Minnow hadn’t been back to the Ruined Temple since the first time, when she was fresh out of the Faewild with nothing but the sword Leonas had bought her. It wasn’t deliberate avoidance, only a lack of reasons to return. She’d found the Starsword, she’d unlocked the Door, and she’d spent more than enough time in the place before she left. What more was there to do?
Now she had questions. Since the catacombs and the Heretic’s Temple, since she’d been given reason to wonder at leaving the sword for herself. Since she’d listened to Kavid speak of conspiracies and Imperials.
She thought it likely she’d been trying to leave a message for herself. Except the person she was wasn’t the person she’d thought she’d be. A changeling with no context for what she was seeing, no way of knowing which aspects of the situation were strange. Not old enough, not human enough.
She knew a little more about being human, now, even if she couldn’t quite pull it off. She was certainly older. And now she had company. Company that could recognize the things she couldn’t, and could handle a quest alongside her.
A quest with a terrible ending, even.
“Did it look like this, before?” Leonas asked. Minnow turned and realized he was asking Karzarul.
“I haven’t been here,” Karzarul said, subdued. He was looking back at the Rainbow Door, where they’d left most of their bags after he shifted back to Impyr form.
“We couldn’t have come here during the day?” Leonas asked her. She’d woken them up in the middle of the night to come here.
“You don’t want to be here during the day,” she said. Their voices echoed in the silence of the cavernous main chamber. The outside walls were almost entirely stained glass, half of it broken, moonlight casting rainbows over the floor. The doors into the inner rooms were all stone, only small stains of color marking where it had once been painted. There were remnants of humanoid shapes in the mosaics on the floor, tiles smashed to make them unrecognizable. Minnow looked up at the inverted dome of the ceiling, one massive piece of clear glass. It was chipped in places, but still intact.
“There are Shimmerbats here,” Karzarul said, turning back to her. “Lots of them.” His brow furrowed, eyes unfocused as if in thought. “Down?”
“Yeah,” Minnow said, heading for the altar at the center of the room. “It’s weird to see it without monsters,” she said. “Hollow monsters. There were a lot of them by the time I left, last time. Do you think a real monster cleared it out?”
“Could be,” Karzarul said. “They’re gone if they did.”
“Stay outside the circle,” Minnow warned, pointing to a metal ring in the floor that ran all the way around the altar. It mirrored the bowl of glass above in size and location.
Leonas waited where she’d indicated, squinting at the altar as she climbed up the dais. “That’s a decoy sword,” he realized.
“Yeah,” she said, grabbing the false Starsword by the hilt and yanking before launching herself toward them. With an enormous knocking sound the floor fell out from underneath her, the altar splitting into pieces as the floor unfolded downward. She barely managed to catch Karzarul’s arm to pull her onto solid ground. Where the altar had been was now a deep hole illuminated only by the moonlight from above, a staircase spiraling downward along the outside of it.
“That’s too many stairs,” Leonas said immediately.
“Want me to carry you?” Karzarul asked with a waggle of his eyebrows.
“Fuck off,” Leonas said. “Tell me you didn’t fall down there.”
“Not the whole way,” Minnow said. “The walk down isn’t so bad. Up is the part that sucks. Try to stick to the wall so you don’t fall.”
The stairs were steep and narrow stone. If there had ever been railings, they were gone without a trace. The steps had been worn smooth to the point of danger. Minnow noticed a glow at the edge of her vision and realized Leonas was using magic to make his steps surer.
“Don’t use magic down here,” she said. “Hold onto Karzarul, if you have to.”
He acquiesced without grumbling, which startled her. She replayed her own words in her head and realized her tone had been harsh. She considered apologizing but decided against it. She didn’t want to draw attention to her own anxiety.
Minnow slid into the first doorway they reached. It looked much the same as it had the last time she’d been here. She was surprised that she remembered it at all, even if not in detail.
