“It’s not a big deal,” Minnow insisted.
“It’s grave robbing,” Leonas said. “You’re digging up a corpse.”
“It’s my grave,” Minnow said. “And my corpse.”
“That’s not better,” Leonas said. “That’s significantly worse.”
Minnow was using the Starsword to dig at the earth beside the stone marking Elias’ grave. “No it isn’t,” she said. “It’s my stuff. I’m getting my stuff back. That’s all.”
Leonas had given up on telling her that the Starsword wasn’t a gardening tool. “You have fundamentally misunderstood the problem with this situation,” he said.
“I can take care of it, if you want,” Karzarul said. “I’ve handled your corpses before.”
“That isn’t better,” Leonas said.
“Would an Ursbat be better at digging?” Minnow asked, pausing in her stabbing of the ground.
“Anything would be better at digging than what you’re doing,” Leonas said.
Karzarul shifted to an Ursbat as requested, and his claws sank deep into the earth to begin tossing soil behind him. Leonas backed further away to avoid getting hit, while Minnow put the Starsword away.
“I don’t know why I didn’t ask you to do that sooner,” Minnow said. “Habit, I guess.”
Leonas sighed. “You should have been blessed with a Star Shovel.”
“You probably would have preferred that from the start,” Karzarul agreed. He was already far enough down that his belly was below the level of the ground. “Am I close?”
Leonas’ eyes glowed. “No,” he said as they faded. “I’m not sensing anything magic in there, by the way.”
Minnow frowned, watching Karzarul keep digging. “Why bury it so deep, then?”
“I assume they were trying to dissuade grave robbers,” Leonas said.
“Then it’s a good thing we’re not grave robbers,” Minnow said. “We’re thing-retrievers.”
“That isn’t anything,” Leonas said. “That’s nothing.”
“Lost-and-finders,” Minnow suggested.
“I don’t know what you’re trying to make happen, but you should stop.”
“We should have a name, right?” Minnow asked. “Because on my own I’m the Starlight Hero, but when we’re all together it feels like we should have a team name.”
“Absolutely not,” Leonas said. “What possible benefit could that have?”
“It would be faster than listing all our titles.”
“No it wouldn’t,” Leonas said. “The first time you tell someone we’re the Shithead Squad, they’re going to ask what the fuck that is, and then you’re going to have to introduce us anyway. That’s not faster.”
“Not at first,” Minnow said. “You have to give it some time to catch on. Karzarul, what did they call us when we were a team before?”
“Nothing,” Karzarul said. “You were the Hero. Sometimes I was their unusually large dog.”
“Huh,” Minnow frowned. “Don’t like that.”
Karzarul stood, stretching his neck to peer over the edge of the hole he’d dug. “Am I close yet?”
After a brief flash of his eyes, Leonas said, “A little to your right.”
Karzarul’s head disappeared as he ducked back down to keep digging. “Found it,” he called back up after a moment.
“How do I look?” Minnow asked.
“Dead.” Karzarul lifted up the heavy stone chest that contained Elias’ remains to set it above the edge of the hole. Minnow made a small sound.
“Hey,” Leonas said, alarmed, setting a hand on her shoulder.
“You don’t have to do this,” Karzarul said, having already dissipated and reformed as an Impyr by her side.
“No, no,” she said, waving them both off. “I don’t care about the body, it was…” She held out her hands to try to demonstrate. “The li’l fluffy paws, holding the box and putting it up there. The reachy paws.”
Leonas stared at her.
Karzarul shifted back to an Ursbat, rising up on his back paws to reach with his forepaws into the sky like he was trying to touch a cloud. Minnow shrieked. She pounced at him, hugging his waist. “You’re so fluff!” she said at a high pitch. “I wanna touch the beans,” she demanded, reaching upward. Karzarul lowered a paw so that she could poke at his paw pads. “Oh my goodness bears are so cute, I want to pet every bear.” She backed up enough that Karzarul could get back down on all fours, and she rubbed his fluffy round ears. “This is so good. This is a good shape for you to be, sometimes.”
