“This is the book room that has your old stuff in it,” Minnow said to Leonas, leading the way. “Most of them I stuck on shelves without sorting, the witchcraft books are the least organized because I never use them. I did use a lot of your animal and plant books, and books about places. I put them back when I’m done but some of them got pretty messed up. I don’t think we need those ones anyway, right? We want magic books, about magic stuff.” She didn’t consider it a library, because a library had a system. She’d seen enough of them to know the difference.
Leonas ran his fingers over leather spines, familiar titles.
“And there’s a whole shelf of dirty books over here!” she said more gleefully, spreading out her arms to indicate.
He choked. “Those ones are not mine,” he sputtered, turning red.
“I think this one was,” she said, pulling out a tattered volume. “It was on the bottom inside of an encyclopedia, but when I found it I noticed it had a number at the corner, so I’ve been trying to find all of them.” She held onto the slim booklet with care. “These were the hardest to find out of everything I have,” she said. “People get so weird about anyone finding out they looked at a drawing of a boob.”
“Good work?” Leonas managed. “I don’t think that’s going to help us right now.”
“I know,” she said. “But since I got the whole series I thought you might want to read them later. I figured it would have been frustrating, never knowing the whole story.”
“I know what happens,” Leonas said. “He has sex.”
“Yeah,” Minnow said, “but he also stops the coup attempt.”
“Yeah!” Minnow said, excited. “See, in the one you had, he has sex with the Baron’s many perfidious daughters, and then also the perfidious Baron.” She opened it to point to one of the pages, which featured a lot of improbable anatomy. “But if you look closer, he’s wearing a little badge, which they don’t explain. In the earlier ones they establish that he’s a detective for the Kingdom of Orgyite—”
“—and he’s trying to uncover the head of the rebellion. With his dick.”
Ari looked over her shoulder at the book, and the watercolors on the pages. He pointed at it, looking at Leonas. “This was yours?” he asked.
“… I was thirteen,” Leonas said, turning his attention back to the shelves. “My judge of quality was poor.”
“Hmm.” Ari wrapped an arm around Minnow’s shoulders, resting his chin on her head. Leonas glanced over, then turned his back to them both, focusing on book titles. Ari purred loudly against her hair.
Minnow put the book away, and pulled away from him.
“Karzarul said monsters are supposed to be made of moonlight, and people are sunlight,” she said, wandering between the shelves. She looked them over, but wasn’t actually reading at all. The thought of actually trying to do research made her eyes glaze over.
“Everyone knows that,” Leonas said. She stuck her tongue out at his back.
“Are fairies made of sunlight?” she asked, falling into one of her big comfy chairs. Her legs went over the armrest.
“They’re magical creatures,” Leonas said, taking down a book to check the table of contents.
Minnow bounced her feet. “So there’s sunlight, moonlight, and… magic,” she said.
“I know,” Leonas said. “But it isn’t starlight. Enchanters used to believe magic was starlight, and they fucked up a lot of enchantments that way. Lots of theories that never went anywhere. Treating magic as distinct works best for practical applications.”
“It’s void,” Ari said. He was leaning against one of her bookshelves, and fortunately it was one braced against a wall. If he’d done that on a loose bookshelf it would have tipped.
“Oh, right,” Minnow said. “Karzarul says the Star Goddess isn’t the Star Goddess. She’s the Void Goddess.”
“Hm.” Leonas’ mouth was a thin line, but he said nothing.
“Magic is void,” Ari said. “Potential. It becomes what’s made of it, what’s put into it. Places like the Faewild—it would have been an ordinary forest, once. But for whatever reason magic started to pool and gather there, picking up all the things that people carried into the forest. Their awe, their dread, the things they thought might lurk. It became a forest that felt, in some way, like more of a forest than others. It compounded on itself, drew more magic in, and now it is Faewild Forest. Fairies and pixies born of the things men saw in the corners of their eyes at night, magic as dense as water in an ocean. Heroes have always been drawn to the Faewild; you are the only one I know to have been drawn there young enough to be changed by it.”
Minnow considered the forest she’d grown up in, and how thin the air had felt as soon as she’d left it. “Does that sound right to you?” she asked Leonas.
“Magic is drawn to magic,” Leonas confirmed. “Deep wells of magic are a danger, and the Faewild Forest is one possible consequence. As to the nature of your patron goddess, as well as magic itself, I would want to see citations.”
“I predate your modern understanding of the universe,” Karzarul said.
“That’s not a citation.”
Ari snorted, meandering toward the chair where Minnow had settled herself. He leaned over, bracing one hand against the top of the chair, caging her in. His grin had a little of that sharpness to it, that bite that made her feel all fluttery. She slid out of the chair and away from him before he could kiss her. The look on his face made her feel bad about it, but not much.
