“Did you find anything?” Karzarul asked when he returned in the morning, shifting to an Impyr almost immediately.
“No,” Leonas said.
“Maybe,” Minnow said.
“What?” Leonas asked. “When would you have—let me see your hands.” He grabbed her by the wrists to check under her nails for grave dirt.
“I won’t know for sure until we spend the night at more of the marked spots,” Minnow said, ignoring his inspection.
“What is it?” Karzarul asked.
Minnow shifted her weight with a small purse to her lips. “I don’t want to say until I’m sure,” she admitted. “It won’t be like the dead kids thing,” she added quickly upon seeing their faces. “I would tell you if there was danger like that. This time. I learned my lesson, before.” She took Leonas’ hand in both of hers. “I have an idea,” she said, “and if I’m wrong, I can forget it. But you guys aren’t as good at forgetting bad ideas.”
“Hey,” Karzarul said.
“I don’t want to give you the idea unless it’s real,” she said.
“That… might be good,” Leonas admitted, glancing at Karzarul.
“Don’t look at me like that when you say that,” Karzarul said, putting his hands on his hips. “I know what I can handle.”
Minnow narrowed her eyes at him. He was only able to maintain eye contact for a moment. “You have a lot of stuff you haven’t dealt with,” she said instead of letting him squirm in silence.
“You don’t know how much I’ve dealt with,” Karzarul muttered.
“I know some of what you haven’t,” Minnow said, “which feels like enough to make a judgement call. Like how Leonas won’t let me jump off any buildings.”
“Stairs exist for a reason,” Leonas said.
She was crying screaming laughing wailing. There was a cold wind and a hot sun. She was suffocating
gasping, the sky was too big. She was wanted unwanted bait sacrifice. Upset resigned defiant. Furious and glad, unforgivable what they’d done and unforgivable what she did and she would not did not apologize.
The jeweled white snake that slid over her shackles carried sweet temptation on his tongue. He glittered in the sunlight as he promised her salvation. He would save her
if she let him. He would kill them if she asked.
He was a weapon
he was a test. She was weak failure failed.
The bliss of freedom, of broken chains.
The kiss on her forehead, the wind in her hair, the monster beneath her. Enormous glorious terrifying. She dwelled on the lines in his hands, soft skin white as bone. There was something about his hands. The softness size of them.
If she could have stayed there in his hands tracing all the lines of his fortune. If there hadn’t been screaming and blood
and satisfaction. She should have mourned.
They wanted a savior and she was their undoing. He was her savior and her undoing. She could not bear it, what
she’d he’d done. Could not bear the reminder of what she was wanted.
But there were still those moments, long and terrible. Before the screaming, before the blood. Her heart in his hands, and in dreams she could dwell there.
Dejii was being kidnapped.
It happened a lot.
He was a middling prince of a minor kingdom, neither the eldest nor the youngest. Close enough to the throne to be a bargaining chip without being an outright declaration of war. Since coming of age, he had narrowly escaped marriage with five different princesses and two princes.
It was a whole thing. He was getting pretty tired of it.
Most of it blurred together. Rides in carriages and wagons and on the back of someone else’s horse. He remembered the wagon, though. The crude wagon of a landless mercenary kingdom seeking legitimacy. He remembered it was an enclosed wagon because that was why he hadn’t been able to see out of it, hadn’t had anyone to talk to or ask about all the strange noises.
He had been kidnapped a lot. He knew what a successful kidnapping was supposed to sound like. It did not sound like yelling, shouting, cracking wood. Sometimes he thought he remembered a glimpse of it, but it was only imaginings, reconstructed later from the things he’d heard.
Until the wagon had opened, and a great white Tauril had peered in at him.
Dejii remembered the Monster King as glorious. Bedecked in silver and jewels, flowers in his hair dripping petals like spring blossoms. Shoulders as broad as Dejii was tall, as light as he was dark.
The middling prince of a minor kingdom, there was no reason to concern themselves unduly with the fate of the world or the favor of goddesses. Those were matters for greater kingdoms, for places where heroes were born marked.
“Are you here to kidnap me?” Dejii asked. He’d never been kidnapped from kidnappers before.
The Monster King cocked his head. “Would you like me to?” he asked.
