Minnow had no memory of a time before Faewild Forest, what must have been eight years or so of normal human life. She couldn’t say how old she was, because she didn’t know how long she’d been there. Later, she would try to estimate a range based on when Elias had died. But while in the Faewild, she never thought to wonder, never considered that she might be different in any way from the other changelings waiting there.
The star on her hand was interesting, but no more than freckles or scars. She liked to climb the highest trees, and find the highest cliffs before jumping into the Lost Lake, but she wasn’t the one and only. They were all changelings, different and the same the way all changelings were, would be forever unless they became fairies. She played in the trees and the rivers and the ferns, her hair growing in green and her teeth turning sharp.
When Prince Leonas came to the Faewild, he seemed impossibly old and strange. They had never seen a witch before, or a prince, and couldn’t remember adults. Fairies looked no older than changelings, after all. The changelings turned it into a game of hide-and-tag, shrieking in delight as the Prince snatched them up and checked their hands before letting them go again.
Minnow had stayed in the trees rather than play after the first, realizing immediately what it was he was looking for. She felt sure the game would end once he’d caught her, and that was no fun. Once she decided it was her turn, she thought it would be fun to bait him into the Maze of Roses. It gave her more opportunities to get almost-caught before dodging through a hidden gap in the briars, giggling wildly and with her heart racing.
When he finally caught her, his grip was painfully tight, and her giggling didn’t stop. He was all blue and copper, the colors of the treeless space above the Lost Lake, his witchmarks the color of sunlight. His copper circlet blended into his curls. The shield on his back gleamed like it was breathing. He was appropriately terrifying, but what was terror to an undying changeling except its own kind of fun?
“Found you,” he said, and she nodded. “I am the Sunlight Heir, Prince Leonas of the Kingdom of Astielle,” he said. All his words had sharp edges. He held up his hand, so that she could see the black shape of a sun on the back of it. She poked at it, and confirmed that it was as much a part of his skin as her own. “You,” he said, “are the Starlight Hero.”
“I’m Minnow,” she said, and he paused.
“Your name cannot be Minnow,” he said.
She tried to remember if she had another name. “Minona?” she said.
“Minona,” he repeated, clearly preferring it. He pulled at the lock of green in her hair, checked the points of her ears and held her chin to see the points of her teeth. “Sun and stars, they really did try to ruin you.” She stomped at his foot, but missed.
“Minnow,” she corrected him.
“You cannot stay here,” he said, and he began to drag her out of the Maze of Roses. “You have an important job.”
“I do?” she said.
“You’re supposed to kill the King of All Monsters,” he said.
She had killed things before, but they were mostly rabbits and fish. The changelings had once banded together to kill a Rootboar that broke into the Faewild, but that was her only experience with monsters.
“Why can’t you do it?” she asked.
“I’ll help,” he said. They were going through the trees, and she began to feel self-conscious about the other changelings watching her. She considered for the first time the possibility that this strange man might take her away.
“We’re not supposed to leave,” she said, trying to pull away from him to no avail. “We can’t.”
“They can’t,” he corrected impatiently. “You’ll be fine. You’re not like them.”
“I don’t want to go,” she said, trying to dig her bare heels into the dirt. His grip on her forearm hadn’t moved since he’d caught her.
He stopped, and his eyes were the cold kind of blue. “Here,” he said, reaching into his pocket to hand her something. “Try this.” She took it cautiously in her free hand. It was a little brown ball, semi-translucent and hard as a rock. “Put it in your mouth.”
She did, because it wouldn’t be the first time she’d put a rock in her mouth for very little reason.
It was the sweetest thing she’d ever tasted, a flavor somewhere sideways of spicy. She’d had a taste like it before, having tried to eat everything in the Faewild at least once just to see, but never sweet like this. It was enough for her to start following along again as he lead her.
“That’s candy,” he said, apparently satisfied by her silent contemplation of the taste. “There is lots of candy in Astielle, once you leave the Faewild. Once you have the Starsword, you can have as much as you’d like.”
“What’s that?” she asked around the candy. She wiped her hand on her tunic, ragged bits of rabbit fur and sturdy dry leaves and beetle shells.
“Do you remember a sword?” he asked. “A bright, shining sword, that sings.” She shook her head, then again when he looked back because she hadn’t responded. “It’s fine,” he said. “You’ll remember.”
