Minnow was hungover. She was dealing with it by sitting in a creek with a towel over her eyes, pretending to be a corpse. Local flies were doing their part by buzzing overhead.
Leonas was trying to be helpful by slicing potatoes, a wooden cutting board balanced on a stump. Karzarul was cooking something over the fire that was mostly potatoes, though he hadn’t given Leonas any details besides how to slice them.
Karzarul had been, all things considered, perfectly polite. Distant, but polite. This was a best-case scenario, and would be an ideal relationship dynamic moving forward.
“Has it never been different?” Leonas asked quietly, not wanting Minnow to hear. Karzarul didn’t acknowledge him. “With the Hero,” Leonas pressed, “you’ve said… you’ve implied. Most of the time, you’re enemies. But not always. Have we always?”
Karzarul said nothing for a time. The knife thumped against the cutting board. “There have been times,” he said finally, “when you seemed willing to tolerate me. It does not last.”
So many years, so many lives. “There wasn’t a time when… you and the Heir had to fight the Hero?” He didn’t want to sound hopeful about it, when an answer in the affirmative would also be bad.
Karzarul let the question linger in the air again. “Once,” he said. “When you were Fynn. Orynn cut your tongue out.”
Leonas stopped with the knife against the cutting board.
“You can add those to the pan,” Karzarul said. Leonas pushed the slices in with the flat of the knife. “Orynn had a good deal wrong with him. I considered it a mercy killing. Once I had done what you could not, you killed me.”
“Fynn killed you,” Leonas said. “I’m not the same.”
The potatoes sizzled. Karzarul cracked eggs into the pan, breaking them up to flow around and between the layers of starch. Leonas retrieved the small mug he’d been using for tea, already lukewarm.
“Human souls,” Karzarul said, “are small. It’s a core, a starting point around which you wrap memories until you’ve become a person. I didn’t used to understand that, that all you really keep are your souls. You can keep some of the memories, when you die. The things you think are important. That you can tie to your core. But you prefer the new memories, most of the time. Let the old ones slough off, let yourself build someone new. Humans can do that without even dying first. But there’s always that vital thing at the core of you.”
Karzarul managed to flip the entire heavy potato-thing in the pan.
“The Hero,” Karzarul said, “is selfless. That’s why he’s the Hero. He doesn’t always remember to be good, or nice. Sometimes he forgets the right way to be selfless, sometimes someone teaches him wrong. But he always tries.” He took the pan off the fire. “The Heir is selfish.”
Leonas flinched, grip tightening on his mug.
“You want what is yours,” Karzarul said. “You would rather die than give it up. You would rather kill him than let me have him. That has always been the way of you, and I have never seen you be anything else.”
“And what vital thing is at the core of you?” Leonas asked. “As long as you’ve put so much thought into it.”
“Mine is not a human soul,” Karzarul said. “I have my memories. I can only ever be myself.”
Leonas sipped at his lukewarm tea. “Unfortunate.”
Karzarul waited until they were loading up the wagon to seize his chance. As Minnow walked past him, he caught her by the arm, spun her around and leaned her back to catch her in a kiss. He was careful to get it perfect, one hand at the small of her back and his forearm supporting her neck, swallowing her sound of surprise.
When he let her back up, she laughed. “What was that about?” she asked.
He headed back into the trees to get the last of their bags.
“Ari,” Minnow asked when she caught up to him, “were you trying to be Kavid?”
“It’s not that I didn’t like it,” she said, grabbing onto him and hugging his arm to her chest to keep him still. “It didn’t seem like you, that’s all.”
“It could be like me,” he said, “if you wanted.”
“No,” she said, leaning her head against his bicep. “It would seem like you were doing it for my sake. That’s not the same.”
“Kavid is sort of pretend, you know? That’s how he does what he does. He has to really believe he’s the most, so you believe it. Biggest and bravest and strongest and prettiest. It doesn’t matter who I am. Or, it matters, but it matters because he can treat the Starlight Hero the same as anyone else. Does that make sense?”
“No,” Karzarul said, although maybe it did. “Is that what you like?” he asked. “That I’m bigger and stronger than you?”
Minnow laughed again, lacing her fingers through his and lifting his hand to kiss the back of it. She hummed thoughtfully. “I like,” she decided, “when it seems like you really think that.”
“I am bigger than you are,” he said.
