“You realize if your brother finds out about this, he’s going to have the Governor of Yostia as well as the Praetorian of the West beheaded?” Vaelon asked.
“I am aware,” Lynette said. “I don’t have time to spend years wandering around the desert looking for water with shiny rocks in it. My brother is running Aekhite into the ground now. The Yostian Governor’s palace is on the way to the desert anyway.”
“This plan is much too complicated,” Vaelon said, looking over the parchment Lynette was using to diagram. “There’s five different points where you could get caught, you’re making a lot of assumptions about the state of their laundry chutes, and I’m going to have a lot of trouble acting as backup even if I do manage to talk my way into the ballroom. And you haven’t accounted for Karzarul at all.”
“He’s lookout,” Lynette said, pointing at the drawing of a bird.
“Right,” Vaelon said. “But what I’m saying is, you’re the extremely distinctive First Daughter of the First Consort of Emperor Aekhet the Twelfth, Gloried Be His Memory. You have created a plan that depends on no one in this palace recognizing you, because there are so many women out there twenty hands tall blessed with Summer eyes. The plan subsequently involves fitting some very broad shoulders into some very narrow spaces. Meanwhile, you have taken the person who has no known affiliations and who also can shapeshift, and you’ve stuck him outside. You’re seeing the problem here, yes?”
Lynette frowned at the parchment. “I have to collect the sunbeam,” she said.
“No one said you have to do it personally,” Vaelon said. “You decided that on your own. Even if you did have to take it with your own two hands, this isn’t a good plan.” He picked up her pen and dipped it in her inkwell before she could stop him, using it to draw. “Here’s an alternate plan,” Vaelon said. “Karzarul turns into Biggy Piggy, and knocks half the palace down. In the confusion, you dig through the rubble and find the crystal sunbeam. Bam! Took it with your own two hands, can blame the whole thing on a mystery pig.”
“Is that what you think Biggy Piggy looks like?” she asked, pointing to the drawing Vaelon had made. It was a circle with stubby legs and a snout, a flower on its head.
Karzarul had come up with what Vaelon called Biggy Piggy to assist in destroying the camp of some brigands that had drawn Lynette’s ire. His explanation for why the house-sized wild boar was also somewhat a tree was ‘battering rams’. He had not elaborated, and was upset by the implication that he should.
“Basically,” Vaelon said. “I left out some of the less important details.”
“This is an orb,” Lynette said. “I’m not taking planning advice from a man who can’t tell the difference between an enormous wild boar, and an orb.”
Karzarul, who’d been laying on the ground in his wolf form, finally took an interest in the discussion. He got up on his back paws to put his forepaws on the table, so that he could see the picture.
“This is basically you, right?” Vaelon asked, pointing at his drawing.
Karzarul got back down from the table. He’d been less vocal lately, Lynette had noticed. She wasn’t complaining. His voice was horrid.
Transitioning through light, Karzarul adopted a new form. This one was, in fact, orbular.
“Holy shit,” Vaelon said, running around the table to scoop Karzarul up in his arms. “Nettles. Nettles. Are you seeing this?”
“I’m seeing something, alright.”
“This rules,” Vaelon said, setting Karzarul back down. Karzarul experimented with oinking, which had Vaelon smooshing his own cheeks with his hands. “Karzarul, you’re Itty Piggy.”
“He’s future bacon, is what he is,” Lynette said. Karzarul trotted in a circle, but was too round to see his own curly tail.
“You’ve got to take advantage of this,” Vaelon said. “Looking like this? He could walk right in there. No one would stop him. Everyone would make way. This is the best animal. The only flaw is that no one would want to let him leave.”
“I’m glad you’re taking this seriously,” Lynette said.
“I am taking it seriously,” Vaelon said. “He shouldn’t actually use Itty Piggy. But we’ve already established he can become a bird, a snake—who knows what else. He could break into the palace without anyone ever finding him, they couldn’t keep him even if they could catch him, and if they caught him there’d be no way of connecting him to you. No one expects a pig to be involved in political intrigue.”
Karzarul sat and tried to look like a valuable asset, which was also a small round pig.
Vaelon leaned against the table toward Lynette. “The only reason to plan this out the way you have,” he said, “is because you don’t trust anyone to get this right except you.”
She glowered at her building diagrams.
“This isn’t about Karzarul,” Vaelon added, “because you won’t let me do this, either.”
“Absolutely not,” she agreed.
