“I have a question,” Karzarul said. He was a Howler, resting his head in Minnow’s lap as she sat in the grass.
“Okay,” Minnow said, still stroking his head.
“About Leonas.” It was still early morning, the sky pink and the grass dewy. Leonas had been washing his hair in the river. He’d made a shield of light for privacy.
“Has he…” Karzarul paused to consider tactful phrasings. “Does he take his clothes off? With you?” Early on it had felt natural that Leonas would want privacy around Karzarul, when they disliked each other. After that, it could have been coincidental that he got ready while everyone else still slept. Now that Karzarul had noticed, it seemed as if he wasn’t even being subtle about it.
Minnow had to stop and think about it. “Not usually?” she said. “I don’t know if he ever did. Before. We were always in a hurry so his dad wouldn’t catch us.”
“Right,” Karzarul said. “Because the King didn’t like you.”
“Kind of,” Minnow said. “It was bad to let him know when things were important. And I didn’t want him to see me. I don’t know if he watched. I think maybe he just listened sometimes? It was creepy, anyway.”
“That is creepy,” Karzarul agreed.
“I assume Leonas took his clothes off for other girls,” she continued. “I never worried about it because I like being looked at more than I like looking. I don’t actually know how he was with other girls, now that I’m thinking about it. I tried to wait until he talked about things so that I’d know I was allowed to talk about them. He never wanted to talk about who he had sex with. He’d ask about who I’d been with sometimes so he could threaten to kill them, but that’s not the same.”
“I guess that sounds bad,” she said.
“It does,” Karzarul agreed.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It was the safe way to ask. If it seemed like he was trying to threaten someone I cared about to be mean or controlling, that made it okay. I knew he was pretending because I didn’t actually care. If he actually wanted someone dead I assumed he’d ask me. I don’t know why he wanted to know, though. Maybe it was hot? I should ask him about it. Later on. I’m nervous about asking him things yet. I don’t want to stick my fingers in an open wound if I don’t need to get anything out of it.”
“That’s fair,” Karzarul said.
“It’s hard,” she said. “Normal people are like. I’m trying to buy some milk and they’re telling me how much they miss their grandma for some reason. I go and I find their grandma’s favorite flower and then they decide to deal with their weird grandma issues so I can buy some milk without them being a huge bummer every time.”
“I don’t have to ask people those kinds of things, most of the time. I don’t mind asking things if it’s for a quest. Or if I think there will be a quest. But asking for the sake of it feels weird. If he were someone else I would try to find something from his mom to give him. Except it’s him, so even if I could find something it would feel wrong. He’s not a quest. You know?”
“No,” Karzarul admitted. He’d lost track of the conversation and could not pinpoint when.
“I don’t remember why we started talking about this,” Minnow said.
“I still haven’t seen Leonas with his shirt off,” Karzarul said.
“Right,” Minnow said. “I’m pretty sure he’s just like that. He never wants to do anything with his makeup off, either.”
“That’s true,” Karzarul said. “You think he’s self-conscious?”
“Could be,” Minnow said.
This shouldn’t have made him feel better. Karzarul felt a certain relief anyway to know that it wasn’t something he’d done, something he was. Not a slight against him. They weren’t him, and he wasn’t them, but he liked having small points of comparison to attach himself to. Ways that he was not different.
When Leonas let his light barrier fall, he was dressed again, a different outfit Minnow had stolen from Kavid. The high-waisted dark blue trousers laced around his ribs, and the white shirt was the least fluffy Minnow had been able to find. She would have preferred fluffier, but Leonas’ willingness to let her play dress-up had limits.
“Having fun?” Leonas asked as he approached.
“Not yet,” Minnow said. “Was there anywhere you wanted to try visiting?”
Leonas hesitated. “No,” he decided. “I’m not yet in the habit of thinking about places I would rather be.”
Minnow patted the grass beside her. “Come sit,” she suggested. He did, and Minnow leaned against his shoulder to admire the view. “I should make breakfast,” she sighed.
“I’ll get fish,” Karzarul said, standing with a shake of his fur. He loped down to the river and shifted to an Ursbat to watch the water.
“Does it mean anything?” Leonas asked eventually. “When he takes animal form.”
“Not really?” Minnow said. “Sort of, but not.”
“Great,” Leonas said. “Thanks.”
“It’s like, he wants to be touched, but not in a touchy way,” she clarified. “He can snuggle with a person shape. But when you snuggle in a person shape, sometimes it turns into something else. In an animal shape it never does.”
“He’s not in the mood, is what you’re saying.”
“That’s very negative,” Minnow said.
“No it isn’t,” Leonas said. “Not being in the mood is neutral.”
“It has negative connotations,” she insisted. “It’s—it’s active. Actively not wanting. This is more like… actively wanting something else.”
