Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Three

“It wasn’t literal,” Leonas said.

“You guys are always saying that,” Minnow said, unrolling another of her maps into the middle of their picnic blanket.

“The world doesn’t have an end,” Leonas pointed out. “It’s poetic license, it means they chased them extremely far, that’s all.”

“Maybe,” Minnow said, rather than point out the strong possibility that Leonas’ ancestors who drove the heretics from Fort Astielle were actually stupid.

“What if they were stupid?” Karzarul asked. Minnow nudged him with her elbow.

Leonas drummed his fingers against his own crossed arms. “Yes, we have fully established that they were in fact quite stupid, thank you.”

Karzarul moved to pat Leonas on the arm, changing his mind when it was too late to pretend that hadn’t been what he was doing. He patted the air beside Leonas’ arm instead. Leonas huffed irritably, snatching Karzarul’s gloved hand out of the air and lacing their fingers without looking at him. His expression didn’t change. Karzarul’s only acknowledgment was to glow faintly and keep his attention fixed on Minnow’s maps.

“We’re only looking at the big-picture maps, because it can’t be any of the places I’ve already been,” Minnow said. “I would have noticed if there were Moon Cultists there. They cut up dead bodies, right?”

“Sun zealots seem to consider it their defining feature,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know that it’s a tenet of their faith. It could be that they were the only ones willing to do the job.”

“That isn’t less true than it was then,” Minnow said. “I would have noticed if I went somewhere and there were bodies being cut up, is all I mean. I’ve been outside of Astielle before, but I’ve never asked what they do with their corpses. All the ones I make get cut up when I kill them, so if Ocrae has a policy they’ve never mentioned it.”

“Who would have mentioned it?” Leonas asked. “Were you often beheading people in mixed company? Dismembering people in the middle of the market?”

“Not often,” Minnow said. “Not to the point where they thought it was worth asking me to clean up after myself while I was at it.”

“Great,” Leonas said.

“Before we left Monster Mountain,” Karzarul said, “Violet mentioned certain diplomatic missions outside of Astielle. We could ask if he knows anything relevant.”

“Good idea,” Minnow said, digging through her bag to find her Seeing Stone. She paused when she found it, staring at the smooth surface. Her previous Seeing Stone had only been able to connect to Leonas.

“It works like the Doors,” Leonas said. “Focus on the connection you want to make.”

She nodded, touching the etching that let her make contact.

“Lady Minnow,” Violet greeted a moment after the connection had been made, when he was able to see who it was. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Do you know what other countries are doing with their dead bodies?” Minnow asked.

There was a moment of silence that could easily have been confused for a broken connection. “Did you want some?” Violet asked cheerfully.

“No,” Minnow said. “I’d just do that on my own, if that was all.”

“Of course.”

“Astielle leaves their bodies empty and whole,” Minnow explained.

“That isn’t good,” Violet said.

“Karzarul says Moon Cultists used to be in charge of funeral rites,” Minnow said. “He thought you’d know if they still were, in other places.”

“I can’t say I’d thought to inquire after anyone’s corpses,” Violet said, “but if you’ll give me some time, I’ll ask around and see what I can find.”

“May I see the Stone?” Karzarul asked, and Minnow handed it off to him, careful not to let the connection break between them. Karzarul hadn’t taken his hand from Leonas.

“Hel-lo your Majesty,” Violet said.

«Cut the shit,» Karzarul said in Aekhite. «Did Vaelon ever talk to me about the Undead?»

«Not really?» Violet said. «You’d think he would have, since he was fucking around at the Necropolis without us—you. Do you think it’s fake?»

«No, we saw some,» Karzarul said.

«No shit?»

«They’re under the Ruined Temple, they’ve been there long enough that there’s a Door in there,» Karzarul said.

«That has implications,» Violet said.

«Yeah,» Karzarul agreed. «I know sometimes you have more clarity than I do about memories.»

«Can’t help you on this one, love,» Violet said.

«Were you going to offer Minnow corpses?» Karzarul asked.

«You know I was,» Violet said.

«I can make my own corpses,» Minnow reminded them again.

Karzarul stared at Minnow. Leonas looked between the two of them. “What the fuck are you people saying right now.”