It was empty, for the most part. Whenever it had been made was long enough ago that anything capable of rotting was dust. The rooms underground were older than the ones above, or at least had been abandoned sooner. The worn-down roots of metal bars marred the doorway. There were shelves in the stone, but they were empty. A slab could have been a small bed if there had been a mattress on it. Reliefs carved into the walls were weathered, but still intact. The pastoral scene depicted seemed as banal now as it had when she was young. She examined it for anything that might seem ominous with her greater understanding, but there was nothing. Just cows in a field under the sun, a farmer couple and their children all tending to their work.
One difference was the Shimmerbats. The ceiling was covered in them. They hadn’t been here before, and they seemed unperturbed by the intrusion.
“They kept prisoners down here,” Leonas said, kneeling to look at the remains of what had once barred the door.
“Something like that,” Minnow said, watching the Shimmerbats. “Are these the ones you meant?” she asked.
“Some of them,” Karzarul said.
“Can you talk to them?” Minnow asked.
“I can talk to anything,” Karzarul said. “So can you. Most things don’t speak. They do as I wish, if that’s what you mean.”
It wasn’t. She would have found it more useful to know what they’d seen, if anything.
“Let’s keep looking,” Minnow said, brushing past them both to get back onto the stairs. The next room was much the same as the first. More broken bars, more dull carvings. The same cows, the same sun.
“This is writing,” Leonas said, running his fingers over a patterned band of trim that ran along the bottom of the relief. Minnow looked closer and saw the sharply chiseled shapes. “What does it say?” Leonas asked. His witchmarks were the only light in the room.
“I don’t know,” Minnow said.
“Really?” Leonas said.
“Why would she?” Karzarul asked.
“Ordinarily she can read anything,” Leonas said, “as long as I don’t tell her it isn’t Astian.”
“Those are things she’s known before,” Karzarul said, bending to see the text for himself. “We’ve never been able to read this.”
“Huh,” Leonas said, tracing his fingers over the letters. “If I had some light, I could try to transcribe it.”
“It won’t say anything interesting,” Minnow said. “There are tablets in one of the other rooms, if nothing has happened to them. We can take them with us and you can study them later.”
Leonas pulled his hand away from the wall as Minnow headed back down the stairs. She started ducking her head into rooms only long enough to confirm that nothing had changed, that they were much the same as the first. She only paused when she realized that Leonas and Karzarul were no longer following. Leonas had disappeared into one of the rooms without her, and Karzarul was waiting for him. She trudged back up the stairs to see what he was after.
“I thought I saw something,” Leonas explained when he realized she’d come back for him. He had seen something, and was kneeling on the floor to examine it. It was a small stone bull with wheels for legs. Leonas pushed at one of the wheels experimentally and found that it could still spin.
“Oh,” Minnow said. “Yeah. There’s a few of those.” She didn’t linger, opting to move on and let them catch up.
She stopped again at a room more familiar than most, cluttered up with bits of armor and broken weapons left from Hollow monsters. The shelves still had stacks of tablets on them. She gathered up the tablets, giving them a quick once-over before stacking them up in her arms. In most, small figures of animals were accompanied by the angular letters that must have made up their names. She paused to compare one to the relief on the wall to confirm that the message in the wall said something about cows.
The few tablets with actual messages carved into the clay were written in large letters, whatever message they contained little more than a sentence. If she kept looking, perhaps she could find another one about livestock. She carried them all back to the door and tried to hand them off to Leonas, but he only took one off the top. He had to bring it close to his face to see it better, the glow of his witchmarks enough to illuminate it.
She always forgot his trouble with seeing in the dark.
“Minnow,” Leonas said slowly. “This looks like a primer for children.”
“Yeah,” Minnow said.
“That was a toy,” he said. “Earlier.”
“There were children down here.”
“What happened to them?” Leonas asked.
“They were Lost,” Minnow said.
“The usual way, I assume,” she said. “A plague could account for it, but there isn’t anything about that down here that I remember.” She offered him the stack of tablets, but he didn’t take them. Karzarul finally took them instead, tucking them into a bag at his hip. “I would remember if there was any pictures of doctors.”
“You were down here,” Leonas said. He was staring at the pile of detritus, broken swords and clubs and helmets she’d taken off the corpses of Bullizards and Brutelings. “You were—it took you two months. I never understood how it took two months. You never said. About the decoy sword.”