“And that is correct,” Vaelon said. “I would fuck this up big time. Karzarul wouldn’t, though. This is right in his wheelhouse. He’s a shapeshifter and he likes being given tasks. Right?”
“I like helping,” Karzarul said.
“There’s a clear goal, a clear set of limitations. This is ideal for him. But you’d still rather handle it on your own.”
“It’s my quest,” she said. “Not his.”
“Do you want to be a mercenary, Nettles?” Vaelon asked. “Or do you want to rule an empire? Because only one of those things is going to let you do your own dirty work. Empress Aekhet is going to need to delegate a lot of tasks to a lot of people she doesn’t really know. If you can’t handle letting someone who’s consistently pulled through for the last six months steal a rock, how are you going to handle a government?”
“I will not be lectured on what it means to be Empress by you,” she snapped. “My entire life has been preparation for the day I would rule. I have known the Praetorian Prefects since I was a toddler. I am well the fuck aware that I am going to need to delegate.”
“And yet,” Vaelon said, pointing, “you put the shapeshifter outside to stand watch while you infiltrate.”
She rolled the parchment up. “I’ll think about it.”
He patted her shoulder. “There’s my girl.”
It was the first time they’d run into a gang of bandits that had trained attack dogs. Karzarul’s usual strategy for helping did not account for the presence of dogs. His solution was a different form, bigger teeth and bigger claws, a larger and more dexterous body.
“Vaelon,” Lynette shouted, kicking a dog in the face at the same time as she parried a blade, “could we get a song over here?”
“Oh, certainly,” Vaelon called from where he was still waiting on his horse. He plucked at his banjo, and started in on a popular pub tune about the many ex-lovers who now wanted him dead.
He made it to the second round of the chorus before Lynette asked, “What exactly is this supposed to be doing?”
Vaelon stopped. “Oh! You wanted a spell. Sorry, I thought you meant something for the mood.”
Lynette cut a man’s arm off. “For fuck’s sake.”
“I liked it!” Karzarul called back.
“Don’t encourage him,” Lynette snapped.
“Which one of us is supposed to not encourage the other?” Vaelon called.
“Yes,” Lynette said, blocking a club with her shield and a sword with her own.
Vaelon started to play again, the same song as before. This time his eyes turned the color of void, dark shadows rising like smoke from his fingertips. Curls of smoky blackness rose from the ground like it was on fire, enveloping those bandits who did not have the sense to flee at the first glimpse of it. When it caught something living it solidified, shrank, tightened its hold on whatever it had until bones started to crack. Anything the magic held was crushed and ripped apart, torn into smaller pieces as the radius of the spell only increased.
“Vaelon,” Lynette called, sheathing her sword. “That’s enough.” The blackness spread, fingers strumming faster. “Vaelon.”
He stopped, hand flat against the strings. “Sorry,” he said, as all the darkness retreated and his eyes returned to normal. “Got really into it, there.”
“I know,” she said, as Vaelon dismounted to see if there was anything worthwhile left in the blood soaked dirt. It let him get a closer look at the new form Karzarul had made.
“I understand why the panther,” Vaelon said, “but why is your tail a snake?”
The tail, which was a snake, lashed anxiously. “The dogs kept biting it,” Karzarul said unhappily. He tried to groom the blood from his paws with his great raspy tongue.
“I almost like this one,” Lynette said. Karzarul perked up immediately. “Not that much.” He sighed.
“He’s taking too long,” Lynette said, pacing. She’d been pacing almost since Karzarul had left, taking flight in his bird form toward the Yostian Governor’s palace. They weren’t able to wait as close as Lynette would have preferred. The Governor had opted to build his palace outside of any cities, to avoid dealing with local mayors. The only cover here was in the mountainous terrain, the weather too hot and the ground too hard for forests. It was an almost-desert, no sand or soft dunes, all sharp shrubs and prickly plants and everything red.
The gardens of the palace still managed to be lush and green, but that was no surprise.
“You said that five minutes after he left,” Vaelon reminded her. He strummed idly on his banjo.
“What happens if he gets caught?”
“What if he decides not to come back?”
“What if he can’t hold his form together outside the presence of a witch, and he turns back into light?”
Vaelon stopped strumming. “That doesn’t sound right,” he decided, and started playing again. “You weren’t worried about that in Faewild Forest,” he said.
“He would have been fine,” she said.
“Then he’s going to be fine,” he said. “Give him time. For all we know he has to slither all the way back so no one catches him. That’s slow going.”
Lynette grunted, but didn’t stop pacing.
