“Use the shampoo bar,” Leonas snapped. Minnow frowned at the bar of soap she was holding.
“It’s fancy soap,” she protested. “It’s got milk in it.”
“I don’t care,” he said. He was sitting at her vanity, whose function she had never entirely understood until now. Since it didn’t have a sink, she hadn’t been able to enjoy watching him shave. He was trying not to look at her while she took a bath.
Karzarul hadn’t been happy about the arrangement, but Minnow refused to have someone waiting to use the good bathroom when they could have both been using it. She also refused to let Karzarul in, though certain forms could be accommodated by the wasteful largeness of the space. Even hesitant willingness to let them speak alone felt like progress.
“Which one is the shampoo bar?” she asked, looking at all the little bars and bottles of things that Leonas had left the night before.
“The one with the gold flecks,” he said. His hair was still in his scarf, and he was rubbing things on his face from little dropper bottles whose function she could not imagine. After each one he would turn over a tiny hourglass he’d set onto the vanity, and wait.
Leonas’ idea of essentials to bring on the run had turned out to be the contents of his bathroom. Since he’d made it unscathed, and she liked looking at his face, it felt rude to judge.
“Will this make my hair shiny?” she asked.
“No,” he said, and she pouted. “You haven’t had a haircut in—I don’t think you’ve ever had a haircut.” She opened her mouth. “If a sword was involved it doesn’t count.” She closed her mouth. “It isn’t even right to call them split ends anymore, your hair is just split.” He took out a bottle of something orange and started spreading it under his eyes with the pad of his middle finger.
“It looks like you got the wrong color,” she warned.
“I don’t tell you how to kill monsters—”
“Yes you do.”
“—so don’t tell me how to make myself fit to be seen in society.” He added lines of green down his nose and onto his cheeks, over his witchmarks. Minnow moved around the bathtub to the edge closest to him, resting her arms on it to watch him. “You barely participate in society. You’re not even thirty yet. I’m old. If the circles under my eyes get any deeper my eyeballs are going to fall out of my fucking skull. Concealer is the only thing holding me together.”
“It seems like a lot of work,” she said.
“Well we can’t all have skin made out of moonlight,” he said, dabbing a sponge aggressively at his face. “Some of us have pores.” When he seemed satisfied, he switched to an enormous brush, patting powder onto his face with an equal amount of fury. She worried for his eyes. “We either take measures, or accept that passing citizens can see them from the street.”
Minnow couldn’t tell what difference all that powder had made, except that his witchmarks looked dusty now. He took a small brush to his eyelashes and his eyebrows, then found the tiniest brush she’d ever seen to dip into a pot of shimmery copper dust. She perked up.
“You should use the big brush for that one,” she said. “More sparkles!”
He ignored her, giving his eyes the barest edge instead. “We are going for subtlety,” he said, “we are going for regality. We are not going for the Sunlight Heir and Prince of Astielle looking like a common whore.”
“What about an uncommon whore?”
“They prefer ‘courtesans’, and they’re doing a new thing where they rip their eyebrows out and draw on new ones with little pictures in them,” he said, leaning closer to the mirror to see better. “Only about three of them can actually pull it off. I am playing to my strengths, which include having eyebrows.”
Minnow ducked under the water to rinse her hair out, sweeping it back out of her face when she came back up. “Some of them were courtesans, right?” she asked. “The ones you had sex with? I feel like some of them were fancy ladies, but other ones were being paid for sex stuff. I’ve never been able to ask before.”
“Some of them were courtesans,” he confirmed. “There is a limit to how many noblewomen even exist within the kingdom, to say nothing of those eligible for marriage. He gave up on most of the ones that wanted courting, and settled for the more mercenary families. Even they weren’t willing to throw their daughters at me for too long. It’s been down to the dregs for a while now.” He dipped a brush in oil, using it to clear the makeup off his witchmarks with sharp-edged precision. “I prefer the courtesans,” he said. “We have an understanding.”
“Does he think it makes it better?” she asked. “Not being able to go out.”
Leonas snorted, drawing slender edges of copper along his witchmarks. “He’d like a grandchild before I’m dead,” he said. “That’s all. Whoever gets there first gets to be Queen.”
“Even the courtesans?”
“Those are a stop-gap measure,” he said. “So I don’t… forget.”
She narrowed her eyes. “How to fuck?” she asked.
“Something like that.” He considered his face from different angles in the mirror. Satisfied, he picked up a bottle, shut his eyes, and sprayed his face.
