Minnow answered her Seeing Stone, but only because Leonas was being persistent. When he only wanted to pester, he gave up much sooner.
“It’s an emergency,” he said before she could speak. “What are you wearing.” He looked a terrible sight even through the poor vision of the stone. There were deep hollows under his eyes, and she could barely see his witchmarks.
“I bought a new dress,” she said.
“Buy a better one next time,” he said.
“What’s the emergency?” she said.
“The Old Man’s Tea, I’m almost out of it.”
On the very top of Old Man’s Mountain to the north, there lived an old man whose only name was Old Man. It was unclear if he’d been the same Old Man for long enough to have a mountain named after him, or if he appointed new Old Men when the time came. He made a special tea from the herbs on his mountain, impossible to find anywhere else. It was also practically impossible to get to, except that Minnow had reactivated a Rainbow Door hidden in a nearby crystal cave.
Since none of Castle Astielle’s servants could use a Rainbow Door, that made Minnow his only source.
“It’ll have to wait,” she said. “I’m at the ruins at Magdedyne, I need to check it for monsters and see if there are any clues about Karzarul.”
This had been her standard excuse for what was almost decades now. She had stopped expecting to find Karzarul after the first few years. She’d started to wonder if he’d ever come back, if he would wait until she was old and tired.
Ari said he was back now, but she still doubted she’d find any sign of him here.
“Oh, him—he’s awake. Alive. I don’t know that he’s awake, he was dreaming when I saw him.”
“You saw him?” she asked, startled. “What did he look like?”
“Ugly,” he said. Riding ahead of her, Ari huffed. “Awful to look at. Angry. Definitely wants me dead. You should kill him soon, but I know you won’t listen. You already took too long to find his lair. It could be that he’s been alive this whole time, getting stronger. I’ve said this would happen for years, but you just kept picking flowers, or whatever it is you do.”
She stuck her tongue out at the stone.
“Don’t start,” he warned. “Try not to take too long, I don’t think this tea is going to last more than a week. Pick up the stone next time it chimes, if Karzarul tries to murder me you’ll be the first to know. Unless you ignore me again, and six months from now you show up all surprised that the King of All Monsters has turned Astielle into his new Moonlight Kingdom. I’ll be strung up on a parapet so passing monsters can hit me with sticks. It will be nice to get out of the castle, at least, I have that to look forward to.”
“I’ll see if I can find a lost Rainbow Door in these ruins,” she said. They looked like those kinds of ruins. “If there is then I’ll try to bring you some tea and come back.”
“Thank you,” he said, and the connection snapped, no image on her stone or sound passing through it.
“He seems to have his priorities in order,” Ari said.
“Did you know?” she asked.
“That your king had visited the Heir,” she said. “He’s your king, right?”
“I suppose,” he said. He wasn’t looking at her. She didn’t care for that at all. What was he doing, that he thought he was doing wrong? That was usually why men didn’t want to look at her when they spoke.
“Have you been keeping in touch with him?” she pressed.
“When would I do that?” he asked rather than answer.
“I always fall asleep before you do,” she said. “And when I wake up, you’re awake. I don’t know what you do at night.”
“I sleep,” he said.
“Leonas said that Karzarul was dreaming,” he said. “Can he talk to you in dreams?”
“If you don’t trust me,” he said, “we can part ways.”
“It isn’t that,” she said. “I understand if you’re loyal. I can be loyal, too.”
“He is not your prince,” Ari said. “Astielle is not your kingdom. The Hero need be loyal to no one.”
She wasn’t sure why he felt so strongly about it. Unless he was hoping her loyalties would change.
“I’m not just the Starlight Hero,” she said. It sounded more petulant out loud. “I’m Minnow. I like him. And I like you. If he gets hurt because you know about him, when he doesn’t know about you, that isn’t fair.”
Ari said nothing.
“I’m still not going to tell him,” she said. “If you’re worried.”
“I’m not,” he said.
Magdedyne had been a great trading center, once. Nothing in particular had come along to destroy it, only alternate routes and a lack of demand. There were still small villages and farms, stables and shops. There had been a fort, and then a port, and then… nothing. Everyone had left the great stone structure, moved away as it became too expensive to maintain for no good reason. No great event or fall, only a slow inevitable decline.
Now the ruin rose out of the ocean, a single bridge leading from the coastal cliffs to the collapsing structure. Great stone bricks had fallen away, leaving holes in the bridge, the columns crumbling. Someday the whole thing would sink into the ocean. For now, monsters had claimed it for their own, gathered in what were once markets and plazas.
Minnow considered her plan of attack. Ordinarily, she would set up a camp nearby, ducking in and out of the ruin and exploring as much as she could without alerting any monsters. This also gave her a place to leave Piggy, along with any treasures she found. However, that wouldn’t work with Ari, or with her need to figure out if there was a Rainbow Door. She could send Piggy down the road to find a stable, but that would be inconvenient if she did find treasure. Leaving things to retrieve later had a high risk of forgetting where she left it, or that she’d found it at all.