It was hours later, in the deep of night, that the sparkle of a star came closer. It crash-landed near Vaelon with a frantic flapping of silvery wings. It was enough to wake Vaelon where he’d been snoring. He blinked sleepily at the little point of light. “Holy shit.”
“I got the sunbeam!” Karzarul announced. He held it over his head using the thumbs sticking out of the crook of his wings. Lynette bent low to take it from him, turning the crystal over in her hands. It looked like solid daylight.
Vaelon scooped Karzarul up with both hands. “You’re so tiny!” Vaelon said at a startlingly high pitch.
“There were a lot of bats roosting around the palace,” Karzarul explained, “so I tried to blend in. I don’t think I got it exactly right, but no one seemed to notice.”
“This is adorable,” Vaelon said, and Karzarul glowed in his hands.
“That’s the part you got wrong,” Lynette said. “Bats are usually scary.”
“I like bats,” Vaelon said.
“Exactly,” Lynette said. “Good work getting this,” she added, holding up the crystal sunbeam. Karzarul glowed brighter.
They gathered their things, and made it a good distance before they ran into the first patrol. The theft had been discovered, and all roads through Yostia were being watched.
“What do you think?” Vaelon asked as they rode closer. “We can bluff our way through it, run like hell, try to scare them off, or kill them. Shall we vote on it?”
Karzarul made a unilateral decision instead, leaping into the road. His form changed to be enormous, and he roared as he gallumphed toward the patrol on four paws. The patrol, unprepared for an enormous white grizzly, rapidly fled or else found themselves trampled by their own panicking horses.
“I scared them,” Karzarul said, his return making Lynette and Vaelon both struggle with their mounts. Up close, it was more obvious that he had a long set of fangs sticking out on either side of his snout.
“You missed a spot,” Vaelon said, gesturing to his back, where two small leathery wings flapped but accomplished nothing.
“Bats are scary,” Karzarul said, changing back into a tiny puffball. Lynette laughed.
The desert was unpleasant. Lynette had to carry a parasol to keep from burning, and burned anyway. Vaelon developed an aesthetically pleasing tan. Karzarul created a new form inspired by lizards that he refused to stay in when Vaelon came near. They had found three oases, but only one so far had a single crystal sunbeam sitting in the water, barely perceptible.
At night, when temperatures dropped to freezing, Lynette would sprawl in the sand with her armor off and sleep like the dead. The relief of being cold had become a vital part of her routine the last two months. She had abandoned any pretense of dignity, because the heat didn’t allow for it.
When they camped, Karzarul remained wolf-like so that Vaelon could use him as a pillow.
“If you want to ride along as a lizardman tomorrow,” Vaelon said, “I don’t mind. You should get more practice with it.”
“No,” Karzarul said. “The lizard thing was a mistake.”
“It isn’t that bad,” Vaelon said. “Why do you think it was a mistake?”
“I wanted to have hands,” Karzarul said. “And be closer to people-size, so I could help with people things. I… forgot, that I shouldn’t try to be part-people. Like my first form.” He hardly used that one now, since he could ride on Vaelon’s shoulders as a snake or curl up in his pocket as a bat. Vaelon couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen that form.
“I like your first form,” Vaelon said. “With your kitty ears.”
Karzarul looked up at the moon. “Is there anything you… don’t like?” he asked tentatively.
Vaelon hummed as he thought it over. “I’m sure there is,” he said, “but it’s tough, when you put me on the spot.”
“Mosquitoes,” Karzarul suggested.
“They aren’t so bad,” Vaelon said. “They’re trying to feed their little families. Can’t have the satisfaction of a scratch if you don’t itch. One of life’s reminders that you’re alive and full of blood.”
“Hm,” Karzarul said.
“All things are equal in the eyes of Mother Void,” Vaelon said, “as She renders all things inconsequential. If anything has consequence, it is only what we’ve given it. If we wish for things to be beautiful, then we need only find them to be so.”
“Some things are more beautiful than others, though,” Karzarul said. “You said… you called Lynette the most beautiful girl in the world.”
“I did,” Vaelon agreed, “because she is.”
“Which things make her the most beautiful?” Karzarul asked. “More than other girls.”
Vaelon hummed. “She’s very tall,” he said. “Legs for days and shoulders for weeks. She can crack walnuts in her elbows. Her biceps are as big as my thighs, and her thighs? She can crush skulls with those things. And has. She’s got a voice like she gargles gravel for breakfast and I am extremely into that. Everything about her is really big and strong and her. You know?”
