Karzarul had to take the form of a Rootboar again as the road passed close to a stable and inn. It sat at an intersection that led to three different small villages, and saw a lot of traffic as a consequence. It still felt like an unusually large number of travelers to be passing through.
“Is there a festival?” Minnow called down to a small child running along the road.
“There’s a bard visiting!” the boy called back up. Minnow gasped. Leonas groaned.
“Please tell me it’s not Kavid,” he muttered, rubbing at his eyebrows.
“Is it Kavid?” Minnow asked, leaning half out of the wagon.
“It is I!” Kavid said, bursting forth from the door to the inn, his arms aloft. “Who asks for me?”
Minnow shrieked and leapt down from the wagon, leaving Leonas scrambling to grab the reins and bring the wagon to a stop.
“Starlight!” Kavid greeted as Minnow pounced on him, and he pivoted to sweep Minnow sideways into a dramatic kiss.
“What the fuck am I looking at,” Karzarul asked in a low voice, nearly startling Leonas out of the wagon. Karzarul still looked, for all intents and purposes, like a round and angry little monster.
“I give you the Legendary Travelling Bard, Kavid,” Leonas sighed with a half-assed flourish in the man’s direction. “He writes his own legends, which is convenient for him. Minnow is… a fan.”
Kavid had, it could not be denied, an aesthetic. A cape that looked like orange butterfly’s wings, wings on his boots and paper butterflies in his hair. There was a wing painted over his right eye.
He stood back up and let Minnow go, and she stumbled a little. Her toes pointed inward, her knees wobbly, a goofy grin on her face. “Hi,” she said, half-giggling, pulling her braid over her shoulder and trying to smooth it out.
“What,” Karzarul said.
“It’s bad,” Leonas agreed. “It’s, the worst.”
“She can’t like that,” Karzarul said.
“She clearly does,” Leonas said.
Karzarul said nothing as Leonas worked on finding parking for their wagon. He had to dig through one of Minnow’s bags to find the gold to pay for it.
“Put me in your pocket,” Karzarul said as soon as the horses had been taken.
“What?” Leonas turned around, and nearly screamed.
Karzarul was a Shimmerbat. His tiny body was nothing but white fluff. He looked like a dandelion gone to seed, but with wings. He had a little leaf nose again, angry little eyes, and talons the size of a sparrow’s clinging to the wagon. He’d brought his silvery wings close to his body and hooked his claws in front of him. It looked as if he was wearing a tiny cape and clasping his hands pensively.
“Where does the rest of you even go?” Leonas demanded.
“Away,” Karzarul said. Leonas had to cover his mouth. That voice coming from that body…
“The pants Minnow bought me are too tight for that,” Leonas said.
“Then bring a bag,” Karzarul said. “Otherwise I’ll fly after her on my own.”
Leonas found a bandage he could use to wrap around his right hand and cover his sun symbol. He debated leaving his flower crown with the wagon, but decided to keep it. It didn’t look half-bad, in his estimation, and anything was better than looking like he didn’t know how to accessorize. It hadn’t occurred to him before, how strange it felt to be seen with nothing on his forehead. His forehead, it turned out, was fucking enormous. Absolutely nightmareish. Enough time like this and he’d be giving in to the dark temptation of bangs.
Leonas tried not to think about Moonlight Monster King Karzarul hunkering down in his fucking purse. He put on his best ‘pleasantly neutral’ face, and ventured forth toward the inn to try and figure out where the hell Minnow had gotten to.
He didn’t make it far before someone stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Are you here to see Kavid?” she asked him, blonde and breathless and rosy-cheeked.
“My friend is,” he said. “I only came along to be supportive.”
“Oh, my friends wandered off too,” she said. “Maybe it was meant to be, like it was written in the stars that we were supposed to hang out today.”
“I can think of nothing I’d like more,” he lied. “Unfortunately, if I don’t find my friend soon, I fear I’ll find her later with a bucket on her head—you know how it is.”
“Fran,” a black-haired woman said, grabbing the blonde by the shoulder. “Seriously, girl, leave him alone, you’re not his type.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Leonas protested mildly. He didn’t want to seem rude. He wasn’t even sure if he had a type, let alone one that could be identified on sight.
“You’re fine, honey,” the black-haired woman said, waving him off as she dragged away her friend. “She does this all the time, she’s from the country.”
“Okay,” Leonas said as they retreated. “Great.” He scanned the people milling about outside the inn, wandering through the field, looking for a distinctive streak of green hair. He had not considered the challenge posed by her height. She could have been standing behind just about anyone.