She stood up in the tub, and started wringing out her hair. Leonas glanced at her, then away. “Was he always listening?” she asked.
“He couldn’t have been,” Leonas said. “It wouldn’t be practical. Either he checked in at irregular intervals, or else he set a trap array to catch words and voices that he thought were important.” Leonas unwrapped the scarf from his hair, and started to untie the ribbons he’d used to keep his curls defined. “I searched that room from top to bottom and never found it, whatever it was. The best I can come up with is that it was the entire room, with enchantments carved into the inside of the walls.”
“Creepy,” Minnow said, wrapping a towel around herself. “Is it nice, being able to say whatever you want while you’re here?” she asked.
He fluffed his curls, still checking his reflection. “Yes, fantastic,” he said. “I’m a middle-aged man who ran away from home, I have no skills outside of theoretical research, no powers, no money, barely have clothes, and I’m cock-blocking a man who already wanted to kill me. But now I can explain the details of my horrible sex life, and isn’t that its own reward, in a way.”
“I have a question,” Karzarul said.
Minnow was helping Leonas to gather books he thought were of interest. He had an elaborate note-taking system involving many more bottles of ink than she would otherwise have considered necessary, as well as rulers. She thought she saw a protractor, once. It was intimidating to watch.
Leonas did not like to leave the desk he’d claimed as his own. He would use the bathroom, make tea if the kitchen was unoccupied, and that was about it. Minnow wasn’t convinced that he’d been in a kitchen before. She had discovered that the best way to make sure he ate was to leave little baskets of savory breads on his desk, and mugs full of soups thin enough that he could drink them without looking up. Plainer foods worked best, as he didn’t always seem to notice he was eating them. It made her feel better about having dinner without him.
Karzarul was sitting on the loveseat again, reading history books. He also had a pen, but was making his notes right on the pages. Minnow had a hunch that most of what he was writing was rude. Sometimes he stared in a way that made her wish she’d worn the kind of dress with a shape to it.
“Okay,” Leonas said, not looking up from his notes.
“How long ago did Elias die?” Karzarul asked. “Every time I come back after dying someone’s changed how years are counted.”
Leonas paused, looking slightly upward to do mental math. “87 years, about. He slayed you nearly 150 years ago.”
Karzarul frowned, doodling on the inside cover of his book. “I never met the Heir that cycle, did she kill him?”
“Elias killed Brennia not long after he killed you,” Leonas said. “Thexikar never fully recovered from the loss of the Princess, Astielle was able to fill the void of power in the aftermath.”
“And how old are you?” Karzarul asked.
“33,” Leonas said. “34 in a few months.”
Karzarul hummed thoughtfully. “That doesn’t add up,” he said. “A resurrection cycle shouldn’t take this long”
“They don’t always match up,” Leonas said.
“Yes, I know,” Karzarul said. “I was there. Tomas was born while Gwenviel still lived, Needle lived long enough to kill me twice. The first Needle. Even when one lives, my own awakening usually coincides with the resurrection of the second. The rest of the time, Heroes and Heirs are born within a few years of each other. And I’ve never taken so long to reform after a resurrection cycle had already begun.”
Leonas had switched to a different piece of paper so that Karzarul’s tangent could have its own page of notes. “How does that work, exactly?” Leonas asked.
“I die,” Karzarul said. “I dissipate into nothing but the core of my being, dormant. Awareness of my counterparts brings me back to myself. I begin to gather moonlight, until I have enough to form a body once more. Once there is enough of me, I awaken.”
“Is there a specific place?” Leonas asked.
“Why would I tell you if there was?” Karzarul asked in return.
“It’s relevant,” Leonas said. “If a location is required, it could have been interfered with in such a way as to cause a delay.”
“Certain locations are preferable, but not required,” Karzarul said. “Whatever soul I have is bound to the Moonbow, which is itself bound to the Moon Goddess. It will outlive the world, same as yours. There is no circumstance that can stop me from from building a body for myself.”
“Is the Moon okay?” Minnow asked.
“We would have noticed if it went missing,” Leonas said.
“I know,” she said defensively. “I only mean, it took him a long time to make a new moonlight body, and all the monsters don’t have moonlight in them.”
“It’s a reasonable question,” Karzarul said. “Under other circumstances, I would say that I would know if something had changed, if the moonlight were being blocked somehow. But I’ve been dead.”
“Does it matter?” Leonas asked.