The woods around them became unfamiliar, the trees and underbrush less dense. Something about the air felt thinner, lighter. She looked back, and tried to find the spot where it had changed. She’d explored every inch of the Faewild Forest, but she didn’t recognize a single tree. A sense of panic filled her, and she wanted to pull away, to look at the ground and the growing things until she found the seam between what she knew and what she didn’t. She didn’t want to miss anything important that might let her retrace her steps. What if she needed something? The hollow where she kept the best rocks and shells and bird feathers was still back at her tree.
It was even more startling when they left the trees entirely, into an open field. She associated a lack of trees with water, not with grass. It felt unnatural to be able to see so far, to see the horizon and mountains and great big buildings.
“Do you recognize this?” he asked, gesturing to the landscape, to the whole wide world that it felt like she could see. She shook her head again, and he frowned. Bending down, he touched a hand to her forehead, moving her hair out of the way so that he could look suspiciously into her eyes. “You’re supposed to remember,” he said. “Usually you remember.” He seemed less sure of himself.
“I don’t,” she said, before biting down on her candy. It stuck in her molars as she tried to chew.
“Fairies,” he snapped. “I can’t imagine what they were thinking. They should have known better. Did they think they were keeping you safe?”
“They did,” she said, feeling defensive of the fairies. After all: here she was. Safe.
“You’re not meant to be safe,” he said, still not letting her go. He lead her to a blue and copper phaeton behind two white horses; that she shouldn’t have been familiar with these things didn’t occur to her. He finally released her, but only long enough to pick her up and set her into the carriage.
“Where are we going?” she asked him.
“Larksedge first,” he said. “We need to get you equipped before you get the Starsword back from the Ruined Temple. There shouldn’t be many monsters in it, yet.” He pulled out a pocketwatch, frowning at it. “We have time,” he said firmly, putting it away. “We ought to have time.”
In the depths of the Ruined Temple was a Rainbow Door. Now that Minnow had the Starsword on her hip, she could use it the way Leonas had told her to. The prospect made her nervous. The space in the doorframe shimmered with multicolored lights, completely opaque.
Her ribs hurt, and her arms hurt, and she’d lost one of her front teeth. She didn’t know if it would grow back, or if it would be sharp when it did. She knew that losing teeth was a thing that happened to children, but didn’t know if she was that kind of child.
She put her hand on the hilt of her sword, touched the light, and told it where to take her.
She opened her eyes past the blinding light into a library, books from floor to ceiling on every wall. Instead of candle lanterns, there were glowing crystals on the walls. Bells were ringing. She only took two steps before Leonas emerged, curls all loose and witchmarks dim, and the bells stopped.
“Two months,” he snapped, furious. “It has been. Two months. What were you doing?”
Minnow had not left the Faewild long enough to appreciate the optics of his fury at a small and tattered child. She also did not yet fully grasp the passage of time.
“I got the sword,” she said.
“It does not take two months to traverse the Ruined Temple,” he said, “even for a child. What are you wearing?”
She looked down at herself. “I found better armor,” she said. She stolen it from Bruteling scouts, pieces here and there. None of it fit her right, but at least Brutelings were closer to her height. “I didn’t want to miss anything,” she said by way of explanation. She dropped the bag she’d found onto the floor, where it landed with a thud. Then she sat cross-legged in her too-big boots, and started taking things out to take stock of her haul.
There were shiny stones, bits of broken jewelry, regular stones in shapes that made them seem like they’d be useful. There were lengths of rope, and chain, and old rusty daggers. There were arrows with their heads still red, and the shells of various insects. She’d found a small jar, and filled it with smaller fish. There were scrolls, primarily the ones with pictures of animals in them. She’d used thread to tie together as many lizard tails as she could collect, and an assortment of mushrooms. There were coins from countries that no longer existed, and a few tiny animal skulls that she’d found clean and intact.
“Do you at least remember anything?” Leonas asked as she sorted through her pack.
“About what?” she asked.
“Being the Starlight Hero,” he said. “Unlocking the power of the Starsword. Killing Karzarul.”
She shook her head. He ran both hands through his hair.
“You must remember something,” he said. She shrugged. “Here,” he said, reaching down to pick up a small book she’d added to her stack, “what’s this?”
“Beink a Brief Kuide To Trafel Amonkst the Nordern Kindoms,” she read off the cover.
“See?” he said. “There weren’t books in the Faewild. They didn’t teach you to read. This is in Old Astia. How do you know how to do that?”
She pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes at the little book. She hadn’t thought to wonder, when she’d found those few books and journals in the Ruined Temple. But that wasn’t the same as real remembering. “I just do,” she decided, which only seemed to frustrate him.