“I thought bears were scary,” Karzarul said.
“The fact that they’re so pettable is part of why they’re so scary,” Minnow said. “It’s like wolves. They look like they should be cuddly because they’re so cute, but they’re actually full of murder. You have a moment of thinking, oh! A friend! and then it sees you and you realize you’re about to die.”
“Exactly like Karzarul the rest of the time, then,” Leonas said.
“I’m not—you think I’m cute?”
Leonas glowed. “Not right now, Minnow is the only one who thinks that.”
Karzarul shifted back to an Impyr. “Now?” he asked.
Leonas glowed brighter. “Cute might not be the right—this is not an appropriate conversation to be having when there’s someone’s remains right there.”
“No, this is the best time for it,” Karzarul said. “He would have hated this.” He looked at Minnow. “No offense.”
“None taken,” Minnow said. “I think of you as being more ‘devastatingly sexy’ than cute.”
“Oh.” Karzarul also started to glow.
“Sometimes you get puppy-dog eyes that are pretty cute,” she added.
“I would say that’s all accurate,” Leonas said. “Can we finish grave robbing first and tell our boyfriend how cute he is later?”
Karzarul mumbled incoherently, rubbing his hand over his mouth in a way that made his expression impossible to read.
“Yeah, okay,” Minnow said before pulling out the Starsword and whacking at the seal on the stone coffin. She kicked the lid off, bending to look inside.
Elias’ bones showed clear signs of charring, efficiently arranged and wrapped in ribbons so as not to take up too much space. His skull sat at the top of the stack, atop a small and rotting pillow. Minnow put her sword away, crouching to lift up the skull and look inside it.
“You could try to have a little respect,” Leonas said.
“Why?” she asked. “It’s mine.” She pulled a glittering gold necklace out from inside the cavity where her soul’s brain had once sat. “Do you think this is it?”
“No, because if that were the Nightshard then touching it would have caused problems,” Leonas said. “We’re looking for an artifact that sucks the sunlight out of people, that’s not the time to be grabbing things at random. And I already told you there wasn’t anything magic in that box.”
“Maybe it’s special,” Minnow suggested. “Secret.”
“Overnight I became the most powerful witch on the planet,” Leonas said flatly. “I can detect magic in rocks. Not even interesting rocks. Regular, shitty rocks. If you had a powerful artifact on your person, I would notice.”
“Not if it was a secret artifact.”
“Nothing is that secret.”
Fiddling with the necklace, Minnow’s thumbnail caught the latch and the locket popped open. Rather than photos or a lock of hair, it contained a folded-up piece of paper.
“Treasure map!” Minnow announced.
“We don’t know that,” Leonas said.
Minnow let the locket hang from her wrist as she unfolded the paper. It opened to reveal a map.
“Lucky guess,” Leonas said.
“She is the one that put it there,” Karzarul reminded him.
Leonas frowned. “Hm.”
Minnow looked the map over. It was old, but of course it would be. Rather than one X to mark the spot, there were several, in different sizes and line weights whose significance Minnow could not glean. Rainbow Doors had also been marked, little squares with routes plotted to the nearest marked location.
“The Nightshard is in parts,” Leonas suggested.
“Could be,” Minnow said. “Or else we need to get all the keys to unlock whatever has the Nightshard.”
“Ugh,” Leonas said, nose wrinkling. “Why is everything always so tedious?”
Minnow took a moment to contemplate this. “You never hear trees complaining about that kind of thing,” she said. “And all they do is grow until they die.”
“First of all,” Leonas said, “what the fuck are you talking about. Second of all, that’s only because they can’t. Every tree is bored to tears. Every winter they feel the hope of believing they might finally get to die, and every spring is a disappointment.”
Minnow hummed. “We haven’t had lunch yet, have we?”
“That has even less to do with anything,” Leonas said.
“We haven’t,” Karzarul confirmed.
Minnow reached into her bag to find a small glass bottle and offered it to Leonas. “Have some juice,” she suggested.