“Think of magic,” Karzarul said. Leonas frowned at his notes. “Spend long enough in a place where magic is thin, and eventually you stop noticing. It isn’t until you’ve been drenched in it again that you realize how little you’ve had. I cannot give an objective measure of how much moonlight is in the world. I can only tell you that it feels normal to me.”
“Informative,” Leonas said, the nib of his pen gliding over paper. “Not useful, but informative.”
Karzarul growled, but only for half of a second. Minnow considered this progress.
“Are Heirs always the future ruler of a powerful empire?” Minnow asked. “Maybe that was why. None of the countries were strong enough.”
Karzarul shook his head. “They can be Heir to anything, as long as what they stand to inherit has value. A duchy, a fortune, a church. An unusually large boat.”
“It’s an easy mistake to make,” Leonas said. “It goes in the other direction. The presence of a Sunlight Heir can be enough to raise an empire.”
“How lucky,” Karzarul said dryly, “for Astielle.”
“The odds were in her favor,” Leonas said, eyes on his notes. “My father is the King of Astielle, and my mother was the Sea Witch Pirate Queen. That’s three.”
“Two,” Minnow said.
“Three,” Leonas said again. “Cyrnae was the Pirate Queen, and she was also the Sea Witch Queen.”
“I didn’t know you could be the queen of that,” Minnow said.
“You can be the queen of anything,” Leonas said, “if you can kill anyone who disagrees.”
“The King definitely did that on purpose, right?” Karzarul asked. “We all agree he had a child with a queen twice-over to try and have an Heir?”
“Obviously,” Leonas said. “The only question has ever been why Cyrnae would participate. I try not to dwell on it.”
“You did not say, when I called you witch-prince,” Karzarul said, “that you were the Sea Witch King.”
“No one knows for sure if my mother is dead,” Leonas said. “Under the circumstances, the title hardly suits.”
Karzarul added a note to the timeline he’d been trying to construct. “It still doesn’t fit,” he said. “Could there have been another cycle, after Elias died? One that neither of you is aware of?”
“It isn’t as if no one noticed the gap,” Leonas said. “Everyone got very antsy, thinking you might have done something. The nationality of the Hero and the Heir, whether they are the same or distinct, it’s an important historical event. There was a series of scandals involving fake Heroes with tattoos and counterfeit swords. A few ill-conceived attempts to claim the birth of an Heir.”
“You’re certain they were fake?” Karzarul asked.
Leonas sighed. “The Heroes were rather notoriously humiliated when they were found out. As for the Heirs, they were Astian. My father was on his second wife. He had every incentive to claim an Heir for our kingdom if he could do so, even if it wasn’t his true heir.”
“Your dad’s real old,” Minnow said.
“One of the many benefits of being an enchanter,” Leonas said. “Based on how long my grandfather lasted, I could make it to two-hundred, assuming I’m not murdered.”
“Have you found anything interesting yet?” Karzarul said.
“It has been less than one day,” Leonas said. “If what you’re describing is real, it’s an entirely new magical phenomena wherein the fundamental nature of an entire class of creatures has changed. That’s the kind of event that could take years, if not decades, to unravel.”
“Oh,” Minnow said, taken aback. “It’s not all reading, though.”
“Yes, it’s all reading. Practical research comes later.”
“I don’t want to do that,” Minnow said.
“Unfortunately, this is it,” Leonas said. “This is what I bring to the table. So far I’ve found information on tangible illusions, which wouldn’t bleed when Minnow cuts them, or meat puppets, which would require someone to be in active control. They also wouldn’t turn to dust when Karzarul does… whatever it is he does.” Karzarul hmphed. “There’s a certain amount of research into autonomous artificial life, but it requires a prohibitively large amount of magic and usually ends when the researcher is killed by his own creation. Because. Well. Imagine the sort of person that wants to research autonomous artificial life.”
“You’re saying you haven’t found anything,” Karzarul said.
“This is an exploratory literature review,” Leonas said. “A negative result is still a result. I’m looking at moonlight, now. It may be that the monsters have had something happen to their lifeforce on a massive scale. That would require moonlight manipulation of some kind.”
Minnow sighed heavily. “I know this is important,” she said, “but it’s also really boring.”
“If you’d like,” Leonas said, “you could ask Karzarul to scatter my notes in a crumbling castle somewhere, and you can read them as part of painstakingly gathering them back up.”
“Really?” she asked hopefully.
It wasn’t that Karzarul didn’t like it when Minnow called him beautiful, called him wonderful, deemed him to be everything he’d worked so hard at being. Intellectually, he enjoyed it very much. Emotionally, it warmed him greatly.
