Eson was a port city built next to cliffs. It had expanded outward, as cities do, until it filled out all the space between rocks and water and started climbing upward. Not all at once, and not in the same places. They built on top of the cliffs, and upward beside them, until the two met. It was a country’s worth of people all crammed into one city, climbing up toward the sky and down toward the water, fitting buildings into every spare bit of space.
This made Eson an absolutely baffling son of a bitch to try to navigate.
Minnow had done her best to add notations to her maps to render them useful, but there was only so much that could be done. There were streets at ground level, which was sea level, and there were streets at ground level, which was up above sea level on the cliffs. There were streets between the two, spiraling from one to the other on a steep slope just flat enough to allow carts to use them. Some of them had been constructed upward, and others down, and so two roads that looked like they ought to intersect would instead be slightly above or below each other. Two buildings might be only five feet apart, but to get from one to the other on the streets required heading all the way down and then back up again in a process that took an hour. A better strategy might have been to make a different map for every level, and she’d tried, but it was too hard to figure out where one level ended and another began. She’d done her best, but she was no longer happy with the decisions she’d made and didn’t have the heart to bother re-doing them.
She planned to spend as little time as possible in Eson with Leonas because he would not take kindly to her jumping off high streets and climbing into windows. She would not take kindly to anyone insisting she walk. It was an argument waiting to happen.
There was a Door that had been put at the top of the cliffs, which would have been excellent for gliding down from before they built more city on top of it. Knowing that she—her past self—had put the Door there made it more annoying than it had been. The feeling that if she could only learn the trick, she could move the Door somewhere more useful. Easier to cope with the unfairness when it felt random and out of her control, like weather or the ocean.
Years ago, Minnow had bought a small apartment in Eson. She’d fixed it up as nicely as she could before deciding she wanted something even nicer, so she’d bought a different apartment. She’d done this several times, and now owned several homes of increasing niceness, only the nicest of which she ever used. Strangers lived in the others and paid her for it by dropping payment into the mail slot of her nicest house. Mostly it was coins, but sometimes there’d be other things, interesting looking rocks or old books or maps. It was a very informal arrangement. If it took her long enough to come back, the mail slot would get clogged up with stuff and no one had to pay her anything until she’d cleared it out again.
This ought to have incentivized her to visit more, but, well. She had the lanternmelons. The occasional maps were much more interesting than the gold.
Gerry wasn’t in Eson and hadn’t been for some time. There was a shop by the waterfront that specialized in messenger pigeons trained to seek out ships at sea. Unfortunately, the old woman who ran it had come down with something that left her bedridden, and the only doctor she trusted was one on the other side of the city at the top of the cliffs. Minnow spent the trip mulling over how nice it would have been to have put a Door at the bottom of the city as well as near the top.
“We’re closed for the weekend,” the man at the clinic said as soon as she’d arrived.
“Mrs. Hanna is sick,” Minnow said.
“She’ll be sick three days from now, too.”
Minnow debated all the things she could spend three days doing. She could go back to the cabin with the boys, follow one of her new maps, or spend some time shopping at the bazaar. All of those things would likely distract her for longer than three days. With her luck, they would distract her long enough that she’d come back in time for his clinic to be closed again.
She set her bag down in front of the clinic and used it as a pillow to take a nap underneath the doctor’s windowsill.
Leonas had set a chair outside the cabin to read. It was a day before Karzarul realized it was because he couldn’t see the Door from underneath the willow tree.
It had been three days since Minnow had gone through the Door on her own.
“We could go check on her,” Karzarul suggested. He’d been a Tauril much of the time they’d been here, and Leonas had stopped flinching at the sight of him.
“It’s only been three days,” Leonas said, not looking up from his book.
“You could use the Seeing Stone,” Karzarul said.
“It’s only been three days,” Leonas said again. “She doesn’t answer if you use it too often.” He turned the page. “It’s fine. When she comes back she’ll apologize for accidentally getting a job at a tea house and losing track of time. It happens.”
Karzarul had spent enough time on the questing side of things to know the truth of it. But it felt different waiting, watching Leonas watch a Door.
“Have you been to Ocrae?” Karzarul asked.
“No.” Leonas flipped back a page, having realized he hadn’t read it properly. “I’ve been to Astielle. And Thexikar, once. Anywhere else I’ve been, I’ve been with you.”