“I thought you knew,” Minnow said.
“How could I have?” Leonas said. “I wouldn’t have sent you here. I should have stayed.”
“It’s better that you didn’t,” Minnow said. She considered the implications of saying so. “Not that it’s better that the King did what he did,” she said. “I’m not glad any of that happened. I only mean it wasn’t something you could help with.”
“Two months,” he repeated.
“I took breaks,” she said. “I didn’t wander too far from the temple, but I didn’t spend the whole time down here. If that’s what you were worried about.”
That did seem to help with the shape of his shoulders. “I thought… you were supposed to be Elias.”
“I know,” she said. “I am.”
“You’re not,” Leonas said.
“You’re not,” Karzarul agreed.
“I was,” Minnow said.
“You never remembered the way I thought you would, is what I mean,” Leonas said. “It was never going to be as easy for you to get the sword as it was for him to leave it.”
“Sorry,” Minnow said.
“Don’t,” Leonas said. “I only wanted to say that I. That this.” He gestured around them. “This was my first mistake. Making you do this. I knew it was, but seeing it is different. Seeing what I did.”
“This isn’t something you did,” Minnow said. “I did this to myself.”
“That isn’t the same,” Leonas said.
“I know you’re trying to be responsible by taking responsibility,” Minnow said, “but making it your fault is still making it about you.”
Leonas stiffened, but Minnow didn’t linger, heading back to the stairs to resume her descent. She was growing frustrated with how long it was taking. Nothing had struck her much differently yet, not in the revelatory way she’d been hoping for. She didn’t know what she’d been hoping for. Words carved into the walls? Faces etched in stone that she recognized? She was annoyed with herself for making things difficult. It was making her snippish, and she would surely need to apologize to Leonas later. Assuming he even let her, and didn’t sulk a while.
It wasn’t like before, when he would disconnect his Seeing Stone and refuse to answer it when she annoyed him. Sulking was a much more active thing when the person doing it was present.
More rooms, more carvings of cows in the walls. More monster detritus here and there. It was tempting to sit on the stairs and slide down rather than check every room, but she didn’t want to miss something. She knew from experience that sometimes one interesting thing would hide in a sea of same ones. One room with a different mural, one book with a missing page, one trash can with a piece of paper where someone had written down the secret phrase to get into the secret club on the other side of town.
They were getting closer to the bottom. She was hoping they’d have found something before then.
“Do we know what we’re looking for?” Karzarul asked.
“No,” Minnow said. “I don’t know. Something different. Something I would have wanted myself to see.”
“There might be nothing,” Karzarul said. “We don’t know for certain that it was Elias’ idea to send you here.”
“Hero’s intuition,” Minnow said.
“Hm,” Karzarul said instead of arguing.
She huffed a little, trying not to make it obvious that she was irritated. She hated having to explain her thought process. There wasn’t one. She became certain of things and did not herself know why. She wasn’t used to having to retrace her mental steps for someone else’s sake. If given the choice between explaining herself well enough to be convincing, and doing something alone, she chose alone.
“There were monsters here,” she said. “Lots of monsters. Stupid ones. Now we know they were Hollow, and the King was sending them. We know he used them to keep people away from things he didn’t want them to find. I didn’t leave right away when I got the Starsword, but they kept coming. I could have left the Starsword anywhere, but I left it here, at the bottom. I didn’t have to hide it. I’m the only one that can pick it up.”
“It would be reasonable under the circumstances to assume my father would have preferred the Starsword not be kept here,” Leonas said.
“Is he old enough to have known me?” Minnow asked.
“As a teenager,” Leonas said. “He was still a prince.” Leonas hesitated. “He’s said that he looked up to you.”
“Gross,” Minnow said automatically, moving down to continue her search.
Two rooms down one of the shelves had a metal cup that looked like a quail. She had forgotten about it, but remembered all at once. She walked to the far side of the room to pick it up, confirming that it was as she had remembered.