Dejii was embarrassed at himself for acting self-important. The faux pas would haunt him for the rest of his life at odd moments. “What do you want?” he tried instead.
“Would you like to go home?” the Monster King asked, offering an enormous hand.
“No,” Dejii said, because he could already imagine being brought home to sit and wait for the next kidnapping until his father could settle on a marriage arrangement that satisfied him. The unreality of the moment drove him to honesty when he ought to have known better.
“Ah,” the Monster King said. “Then you were trying to run away with them?”
“No,” Dejii said again.
“Hmm.” The Monster King looked out at whatever was happening outside the wagon, which Dejii still could not see. “How about I kidnap you for now, then?”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to agree to that,” Dejii said.
“Alright,” the Monster King said, meeting no resistance as he hauled Dejii out of the wagon. It was not the first time someone had swept Dejii off his feet. It felt the safest. Perhaps because of the size of him. Dejii rested his head against the Monster King’s chest. He smelled like apple blossoms and clover.
“Hey,” Karzarul said drowsily as Minnow crushed her chest to his, nuzzling hard against his neck. He let his hand rest against her back. “You okay?”
She hummed in the affirmative, dragging teeth over his skin.
“Oh,” he said, less drowsy. “Hello.”
“Sleep,” Leonas ordered without opening his eyes.
“‘m gonna,” Minnow mumbled.
“She’s been sleeping like shit,” Leonas reminded Karzarul. “Don’t enable her.”
Karzarul kissed Minnow’s temple as she huffed in sleepy irritation. “I will,” she muttered. “I just—I want.” Karzarul wrapped both arms around her and squeezed. “Can you lay on me?” she asked.
Karzarul squinted at her hair. “… like a pillow?”
She shook her head. “If I can move I’ll—I’ll—” Her fingers curled, ragged nails scratching at his chest as her fingertips pressed hard into his skin.
“Okay,” Karzarul yawned, rolling over and tipping her off of him in the process. He pulled at the edge of the blanket that had been beneath them, covering her with it. She squeaked in mild protest as he started rolling her over to wrap her in it.
“Are you swaddling our girlfriend,” Leonas asked, still not opening his eyes. Karzarul grunted, rolling her completely over and then settling in on top of her. He slid his arms underneath their pillow beneath her head, letting his chin rest at the crook of her neck.
“How’s that?” he asked in Minnow’s ear.
She sighed and nuzzled her cheek against his.
There were wolves in the woods, the nightmare always of the wolves in the woods, the mad howls and gnashing teeth of the wolves in the woods. There was the drought and there was the frost and everything was hungry. Ryul shouldn’t have been in the hungry woods but it was gnawing at him, eating him from the inside.
He did not know how long he ran. It felt like hours, days, eons. His legs and lungs all burning and his heart pounding up into his throat. The wolves in the woods were hunting and if he slowed at all he’d stop, collapse, driven to their mouths by his hunger.
There were Howlers in the woods. He did not know how long he ran to find Howlers in the woods when the monsters all stayed in the deep dark places. He had never been so far as to see monsters. He did not know when it happened, when what had been wolves became Howlers, the same loping gait and so much larger. He did not know what happened to the wolves. Only that they were gone.
Howlers were much faster than wolves.
It was the white Howler that caught him, its paws on his back and the ground hard beneath him. It caught him and it howled, a terrible echoing sound, vast as the night sky. He waited to die and he didn’t. The Howler left him there, and when he looked up he could see the white of its fur. A dark crescent marked the middle of its forehead.
It passed behind a tree, and it was a Tauril that walked around the other side. He wore a crescent crown, his tunic embroidered in silver. Ryul had the sense to grovel. He did not know what monster had found him, but he knew a difference in status when he saw one. This monster was not a man who knew hunger gnawing at his bones.
“You kneel much too easily,” the Tauril said, but Ryul was well past shame. “Why are you in my forest?”
“There were wolves, my lord,” Ryul said, for if it was his forest then it must be a king.
“Yes,” the Monster King said. “I was there for that part. Why were you in their forest?”
“I was hungry, my lord,” Ryul said.
“So were they,” the Monster King said. “Were you planning to eat the wolves? They’ve already eaten most everything else.”
“I didn’t know, my lord.”
