To save time, they started hopping in and out of Rainbow Doors, standing near them long enough for Karzarul to tell if he could sense any monsters nearby. Karzarul grew restless as they travelled to remote mountains and forests without luck.
“You’re a King,” Minnow said. “Did you ever have a Kingdom?”
Karzarul hesitated. “In the mountains,” he said. “It was destroyed long ago. There isn’t anything worth seeing there, now. The air is thin, there’s no easy way for a monster to travel to it. I don’t even know if the Door would be intact.”
“It can’t hurt to try,” she said, touching his arm.
“You’d think so,” he said. Despite that protest, he lead them back through the Door to make the attempt.
The area itself wasn’t so bad, Minnow thought. The grass was green and the air was cool, and the mountain was forested with evergreens. Though overgrown, there were paths winding their way along the mountain to make it navigable.
“There’s someone here,” Karzarul said warily. He lead them off to the left, deeper into the woods, though the woods were not truly deep. There weren’t enough trees for that, the trees themselves growing tall and slender. Leonas’ breathing grew labored after not long at all, the air being as thin as it was. Then the Sunshield glowed brighter on his back, his exhalations shining and coming easier to him.
When Karzarul stopped, Leonas and Minnow could both see why. In the distance several of the trees were covered in platforms and crude structures, walkways between them. There was a sound of hammers and faint voices.
There was much more intent to it than Minnow had grown used to seeing. The monsters she’d seen before had always lingered in rough camps or former human structures. She could see what they were doing better as they approached, the weird architectural style that involved mostly round shapes and shingles. It looked like all Brutelings in all different colors, but closer inspection found Bullizards in the trees keeping watch.
One of the Brutelings was trying to plant seeds, but a Rootboar was following behind him and eating them.
When their approach was noticed, there was a lot of shouting and clamor and monsters running in various directions, disappearing into what they’d built of their treehouses. The only ones to head straight for them instead were three Brutelings, each of them wearing their own little tunics and cloaks. The Brutelings she’d killed so many of had always come in simple colors, browns and greens. But these ones reminded her of cats: one solid black, another black with white hands, and a dark grey tabby. Because it was the color of the skin on their furless faces, it was not as cute as it could have been. Their only fur was the tufts at the ends of their ears and another wispy tuft in the middle of their wrinkled foreheads.
“I’ll talk to them,” Karzarul said, stepping forward to intercept, but all three ran straight at his legs and then peered around them at Minnow.
“Hi,” said the tabby in his high and grating voice.
“Hi,” said the white-handed one, in a more nasal version of the same.
“Hi,” said the black Bruteling, trying to pitch his voice deeper and failing.
“Leave her alone,” Ari said, flustered, trying to shoo them away. She noticed that at some point he’d added a crown to his outfit, a silver crescent climbing his horns. The tabby slipped between Ari’s legs and held his hand out for Minnow to shake.
“I’m Tabby,” he said. Minnow tentatively gave his hand the briefest shake.
“I’m Socks,” introduced the other, having successfully avoided wrangling, holding out his hand.
“I’m Midnight,” said the other, shoving the other two out of his way to hold his hand out.
“He’s Spot,” Socks said, shoving him back.
“Midnight,” he said again, shoving Socks. They started slapping at each other until Ari picked them both up by their collars.
“Stop it,” he hissed through his teeth, and the Brutelings’ ears both dropped.
Tabby peered suspiciously at Leonas. “Hi,” Leonas said. Tabby bared his fangs and hissed at him. Leonas rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Fantastic,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to make too many changes all at once, would we.”
“Be polite,” Ari said, grabbing Tabby with his tail since his hands were occupied. “How do you think this makes me look?” Socks tried to kick Midnight while still hanging by his collar. “Stop it. Keep this up and I’ll eat you.” He set them all down in a sullen row. “Why are you here?” he asked.
“We live here,” Tabby said.
“Since when?” Ari asked.
“We used to live here, a long time ago,” Midnight said. “Now we’re going to live here again.”