“We could go together,” Karzarul suggested. “If I hid under your shirt—”
“Violet,” Karzarul hissed into his Seeing Stone. He was in the middle of the field of wildflowers, far from the cabin but still in view of it. It was unlikely Leonas would hear him, but he was being cautious anyway.
«And to what do I owe the pleasure?» Violet asked, fluttering his lashes at the stone.
«You said before that you wanted monsters to be around humans again, right?»
«Ye-e-es,» Violet confirmed.
«Did you—are there places yet?» Karzarul asked. «Places where monsters are?»
«Other than here, you mean,» Violet said.
«Obviously that’s what I mean,» Karzarul said. «I want places I can go that won’t—I’ll still draw attention. Obviously. But not as much. Maybe. If there are already Taurils wandering around. You know?»
Violet hummed thoughtfully. «What’s the vibe?» he asked.
«Sexy? But casual.»
«That goes without saying,» Violet said. «Wine, beer, rural, urban?»
«Do you remember Rison?» Karzarul asked.
«It’s Eson now,» Violet said.
«Right,» Karzarul said. «If we could do a sort of beginner’s version of Eson.»
Violet drummed his fingers against his chin. «I’ll ask Buttercup, I’m sure he’ll know a place. I’ll get back to you.»
Minnow had been sitting in the street reorganizing her bag when the doctor became annoyed by her continued presence outside his front door. He gave her a list of ingredients for some kind of medicine, all of which she already had somewhere, but none of which she had with her. The mixture itself was unfamiliar, which he told her was because it was only good for treating the one specific illness that plagued Mrs. Hanna.
Minnow had three jars of healing potions in her bag, but they were only good for knitting flesh back together. Really more of a healing unguent, or salve. It didn’t work as well as a sacred spring, but she justified keeping them as a matter of emergencies. If Mrs. Hanna could have cut her leg off instead, it would have saved Minnow a great deal of running around, as well as retroactively validating her bag-related decisions. Minnow would not be telling her that her insistence on being ill instead of being mutilated was an inconvenience, but she would be thinking it.
“Do you know where I can buy cave orchids?” she asked the woman who sold rare flowers.
“Those are very rare,” the florist said.
“I know,” Minnow said, setting gold on the counter before grabbing flowers by the handful to shove into her bag. She didn’t need any of them yet, but it might save her a trip later.
“I’ve heard there’s a place near here—”
“I know about the cave,” Minnow interrupted. It would take her about three hours to get there, assuming she left immediately.
“Yes, there’s a cave to the south,” the florist continued, undaunted. “But it’s—”
“Yes!” the florist agreed. “It’s rumored to be full of—”
“The Captain of the—”
“Guardsmen, I know, I’m not talking to him,” Minnow said. “Do you know anywhere that I can give someone gold and they give me cave orchids and I don’t go to a cave?” Minnow was aware of a number of caves with cave orchids, but the rest were even further from a Door than the smugglers’ cave south of Eson.
“No,” the florist admitted.
“Bye.” Minnow stepped off the street and into the air rather than allow the florist to give her any additional advice. In a motion made automatic through years of practice, she pulled her scabbard from her belt with the Starsword still in it, flipping it up above her head. Dragonfly wings made of starlight burst out from it, catching the air and immediately slowing her descent. She held onto the crossguard and surveyed her options as she drifted downward, debating steering her glider into the harbor. She didn’t recognize any of the ships, but dropping onto one from the sky could be a fun way to meet new people.
She spotted a traveling merchant’s cart on a lower street and navigated the glider in their direction. When she was approximately above the correct spot, she spun the Starsword in her hands to collapse the glider and let herself fall.
“Do you have cave orchids?” Minnow asked the startled merchant as she rose from the crouch her fall had brought her to. She reattached the scabbard to her belt while they recovered from the shock to respond.
“I don’t,” they said finally. “There’s a cave to the south—”
“I’ve been catching up with Violet,” Karzarul said abruptly.
Leonas raised an eyebrow. He didn’t look up from his book, which he hadn’t been reading anyway. Karzarul had been hovering around him most of the day, and it was too distracting. It put Leonas on edge, waiting for him to make a request or ask an unpleasant question.