Minnow brought them to another nondescript cabin, this one in the middle of a forest. She’d been using it for drying rare herbs and flowers, so they hung from the ceiling like a field growing downward. They set up their bedrolls on the floor, Minnow’s next to Karzarul’s so that she could curl herself sideways into his chest. Ordinarily, she would have been fine draped half on top of him and all tangled together, but this time she liked her forehead against his sternum and his hand pressed against her back. She’d considered asking him to be a Savagewing again, to box her in with soft feathers and the weight of him. Except that Leonas wouldn’t be able to see her if they did that. He liked to keep his bedroll at a distance, but it still felt important not to exclude him.

She felt a brush of air behind her and realized Leonas was rolling out his bed for the night beside hers. She started to pull away from Karzarul so that she could see.

“Don’t,” Leonas warned. She stilled. She felt very aware of his movement behind her as Karzarul moved his hand to rest at her arm. Then Leonas wrapped an arm around her waist, chest against her back and nuzzling at her hair. She couldn’t help a happy hum, pressing back against him and uncurling enough that their thighs touched. “Don’t make it weird,” Leonas said.

“I’m not,” she protested. “I like the way we fit, is all.”

“We don’t fit,” Leonas scoffed. “You’re too fucking short.”

“I didn’t say we did,” Minnow said. “I just said I liked it.”


Karzarul wrapped his arm around both of them.

When Violet contacted them again, it was to give them a lead he’d found in Vado. Most places did cremation, and Vado was no exception, but they had interesting rituals around war he considered relevant. Because battles made such a dangerous amount of dead, it was considered best practices to travel first to Dragon Canyon. In Dragon Canyon, it was said, the ground was full of ghosts. Shout the time and place of the battle into the empty space, and if the ghosts called it back it meant they’d know to be there. A long-dead ghost was said to be a ward against misplaced sunlight, capable of stealing it for themselves in order to become tangible. Entire battles had been rescheduled due to uncooperative ghosts.

Leonas was not thrilled by the prospect of following a lead from someone who did not understand echoes. Karzarul was more interested.

“They didn’t used to call it that,” Karzarul said.

“What did they used to call it?” Minnow asked. She was sitting on Karzarul’s back again, facing Leonas. Dragon Canyon was too far from any Rainbow Doors to get there easily on anyone else’s feet. She’d pointed out that Mount Saturn was near enough, with a tall enough peak and a steep enough angle to be able to glide down for an hour or more. Leonas had not found this a compelling argument for that mode of travel.

Minnow’s maps only showed one or two roads that passed into or over Dragon Canyon, and none of them were as near as a random Door near a ruined fort. Any trails that had once been taken to this place were gone now, grown over with tall and weedy grasses.

“They called it Spider’s Gorge,” Karzarul said.

“Oh, fuck that,” Leonas said.

“We don’t know why they called it that,” Minnow said.

“The giant spiders,” Karzarul said.

Fuck that,” Leonas repeated.

“We don’t know if there’s still spiders,” Minnow said. “They could be gone. If they’re spider monsters that means Karzarul can take care of them. Right?”

“Spiders aren’t monsters,” Karzarul said. “Spiders are their own thing. I can’t turn into a spider.”

“Small blessings,” Leonas said.

“Not that I’ve ever tried,” Karzarul added.

“Keep not trying,” Leonas said.

“Do you not like spiders?” Minnow asked.

“There are a lot of things I wouldn’t like if there were enough of them to name a gorge after,” Leonas said, “particularly not when they are also giant. Do you think I’d be happier about the giant quail in Quail Valley?”

“That one would definitely be full of ghosts,” Karzarul said.

“What?” Leonas said.

“Quail love dying,” Minnow explained. “Most spiders are harmless,” she added.

“Most,” Leonas said. “Not all.”

“Do we know why they call it Dragon Canyon?” Karzarul asked.

“I would assume because dragons are said to have carved the world,” Leonas said. “The trails they flew left echoes in all the winds and currents.”

“That would have been equally as true before,” Karzarul said, “when they called it Spider’s Gorge.”

“They needed a new name after they got rid of the spiders,” Minnow suggested.

“We can hope,” Leonas said.

