Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Your Majesty, can we talk privately?” Minnow asked. She was still holding Karzarul in her hands, though he had at least uncurled.

The Fairy King sucked a tadpole through the straw in his drink and chewed it contemplatively. Changelings were all in a dither through the Faewild, figuring out which stones were actually monsters and then chasing them as they tried to roll away. “How private?” he asked.

“Can we go to the forge?” she asked.

The Fairy King frowned. Whatever happened at the forge would be between themselves and the Goddesses. “I guess,” the Fairy King said, reluctant and suspicious. He may have been picking up on Minnow’s mood; he’d known her the longest, after all.

Minnow was miserable, and did a poor job hiding it. It did not suit her the way it did Leonas, who had at all times a general aura of discontent.

“You better not want to talk to any Goddesses,” the Fairy King warned once they were alone.

“We have to ask about the Lost,” Minnow said.

The Fairy King blinked. “No.”

“We gotta,” Minnow said, holding Karzarul closer, her shoulders all hunched and drawn in on herself. “Astielle doesn’t scatter bones right, and—and they’ve got all this sunlight magic now, and—and we found out how they’re Undead, and somebody made a wish they shouldn’t have. And we thought we had a lead but then we didn’t and now we’re stuck. And if they made a wish that means you—”

“It’s not my fault,” the Fairy King said, raising his voice and stomping his foot. Minnow flinched. His wings buzzed. “That wasn’t me.”

“I know,” Minnow said. “But you know stuff, right? You were there?”

“I didn’t do anything,” the Fairy King insisted. The buzzing was getting louder, pressing dangerously against their eardrums and crawling into veins. The air felt heavy. “It’s not my fault every time a stupid grown-up makes a stupid wish that ruins everything.”

“I know,” Minnow said.

“You don’t,” the Fairy King shouted. The buzzing was palpable, the sound of it crowding out the sun and there were dark shadows all around his black eyes. “They aren’t mine and they aren’t supposed to be here. I don’t want to fix your stupid problems!”

Sunlight hummed against Minnow’s skin, Leonas being overprotective. Minnow wasn’t worried about that. She only felt terrible. The sound and fury of the Faewild was scary to an outsider, but a changeling would always recognize him as home. A person who was a place, made as one back when dragons still flew. A place where children lived forever, and a boy to take care of them. The whole world moved outside of him, and he stayed here. Accepting more changelings, always. Those precious few who would be fairies swallowed up into the Faewild with him so it could grow to hold their charges.

Until the day there was something else a lost child could be. Something that could happen to changelings that strayed.

She was surprised when Karzarul moved out of her hands. He was a shape and then he wasn’t, all indistinct between moments. He was smaller than his usual forms when he had one, almost the same size as the Fairy King.

Karzarul was a Bruteling, hugging him fiercely.

The Fairy King burst into tears.

He collapsed into ugly, noisy, wailing sobs as Karzarul patted his back. Karzarul made soothing sounds as the heaviness dissipated. Minnow rubbed her shoulder, trying to avoid looking at either of them.

“Do you want to go sit over there with me?” Karzarul asked the Fairy King, pointing to a log on the other side of the forge. The Fairy King nodded, holding up a hand to shield his face from view. “Okay.” Karzarul held his hand to lead him away, the Fairy King sniffling and rubbing at his eyes all the while.

“It’s weird that Karzarul might be the closest thing to his age,” Leonas said finally, “when the Fairy King is so much older.”

“You’d think they’d hang out more,” Minnow said.

The immortals were speaking too quietly to eavesdrop.

“Are we going to talk about the fact that he exploded?” Leonas asked finally.

“I don’t know,” Minnow said.

“You’ve never seen that monster before,” Leonas said more than asked. Minnow shook her head to confirm. Leonas bent down to pick up a rock, which unfurled in his hand. He held it up by its tail, and its little legs moved furiously as it tried to swim away through the air. “And yet they’re everywhere. Unavoidable.”

“I don’t know if we’re supposed to have noticed,” Minnow said with a touch of irritation.

“What?” Leonas said, setting the little monster back down. It got a running start to curl back up and roll away into the woods.

“Talking about things before you’re supposed to notice them is rude,” she said. “People get mad.”

“Karzarul gets mad about a lot of things,” Leonas said.

“So do you,” Minnow said, and Leonas scowled.

“We’d have to be stupid not to have noticed that he made a new monster.”

“You’d have to be stupid not to notice a lot of things,” Minnow said. “You still want to believe you’re getting away with it.”