She could also barrel through and kill everything she saw, allowing her to take her time exploring in the aftermath. She’d done it before. But she’d also almost died. Several times. And what if those monsters were people, like Ari?
She pulled Piggy up short near the beginning of the bridge. “I, um. Did you want to come in?”
“If you don’t mind,” Ari said.
“I might have to fight monsters,” she said.
“I assumed as much,” he said.
“If you’re coming in then maybe I could—I don’t think this is safe for Piggy.”
“Sending her to a stable means I won’t have my things,” she said.
“Would you like me to carry them?” he asked, and she felt inconsiderate for implying he was a beast of burden.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I can carry my pack, it’s just. If there’s more. Maybe. I might need help. Only until I can—if there’s a Rainbow Door, I can take it home.”
“I don’t mind,” he said.
She dismounted from Piggy, and pulled her dress off over her head. As tempting as it was to wear it to spite Leonas, it wouldn’t be practical for fighting. She changed into a tunic and leggings she had on hand, shoving the dress into the space where they’d been. Then she reconfigured her primary saddlebag so that she could wear it like a backpack. With all that done, she gave Piggy a smack on the back to set her trotting down the road.
“You’re sure you want to walk?” he asked her. She looked up at his back, and a blush crept over her. The concept of riding a person had not become less problematic.
“I’m sure,” she said, giving a wide berth to a hole in the bridge, braiding her hair behind her while she walked.
“You might not have a choice,” he said, gesturing ahead. She shaded her eyes, but without his height, she couldn’t see as far. She rose up on her toes, but it didn’t help. She bit her lip, and wondered if she ought to ask. Instead she waited, and once they’d walked further, the problem became obvious.
There was a gap in the bridge far too long for her to jump. She chewed at her thumbnail, considering the terrain. There were no mountains or cliffs close enough to glide over it, nothing on their side of the bridge built taller than the other. She stepped closer and then back as a brick came loose and fell to the water below.
“If you throw me upward, I could glide?” she suggested.
“C’mon,” he said, offering his hand down toward her. “Hop up, I’ll take you.”
She sputtered. “I’m—no.”
“You’re making things difficult for no reason,” he said.
“You’re not a horse,” she said. “I ride horses, not…” She trailed off, red-faced, and gestured vaguely to nothing.
“Then I can carry you,” he said.
“Being carried is weird,” she said, kicking a stone down into the water. “How would you feel, if someone carried you?”
She stuck her fingers in her hair and scratched at her scalp in frustration, pulling hair loose from her braid. It was hard to explain that she liked it, that it was bad that she liked it. Boundaries were something she struggled with, and she spent too much time away from people to have practice. After all this time she knew just enough to know that it was a problem. She could usually manage, if she could remember about personal space. As soon as anyone came too close, it all flew out the window.
“Personal space,” she said, hoping that would mean something.
He stared at her. “Personal space,” he repeated.
“Right,” she said.
He looked like he was going to say something, but stopped himself. He rubbed at his beard. “Do fairies have personal space?” he asked finally.
She scuffed the ground with her heel. “I’m not a fairy,” she said.
He nodded. “Monsters don’t have personal space,” he said.
“Do they not? They always seem to want a lot of space. Without me in it.”
“Friends are different,” he said. “With friends, we don’t have personal space.”
“Oh.” She wrung her hands together.
Was that the problem? Were humans the same way? What did a regular human person consider a friend? She must have had friends, before. This must have been something she’d known. The rules could have changed since then. Or else the Starlight Hero was always like this. Wandering around stabbing and biting people until they stabbed Karzarul and made all the trouble for everyone worth it.
No one ever mentioned Elias biting people.
“Are we friends?” Ari asked.
“I think so,” she said, shuffling a little closer. It was enough that he could pick her up, holding her against him the way he’d done before. She pressed her ear to his chest again, holding her limbs close to herself so they wouldn’t wander.
Boundaries. No grabbing, or scratching, or biting. Be carried the way a civilized person would be carried. She watched the landscape as he trotted further down the bridge to get a running start, then looked up at him. She wound up looking at his neck, so she thought she’d better not look.
He started to run, holding her closer, and she gripped his tunic to have something to do. He pushed himself off with his back legs, launching himself into the air, and she couldn’t help looking down into the chasm beneath them. It was a long, long drop into the water.
She squealed, and tried not to kick her feet with glee.
He landed hard, continuing his gallop before slowing to a trot and then stopping.
“Fun?” he asked.
“Yes, very much,” she said.
There was a Sun Shrine at the far end of the ruins, and in it, a lost Rainbow Door.
There was also a Tauril.