Minnow had agonized over whether she felt right taking it with her. The dead were gone and had no use for things and trinkets. But what of the Lost? Did some part of them remember what they’d been and what had once been theirs? Was it stealing to take it? Was it a waste to leave it? She ran her fingertips over the hammered feathers. The good shape it was in had prompted her to leave it last time. She had already known that she was in no position to take care of fine things, and after all its years this was still a fine thing.
She set the cup back onto the shelf with care, leaving it where it had been for years before and for centuries before that.
Minnow realized the room seemed brighter than it had been, and checked to see if Leonas or Karzarul were glowing. Then she spun to look out into the stairwell, where light was streaming down the center. Her heart thudded once against her ribs. “Shit!” She grabbed at both of them. “We need to hurry out of here, can you fly us out the way you did at the castle? It’s that or we have to block the door until it’s night again.”
A noise was rising from the bottom of the stairs, one Minnow had not heard in decades and yet recognized immediately. Shuffling, thumping. Chaotic, voiceless sounds.
“What is it?” Leonas asked. His eyes glowed as a bubble of light formed around them.
“The Lost,” Minnow said. “They’re awake.” She went out to the stairwell, and they joined her, looking down to the bottom of the pit. They were close enough to the bottom that she could see them all milling about, running into walls and each other at high speed. Some managed to get onto the stairs but didn’t make it far before they fell off the edge and back down to the bottom. Through sheer numbers, some would make it to their level before long.
“They’re children,” Leonas said. “Those are the children.”
“Yeah,” Minnow said.
“Explain what you mean by lost,” Leonas said, “as we are clearly operating under different definitions.”
Minnow frowned, looking down at the crush of bodies running without direction or purpose. “Changelings that try to leave get Lost,” she said. “They’re outside the Faewild, in the thin parts of the forest. Rivers and streams especially, where they tried to get out. I guess you never saw them, since you’re a witch and you could find the Faewild without wandering around.”
“Why wouldn’t you let them back in?” Leonas asked.
“If they’d tried to come back, they could have,” Minnow said. “They were trying to go back to where they’d come from.”
“But they were trapped in the forest,” Leonas said.
“I don’t know about trapped,” Minnow said. “It’s a big forest. They didn’t know the way, and there wasn’t anyone to show them. If they’d been wanted, they wouldn’t have been taken.”
“They’re Undead,” Karzarul said suddenly.
“What?” Leonas said.
“Lost might be what they call it when it happens to changelings,” Karzarul said, “but those are Undead. Someone left too many bodies together and whole in the light of the sun.”
They all looked up to the glass above, and back down to the bodies below.
“You’ve seen this before, then?” Leonas asked.
“No,” Karzarul said. “The reality was superstition before I’d ever been made. I have never known a time or place whose burial rites were not meant to avoid this. Even in war, we have always scattered the bones of the dead.”
“Is there a ritual?” Leonas asked. “A spell?”
“It simply happens,” Karzarul said, “the way flowers bloom or leaves fall.”
“Didn’t you say that you aren’t using the catacombs anymore?” Minnow asked.
“It would be heretical,” Leonas said, “to suggest that the Sun Goddess would make such a mockery of the sanctity of life.”
“She does not think as humans do,” Karzarul said. “A human body is meant to be full of life. It could be that when She sees so many empty, She sees an error in need of correction.”
One of the Lost was running up the stairs, its side dragging against the wall, hitting doors but managing not to fall. Leonas expanded the range of his protective bubble to keep it further away. When it hit the barrier, it pressed itself against it, its hands flat against the wall of light. It looked the way they always looked, human but empty. Any clothes they’d once worn had long since rotted away, and it was coated in a thick layer of grime. Centuries of dirt and dust. Something like pond scum was growing in its hair, making it slimy.
It was the eyes that Minnow liked least. She would have preferred it to have blank eyes, filmy eyes, corpse eyes. Instead they looked like ordinary eyes in an ordinary color, indistinguishable from the living. It made the newest ones the worst, that way. Old like this, the rest of its body gave away that something was wrong. New, they looked like the person they’d been before, difficult to believe that they weren’t.
The light of the barrier pulsed.
“What—” Leonas began.