“Hm,” Karzarul said. “If I wanted to pray,” he asked, looking up at the moon, “would I pray to Mother Void, or the Moon Goddess? Which one is mine? Which would answer?”
“They’re all ours,” Vaelon said. “Pray to the Sun Goddess, if you’d like. Prayers are not for answering. Prayers are for the knowing that comes with asking. Pray for a better world She cannot make, and know that you want things to be better. Pray for absolution She cannot give you, and know that you want you to be better.”
“What do you pray for?” Karzarul asked.
“Voidpriests pray in gratitude,” Vaelon yawned. “It might not matter to Mother Void that She receives it, but it matters to us that we give it.”
Karzarul curled himself more around Vaelon’s head. “Sing for me?” Karzarul asked.
Vaelon sang a quiet hymn to beauty as he fell asleep. Karzarul stayed awake until the last note faded, watching Vaelon breathe.
They had found the third crystal sunbeam, and were headed to the nearest port. The distance was such that taking a ship back east toward Faewild Forest would be faster than traveling overland, when they had no landmarks to reach.
There was also the matter of the desert heat, which Lynette would not tolerate for a single moment longer than necessary. The ship could have been slower, and she still might have preferred it.
Cresting a hill toward the edge, they could see a road at the bottom of the canyon. There was a group traveling along it, shining armor on horseback with banners fluttering above them. Lynette raised her hand above her eyes to see better.
“Those are Aekhite soldiers,” she said.
“Think they know you’re here?” Vaelon asked.
“Worse,” she said. “Gaigon did not join the Empire quietly, and they have not forgotten the Kingdom they once were. Every few decades or so, whoever is Governor starts kicking up a fuss to further their own ends. A few delegates and a bit of flattery is usually all it takes to get the matter sorted.”
“Right,” Vaelon said. “So he’s sending soldiers.”
“Not even an army,” Lynette said. “A single battalion. What’s one battalion going to do? Fucking die, that’s what. Let Gaigon know that they might as well try to secede in earnest, justify bringing a whole goddamn army in for a pointless slaughter, all so Wynrath can feel like a big man.”
“Nettles,” Vaelon warned.
“He’s sent them on a suicide mission,” she said.
“You’re in no position to send them back.”
“If it’s one of the old generals,” she began.
“You won’t know that it is until it’s too late.”
“It would be just like him,” she said, “sending one of Father’s men to die without honor.”
“I could try to scare them back,” Karzarul suggested. He was wrapped around Vaelon’s neck like a serpentine talisman.
“A vampire bear isn’t going to cut it this time,” Vaelon said.
“What if I blocked the road?” Karzarul said.
“I don’t think you can get that big.”
“With a rock, I mean,” he clarified. “There are a lot of big rocks. I could knock them down.”
“Vaelon,” Lynette said. “Do you think it’s possible—could you collapse the canyon ahead of them? Bar the way ahead.”
“Oofta,” Vaelon said, leaning to see better. “That’s a big’n.”
“I know,” Lynette apologized. “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t—”
“I know,” Vaelon said. He slid out of the saddle to the ground. “Wait here,” he instructed, unwrapping Karzarul from around his neck and setting him in the seat. He walked close to the canyon’s edge as he took his banjo off his back, strapped it back on the right way around. Leaning forward, he ululated into the empty air and listened to it echo. He looked at the striations in the canyon wall opposite, the different layers of stone.
“Yeah,” he decided, playing a chord. “I can do that.”
He started to play, gently at first, his eyes closed. It was a hymn for corpses turned to stone, immortality and use found in death. His fingers flew faster, his voice grew louder, until he opened void-black eyes and let the lyrics fill the canyon from the bottom of his lungs. Lynette had to cover her ears. The ground rumbled as the walls of the canyon at the limits of their vision started to tear away and fall. Vaelon seemed swept up in the chorus as rock sheared from rock, dust rising in a storm from the growing wreckage. The scale of it was hard to comprehend without looking downward at the full-grown trees dwarfed by even the smallest fallen detritus.
Lynette was the first to notice the spiderweb of blackness running through the canyon wall opposite them. “Vaelon,” she shouted, struggling to be heard. It didn’t work. He’d shut his eyes again, black smoke rising from his fingertips as he poured his heart into another round of the chorus. The ground underneath them was shaking in earnest now. The battalion below had already reversed course, as quickly as a few hundred men could.