It wasn’t as big as Ari. It was a shade of dark blue like the nighttime, also less impressive than Ari’s pure white. It wore battered metal armor over its shoulders, but its chest was bare.
Minnow felt a bit awkward about it, watching it from high above on the Sun Shrine’s roof.
Ari was standing right beside her. She hadn’t thought he’d be able to get up high like this, since no Tauril had ever chased her off the ground. But he’d managed it, enormous hooves surprisingly nimble. Like a goat. A large goat, which was also a cow. And a man. And some kind of cat? The fangs and ears and claws seemed like some kind of cat. She didn’t know any cats with little ear tufts like Ari’s. Then again, it felt offensive to treat a Tauril as a collection of other animal parts, rather than a whole monster with all his own parts. Maybe cows had Tauril horns, actually.
“What?” Ari asked, because she was staring at him.
“I was thinking,” she said. She didn’t mention what. “Do you think he’s like you?” she asked.
He shook his head.
None of the monsters had been what Ari called ‘old monsters’. He would step on a Bruteling, and they would dissolve into dust. She wasn’t sure how he did it. She was glad not to have to deal with the gore. Nothing ever turned into dust when she stabbed it. Just bled, and stank.
“Should I kill it?” she asked.
She considered what it would be like for him to watch her kill a Tauril. “Right.”
To her surprise, he took his longbow off his back. She’d never seen him use it. She’d seen other Taurils use theirs, but never him. There hadn’t been much opportunity. It wasn’t much use for catching crabs, or fishing.
He took an arrow out of his quiver, and she inched away. Being anywhere near that bow being drawn was uncomfortable. It felt like it could snap and bring the building down. It also seemed, glinting in the light that filtered through the broken roof, like it glowed.
He released it, and the Tauril beneath them was gone.
She blinked. She scooted closer to the hole in the roof, half hanging through it.
It was gone.
She sat up, and inched further away from Ari.
“It only does that for monsters,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, not at all reassured. “Can other Taurils do that?”
“… I’m old.”
A lost Rainbow Door looked like an ornate doorway into nothing, inlaid all around in copper and silver and gold in the intricate patterns of spellwork. Passerby sometimes tried to scratch away the metals, but it never worked. A Rainbow Door, even a lost one, could never break. Sometimes she found them in fields, nothing but a wall and a doorway standing out in the open with nothing around it.
It had a spot like a keyhole beside it, another solid piece of stone. There wasn’t a hole in it, but when she lined up the Starsword just-so with the pattern, she could push it inside until the blade disappeared. She had to lean hard to get the leverage to turn it, and when it clicked there was a bright flash of light and a sound like thunder.
When she pulled the Starsword away, the wall was an opaque ripple of light in all colors.
“Shit,” she said, sheathing the sword.
“Was it not supposed to do that?”
“It was,” she said. “But I hadn’t thought this part through. We’ll have to split up, but you can’t just wait here for when I get back. If you leave I don’t know where we’ll meet back up again. Or when.”
“I can entertain myself,” he said. “There’s a forest between here and the stable where you sent Piggy. I can camp there.”
She fidgeted. “If you’re sure,” she said “If you leave, I’ll understand. Leave a note, if something happens.”
“I will,” he said. Then he leaned down, and patted the top of her head.
She rose up onto her toes, and then pretended she hadn’t.
Minnow had forgotten to dress for a mountaintop blizzard. She usually did. That was the biggest problem with Rainbow Doors. Fortunately there were still Flutterfires at the bottom of her bag, dried out wings crushed from poor handling. She shoved them into her mouth and managed not to gag, choking them down with a handful of snow. Warmth spread from her throat to her fingertips and down to her toes, and her skin turned numb.
The Old Man’s cabin was at the very top of The Old Man’s Mountain. There was always a blizzard, regardless of the time of year. There was always smoke in his chimney and lights through his window, regardless of the time of night. When she opened the door, which was never locked, he was always sitting by the fire with a cup of tea.
“Hello,” she said, pressing her palms together in front of her.
“Forgot to dress for the weather again?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” she said, rubbing snow off her boots on his welcome mat. “May I buy a jar of your special tea?” she asked. “I have…” She tried to remember what in her bag might have objective value. “A necklace?”
“I can’t take that,” he said, without malice. “You’re going to need it.”
“It’s not so long ago that you were here before,” he said. “Gone through all that already?”
“The Prince likes it a lot,” she said.
“The Prince should get some sleep,” the Old Man said. “You can tell him I said so. Those herbs will only work so long. A body needs sleep, eventually.”
“Oh,” she sighed, sagging a little.
“I’ll still sell you a jar,” he said.
“Oh!” she said, perking up. “Good, that’s good.”
“I’ll take a seashell,” he said. “The kind with a spiral on it.”