“Hmm,” Leonas said. “About Valeria,” he began, and Minnow giggled.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
“A little,” Leonas admitted. “Do you do that often?” he asked.
“Pretend to be someone else?” she asked, and he nodded. “No. There aren’t that many games where I have to be someone else. I can be Minnow and still fish, or play house, or cards. There’s only some people that won’t play with me while I’m me.”
“Hmm,” Leonas said. He wasn’t sure if this was comforting at all. “Do you like it? Pretending to be other people.”
“Sometimes,” Minnow said. “It’s more fun to remember than to do, it seems like. Valeria isn’t very happy. You know?”
“No,” Leonas said. “Where did you come up with her?”
“I dreamed her,” Minnow said.
Karzarul was splashing in the river, enormous white paws scooping at fish that wriggled away downstream.
“I used to use some of her dreams, I mean,” Minnow clarified. “Since she wasn’t. I didn’t dream about her, I was her. You know how it is, with dreams.”
“Right,” Leonas said, who had never been haunted by the dreams of the dead and therefore did not know. “Is it like being possessed?”
“What? No.” Minnow frowned. “I don’t think. I’ve never been possessed by anything so I don’t know what that’s like. I was using her dreams, and because of how dreams work I was her. Which made it easier to pretend to be her, later. Is that not how dreams work when you make them? Where you’re you, except you’re also a different person?”
“I. Suppose that’s how dreams work. Sometimes.”
“I don’t know what’s normal,” she said. “You don’t know what’s normal, either, since you’re a witch. Most people’s dreams aren’t leaky.”
“I know what’s normal,” Leonas said. He reconsidered. “Usually.”
“We can ask Kavid about it later.”
“Kavid doesn’t know what’s normal, either,” Leonas said. “He lives in a caravan and calls himself the world’s greatest bard. No one who’s sang at my birthday party is normal.”
“He’s the most normal person we can ask,” Minnow reminded him.
“That can’t be right,” Leonas said. “What about Nari, she seemed more normal than Kavid.”
“Too normal,” Minnow said.
“That’s not applicable to this problem,” Leonas said.
“It is,” Minnow insisted. “Normal people don’t know how to explain being normal. They think it’s just supposed to happen. And they don’t know anything about not being normal, so they don’t know which parts need explaining. It’s like asking a fish about water when you’re a bird. It’s better to ask a frog.”
“A frog is not the midpoint between a bird and a fish.”
“I never said it was,” Minnow said. “But it is.”
“Jumping does not render something birdlike.”
“It does the way I do it.”
Karzarul rejoined them with a large fish held in his teeth, hooked onto the long fangs that stuck out on either side of his snout. Minnow could not resist the temptation to rise up on her knees, reaching out to rub the fluffy circles of his ears.
“I’m not eating that,” Leonas warned.
“He worked hard to get you breakfast,” Minnow scolded.
“He wanted to play in the river,” Leonas said. “Don’t eat things that have been in other people’s mouths.”
“You only think it’s gross because he looks like an animal,” Minnow accused.
Karzarul shifted back into Impyr form.
“That is significantly more gross,” Leonas said. “There is nothing not gross about a man with an entire dead fish in his mouth. Before, it was an unappetizing fish. Now it is also an unappetizing man.”
“Mean,” Minnow said, taking the fish from Karzarul. “I still think you’re appetizing,” she assured him as he wiped blood from his mouth.
“So does he,” Karzarul said with a grin, licking his fangs.
“Fuck off,” Leonas said, witchmarks glowing.
“Once I cook it you won’t be able to tell it was in any mouths, it’s fine,” Minnow said. “Do we have eggs? Do you want to get eggs while I clean this?”
“I can do that,” Karzarul said, shifting to a Misthawk, wings flapping to stay hovering in mid-air. “Be back in a bit,” he said before taking off.
“Is there something I should be doing to help?” Leonas asked.
“Look pretty,” Minnow said. “Start a fire later. Cooking’s not your job.”
“It could be,” Leonas said. “I can help.”
“Eh,” Minnow said, unsheathing the Starsword and holding it with an awkwardly outstretched arm to gut the fish with the sword’s tip. “It’s not that kind of a breakfast. I want quick and easy. It’s not—” She paused. “Have you ever had King’s Folly?”
“If that’s a new nickname I don’t care for it,” he said, and she rolled her eyes.
“It’s a dish,” she said. “It’s supposed to be the most decadent thing anyone can ever eat, the ingredients are almost impossible to get, it takes forever—I should make King’s Folly.”
“I don’t believe I want that,” Leonas said.
“No, I’m making it,” she decided. “It’s going in my quest log as soon as I can wash my hands.”
“Is that the recipe?” Leonas asked, squinting at her quest log as she tried to hide its pages from him.
“It’s my old quests,” she said, “from the first time I made it. There’s a lot of sub-quests.”