Lynette leapt from her horse, but when she grabbed Vaelon by the arm the spell stopped in an instant. Whatever unstable structure had been borrowed from the web of magic collapsed, taking the stone around it with it. The ground started to go out beneath them. Realizing her error, Lynette pulled, fully prepared to throw Vaelon bodily back onto his horse.
Before she could, she was grabbed herself, practically tossed in the same manner she’d planned for Vaelon. Everything was a jumble of limbs and fast motion as she found herself sprawled like a floursack on the back of something much larger than a horse. Vaelon was much the same beside her.
“Maggie,” she screamed, reaching out as if she might somehow catch the horse already falling backward into the canyon. The ground collapsed fast, but Karzarul ran faster, everything around them turning into a blur of color. She managed with great effort to pull herself up to straddle the massive back, holding tight with her legs so that she could check on Vaelon. He was limp, but he’d managed to twist the banjo strap in time to get it onto his back. Or maybe it had done that itself. She wasn’t clear, with magical instruments.
She managed to pull Vaelon upright enough to hold onto him, clinging tight and telling herself it was for safety.
When they finally came to a stop, the ocean was in view. Karzarul dropped to a kneel so they could dismount.
“Are we there yet?” Vaelon asked blearily as Lynette brought him down to the ground with her.
“Thank you,” Lynette said, pulling him into a hug. “Thank you so much for doing that for me, thank both of you.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
Lynette and Vaelon both froze.
“Oh! Oh, that’s new.” Karzarul was as surprised by his own voice as anyone, deeper and significantly more pleasant than usual.
“You can sound like that?” Vaelon asked.
“This might just be my voice now,” Karzarul said.
Lynette had gotten a good look at him for the first time, the massive bull’s body, the torso like a legendary giant. “What is that face.”
Karzarul hesitated, reaching up to touch it. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t seen it yet.”
“She’s right,” Vaelon said, squinting. “That’s familiar.”
“It’s you,” she said, with more than a little disgust.
“It is?” Karzarul asked hopefully.
“Oh, yeah, I kinda see it,” Vaelon agreed. “It’s like me, if I were some kind of a sexy cow man.”
Karzarul paused. “Sexy?” he repeated, intrigued.
“Don’t listen to him,” Lynette said. “He doesn’t know.”
Vaelon made a face. “I can still tell,” he said, offended. “I’m not blind.”
Karzarul rubbed between his eyebrows, where the angle should have changed, and followed the shape of his nose downward with his fingers. “I don’t think I got it right.”
“Not for a human face,” Vaelon said, “but it’s still a good look.” Karzarul looked to Lynette for confirmation, but she wasn’t looking at him. “What was the concept, here?”
Karzarul looked down at himself, and felt suddenly self-conscious that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Having a humanoid torso made things complicated. Ribbons of moonlight wrapped him in a simple shift. “Big,” he said, “and fast. With hands, so I could catch you.”
“Look at the arms on you,” Vaelon marveled. Karzarul flexed experimentally. “Nice.” Karzarul did a small hop, kicking out his back legs. “This is definitely your best look so far.” Karzarul had to figure out how to run his fingers through his hair with horns in the way, trying to decide on the best way to arrange it.
“You’re so fucking vain,” Lynette muttered.
“Yes,” she said. “You,” she corrected herself, poking Vaelon in the chest. She caught his arm when he looked like that might be enough to tip him over. “You need to rest,” she said.
“It’s gonna have to wait until we get to Rison,” Vaelon said, referring to the port city in the distance. “All our supplies went kaput with Maggie. Sorry about your horse.”
“It’s fine,” Lynette lied.
“I should be able to get us there in not too much time,” Karzarul said.
“I am not going to ride you,” Lynette snapped. Karzarul frowned.
“Nettles,” Vaelon said, throwing his arm over her shoulders as best he could from his height. “Nettles. Look at me.” She did not. “Nettles. Baby. You can either suck it up and get up there with me, or you can meet us at the nearest pub in three days after you walk there. Because I dressed to ride a horse. These boots were not made for walking. These boots were made to look good as hell on a horse. You coming with, or are we meeting you?”
Lynette huffed. “Fine,” she spat. “Fine. But this is the only time.”
Vaelon tousled what hair she had. “There’s my girl.”
“At a certain point,” Vaelon said, “it becomes too many push-ups.”
Lynette continued to do push-ups on the deck. “We can’t all magic ourselves stronger,” she said.
Vaelon moved closer to the rail to look out at the ocean. “He’s been gone a while,” he said thoughtfully.
“Good,” she said.
“Don’t be petty,” Vaelon scolded. “It isn’t his fault I have the objectively best face.”