“On whose orders?” Karzarul asked, because they weren’t his.
“Violet told us,” Socks said.
“Which one is Violet?” Minnow asked, squinting at the treehouses and the faces peering through the open windows.
“He’s not here right now,” Tabby said. “We’re supposed to be on our best behavior, and not kill anyone until he gets back.”
“Not greeting His Majesty wouldn’t be best behavior,” Midnight said.
“I’m keeping an eye on him,” Socks said, pointing at Midnight, “so he doesn’t do anything stupid.”
“I wanted to meet the Hero,” Tabby said rather than feigning higher motives. “We’re not supposed to try to kill her because she’s with you, right?” He leaned to look around Karzarul again, and waved. Ari made a warning sound, and Tabby stood straight again.
“Is Sid here?” Ari asked. “Ru, Safi… anyone?”
Socks raised his hand, jumping up and down until Ari pointed at him. “Violet told Sid to go make himself useful so that’s why he’s not here right now.”
“Indie and Mo are a little further down the mountain if you wanna try talking to them,” Tabby said, pointing in the appropriate direction. Minnow leaned to see better, and realized there were a few Taurils loitering on the path. They were, as Ari had once said they should be, wearing shirts. Beyond that, she couldn’t make out any details.
Socks grabbed Midnight, looking upward. “Violet’s coming back,” he said. “We’re gonna be in trouble and it’s gonna be your fault.”
“You’re already in trouble,” Ari said. “With me. That’s worse.”
“You’ll just eat us,” Tabby said. “That’s not so bad.” He grabbed Socks by the arm. “C’mon, dummies, if we hurry he might not see it’s us.” All three Brutelings bolted back toward the shelter.
“You little—” Ari looked like he might grab them, but instead he turned to squint at the sky where Socks had been looking. “Shit.”
“Oh!” Minnow said as the monster landed in front of them, grabbing at Ari’s arm. “It’s a—you never said what they were called.”
“Savagewing,” the monster offered. He was, indeed, violet. His wings and his skin were pale purple, deep purple lines over his eyes in that same swan mask that Karzarul’d had. He was wearing a short, embroidered silk robe in purple tied around his waist, with long sleeves and white tights. His boots weren’t quite as high in the heel as the ones Karzarul had given himself, but these were tall enough to reach his thighs. He was holding a folded fan in his upper right hand, and another in his lower left, dainty chains around his wrists so that he wouldn’t drop them. His fingernails were cut short and painted black. He pressed his empty palms together sideways over his chest, and bowed low. “Violet Savagewing at your most humble service, Your Majesty.” He rose with a toss of his curls, the feathery antennae rising from his forehead following the tilt of his head.
Karzarul did not look happy to see him.
Minnow found herself looking closely at Violet’s face. She had noticed before that Brutelings all looked about the same, but the coloration on the new ones made them distinct enough not to notice. Violet, however, looked much as she remembered Ari looking in that form. He’d added little touches with paint around his eyes, but she still had a sinking feeling that it was exactly the face that Ari had.
Ari had taken care of so many of the monsters, since they’d met. She never looked that close at Tauril faces, couldn’t remember the one and only other Impyr, all a blur of adrenaline and violence. Hadn’t had the opportunity to take a good look since she’d met Ari. She’d simply never considered it, that taking the same shape would mean taking the same face.
“I’d never seen a Savagewing,” Minnow said, “until the other day.”
Violet grinned, unfolding all the etched steel plates of his fans and hiding his teeth behind the flutter of the higher one. “What a shame,” he said, and he turned his eyes toward Karzarul under gratuitously thick lashes. “I wonder why that is?” he asked sweetly.
“I explained,” Karzarul said, “that your kind is rare.”
Violet cackled behind his fan. “Oh, and we are,” he said. He turned his fan sideways so that Minnow could see him, mirrored by a wall of his wings on the other side of him, and explained in a stage-whisper, “We’re v-er-y expensive.” He winked, and Minnow giggled. Karzarul glowered.