“They draw the sunlight out of things,” Minnow said, grabbing at Karzarul. She tasted bile. “They can take your magic, your spells won’t work, we have to get away from it.” She could still remember it vividly, could remember the darkness encroaching on her vision, knew now that what it had felt like was bleeding out. She did not want to learn what they might be capable of doing with Leonas, who was his own small sun.
The Sunshield’s light faltered.
Shimmerbats seemed to flood from every door in the stairwell, uniting into a single swarm. The sound of their cries and their leathery wings echoed as Leonas’ protective barrier fell, replaced by a whirlwind of wings. Karzarul shifted to a Savagewing, pulling both of them close without warning and launching himself upward. The stairwell was only barely large enough to accommodate Karzarul’s wingspan, and all around them the Shimmerbats followed, swarming with him. They were only in flight a moment or two before he emerged back out into the main hall of the Ruined Temple. Shimmerbats streamed out and burst forth around them, disbursing into the rest of the temple. The trap door slammed shut behind them, and Karzarul landed with silent steps and a flutter of feathers. Minnow held on a moment longer as Leonas pulled himself free to brush off his vest.
She felt silly for letting herself feel so unsettled by the Lost. She’d assumed before coming here that it was something she’d grown out of, even if she had been trying to avoid seeing them. Some part of her had been sure that if she did see one, she would realize they were small and weak and a little bit ridiculous.
Except they still made her feel sick, and nothing about fighting them felt worth it.
“This temple is older than you are,” Minnow said, still holding on to Karzarul. “Do you think they are, too?”
Karzarul took longer to answer than he ordinarily would have. “If there is a Rainbow Door,” he said finally, “then Vaelon must have come here. Occasions where I did not accompany him often pertained to sensitive matters for the Empire. A temple such as this, with creatures such as those, would have been a sensitive matter.”
“How did we know?” she asked. “The first time, before we were this. How did we know to go to the Faewild if we wanted to speak to a goddess?”
“I don’t know,” Karzarul admitted. “Old stories, I would think. You had made the decision before I ever joined you.”
“It’s only,” she said, “that it feels like, seeing this place, that there must have been legends before us. This place is so old, and the world so much older. There must have been someone who spoke to the Sun Goddess before an Heir ever did. I didn’t think about it before, when I was from the Faewild where all things are eternal. I didn’t wonder about the Lost, because I thought I knew what they were. But it’s strange, now that I know that they aren’t changelings. That all of them are children, children dead before we were anything. Before goddesses gave us the things we asked for instead of the things we wanted.”
The temple was quiet, and they could not hear the Undead below.
“That’s speculation,” Leonas said finally. “Even if we could prove it, it isn’t actionable.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to know,” Minnow said.
“You don’t have to sell me on the merits of knowledge for its own sake,” Leonas said. “We’re only guessing. A library of books has been written by hundreds of scholars doing thousands of hours of research on our own history, and we only know that every one of them is wrong because Karzarul was there. Even then, that doesn’t mean he’s right.”
“Hey,” Karzarul said.
“Memories are flawed,” Leonas said. “Even yours. If someone had been alive—would the Fairy King have been alive?”
“He doesn’t like to talk about the Lost,” Minnow said. She let Karzarul go and tried to smooth out his tunic.
“Hmm,” Leonas said.
“Now that you’ve said it, I’m certain he does know,” Minnow said. “We could ask him, but I don’t want to.”
“Sometimes it’s nice to know,” Leonas reminded her.
“Sometimes it isn’t,” Minnow said. She nudged at a bit of tile at the edges of where mosaic had been destroyed. Faces all smashed out in the floor. “Not if it’s the Fairy King.” She looked up at Karzarul. She couldn’t help thinking he didn’t look like himself as a Savagewing, even though he always looked like himself. His other faces felt more comfortable, a correctness about them surely borne of familiarity. This face felt like a stranger yet, even with Karzarul wearing it. “Not if it were you, either.” Karzarul drew his wings in tighter, and she couldn’t interpret the body language yet. “You tell me when it matters,” she said. “Right?”
“Right,” Karzarul said.