“You liiike me,” Vaelon taunted.
“I’ll throw you overboard,” she warned.
“Karzarul would save me,” he said, fluttering his eyelashes. She huffed, though it could be mistaken for exertion. “It isn’t the same, anyway. He changes up the nose, that’s most of a face. And his eyes came out bigger this time. Totally different.”
“It isn’t that different.” She finally stopped, rising up to kneel on the deck. “Not wanting to see his weird you-face isn’t why it’s good he hasn’t been aboard,” she said. “He shouldn’t be spending too much time around the sailors.”
It had been impossible to hide Karzarul from the captain and crew, but the captain had already been someone willing to smuggle the Usurper Emperor’s fugitive sister to the Faewild. He seemed willing to accept the explanation that Karzarul was ‘sort of a fairy thing’ and also ‘witch business’.
“Why not?” Vaelon asked. “They seem to like him fine.”
“Oh, they like him alright,” she snorted.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“If you had a child you’d leave them unsupervised in a candy store within minutes.”
There was a noticeable splash at the edge of the ship, then the distinctive sound of something climbing up the wood. A rise and fall of voices, sailors calling out greetings. Karzarul pulled himself up onto the railing, swinging his tail part of the way around so that it could loop around itself and he could sit. He raked his hair out of his face, water still dripping from him. The overabundance of shirtless men had left him more willing to skip clothes.
“Did I miss anything?” Karzarul asked.
“Me!” Vaelon suggested, to which Karzarul laughed.
“Did you miss me?” he asked eagerly.
“Of course,” Vaelon said, and Karzarul grinned wide, the end of his tail thumping against the railing. He looked at Lynette, but she quickly turned her head away, picking up the hem of her shirt and using it to wipe the sweat from her face. “I like your bag,” Vaelon added.
“Thank you,” Karzarul said, fidgeting with the length of rope that made the strap. “Dobbs made it for me.” He searched the deck, then pointed toward the sailor in question. “He’s really talented.”
“That’s one word for it,” Lynette muttered. Karzarul looked abashed, glowing faintly.
“Is everyone being nice to you?” Vaelon asked.
“Mostly,” Karzarul said, glancing to where Lynette still wasn’t looking at him.
“I don’t need to be supervising?” Vaelon teased.
“No!” Karzarul said immediately. “That’s—that would be—maybe? No. They’ve just, been showing me how to play cards, and things.”
“Ooh, I like cards,” Vaelon said.
“It’s in the morning,” Karzarul added. “The early morning.”
“Ooh, mornings do not like me,” Vaelon said.
“Do you like mornings?” Karzarul asked.
“In theory,” Vaelon said. “Can’t say as I’ve met many. We can play our own game of cards later. What do you think, Nettles?”
She stood, barely glanced at Karzarul and then away. “No,” she said, wiping sweat from her forehead and into her hair. Her face was still flush, her shoulders stiff. “And put a shirt on,” she snapped, before stalking back toward their cabin.
Vaelon patted his shoulder. “You’re fine. She’s frustrated, that’s all.”
“Because it’s taking so long,” Karzarul said.
Vaelon looked out at all the sailors manning the deck, and considered what he knew of Lynette’s tastes. When she acted weird and he didn’t know why, nine times out of ten it was some kind of sex thing. “Yeah,” he said, “let’s go with that.”
“Aw, man,” the Fairy King said, “you guys really did it, huh?” He set his drink aside, and hopped down from his throne. “Okay, let’s go to the forge I guess. You got big, by the way.”
Karzarul rubbed at the back of his neck, hooves scuffing the moss.
The Fairy King led the way behind his throne, leaving the rest of the fairies behind. Through a curtain of willow branches was a great circle of stone, impossible shapes and equations carved all throughout it. Trying to follow the lines of them was impossible, slippery and eluding the eye. Above, suspended in the canopy, was a prism that refracted the light into rainbows.
The Fairy King slapped the side of a weird machine. “Throw ’em in,” he said with a tilt of his head toward the large funnel at the top.
Lynette looked at the funnel, then at the crystal sunbeams in her hands. “Throw these?” she asked hesitantly.
“Yah,” the Fairy King said. “In this part.” He pointed into the funnel.
It took a great deal of effort for Lynette to let them go, dropping them down into the device with an ugly clatter.
“Get in the middle,” he said, pointing to the circle. “Oh! You know you might die, though, right?”
“What?” she asked. Behind her, Karzarul recoiled.