Leonas stared at her. “I am a grown man,” he reminded her, though he took the bottle as he did so. “My crow’s feet have graduated to raven’s feet. My ennui will not be mollified by juice.”
“Drink your juice,” Minnow ordered, taking a closer look at the map. “It looks like a lot of these are around Monster Mountain,” she said. She held it sideways so Karzarul could take a closer look.
“The distance is right that there may have been villages there,” Karzarul said. “A long time ago. Some of the monsters liked to go there after they were abandoned. Humans started avoiding them because of it. It may have seemed a safe place to keep things once he’d killed us.”
“Huh.” Minnow took the map back to frown at it. “Really don’t like that.”
“We got better,” Karzarul said.
“Still don’t like it,” Minnow said.
Karzarul patted the top of her head.
“This one looks closest to a Door, should we start there?” Minnow suggested, pointing at one of the marks on the map. “What do you think?” she asked Leonas.
“Seems fine,” Leonas said.
“If we stop over here first, I can get the mushrooms I’d need to make that recipe Zadven gave me,” she added.
“Sounds good,” Leonas said, brushing a curl out of his eyes. “Were you planning to hold onto this garbage?” he asked, holding up the empty glass bottle.
Minnow snatched it away to shove back into her bag. “Always.”
Minnow shaded her eyes against the evening sun to squint at Monster Mountain. “It looks like they’re making progress,” she said, pointing at the silhouette of the castle under construction.
“Yeah,” Karzarul said.
“Have you been checking in?” Minnow asked.
She narrowed her eyes at him but didn’t press the issue. “Violet could come down and help while we’re close by,” she suggested.
“He’s busy,” Karzarul said immediately.
“I’m not detecting anything,” Leonas said, his eyes still glowing. His fingers trailed over the crumbling stones that had once been part of a structure. Most of the buildings that had once been at the center of the village were now mere outlines of stone on the ground.
“Not even in there?” Minnow asked, nodding toward the only thing resembling an intact shelter. Passing merchants, adventurers, and other travelers often chose the most intact building to reinforce when seeking temporary lodgings in the ruins of nowhere. It resulted in weird patchwork hovels like that one, standing lonely among empty foundations. Minnow had slept in more than her fair share.
“Nothing but dirt floors and shitty graffiti,” Leonas said. “You can double-check, if you want.”
“There must be something,” Minnow said. “It was marked on a map I kept in a locket. That’s treasure shit for sure.”
A ball of white light shot out of the sky, hitting Karzarul in the chest. His shape wavered before returning back to normal.
“… was that the something?” Minnow asked.
“That was unrelated,” Karzarul said sharply. “It happens. Don’t worry about it.”
“That’s happened before,” Leonas said, his eyes fading. “When we were on Monster Mountain.”
“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “It happens.”
Leonas looked up at the mountain. “Is it because we’re so close?”
“Yeah,” Karzarul said.
Minnow hummed as Karzarul’s hooves scuffed dirt. “You don’t have to tell us if it’s complicated,” she said. “You can say that instead of lying.” Karzarul’s shoulders rose up closer to his ears. “It’s better if we know what we don’t know. You know?”
“You made it confusing,” Leonas told Minnow. “I dislike not knowing. I dislike being given inaccurate information much more. If you’re certain it’s unrelated to whatever Elias left here, I am willing to leave it.” His displeasure was obvious despite that. Minnow squeezed Karzarul’s hand, but Karzarul neither looked at them nor confessed. She wondered if he would ever stop wearing gloves as a matter of habit.
“Do you want to check if you can see anything from above?” Minnow asked Karzarul. “It’s stupid, but every once in a while I find out that there’s a big arrow made of rocks or buildings.”
“I’ll see,” he said, letting go of her hand as he shifted to a Savagewing. He launched himself upward with a heavy beating of his wings. He appreciated the opportunity to escape the conversation and catch his breath. Minnow and Leonas watched him stretch out his wings, circling low.
“Nothing stands out,” Karzarul said when he landed again. “There’s a little cemetary we could check.”