“It’s different,” Minnow said. “When it’s someone you care about. Prying into things they buried. Digging it up just because I want to see it. If we get a better reason, then I’ll ask. If he buried something we need.”
Karzarul ran a hand over her hair.
Minnow looked down at the Starsword and gripped the hilt. “I still don’t know what Elias would have seen here that I don’t.” What little she knew of Elias was all wrapped up in her house and her neighbors. Her impression was that he would have hated what he’d become, in becoming her. Her impression was that he hated a lot of things. He’d had a lot of strong opinions about the heights of fences and the colors of houses. Minnow headed for one of the stone doors to an interior room, her footsteps echoing.
“Elias was a zealot,” Karzarul said. “He claimed to serve in the Light of the Sun.”
It was as difficult to imagine as caring about the heights of fences. She peered into a room, the contents newer than the structure. The wooden shelves were rotting, a mildew smell permeating the scrolls and books she’d once left behind. “Was I happy?” Minnow asked.
“No,” Karzarul said, having followed her along with Leonas. He did not hesitate. Minnow wondered how long they had known each other before Elias had killed him. She was glad not to remember.
“Maybe that was it,” Minnow said. “I didn’t want to be what I was. I wanted to see this before it was too late. Force me to fight an enemy that was Hers. Abominations She’d made.” She wished it were easier to pretend to be her past selves. It would make it easier to follow her own logic.
“It is possible,” Leonas said carefully, “that Elias overestimated your emotional response to a temple built to animate the corpses of dead children.”
She frowned, looking back to the door that lead to the altar. “Do you think it bothered him that much?” she asked. She poked at a scroll, which started to fall apart.
“Don’t touch that,” Leonas scolded automatically. “If not the children, then certainly the temple,” Leonas said. “But yes. Most people would be very bothered. By Undead children.”
“I’m not unbothered,” Minnow said. “I’d seen it before, that was all.”
“Most haven’t,” Leonas said.
“I hadn’t,” Karzarul confirmed. “I had heard it was possible, but those stories were of warriors. Battles. Not this.”
“Are there so many of these Lost near the Faewild?” Leonas asked.
“Their very nature suggests there cannot be few,” Karzarul reminded him.
“I was in the Faewild a long time,” Minnow said. “There are a lot of unwanted children. There aren’t many children who don’t want.” She hadn’t thought this would be something that needed explaining. It felt like an underlying fact of the universe, like the sky being blue.
“Is that what the Faewild did to you?” Leonas asked. “Made you not want?”
Minnow rubbed at her nose. “Maybe I explained it wrong,” she said. She didn’t like the implication when he said that, in that way. “It isn’t like everyone starts out the same. They’re still people. Children are. They’re just guys, but little. Not everyone’s suited to the Faewild. They want to have the life they had before, or the life they thought they’d have when they grew up. They want the families that didn’t want them, they want to prove they’re worth wanting. It isn’t that changelings don’t want anything. It’s only that the Faewild has all the things we want.”
“Some of them must have made it,” she continued. “There are too many stories about brave kids making their way home. One parent who didn’t want them, and the other one did. Not everyone who left was Lost. It didn’t have to be everyone to be a lot.”
“Every fairy was once a child with old eyes,” Leonas murmured.
“Yeah,” she said. “They’re the ones that… it isn’t the same as the ones who want to grow. It’s more like it’s a habit, taking care of the ones that the grown-ups won’t. The Faewild gets under their skin, and tells them they can make things right. It’s important to be fair, to follow the rules, to say what you mean, to thank the ones that help you. Not everyone fairy-touched can be a changeling, and not every changeling can be a fairy.” She mulled it over. “Some of us were never going to be good at being human,” she decided. “The too-human ones, they’re the ones that were Lost.” She frowned. “Died,” she corrected.
“In Astielle,” Leonas said, “children are meant to be precious. Real children, the ones that don’t have a soul eternal. They’re supposed to be protected, kept away from terrible things.”
“Do Astians know that?” Minnow asked.