“You’re communing with the divine,” the Fairy King shrugged. “It might make you crazy, or your soul might leave your body. You could get ripped to pieces, or your brain might leak out your ears. Goddess stuff. You know.”
“You can change your mind,” Vaelon reminded her.
“No,” she said, steeling herself to stand in the circle. “I can’t.”
As she stood in the center, the Fairy King started to turn an enormous crank on the side of the machine. Sunlight seemed to pour out of it, filling the grooves carved into the stone platform. When it was full, the prism focused an intense beam of light, bursting outward and enveloping her in impossible shapes. The light was too bright, too blinding; the heat of it was scorching, pain in all her pores and lighting up her brain.
WHAT ARE YOU
The words weren’t words, were etched into the marrow of her bones. She tried to unravel them, to find the trap hidden between them, the thing that would undo her. What was she? A princess, an empress, a soldier? Angry, strong? Was it meant to be aspirational, or was it meant to be factual? What could encompass the whole of her, everything she had been and everything she might someday be?
Guardian, she said without words, and a bell rang at the center of the world, echoing through all things.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO
So many words and so many ways to go wrong. There was no more air in her lungs, if she even had lungs. Should she state facts, make a demand? Was this Her way of asking if her quest was a worthy one? She thought of her father, and her people, and of Vaelon.
I’m going to protect what’s mine, she said, and a bell rang again.
WHAT DO YOU WANT
Did that mean she’d passed the test? Had it been a test at all? Was this her blessing, her reward? She could ask for an empire, for a throne, but that was no guarantee that she would get the one she wanted. Specifying Aekhite wouldn’t help—who knew what Aekhite could become. She knew fables about clever wordsmiths, let me see my kingdom prosper from the throne, but more words were more pitfalls, more things to twist. And who was she, that she needed a Goddess to hand her these things? Was she not the First Daughter of the First Consort, who could bend the world to her will for so long as will she had? What more did she need?
I want the strength of will to do what must be done, she said, and with the final ring of the bell the light faded. It poured back into the device, and something clattered into the output.
“Blessing’s ready,” the Fairy King announced. Warily and on unsteady legs, Lynette approached. She reached inside and pulled out a shield, a circle of copper emblazoned with a sun. The round gem at its center looked like a sunbeam crystal, and its light pulsed with her heart. It felt like a limb she hadn’t known she was missing.
“A shield?” she asked.
“The best offense is a good defense?” Vaelon suggested.
“No takebacks,” the Fairy King warned as Lynette stepped down from the circle.
“Can I see?” Vaelon asked. She tried to hand it to him, but as soon as it left her hands it fell like a stone. Vaelon tried to pick it back up, but couldn’t make it move. She lifted it with ease, running her fingers over the sun motif.
“If I wanted a blessing,” Karzarul asked, opening his massive hand to reveal three perfect moonstones, “can I do that?”
“I knew it,” Lynette said.
“We’ve known he wanted to try it for at least a year,” Vaelon reminded her. “It’s not that surprising.”
“Same deal,” the Fairy King said. “Throw ’em in, hop up, might die.”
“That’s a big risk,” Vaelon said.
“I can do it,” Karzarul said. “If two of us have a blessing, that’s better than one, right?” He dropped the moonstones into the machine, and stepped onto the platform. The Fairy King turned the crank, and moonlight poured into the grooves in the stone. White light poured out of the prism above, and Karzarul was lost in it. It was a touch unsettling to have the edges of himself so ill-defined, but he wasn’t too worried. He’d pulled himself out before, and he could do it again.
WHAT ARE YOU
People were always asking him that.
I’m me, he said with a touch of irritation, and a bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things.
WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO
A lot of things. That all depended on what Vaelon was going to do.
I’m going to follow my love, he said, and he smiled to even think it out loud, even knowing he couldn’t hear. A bell rang.
WHAT DO YOU WANT
A blessing, sort of a wish, and secretly this was what he’d been waiting and hoping for. This one chance.
More like me, he begged, and the bell rang all through him. He felt himself revert to his first form, second, third, something reaching deep inside him and tearing off pieces.
“Did it do that when I was in there?” Lynette asked, watching balls of white light shoot out of the forest by the hundreds and thousands.
“It did not,” Vaelon said.
Karzarul fought to keep himself intact, grabbing at new bits of moonlight as quickly as he lost them. When it was over he was in his water form, collapsed on the stone circle as the light drained away.