“You can use a sword, at least,” he said, and she nodded. She had tried to avoid using it, because it was tiring and she wasn’t very good at it. Still, it wasn’t complicated. She hit monsters with the sharp part, and tried to hit them hard and fast enough that they didn’t have time to hit her back. Easy.
“Come here,” he said, picking her up by the back of her armor to pull her to her feet. She set down the rocks she’d been sorting as he dragged her to a desk. “Sit.” She sat. He looked at her eyes, and pulled at her hair, as if he’d been hoping the Starsword would knock the changeling out of her. She remembered this from before the Ruined Temple, the way he’d prodded at her and taken notes in his little book. He found the bruises on her jaw and on her arms, her torn fingernails and her missing tooth, the wounds still healing on her ribs. He poked at all the parts that hurt with his pencil, watching her wince when he did it. She swung her feet in the air while he took his notes, and then he wandered away, muttering.
When he came back, it was with a glass vial of something green that seemed to move. “Drink this,” he said. She did. Then she coughed and sputtered, wishing she hadn’t. It tasted like rotten leaves and dirt. She clapped both hands over her mouth, because she could feel a tooth pushing through her gums, knocking the shards of the old root out onto her tongue. She spit blood as Leonas found a handkerchief, using it to hold her chin without getting his hands dirty so that he could look at her teeth.
“Still sharp,” he sighed. “Ah, well.” He prodded her ribs, and this time she didn’t wince. “All better,” he said, although her bones felt fuzzy. “Most of that is trash,” he said of her treasure hoard, “but I might be able to use the lizard tails.”
“They’re mine,” she said. “You said I could have candy.”
“Would you like to trade?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said, although she didn’t think she should have to give up her lizard tails for the candy she’d already been promised.
“Give yourself a bath the way they did in Larksedge,” he said, “and then we can talk about candy.” Minnow made a face. She hadn’t cared for Larksedge, or the old ladies who’d scrubbed her skin raw and nearly ripped her hair all out with water that felt almost boiling. “I wouldn’t let a dog in here as dirty as you are,” he added. “You can stay in the courtyard with them, if you’d rather.”
“I should,” she sulked.
He waved toward a door. “The bathing chambers are over there,” he said. “Either use them or leave.” With that he went back to his notes, ignoring her.
When Minnow reactivated a lost Rainbow Door deep beneath the Sunflower Hall, she used it to return to Leonas’ Library at Castle Astielle. He’d given her a Seeing Stone, but she started to ignore it after the first month; her progress never seemed to be fast enough for him. The world was much too big for her to ever know it as well as she had known the Faewild, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t try.
Leonas hadn’t told her she should come here, or even that she could, but her bag was too full to keep carrying. She didn’t have anywhere else to keep things, no tree to call her own or hollows for her treasures. Sometimes she would find a chest, and leave her things in it temporarily with the Starsword resting on top. Ordinary mortals couldn’t lift it, after all.
She’d been eating a lot of lizards, and sunflower seeds.
It was dark, and quiet except for the bells that announced her arrival. Leonas did not appear. She walked through his shelves, sneaking as if this were a dungeon.
She found the prince sleeping at a desk. It was covered in vials and gears and copper wire, pens and ink-splattered pages all over. There were crystals growing in some of the glass, pulsing with faint light. She huffed as she abandoned him there, letting him sleep.
She thought she might be able to use his bed, since he wasn’t in it, but climbing the winding stairs to his loft found a woman there. Her hair was long and blonde, and she had also not woken to the sound of the bells. Minnow had learned better than to crawl into bed with people outside the Faewild. It upset humans more than seemed proportionate. She couldn’t remember ever sleeping alone, but it had felt familiar as soon as it had become necessary.
Trudging back down the stairs, she set her bag down next to a wall of shelves. She was sure that she could find a chair to sleep in, if she looked. The floor was fine, but felt wasteful when Leonas had so many soft things.
The door to the library opened, and she froze.
She had not yet met King Leland, in the months she’d been out of the Faewilds. Leonas had mentioned him, but she had spent most of her time in various ruins and secret places.
She had thought Leonas was thin, but this man was thinner, far thinner than she expected for any living thing. She had thought Leonas was old, but this man was older, with skin like garlic-paper and a heavy beard all white.
“So this is our Hero,” he said, his voice younger than his face. She nodded. “You’re very young, for a Hero.”
That was a thing people said, when they saw her with a sword. She had no frame of reference.
“I thought I ought to meet you,” he said, gloved hand patting her shoulder. It was a forceful sort of pat. “Since you’re the girl who’s going to save the world.”