“Maybe,” Karzarul said, unconvinced.

“It’s a big canyon,” Minnow said. “It has a serpentine shape. It’s the most dragon-y landmark I’ve ever seen.”

Karzarul sighed. “That could make sense,” he admitted.

“Have you ever seen a dragon?” Minnow asked.

“I was told…” Karzarul hesitated. “Vaelon told me,” he amended. “That every dragon sleeps eternal. For a dragon to rise would portend the remaking of the world.”

“It’s as likely they all died out long ago,” Leonas said. “If they ever lived.”

“Of course they lived,” Minnow said. “Karzarul says I said so.” The sound of a bell rang in her head, and she jumped off Karzarul’s back without warning him first. He slowed to a stop as she walked in widening circles.

“Another star?” Karzarul asked.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “I guess I never bothered to come this way before.”

“That’s surprising, considering,” Karzarul said.

“I always meant to,” Minnow said. “It looked like a place that would have interesting things.” She stopped and pulled out the Starsword to dig at the ground. “There used to be a lot of those fake Taurils around here,” she explained. “I could handle them, but I didn’t like to. Every fight was a whole big thing. You know?”

“Real Taurils are stronger,” Karzarul asserted.

“Sure,” Minnow said noncommittally, pulling the fallen star out of the ground and brushing the dirt from it. “I figured I’d wait until I had a reason to go to Dragon Canyon, that way I could get everything out of the way at once. But nothing ever came up.”

“I wonder what he was hiding,” Leonas said, looking toward the canyon in the distance. From so far away it looked like a mark in the ground, could easily be confused for a river. The size and the depth of it would not become obvious until they were closer, where the scale would become harrowing. “To have placed so many Hollow monsters here.”

“Moon Cultists,” Minnow said.

“It was a rhetorical question,” Leonas snapped. “I wasn’t looking for an answer, we don’t even know if that’s true.”

Minnow pulled herself up onto Karzarul’s back, and being reminded how many Taurils she’d once killed in this field made it feel strange again. She regretted not letting him pick her up, which would have been easier to separate from sense memories. She wanted to wrap herself around his torso, nuzzle at his neck, listen to him speak and remember all the ways that he was different. She sat instead, pressing her palms against his velvet beneath her, leaning her back too-forcefully against his. “It’s Moon Cultists,” Minnow said with certainty.

Leonas rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Probably,” he muttered.

“Old timey Astians thought the canyon was the edge of the world,” she added.

“Let it go,” Leonas said.

Minnow looked out at the great expanse of grasslands around them. She imagined seeing the shape of a monster on the distant horizon and knowing it still wasn’t far enough.

“Can you run?” Minnow asked Karzarul, tilting her head back. Her hair might have tangled with his, if his was not always so neat. “I like the way the world looks when you run.”

Karzarul’s hooves pushed harder against the ground, dug into the earth to launch himself forward. The grasses closest to them were a blur of green, the horizon distant enough to almost stand still. It felt like the air was moving fast enough to be visible, the way air become audible when something whipped through it quick enough.

Leonas’ seat in his saddle was perfectly secure, but he still glowed with magic to hold himself tight. Minnow couldn’t see his face through the light of it but could imagine his expression well enough. She almost felt guilty, but not quite. He had curls that ought to be windswept. It was one of many wrongs that they hadn’t been, but it wasn’t her fault if he wasn’t used to it yet.

It was a correction, in a way. Or at least she could pretend it was, to justify it to herself.

Karzarul slowed too soon, not close enough to the canyon and not yet to a point where she felt ready to be done. She might have asked him to go in a big circle for a while if she hadn’t thought Leonas would protest.

“What’s the matter?” Leonas asked, his magic’s light dissipated.

“Give me a minute,” Karzarul said, barely advancing. Minnow leaned sideways to look around him. He was holding his hands slightly outward, palms downward, the way she held her hands when she was looking for a star. She wondered if she’d always done it, if he picked it up from her or if she picked it up from him.

“More Shimmerbats?” Minnow asked.

“No,” Karzarul said. “Dragon Canyon is a misnomer.”

Leonas narrowed his eyes. “Is it spiders.”