“Don’t get snippy with me,” Leonas said.

“I’m not snippy,” Minnow said. “I try to be careful about what I say and then you act like I’m stupid.”

“I do not,” Leonas said.

“You do,” Minnow said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Minnow rubbed at her eyes. “This was too soon,” she muttered. “We were taking a break from questing. I shouldn’t have—I didn’t mean for it to turn into a quest. I shouldn’t have let it turn into a quest.”

Leonas tentatively patted the top of her head, but Minnow jerked her head away. After a moment of still surprise, he grabbed her by the hair to pull her close, wrapping an arm around her neck to hold her back against his chest. She stiffened, going very still rather than lash out at him.

“Minona,” he warned in her ear. “If you are going to have a breakdown, wait until we’re done here.” She made a sound of irritation, angling her head to bite down on his wrist. Leonas hissed through his teeth but didn’t otherwise move. “I know. I know. You’ve been having nightmares for a week.”

She took her teeth from his skin. “They weren’t,” she said.

“They were,” he said. “For you, they were. You’re exhausted. You’re upset. But you’re going to have to wait, because the only one here is me, and I can’t help you with this. Not the way you need. This is the best I can do for you right now.” He stroked her hair, and she relaxed minutely. “You’re very clever, and you haven’t done anything wrong. Wait a little longer, and you can be upset after we leave.” He paused and kissed the top of her head. “Not at me,” he added. “That’s not allowed.”

“Okay,” she said. She felt bad about biting him when he was delicate. She licked at the droplets of blood on his skin.

“Don’t be weird,” he said. The spots glowed and disappeared in a flash of sunlight. “… he did definitely explode a new monster into existence, though.”

“Stop it,” Minnow warned.

“Do you know something?” Leonas asked. “Is there something you’re not supposed to tell me, is that why you’re being like this?”

“I don’t know!” she said, frustrated again. “I don’t know what I know, or figured out, or remember, or made up. If we talk about it without Ari I’ll forget that he’s not supposed to know what we think we know. It’s too much. Keeping track of what I know is hard enough without keeping track of everyone else on top of it. I’m tired, Nettles.”

“I’m sorry, love,” he said, kissing her hair again. “Come here.” He turned her around so she could hide her face against his chest, pressing his palms against her ears. She sighed, relaxing into him. “I’m asking him about this later, though,” Leonas muttered. He tilted her head up towards his so that he could dot kisses over her face. “Better?” he asked as he took his hands away from her ears.

“Maybe,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist with another heavy sigh. “I don’t know. I don’t like this. I want to go somewhere that no one is and let everyone else deal with it. With everything. Maybe when the King is dead.”

“If my father dies,” Leonas reminded her, “I’ll be the King of Astielle.”

Minnow hummed noncommittally.

“I’m feeling better,” the Fairy King announced. Karzarul had shifted into a Howler, and the Fairy King was riding on his back. “Karzarul explained it so I’m fine now.” Minnow turned herself a little, but didn’t let Leonas go. “I don’t listen in on people’s wishes, so I can’t tell you what dumb thing that guy said to ruin corpses. Karzarul said people think he might have been a king? He didn’t look like a king of anything, but I don’t know. I didn’t ask because I didn’t think he’d be important. Most people just gaze upon the divine and die, so I don’t bother getting attached.”

“That’s okay,” Minnow said. “It doesn’t matter. We were hoping there’d be a clue about how to make the Undead regular dead.”

“You can’t,” the Fairy King said with a shake of his head. “The best you can do is stick them in an old log and let mushrooms eat them.”

Minnow frowned. “Does the Faewild have a Shadow Garden?” she asked.

“We don’t call ours that,” the Fairy King said. “The Sleeper Stumps are in the Deep.”

“I thought it was fairies who sleep in the stumps of the Deep,” Minnow said.

“It can be both,” the Fairy King said. “Fairies can’t die. When a fairy gets tired, we let them sleep, same as the Lost. We can do the same for you someday, if you want.”

Leonas held her tighter. “A changeling who leaves the Faewild is mortal,” he reminded the Fairy King.

“Yeah,” the Fairy King said, “but you’ve all got blessings. You could kill each other, I guess, but then you’d be born again and it’d be a whole thing.” Leonas’ eyes narrowed. The Fairy King looked down at Karzarul beneath him. “Does he not know?”

Karzarul scuffed his paws against the dirt, ears pinned back and head low.