It was a strange and abstract thought, saving a world. It was too big to think about. It was easier the way Leonas said it. Find Karzarul, and kill him. She knew how to find things. She knew how to kill things. That was a thing she could do. The world was too big, and there were too many things in it.
“It’s a terrible thing we’re asking of you,” Leland said, “and you only a child. A terrible, cruel thing. Terrible enough for Leonas, but you even younger…”
Minnow shifted, and wished he’d let go of her shoulder.
“I would save both you children from this fate, if it were in my power,” he said. “I hope you know that. If the situation weren’t so dire—if monsters were not rising even now—we would never ask it of a Hero so young. We’re only lucky that Leonas managed to find you. My clever boy.”
Minnow wasn’t sure if she should nod.
“Father?” Leonas asked. Minnow and the King turned to where he stood, his clothes rumpled. “Why are you here?” Leonas spotted Minnow. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“I saw that she’d used the Door,” Leland explained. “I thought I should say hello, since I assumed you’d be occupied.”
Leonas flushed, his witchmarks shining. “That wasn’t necessary,” he said. “I appreciate your concern.” He pressed his palms together, and Leland inclined his head. Leonas’ gaze slid back to Minnow. “Did you lose more teeth?” he asked, approaching suddenly and taking her by the chin again.
“Uh-huh,” she said, opening her mouth so he could see.
“Did you keep them?” he asked, and she shook her head. “You need to keep them next time,” he scolded. “Those shards from before were very useful, don’t lose them next time.”
“Leonas,” the King warned.
“I’m helping,” Leonas said defensively, retreating back to his desk. “This is helping her, she needs help.”
Leland squeezed her shoulder. She couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be affectionate.
“Drink this,” Leonas said when he returned, shoving a vial into her hands. It was the same one as before. She shook her head. “Drink it,” he insisted, “or you’re going to lose all your teeth and eat nothing but paste.”
She gave in and drank it.
“Spit into this,” Leonas urged, giving her a handkerchief. “If there are any bits of tooth left, I can use them.”
“You can’t go around asking children for their teeth,” Leland said.
“I’m not,” Leonas said. “I’m only asking her. It’s for magical research purposes, it’s not weird.”
Minnow gave Leonas the bloody handkerchief, which he seemed to regret. He held it at arm’s length as he took it back to his desk again.
“Why don’t I see about finding you a room?” Leland suggested. “We have so many, after all. Would you like your own room?”
Leonas came rushing back before she could answer. “Don’t spoil her, Father.” He gripped her wrist too-tight, yanking her away from Leland’s hand for the first time since he’d arrived. “You’re too soft,” he said, but Leonas wasn’t looking at either of them as he pulled her along. “I have research that’s been waiting for her to get back, there’s no time to waste.”
“You never were patient,” Leland sighed. “There’s a room waiting for you whenever you want it, child,” Leland called.
Though Leonas pulled her to his desk, he didn’t let her go once they were there. He rearranged things on his desk with his free hand, as if preparing. He paused as the door opened, and didn’t move again until long after it had closed.
“Here,” he said, herding her to a window among his shelves. It had a cushioned seat covered in pillows. “You can sleep here,” he said. “Don’t leave this room. You understand?”
She nodded as she sat down.
“Keep the sword with you,” he said. He looked out at the night sky. “Guard the window.”
“I thought I was sleeping,” she said.
“You are,” he said. “You’re sleeping by the window with your sword, so if anything comes in you can wake up and kill it. Okay?” She nodded. “If you leave the room, or let your sword go, I won’t help you anymore. Understood?” She nodded again.
He started to reach toward her, but stopped himself, turning to walk away. “Try to stay quiet,” he muttered.
Minnow managed to avoid Castle Astielle for seven months before Leonas asked her to come back. “There’s a specific kind of frog,” he said through his stone. “It has blue rings on its back, you can find it under Orchid Mountain in cold streams when it’s raining. There can’t be lightning or it won’t be right.”
“Can’t someone else get it for you?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Ordinary people can’t go to Orchid Mountain.”
“Can’t you go get it?” she asked.
“If I leave the castle, I’ll die.”
“Not instantly,” he clarified, impatient. “There’s a ward around Fort Astielle but it’s strongest at the castle. Karzarul and his monsters can’t get to me here, until Karzarul is dead it’s the only place I’m safe.”
She thought about this. “You left before,” she said. “When you came to Faewild Forest.”
“That was before, the monsters weren’t as bad then. Stop dwelling on the past.”
“How far can you still go?” she asked.
“Not to Orchid Mountain!” he snapped. “Can you get me a frog, or can’t you?”
“I can try, I guess.”