“I think we need to have a conversation in private,” Karzarul said.
Violet snickered, snapping his higher fan shut and shielding his mouth with the back of his hand instead. “I can see why you’d think so!” he said cheerfully. “We’ll be staying right here, thank you. Is the magic helping with your breathing, Your Highness, or would you rather I find you something to sit on?”
Leonas blinked as he realized he was being addressed. “I’m. Fine?”
“Ex-cellent.” Violet snapped his second fan shut, and tapped both fans against their opposite hands. “Progress report,” he said. “Once we’d finished manifesting ourselves, the boys and I got together and agreed that we’ll be taking over the position of second rank monster.”
“Is that so.”
“It is,” Violet said. “We’re simply the best suited for it, owing to our—let’s call it maturity. Impyrs were never well-suited to the position, what with the anger problems.” He snapped his right fan open and fluttered it. “No offense.”
Violet used the closed left fan to count off on the fingers of his lower right hand. “Your new chain of command in descending order has me on top—ob-viously—followed by Rose, Marigold, and then poor little Buttercup. Not that we deliberately arranged things by size, but so it goes.”
“You’re the tallest?” Minnow asked.
“No,” Violet said, snapping his right fan shut again. “The usual order of things continues after that, so not such a big change. Sid took the other Impyrs out to take care of the remaining Hollow monsters while the boys and I work on getting everyone settled.” Violet gestured with both fans at the mountain around them. “Letting the little ones run loose in other people’s countries is how we end up at war with literally everyone, which—I think we can all agree—would be bad. The Taurils have been assisting with transport—they are, as always, just happy to be included.” Violet gestured to where Minnow had noticed them before. One of the Taurils noticed her back, and waved from afar. She waved. He threw his axe into the air and then caught it. Minnow wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, so she tried to give a thumbs-up. She didn’t think he would actually be able to see it from so far away, but the Tauril reared up triumphantly while the one next to him also tried to toss his axe.
“Ignore them,” Karzarul muttered, grabbing her by the shoulder and moving her to the other side of him.
“You probably should,” Violet agreed apologetically. “A little too excitable, but very sweet, and they’ll do about anything if you can find them a shirt that fits with enough sparkles sewn into it.”
“They aren’t that bad,” Ari said.
“I’m not judging,” Violet said with a shrug of one shoulder. “It isn’t as if the rest of us are any better, put a pretty thing in front of me and I’ll do all sorts of messy things.”
“I like this one,” Leonas decided. “This one’s the best monster, more of them should be like this one.”
Violet laughed, snapping both his fans open to flutter them. “I know,” he said, giving Leonas a wink this time.
“You only think so because he’s the one that hasn’t threatened to bite you,” Ari said flatly.
“Yet,” Violet said. “But I would ask nicely first, if that helps.”
Minnow had still been contemplating Violet’s appearance. “Your ears are different,” she realized.
“These?” Violet asked, using an empty hand to brush his hair back so that she could see it better. It was still a moth wing, but this one was a different shape than Ari’s, without the moons or the trailing ends. “Yes, well.” His fans fluttered faster as he let his curls drop. “We can’t all have His Majesty’s subtle touch.”
Ari sighed with something like frustration. “Why are you like this.”
Violet laughed again. “You cannot begin to imagine how happy it makes me that you don’t know.”
“You said something about Hollow monsters?” Leonas asked.
“Our erstwhile replacements,” Violet said. “Depressing little constructs. They’ll win in a fight against a human, but that isn’t saying much. No offense.” Leonas raised an eyebrow. “A little offense,” Violet admitted.
“Constructs would require—”
“—a huge amount of magic?” Violet finished with a tilt of his head, fluttering his eyelashes in time with his fans.
Leonas paused. “No,” he said. “No, that still doesn’t make sense, because the attacks started before. And he, he wouldn’t have been able to build the Moontrap. He didn’t have my shield.”