Leonas was pointedly ignoring them, and so Minnow ducked through a door and out into the hall. Ari followed, but she was in no mood for the look on his face. “You need to stop,” she said, her voice low.
“Oh?” He reached toward her, but she smacked his hand away, startling him.
“I’m not a weapon,” she snapped. He looked stricken. Her piece said, she moved around him to rejoin Leonas. He grabbed her arm to stop her.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.
“You didn’t want him to see?” she asked. “You didn’t want it to hurt?”
He shifted, scuffing his hooves against her floor. “I wanted him to see that you like me,” he said. “That it’s mutual. That you’re not ashamed of me.”
“You know that I’m not,” she said.
“I want him to know,” he pressed. “If it upsets him, that’s his problem, not yours.”
“If I go in there and kiss him,” she said, pointing, “would it upset you?”
He averted his gaze, nostrils flaring. “That’s different,” he muttered.
“Because you don’t trust him?” she pressed, leaning and stretching her neck to get in his face. He turned his head in the other direction. “Because you think he’s going to hurt me?” He said nothing. She flicked at his hand on her arm, and he pulled it back, shaking it out like he’d been stung. “Stupid,” she said, and he flinched. “You’re being…” She searched for the word. “Insecure.”
Ari’s shoulders had been rising like hackles, his jaw acquiring a sullen jut. “Why would I be secure?” he shot back. “Of the Heroes not eager to kill me all on their own, the rest were turned against me. Those few Heirs that could not twist my words chose to kill the Hero themselves. What security do I have, when you trust him and turn on me for daring to want to touch you?”
She hummed, giving due consideration to his furrowed brow and bared fangs, the lashing tail and angry ringing of bells behind him.
“Have we done this before?” she asked. “You and I, before I was me. Were we ever together?”
“I…” He wilted. “Once,” he said. “Almost twice.” He rubbed at the spot on his hand where she’d flicked him. “There were times when things were almost different, they could have been different. In the earliest reincarnation cycles, I. Made a lot of mistakes. Later, when we were together, I thought things would change. They didn’t. This is the first time you’ve let me touch you, since.”
“Would it be better if I remembered?” she asked.
“What was my name?”
He hesitated. “Jonys,” he said.
She turned the name over in her head. It was familiar, but only insofar as she recognized it as a name. He could have said any name and she likely would have felt the same. “It doesn’t sound like me,” she said, “when you say it.”
“You were tall,” he said, and she got up on her toes. “Black hair. You were very proud of your hair.” She fidgeted with a lock of mossy brown, frizzing as it dried, the ends all split. “Very kind. A little bit stupid.” She scowled and dropped back down to flat feet, and he smiled. “Shoulders are the same, though. And you have tits now, that’s an improvement. I think you would have liked those.”
“I do,” she confirmed. “Have I ever been tall and had tits?”
“When you were Maiete,” he said. “I killed you.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I was too powerful. What about short, but with a really big dick?”
Ari made a face. “How would I know?” he asked. “Needle was pretty short, I don’t know what your dick looked like. You were called Needle. The first time, when you were a horrible man. The second time you were tall, I don’t know why you called yourself Needle again. You lived a very long time as a horrible man named Needle, I don’t know why that wasn’t enough. You may not even have had a dick the second time, I never asked.”
“That’s fair,” she said. “That would be off-putting.”
“It would,” he agreed.
She’d known intellectually that the Hero was, if not always a man, then usually. Knowing someone who’d known her made it different, made her wonder. How much of herself was muscle memory? Forgetting about personal space and being careful and keeping her shirt on. Not a changeling thing, but a Hero thing, taking his clothes off and cozying up with strangers and no one noticing it enough to mention it?
When they re-entered the book room, Leonas was sitting at her desk, going through papers.
“Are you reading my mail?” she asked.
“Yes,” Leonas said, still reading. “Do you own a farm?” he demanded, holding up one of her letters. “When did you buy a farm?”
“You know I don’t know,” she said, because she’d never gotten much better with time. “I know it was a long time ago, but post-Toast. I saved an old lady so she gave me her farm in Graswick. It wasn’t even a farm, it was a collapsing barn and a field.”
“A collapsing barn and a field wouldn’t make this much money,” Leonas said.
“I didn’t leave it like that,” she said. “I fixed up the barn, and cleared out all the rocks and weeds so I could plant some things.”
“How did you become a farmer without me noticing?” he asked, looking at the letter again.
“I did it between other stuff,” she shrugged. “Find seeds, stick ’em in the ground.”
“That’s not how farming works,” Leonas said, picking up a different letter and frowning at it. “I don’t think that’s how farming works.”
“It didn’t work well,” she said. “It did better after I hired a guy, and then he hired more guys.”
“Why,” Leonas asked, “have I had to intervene multiple times regarding reports of the Starlight Hero stealing pumpkins when this entire time you were some kind of…” He sputtered, waving the letter aggressively. “Lanternmelon tycoon!”