“Stronger?” she asked. He hesitated. “Sometimes, you think you are,” she said, patting his hand.
“How can you tell?”
She smiled. “You look scared.”
The old manor was crumbling, the gardens overgrown. This was not a surprise.
Karzarul grew tired of watching Leonas try to carry a bucket of water, and took it from him to offer to the horses. Leonas didn’t thank him for the help.
“Did you buy these horses, or are you renting them?” Leonas asked, stroking the neck of one of them.
“I bought them,” Minnow said. “I might sell them back later. I don’t know. I left Piggy…” She gestured with an arm toward the horizon. “Way out somewhere. Potato and Egg aren’t as good.”
Leonas stopped petting Potato. “Those aren’t their names,” he said.
“They are,” she said. “I just named them.”
“Stop naming things after whatever you last ate,” he snapped.
“Are you still mad about Cum?”
“His name was Frederick.”
“If you say so,” Minnow said, checking that she had everything she wanted in her bag. “I don’t think a Tauril is going to fit through that door,” she said to Karzarul. He took the form of a Howler. “You can sniff for clues!” she said approvingly.
It smelled like dust, and rot. Any smell of humans was long gone. He didn’t tell her so.
“I’ll wait out here,” Leonas said. “Someone should watch the horses.”
Minnow shook her head. “The horses will be fine. You’re coming with.”
“I would prefer not to,” he said. “Falling through a rotten floor into a cellar full of monsters is not my idea of a good time.”
“There aren’t any monsters,” she said. “Right?” she asked Karzarul.
He couldn’t sense these new monsters, these wrong monsters. Not the way he could sense a true monster. He smelled the air instead, pointed his ears toward the building to listen carefully. There was the rustling of small rodents, but nothing to indicate the presence of anything larger. Even the wrong monsters, left to their own devices, had enough life in them to walk in circles.
Something about the smell got his hackles up. The Prince’s fear, or the dust and rot. Karzarul didn’t know which. “I’ll scout ahead,” he said. He didn’t wait for an answer, heading straight for the double-doors half-missing in the entryway.
As soon as his paws had touched the stairs, there was movement inside the house. He growled and charged inside, to where a Bullizard was raising a sword to strike down at him. He sank his teeth into its leg and shook his head, trying once more to draw it inside of himself. As before, it dissolved into nothing, wisps of smoke where it had stood.
He was getting tired of this.
He stalked through the manor, down the halls and into rooms, up the stairs, down the stairs, into the kitchen and through the laundry and back. Bullizards where they had no right to be, clinging to the walls and the roof and standing in empty rooms. As if they had made a home here, though they did not interact with their surrounds or each other.
Even the ruins he’d explored with Minnow hadn’t been as bad as this. There, at least, he could pretend it made some kind of sense. Bruteling camps in the forest and packs of Howlers in the mountains, those made the smallest effort to feel correct. This was egregious. This felt like being mocked. Monsters that did nothing but sit around waiting to kill or be killed.
He stood as an Impyr, a form better suited to hiding the extent of his fury. He kicked down what remained of the door.
“It’s clear,” he announced.
Leonas did not look reassured as Minnow pulled him into the building. “Did you find any clues?” she asked as she passed Karzarul.
“I was,” Karzarul admitted, “distracted.”
“That’s okay,” she said. “Do you remember seeing a nursery? Based on what Kavid told me, there ought to be a nursery.”
“What would he know about it?” Karzarul asked.
“He knows stories,” she said. “A family doomed for a father’s desire to cheat destiny is a good story.”
“Upstairs,” Karzarul said.
Minnow pulled Leonas along behind her, and Karzarul brought up the rear. She looked at the walls, which Karzarul realized were empty. No paintings, no needlework. Nothing at all but peeling paint.
She guided Leonas carefully over weak stairs, soft spots in the rotting wood. He looked jumpy. He always looked jumpy. He did not look at the monster right beside him.
“Is this it?” Minnow asked at an open door.
Leonas pulled his hand away. “I’ll wait here,” he said.
Minnow hummed thoughtfully. She stepped into the room. Leonas pushed at his cuticles again, taking slow, deep breaths. Karzarul looked in after Minnow, who was looking around the room. Flowers and cute animals painted on the walls were the only decoration left. There wouldn’t have been any furniture, but someone had built the crib directly into a nook in the wall, surrounded by cupboards. Minnow opened a cupboard to look at the empty shelves, then closed it again. She sighed.