Violet shut the rightward fan again, resting his hand underneath his chin. “Monsters don’t die,” he said. “As long as we have our King, we can always come back.”
“Careful,” Karzarul warned.
Violet rolled his eyes. “It’s not a state secret, you big baby.”
“Is it not?”
“Maybe a little,” Violet admitted. He waved Karzarul off with the leftward fan that was still open. “It’s fine.” Violet looked back at Leonas. “While Moonlight Monster King Karzarul lies dead and dormant, his kingdom falls into ruin,” Violet said matter-of-factly. “Any monster killed in his absence goes dormant alongside him, and cannot return until he begins to gather power. It’s why we show up before he does, and it’s always the first thing on the list, killing the King of All Monsters.” Violet used the closed fan like a pen to write a checkmark in the air. “Based on a rough estimate of the timeline, once you—” He booped Minnow on the tip of her nose with the closed fan. “—killed Karzarul as Elias, you would have had at least eighty years of monster hunting to kill off all the rest.”
Minnow chewed her lip. “I killed you?” she asked. It was difficult to explain what was upsetting about this. Something about the ugly-cute faces of the Brutelings, barefoot in the grass and trying to shake her hand. It was different, when they were holding clubs and daggers. It would be different, if Violet were trying to kill her.
Violet opened his mouth, then hesitated. “That’s complicated,” he settled on, “and if I explain more than that His Majesty might eat me.”
“I might eat you anyway,” Karzarul grumbled.
Violet opened his second fan again to resume fluttering. “Somehow I get the feeling you’re not actually that eager to have me inside you,” he said.
Leonas snorted, then smothered it with a polite cough.
Karzarul’s nose twitched. “I deserved that,” he decided. “I walked right into that one.”
Violet cackled again. “We’re going to have so much fun,” he said, “once you stop doing—” He gestured to Karzarul with his fan. “—whatever this is supposed to be.” He sighed. “The Moonlight Monster and all his ilk would stay dormant until such a time as the Sunlight Heir and the Starlight Hero had claimed their true power. That part takes care of itself, assuming you’re willing to stick one or both of them into long-term baby storage. The Hollow beasts are easiest for an enchanter, once they’ve been constructed they use no magic until a living thing comes near enough to trigger an attack.”
Violet held up a fan and a wing conspiratorially, in the opposite direction than he’d done for Minnow. “And between you and me,” he stage-whispered at Leonas, “there are sources of magic besides you out there.” He retracted his wing and lowered his fan. “You’re convenient, is all. Like growing your own basil in the windowsill.”
Leonas exhaled, and it glowed. “There weren’t only beasts,” he said. “There were monsters with faces.”
Violet shrugged. “The tricky part,” he said, “is making them look alive. He found workarounds for that, too, gave them a short list of pre-approved tasks to loop through that only runs in the presence of true life. Very efficient. But if all you need is for them to attack, endlessly and blindly until they can’t anymore, no specific or forbidden targets? That’s relatively cheap. Once the up-front costs are taken care of, they may as well be free.”
Leonas swallowed. “If it was—twenty-one years ago. Would that have been… Hollow monsters?”
Violet tapped a closed fan under his chin while he thought about it. “Yes,” he said, “they must have been.”
“Okay,” Leonas said. “That’s—I probably could have guessed that.”
Violet moved closer to Leonas, and started fanning his face. “Breathe, Your Highness.”
“I’m breathing,” Leonas said. “I’m fine.” Violet offered a free arm, which Leonas started to refuse before wobbling and holding on to it.
“The air is thin here,” Violet apologized. Over Leonas’ head, he gave Karzarul a look, the corner of his mouth turned upward. Karzarul swallowed a small growl. “I am being diplomatic,” Violet said with an eyelash flutter.
“He only tolerates me,” Leonas said, his focus still somewhere in the middle distance. “You should be more diplomatic, and less nice.”
Violet grinned, still looking at Karzarul, and started winding a purple curl idly around his finger. “Is that what it is?” Violet asked, raising an eyebrow. “What a shame,” he said, affecting a pout.
