“Do you need something?” Leonas asked. He’d balanced a mirror against the wagon, and was shaving above a large bowl of water. He still had a black scarf tied over his hair.
“No,” Minnow said, sitting on the wagon with her legs crossed. Her chin was resting on her palms, her elbows on her legs.
“You’re staring,” Leonas said, opening his mouth to keep his skin taut as he dragged the blade down his cheek. It rasped against his stubble.
“I like watching,” she said, and he raised an eyebrow. “When you work.”
“Shaving isn’t work,” he said, rinsing off the blade before going for another pass closer to his jaw, mouth shut and chin jutting out.
“You’re concentrating,” she said, “and holding something sharp.”
He rinsed the blade again. “There’s something wrong with you,” he accused. He tilted his head to run the blade under his chin, over his neck.
“Yeah,” she sighed. It was the blade against his skin, the muscles in his neck and the shape of his arteries. The smooth, bare skin the blade left behind, and the control in never letting it draw blood.
“Shoo,” he said, trying to wave her off. “Or I’m going to use this on you.”
She offered the back of her forearm.
“I’m not going to shave your arm,” he said, exasperated. He gave up and resumed shaving. She pouted and took her arm back, but continued admiring him. There was something about the hollow in the center of his collarbones, or the spot where the nape of his neck curved toward his shoulder. The length of his fingers, and the precision with which he held a blade, with which he’d grown so good at touching her.
The fact that he was busy made her want to kiss his spine while he couldn’t stop her, until he finished and could try to make her regret it. She wanted to bite his fingertips.
Leonas had not, since leaving the castle, shown any real interest in touching or being touched. She thought he might be enjoying the break from obligatory people-touching. She wondered if touching her might have been an act of desperation from the start, seeking out a way to express friendship within his limitations. She would have to pretend she wasn’t disappointed, if he ever admitted it.
“Do you like me?” she asked, as he rubbed his face with a small towel.
“No,” he said immediately. “You’re a horrible little nightmare woman.”
Thus reassured, she stood, spine curving as she stretched her arms toward the sky. Leonas’ gaze lingered at the corner of his eye. She wandered over to where Ari was keeping watch nearer to the road, a Tauril sitting in the grass with his front legs still straight. She sidled up to him, leaning back against his front legs, near his waist. He reached down to touch her hair, and she made a happy sound.
“Do you remember where you learned that song?” Ari asked.
“Hmm?” Minnow asked, eyes still shut as he stroked her hair.
“The one you were humming the other day,” Ari said. “With Leonas.”
“I don’t remember which one that was,” Minnow said, opening her eyes. Ari hesitated before humming some of it back to her. “Oh, that does sound familiar,” she said. “Is it a lullaby? I pick up songs, sometimes. I don’t always know them.”
“It was a hymn,” he said, “to Mother Void.”
“Oh.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. “Are there words?”
“In Aekhite,” he said.
“Oh.” She wondered if she’d sung it before, without realizing.
Singing where someone else might hear was uncomfortable for her at the best of times. She had an irrational revulsion when it came to performance. It was difficult to explain, when she wasn’t averse to observation. She even liked it, sitting still while Leonas drew pictures of whatever bizarre injury she had managed to inflict on herself, being looked at and admired like a specimen in someone else’s collection. If Leonas asked her to stick out her tongue, to hold up her hair, stretch out her arms, spread her legs—she didn’t mind that at all. It gave her a nice feeling, same as Ari stroking her hair. If Leonas had asked her to sing, or to dance, her mind would go all blank with panic. It was not a nice feeling.
He’d never asked, fortunately. Kavid had, once. She’d punched him. He’d apologized later. It all worked out.
All that aside, it didn’t help that all the songs she knew seemed to be songs she’d never learned, dead songs, dead words slipping out over her tongue. Ghosts trying to make themselves heard. She never knew unless someone told her after the fact.
“It gives thanks to the Void Goddess,” Karzarul said, “for beautiful things.”
“I wasn’t totally wrong, then,” she said. “There are lullabies like that.”
“I believe,” Karzarul said, “that such things usually focus less on the importance of fragility, transience, and inevitable destruction.”