“It looks like you’ve marked out multiple pages.”
“I might,” she said. “It isn’t that bad,” she added. “Most of this stuff, once you’ve done it once it’s a lot easier. Getting lanternmelon wine took years the first time, now I can grab a bottle from the farm. And the hardest part about finding golden truffles is getting up here, but there’s also a Rainbow Door. It won’t take years this time.”
Hazel Island sat in the middle of a lake so large the shore was not visible except from the top of the mountain at its center. The island was covered in hazelquartz trees, flightless birds, small pigs, and smaller deer. Karzarul fit right in as a Rootboar, snoot to the ground.
Leonas kept finding himself distracted by the storms. They surrounded the island like a deliberate barrier. The water roiled, high waves and rain falling in sheets, the wind whipped up into funnels that dissipated once they left whatever dictated their range. He did not know how Minnow had made it to through the first time, and he wasn’t sure he’d ask.
He could feel it, though. A hum of something under the ground. Something in the water. He hadn’t brought it up since that disastrous night when they’d retrieved the Sunshield. When he’d had too much magic in him, and he’d heard it for the first time. Like a pulse without a heartbeat. The rush of blood under his skin, the skin of the world. He’d thought he was over it—mostly over it.
But perhaps it was only that they’d managed to avoid storms.
“The trick,” Minnow said, “is to look for the hazelquartz trees where the shells grow gold. Usually it’s pink truffles, but sometimes there’s a golden one. We only need one, so as soon as we find it we’re done. Don’t throw out pink truffles, though, I still want those.”
Karzarul was still sniffing intently at the ground as he trotted along. It was unclear if any of this was new information to him. If there was a Rainbow Door, then logically the first Hero had put it here. Karzarul could have been alongside him if things were different then. Karzarul might know what it was, the thing that hummed under their feet and wore a storm as a cloak. Was that why they’d come here, the first time? Was that why they’d built a Door?
Perhaps not. Minnow was the Hero. The Hero was Minnow. The Hero could always have been this, hunting for truffles and letting the world do what it would around her. It did not fit the history Leonas knew, but neither did the world. That was always the subtext about the Hero, anyway. The soul of a seducer, all bound up in worldly things. Danger in soft skin and sweet tastes as much as sharp blades.
The King had always said that Elias had been the best of them.
Leonas touched the bark of a hazelquartz tree and tried reaching out with a thread of sunlight. He could always feel it now, but more when he could touch it. The sunlight inside of things touching the sunlight inside of him. He hadn’t yet tried it with anything more living than a plant. Didn’t want to risk it. He reached down the sapwood and into the roots, through the mycorrhizal network. It connected the whole of the island, made it feel momentarily like the idea of a home. He could identify the spots where the roots hummed electric, buzzed warm. Sickly sweet even without touching them, and he was careful not to.
“There,” Leonas said, pointing in the direction of the nearest one he could feel.
“Oh, you can cheat!” Minnow said with delight, heading in the direction he’d indicated. “C’mon Ari, I bet we’ll find one in no time.” She ran ahead, Karzarul running after her with surprising speed for such short legs. Leonas took his time picking through the underbrush to follow, letting the spell go but holding the mental map of the soil in his mind.
He wasn’t used to it, still. All the forests and grass and fallen leaves, the smell of dirt and rotting things. Even that brief window of time when he’d had the Sunshield, when he could sneak out of the castle as he pleased, when he’d thought things would be different. Even then, it had been the city and the catacombs. There had been the trip to the Faewild, but that had been a singular event, and he’d been in a hurry. Before and after that was only books, and finding the untamed spaces in the gardens. Eventually not even those.
It was difficult to take the world seriously because none of it felt real. Not real like paper and ink and walls. Quiet rooms were real. Mushrooms growing on fallen logs were imaginary things. It was difficult to explain the disconnect to Minnow, who had a forest in her hair. He didn’t think he’d try.
“Leonas, you’re a genius!” Minnow called. “We already found a tree!” She was pulling golden shells from the hazelquartz tree and stuffing them into her bag, rattling as they moved. Karzarul rooted around the ground until he found a spot that smelled right, and started scraping away at the dirt with his trotters. He was much more careful than any pig would have been, not wanting to damage the truffle if he found one. He nudged one out of the ground with the point of his leaf-shaped nose, pink beneath the soil.
“Good find!” Minnow said as she picked it up, petting the top of Karzarul’s head. His curly tail wagged behind him as he rooted at the ground again. “Have you ever had one?” she asked Leonas, dusting off the mushroom.
“I don’t believe so,” Leonas said. There was something unsettling about fungus in that shape and color. It was an irregular blob of faint and pearly pink. A white truffle had the grace to resemble a stone, or a potato gone awry. In pink it reminded him of a tumor.