With Violet standing so close to Leonas, Minnow wondered at the hints of similarities, the shapes of their lips and the sculpted arches of their eyebrows. She looked at his outfit, and thought of Karzarul’s boots.
“Do you make your own clothes, the way Ari does?” she asked.
Violet’s mouth twitched at ‘Ari’. “Unfortunately not,” he said.
“You look really good.”
“Thank you,” he said, fanning himself and Leonas simultaneously.
“That’s a good point,” Karzarul said. “It’s only been a few days. Where did you get those?”
Violet paused in his fanning. “There may have been,” he admitted, “a minor diplomatic incident.”
“Minor,” Karzarul repeated.
“Over in—I don’t know which country is over there anymore, someone hasn’t been keeping up with his geography.”
“Vado,” Minnow offered.
“Right,” Violet said. “That. We didn’t steal anything, if you’re worried about that. We’re monsters, I can fly, Taurils like to smash things, we’ve got gold for days. It’s fine. It’s only that, in order to expedite the clothes-having process, I did descend on a small village. A little bit. Nothing serious, just a sort of…” Violet stood tall, throwing his shoulders back and flaring out his wings, holding two arms up and out while the other two he held out sideways. He seemed to emanate a purple haze.
“Weep and rejoice that your day of reckoning is at hand, for the King of All Monsters has risen, and the Moonlight Monster King Karzarul grants you the mercy of requesting tribute. Bring forth your blacksmiths, your weavers, your tailors, and you shall know rewards the likes of which you have not seen. Defiance of the will of King Karzarul will bring only pain, for his mercy and his patience are both finite.”
Violet relaxed again, drawing in his wings and resuming the fluttering of his fans. The haze of power disappeared. “You know,” he shrugged. “That sort of thing.”
“That’s a minor incident?” Karzarul asked.
“It isn’t as if I was in a population center,” Violet said defensively. “It was a middle-of-nowhere village, news doesn’t travel that fast. I’m not a Drakonis, it wasn’t going to have the same impact. They weren’t even intimidated that long, as soon as Indie saw the blacksmith he started making an ass out of himself. They were more impressed by the gold than the speech.”
“That’s a lot of words,” Karzarul said, “to say that you risked pissing off an entirely different kingdom than the one currently trying to kill me, all because you wanted a nice outfit.”
Violet arched an eyebrow. “Are you going to try to tell me you wouldn’t do the same?” he asked.
Karzarul may have had a retort, but it was lost when a ball of white light shot out of the sky to strike him in the back. He staggered where he stood, glowing, his expression one of surprise. Minnow’s hand went to her sword, but she held back. It wasn’t unfamiliar to her. She’d watched hundreds, thousands of those things go shooting out of him after he’d escaped the Moontrap.
“They come back?” she asked, brow furrowed.
“Your Majesty.” Violet had let Leonas go, his fans folded and hanging from his wrists. It gave him an unsettlingly serious air as he offered his hands to support Karzarul. Karzarul held up a staying hand.
“We will talk about this,” Karzarul said as his glow faded, “privately.”
“Really?” Violet said. “Still?”
“Yes, still,” Karzarul snapped.
“Fine,” Violet said, withdrawing his offer of help and fixing his curls. His bow was shallower and more perfunctory this time. “I shall await debriefing in The Tomb, Your Majesty.”
“Don’t—” Before Karzarul could stop him Violet took flight with a single powerful push of his wings, darting high above the trees. “Shit,” Karzarul said again.
“Should we wait here?” Minnow asked.
“Not right here,” Ari sighed. “Unless you want more Brutelings showing up trying to introduce themselves.”
“No, thank you,” Leonas said.
“It’s okay,” Minnow assured Ari. “Go take care of Monster King stuff. We can handle ourselves for a bit.”
Ari sighed. He tried to run his fingers through his hair, but stopped when he hit his crown. “I’ll—I should be back soon.” He changed to a Misthawk, and took flight after Violet. Minnow watched him go.