“What don’t I know?” Leonas asked.

“You do know,” Karzarul said. “Our weapons are what kill us. That’s why it’s always the Hero who kills me.”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“Once one of us dies, we aren’t together anymore. You two become mortal again.”

“What.” Leonas slowly let Minnow go. “You’re—killing you kills us?”

“You guys like to be together,” the Fairy King said, sliding off Karzarul’s back and patting his ruff. “You’re real bad at it sometimes, is all.”

“We can die other ways,” Leonas said. “If my head gets cut off, I’m going to die.”

Karzarul scuffed his paws again.

“Nah,” the Fairy King said.

Nah?” Leonas repeated, incredulous.

“You’re like fairies, right?” the Fairy King asked Karzarul. “It knocks you out for a while.”

“They come back wrong,” Karzarul said, ears still back as he sat on the ground. “If—if you die. Sort of die. You don’t die, but you don’t really… it would be better if you did.”

“I. Okay.” Leonas rubbed at his forehead. “That sounds. We’re immortal now?”

“Yeah,” the Fairy King said. “You forgot a lot, huh?”

“Yes.” Leonas let his hand rest at his temple. “You’re saying if Karzarul had awakened sooner, I could have had the skin of a twenty year old forever?”

Minnow made a face, wrinkling her nose and sticking out her tongue.

“That’s fine,” Leonas said. “I’m fine. With that. This won’t haunt me at all. What were we—where were we?”

“We were trying to figure out if there’s a way to undo all the Undead,” Minnow said. “The Fairy King’s been there from the start and he puts them to sleep the same as the Moon Cultists, so that’s a bust.”

“What if we destroyed the blessing?” Karzarul asked. “When Vaelon asked if he could give up the Starsword, you said that he could, but it would destroy him with it.”

“Not destroyed,” the Fairy King said, shaking his head. “Wiped from existence. Backwards and forwards and everything that ever happened because of you and because of the blessing. He could have done it right then, but now it’s complicated. You’d unmake a lot of stuff.”

“Has anyone ever done that before?” Minnow asked.

“I don’t know,” the Fairy King said. “No one would ever know. That’s the point.”

“Do you remember what the blessing was?” Minnow asked.

“I would prefer not to create any paradoxes that cause us to never have existed, thank you,” Leonas said.

“I only mean, if his is like ours, maybe we can find the guy,” Minnow said. “Or the reincarnation of the guy.”

“It wasn’t like yours,” the Fairy King said. “You guys bound your souls to your blessings with your wishes. People with self-centered wishes usually die.” Karzarul ducked his head into his shoulders, abashed. “His was bound to the dead, I think. All the dead? I would check but I got mad and ate his terms and conditions. I thought if he came back I could trick him into unbeing.” The Fairy King scratched his head. “Don’t tell anyone,” he added.

“We won’t,” Minnow promised.

“I don’t keep track of people’s blessings,” the Fairy King added. “You’d have to ask your mom.”

Minnow pointed at herself, and he shook his head. Warily, Leonas pointed to himself, and the Fairy King nodded. Leonas said nothing.

“How did the Pirate Queen come to have it?” Karzarul asked, watching Leonas while pretending not to.

“Adventures,” the Fairy King shrugged. “She wanted to live forever, but the Nightshard doesn’t work like that.” Leonas remained very still. “She came here thinking she could trade it for a wish? I gave her some starter quests but she gave up before long. Which is good, because I was running out.”

“I don’t remember any starter quests,” Karzarul said.

“I didn’t give you any,” the Fairy King said. “I liked Vaelon.” His wings buzzed briefly, and he gestured at Leonas. “If it had just been you, I might have,” he admitted. “Your vibes weren’t great.”

Minnow laced her fingers with Leonas’, and he didn’t protest. “We’re waiting until after we leave,” she reminded him. He nodded.

Karzarul looked up to the sky. “Minnow,” he asked, “did you ever read your terms and conditions?”

Minnow blinked. “Yeah?” she said. “A long time ago.” It had made her eyes glaze over, nonsensical and contradictory for the most part. In turns of phrase she caught familiar concepts, but in the end it was nothing useful. Words and words and her soul stamped at the end of it.

“Okay,” Karzarul said. “Vaelon said he learned to cut Rainbow Doors. When he read it. Is why I asked.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning as she tried to follow the change in topic. “I made those?”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

“Vaelon was deeply in tune with the Void,” the Fairy King said, patting Karzarul’s ruff.