“They’re really good,” she assured him. She went to a different tree to pluck a hazelquartz from it, sticking it between her teeth to crack the crystalline shell with her molars before extracting it.
“Careful,” he scolded automatically, rushing to grab her by the jaw and pry it open to check that she hadn’t broken another tooth. She rolled her eyes and stood with her mouth open until he was satisfied that all her teeth were still intact, nothing bleeding. “Give it to me next time, I’ll magic it open.” She huffed when he let her go, emptying the meat of the hazelquartz into her palm. She unsheathed the Starsword only a little, enough blade exposed that she could run the truffle over it a few times. Once she had a thin shaving, she wrapped it around the nut in her hand and offered it to Leonas.
“Try it,” she coaxed. “It’s fine if you don’t like it, that means more for me.”
He took it from her with wary fingertips, regarding it with suspicion. The color of the truffle was deeper on the inside, marbled more like muscle than fungus. He popped it into his mouth to get it over with, ready to spit it back out in an instant. The truffle seemed to melt on his tongue, which was a relief when he’d feared it would be chewy. It softened out the crunch of the nut and made the whole thing into a single savory confection. He did not know enough about flavor profiles to pinpoint details. It tasted as good as some things only ever managed to smell.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“Yeah, they’re great,” Minnow agreed, grabbing another hazelquartz. Leonas grabbed it from her before she could bite it, focusing light at a point within the shell to shatter it open. She was unperturbed by his interference, extracting the nut to eat it with another truffle shaving. She hummed happily. Leonas was tempted to have another, but not tempted enough to ask.
“Found one,” Karzarul announced. Minnow returned to the tree he’d been sniffing around, circling the trunk to find Karzarul nosing at a lump of gold in the ground.
“That was so fast!” she marveled, bending down to pick it up and brush some of the dirt from it.
Leonas picked a golden hazelquartz out of curiosity. He was wary of the tree, remembered the noise of its roots. Or else it may still have been buzzing, faint enough to be confused for a memory. He reached for the inside of the shell in his hand, the thing that could have been a seed, a promise. He didn’t know what he thought it would tell him. The tree echoed inside the shell, its too-deep roots, its too-sweet sap. Feasting on the buried.
“They’re eating her,” Leonas said.
“Who?” Minnow asked.
Leonas blinked, the sunlight leaving his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said, tossing the hazelquartz aside. “I don’t think we should stay here long.”
“The storms make it pretty creepy,” Minnow admitted. “Even if the deer are cute.” She picked up Karzarul, who snorted once in surprised protest. “Fortunately, our boyfriend is cuter.”
“Debatable,” Leonas said.
“Let’s go to my fishing cabin next,” she said.
“You realize most hobbies don’t require a dedicated building,” Leonas said.
“Speak for yourself,” Minnow said.
Another cabin, another mountain, another lake. The waters were clear and cold, high enough that the air was thin and a layer of snow covered the ground. Night was already falling. Leonas helped Minnow to start the fires that kept the cabin warm while Karzarul took care of the bags. It was the easiest way to keep their things with them, to have Karzarul be a Tauril and leave moonlight saddlebags on whatever side of the Door they lingered on, ready for him to pick them back up when they were done. On her own Minnow was willing to travel light, hopping in and out of Doors willy-nilly to drop things off wherever was convenient. With Leonas with her, she preferred to be more cautious where they traveled, keeping food and clothes enough to last a week at a time. To say nothing of her pots, her pans, her books. His books.
Karzarul didn’t mind being the one to carry it all. He knew that if he didn’t, she would. She didn’t expect it of him. And there was something interesting in how the need to account for physical objects tethered him. His physical form was transient. He did not need to wash his hair, get dressed, lace his boots. He was not in the habit of having to account for those kinds of variables, and the novelty hadn’t worn off yet. Playing at being a person, who did person things like worrying about food and clothing.
He paused as he re-entered the main room in the cabin. “Minnow,” Karzarul said, “what happened to your hair?”
Minnow frowned, grabbing at her hair and pulling it in front of herself to look at it. Streaks of it had gone white where ordinarily it was green. “Oh, that,” she said, tossing it back behind her. “Whenever it’s snowy it acts like it’s winter, which stinks, because it only goes red when it’s actually autumn. And if I go somewhere without autumns it goes back to green. I like autumn, Leonas and I are matchy then. But I guess we’re matchy now.”
Karzarul had been coming closer, and he reached out to touch one of the strands of white. It did match him, but made her look older. The thought of either of them getting older without him was distressing.
“I can think of better ways to get white in your hair,” Karzarul said, and she squeaked, flailing her hands at him as if to bat him away without actually making contact. He laughed as he withdrew, Leonas rolling his eyes.
“I assume we’re here to catch a fish,” Leonas said.
“I’m here to catch a fish,” Minnow corrected. “You guys are going to hang out. I’ve still got books here, they aren’t all about fishing.”