“Wanna find a place to sit where the Taurils can’t see us?” she asked Leonas.
He leaned a bit to get a better look at the Taurils down the mountain. He gave a cautious half-wave. One of them thumped the handle of his battle axe ominously into his left palm. “Yes,” Leonas said, standing straighter. “Let’s.”
He followed Minnow as she picked a direction and headed through the grass. “You know,” he said, “when I said that I didn’t want monsters turning into rampaging fuckbeasts, what I did not mean was for most monsters to still want to kill me, specifically, while showing a suspicious interest in my ex-girlfriend.”
He stopped as he realized his error, then resumed as if he hadn’t. “Obviously we weren’t—I don’t mean that you—whatever relationship we may have had wasn’t that. There’s this thing people do in conversations where they utilize hyperbole to humorous effect. Is all.”
“Is girlfriend the one that means we’re getting married?” She could never keep track of relationship rules. ‘Friends’ seemed to encompass everything up to and including the occasional hard fuck, so it was all she’d ever needed. Still, hearing the word ‘girlfriend’ in reference to herself intrigued her. She knew enough to feel that it was mismatched, that it was a word for women who did things she did not, and that made her want it.
“What makes a girlfriend?”
“… intimacy…?” he suggested feebly.
“Sex,” she translated.
She found a patch of grass she liked the look of, and sat in it, sprawling her legs out in front of her. “Why ex, then?”
He sat more carefully at a safe distance from her. “For one thing, these days you get semi-regularly railed by a man with a horse dick, so.”
“It’s more of a bull dick,” she corrected.
“And I don’t let him rail me when he has that,” she continued. “I’ve been very clear about that.”
“Oh, lovely,” he said. “Small blessings.”
“So a boyfriend or girlfriend is something you’re only allowed to have one of.” That took away some of the appeal.
“You’re allowed,” he said. “Just not when the boyfriend or girlfriend is Karzarul.”
“Because he’s big,” she guessed.
“Because there’s a limit to the number of penises—”
“No,” Leonas snapped. “It’s because he’s jealous, he’s the jealous type, he wants you to himself. If he saw you kissing anyone else I think he’d kill them.”
She considered this. “He saw me kiss Kavid,” she pointed out.
“If he saw you kiss me, specifically, I think he’d kill me,” Leonas corrected. “And you’re about to say,” he said before she could speak, “that you wouldn’t let him, but the fact that he would try would be enough to ruin him for you. So let’s not test it, and then you can assume I’m being paranoid. Yes?”
That wasn’t what she’d been about to say, but she did consider it relevant. She chewed on her thumbnail while mulling it over. “No,” she said. She pulled her legs in to press the soles of her boots together, leaning forward and crossing her arms over her feet to rest her head on them. “Was I actually your girlfriend that whole time?” she asked.
“Generally that is something both parties agree to beforehand,” he said.
“You never asked,” she said. “Neither did Ari. That means we’re all still just friends.”
“Fine,” Leonas sighed. “Only one of us is the friend you’re going to be crawling all over.”
Minnow narrowed her eyes at him. She sat up, and scooted closer to him. “Ari doesn’t make me ask for permission to touch him,” she pointed out.
“You don’t have to ask for permission—” Minnow set her fingers on Leonas’ knee, and automatically he took her wrist and moved her hand away. “—to touch me, that’s absurd.”
Minnow stared at him. He looked at her face, his knee, and then back at her face. His witchmarks started to glow. “That was unrelated.”
“If I touch you without permission,” she said, “you don’t like it. Sometimes you’re busy freaking out, or pretending you’re not freaking out, or dying. But you still don’t like it.”
He intently examined a piece of grass. “That was circumstantial.”
She leaned against his arm, and he leaned away. “Uh-huh,” she said, sitting upright again. She wondered if this was one of those things she was supposed to pretend not to notice. He was starting to look upset. “I don’t know if they have any bathtubs up here,” she said, “but if you want we can find a river and I can leave you alone to lay in it and scream underwater for a while.”