“Is he doing well?” Leonas asked.
“Maybe,” Karzarul said. “He said the Taurils have been spending time in a town called Salt Creek.”
“Gross,” Leonas said.
“It’s better than it sounds,” Karzarul said. “I’m told. There’s a Door nearby. I was thinking about going.”
“If you wanted.”
Leonas closed his book as he considered this. He had been prepared for the probability that both Minnow and Karzarul would wander off, if not together then at the same time. Minnow wandered as a matter of habit, and Karzarul had a kingdom to consider. Leonas would not be an asset to either of them, and he was used to waiting.
“A town,” Leonas repeated.
“In Ocrae,” Karzarul said. “Mostly Ocrae. The creek is a border and the town is quite large.”
Leonas drummed his nails on the cover of the book. “It would need to be,” he murmured, “to fit more than one Tauril in it. That won’t bother you?” Leonas hadn’t forgotten the city in the gorge, Karzarul avoiding even Rootboars.
“No,” Karzarul said, with a confidence that did not feel earned.
“What will we be doing there?”
Karzarul hesitated before answering. “We could see a play,” he suggested finally. “Or eat. Outside. I don’t fit in most buildings.”
“Not like that, you don’t,” Leonas agreed. “You could be something else.”
“I would prefer not to.”
“Hm.” Leonas opened his book again to stare at the pages, not reading.
Smuggler’s Cave was empty the vast majority of the time, but somehow never when Minnow wanted to pick flowers. It was as if her intention to be anywhere near it was enough to summon a ship to sit in the middle of the cave, full to bursting with absolute morons.
Minnow debated killing them all. It would save her a lot of time. However, it felt rude when they were still minding their own business, and killing was messy. She headed straight for the back of the cave with the orchids, looking purposeful and giving the smugglers a wide berth. This was sometimes enough to get her safely ignored.
Minnow took off at a run. A surprising number of problems could be outrun.
“Intruder! We’ve got a stowaway!”
“No you don’t!” Minnow shouted back, still running. She jumped over a stack of crates and narrowly avoided running into someone. “Ignore me!”
That never worked, but it felt like she ought to give them the opportunity.
“Catch her!” someone shouted.
“Ignore me!” Minnow shouted again. “This has nothing to do with you!”
The yelling did not sound like the yelling of people taking her word for it. However, the majority seemed off-put enough by her determination to give her some breathing room, and that was all she needed. She jumped at one of the cave walls to grab a spindly white orchid from the wet moss it had nestled itself into, landing on uneven stone with water up to her ankles. She jumped for a few more with graceless splashing.
A large rock hit her in the back of the head, which was not enough to injure her, but was enough to startle her into dropping her orchids.
“Seriously?” she complained underneath the triumphant noises of a young man who thought himself clever, bending down to catch her orchids before they drifted away.
Another rock hit her, and she scowled.
“Okay,” she sighed, unsheathing the Starsword. “Fuck this.”
“This feels excessive,” Karzarul said.
“You’re the one who said you wanted color,” Leonas said, tucking more flowers into Karzarul’s hair. There were so many wildflowers he looked like there was a garden spilling all down his back. They’d found him a dark blue shirt that mostly fit and had thrown a quilt over his back half like an oversized saddle blanket. The theory was that enough color would obfuscate the fact that the whole of him was the color of the moon, and make him look more like any other Tauril.
“I want it to look good,” Karzarul complained.
Leonas paused. “Are you doubting my fashion sense?”
“I look like a grandmother’s funeral,” Karzarul said.
“The flowers look nice,” Leonas insisted. “If the quilt bothers you that much I’ll—I don’t want to magic it, it might be important to Minnow. We can buy something different when we get there. I don’t see why it matters, I already know what you look like.”
“You’re not the only one who’ll be seeing me,” Karzarul reminded him.
“So?” Leonas said. “You’ll be with me. You shouldn’t care about other people.”
“Don’t wear your makeup, then.”
“I don’t know what you thought was gonna happen,” Minnow said, pouring out the last of her healing potion. “I don’t expect everyone to recognize me, but I am an adventurer. I’ve got a sword. What’s your name?”
He sniffled instead of answering, so she kicked the freshly healed stump of thigh where his leg used to be. He made a sound like she’d stepped on a frog.
