss his hand. He tried to pull it away, but too late. She glimpsed a shape on the back of his hand, and froze.
“Minnow,” he said.
She brought his hand lower and tilted it, taking her fingers out of his to better see the black curve of a crescent moon.
“Ari?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She rubbed at it with her thumb, but it didn’t smudge. She held her star next to it.
“Karzarul?” she asked, feeling silly even to say it. “Kari-zari-l.” It couldn’t be right, but it felt right, because hadn’t she thought he was royalty? Hadn’t she already thought he was spying? Hadn’t she decided not to care? Prince Ari, King Karzarul. A white Tauril and a white Howler, not white as snow but as moonlight. It was too big, it was nothing. She was a betrayer or she was betrayed or she was herself. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked.
“I wasn’t planning to,” he said.
She looked at his face, but he was still Ari. They were friends, and he would carry her if she asked. He thought everyone should be nice to her. “That’s wonderful,” she said, and she meant it.
“I don’t have to kill Karzarul,” she said, “because you’re Karzarul. We don’t even have to fight. We can just… play nice. And not tell anyone. No one has to know.”
“I have to figure out what’s happening with the monsters of Astielle,” he said.
“I can help,” she said. “Can’t I? We can help each other.”
“Minona,” he said, and she made a face. “We’re going to kill each other.”
“We don’t have to,” she said.
“We do,” he said. “The chosen three kill each other, and the goddesses keep score. That’s how this works. Trying to fight fate makes it worse, when it happens.”
“I’ll kill you when I’m old, then. After we’re done.” His bad attitude was starting to annoy her, when she felt they should have been celebrating. “As long as I’m still planning to kill you eventually, no goddesses can get mad at me, so I won’t trip over your tail into a volcano.”
“That’s not funny,” he said with a frown, and she worried that maybe in some past life she really had tripped into a volcano. It felt rude to ask.
“Karzarul,” she sighed, and he squeezed her hand. “Stay with me? No war, no fighting. Let the world think you’re asleep a little longer. Until I pick one of every flower and eat every edible thing, take a feather from every kind of bird, map the whole world and catch a thousand fallen stars.”
“Is that all?”
“I could,” she said. “I could do it if I had time.”
“I have time,” he said. “I have nothing but time.”
“Then give me some.”
His edges went funny, like the light was falling differently and changing all his shadows. She was still sitting on his chest, but his chest was smaller.
She’d only ever fought one Impyr. That one had been dark red and black-eyed with small horns and a spear. It had been worse for her than fighting a Tauril, because she wasn’t used to fighting things that were people-shaped, that could parry and lunge and strategize. It had driven home the reality that she depended too much on surprise and overwhelming force. Leonas had lectured her for days.
This was not that. This was Ari, the color of moonlight and with a different face than the one she’d known. A much more human face, for all that it was sharp and monstrous.
“Oh, absolutely not,” she said, scrambling off of Ari’s chest and to her feet. Anything else she might have said had left her, along with any thoughts she may have had.
“No,” she said firmly, turning in one direction and then the other before giving up and heading for the trees. “You can do that? No.” She braced herself against the other side of a tree trunk, wide enough to obscure her vision. She tried to prepare herself this time before looking back around it at him. He’d sat up, dusting off his shoulders.
That was a man. He may have kept a pair of hooves, but without the second set, he was basically a regular human man. Bigger than she was, but who wasn’t? Plenty of human men were bigger than she was.
She retreated back behind her tree rather than look at him. “This is a lot,” she said. She wanted to run, but she didn’t know where or from what, so she started to climb instead. “This is too much.” She sat on the first branch that could support her weight, and pressed a hand against her sternum like it would slow her heart.
Ari, tall enough again to almost match her, peered around the tree with a familiar vaguely-bovine face.
“Is this better?” he asked.
“No,” she said, pulling up her knees and holding onto the branch so she wouldn’t fall. “Which one is your real face?” she asked.
“They’re all my real face.”
She made a high-pitched whining sound, and regretted it.
“I’m the King of All Monsters, Minnow,” he said. “I’m all monsters. That’s how it works. Defying fate is fine, but turning into a Howler is a bridge too far?”
“No, I—I knew about the Howler. The Howler is fine.”
A white Misthawk perched in a branch across from her. She wanted to pluck one of its feathers.
“You’re a monster,” she tried to explain. “I thought we couldn’t. We wouldn’t fit. So that was why. But if you can be. Then we could. If you wanted. But that’s. I don’t know what to do, with that.”
An Impyr sat in the tree across from her. He had rings in his ears and in his nose, and his face was all sharp angles, and she could see all the muscles in his arms. She was overwhelmed all at once with the kind of attraction that made her want to jump at him so he’d knock her down.
She yelped and pushed herself out of the tree instead, landing with a thud.
He was a Misthawk and then he was a Tauril again, all in quick succession to make his landing more graceful than hers. She glowered at his hooves, which were the size of her head. He reached down to pick her up by the shoulders, setting her back on her feet.
“I’m getting a lot of mixed messages,” he said, and she buried her face in her hands. “How long ago did you leave the Faewild Forest?” he asked delicately.
“I’m not a child, Ari,” she said, dropping her hands in frustration. “I’ve touched a dick before! I’ve touched—a number of dicks.”
“Okay,” he said, holding up his hands in appeasement, which put them far above her cone of vision. “I was just checking. You seemed confused.”
“Not about that,” she said. “I thought…” She gestured at his lower half. “I don’t have to think about this. Nothing is going to happen with this. It can’t. Physically. All I had to think about was this.” She gestured with a swirling motion to her head and torso. “And I did think about it, a lot, and I worked my way all the way up to whatever that was.” She pointed accusatorily back at the spot where he’d been laying by the fire. “Now there’s all of this,” she said, gesturing around her pelvis with the same swirling motion, “and that’s…”
She gestured between him and the spot by the fire and back to him, believing this should speak for itself.
“I liked whatever that was,” he said.
“I bit you.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “Don’t say that.”
He scooped her up into his arms, and she bit back a sound, his one hand at her back and the other under her knees. He bent his head, and caught her mouth with his; immediately she wrapped her arms around his neck and tightened her grip, trying to crush herself against him.
She wondered if he felt the way she felt, but hoped that he didn’t, because if he did he was going to eat her alive.
“This is a lot,” she said, rather than bite him again.
“I know,” he said. “Let’s sleep on it.”
“I guess,” she said, as he set her down on the fur he’d been using as a pillow. He went fuzzy at the edges as he dropped down beside her, a Howler with his snout nudging her cheek. He licked her, tail wagging. “I guess,” she said again, scratching at his ruff. She couldn’t deny that this simplified matters, letting her snuggle close to him without any distractions. He was nothing but a big, fluffy pillow this way.
This was stupid. Men were stupid. Better not to dwell on what that made her. She curled up against him, and tried not to think about it.