She scratched her nose. “I like free produce.”
“It wasn’t free. You stole it.”
“They left it sitting in a field.”
“Yes. Because that’s where they grow. On the farm. Which you should know. Because you’re a lanternmelon tycoon.” He set the letter down, looking at them spread out in front of them. “I know this winery,” he said. “I’ve had this wine.”
“Is it good?” Ari asked. He’d sat on a loveseat, and was taking up the entire thing with the spread of his knees.
“It’s magical melon wine,” Leonas said. “It’s impossible to fuck it up. Minnow, according to these reports, you have the capacity to single-handedly devastate the economy. Any economy. The core concept of an economy.”
“Oh!” She perked up. “Is that good? Can we use that?”
“No!,” he said. She pouted. “Why would that be good?” He hesitated. “Although if the rumors I’ve been hearing about the negotiations with Perivo are correct—no. This is a nightmare. I don’t understand how I could have not known about this. Do you not pay taxes?” He shuffled through pages again. “Why don’t you pay taxes.”
“Dee is in charge of that,” Minnow said, pointing at the letters. “She sends me the big letters. She says I’m a legal entity.”
“The entity is. It’s old. Older than Astielle, and money, and stuff.”
Ari snorted, but made at least a token effort not to laugh outright.
“That can’t be right,” Leonas said. “Your current body was still born in—we don’t know where you were born.” He tapped the first knuckle of his index finger against his lower lip, staring into the middle distance. “Even still, the property itself is… but if you’re the acting avatar of the will of the Star Goddess—”
“Void Goddess,” Ari corrected.
“Whatever,” Leonas said.
“You’re not going to get her to pay taxes,” Ari said, standing. His bells sang as he walked over to the shelf where Minnow kept her rarest, filthiest books, his tail swaying. Leonas flinched.
“I know that,” Leonas said. “Are the bells necessary?” he asked. “Have you considered the merits of not sounding like a low-rent dancing girl?”
“I’ve considered them,” Ari said with a ringing toss of his braid. “I have found them wanting.”
“Great,” Leonas muttered, shuffling through papers without actually reading them. “You’re perfect for each other, you can share bards. She’ll sing, you’ll dance, he’ll take turns. Fun for everyone.”
Ari hesitated in the middle of taking a book off the shelf. “Does she?” he asked casually.
Leonas looked up, glanced at each of them in turn before lowering his eyes again. “No,” he said. “Not usually. She’s tried to explain songs to me, but it’s as close as she’s come. Around me.”
“It feels weird,” Minnow said. “Having an audience.”
“Ah.” Ari let the book fall back into the shelf.
“I should get back to… things that aren’t this.” Leonas pulled her letters together into a neat stack on the edge of the desk. “If I keep looking at these I’m going to lose my mind. More than I already have.”
“This room has the best furniture, if you want to use it,” Minnow offered.
Leonas peered in at the ornately carved wood. “What makes it the best?”
“It’s the most expensive,” she said.
“Anywhere. As far as I know. I haven’t been everywhere. When I need to decorate I usually buy all of the most expensive things and that seems to work.”
Leonas looked over the room without entering. Minnow looked at him, looking at the room.
“The door only locks from the inside,” she added.
“Right,” he said.
“Is it that if you think you’re alone, Ari will kill you, or that you think that if I’m alone Ari will kill me?” she asked. Leonas’ mouth flattened. “Both?”
“I’m not leaving you alone with him,” Ari said.
“Okay,” Minnow said. “Technically, everyone can fit in my room.”
“Which one is your room?” Leonas asked.
“The one at the top.”
“So, the tower.”
“Everyone will just have to stay on opposite sides of the room,” Minnow continued, “and sleep, quietly, on their side. Because the first person to cause problems and wake me up is going to be stabbed.”
“Works for me,” Ari said.
“Fine,” Leonas said.
“Would you feel better if he looked like a Howler at night?” Minnow asked.
“Absolutely not,” Leonas said.
“What about a Rootboar?” she asked.
He frowned. “No,” he said, “that feels stinky.”
“I don’t stink,” Ari said.
“I didn’t say you did,” Leonas said. “I said it would feel stinky.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ari said.
“Not right now, I mean if you were a little, a fat pig thing,” Leonas said. “I’m not implying that you have some kind of perpetual stink aura.”
“Right,” Minnow said. “Ari can stay an Impyr, then, and that’s fine and no one’s going to be weird about it.”
“Sure,” Ari said.
“What do you need before bed?” she asked. He’d brought a small bag, abandoned by the door when he’d gone running. It didn’t seem large enough to hold a change of clothes. “A dressing gown? A scarf? Special fancy face soap?”
Leonas started to turn red, crossing his arms. “I don’t need…” The skeptical look on Minnow’s face spoke volumes. “I brought my own,” he mumbled. “Except for. I might need something to sleep in. If you have something big enough.”