“I’m sorry, Leonas,” she said. “You’re going to have to come in here.”
“No,” he said.
“I know,” she said. “It probably won’t be okay, but it should only take a minute.”
“Go fuck yourself,” he said.
“I know,” she said, moving around him and pushing him into the room.
“Don’t,” he said as he stumbled inside. “This isn’t—this isn’t anything, this is nothing. This means nothing. Can I be weird about things without it needing to mean anything? Can I—” He choked. Minnow watched, head cocked, as he gasped for air.
“Is he okay?” Karzarul asked. It felt plausible that this was just a thing he did.
“No,” she said.
“I can’t—” Leonas gasped, clawing at his face. Waking nightmares, memories of dying, Karzarul had seen this but never in the daylight. Leonas started to glow, sunlight dripping from his eyes.
“That’s enough of that,” Minnow said, grabbing Leonas by the arm and pulling him out of the room. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest, and when Leonas gasped this time he took in air. Sunlight danced over her skin.
Karzarul looked back into the nursery, the thick layer of dust. The empty crib.
“That was him, then,” Karzarul said. He looked back at the two of them. Minnow nodded under Leonas’ chin.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Leonas managed. Minnow reached up to pat his cheek.
“Making sense is for later,” she said. “This is research.”
“That’s,” Leonas started to protest. He swallowed. “That’s valid,” he said. A leaf sprouted in his hair. Karzarul kept his hands to himself. Leonas’ legs started to give out.
“It’s okay,” Minnow said, slowing his fall. She sat with him on the dirty floor, pulled on his arm until he tipped onto her shoulder. “You did good.” She stroked at his hair, and started to hum a familiar tune. Leonas’ glow started to fade.
Karzarul felt his shape waver.
“I’ll wait outside,” he said, already moving toward the stairs.
“Does Minnow know about the spell bottles?” Karzarul asked finally, walking alongside the wagon. Leonas stared daggers at him.
“The what?” Minnow asked.
“The King has been turning all of Leonas’ magic into spell bottles to power the ward,” Karzarul said, rather than wait for Leonas to explain.
“He’s been bleeding you?” Minnow asked, turning around to look back at where Leonas was sitting.
“What?” Leonas said. “No. Blood isn’t magic. You know that.”
“Oh.” Minnow turned back toward the road. “I always thought spell bottles were full of blood. Weird black blood.”
“No,” Leonas said. “I have no idea why you’d think that.”
“I never use spell bottles,” Minnow said defensively. “I thought I’d have to drink blood, and I don’t want to summon bees.”
“They’re for more than summoning bees,” Leonas said.
“I know,” Minnow said. “But that’s the coolest thing you can do with them.”
Leonas rubbed at his temples.
“I didn’t think magic was a liquid,” Minnow said.
“It’s not,” Leonas said. “That’s why you need to have the right flame source and the right glass and the right etchings in the glass—there’s a process. You can’t bleed magic out of people.”
Minnow hummed thoughtfully. “It’s still bad even though he’s not bleeding him, right?” Minnow asked.
“Yes,” Karzarul said.
“It isn’t that bad,” Leonas said. “I did agree to it. No one made me do anything.”
“You agree to a lot of things,” Minnow said.
Leonas rubbed at a snag on one of his fingernails. “I had options,” he muttered.
Minnow reached back to pat the top of his head.
“Were all the fake Heirs real, then?” Karzarul asked. Leonas pulled his knees up to rest his arms on them.
“No idea,” Minnow said. “I have a list, but most of them aren’t close enough to check. I don’t know if we need to do that again, anyway. There’s usually around twenty years before we come back, right? Once at least two of us are dead.”
“Give or take,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know how it works if you die while you’re still… cooking. So to speak. A human infant doesn’t have any memories yet. It’s just a soul that can poop. There’s nothing it would need to let go of before it could fit itself to a new body. I can’t be sure, as far as I know it’s never come up before.”
“There could have been even more of them, then,” Minnow said.
Leonas rested his forehead on his arms.
“There was a long stretch,” Minnow said, “where it was only Elias. I wonder if I might have killed you? I don’t feel like I’d kill a baby.”
“If you thought the baby was indistinguishable from the adult it had been,” Karzarul suggested.