“No more grave robbing,” Leonas said firmly. “If I’d felt any magic over there, I would have told you.”
“We can check later,” Minnow murmured to Karzarul.
“I can hear you,” Leonas said.
“We’ll check later,” Karzarul agreed.
Minnow took Karzarul’s hand, pulling him closer to reach up and touch his face. “I remembered your hair being bigger the first time,” she noted. “Like Violet.”
“I like this better,” Karzarul said. Long straight hair, and at the front slender locks were gathered with silver cuffs. Minnow touched them and wondered where she’d seen the style before.
“It’s looking more like your face to me,” she said. “I know they’re all your face. But your other faces all looked a little like each other, and this one didn’t. It felt like you were wearing someone else. But now I’m getting used to it, and it feels more like you.”
“Do you like it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, tracing a finger over the lower curve of his mouth. “I like your wings. Do you think you would ever…” She hesitated, biting her lip and turning pink. “Want to play with me?” she suggested.
Leonas sighed. “You can say that you want to get fingerblasted by four hands, we know what you’re asking.”
“Shut up!” she shrieked, letting Karzarul go to cover her face. “I didn’t ask that!” Karzarul was already laughing.
“You woke up this morning with his tongue so far up in you I’m surprised you didn’t choke on it,” Leonas pointed out.
“What does that have to do with anything!” she demanded, still covering her face.
“You’re ridiculous,” Leonas said as Karzarul pulled her closer to kiss her hair. “Use your words.”
“No,” she said with a pout. She lowered her hands enough to see Karzarul. “You didn’t answer.”
He bent, head cocked. He flared his wings upward, stretched out toward the sky, doubling his height with the size of them. “You like the way I look?”
Her eyes were on his looming wings. “Yeah,” she admitted.
Karzarul crossed one pair of arms, put one hand on his hip and the other on his chin. “You want me to play with you?” he teased.
She nodded enthusiastically. He usually only fell into posing for Leonas, back when he’d tried to be subtle about flirting. She appreciated him putting forth the effort for her, even though he didn’t need it. He was very good at looking good. “I was worried you wouldn’t want to,” she said, “since you don’t seem to like this form as much.”
“I always want to touch you,” he said, letting his wings fall, reaching out to take her hands. He lifted them up to kiss her knuckles. “I can be whatever you’d like,” he said against her skin.
“I want you to be what feels good,” she said. She did not say that she wanted him to be happy, although she did. She thought that would put undue pressure on him.
Leonas rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Should I set out the bedrolls so you two can go fuck over in the weird shack?” he asked.
“Leonas,” Minnow scolded as Karzarul stifled a giggle. “You’re being rude.”
“We’re trying to figure out why you marked this place out on a map,” Leonas reminded her. “That’s not going to happen while you’re busy making eyes at each other. Unless you think Elias was mapping out romantic getaway destinations, in which case I have questions about the cemetery. We’re going to end up spending the night regardless, because if I don’t sleep you can’t dig up corpses to go through their pockets.”
“We aren’t going to do that,” Minnow said.
“Are we not?” Karzarul asked.
“We’re not telling him that we’re doing it, it’s a secret,” Minnow said.
“I can hear you,” Leonas said. “I’m not going to keep arguing with you, but I am going to insist that we not wait until I’ve already taken my makeup off for the night to start getting frisky. I’m old. I get cranky without my juice and when you make me stay up past my bedtime.”
“I thought that was babies,” Minnow said.
“You are the youngest one here,” Karzarul said.
“It’s old people, too,” Leonas said. “The natural state of humanity is that we want to stay in bed and consume things we don’t need to chew. There’s a brief period in the middle where we pretend otherwise to get laid. I bypassed that by getting extensively laid while never leaving my house.”
“And never getting any juice,” Minnow said.
“I had wine,” Leonas said.
“Wine doesn’t make you less cranky,” Minnow said.
“I mean it,” Leonas said. “Don’t waste my time acting like you’re not in the mood. Otherwise I’m going to wash my face first thing, which means I won’t be able to participate, which means neither of you will have any sex because you’ll feel awkward about it.”