“Oh,” Minnow said. “I should have picked a different song.”
“I found it fitting,” Ari said. “It’s why I wondered if you knew.”
She shook her head. “Do you want to sing it for me?”
“No,” he said automatically. “Not that you aren’t—”
She patted his leg. “It wasn’t a request. I was only asking. You don’t have to apologize for answering.”
He picked her up without warning, and her heart leapt even as he pressed her against his chest and kissed her.
“Where is this ward meant to be?” Karzarul asked, looking at the great stone wall bordering Fort Astielle. Minnow had led them to an empty field, a stretch of wall poorly guarded enough that a Tauril could stand next to it without throwing up alarms. He did not ask how she knew this, or about the rusted battle axes in the grass.
“It reaches the wall,” Leonas said. He’d put his hair into a braid, and was trying to determine the best arrangement of hat and scarf to hide both the color of his hair and of his witchmarks.
Karzarul put his hand against the stone. “It doesn’t feel warded,” he said.
Leonas shut his eyes. “Don’t say that,” he said.
“It feels like there’s something in there,” Karzarul said. “Something I want.”
“You think it’s actually luring monsters closer?” Minnow asked.
“Don’t say that,” Leonas repeated. “Monsters don’t enter Fort Astielle, that doesn’t even make sense.”
Minnow rubbed his back. “It might work different for him,” she pointed out. “Maybe the ward only works on the new monsters.”
“That’s not better,” Leonas said. “Nothing about that is better.”
“I want to try to go in with you,” Karzarul said. “I can be a Slitherskin again. We’ve—I’ve gone through cities that way before. If you can prove the ward doesn’t let me in, I’ll stay out here. But I want to try.”
“We can’t abandon the wagon out here,” Leonas said.
“Sure we can,” Minnow said. “I leave stuff out here all the time, no one ever comes out here. I’ll unhook the horses and they can eat grass or walk to a stable or something.”
“You’re a terrible horse owner,” Leonas said, hooking his scarf over his ears and wrapping it around his neck. In conjunction with his wide-brimmed hat and matching leather gloves, he looked like a traveling doctor’s apprentice. “I’m shocked Piggy is still alive.”
“She’s a good horse,” Minnow said. “If Potato and Egg can’t handle it, they weren’t meant to be.”
Karzarul scratched at the wall with one of his hooves, as if he might dislodge a brick from it.
“Don’t start trying to knock the walls down,” Leonas said.
“I was testing it,” Karzarul said. He looked along the curve of the wall. “If there were a hole in it, I could stick my arm through and see if the ward stops me,” he said.
“If there were a hole you could stick your enormous arm through, it wouldn’t be a very good fort,” Leonas said.
Karzarul whacked another stone with his hoof. Tiny bits of mortar chipped away.
“Cut it out,” Leonas snapped.
Karzarul gave it a light tap.
“For fuck’s sake.”
“Okay,” Minnow said. “Potato and Egg are either going to frolic in a field before finding their way to a stable, or they’re going to die. Are we ready to go?”
Karzarul trotted back to her side, bending down to put his hands on her shoulders. His form transitioned through formless moonlight into a Slitherskin, draped loose around her neck. He slid headfirst down her shirt, disappearing under her clothes. He wound his way around her ribcage, hiding his shape under the fall of her clothes beneath her breasts. She worried he might overheat there, but didn’t say so. She also worried about sweating on him.
“What now?” Leonas asked, trying not to look for the shape of Karzarul against her. “We’re not climbing the wall, are we?”
She barked a laugh. “Oh, no, you’d die.”
“We can walk in, it’s fine. It’s a big city.”
They trudged through the grass back toward the road. Leonas kept fussing with his scarf, trying to get the fall of it over his shoulders just-so without bringing it too low on his face. The road itself wasn’t crowded, but they entered the gates before and after other travelers, enough of them not to feel too conspicuous.
Leonas kept pulling his gloves on tighter.
A change came over him when they hit Market Street, the smell of cinnamon wafting over them. “Oh!” he said, grabbing at Minnow’s shoulder. “Churros!”
“Yeah,” she said. “Everybody does churros.”
“No,” he said, scanning the stalls. “There’s one place that has the good churros.”