Karzarul started to speak, then stopped. He pressed a hand to his head, the spot right behind his horns. “It’s. Weird.” His steps slowed to a stop. “I should. You should wait. Here.”

“No,” Minnow said immediately.

His legs wobbled. “I’m having. A problem.”

Minnow jumped from his back again, and Leonas followed her lead to descend. “What’s wrong?” Minnow asked, running her hand over his foreleg as she circled around him. It didn’t do her much good, because he’d started rubbing his face with both hands. It was a gesture she associated more with Leonas than with him.

There was a great rush of air as a shadow emerged from the ground, growing larger until it blotted out the sun. The canyon it had come from obscured its size until it was closer, inky black and all of it too much. Too-wide wings, too many legs, too many eyes. A sky of black scales.

“Drakonis!” Minnow said, delighted despite herself. She hadn’t seen one until Karzarul took the form. She was glad to have never met a Hollow one. “This is a real monster, right?”

“He can’t sense the Hollow monsters,” Leonas murmured, staying close to Karzarul. If Karzarul’s legs had been steadier, he might have ducked right beneath him. Minnow sympathized. Her own instincts were to run and hide, to find a safe place to observe. Figure out if there was a safe way to avoid it on the way to her goals. Despite what Leonas seemed to think, running headlong at the enemy with sword-first was never her first choice.

Minnow pressed her hand more firmly against Karzarul’s leg as Drakonis swooped toward the ground, wings catching the air to land heavy in the grass. Minnow could make out the shape of it, something she hadn’t been able to do when Karzarul was clutching her in enormous claws. It had a long, stretched-out snout with three eyes on either side of it. Horns erupted from the back of its head in crooked shapes like the branches of a tree in winter. Tusks jutted out on either side of its mouth, pointing upward and downward. When it sniffed the air, its snout moved more than it seemed like a snout should, a nose with aspirations toward being a trunk. It blinked in waves, eyes all down the length of its body blinking one after the other before starting over at the beginning.

Black Drakonis touched its nose to Karzarul, and Karzarul uncovered his face to press his forehead against its snout.

“You’re happy to see each other?” Minnow asked after a moment. Karzarul nodded. He and Drakonis were in silent communion, and she wondered how much he felt.

He couldn’t read the minds of monsters, that much was clear. She assumed his sense of them was something felt, but she did not know how much and hadn’t asked. Even if she did, he might not be able to explain it. She had no powers or magic. She had a sword. Perhaps Leonas would understand it, the way he knew how to dream when she didn’t.

“She has been here,” Karzarul said, “a very long time.”

Minnow noticed the mushrooms growing on Black Drakonis’ horns, the crystals wrapped in wire hanging from them.

“Can we keep going?” Minnow asked. “Or do you need to stop?”

“We don’t have to stop,” Karzarul said.

“If you were small, I could carry you,” Minnow said.

“No,” Karzarul said, shaking his head. “I would rather… I don’t want to do that.” Minnow patted his leg. He let Drakonis go, and she raised her head to turn it around, her body trailing after her like a streamer. Walking ahead with her wings tucked in, she stopped before she’d gone far enough for her body to straighten out. She turned her head back around to look at them, nose twitching.

“We’re coming,” Karzarul said, waving her off. She walked only far enough ahead that her body was a straight line before turning and twitching her nose at them again. She made a rolling sound like a drum clucking. She waited until Karzarul started walking after her to forge ahead, but every few minutes she would turn around to make sure they were still following.

“I know we were joking about Quail Valley,” Minnow said, “but I’m getting a distinct ‘mother hen’ sort of feeling.”

“What sorts of mother hens have you met?” Leonas asked.

“Chickens,” she said.

“Chickens aren’t winged nightmares,” he said.

“Did you not meet my chickens?” she asked.

“When would I have met your chickens?”

“In my yard.”

“Pardon me for being a bit distracted by having left my house for the first time in twenty years to find my girlfriend enjoying post-coital pancakes with the man who was going to kill me,” Leonas said.

“I made eggs,” Minnow corrected. “From my chickens.”

“I stand corrected,” Leonas said.

Minnow walked in a way that brought her closer to Leonas, dangerously close to leaning against him. “You called me your girlfriend again,” she said.

“You know what I mean,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I like it.”