“Mean,” Minnow accused.
“Actually,” Karzarul said, scratching the back of his neck. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to use this chance to visit Monster Mountain and check in.”
“A King doesn’t need permission to rule his people,” Leonas said.
“Right,” Karzarul said.
“He needs their permission,” Minnow reminded him. “Which they give by not beheading him.”
“You’ve been paying attention to me?” Leonas asked, surprised.
“I like listening to you,” Minnow said.
“I can contact you with Violet’s Seeing Stone if anything comes up,” Karzarul said.
“Do you think you’ll be back in time to not dig up bodies?” Minnow asked.
“I can try,” Karzarul said.
“I’m going to contact Violet and tell him to keep you there,” Leonas warned.
Karzarul bent to press a kiss to Minnow’s lips, not as brief as he intended. He always meant to be gentle, and she always crushed herself against him and made it impossible. “I’ll see you in the morning,” Karzarul said. He hesitated when he turned toward Leonas.
“Come here,” Leonas said impatiently, reaching out to grab him by his tunic and pull him closer. It was a quick kiss that left him nonetheless breathless. “Don’t take too long,” Leonas said.
Minnow sidled closer to Leonas as they watched him go.
“It’s just us tonight,” she said.
“Don’t be too disappointed,” Leonas said, reaching over to give her hair a gentle tug.
“You know I’m not,” she said. She tilted her head, her cheek chasing his fingers until he acquiesced and cupped her face. She sighed, nuzzling his palm.
“I wonder why,” he said.
“I know I can’t miss you, because you’re here,” she said. “But it’s different now than it used to be.”
“Do you wish I were still a special occasion?” he asked.
“No,” she said firmly.
“You could have seen me more often,” he said.
“I couldn’t,” she reminded him. Visiting too often drew attention.
“Did you want to?” he asked.
“I wanted to take you with me,” she said.
“I didn’t think you would like traveling, or adventures,” she continued. “I thought you could stay at one of my houses, or stay in different houses based on your mood. And I could see you as much as you’d like.”
He turned to face her more directly, the hand on her cheek directing her to do the same so that he could hold her face in both hands. “Is that what I seemed like?” he asked. “Someone to be kept?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching up to place a hand over one of his. “You were always so anxious, was all. Adventuring is dirty. There’s bugs.”
“I’m still anxious,” he said. “I’ll always be anxious. There is no hypothetical future circumstance where I am not anxious, regardless of proximity to bugs.”
“We should work on that,” Minnow said.
“I’m fine with it,” Leonas said. “You’re not anxious enough. Together we’re the right amount.” He brushed his thumbs over her skin. “I don’t miss it,” he said. “Any of it. You were the only good thing that ever happened to me. I would cut my hair off and wear rags if it meant I never had to go back.”
“You don’t have to do that, though,” she rushed to assure him.
“Shallow,” he accused. “What do you miss?” She hummed, waffling. “Spit it out.”
“The way you used to look at me,” she said. “Taking notes.”
“Hmm.” He let her go to tousle her hair. “You’re sure you can’t spy on dreams?”
“Have you dreamed about it?” she asked, delighted.
“Something like,” he said, which was not untrue. “Would you like me to pretend I have a reason again, or can we discard the pretense?”
She tapped her fingertips together. “Can we pretend?” she asked shyly.
“We can fuck, you know,” he pointed out. “We needed excuses before, but I can feel you up for the sake of it now. We’re free to have sex like normal people.”
“I’m not normal people,” she said.
Leonas polished his nails while Minnow worked. She set up their bedrolls so that they overlapped, giving them plenty of space to sit together in the little patchwork structure. Setting her boots by the door-less doorway, she knelt down and immediately started staring at Leonas with an expectant air.
“Am I supposed to set the scene?” Leonas asked. “Shall I introduce myself as Dr. Leonas?”
“I don’t know,” Minnow said, flustered. “It’s not that much pretending. You always looked me over. When you hadn’t seen me. It seems like.” Her lips pursed in a pout.