“Name. You’ve got a name?”
“Bullseye,” he managed.
“That’s stupid,” she said. “This happens—listen. Stop making that sound, it’s gross. This happens every time I come here, and eventually, you’d think you guys would stop coming here. Or at least you’d figure out to ignore me.” She wandered away to start digging through the pockets of the nearest corpse, using its shirt to wipe blood from her hands. “Except, I thought about it, and that was my mistake. If I kill everyone, there’s no one left to say: hey, if you see the Starlight Hero, ignore her. She’s doing unrelated stuff.” Very few of the dead smugglers had anything interesting in their pockets, though one had a cool knife. She used a piece of the sail to wipe blood from her face. “Actually, if you guys picked the orchids yourself and sold them at port, I wouldn’t even have to come here. It would save me a lot of time. But I never left anyone alive to tell anyone that, which was my bad.” She kicked at a crate to try and guess at its contents. “Is it drugs? Do you guys have drugs?”
“Cool.” Minnow pulled out the Starsword again to hit the edges of the crate until it cracked, peeling away the wood to reveal cloth sacks packed with powder. “I wasn’t planning to take this,” she added, trying to determine the best way to carry as much as she could. She’d take the whole ship, but it was covered in corpses and she’d broken the mast besides. She’d prefer to leave that to be someone else’s problem. “You threw a rock at me and that’s why you don’t get to have legs or drugs anymore.” Or his rock-throwing arm, but that went without saying. She started pushing one of the intact crates toward the small boat she’d used to row here.
“Where are you going to take me?” Bullseye asked.
Minnow frowned. “Nowhere?” she said, confused by the question.
“I’ll—I’ll die here.”
“Nah,” she said, pushing her crate again. “You’ve got an arm, you’re not losing blood anymore. You can drag yourself somewhere if you really want but you’d be better off waiting for the next boatload of idiots.”
“We were coming to port,” he said. “There’s no supplies left.”
“It’s not like you’re short on meat,” she pointed out. If there’d been any color left in his face, it disappeared. “You’ve always got those if you’re squeamish,” she added, gesturing to his legs. “But you’re going to want to cut up the rest of the crew anyway to make sure they don’t get back up, so you might as well. Eating your own legs is weird.”
Leonas had never blended in. Not in the castle, where everyone looked like his father and no one like his mother. Not in Thexikar, the first time he’d realized that there were different ways for a person to be pale. For a few years he’d fooled himself into thinking he could lose himself in a crowd, veiled and playing the part of some lost stray witchling.
Even then, he’d always known better deep down. He revealed himself with the small thrill of excitement he felt when he saw someone else with skin any darker than boiled milk. Recognition, or a desire for recognition. An impulse to wave or to nod, as if they ought to recognize each other. As if this one small thing gave them anything in common, made him any less his father’s son.
Clinging to Minnow as if any of it meant anything to her.
Salt Creek was smaller than Fort Astielle, fewer people in fewer buildings all clustered together in ways he didn’t recognize. Roads of irregular widths that wound instead of carving straight, every roof sloping and some of them shared. The language was six languages, familiar words jumping out from the middle of sentences. Almost everyone looked like Leonas, or looked like his mother, or looked like what he imagined his mother must have looked like. He was the only one who found this off-putting. The sense of recognition wasn’t going away, was instead a persistent false alarm. He felt conspicuous.
A Tauril named Bo had told Karzarul where to find a better saddle blanket. He found Karzarul’s going by Ari much funnier than Karzarul did. Monsters wandered the streets in small numbers, nothing compared to the number of people but enough of them to notice. It was difficult to glean how the locals felt about this new type of tourist, but shopkeepers were eager to seem inviting. Whatever else a monster was, all of them had more money than sense, Karzarul most of all.
Leonas felt conspicuous, and it had nothing to do with Karzarul. Karzarul was charming and polite, spoke the language fluently, and remembered to translate though Leonas hadn’t asked. Vendors sold him scarves and painted fans and strings of bells, and Karzarul paid for the novelty of strangers being happy to see him. Leonas watched him and wondered if this was the Ari that Minnow had known, the one that Leonas had never met because he’d always been Karzarul.
Leonas hated him.