“I’m not naïve,” Leonas said. “I only mean… Elias couldn’t have known you’d be a changeling. If he served Astielle, he may have thought you’d be Astian also. Made Astian, if you weren’t born it. That you would find this as shocking as he did, if you believed the things he did.” Leonas gestured back toward the altar. “What does it mean to serve in the Light of the Sun,” Leonas asked, “if the Light of the Sun does that?”
Minnow pulled a book from the shelf, and its binding fell apart as soon as she opened it. “Is this Old Astian?” she asked. Leonas came closer to get a better look.
“Looks like,” he confirmed over her shoulder. Karzarul looked over her other shoulder.
“Do you recognize it?” she asked Karzarul.
“Yes,” he said. “If she understands it, so do I. I do not know which Hero would have spoken it, or when. There were many times I was not told which language I was speaking.”
“Is that how it works?” Leonas asked.
“It’s how I work,” Karzarul said. “She is the one who spoke to me. She is the one I understand. No Goddess bound me to her; I bound myself from the first.”
“Astian is said to have descended from Aekhite,” Leonas said, changing the subject. “That would put Old Astian somewhere between the two.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Karzarul said immediately. “This doesn’t look anything like Aekhite. Aekhite symbols are rounder, more delicate, spaces for modifiers for vowel hierarchy. Aekhite is always written right to left, top to bottom, regardless of context.” Karzarul pointed to the page that Minnow was holding open. “This one already has the paracoronis and the directional interpunct you use, and it’s more geometric than the letters you use now, not less.”
“You’re an expert now?” Leonas asked, incredulous.
“I read,” Karzarul said defensively.
“Orthography does not follow naturally from reading,” Leonas said.
“It’s self-evident,” Karzarul said.
“It is not,” Leonas said.
“Look,” Karzarul said, pulling one of the tablets out of his bag. He took one look at it, then put it back and dug around for one that didn’t only name animals. “They’re different, but some of the letters are the same. Different sections are separated into blocks, but you can see how a block could be reduced to a paracoronis at the beginning and end. If this vertical section is clarifying or expanding on the horizontal sections, that would be another similarity Aekhite doesn’t have.”
Leonas snatched the tablet out of Karzarul’s hand to inspect it, and Karzarul let him. “Shit,” Leonas said. “Now that you’ve said it I can—not read it, exactly, but I’ve studied enough Old Astian that it’s almost familiar.” He held the tablet so that Minnow could see its surface. “Do you see it?”
Minnow shook her head. “I don’t look at letters,” she explained. “I just read it.”
Leonas sighed deeply, handing the tablet back to Karzarul without a word. “What does this say?” he asked, pointing to a segment of the open page.
“Takink these kompounds tokeder, kofer with klear wine and let stand sefen days,” she read.
Leonas used his hands to cover all but a single letter of the sentence. “Which sound does that make?” he asked.
“I can’t read it like that,” she said.
“Okay,” Leonas said, throwing up his hands. “Sure. Why not. Why should your ability to read be the thing that makes any fucking sense.”
“How long ago did Old Astian get used?” she asked.
Leonas rubbed his forehead. “That looks like late era, anywhere from five to eight hundred years ago.”
“If this writing is the newer version of the writing on those tablets, that means it’s the same people,” Minnow said. “This temple is older than Karzarul, and this book might only be five hundred. That’s thousands of years they kept using this place, with the Undead trapped beneath them.” She set the broken book down on a dusty shelf. “If the King is an Imperial, he thinks that Astielle is descended from the refugees of the Aekhite Empire. But this looks like Astielle came from here. It didn’t start at your blessing, it started at theirs.”
“It could be both,” Leonas said wearily. “There isn’t anything to say the two groups didn’t merge.”
“Do you believe that?” Minnow asked.
“No,” Leonas said. “I would like to be able to pretend that the driving forces in my life had some basis in plausibility. As opposed to being completely, obviously pointless and stupid in every possible respect.”
“Okay,” Minnow said. “So you know you’re not descended from yourself.”
“I know,” Leonas said.
“No one is,” Karzarul said. “Nothing breeds that lives forever.”
Leonas went very still. “Needle was said to have many children,” he said carefully.