“I wasn’t going to kill you,” Karzarul said.

“Obviously circumstances have changed,” Leonas said, “but let’s not lie to ourselves. You were fully prepared to kill me. The fact that it would have been due to a misunderstanding, or whatever you want to call it, would not have made me less dead. I am well aware, knowing what I know now, that the situation could have been resolved by my being even the slightest bit diplomatic. Since that was never going to happen, that is not relevant to the facts, which are that you would have killed me.”

Black Drakonis seemed ready to come back for them the next time she turned around, but Karzarul shooed her away. “I wouldn’t have killed you for being rude,” Karzarul said. “… again. That was a mistake. When that happened. I’ve apologized for that.”

“To me?” Leonas asked.

“To someone,” Karzarul said.

“Would you have killed me if you thought I was a danger to Minnow?”

“This isn’t a fair conversation,” Karzarul said, “when you’ve spent most of your life trying to get Minnow to kill me. That’s attempted murder. All I had was intent.”

“My point,” Leonas said, “was that when a person fears for their life, they tend to focus on that. And not chickens. Which were not a threat to my life. Which is yet another difference between poultry and a Drakonis.”

“I think that what this really shows,” Minnow said, “is that you have some fundamental misconceptions about which things in this world want you dead.”

“I don’t know how that’s your takeaway,” Leonas said.

“Spiders want to mind their own business,” she said. “A spider has no malice in its heart. If a spider is trying to kill you, a mistake has happened somewhere. A mother hen will always choose murder.”

“Is this supposed to make me feel better about the enormous monster you compared to a hen?” Leonas asked.

“I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t be scared of her,” Minnow said. “If Karzarul couldn’t control her, we’d all be running in the other direction. You’re worried for the wrong reasons, is all.”

“She’s enormous and can kill me,” Leonas said.

“Lots of things are enormous,” Minnow said. “Lots of things can kill you. You don’t need to worry about most of them.”

“My worries are not limited by such trivialities as objective reality,” Leonas said. “Why would they be limited by needs? I barely even know what it’s like to have needs. I’m a Prince. I want for nothing.”

“You don’t have to say things just because they’re supposed to be true,” Minnow said.

Leonas pressed his mouth into a thin line.

Black Drakonis clucked back at them one last time before descending into the canyon. The three of them followed the trailing tip of her tail, leaning over the edge to see where she went.

“Fuck that,” Leonas said immediately.

“What do you have against canyons?” Minnow asked.

Karzarul narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at Leonas. “Do you have something against canyons?” he asked.

“What? No.” Leonas scowled at them both. “When would I have been to a canyon to form an opinion. I lived in a tower. I haven’t seen a canyon, met a chicken, or developed a fear of heights.” Leonas pointed to the series of ladders leading downward, sculpted vines growing into the stone walls. “That,” he said. “Fuck that right there in particular. That is not safe, you will not convince me that’s safe, and if a contractor in Astielle tried to get away with that I’d have them beheaded.”

“It’s fine,” Minnow said dismissively. “They’re bridge vines. See?” She pointed further down, to where they extended across the span of the canyon. “I’ve used them before, they work great. Karzarul, you can’t climb like that.” She tried to reach upward to unhook one of the leather bags, but she couldn’t reach. Karzarul unhooked them all and set them down on the ground before shifting into a Savagewing. They grabbed the bags they liked to keep with them, and Leonas tossed a handful of soil over the rest. His eyes glowed, and the specks of dirt all flared bright before settling into a disguise. Their items would look like a particularly disinteresting rock until the magic Leonas had used to bewitch the soil wore out.

A surprising amount of magic could fit into dirt. The reasons why were one of the more boring aspects of gardening, which Minnow hadn’t bothered to retain.

Karzarul jumped off the edge of the cliffside to follow after Drakonis, his wings spread wide as he used them to slow his descent. Minnow took the ladder but didn’t lower herself step-by-step. Instead, she eyeballed the distance to the lowest rung she could see and let go, falling through the air and catching a rung before her speed was too great. It pulled at the vine, which made an unhappy sound but didn’t break or tear away from the cliff face.