“Okay,” Leonas sighed, kneeling in front of her. “Don’t make faces. I would have noticed if you’d eaten any rocks, but open your mouth anyway.” Minnow started to protest. “Open,” he ordered before she could, and she stuck her tongue out. His eyes glowed as he used a stick of sunlight to poke around and confirm what he already knew. His eyes returned to normal when it dissolved. “You’ve been sucking too much dick,” he said. She squeaked in alarm, recoiling and covering her mouth.
“You can’t see that!” she said. “You’re making that up.”
“How would you know?” Leonas asked, watching her turn red.
“You would have said something before!”
His eyebrows shot up. “Would I have?” he asked. “Pardon? What were you doing, exactly, that I would have noticed when you came to see me?” She covered her face. “No, no,” he said, taking her wrists and pulling them gently away. “Let me see you, ridiculous girl. You’re here so I can look at you, aren’t you?”
“I changed my mind,” she mumbled without conviction. “You can’t really tell, can you? It hasn’t messed anything up?”
“I’ll check,” he said seriously, placing his hands on either side of her neck and walking his fingertips back and forth. Then he cupped her face in his hands again. “If he broke your esophagus,” Leonas said, “you would notice. You’re fine. I don’t know what you thought could have happened.”
“I don’t know!” Minnow said. “I don’t look down there. Maybe the little dangly thing is gone and that’s why I don’t gag now.”
“That would have happened years ago,” Leonas said.
“Or it could be shaped weird, if it got stretched out.”
“That’s not how that works,” Leonas said. “Nothing you’ve said is a real thing.”
“You started it,” Minnow accused. “And! Ari doesn’t even—he’s too big. Most of the time. You’re the only person who isn’t scared to really go for it. So if anyone was going to break my esophagus, it would be you.”
“I’m good at not breaking what’s mine,” he said, and she shivered. “The only person?” She nodded. “In all Astielle?”
“In anywhere,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m the Hero, or if it’s because of my teeth.”
“The teeth,” Leonas said.
“Yeah,” she sighed. “You should make sure I’m not sick,” she said, holding out her arms.
“Who’s running this exam?” he asked.
“I am,” she said. “You didn’t even want to do it.”
“Horrible woman,” Leonas said, wrapping his fingers around her wrists. He pressed his thumbs into the spot that would let him feel her pulse, tapping into the flow of energy all through her. Secretly, he did quite delight in this part. He could almost visualize it, the shape of all the blood under her skin. “You haven’t been getting enough sleep,” he said. “Though I don’t know why you’d listen to me, we’ve already established I don’t actually understand how bodies work.”
“I think you’re right, though,” she said. “Do the higher one.”
Leonas sighed again, running his hands up her forearms to press his thumbs into her elbows. He could feel in the beat of her heart the cloud around her spine. “Has your back been hurting again?” he asked. She nodded. He huffed, loosening his grip. “I’m—you see why it’s confusing for me. Trying to sort out what’s real. Why would there be anything wrong with what I was eating when I can take your pulse and figure out what’s bothering you? Why would this work if the rest of it’s fake?”
“Does it work?” Minnow wondered.
“You watched me do it,” Leonas said. “I’ve done it before, I’ve never been wrong.”
“Right,” she said, “but you’re you. Do you know if it works when other people do it? People who don’t have a special magical connection to the animating force of all human beings?”
Leonas narrowed his eyes. “… shut up,” he decided.
“Okay,” Minnow said.
“Lie down so I can fix your back,” he said. She pulled her tunic off over her head immediately.
“Can we have sex after?” she asked hopefully, tipping over and sprawling out on her stomach.
“No,” Leonas said, straddling her waist. She pouted, rested her head on her arms. “I am going to brush your hair, and then I’m going to get ready to sleep. And you’re going to touch yourself while I do it.”
“Oh,” she sighed as his fingertips trailed down her back.
“You’re not allowed to finish,” he added.