“When did I tell you about—that was also circumstantial. If I wanted to scream here, I would scream.”
She sighed. “I miss it, is all,” she said. “When you touched me. You were always really good at finding excuses to touch me.”
He brushed her hair back, and leaned sideways to press a kiss beneath her ear. She hummed and tilted her head to give him room, but he was already withdrawing. “You’ll get used to it,” he said. She pouted, and tried to summon patience.
Ari was really going to need to do a better job of showing that he liked Leonas.
Karzarul’s hooves echoed in The Tomb. It was one of the few structures left still intact after all these years, though the stones were all worn and the plants were growing in the cracks. Grape vines were crawling through the windows.
Monsters were all at the periphery of his awareness again. He could feel all their excitement and trepidation and annoyance all pressing infectious against him. It had, as always, the potential to turn into a self-perpetuating mess. He wanted it and he hated it and having the Hero and the Heir here made it complicated. Being a person was complicated.
“Who was it?” Violet asked before Karzarul could say anything. He had a pen in one hand and was holding a scroll open with two others. “Is it starting?”
“No,” Karzarul said. “It was Rex, he misjudged a jump and fell into a fucking canyon.”
Violet relaxed a little. “Of course he did,” Violet said, rolling his eyes. He crossed something out on his scroll and made a note. “Reckless Tauril, made it a whopping three whole days after the full moon before killing himself. You’d think spending more time dead than alive would teach him something.” Violet rolled the scroll back up, putting his pen away in the hollow core of it before tucking the scroll into his belt. “How do you think this is going to work, when the armies of Astielle descend righteous upon the monstrous hordes? You’ll stand there, bombarded by moonlight, saying ‘this is fine, ignore this, it happens sometimes’?”
“I’ll deal with it when it comes to it,” Karzarul said, and Violet scoffed.
“You’ll try to keep secrets as long as you can get away with it,” Violet said, “as if the people around you won’t come up with their own explanations to fill in all the gaps you’re leaving.”
“Fuck off,” Karzarul snapped. He gestured back out of The Tomb. “What the fuck was that?” he said, still annoyed about his insistence on speaking in front of the other two. “What the fuck is this?” he asked, gesturing at Violet’s entire person.
Violet rolled his eyes again. “Mother Void, why am I surprised? You’re insulted.” Violet spread his arms. “You think this is insulting?”
Karzarul’s nostrils flared, but he didn’t know how to respond.
“You did the same thing with the Impyrs, don’t think I don’t remember.”
“What you do isn’t remembering,” Karzarul said.
“An Impyr shows up all grumpy and murderous,” Violet continued as if he had not spoken, “and you take it personally.” He adopted a mocking tone. “I’m not like that, why is he like that? Is that what he thinks I’m like? Then you go off and brood about it.” Violet took a folded fan in one hand, and used it to prod Karzarul in the sternum. “You’ve been the biggest bitch alive since you killed Lynette, so don’t act so surprised to see me.”
Karzarul smacked the fan away, so Violet smacked his hand back. Retaliation descended briefly into a slapfight before they broke away and hissed at each other. Then they both tried to fix their hair and pretend they hadn’t done that.
“I have had a lot of time,” Karzarul said, “to think, and… mature.” Violet snorted. “I’m different than I was.”
“Ob-viously,” Violet said, spreading his hands with a flourish to indicate himself. “I won’t argue different, but you won’t get me to buy you being anything other than a big ol’ baby constantly missing the obvious because you’re too busy being caught up in your own feelings. Sell it to someone who stopped being you more than a week ago.”
“You weren’t me,” Karzarul said. “If you were me you’d feel it.”
“You know what I meant,” Violet said, opening a fan to wave him off with it.
“I don’t understand how I ended up with—with this.” Karzarul stepped into Savagewing form, beginning to pace as he gestured to himself.
“You do not need that high of a heel,” Violet said, fanning himself.