“There are no bad churros,” Minnow said.
“No, but there are good churros,” he said. “I don’t remember which one it was, I know it was Market Street, I know it was a stall.”
Minnow did not ask him how long it had been.
“This might be it,” he said, though he didn’t seem sure of himself as he approached the stall. Minnow paid for his churro. He stuck it under his scarf and took a thoughtful bite. He shook his head. “No, this isn’t it. Oh! That bakery is still there!” Leonas pointed at a storefront with his churro.
“Yeah,” she said.
“It’s the worst,” he said, still eating his churro. “I don’t know why anyone goes there. There’s an old man in there who has a very specific way that he believes you’re supposed to smell pastries, and if you do it wrong, he’ll make you stand there and keep doing it until he approves of your wafting technique. He does it to everyone. Absolutely awful. Imagine forcing someone to take sniff lessons and then expecting them to come back to your establishment ever again. I would have had his business license taken away, if I’d known he was still operating. I thought he would have gone bankrupt by now. Or been murdered.”
Leonas scanned the street again. Minnow thought that later, he would be annoyed with her for not reminding him to stay on task. She did not remind him. If nothing else, he also seemed distracted from the confirmation that Karzarul could have strolled up to Castle Astielle at any point in the last twenty years.
It was also cute.
“That one,” Leonas said, pointing to a stall some ways up the street. “I think that might be the good churros.”
Minnow bought him another churro. He stuck it under his scarf and took a bite. “No,” he said. “This isn’t it.”
“You don’t have to eat it if it’s bad,” she said.
“It isn’t bad,” he said, still eating. “It just isn’t the one I was thinking of.”
Minnow tried to steer him further down Market Street, closer to the center of the city.
“There used to be a toy store there,” Leonas said, pointing to a store that now sold hats. “Kids would go in and play with the toys but never buy anything, and he had a big bin of marbles that everyone stole from. They tried banning kids from the store, so everyone got offended and wouldn’t shop there anyway. I have no idea why anyone would open a toy store, children are awful.”
“Did you buy a lot of toys?” Minnow asked.
“No,” he said, brushing the last of the cinnamon from his gloves. He looked around. “That’s the last one I want to try,” he said, pointing at a distant churro cart. “If this place doesn’t have the good churros, then we’re not going to find them.”
Minnow bought him a churro. Leonas chewed slowly and contemplatively. “Shit,” he said. “I think the good churro guy might have retired.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, patting his arm.
Leonas looked at some of the signs at the nearest intersection. “Oh,” he said, “I know where this is, actually. This is—wait.” He spun around, looking at different buildings. “We should go this way,” he said, grabbing Minnow’s hand to pull her toward an alley.
“What’s that way?” Minnow asked.
“There should be a shortcut back to the castle,” he said as they left the street. “They can’t have changed it.”
“It doesn’t go through a sewer, does it?” she asked.
“No, no, this is through the catacombs.” It looked like a little shed, something that a nearby business might use for basement access. The door was covered over in a lattice of wrought iron.
“The what?” Minnow asked.
“Have you not been in the catacombs?” he asked. “That’s for the best, you would have died.” He let her hand go. “I haven’t done this in a long time,” he warned, “so you might need to smash this lock.” He held his churro in his mouth so that it jutted out from beneath his scarf, and pulled out one of the pins keeping his braid in place, inserting it underneath the padlock. It popped open immediately. He made a surprised sound, putting the pin back and fixing his hair before taking a bite of the churro. “Nevermind, these locks still suck,” he said after swallowing, pulling the door open with a loud rusty creak.
“What’s in the catacombs?” she asked, following him into the dark. “You said there’s no monsters in Fort Astielle.” The door led directly into steep stone stairs, and Leonas pulled his scarf down as they descended. The glow of his witchmarks was faint, but enough to see rough shapes. Minnow forgot, sometimes, how bad human vision was in the dark. She wondered if she ought to take the lead, since she had faesight.
“Nothing is allowed in the catacombs,” Leonas said. He was still eating his churro. “Most of it is unmapped, and it’s completely dark. There are a few safe areas where kids like to hang out, and there was a theater troupe operating out of one of the tunnels for a while. But for the most part there’s only the corpses of anyone who got lost and starved to death.”