“Minnow,” Leonas said. “We’re not going to sit in here while you’re outside in the cold with a fishing pole.”
“You are,” Minnow said. She went to a wall covered in fishing poles and pulled one down. Then she grabbed a feathery lure from a display of them. “This rod was made from a branch off one of those special hazelquartz trees,” she said, “and the line is made out of cactus spider silk. To make this lure I had to catch a phoenix and get a feather off it before it burned, and I had to do it twice so I could keep one for my collection. I bought a stupid number of dragon fangs that turned out to be from a shark or an alligator before Gerry finally gave me a real one. Even after I got all of it I still had to put the lure together with special gold wire. If you have the special rod, and the special line, and the special lure, and pink truffle shavings to use as bait, then sometimes in this one lake on a clear night you might get a bite from a cloudfish. Once it bites, if you don’t follow it exactly while you’re reeling it in, it’ll snap the line and try to steal the lure.”
“What I’m saying is,” she finished, “if I am out there, and a cloudfish bites, and you distract me in literally any way, I will stab you.”
Leonas stared at her.
“Non-fatally,” she added.
“That wouldn’t make it better,” Leonas said.
“I would describe that as better,” Karzarul said.
“I don’t want to stab you,” Minnow said.
“Good,” Leonas said.
“That’s why you two are staying in here while I fish.”
“We have magic,” Leonas reminded her. “We can catch the fish.”
“Can you promise you won’t accidentally tear into it with your claws, or cook it?” Minnow asked.
“N—probably not all of them,” Leonas said.
“There aren’t enough of these stupid fish for probably,” Minnow said. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve done it before. If I do it right we’ll only be here one night. I’m really good at this.”
“If you were that good you wouldn’t threaten to stab me,” Leonas said.
“No one’s that good,” Minnow said. “It wasn’t a threat, it was a heads-up. I’m not going to stab you. You guys can feel free to have sex without me, by the way.”
Leonas sputtered. “That’s not—telling us that isn’t necessary.”
“Is it not?” Karzarul asked.
“I thought I should mention it,” Minnow said. “Since I know you guys might not be as okay with being left out? But I don’t care.”
“Thanks,” Leonas said.
“Not like that,” Minnow said. “It doesn’t bother me, is all I mean. I like it if you two hang out on your own, and do stuff.”
“We’ll keep it in mind,” Karzarul said.
Leonas had successfully located at least one book that interested him. The blank leather cover did not make clear if the book was about fish. Karzarul had amused himself digging through clothes, then bringing their bag of food to the kitchen. Minnow and Leonas had already lit the stove to help warm the cabin. The pots and dishware were dusty, but there was soap, and the water worked. He rummaged through Minnow’s mess of supplies, setting things out into different piles on the counter so that he could figure out what they had.
If Minnow had a system for organizing things, or for determining what was necessary to keep on hand, he did not know them. Karzarul chose to believe that one glass jar was full of yogurt, and did not investigate. The jar of brownish liquid with some kind of spongy something-or-other floating in it was harder to justify, but he would assume it was supposed to look like that. Apples and potatoes sat loose in the bag with dried mushrooms and her recent hazelquartz acquisitions, but she’d at least kept the rice and corn flour in sacks. A few heads of garlic and an onion had left little bits of paper all over everything. Most of her spices were whole, and she’d separated some of them, but not all. Star-shaped anise mingled with curls of bark and cardamom pods, sprigs of dill and basil and mint all tied together. Dried chilis got their own bag, but were clearly different varieties. He set her bits of honeycomb aside as prized treasures, and investigated a bag of treats that included chocolate and cones of sugar.
Once he’d sorted everything to his satisfaction, he set a pot of water to boiling on the stove. He nibbled on a sugar cone before throwing it in with a bit of cinnamon bark, humming as he waited for the sugar to dissolve. He made a whisk instead of finding one when he threw the chocolate in, adding it until it looked like approximately the right color. Then he added corn flour in handfuls until he thought it looked right. He licked the whisk and contemplated adding a chili to it. However, it was impossible to tell which of the peppers Minnow had were the mildest.
Bringing a mug to the room where Leonas had settled himself made Karzarul feel suddenly self-conscious about the gesture. It was not a particularly Monster King thing to do, if a Monster King was what Leonas liked.
Leonas looked up from his book, and his gaze settled immediately on Karzarul’s hemline.
“You’re wearing the dress again,” Leonas observed after a moment.
Karzarul shrugged. “It feels nice,” he said, as if he were not already glowing. “I made chocolate,” he said. “If you want some.”
“Give it,” Leonas said, holding out his hand for the mug.
Karzarul frowned. “Say please,” he said.
“No.” Leonas acquired an imperious tilt to his head. “I want it, that means it’s mine. I don’t have to say ‘please’ for you to give me what’s mine.”