“Don’t do that,” Leonas called down after her, but she ignored him and did it again. She heard the sound of a bell and made a sound of distress. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a star in here somewhere!” she complained, pressing her ear against the stone on either side of the ladder. It didn’t make sense to do so, because the sound was felt more than heard and didn’t involve her ears. It was still habit.

Leonas didn’t take the ladder at all. His eyes glowed, a platform of sunlight only large enough for his boots lowering him down at a steady pace. His arms were crossed over his chest, his expression bemused. Minnow had already unsheathed the Starsword and was trying to dig at the cliff face with it. The Starsword could go through solid stone, eventually.

“You look like a moron,” Leonas said, touching his fingertips to the stone. She could see light pulsing at his fingertips, but couldn’t make out what he was doing beyond that. A few beams of light emerged from the stone to the right of where she’d been hacking at it. “Try there,” he said finally as it faded. Then he resumed his controlled descent.

Minnow had to stretch her entire body to jam the Starsword point-first into the weak spot he’d found in the stone, and it crumbled away around the blade. She sheathed it again and managed to clear it out enough to find the fallen star, though her fingertips could only barely reach it. She was relieved to be able to shove it in her bag and resume falling. Stretching herself out to reach things was annoying. It felt as if she shouldn’t need to. Muscle memory resented the length of her limbs.

She finally hit a ledge of stone before she could catch another rung of the vine ladder, and the shock of landing reverberated up through her bones.

“Have Karzarul take you next time,” Leonas said.

“It’s fine,” Minnow said, brushing detritus and vine sap off on her tunic. She looked at where Karzarul had been waiting, staring down at the forest and winding river below. Ladders and bridges were a tangle across the cliff faces. He’d given himself another crescent crown. “Oh!” Minnow looked in her bag, but quickly realized she didn’t have anything.

“Did you forget something?” Leonas asked.

“No—kind of.” She pulled a thin vine away from the ladder, young enough not to damage the structural integrity. She wound it into a circle as best she could, leaves still sticking out from it. “Can you make this into a circlet?” she asked Leonas, holding it out to him. “You should have a circlet. I should have made you one when we were at the farmhouse, I wasn’t thinking.”

He took it from her with his fingertips, regarding it with suspicion. He’d gone back to basic black and white for his outfit, and so he matched Karzarul more than he did Minnow’s standard torn-up blues. His eyes flared bright and so did the vines, muttering under his breath. When it faded the vines looked like copper and had an unnatural gleam. He moved the leaves around until they satisfied him, then set it on his hair. “Better?” he asked.

“Much,” she confirmed. She began walking down the ledge, treating it as a path until it opened up. It looked like a large cave carved out of the wall of the canyon, and what hadn’t been visible from above was all the buildings cut into it. Some of the streets lead to tunnels further into the underground, and vine bridges lead to another such structure across the way. “Neat,” Minnow said, looking up at the distant ceiling that had once been beneath their feet.

“One small shake and this whole thing collapses,” Leonas muttered, trying not to look up. It was early morning yet, and they made it all the way down the middle of the street and to a square before they ran into someone. He was a young man, wearing white robes and a thick red belt, long dark curls and olive skin.

“Hello!” Minnow said, waving. “Do you speak Astia? This is going to be awkward if you don’t.”

The young man froze. He looked between the three of them. “… hello?”

“Hi!” Minnow said. “I’m the Starlight Hero. That’s the Prince of Astielle. That’s the King of All Monsters. We’re looking for Moon Cultists. Are we in the right place?”

Leonas rubbed his forehead. “How often do you spend your first night in a new place in jail?” he muttered.

“Oh, all the time,” Minnow said.

The young man looked between the three of them again. Karzarul waved with one of four hands. The young man looked toward the center of the canyon, to the edge of the cliff. Black Drakonis was poking her head up, resting her snout in the street. She clucked.

“I should go get a Teacher,” the young man said finally. He spoke with an accent like he was speaking through the mouth of a glass bottle. “You wait here.” He walked at high speed down the street and into one of the tunnels.

“That was Astia, right?” Minnow asked, in case she needed to translate for Leonas.

“It was,” Leonas said.

“That’s a good sign,” Minnow said.

“No, it isn’t,” Leonas said. “If they’re hostile, he’s coming back with reinforcements. And if they are who we think they are, they have every reason to be hostile.”