She had to set her bag down on his floor to dig through it, slowly emptying the things she’d collected onto the hardwood. He never seemed to mind. Just rocked in his chair, and sipped his tea, listening to the crackling fire. When she found a seashell with a spiral, like he’d asked, she held it up in triumph.
“Bring it here, now,” he said, and she left all her things on the floor to bring it to him. “Very nice,” he said, holding it up to admire it. It glinted green in the firelight. He set it on his tongue, and swallowed it whole.
“Good?” she asked.
“Exactly what I wanted,” he said, nodding his head. “You get yourself a jar out of the kitchen, little fish.”
He kept the jars in rows and rows, a whole wall of nothing but jars. The ceiling was covered in curing herbs, hanging down to dry. The jars weren’t quite identical, so she always took her time to pick out the one she thought would be best. She decided on one with a slim band of green around the rim, and a single purple flower petal visible against the glass.
“Friend of yours?” the Old Man asked, as she tried to arrange the jar into her bag. When she looked up, he tilted his head toward the window. She tried to make out what he was seeing in the blizzard. Unable to see anything, she got back up and went right up to the window.
She could only barely make it out, but there was a Howler out there in the distance, white as snow. She didn’t know there were Howlers out this far, or that their colors changed for the climate. She’d never seen one alone, without a pack. She looked back at the Old Man.
“The. The Howler?” He nodded. “I don’t, uh. Know him?” She’d thought Howlers were ‘its’, but they could be hims.
“Suit yourself,” the Old Man said. When Minnow looked back out the window, she couldn’t see it anymore.
She thought, thinking about it, that there was something familiar about a white Howler. Or else that was before, when she’d been someone else.
Karzarul dreamt of a man with copper curls.
This time, Leonas sat in the nothingness, and shut his eyes without speaking.
“Are you ignoring me?” Karzarul asked, settling into a Shadestalker again.
“Release me,” Leonas said, his eyes still shut.
“I did not bring you here,” Karzarul said, circling the prince, “and I am not keeping you.”
Though he had to admit this was strange. This had never happened by accident before, not with an enemy. He had assumed the witch prince had sought him out deliberately, but now he wondered.
He supposed he had been thinking of the Heir that first time, in an abstract way. Only because he’d been angry, thinking of Minnow as someone else’s experiment. And he supposed he had been thinking of the Heir this time, in a more concrete way. Only because he was angry, thinking of Minnow’s loyalty, running errands like a servant.
Karzarul was the Moonlight Monster, and Leonas was the Sunlight Heir. If the Monster wanted to fall asleep thinking about how the Heir should die, that was his perogative.
But they wouldn’t be here unless the Heir was thinking of him, too. Intently, at that, while his dreamself was out in the world. He must have been trying to find him.
“How do I leave?” Leonas asked.
“I could kill you,” Karzarul suggested, and Leonas fell silent. Karzarul walked away, leaving him where he sat, stretching out his paws and lying down in the nothing. He thought of sand, and spread it outward into a beach. Clear skies and clear waters, but he set a memory of the moon high and bright in the sky.
Who needed the sun, anyway.
He drew another memory out, and he set her in the water. It wasn’t exactly correct; it had been daylight, and her dress hadn’t been that small. Memory was an imperfect thing. It was close enough, the green streak in her hair and the water on her thighs. He watched her splash and hunt for seashells, and remembered, and felt pleased with the dream he’d made.
He glanced over, and saw the Heir had opened his eyes.
“Have you been watching her?” Leonas asked.
“I watch many things,” Karzarul said. The dream-construct of Minnow didn’t notice them at all. Karzarul wanted to remember her giggling, so she giggled, rubbing a seashell with her thumbs.
“This isn’t real,” Leonas said. “You think this is going to upset me. It won’t work.” But he was still watching her, Karzarul’s memory of a girl.
“Has she taken you to the beach?” Karzarul asked.
Leonas said nothing. Karzarul watched his memory, and was careful not to imagine more. What she had been was enough. It wouldn’t be fair to her to ask more. Not on purpose. Not with an audience.
“You can’t have her,” Leonas said abruptly.
“I don’t see why not,” Karzarul lied.
“I’ve invested too much in her,” Leonas said, straightening his back and raising his chin. Defiance, of a type. “She should be mine, if she’s anyone’s.”
“You’re not the first Heir to think so,” Karzarul said.
“And how many of them were right?” Leonas asked. “They killed you, didn’t they? Is this your new strategy? Pretending you’ll steal her with make-believe dreams? It won’t work. I haven’t lied to her. She knows what she is.”
Karzarul stood, and the memory of Minnow disappeared from the water. He stalked closer to the Heir, but to his surprise, he vanished before he could kill him.
He could leave on his own, after all.
Karzarul settled back into the sand, and the dream-construct settled down beside him, pointing out the constellations in his memory of the sky.