“No,” Minnow said. “That’s stupid. A baby is a baby. They’re just little guys.”
“Right,” Karzarul said.
“Our next step should be getting the Sunshield back,” Minnow said.
“Nothing about today has changed the fact that monsters—the monsters that exist here and now—are aggressive, powerful, and only being kept out of a city full of innocent people by a ward that needs that shield,” Leonas said. Minnow sighed. “If you are about to suggest,” Leonas said before she could speak, “that the ward around Fort Astielle, the ward that I gave up my shield and my magic for, that I have spent twenty years doing nothing but helping to maintain. That ward. Does nothing of value. As if that is going to be helpful for me right now. I am going to suggest that you reconsider.”
The wagon creaked in the lull in the conversation, alongside the sound of hooves.
“Let’s assume,” Minnow said, “that due to a series of misunderstandings, Leland is actually trying his best and happens to be a huge asshole about it.” Karzarul managed not to snort. “In that case, we still need to do something about the root cause of the monster attacks. Defeating King Karzarul to make the monster attacks stop isn’t going to work, and neither is leaving the ward up forever. Trying to find the root cause of the monster attacks when you have no way to defend yourself, are at constant risk of losing control of your magic, and can’t use a Rainbow Door isn’t sustainable.” Leonas drew in on himself further. “Leaving you behind isn’t an option,” she said. “We want you with us. Right?”
Karzarul sighed. “It’s better than the alternative?” he offered.
“Right,” Minnow said. “We want to get this done, without having you in active danger for months on end while we travel around. If we’re going to do that, we’re going to need the Sunshield. It won’t be good for the city. The monster situation will be bad. But the monster situation will eventually be bad no matter what. If we get the Sunshield now, the Astian army can spend some time holding down the literal fort at home until we can fix the monsters and solve the problem forever and render the ward obsolete.”
“Well aren’t you an expert in project and time management, all of a sudden,” Leonas said.
Minnow had the grace to look abashed. “I am good at quests,” she said. “This feels like a big quest.”
“Whereas finding Karzarul didn’t,” Leonas said, rubbing his face. “Not that you would have been able to, as it turns out.”
“I think I could tell,” Minnow said. “Not exactly, but like a feeling. Like I shouldn’t have to look for him, because he’d find me when he could.” Karzarul was watching her, his expression inscrutable.
“Which was correct, as it turns out,” Leonas said. “You never told me that.”
“It wasn’t a real idea I had in words, or anything,” she said.
Leonas stretched his legs back out, the backs of his knees aching. “I can go to the castle and ask for my shield back,” he said. “That’s always been an option.”
“No, you can’t,” Minnow said. “You can, but Leland will talk you out of it. You’ll end up thinking this is stupid.”
“I already think it’s stupid,” he muttered.
“That’s why we’ll go together,” she said. “We’ll go behind the King’s back to take your shield back, which you shouldn’t have to ask for anyway, because it’s yours. I’ll be with you so you can’t lose your nerve.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Leonas said.
“Ari, you can wait outside the ward,” Minnow said. “Once we have the Sunshield, it should be easy to meet back up and take a Rainbow Door to wherever we want.”
“I don’t like it,” Karzarul said.
“I know,” she said. “But you can’t come inside the city, and especially not the castle.”
“If something happens to you in there, what am I supposed to do about it?” he asked.
“We can bring Seeing Stones,” she said, “to keep in touch.”
“That would let me hear you get attacked,” he said. “That wouldn’t let me do anything about it.”
“As long as we get to the Sunshield,” Leonas said, “the ward will go down. You’ll be able to traipse right in and set the whole thing on fire, if you want. It is but one of the many fun aspects of this plan.”
“I’m not interested in burning down your city,” Karzarul said. “I am interested in what will happen if you are unable to avoid this father of yours, who would have you protect what is yours.”
“He isn’t interested in protecting what’s mine,” Leonas said. “He protects what’s his.”
“It’s Minnow who said you find his arguments compelling,” Karzarul pointed out. “I know nothing of the man.”
“What’s his is a kingdom,” Leonas said. “Every life within it. His legacy, his son. Of course it’s compelling. What’s mine is…” He hesitated. “Nothing, really. Not anymore. But if it makes you feel better, Minnow is as likely to burn the castle down as anyone else.” Minnow shrugged and nodded at the same time. “Even if I did try to betray her for her own good, she’d end up smashing the entire warding mechanism out of spite.”