“They’re not,” Karzarul said. He had his face turned away from them both, looking to where Black Drakonis was watching.

Minnow took the opportunity to get a closer look at the buildings. There were a reassuring number of pots with plants growing in them, flowers and ferns and leafy bushes. Hollows in the walls had no discernable purpose aside from holding plants and clusters of crystals. Some of the walls had murals, skies in blue and purple and pink. The few impressionistic figures that appeared weren’t hard to identify. One always white, the other always copper.

“Are there other monsters around?” Minnow asked.

“Yes,” Karzarul said. His face was still averted. She wondered why he didn’t make himself a set of fans like Violet had, as long as he was staying in that form. On cue, a moonlight silver fan appeared in his upper-left hand. He held it at an angle that obscured the majority of his face, rather than the lower half. She would have teased him about it if his mood weren’t so tense. She couldn’t identify the feeling from the situation or his body language. An unfamiliar body in an unfamiliar place. He’d seemed delicate since the first moment he sensed the presence of Black Drakonis, but not in any way that Minnow could understand.

Leonas was easier. He had fallen into perfect posture, eyes in the middle distance, hands clasped behind him. This, Minnow understood. It was a diplomatic situation, and there was an emotionally difficult man beside him. He was uncomfortable, but a familiar kind of discomfort that knocked him into an old routine. Smiling politely and swallowing the King’s Folly.

Minnow leaned against his arm chest-first. He tensed, startled. “Heeey,” she said. His eyes left the middle distance to focus on her, and scowled when he realized it was only her.

“Stop that,” he snapped.

“Stop what?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at him.

“Whatever this is,” he said. Minnow leaned against him more. He leaned away in imperceptible degrees, unable to overcome his instinct to look presentable in front of hypothetical company. “We are someone’s guests,” he hissed through his teeth. “Behave yourself.”

“I’m behaving,” she said.

“That’s not what behaving looks like,” Leonas said. His witchmarks were shining brighter. She got up on her toes to try to bring her face closer to his. His eyes widened with a sort of frustrated panic. “Heel.”

She sat.

Leonas made a sound like he’d been burned, recoiling from her and stumbling backward. “What is wrong with you,” he demanded, bending down to grab her arms. “Get up, that’s an order.”

Minnow bit his arm.

Leonas shrieked as he backed away from her again, shaking out his arm. “For fuck’s sake,” he said.

Karzarul snorted. At some point he’d shut his fan, and was pressing the back of his hand to his mouth instead. One of his ankles crossed over the other.

Leonas put his hands on his hips. “Well I’m glad you’re having fun,” he said. “Would you like to help me with your girlfriend?” Leonas asked, gesturing to her.

“You need more hands?” Karzarul suggested, and Leonas scowled at him.

“Help me get her—”


“—up,” Leonas enunciated sharply, plosives explosive. “We are in the middle of the street in a foreign city, this is our only chance at a first impression, what is wrong with you two.” His eyes flashed, and his circlet started to grow more copper leaves. “If this is what you two are always like, it’s a miracle I ever don’t want to murder you both.”

Someone cleared their throat.

Leonas straightened and pivoted in the appropriate direction. He pressed his palms together against his sternum. “Apologies.”

The Teacher was an older man who looked much like the younger one, though he had a long and braided beard. The belt tied around his robe was dark blue. “Sunlight Prince of Astielle,” he greeted with a slight incline of his head. “Starlight Hero.” Minnow waved with both hands, but the Teacher was already smiling elsewhere. “Cousin Karzarul.”

Karzarul had the fan out again.

The Teacher yawned loud, with a popping stretch of his back, before shaking his head as if the chase the sleep away. “And what kind of an hour do you call this?” he demanded of Karzarul. “Nobody decent’s awake at this hour, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself if you’re stuck with me.” He beamed, clapping his hands together. “In my official capacity as Teacher Zadven, allow me to first warn you that if you groan that means the ancestors win and you shouldn’t give them the satisfaction.” He was pointing at Leonas when he said this.

“Secondly,” Zadven said, spreading his hands to indicate the city, “welcome to the Neocropolis.”

Leonas groaned.