“Mean,” she complained, and she gasped when one of his fingers pressed hard into a point to the right of her spine near the small of her back.
This was another thing that had always worked, though Leonas had wondered why his charts had been wrong. If he hadn’t stolen the charts in the first place he might have thought someone had lied to him. As it was he’d needed to make his own charts according to what he could feel.
“No begging,” he said. “Cover your mouth so I can hear you fail to keep quiet.” He pressed his thumb into a spot above her shoulder blade, right beside where her neck ended. She covered her mouth and groaned loud through her fingers. “Yes,” he said, “like that.”
“If I’m good?” she suggested.
“You can be the little spoon,” he said. “I’m not always in the mood. Don’t take it personally.”
“If Ari were here?” she asked.
“I might watch,” he said. Leonas paused with his hands against her skin. “Are you worried I like him better?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she sighed. “He’s very pretty. I don’t have horns, or a tail. I’m not big. It must be more exciting for you.”
He pressed hard at a point near her hips. She cried out, then moaned as she relaxed. “Idiot,” Leonas said. “If I fuck you more when he’s around, it’s only because I don’t have to. I don’t like feeling obligated. You know that.”
“I know,” she sighed. “I like it, though. When you fuck me.”
“I know you do,” Leonas said. He let sunlight fill his hands as he rubbed her back. She moaned gratuitously. “Be patient.”
Raelle had been named for her grandmother. Her grandmother was dead and gone, though she’d outlived Raelle’s parents. All that was left now was Raelle and her siblings, which meant all that was really left was Raelle. Being the eldest left her feeling obligated to hold down the fort, giving them a place to rest when work got too hot.
Which was all well and good until work followed them home.
Evyn hadn’t hidden his tracks well enough when he’d come running back to the farm, and a competing group of bandits had followed him here. Raelle hadn’t raised a pack of bandits without learning to stand her ground, but the numbers weren’t in their favor. She’d run out of crossbow bolts eventually, and they’d be taking torches to the house as soon as they could get close enough. They’d tried throwing rocks with burning rags tied to them already, but they’d all puttered out before striking.
“I’m sorry, Raelle,” Evyn said again, passing her another bolt with the arm he still had. His stump was starting to bleed through the bandages. He ought to have been resting.
“Sorry’s not gonna save our asses,” she muttered, loading the bolt. A noisy whoop came from outside, and she realized she’d taken too long. Already she could smell smoke. “Shit.”
Things were jumbling together. The fire. The blood. Her grandmother baking bread in the kitchen. The house when she was young. The house when it burned. A different house altogether, smaller and quieter, did it burn? Was this where Evyn died? Gasping for air as the smoke rose, the doors barred, couldn’t get out. Couldn’t breathe. Dragging Evyn out onto the roof, though the house would collapse beneath them. Did it collapse? Was that a different house? Evyn was their father before he was Evyn again. Evyn, lines in his face and a hook at the end of his wooden arm. The screaming as the moon fell out of the sky.
This was the part she could never forget, vivid as the moment it happened. A dragon, or something like it, pure white lifting them both from the fire and carrying them away. The world, her whole world, looked so small beneath them. When they landed it felt like being carried on a cloud, until the hands that set them down belonged to a man instead.
A Tauril, but a Tauril could be a man. She remembered him as a man.
“Are you okay?” he asked in a low rumble of a voice. Evyn, already sitting on the ground, nodded. She wavered on weak knees, gripped tightly at the hand he’d offered. White gloves, like a gentleman too fine to have ever entered her home. He caught her before she could fall, sweeping her up into his arms as if she were too good for dirt. Her breath caught.
This was the part where she stopped remembering. Where he would kiss her and steal her away the way monsters were said to do. Steal her away to where none of her siblings would find her, and the world would be small under his wings. He would save her from the fire, from her small life, from men who didn’t deserve her. The memory of his hands blending seamlessly into the idea of what could have been. Painted vivid and real through years of practice, this was the part that she dreamed.
Minnow opened her eyes to the ramshackle roof. Leonas was still sleeping peacefully beside her.