“Shut up,” Karzarul snapped. He changed his skirt into tights, and wrapped his torso in his usual tunic.
“Shut up.” He stopped, and narrowed his eyes at Violet, as if he could use the other monster as a mirror. “Swan wings make sense,” Karzarul said. “They can fly wet. The arms aren’t great but I needed to carry a lot. The moth thing was a mistake.”
“The butterfly theme isn’t what she likes about him,” Violet said.
“Shut up.” Karzarul raked long nails through his hair to straighten it out. “I can fix the hair,” he said. “I know she likes it, but the hair is too obvious.” He tried to tousle it so it fell loose over his shoulders. “This feels familiar,” he said, pinching the thick bridge of his nose while moving closer to Violet to get a better look.
“Jonys,” Violet supplied. “You always liked his nose.”
“Oh.” Karzarul swallowed and took a step back, still looking at Violet’s face. “That’s fine, then.”
“Minnow’s eyes,” Violet added.
“I do like those,” Karzarul admitted. He touched his mouth, opened it to ask and then decided not to. “This… could be worse. They don’t know, and even if they find out it’s. Not obvious. The only confusing part is that you’re like…” He gestured with all four of his hands to Violet.
Violet sighed, holding a folded fan in two hands under his chin with a thousand-yard stare and a wistful air. “Like an underappreciated actress who left the stage to become a high-priced courtesan, only to find her true calling as the madame of a brothel, losing herself in caring for her charges and handling the bureaucracy while never losing that certain something about her that so appeals to the local sheriff that she secretly lusts after despite still yearning for her first tragic lost love.”
“Yes,” Karzarul said, turning back into an Impyr. Being a Savagewing while Violet was talking made him uncomfortable in ways he couldn’t yet define. “I don’t know why that was so specific, but yes. Is it specific because you’re doing it on purpose?”
“No,” Violet said, dropping his hands. “I’m self-aware, you should try it sometime.”
“I don’t understand where you would have gotten that,” Karzarul said. “I guess I can see—no. Is Minnow supposed to be the sheriff?”
“The forbidden and disapproving yet attractive authority figure who could as easily represent your downfall?” Violet asked. “No.”
“I don’t think this works as a metaphor.”
“That’s because you’re so fucking dense it’s going to kill me,” Violet said. He pulled the scroll out of his belt to wave it at Karzarul. “I’m going to log that as my cause of death, King Karzarul was so fucking dense that I died.”
“You could try explaining it,” Karzarul said, “instead of being an asshole about it.”
“I could,” Violet agreed. “But this is funnier.”
Karzarul was definitely harassing the Prince, at this point.
He didn’t think it was entirely his fault. Something about it bothered him, the way Violet had been doting on Leonas while looking so fucking pleased with himself. Leonas cheerfully declaring him his favorite, as if the function of a monster was to please him.
Karzarul had become more inured to seeing broken memories of himself in Leonas’ dreamscape, but the ones this time were different. Memories from this life, little pieces all stitched together into something incoherent. Standing with his shirt undone and sitting in the grass and sitting on the couch and tossing his hair in the library, lying on the beach with Minnow. That in particular was a strange thing to see from the outside.
And then there was Leonas, pulling at his tunic and unfastening clasps with nimble fingers, pressing kisses to his face.
“I don’t remember agreeing to kneel,” Karzarul said, because it was the first coherent sentence that popped into his head. Leonas was straddling his thighs, the only way to match his height.
“Stop talking,” Leonas said, grabbing one of his horns to tilt his head back and catch his mouth, hungry and hard. “For once can you please stop talking, don’t say anything awful for five fucking minutes, try and do that for me.”
“You’re dreaming,” Karzarul said.
“No shit,” Leonas said, sliding his hands inside Karzarul’s tunic and kissing his throat.
“So am I,” Karzarul added.
Leonas stopped. He rose and leaned back, looking wide-eyed at Karzarul’s dazed face.
Karzarul woke up.