He didn’t exactly hide behind Karzarul, but he did. He fidgeted with his gloves and with the scarf he’d worn as a veil. He hadn’t bothered hiding his hair. It meant nothing here. He’d always thought he had his father’s hair, but he’d seen more than one person in Salt Creek with reddish curls. That felt like it ought to mean something, but he didn’t know what.
He felt conspicuous. He’d thought it would be the Sunshield, but he wasn’t the only one with a shield. Most of the others had swords to match. He wouldn’t know what to do with a sword.
They still used Astian coins here. Leonas fished one out of his purse to drop in the bowl of a roadside drummer. The drummer nodded thanks, and Leonas’ hands twitched, reflexively wanting to press the heels of his hands together. He hadn’t seen the gesture since leaving home. Not home. Astielle.
The Kingdom that would be his, if it didn’t find a way to kill him first.
“Did you want to get something to eat?” Karzarul asked, lifting him up onto his back. “She said there’s good samosas if we take three lefts and a right over there.”
“Three lefts and a right would bring us back here,” Leonas said, curling his knees up sideways close to Karzarul’s back.
“You’d think so,” Karzarul agreed, “but I’m told they’re odd lefts.”
“Sure.” Something about this city felt louder.
“Are you having a good time?”
“Yes,” Leonas said automatically, examining the flowers in Karzarul’s hair. He touched the ones that were starting to wilt to revive them.
“Is there anything you’d like to do?” Karzarul asked. “I still haven’t bought you anything.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“There’s a theater by the river,” Karzarul suggested, gesturing toward a flyer that Leonas couldn’t read.
“The other monsters aren’t a problem?” Leonas asked.
“No,” Karzarul said. “This is—there isn’t a contrast.”
“Okay.” Leonas considered the possible downsides of asking Karzarul to make him a sedan chair with curtains. He found the stall with the samosas, a slapdash outdoor kitchen of cookware precariously balanced over open flames staffed by too many people all navigating around each other. Leonas found it best to avert his gaze from the open metal bowl of boiling oil that wobbled whenever anyone moved.
“You are from Astielle?” an older woman asked in accented Astian, drawing his attention. She was assembling triangles of dough. Leonas nodded, and she gestured to her face, where a veil would be if she wore one. “Witches don’t have to wear that here,” she said.
His face felt hot. He mumbled syllables that didn’t form into words, only made the vague sound of an explanation.
“Here,” Karzarul said, twisting to try and pass food back to Leonas without spilling anything. Leonas had to scoot backward, reaching to accept the unglazed clay cup of tea and the curled leaf with the samosa in it. The fried triangle had been cracked in the middle so that a sauce could be poured into it, with two whole chilis alongside it. It was unclear to him what he was meant to do with the chilis, or if there was a correct method of eating.
Leonas couldn’t decide if it looked good, if he wanted it to be good, what if anything it would say about him if he didn’t like it. A cloud passed overhead, its shadow blanketing the street. The hum of it pulled at him. He wrapped the tea in sunlight to keep it from spilling over. “I don’t want to eat this here,” he decided.
“Oh,” Karzarul said, having eaten his samosa in one bite and followed it with tea like a shot. He started to walk with a careful gait to keep Leonas steady. “Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know,” Leonas said. “Away.”
“Would you like me to go faster?”
Karzarul took off at a gallop, seeking out empty streets and taking long leaps over obstacles. Leonas put a dome of sunlight over himself, a variant of the bubble he used sometimes when he was bathing. It meant he couldn’t see the buildings rushing by, but he was fine with that. The shouting wasn’t ideal, but that was unavoidable. Leonas listened to the fall of Karzarul’s hooves, pounding on stone until the stone gave way to pressed earth. The footfalls slowed, and Leonas let the sunlight he’d been using dissipate. The city was distant now, Karzarul following a worn path away from the river and all the buildings along its banks.
“You can tell me if you’re not enjoying yourself,” Karzarul said finally.
“I never said that,” Leonas said. “Don’t put words in my mouth.”
“I’ll put something in your mouth.”
“Absolutely not,” Leonas said. “Go fuck yourself.”
Karzarul laughed. “Fuck me yourself.”
Leonas took a tentative bite of the corner of a samosa. “Oh,” he sighed. “That’s really good.”