They reached the bottom of the stairs, opening out into a wide tunnel. Empty eye sockets stared back at her from along walls built out of stacked bone.
“Oh,” she said.
Leonas finished his churro. “And all the other corpses,” he added. “You can ignore those.”
“Okay,” she said. Karzarul had emerged from the neck of her shirt, resting his head on her shoulder.
“Why do you keep your bones in the sewer?” Karzarul asked.
“It isn’t a sewer,” Leonas said, leading the way into the dark. “The bones have to go somewhere. We don’t put them down here anymore, the Sun clerics don’t like it. What with the, ah. Eternal darkness.”
“You know the way?” Minnow asked nervously. She was sure they could get out regardless, but it felt like a monster was going to leap out at any moment. This was not a rational fear, when she had a monster wrapped around her ribs. The air smelled of must and damp earth and fungus. “You’ve been through here before?”
“All the time, when I was a kid,” Leonas said. “How did you think I went and got you?” he asked. “I didn’t take the front door.”
“You had a carriage,” Minnow said.
“It’s easy to steal a carriage,” Leonas said, “when you’re a prince.”
How strange, to imagine Leonas as the kind of child who would sneak through the city in dark tunnels lined with bone instead of staying home with a book.
“This looks a lot like being lost,” Karzarul said, after a series of turns through tunnels in quick succession that seemed to double-back once.
“We’re not lost,” Leonas said. He reached out and touched a skull in the wall, which Minnow realized had glass marbles sitting in its sockets. They lit up like twin suns until Leonas took his hand back.
“Careful,” Minnow warned. This would be a terrible time to lose control of his magic and explode.
“It’s barely a spell,” Leonas said defensively, continuing along. “A child could do it, it’s not going to kill me to listen to a skull jibber.”
She looked back at the empty marbles. “Was it jibbering?”
“Marbles?” Karzarul asked.
Leonas made an impatient sound. “They were what I had at the time,” he said. “There was a fad, you probably don’t—of course you don’t remember, you were dead. It doesn’t matter, it isn’t like enchanting where you need the right materials.” He touched another skull with marbles in its eyes, lighting them up briefly. “Witchcraft is messy.”
Minnow felt a draft at the back of her neck, or something like it. She turned, but nothing was behind her. Out of curiosity, she peered through an ornate archway that Leonas had walked right past.
“Did you miss the part about getting lost and dying?” Leonas asked behind her.
“Is it a memorial?” she asked. The room had a high domed ceiling, a statue in the center of two women embracing. At least, Minnow thought they were statues. They may have been more corpses, bioluminescent mushrooms growing at their feet, robes of pale lichen. Their hands were bone, the teeth of their skulls nearly touching, their crowns ornate.
“It’s a Heretic’s Temple,” Leonas said. “I tried to avoid it because it gives me the creeps, so thanks for this.”
“What’s heretical about it?” Karzarul asked.
Leonas gestured at the embrace. “They’re sisters.”
“They’re lovers,” Karzarul said.
“The Void Goddess was the first,” Karzarul said. “The Sun Goddess and the Moon Goddess sprang from her bosom fully-formed. When the Moon Goddess caught the world, and the Sun Goddess gave it life, did that make every living thing a sibling? No. That’s not how deities work.”
Minnow tilted her head, considering the goddess figures. “I can see why they changed it,” she said.
“Don’t defend their shitty doctrine,” Karzarul said.
“I’m not defending it,” Minnow said. “I only mean, if you want the Sun Goddess to be the biggest and best goddess, it makes it hard if she kisses her sister girlfriend in front of her mom.”
“They aren’t sisters,” Karzarul said.
“It makes more sense if they’re all sisters,” Leonas said. “With the way that we are. If they were lovers, the Moon Goddess would have made you nicer.”
“I made myself,” Karzarul said. “I did not concern myself with your feelings when I did so, any more than you have ever considered mine.”
“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Leonas said, heading back down the tunnel. “Keep staring at the weird kissing skulls if you want, I’m moving on.”
Minnow followed after him. “Are you still feeling that thing?” she asked Karzarul. “The lure thing.”