But there was that other thing.
It didn’t satisfy the thing inside him that craved her disdain and her desire in equal measure. He wanted her to loathe him, to find him loathsome, to understand that he was loathsome. He wanted her to understand that he was vile, that she was too good for him, that she was lowering herself by allowing him to touch her.
He wanted her to know better, and he wanted her to want it anyway.
She knew he was a monster, even while she flattered him. She delighted in it, was the difference. He’d seen glimpses of it here and there, since the Heir had joined them. Since he couldn’t help baring his fangs, looming, taking up space. Acting like a massive dickhead.
He could see it in her eyes and the catch in her throat, the way her pulse fluttered. Maybe they were the same, that way. Maybe she wanted a loathing he could not give her.
He tried it anyway, while Leonas was busy getting ready for bed. A rare moment alone since the Prince’s arrival.
Karzarul cornered her in a hallway on the other side of the house, and the way her breath caught was enough to make him grin. He ran his thumb along her jaw, let himself feel self-satisfied about it when she leaned into his touch.
Could her prince do this? Make her shiver like this?
“If we were alone,” Karzarul said, “I would have fucked you over that desk already.”
“Oh,” she sighed. He kissed her, could feel her teeth graze his tongue before he kissed a line down to her neck.
“I wanted to fuck you when you woke up this morning, with your hair all sleepy,” he said. “I wanted to fuck you when you were wet out of the bath. I wanted to fuck you over the breakfast table, and at lunch, and every time you stretched your arms over your head in this cute little dress.”
“Like this?” she asked, reaching over her head.
“Like that,” he confirmed, his knee bent between her thighs and his tail brushing her bare skin. He wrapped his fingers around her forearms to hold them against the wall, purring when she seemed to wobble.
“It seems like you want to fuck just, generally,” she said.
“Not generally,” he corrected. “Just you.”
“Oh!” she said. “Here, let me try something.” He let her go when she pulled her arms free, since she wasn’t playing along. She fussed with the buttons on her dress, undid enough of them that she could pull her breasts free of her chest wrap. “How’s that?” she asked, looking back up at him. Her hair was falling wild around her face, her eyes bright, but it was her enthusiasm making the tentacles around his cock writhe. She looked so pleased to be putting herself on display for him.
His answer was a kiss, his hands on her breasts pushing into the softness of her skin, trying not to sink his claws in. She moaned into his mouth, and he wrapped his tail around her leg. He felt her hand slide between them, under his skirt, and his tentacles grabbed reflexively at her. She giggled even as she wrapped her fingers around his shaft.
“If I promise not to bite,” she asked, “can I taste it?”
His tentacles squeezed her hand to tighten her grip. The earnestness of her was going to fucking kill him. Mother Void, forgive me, but of course She never did. “You want that?” he asked, running a fingertip along her lower lip. She licked his finger, wrapped her lips around the digit and sucked. He kept his claws retracted, pushed a second finger into her mouth, his tentacles writhing over her hand while she stroked him. Calloused hands used to gripping a sword, a mouth full of sharp teeth, a fearsome little creature with her tits out and her cheeks hollowed.
He slid his fingers out of her mouth, and she slid down the wall onto her knees. She had to kneel fully upright to reach him, the front panel of his skirt draped off to the side. She ran her fingers over the veins of light, admired it like a treasure. He braced his hands against the wall, looking down at her looking up at him. The glow from his cock reflected off her pupils, made her look starstruck, had him struggling to breathe.
She gave him a preliminary lick, but two tentacles abruptly filled her mouth; her eyes widened with a muffled squeak. She was hot, and soft, and wet, and even the feel of his tentacles pressing into her teeth was not enough to stop him from wanting to fill her too full. His claws dug into the wall as he forced himself to behave, his tentacles to retract. He tried to wrap them around each other to keep them busy as she caught her breath. She pressed his cock against her cheek, and the scale of those two things beside each other did things to him. Terrible, terrible things.
She opened her mouth wide, slid the head of his cock along her tongue and into her mouth, and it was a struggle to keep his tentacles in control. Her hand around the base of him and her lips around his shaft, she was doing her best but she was just too fucking small. It was an absurdity, was what it was, and it delighted and terrified him. He wanted to wrap his tentacles around her face, around her neck, hold her mouth open and sink into her throat.
Since he didn’t want her to fucking die, he would not be doing that.
But Mother Void was it difficult, when she figured out that she could squeeze her own breasts, lift them higher, high enough that the tips of his tentacles could wrap around her nipples.