“I was planning to sleep naked,” Ari said.
“He will also need something to sleep in,” Leonas said.
Karzarul wasn’t trying to harass the Prince.
Maybe a little.
Mostly, he was curious. He’d mulled it over, the issue of the travelling through dreams. An Heir unable to access the Sunshield, a witch unable to do magic. If it were a ploy, Karzarul couldn’t imagine to what end. Cultivating an air of uselessness?
If dwelling on how much he disliked the Heir before going to bed was enough to open his dreams, then surely the Heir’s dreams ought to be accessible to him.
A dreamscape was rarely well-defined. Most people had no control over theirs, no awareness. Even still, this was unusually messy. Swimming in disconnected sensory inputs, rapid-cycling fragments of someone else’s half-forgotten memories.
Karzarul found the constructs of himself disturbing. The shapes weren’t exactly correct, fuzzy around the edges with occasional sharp detail. An indistinct Tauril body with vivid hooves, a Howler that was mostly fuzz aside from the teeth. That wouldn’t have been so bad on its own, but most of them seemed to be missing a face. Faceless Taurils, Abysscales, an Impyr that was nothing but a ringing shape. One a little more than a white blur, to the extent that he could not imagine which form it was meant to represent. In each of them were intermittent flashes of something worse, the nonsense-beasts of a child’s nightmares, nothing but eyes and teeth and holes in the world.
Leonas had swords and arrows sticking out of him, clawing at his own face, struggling to breathe.
Karzarul nudged at him with his hoof. Leonas did not respond.
Karzarul crouched down, and snapped his fingers closer to Leonas’ head. “Hey,” Karzarul said. “You’re dreaming.”
“I can’t—I can’t—” Leonas gasped.
“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know why you’re doing that. I did drown you, once, but this doesn’t look like that.” He gestured a circle with one finger in the air around Leonas’ face. “This is a different thing.”
Leonas’ eyes finally seemed to focus on him. “Oh,” Leonas said, and he managed to inhale. “You’re real.”
“Yeah,” Karzarul said. He poked one of the arrows sticking out of Leonas. “This isn’t,” he said. “You can imagine this gone.”
He didn’t. “You’re in my head?” Leonas asked.
“Dreamscape,” Karzarul corrected. “I can’t do anything about whatever all this is,” he said, gesturing around them. “This is all you. It was me, to be fair. I did this, before. Killing you. But this, right now, the dreamscape, is you.”
“Why are you here?”
“You were thinking about me,” Karzarul said. It wasn’t entirely a lie. He couldn’t be here if Leonas hadn’t accidentally consented to his presence.
“What?” The arrows and swords disappeared all at once. The flashing fragments changed, constructs of Karzarul from earlier in the day rather than before he’d died.
“You don’t have to put every passing thought you have out here,” Karzarul said. “I can see why you don’t stay in here, if it’s always like this, but you have options. Aside from launching yourself out of your nightmares so hard you land in your nightmare’s dreams. That’s a bad strategy.”
Leonas curled up with his forehead on his knees, covering his head with his arms.
Karzarul scratched at his jaw. “Have you tried imagining a tree?” he offered. He looked at the tree now sitting in the dreamscape. “A better tree, though,” he said. It turned pink. “It doesn’t have leaves,” he specified. “If I look closer it’s blurry blobs. There isn’t bark, either, or roots.”
Leonas sat back up to look at it. His gaze was intense as the tree became more defined.
“If you can think of something more interesting for me to look at than a tree,” Karzarul added, “feel free to imagine that instead.”
Leonas looked at him, still crouched close. The tree abruptly disappeared, cycling through mental constructs instead. Karzarul, Minnow, a progressively less dressed Minnow, Karzarul again but this time his shirt was missing. Leonas looked away from him and resumed trying to make a tree. “Feel free to leave any time,” Leonas said.
“What I don’t understand,” Karzarul said, admiring his claws, “is how you had enough control to leave my dreamscape on your own, when you can’t make a tree.”
“I woke up,” Leonas said. “Same as the first time.”
“The first time,” Karzarul said, “I killed your roaming dreamself, which woke you up. The second time, you left.”
“You were going to kill me again.”
“It didn’t seem to wake you up here,” Karzarul pointed out.
“This is my dream,” Leonas said. “I’m used to it. That was your dream, and it was really you. It woke me up.”
“Hmm.” Karzarul reached out, and pulled on one of Leonas’ curls to see if it would bounce back.
Karzarul woke up. It was still dark, Minnow curled up in the middle of her pillow nest, wrapped around a stuffed toy bear almost as big as she was.
He could hear, on the far side of the room, Leonas’ ragged panting.
Karzarul yawned, rolling over and grabbing a stuffed pig to rest his head on as he fell back asleep.