“Should I work on that?” Minnow asked, in case that was why Karzarul had brought it up.

“No,” the Fairy King said. “It was because he was sick. You’re better now.”

Minnow touched the Starsword. “I can’t do cool stuff, though,” she said.

The Fairy King hummed. “Being able to do cool stuff,” he said finally, “doesn’t seem to end well for you.”

“Do you think I could learn to make more?” Minnow asked, her hand against the stone of the Rainbow Door.

Karzarul had taken the lead through the Door this time, and he’d brought them back to the little wildflower cabin by the big willow tree. He’d promptly turned into a Rootboar and parked himself in the grass, looking out at the fields instead of anything close.

“Lynette’s enchanters made the Doors,” Karzarul said. “Vaelon could cut through any two places, but they’d heal themselves shut.”

“That would be even more useful,” Minnow complained. “I never said how I did it?”

“You tried to explain sometimes,” Karzarul said. “You said the universe is vast, and made mostly of void—empty spaces keeping all things from being one thing, and this world so small that any one place may as well be another. Connecting all the nothingness to fit things through the empty spaces.”

Minnow frowned, searching her memory and finding nothing. “That’s what the terms said,” she complained, crouching down. “About empty nothing. But it’s not.” She plucked a clover from the ground. “There’s so much. In this spot here, there’s so many things. And over there, it’s all different things, even though it isn’t far away.”

The thing about picking every flower was that it quickly became apparent how many flowers there were. If she’d been sensible, she would have whittled her list down to the more popular or interesting ones. Instead she dropped to her knees in every new place and scoured the ground by inches. Even the dirt in one place contained a million different things, all of them different from the dirt elsewhere. Nowhere was anything like anywhere else, not in any of the places she’d been; she could not pretend them alike enough to superimpose them.

“Vaelon was the only one who could make it work,” Karzarul said, his round little Rootboar shape resembling a large egg in the grass. “Some of the others could wield Starlight as a weapon, but that was all.”

“I can’t even do that,” Minnow sighed, pulling the Starsword out of its sheath. She examined the blade as if to do so would reveal something to her.

“Jonys said he played it,” Karzarul said. “Like an instrument.”

“It doesn’t sing for her,” Leonas said. He’d tried to sit himself down by the willow tree, stiff and too aware of the location. He had given up, standing and pretending to look at things that weren’t Karzarul, aimlessly pacing in misshapen circles. He was trying not to think about the Faewild. “I’ve asked.”

“It rings sometimes,” Minnow said. “Only near stars. I don’t know how I’d play it.”

“You used to swing it in figure-eights,” Karzarul said. “Playing along with your heartbeat. If that helps.”

Minnow considered trying it. But trying to do sword tricks made her self-conscious, and she didn’t think her fingers were clever in that way. Rolling and spinning and flipping blades. Something itched at her memory, but she didn’t know whose memory. High-pitched sounds scraping at the inside of her skull, her pulse in the marrow of her teeth. She refocused on willow leaves and wildflowers rustling in the breeze, the distant chirping of birds. “Maybe,” she said, sheathing it again. “You didn’t want to tell me this, before,” she said.

“No,” Karzarul said. “I don’t like… telling you about yourself. Talking about them.” He took a long, slow breath. “But I… I think your heart has always been your heart. Even when it hurts me. So. I don’t know.” He set his chin on his front trotters, grass tickling his snout. His posture was more like a dog than a pig.

“Was this hers?” Leonas asked, with a small gesture toward the cabin.

“It was supposed to be,” Karzarul said. “That was later. The Door was just… he liked the view. The cabin was for Laurela. When she was older.” He paused. “I still don’t want to talk about that.”

“Okay,” Minnow said.

Karzarul transitioned into light, blossoming upward and taking shape as a kneeling Impyr. He was wringing his hands, scratching absently at the pitch-black moon. “I gave up,” he admitted. “After Laurela. I—I used to offer. I would offer to let you stay with me. When we fought, if I won. I stopped, after Laurela.” He scratched harder, claws digging into his skin, dripping silvery light. “If I’d offered, last time—if I’d tried—”

Leonas was pulling Karzarul’s hands apart, bent down over him with copper curls falling over his shoulder. “It wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said. “If it had, Minnow wouldn’t be here. Not being the one to save her isn’t the same as being the one who hurt her. I am sorry, for whatever it’s worth.” Karzarul’s skin was whole again, but when Leonas let him go Karzarul held on.