“Is that how it works?” Karzarul asked.
“It is when you’re a prince,” Leonas said. He was still holding out his hand.
“I’m a king,” Karzarul reminded him.
“You’re my boyfriend,” Leonas countered. His witchmarks immediately flared bright, and both men remained very still as they mutually pretended not to notice that they were glowing.
“Right,” Karzarul said finally. “Is that how that works?”
“It is,” Leonas said.
“What if I want you to be nice to me?” Karzarul asked, though he came closer to offer Leonas the mug. Leonas took it, setting his book down in his lap.
“You should get a nicer boyfriend,” Leonas said. His gaze fell to the mug as he blew on it before taking a cautious sip.
“I don’t want a nicer boyfriend,” Karzarul said, leaning to brace a hand against the back of Leonas’ chair. “I want you. Does that mean you’re mine?”
“No,” Leonas said, taking another sip.
“Because you’re mine,” Leonas said. “Because I said so. Stop looming.”
“I can,” Leonas reminded him. “If you don’t want to be good.”
“Depends on what being good entails,” Karzarul said.
“Letting me finish my damn chocolate,” Leonas said.
“I’m not stopping you,” Karzarul said.
Karzarul knelt on the floor directly in front of Leonas.
“Stupid,” Leonas chided, not looking up from his mug. He hooked a finger on one of Karzarul’s horns to pull his head a little closer, setting his mug down on the side table. Leonas put his fingertips underneath Karzarul’s jaw to tilt his face this way and that, looking him over with a dispassionate air. “It’s remarkable,” Leonas said, “how lovely this face is.”
“You’ve always thought so,” Karzarul said.
“Have I?” Leonas asked. “I thought I didn’t care for you.”
“You hated me,” Karzarul said. “You liked the face.”
“Hm.” Leonas traced his index finger down the angles of Karzarul’s nose, back up along the dramatic angle of his eyebrows. Leonas touched the spot where Karzarul’s horns rose out of his skin. “I’ve always had some taste, then.” He ran the tuft of Karzarul’s ear through his fingers, careful of all the rings. Karzarul shivered. “I would like to make a study of you,” Leonas said, “but it wouldn’t be very romantic.”
“No,” Leonas said. “Minnow likes it, but she’s fucking weird.” Karzarul shrugged his eyebrows to say he wasn’t wrong. “I could make it sound romantic. Tell you I want to write notes on all the parts of you most in need of touching. It wouldn’t be true.” Leonas ran his thumb over Karzarul’s lower lip, and when his mouth opened Leonas pressed the pad of it against the point of one of Karzarul’s lower canines. Then Leonas let him go, and picked his book back up. He opened it to the page where he’d left off, and held it out for Karzarul to take. “Read this,” he ordered.
“To you?” Karzarul asked, taking the book.
“Obviously,” Leonas said, picking his mug back up to take another sip.
“Is this a book of fish legends?” Karzarul asked, flipping the book back around if only to confirm that it seemed untitled.
“That’s a very generous way of referring to three-hundred pages of an old man detailing all the amazing fish he never caught,” Leonas said, “but yes.”
Despite his misgivings, Karzarul started reading aloud. He supposed he ought to appreciate an opportunity to practice with something lower-stakes than a book of poetry. Leonas settled back into his chair, shutting his eyes with a sigh and holding his mug with both hands. Karzarul found it difficult to keep his eyes on the text, wanting instead to watch Leonas. Strong evidence in favor of the idea that he ought to be memorizing things. Or perhaps it would be less relaxing if Karzarul’s eyes weren’t trapped on the page.
At best, Karzarul could catch him in glances. Spaces between sentences, sipping chocolate and watching Karzarul through his eyelashes. Karzarul quickly stopped paying attention to what he was actually reading, making a game of how best to look up from the page without losing his place or making his inattention obvious.
“Let’s go to bed,” Leonas sighed finally, setting down his empty mug. He plucked the book out of Karzarul’s hands to join it.
“Oh,” Karzarul said.
“Not like that,” Leonas said. “Let me up.” Karzarul had to stand and get out of the way so that Leonas could rise out of the chair. Leonas offered Karzarul his hand, and Karzarul took it, letting himself be led out of the room. “There’s a real bed in this one,” Leonas added.
“Too bad,” Karzarul said.
“I’m old,” Leonas said. “My back prefers a mattress.”
“I’m older,” Karzarul reminded him.
“You can be a snake,” Leonas countered. He paused, turning around and nearly doubling back, stopping again once Karzarul had his back to the wall.
“Hello,” Karzarul said, looking down at Leonas. He didn’t know why he said it.
“We should get you more dresses,” Leonas said.
“For special occasions,” Leonas said. He let Karzarul go in favor of running his hands up his thighs. Karzarul’s breath caught. “I wanted to do this the first time you wore this, too,” Leonas said.