“Did you find anything?”
In an overabundance of caution, Ryul emptied everything he’d collected from his pockets onto the ground. Leaves and pine needles, bits of tree bark. He resumed groveling once his pockets were empty.
“Do humans eat pinecones now?” the Monster King asked. Ryul didn’t answer. “Hmm.” Ryul could hear the hooves coming closer, and he screamed when an enormous hand lifted him off the ground.
“Please, my lord, I will leave—”
“Quiet,” the Monster King ordered as he threw Ryul over his shoulder. Ryul covered his mouth with both hands and prayed to the Moon Goddess that She would show some mercy where the Sun Goddess had not. Ryul’s limbs all felt too weak to hold himself. Howlers flanked their king in all directions.
The deep dark of the wood gave way to sunlight where the Monster King set Ryul back down, allowing him to collapse in the grass. Ryul trembled and might have heaved if he’d anything in him to come back up.
The Monster King set a clay bowl of water in front of him. “Drink.”
Ryul stared. He realized he could hear water, though he still could not bring himself to look up to find its source. Slowly he brought the bowl to his mouth with both hands, and in an instant it was gone.
The season had been so cold and dry. Icy as winter, without even the small blessing of snow to melt.
The Monster King was speaking a language Ryul didn’t understand, slippery sounds with sharp edges. Ryul looked up long enough to see a small figure, then quickly turned his head away.
Brutelings were an ill-omen; better not to look at one directly, even here.
Small hands placed a basket in the grass near him, heaped with berries and flatbreads. Ryul stared again and tried to remember if monsters worked according to the rules of the fae. Was a gift a trap, unsafe to accept or to refuse?
“Eat,” the Monster King said, and Ryul needed no more excuse. His empty stomach overruled his head as he stuffed bread into his mouth, too much to chew and nearly swallowing it whole. Handfuls of berries shoveled onto his tongue, blue and black and raspberries but he was eating too quickly to taste.
A hand on his hair stopped him, and he might have recoiled had the touch not been so firm. Ryul looked up and found that the Monster King had changed again, a scaled thing sitting like a snake in the grass, a man still larger than Ryul though he had no legs. He was a thing that belonged in oceans deeper than Ryul had ever seen. He touched beneath Ryul’s chin, tilting his head upward and brushing his thumb along a stray bit of juice. He let Ryul go and licked the spot of red from his hand. The teeth alongside his tongue were sharp.
“Slow down,” the Monster King said. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”
Ryul was already sick. His hands shook.
“This place is not meant for mortals,” the Monster King said.
“I will tell no one,” Ryul promised, lowering his forehead to the ground again.
“Your people are dying,” the Monster King observed. “You would tell them nothing of food? Of water?” There were slippery voices again, those words Ryul did not know. The tone of an argument. “Shall I keep you?” the Monster King wondered, and Ryul looked up. The Monster King had his hand on his chin, considering him with a tilt of his head. Beautiful and terrible and Ryul felt panic clutch his heart.
If he had stayed. What might have become of him, if he had stayed? Would he have kept him? Could Ryul have stayed there, in that place of impossible waterways, that orchard of bountiful fruit? What price would he have asked, that beautiful and terrible king?
He could have paid it. He should have paid it. He should have stayed.
“With dreams,” Minnow asked, curling tighter against Karzarul’s chest. “Do they get stronger if you daydream them, too?” She’d become more cautious about her dream-related assumptions.
“Yes,” Karzarul said.
“I don’t know that mine ever did,” Leonas said.
“How often did you daydream about me?” Karzarul teased. Minnow headbutted his sternum as Leonas threw a pillow at him.
Ilaya was running from her wedding. A lovely man and she would be lucky to have him, but she wanted something else. She didn’t know what she wanted. She didn’t expect to make it far. But maybe the attempt would speak to the madness of her, and the lovely man would decide he didn’t want her.
She followed the river until it met the mountain, water above spilling over rocks into a wider point like a pond. She stumbled as she tried to stop, and fell sputtering into the water, gasping for air as she came back up.
There were scales in the water, white and glittering as snow. Some great sea serpent misplaced, and she had fallen into its nest. But when she looked up there was a man at the end of it, white-haired and silver-eyed, sharp-featured and shining.