“You good?” Vaelon called anxiously. Karzarul nodded, pulling himself back up onto a bull’s hooves. His blessing fell out of the machine, and he looked the bow and its arrows over. All silver and set with moonstones, it felt like a part of him. He drew it into himself the way he would with clothes he didn’t want anymore, and it disappeared. He pulled it back out, and it appeared in his hand.
“Convenient,” Lynette said as Karzarul stepped down.
“Vaelon,” Karzarul asked, “can I have my bag?” It wasn’t safe to let him hold things most of the time, since anything not a part of him could be dropped as soon as he changed forms. Vaelon handed it off, and Karzarul’s hand barely fit inside to find what he wanted. “I got these for you,” he said, offering Vaelon three fallen stars, “if you want them.”
Lynette’s face softened. “Vaelon, you could—”
“I should probably mention,” the Fairy King said, “that She’s the most likely to kill you.” They all turned to look at him. “Fallen stars are the easiest to find,” he said, “but the Void Goddess is, you know. Kind of a lot. Way riskier to even look at Her.”
“You don’t have to,” Lynette said, even as Karzarul withdrew his offered hand.
“Hand them over, you big baby,” Vaelon said, holding out his hands. Reluctantly, Karzarul handed them over.
“I’m sure She’ll like you,” Karzarul said.
Vaelon brought the stars closer to the Fairy King. “Level with me,” he said. “What are the odds this ends terribly?” The Fairy King made a face, shrugged and wiggled his hand in a so-so gesture. “Eh. I’ve had worse.” He dropped the stars into the funnel, and hopped up onto the stone circle with an unnecessary spin. Starlight filled the circle as rainbows fell out of the prism, and then everything went dark.
Not dark, but empty. The vast emptiness of infinity, and Vaelon could see all of it before him, the scale of the cosmos unfurling endlessly. It did not need to seep into him; it was already there, had always been, he was mostly the nothing in the spaces between what he was.
You’re gorgeous, he said. You have got to let me take you dancing sometime.
WHAT ARE YOU
A friend, he said with a wink, and a bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things. He turned his head at the word, looked through all of nothing to the infinitesimally small space where Lynette and Karzarul stood clutching their new blessings. It was a terrible idea to give them those, you know.
You know better than a Goddess?
Oh, I don’t know a damned thing, he said. It’s only that they’re going to try to kill each other with those, one of these days, assuming they don’t kill everybody else first.
And what are you going to do?
He smiled. What else? I’m going to try to stop them.
A bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things.
What is it that you want?
He hummed thoughtfully. He hadn’t planned on asking for a blessing, but it was hard to give up an opportunity to be noticed by Mother Void, who sees all things and notices none. Tempting though it was, he didn’t think it would do to ask Her out for dinner. It was hard to think of anything that he wouldn’t rather share.
I don’t want any of us to be alone, he said wistfully.
A bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things.
“That was nice,” Vaelon said.
“That was horrifying,” Lynette said. “I couldn’t even see her and that made me want to die.”
“Oh, don’t we all.” Vaelon lifted up his blessing by the hilt, and made a face. “A sword?” He looked at the Fairy King. “No takebacks?”
“If you really want to get rid of it,” the Fairy King said, “it’ll wipe you from existence, is all.”
“Ugh. What if I want to make it into something else? Like a new banjo, or a really good stick?”
The Fairy King scratched his head. “If you wanna be picky,” he said, “bring a thousand stars next time. That’d be enough to do whatever.”
“Fine, fine,” Vaelon said, stepping down. “Do you want it?” he asked Lynette, offering it to her. She touched the hilt, and immediately recoiled when it burned her hand. “Whoops.” He looked the blade over. “I’ll figure something out,” he decided.
“Terms and conditions,” the Fairy King said, pulling a long piece of paper out of the machine and squinting at it. “The Sunshield can block any attack and protect any target, and its effect can extend as far as its light can reach. The Moonbow’s arrows can pierce any defense, and they never run out. The Starsword is the sharpest blade in the cosmos, and can never lose its edge. It’s also…” He ran several more feet of paper through his hands. “I’ll send this home with you,” he decided. “I’m not reading all of this. Your weapons are as eternal as the Goddesses themselves, and you have bound your souls to them, rendering them also eternal.”
Lynette’s breath caught. “Immortal?”
“Your souls,” the Fairy King said. “It might be a package deal, but don’t jump off any buildings counting on it.”
“Eternal?” Vaelon said, making a face. Then he shrugged. “I guess it’s a good thing we all did it,” he said. “At least this way we’ll have company.”