“You could have,” Karzarul said.
“I don’t care for an audience,” Leonas said. His hands rested beneath Karzarul’s skirt, touching nothing but his thighs. Leonas craned his neck upward and Karzarul bent his downward so that he could kiss him. “I am willing,” Leonas said, “to go to bed with you. If you don’t mind keeping your back to me.”
“I can be a Howler,” Karzarul reminded him.
“No,” Leonas said. “Like this. I’ll wash my face, and we can… be close. If you’d like.”
“I would like.”
“You said we were going to your farmhouse,” Leonas reminded Minnow.
“This is my farmhouse,” Minnow said.
“This is a mansion,” Leonas accused. “Or a workhouse. No one has ever used the word ‘farmhouse’ to refer to whatever the hell this is, except for you.”
“It is my house, on my farm,” Minnow said. “That means it’s a farmhouse.”
Karzarul let them argue as he walked, hooves clopping in the dirt. He wasn’t concerned with semantics. There was something soothing about listening to them bicker.
“You don’t think someone’s going to notice that you’re here?” Leonas asked.
“You’d think!” Minnow said. “You’d be surprised.”
“I hate how often you say that,” Leonas said.
“You hate how often I’m right,” Minnow said.
There were no Rainbow Doors conveniently located in the backyard of her farmhouse. Instead, they had to take a Door on a nearby mountain and ride down on Karzarul’s back. It was obvious from the Door’s location that Minnow would ordinarily have glided directly down to her estate, but no one suggested that Leonas do the same.
It was an estate. Three stories of brick, bizarrely symmetrical and covered in windows, broad overhangs on the steep angles of the roof. The appearance of endless brick and windows was broken up by hedges and ivy.
“An old lady gave you this?” Leonas pressed.
“It was smaller at the time,” Minnow said. “And wood. I think the part that used to be the whole house is a hallway now? I don’t know. I gave people money and when I came back it was bigger.”
“The way you think the world works should not be how the world works,” Leonas said.
“Why not?” Minnow asked.
“Because it’s stupid,” Leonas said.
“Yeah,” Minnow said. “That’s how you know it’s real.”
Leonas grumbled as Karzarul approached the building. Someone was waiting for them outside. The majority of her considerable height was leg, accentuated unnecessarily with heels. Her eyes were hard to see through her enormous round glasses, auburn hair in a tight bun on top of her head. She was wearing a riding costume with breeches and holding a crop despite a notable lack of horses present.
“Minnow,” the woman greeted, her voice surprisingly high and nasal. “Prince Leonas.”
“Hi, Dee,” Minnow said.
“Adelain the Destroyer,” Leonas said flatly.
“Dee is fine,” Dee said, adjusting her glasses. The chains attached to the arms of her glasses had bird skulls hanging from them like charms.
“This is Karzarul,” Minnow introduced, pointing to his face.
“Hello,” Karzarul said.
“A pleasure, I’m sure,” Dee said, tapping her crop against her thigh.
“I thought you retired,” Leonas said.
“I did,” Dee said. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
“We still have plenty of phoenix doves, right?” Minnow asked, hopping down from Karzarul’s back.
“Define ‘plenty’,” Dee said.
“I wanna kill three,” Minnow said.
“Three should be fine,” Dee said. “As long as you don’t mind roosters.”
“Yeah, that’s fine,” Minnow said. “Do you think you could talk to someone about getting us bags made?” she asked, gesturing to their saddlebags. “Right now Karzarul sort of has to make and unmake those ones and it’s complicated. If we had fancy backpacks that we could attach to his harness, that would be way easier.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Karzarul said as Leonas lowered himself to the ground.
“It’s fine,” Minnow said. “She’s good at logistics. Plus she doesn’t need my help getting basic reagents or killing…” Minnow trailed off. “Not monsters,” she said. “We don’t kill monsters. Real monsters. Monsters are good, now.” She gave Dee a meaningful look to impress the importance of this upon her.
“Sure,” Dee said noncommittally.
Karzarul shifted to an Impyr, and it was a reflex by now for Leonas to catch their bags with magic before they hit the ground.
“Well that’s a relief,” Dee said, and Minnow looked at Karzarul and back in confusion. “You’ve made some bad decisions for dick before, but that was a little beyond the pale.”
“Hey,” Minnow said, turning red.
“She’s done what, now?” Leonas asked, raising an inquiring finger to get Dee’s attention, but she ignored him.
“Don’t say stuff like that in front of the boys,” Minnow said. “You’ll give them the wrong idea.”
“Uh-huh,” Dee said.
“Send someone to get our bags,” Minnow said, “and have everyone clear out of the kitchen. I’m going to need it. And somewhere to keep the boys.”
“I can think of some places,” Dee said.
“I assume if we try to help in the kitchen, you’ll stab us?” Leonas said.