“It wasn’t you,” Karzarul said quietly.

“Same heart,” Leonas reminded him.

“It wasn’t mine yet,” Karzarul said.

Leonas’ witchmarks flared bright, skin flushing beneath them. His eyes sought out Minnow, fingers drumming on the hilt of the Starsword. “Are you okay?” he asked, changing the subject. “I know you weren’t feeling well. Before. With your—the Fairy King.” Karzarul still hadn’t released his hands.

Minnow blinked. “I’m good,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Leonas asked.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “The bad part’s over, so I’m good now.”

“You don’t have to be,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Minnow said. “Don’t push.” She was aware as soon as she said it that it made her sound like a liar. But not being believed was irritating. “Are we going to be sleeping outside, or inside?” she asked.

“We can go inside,” Karzarul said, reluctantly releasing Leonas’ hands.

“I might have messed it up,” Minnow warned.

“Good,” Karzarul said. “It was supposed to be yours.” He hesitated, then shifted to a Howler. His ears and tail were both low, but Minnow was secretly relieved. If he’d started crying as a Rootboar, she did not trust herself not to laugh by accident.

The inside of the cabin was dusty, but most things were by the time she got back to them. There wasn’t much, aside from extra rocks she hadn’t wanted to keep carrying the last time she’d been through. She’d meant to come back for them but had forgotten. The root vegetables in the kitchen bin had started growing. She opened all the windows and the oversized front door, dragging the quilts outside to shake them out. The Sunshield and the Starsword leaned against opposite sides of the doorframe.

“Is this lapis?” Leonas asked, picking up a craggy hunk of blue.

“Do you want it?” Minnow asked from outside.

“No,” he said, setting it back.

Karzarul stuck his front paws on the sill of the back window to look outside. “The rhubarb is still there,” he noted. “And the walking onions.” Most of the tension had left him now. The space was too much Minnow’s to lose himself to the past.

“There’s like six rhubarbs now,” Minnow said. “And so many onions.”

“I’m not hungry,” Leonas said.

“There’s rolls and apples in my bag,” Minnow said. Leonas headed straight for where she’d set it down outside, digging through it until he found the handkerchief tied around the bread. He ate by tearing off small pieces, heading back inside to sit on a chair made of a log. Karzarul sat on the floor in something like companionable silence.

Minnow paused as she brought the quilts back inside, looking Leonas over assessingly. “You called me love earlier,” she said. Karzarul’s ears shot up, looking between the two of them.

Leonas choked, witchmarks flaring. “I said a lot of things,” he managed. It was all a bit of a blur. It had briefly seemed as though the Fairy King might stick them in trees, his boyfriend had exploded into a rock, his girlfriend had been on the brink of a tantrum, and he’d been reminded that his mother had a life before he was born. A man could say a lot of things under those sorts of circumstances.

“You did,” she said. “You’ve never called me that before.”

“I might have,” he said.

“You haven’t,” she said. “Is that what you’re going to call me now?”

“Absolutely not,” he said too quickly.

“Okay,” she said, apparently unperturbed. She patted down the wooly mattress to make sure it was suitable for sleeping on before throwing the quilt back over it. Leonas kept his eyes on his roll, picking at it without eating. It bothered him that she was unbothered.

“I do love you,” Leonas managed finally, not looking up. Karzarul stayed very still.

Minnow rolled the words over in her mind for a moment. “I don’t know what that means,” she said finally.

“… what.”

“I sort of know what it’s supposed to mean,” she said defensively. “That’s not how anyone uses it.” She raked her fingers through her hair, pulling some of the tangles apart. “Lots of people say they love me,” she said. “Like people have said they love you.”

Karzarul curled in on himself slightly.

“I don’t know,” Leonas said, irritated now that his attempt had not been received as intended. Irritated that other people had ruined it by thinking that they loved her. That she would compare it to anyone who’d ever said they loved him. “I wanted to say it. That’s all.”

Minnow was irritated that he was irritated. She closed the gap between them, reaching out to touch him without asking permission first. He tensed as her hands cupped his jaw, tilting his face towards her. “You’re pretty,” she said, and he scowled. “You’re very smart, and really stupid.” His expression did not improve. “You know me. You pull my hair and you let me bite you. I like your eyes, I like the way you look at me.” That felt inadequate, so she hunted for the words to clarify. “Sometimes you look at me the way you’d look at a specimen. But sometimes you look at me like a toy you want to break. I like it when you’re greedy, and selfish, and tell me I’m not allowed to be mad at you. When you let yourself do the things you think you shouldn’t want.”