“So did Lynette,” Karzarul said. “They were born of her consorts. Blood was not such a concern then as it seems to be now.”
“Ah,” Leonas said.
“Karzarul,” Minnow warned, wiping her hands off on her hips.
“What?” Karzarul said.
“I am going outside,” Leonas announced. “If anyone follows me, or tries to speak to me before I’ve come back of my own volition, I will stab them.”
“Okay,” Minnow said. She nudged Karzarul with her elbow.
“Fine,” Karzarul lied.
Leonas swept out of the room, though his lack of cape or long coat made it less sweeping than it could have been. Minnow made a mental note to find him one.
“Why is it fine?” Karzarul asked Minnow. As a Savagewing, his height was closer to hers, which if nothing else made quiet conversations easier.
“He needs to go scream for a while,” she said.
“That doesn’t sound fine,” Karzarul said.
“He doesn’t like to be seen upset,” she said. “Or heard. If he doesn’t want to talk yet, he’ll shut down if you try. He wouldn’t actually stab us, he only said that because I said it before.”
“Okay,” Karzarul said. Minnow sighed, turning to rest her head against his chest. Karzarul wrapped all four of his arms loose around her, tighter around her waist.
“The King would send him women,” Minnow said, “because he wanted to continue the line of succession.”
“Right,” Karzarul said. “… by blood, you mean.”
“Yeah,” Minnow sighed. “I’m sure Leonas knew all along he didn’t have the blood of the Empress. But knowing he was never even going to have a regular kid anyway is different. Like he said before. About it being stupid. Did we not mention it before?”
“You’ve talked around it,” Karzarul said. “Bad dates. I had the vague idea that his father had pushed him to select politically-advantageous consorts, and he’d refused.”
“They don’t do consorts,” Minnow said. “They choose their heirs by blood alone.”
“That’s stupid,” Karzarul said.
“Yeah,” Minnow said. “I don’t know how much it was ever really about that, though. Over a decade and still trying. If it had worked early on, then Leonas would have a child old enough to be a father already. That could make it possible to kill him and try to get another Sunlight Heir, if Leonas didn’t work out. I don’t know for certain that was what he wanted, but I have a feeling. It’s been too late for that for a long time, though. I think the King would have stopped letting him see anyone at all, except that loneliness can drive men mad and desperate. He could have company, but only the right company. Responsibilities instead of anything real.”
There was a loud crack of stone as one of the walls broke open, a rapidly growing branch forcing its way through.
“That seems bad,” Karzarul said.
“Give him a minute,” Minnow said. She looked up and realized Karzarul’s wings had an arch to them, his feathers fluffy. “Let him try to handle it himself.”
Karzarul kept watching the branch and its blooming leaves, and in the distance they could hear the creak of wood, the thumping of broken stone, the shattering of glass. After a moment the noises slowed, then stopped.
“See?” Minnow said. “He’s okay. He’s having a moment, that’s all.”
“Okay,” Karzarul said, though the lay of his feathers didn’t flatten completely.
“You said you’ve always scattered the bones of the dead,” Minnow said, “but they don’t do that in Astielle. Not anymore.”
“The Sun Temple held that it was sacrilege to dismember a body,” Karzarul said. “They got around it by letting Moon Cultists do it instead.”
“I’ve never met a Moon Cultist,” Minnow said.
“Neither have I,” Karzarul said. “They kept to themselves.”
“I didn’t even know it was a thing someone could be,” Minnow said. “If they took care of corpses, would they know what to do with the Undead? I know once they’re Undead, it’s too late to cut them to bits.”
“If magic or Moon Cultists could get rid of the Undead,” Karzarul said, “they would not have been down there.”
The thought nagged at her, but not in any way she could verbalize. Walking corpses and Moon worship as treason. Skulls with marbles for eyes, jibbering in eternal darkness.
“We should find the Moon Cultists,” Minnow decided.
“Okay,” Karzarul said.
“Not now,” she added. “Later.” She nuzzled at his shirt, let her eyelids press against the fabric. “Right now I want somewhere dark.”
Karzarul stroked her hair, and his feathers rustled as his wings curled around her to block her in.