“Not on purpose,” Minnow said. “Cooking gets intense. There’s a lot of knives, and fire. It’s safer this way.”
Leonas sighed. “When will it be done?”
Minnow did some mental calculations. “If I start soon, I can have it done by tomorrow night.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“How do you keep them from exploding?” Karzarul thought to ask as Dee passed through the room.
“What?” Leonas asked, looking up from the shelf of books he’d been examining.
“The lanternmelons,” Karzarul said. “If they get too much sun they explode. Not enough and they don’t glow. It’s what makes them rare.”
Leonas narrowed his eyes. “Have I been drinking exploding wine?” he asked.
“The juice is processed to make it inert,” Dee said. “We have a system.”
The sun was setting when she showed it to them, taking them out onto a third-floor balcony on the side of the house facing the fields. From above, it looked like a vast field of green. The fading light made it easier to see the glow of the melons through the leaves of their vines, and only close examination revealed the trick. What looked like an ordinary field was a vast latticework of wooden frames, melons beneath sheltered by their own leaves.
“What happens if one of them explodes?” Leonas asked.
“They all explode,” Dee said. “The trick is not to let any of them explode.”
“Hm,” Leonas said. “Having all your fields of explosives in one place feels ill-advised.
“This isn’t all of them,” Dee said.
Leonas looked out at the sea of green. “Ah,” he said.
“They hardly ever explode since I gave up smoking,” she added.
“Great,” Leonas said. “What would happen to the house?”
“We’ve reinforced the walls since last time,” Dee said.
“Good to know,” Leonas said.
Minnow set plates in front of them with very little fanfare.
“This is it?” Leonas asked.
“This is it,” Minnow confirmed.
“There isn’t any kind of ritual we need to do with a special fork to eat it?” Leonas asked.
“No,” Minnow said. “You just eat it.”
It was an exceptionally small bird, swimming in a sticky sauce of rendered-down lanternmelon wine. It was stuffed with cloudfish roe, shavings of gold truffle covering the crispy skin.
It was small enough that Karzarul could pop the whole thing in his mouth at once. The amount of flatware on the table suggested this would be incorrect. He waited for Minnow to slice off a piece, straight through the small soft bones. She speared truffle and scooped up roe for a complete bite, and chewed contemplatively.
“As good as you remember?” Leonas asked, only then cutting his own piece.
“Yeah,” Minnow said.
Karzarul took a bite.
Because the bird was so small, there wasn’t much meat, and what meat there was had almost no fat. Marinating for so long in lanternmelon wine had made it no longer chewy, but something stranger instead. Gelatinous, interrupted with bizarre crunching of bone. Cooking it down had made the wine a concentrated sweet syrup. The truffle tasted metallic, like it may as well have been gold, gold if gold was a living thing that could bleed. The cloudfish roe was salty, so small it did not want to pop and instead felt like rock salt polished smooth.
“What do you think?” Minnow asked, watching them both intently.
Leonas was expressionless. “Excellent, thank you,” he said. Minnow narrowed her eyes at him.
“This is awful,” Karzarul said.
“Right?” she said, perking up immediately.
The careful neutrality left Leonas’ face, replaced with disgust as he dropped his fork. “You knew,” he accused. “You fed us this knowing it was going to taste like shit.”
“I knew that I think it tastes like shit,” Minnow said.
Leonas buried his face in his hands.
“The only other person who’s had this that I know of,” Minnow explained, “is the guy who told me how to make it. He was this old food critic, and he wanted to try it before he died. It took me years and when I finally made it and gave some to the guy, he said he’d finally tasted perfection, and then he died. Which is bullshit! He said that to cover for the fact that it tasted so bad he died. Except I couldn’t prove it! I was the only one who’d had it. I never bothered making it for anyone else, because I know what people are like. They’d lie to be polite, or convince themselves that it was good because it’s stupid hard to make. People do that sort of thing all the time.”
“Stop making excuses and admit you wanted us to suffer with you,” Leonas said. He glared at Karzarul. “Why are you still eating it?” he demanded.
Karzarul shrugged as he swallowed. “I’ve had worse,” he said.
“I’m not finishing this,” Leonas said, pushing his plate away.
“I didn’t expect you to,” Minnow said. She stood to move all their plates out of the way. “I made some rice, I’m gonna fry some eggs and put the good truffles on it.”
“Fine,” Leonas said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing at the bridge of his nose. He kept his eyes shut as Minnow bustled out of the dining room. “Is this what adventuring is?” he asked. “You pick an arbitrary goal, use huge amounts of time and energy accomplishing it, and if you’re lucky you only regret it half the time?”
Karzarul considered it. “In my experience,” he said, “you’ve described life in general.”
Leonas tipped forward, resting his head on crossed arms on the table. “Great,” he sighed.