“It’s getting stronger,” Karzarul said. “Pulling at me. I don’t care for it.”
“Don’t say that,” Leonas said.
Minnow rubbed at the shape of a serpent’s body underneath her shirt. “Hold on to me,” she said, “and you’ll be fine.”
“Watch your feet,” Leonas warned, taking a large sideways step. There were two bodies sitting on the floor against the wall, their clothing recent. Their skin was desiccated, pulled taut over their skulls. Minnow’s legs weren’t as long as Leonas’, so she had to step between their feet to pass them.
“They got lost?” Minnow asked.
“It happens,” Leonas said. “It’s why you shouldn’t wander off to look at weird shrines.”
“You’d come back for me,” Minnow said. Leonas harrumphed, but didn’t deny it. He touched a marble-eyed skull and took a right. “I never asked how you got the Sunshield,” Minnow said. “If you had to do a quest.”
“A diplomatic mission to Thexikar,” Leonas said, “when I was nine. They’d built a shrine where it fell, since they didn’t have anyone that could move it.”
“That sounds awkward,” Minnow said.
“Extremely,” Leonas said, taking a left. “The Empress of Thexikar was the second-in-line when Brennia died. She kept asking if I remembered her.”
“Oof,” Minnow said.
“Yeah,” Leonas said. “Very oof.”
“How did Elias die?” Karzarul wondered.
“Being old,” Leonas said.
“He left the Starsword on the altar at the Ruined Temple,” Minnow said. “So he knew it was coming. Or, I knew. Whichever.” Being technically other people made pronouns confusing.
“Hm,” Karzarul said, but nothing more.
Minnow had always assumed that the Starsword was left in an old temple full of monsters as a test, or a kind of training. Elias seemed like the type. She hadn’t thought about it at all in years. Now she wondered about heresy, defaced frescos and broken statues, tiles torn from mosaics.
“This should bring us up into the outer walls of Castle Astielle,” Leonas said. It wasn’t quite a ladder, was handholds cut into stone. Small relief that they wouldn’t need to climb femurs. “If we’re careful, we should be able to navigate entirely through the different gardens around the castle without anyone spotting us. I hope. I’m not sure. My father could have eyes in more places, now.”
“He doesn’t think Minnow kidnapped you, does he?” Karzarul asked.
Leonas shifted uncomfortably. “He shouldn’t,” he said. “I left a note.” He started to climb rather than clarify. Minnow followed after him. They emerged into something that looked like a cellar closet, everything covered in dust. Leonas had to jimmy the door open so that they could walk out into another cellar, then up a broken staircase into a nondescript hallway.
“I have a plan,” Minnow said, holding out a hand to stop Leonas from advancing further. “Here, if you take off your terrible disguise this should will work.”
“It’s not terrible,” Leonas said, although he didn’t need much encouraging to remove the hat.
“It’s not great,” Karzarul said.
“Gloves too,” Minnow said, pulling on them to discard them on the floor. “Let your hair down, you need to look princely.”
“Is the plan still that we’re breaking in to steal my shield?” Leonas asked, though he did as she said. “This doesn’t seem like breaking in.”
“We’re breaking in,” Minnow confirmed. “C’mon, let’s go.” She took him by the hand to pull him along down the hall. She was sure she knew where they were, having broken into Castle Astielle many times and in many different ways. Karzarul slithered under clothes, hiding himself, no longer peering out from under her hair. Leonas resisted when she started to pull him into a guardhouse, but she only pulled him along harder.
“Hey, Phil,” she said, dragging Leonas along behind her.
“Hey, Min.” He glanced up from his number puzzle. “Oh, hey. You got the prince out. Take him out for a walk, see some sunshine?”
“Yeah,” Minnow said.
“That’s nice,” Phil said.
“Do you know where they keep the warding mechanism that keeps the monsters out?” she asked.
“Oh yeah, we’ve all seen it,” Phil said. “Have you seen it?”
“I’ll take you,” Phil said, setting down his puzzle book. “Just give me a minute to grab my keys and lock up, no one ever comes by here anyway.”
Minnow leaned closer to Leonas so that she could whisper in his ear. “We’re in.”