A different kind of lovely man altogether.
“Hello,” Ilaya said, at a loss for anything else.
“Hello,” the monster said, raking claws through his hair the way a maiden with a comb would do. “Who are you running from?” he wondered.
“My husband,” she said.
“Ah,” the monster said. “Would you like me to kill him when he gets here?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head as she realized her mistake. “We aren’t married yet. I don’t want to be married, is the problem.”
“Would you like me to kill him when he gets here?” the monster asked again. Sharp claws, sharp teeth.
“It isn’t his fault,” she said. “It isn’t anyone’s fault but mine.”
“I find no fault with you,” the monster said with a tilt of his head. There were silver rings in the fins of his ears, eyelashes of spun silver.
“I should marry him,” Ilaya explained. “He’s a kind man, with a fine figure.”
“There are many such men,” the monster said. “You can hardly be expected to marry all of them.”
“He would treat me well, and give me a comfortable life,” Ilaya said. “I could learn to love him.”
“Why should you?” the monster wondered. “You don’t want to.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Ilaya said. “It’s ridiculous to give up everything for nothing.”
“There are times when nothing is worth holding on to,” the monster said. “If you are so determined to talk yourself into marriage, I have no interest in talking you out of it.”
“Will you help me?” she asked.
“I already asked if I should kill them,” he said.
“Can you help me get away?” she asked.
“Where do you suppose I would take you?” he wondered.
“You could bring me to the mountain,” Ilaya said.
“The mountain is for monsters,” he said.
“I can be a monster,” she said. “My mother always said so.”
The monster’s gaze was sharp. “Come here,” he ordered, holding out a hand, fingers all ending in sharp points. Her feet struggled for purchase in slick stones under the water. She reached her hand out to take his, but he pulled her closer, a hand in her hair forcing her to bow before him. Her heart thudded hard against her sternum. “Does this look like a monster to you?” he asked. She realized she was looking at her reflection, her face so like her mother’s.
“Yes,” Ilaya said.
He tilted her head back up to look at him, moving his hand beneath her chin. She tried not to make any sudden moves as he considered her.
“I will lead you away from here,” he decided. Her heart leapt. “But I will not show you the way. You may not see where I have brought you, or how you might return. Yes?”
“Close your eyes, then,” he said, “and I will take you as far as you can keep them shut.”
The arms that carried her out of the water did not feel like the arms that had been outstretched to her, but she dared not open her eyes. The back that carried her through the woods did not feel like the back of a man. The hand that guided her when the ground was clear was too large, then too small.
But sometimes they felt the right size. Large, still, but recognizably a man. She wondered what he looked like in those moments, her hand in his. That sharp and lovely man in the water, taking her away.
Ilaya could feel sunshine on her eyelids and smell wildflowers. Something buzzed close to her face, and she stumbled. The arms that caught her felt like a man’s, a man’s chest that she braced herself against. She clung tight to him and told herself she wouldn’t look.
A lovely man, too lovely to be real. All white and silver, carved like ice and snow. His face so close to hers, as pretty as it was, made her breath catch with a sound of surprise.
His brows dipped, and she shut her eyes again. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“I told you,” he said, “that I would take you as far as you kept your eyes shut.”
“It was an accident,” she lied.
“I asked of you one thing,” he snapped, “and even that, you couldn’t give me.”
“It was an accident.”
“Open your eyes, human girl.”
She did so reluctantly and kept her eyes downcast for fear of the look on his face. In the grass, his hooves were silver.
“Look,” he said, and she raised her head in time to see his gesture away from the mountain. The far side of it, opposite her village, stretching out into plains. “Take your pick of human towns,” he said. “Find your way to whichever strikes your fancy.”
Small clusters of buildings in the distance, looking so small from where they stood. Fires were being lit as the sky started to darken.
“It’s too far,” she protested. “It will take days, I can’t make it on my own.”
“You must,” he said, “as I will take you no further.”
“Please,” she said, but where he’d stood a bird had already taken flight.
Minnow had spent the night in her oak tree. Leonas, despite many protestations, had slept curled up with Karzarul while he took the form of a Shadestalker.
Hollows had been deepening under Minnow’s eyes for a week, but the night in the Faewild seemed to fade them.