She bent to bring her face closer to his. He’d stopped scowling, but he hadn’t softened. “You make me happy,” she said. “Even when I’m mad, and I hate you. It makes me happy when you’re happy. I know you hate it, the way that we are and the things we’ve been, but I’m glad you’re stuck with me. I want you to stay with me. I want to see the whole world, and show you all the things I see so that you can tell me why they’re terrible and so am I.” She touched the tip of her nose to his. “Does that mean I love you?”

“I don’t know,” Leonas admitted. “I want to stay with you. I don’t like it, but I want it. I would die for you if I thought you’d let me.”

“Is that what your love is?” she asked.

“For you, I think it might be.” He leaned forward to catch her mouth in a kiss, brief and terrified. Minnow pulled away, straightening, but he caught her hand to kiss the callouses on her palm.

Minnow looked at Karzarul, sitting hunched on the floor. “Can you be a person?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” Karzarul said. “Not well.” He shifted rather than be obtuse, an Impyr still sitting on the ground. Minnow’s fingers trailed behind as she left Leonas, sitting herself in Karzarul’s lap. She sighed, leaning her head against his chest.

“I already said, didn’t I?” she asked. “That I want you with me.”

“You did,” he agreed.

“It’s different now, though,” she said. “It must have been a memory before. That you should be with me always. Remembering that you were someone I should love.” She rested her head at his shoulder, looking at his earrings as she reached up to touch his neck. Her thumb stroked the hollow beneath his ear, fingertips pressing at his nape. She didn’t want to look at his face, too sure that it was sad. “I wanted you very much,” she sighed. “But not the way I want you now. I didn’t know you before. Or, I did, but…” She sighed. “It’s complicated,” she complained.

“I know,” Karzarul said.

“My heart knew your heart,” she decided. “The same heart. But Minnow didn’t know Karzarul. Not the way I know Leonas. It helps that it’s both of you. I can see more of you, when it’s the two of you. You’re a brat.”


“You have that in common,” Leonas muttered.

“Yes,” Minnow agreed, pleased. “I like that about us. I want you to stay with me. I want to find new flowers, and catch new fish, and dig for truffles with you. I want to be touching you. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Is that loving you? Is that enough to call love?”

Karzarul said nothing. “Could you live without me?” he asked finally. His eyes met Leonas’. “Without us?”

“I did,” she said. “For a long time. I don’t want to anymore, that’s all. I can give you breaks sometimes, if that’s what you mean. If Leonas wants to stay home and read, or you want to hang out with the other monsters. I don’t mind being alone.” She hesitated. “Is it not love if I don’t need you always?”

Karzarul turned his head to kiss her forehead. “That’s the right amount of wanting,” he said, and she relaxed. “I love you, too,” he said, and she hummed. “Before I was anything, I was something that loved you. Even if I hadn’t made myself to be loved by you, I would have loved Minnow.”

“Yeah?” she asked breathlessly.

“Yeah,” he said.

There were a lot of things he could have told her. About the way she spoke to him like a person and tried to warn him away from danger. The way she was wild and beastly. The unfortunate and unflattering reality that she made him feel more like a person by acting like less of one.

“You’re cute,” he said. She giggled.

Leonas and Karzarul’s gazes met again. That neither rushed to reassure the other said as much as anything. Karzarul looked away first.

“I don’t love you yet,” Leonas said before he could feel awkward about it. “I don’t know what it would feel like if I did. I care for you. If anything happened to you I would be… upset. But I’m not…” Leonas struggled to put words to the ways that it was different. “I don’t know you,” he decided. “If there was a time when I knew you, I don’t remember it. She knows you well enough to love you now, but I don’t.”

Karzarul nodded slowly, rubbing Minnow’s back. It was a relief that Leonas had said it when Karzarul had been wary of offending. Karzarul still had trouble interpreting his own feelings, where Leonas was concerned. Everything a tangle of fear and lust and bad memories.

“You think I’m hot, though, right?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas made a startled sound of offense that made Karzarul start laughing. Leonas immediately pulled off his boot to throw it at Karzarul’s head. Karzarul ducked out of the way with Minnow, cackling.

“I’m taking the Door without you,” Leonas announced, staying seated and shoving little pieces of bread into his mouth.

“You’re really hot,” Minnow assured Karzarul, patting his chest.