“Wait,” he said, taking a step back, and she nearly overbalanced and tipped forward. This was all still too new. He could not be trusted with his dick near her face. “Get up here,” he said.
She hesitated. “I’m sore,” she admitted, pressing her thighs together. He would keep to himself how arousing he found this.
“Okay,” he said, joining her down on the floor. She looked surprised when he kissed her, pressed her back into the wall. “We’ll try something different. Turn around.”
Her eyes got big as saucers.
“Not that different,” he amended. “If you don’t like it, you can punch me and we’ll see where that goes.”
It was a touch unsettling how that got her biting her lip, turning herself around and pressing her palms against the wall.
“Just like that,” he said, hiking up her dress with his hands on her hips. “Legs together,” he said, using his knees to press against the outside of her calves, holding them there. He slid his cock along the curve of her ass, between her thighs, heard her whimper as the head of it slid along the heat of her. It was difficult when he couldn’t see what he was doing, but he knew he’d gotten the angle right when she gasped, the head of his cock rubbing at her clit.
He wouldn’t pretend it was as good as being buried as far as he’d fit inside her, but her thighs were thick and well-muscled and soaked with her own arousal. She clenched her thighs tight around him, tighter still when he bent to sink his fangs into her shoulder. She leaned further forward, her forearms pressing hard into the wall to push back into him.
“Look at me,” he said as he lifted his head, “let me see you.” She turned her head, twisted a little so that he could see her over her shoulder. He licked her cheek. He didn’t know why. It felt right in the moment, and like he was a stupid animal in rut immediately afterward. She made a little sound of surprise that was neither mocking nor disgusted, and he didn’t know if that was what he wanted. One of his tentacles started to push inside of her, and the look on her face made him thrust harder against her clit. “Too much?” he asked.
“Good,” she gasped, and the tentacle pushed deeper, “good, it’s good, you’re good—” She clenched around the tentacle pumping in and out of her, her hips rocking. He stopped thrusting for the gratification of feeling her grind her clit down onto his cock, squeezing her breasts to feel her squirm harder. “More,” she groaned, “hands, your hands, I want—” She opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue, so he shoved two fingers into her mouth. She latched onto them, eyes shut, and he felt her start to spasm around his tentacle. Her strangled cry was muffled by his skin.
Before she was done he thrust harder between her legs, spread his fingers apart to force her mouth open so he could hear her guttural sounds. She looked helpless and messy and slightly ruined, she was too good for him to ruin her entirely but she’d let him ruin her just enough. Beautiful and soft and almost something like his.
He pulled back so that he could watch his cum splatter onto her skin, her ass and the backs of her thighs. Then he pulled her closer before she could stop him, fell back so that he had a lap he could hold her in. She was almost limp, her limbs all trembling, both of them sticky now.
“There’s a less-good bathroom on this side of the house,” she said, a little hoarse. He made a sound of acknowledgement, but didn’t let her go. He resented that he could not fuck her in her bed and then fall asleep there with her. “It isn’t that I don’t like being covered in stuff,” she added. “No, that’s not true. I said that to be nice. It gets sticky and weird after a minute and I don’t like it. But humans have to pee after, or they have problems.” She patted his leg underneath her. “It isn’t anything about you in particular. Okay?”
“Okay,” he lied.
“Really?” Karzarul asked. “Was this really easier than imagining a tree?”
Leonas looked flustered. “It isn’t like I did it on purpose,” he said. “Don’t you need to have been thinking of me, for this to happen?” he shot back, hands on his hips. “You said before that’s how it works.”
“You’re in Minnow’s bed,” Karzarul said. “She has asked me to be polite, which means I can’t have cunt for breakfast until you leave.” Leonas recoiled, turning his back to Karzarul and crossing his arms. “I fell asleep annoyed. It happens.”
“Charming,” Leonas said.
“Here,” Karzarul said, waving a hand. “Have a tree.”
The willow was large enough, its branches long enough, to obscure Leonas from view. He spun around, startled. Then he lifted a branch to look closer at the leaves, the stems and veins and imperfect little brown spots.
“There’s never anything here,” Leonas said. “When I get here.”
“Some of us have the sense to clean up when we have guests.”
Leonas looked down at his feet, at the blades of grass that had spread outward from the trunk of the willow tree. There were wild strawberries blooming, and clover. A very fat bee appeared on one of the blossoms.
He waited for something to happen, but nothing did. Eventually he sat down, his back against the willow tree trunk. He picked a clover blossom, and tried to find a mistake in its petals.