“Truuuuue,” Minnow said.
“That does make me feel better, actually,” Karzarul said.
“Great,” Leonas said. “I’m glad you’re feeling good about it. Someone ought to.”
“I feel good about it,” Minnow said cheerfully.
“Two out of three, then,” Leonas said. “Even better.”
“You never feel good about anything,” Minnow pointed out. “That means this is as close as we’re ever going to get to everyone feeling good about our plan going forward.”
“I’ve felt good about things,” Leonas protested. “… not that it ever ended well.”
“That means that if you did feel good about it,” Karzarul said, “we would need to worry.”
“That’s not what that means,” Leonas said. He frowned. “I hope that isn’t what it means.”
Karzarul nudged Leonas with his hoof. “Hey,” he said. “You’re dreaming again.”
The dreamscape cleared as Leonas panted. “Oh,” he said. The arrows left his back.
“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “You should work on that.”
“Why are you here?” Leonas asked.
“Does Minnow know about this dream?” Karzarul asked.
Leonas sat back on the lack of ground, legs stretched out in front of him. “No. Do you tell people about your dreams?”
“I wasn’t sure if she knew,” Karzarul asked. “Since we’ve figured out why you do the—” Karzarul gestured around his mouth. “Breathing thing.”
“It wasn’t some great mystery that was bothering me,” Leonas said. “I was well aware of being murdered. Previously I assumed you choked me to death, that’s all.”
“I told you,” Karzarul said. “I never did that.”
“What a relief,” Leonas said. “I’ll be sure to keep in mind that I don’t have to worry about you choking me.”
“I have choked you nonfatally.”
“Yes, I got the implication, thank you.” Leonas rubbed at his neck. “Is that why you’re here? Did you think learning the truth would have fixed it?”
“No,” Karzarul said. “I thought it might be worse.”
“Oh.” The colors of the dreamscape shifted, but nothing in particular manifested itself. “Is it practice?” Leonas asked. “That makes your dreams so detailed.”
“Something like that,” Karzarul said.
“But you can’t do that here,” Leonas said, “because it’s mine. And I can’t do anything in your dreams.”
“That isn’t very useful,” Leonas said. He remembered a flower into his hands, but the details were fuzzy, the leaves indistinct. He forgot to pretend there was ground underneath him, neither rising nor falling, floating in the same space with his legs half-bent. “Trying to sketch without a reference.”
“You want to copy my work?” Karzarul asked.
“Yes,” Leonas said. “No one ever did anything useful having to reinvent the wheel.”
“Making better trees won’t help you know when you’re dreaming,” Karzarul said.
Leonas shrugged, and tried to make a carnation. The leaves came out well enough, but the petals turned a faint green.
“Let me,” Karzarul said, holding out a hand. Leonas stared at it, then slowly offered him the carnation. Karzarul turned it over in his hands. “If you want me to fix it,” Karzarul said, “you have to let me.”
“I’m letting you,” Leonas said, waving at it. “I gave it to you, I don’t care what you do with it.”
“A traveler has no power in another person’s dreamscape,” Karzarul said, “unless the person who invited them actively allows them to make changes. Any changes. It’s all or nothing.”
Leonas blanched, his feet landing on the lack of ground to stand. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Obviously I’m not going to—that’s absurd. Expecting me to be comfortable with that.”
“Then I can’t do anything with this,” Karzarul said, offering the flower back.
“It isn’t as if you’d want me having free reign in your dreams,” Leonas said.
“Yes, I can’t imagine why after seeing what a lovely time you’ve had of it,” Karzarul said, gesturing with the carnation to the endless nothing all around them, the occasional flashing impressions of color and shape without form. Leonas flushed, witchmarks flaring. “What are you worried I’ll do? Stab you with an arrow? Smother you with a pillow?”
A construct of Karzarul nearly appeared before being abruptly replaced by fractals.
“Are you doing math right now?” Karzarul asked.
“You don’t have to do that,” Karzarul said. “I want to see what you think I look like.” The fractal grew. “Which fiddly little detail did you focus on to the detriment of all else?” The fractal spiraled aggressively outward. “I’m going to guess it was the fangs,” he sneered. “The big scary monster fangs, on the big scary monster.” He bit the carnation.
Leonas woke up, rolled over, and pulled his blanket over his head.