Minnow brought the two of them deep into the Maze of Roses for something resembling privacy. It was impossible to be certain of true privacy where fairies and changelings were concerned.
“Should we be worried?” Leonas asked, sitting in the grass.
“Yes,” Minnow said.
Karzarul didn’t like being an Impyr in Faewild Forest, but he wanted to look like a person, and a Tauril would be too large to avoid the thorns.
“Dreams can be memories, can’t they?” Minnow asked. “That’s normal?”
“Yes,” Leonas said.
“Usually,” Karzarul agreed.
“Okay,” Minnow said. “I don’t have to explain that part. The dead leave their dreams behind, but they don’t always linger. Some are stronger than others. Usually the scary ones, but not always. There’s the ones they dwell on when they’re awake. Lingering dreams are, they sort of.” Minnow made a vague gesture with both hands that meant nothing. “I don’t like sleeping near graveyards or battlefields because so many people die there, they have so many dreams. They’re left with the dead or dropped by the dying, they don’t stay in the places they dream of. It’s not always obvious, though. The places people leave their dreams behind.” She wrung her hands together. “I think the map was marking places I could dream,” she said.
“About the Nightshard?” Leonas asked.
“About Karzarul,” Minnow said, looking at her hands.
“What?” Leonas asked.
“What?” Karzarul asked.
“I must have—he must have—gone to all the places around Monster Mountain. Looking for. Looking for dreams of you. And he marked them down, when he found them.”
“What?” Karzarul asked again.
“You liked to help people,” Minnow said, still not looking at him. “Is what it seems like. They—they dreamed of it. Of you. That’s what the map is. It’s a map of places I can… I dream of you.”
“Oh,” Karzarul said.
“Minnow,” Leonas warned.
“I know,” Minnow whined. “I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.”
“You—he—” Karzarul grasped at a locket he wasn’t wearing. “He made a map of me?”
Minnow nodded miserably.
“He wanted to see me,” Karzarul said as much as asked.
“You’re sure there weren’t other clues in there?” Leonas pressed. “Something else important about the dreams?”
Minnow shook her head. “It isn’t anything else,” she said. “I can tell.”
“What—who were they? The dreamers.”
“I don’t know if you’d remember them,” Minnow said. “I think you must have tried to save a lot of people.”
Leonas rubbed his forehead.
“Saved,” Karzarul repeated. Minnow nodded again. “Okay. That’s—okay.”
Slowly, Karzarul bent forward and covered his head with his arms. Minnow debated trying to hold him, but recoiled when he suddenly burst into a brilliant white light. Blinding light flying out in every direction, and they could hear fairies screaming in delighted terror as it passed through the Faewild. Minnow had to shut her eyes, and it was a long moment before the light through her eyelids faded enough to open them again.
There was a rock where Karzarul had been.
“Uh oh,” Minnow said.
“Should I be worried?” Leonas asked, his voice higher-pitched than usual.
“Maybe,” Minnow said, cupping her hands in the grass to lift the tiny ball of moonlight. Closer, she could see the edges of armored scales. “Karzarul?” she asked gently. “Is that you?”
The lump was unresponsive.
“Should we contact Violet?” Leonas asked Minnow.
“No,” Karzarul said firmly, startling them both. He uncurled in Minnow’s hands, enough to poke a small furry face out from the hard scales covering his body. The ears that popped out from where they’d been tucked were almost as big as the rest of him, his snout slender and pointed. “Give me a minute,” he said, before sticking his snout and ears back into his belly to hide them.
“Okay,” Minnow said, lowering her hands to hold him in her lap.
“What kind of monster is that?” Leonas asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen one before.” Leonas frowned. “I’m sorry about all this.”
“It isn’t your fault,” Leonas said.
“It was my map,” she said.
“Not really,” Leonas said. “What do we do now? That was our only lead on the Nightshard.”
“I’m going to ask the Fairy King,” Minnow said.
“I thought you didn’t want to.”
“I don’t,” Minnow said. “That’s why we’re waiting until Karzarul can provide emotional support.”
“It might be a while,” Leonas said.
“I know,” Minnow said. “It’s that, or you have to be the emotionally stable one for a while.”
“We should wait,” Leonas said.