It had been chiming for fifteen minutes when Minnow finally answered the Seeing Stone.
“You need to pick up your fucking stone,” Leonas said as soon as she touched it.
“I did,” she said.
“How soon can you get here?” he asked.
There was a Rainbow Door in the hill behind her house. She had a house, now. It had been built for someone she’d been before, and they’d kept it. No one in Lilock Village saw any problem with an eleven-year-old property owner. One of her neighbors kept complaining about the state of Minnow’s garden. Maybe she thought Minnow remembered being a middle-aged man, and felt she ought to landscape accordingly.
“Pretty soon,” she said.
“Hurry,” he said, severing the connection.
As soon as she’d come through the Door, he was pushing a heavy trunk at her, sliding it across the floor. “You need to take these,” she said. “All of these, as many as you can.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“I’m cleaning,” he said. “I’m getting rid of my books.”
She looked around, and noticed his empty shelves, books shoved into open and overflowing trunks, stacked into crates.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t need these,” he said, fixing his curls around his circlet to look less harried. “These are books about the world. Worldly things. I don’t need that. That’s what advisors are for. I need to make room for books about… magic. Magic things. Alchemy and enchanting. Important things.”
She cocked her head sideways, wrinkling her nose. “You’re a witch,” she said.
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Witches don’t need books,” she said. “Only enchanters need books.”
He paused. “Who told you that?”
She shrugged. “Everyone knows that.”
“You’re sure you don’t remember anything?”
“I never remember anything.”
“It’s not as if they’re mutually exclusive,” he said, fixing his cravat. “Witchcraft is messy. A witch’s magic only lasts as long as its user. Enchanting is precise and lasts for generations. Rainbow doors are enchanted, they’ve lasted for eons.”
She opened a book at random, its pages filled with watercolors of different locations on the continent. “You really can’t use these?” she asked.
“They’re trash,” he said.
“Can I keep them?” she asked.
He nodded, small and fast and brief, before pretending he hadn’t and pushing the trunk closer to the door. “I don’t care what you do with them,” he said.
She felt fairly certain that this meant they were not trash, and he wanted her to keep them. It didn’t feel safe to ask. She couldn’t explain why; just a feeling.
Her house had plenty of room. Designed for an adult with an adult life, not a child who wandered through caves. It wasn’t any trouble to keep them all, and anyway, she liked books. He had some books about birds that she’d always thought about stealing.
“I’ll take care of it,” she said. He watched her disappear back through the Door, dragging the first trunk of books. She only moved it enough on her side to make way for more; every time she came back, he had pushed another crate or trunk to where she could reach it. The bells in his room were going off non-stop from all the back-and-forth, but she barely noticed those anymore.
Until she came through, and saw the King. She stopped in her tracks.
“Hello,” he said, smiling at her.
“Hi,” she said, staying where she was.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said. “I thought I’d come see what all the fuss was about.”
“Apologies, Father,” Leonas said, pressing his palms together. “She’s helping me to make room, that’s all.”
“You can ask for help, you know,” the King said. “We have servants for a reason. I’m sure the Starlight Hero has more important things she could be doing than helping you clean your room.”
Leonas swallowed, looking at the floor. “Of course,” he said.
“I’m not angry,” the King said. “I worry, that’s all.”
“I know,” Leonas said.
“I’m very proud of you,” the King said. “It’s not easy to focus on your future. On your Kingdom’s future. To work hard toward making a meaningful contribution, instead of counting on witchcraft and destiny.”
“Thank you,” Leonas said.
Minnow inched toward the Door.
“You can visit whenever you’d like, you know,” the King said, turning to her before she could escape. “I’d love the opportunity to welcome you properly. We’re usually quite generous with guests.”
“She’s busy,” Leonas said. The King looked back at him, then at the box of books Leonas had been moving before he’d arrived. Leland picked up a book, and flipped through it, dust marring the fingertips of white gloves. Leonas rubbed at his fingernails.
“I’m sure it’s hard,” Leland said. “Giving these up.”
“Not really,” Leonas said, running his thumbnail underneath his other nails. “I’ll get new ones. They’re just heavy.”
The King set the book back down, and reached out to squeeze Leonas’ shoulder. “You’re making the right choice,” he said. “I’ll send someone up to help with the rest of these.”
“Thank you, Father,” Leonas said.
“I can get it,” Minnow said.
Leland smiled at her. “That’s very sweet of you, Hero Minona.”
She still couldn’t place what it was about Leland. She thought it might be that he smiled at her. It could have been politeness. But most people didn’t smile when they saw a child with a sword.