There was a man here with witchmarks on his face, bird-shaped and black as the night sky. Leonas accidentally made eye contact. The witch grinned and waved. Leonas gave a polite nod. The witch started to make his way over.
“How’d you get your marks to look like that?” the witch asked, gesturing under his eyes.
“It’s genetic,” Leonas lied.
“That’s cool, man,” the witch said. “I’m Harv,” he introduced, loosely bumping the heels of his palms against each other in front of his chest.
“Leonas,” he said, pressing his palms together against his sternum. Harv grinned again.
“Like the Prince?” he asked.
“You’re from one of those old witch families, right?” Harv asked.
“Something like that,” Leonas conceded. Harv ran his fingers through chestnut curls, and Leonas’ eyes lingered on his wrist. Harv followed his gaze to the small, perfectly round bruise.
“There’s a guy down in Crickshire,” Harv explained with a hook of his thumb, “that pays pretty good if you let him make a spell bottle. The little ones, you know?” Harv held his fingers up to demonstrate the size of a vial. “For folks who wanna breathe fire or summon bees, or whatever people want magic for.” He shrugged. “You’re not supposed to go in the same spot every time, but I think it looks cool.”
“Right,” Leonas said.
“Obviously you’re not hard up for cash, but some of us make do,” Harv said.
“I wasn’t judging,” Leonas said.
“Sure you weren’t,” Harv said, pulling a metal case out of his pocket. “You smoke?” he asked, offering.
“No, thank you,” Leonas said.
“You drink?” Harv asked.
“Often,” Leonas said.
“You want to?” Harv asked.
“To—oh.” Leonas blinked. He looked Harv over again, and Harv let him, hooking his thumbs in his pockets. The black leather armor did have a certain—
Karzarul was still in his bag, listening to this entire conversation. Leonas gripped the strap of his bag tighter when he realized.
“I really would like to,” Leonas rushed to assure him, though he could feel his face warming. “Unfortunately I do very much need to find my friend, and I’m afraid that would take more time than I have at the moment.”
“Yeah, okay,” Harv said. He leaned a little closer. “I think you might be overestimating how long it’d take you to finish,” he said in a low voice, winking. “I’m very good.”
That brought Leonas up short. He felt a bristle of indignation. He hooked his fingers in the neck of Harv’s armor before he could stop himself, pulling him closer. “I think you might be overestimating how quickly I would let you,” he countered. “I’m better.”
He turned on his heel, walking away before he could think about how stupid that must have sounded.
Leonas had never realized how much he counted on being Prince of Astielle to keep people from trying to have a conversation. Having to talk to people as the Prince was bad enough, but at least there was a script for it. People had to be polite, and wait until they were alone to start making implications about his sexual prowess.
He looked for a crowd, under the assumption that people would gather wherever Kavid was. Where Kavid was, he would likely find Minnow. Leonas checked inside his bag to make sure that Karzarul hadn’t slipped away. The Shimmerbat glowered up at him. He closed the bag again.
Kavid brought a coterie of drummers with him to accompany his lyre. Whatever he was singing wasn’t half bad, except that it seemed to be about how he’d saved a small village from an enormous Howler that was secretly Karzarul himself. As Leonas recalled, it was a regular Howler, and Minnow had killed it. This was not impeding Minnow’s enjoyment, and she had thus far coaxed several people to join her in dancing. She leapt on Leonas as soon as she saw him, grabbing him by the hands.
“I finally get to dance with you!” she said.
“This isn’t the kind of dancing I do,” he apologized.
“It’s okay!” she assured him, pulling him along. “It’s the good kind, there aren’t any steps!”
“Yes, that’s the problem,” he said. Leonas lacked any instinctive understanding of where a person was meant to be putting their feet.
“Here,” she said, spinning him in a circle before he could stop her, pulling him close and wrapping an arm around his waist. She practically galloped across the grass with him, and he struggled to follow her lead. It became easier when he gave up on trying to feel whatever it was she was feeling, and just mirrored whatever she was doing instead.
He stopped when he felt scales sliding underneath his shirt, along his bare skin.
“Is everything okay?” Minnow asked, alarmed.
Leonas grabbed her by the hand and pulled her closer. “Take him,” he said through gritted teeth. The body of a Slitherskin moved across his chest, down his arm to where their hands met to disappear up her sleeve instead. Her eyes widened.
“Oh!” she said as white scales disappeared under her clothes. Karzarul’s jeweled head appeared beside her neck, mostly obscured by her hair. He darted his tongues at Leonas. “That’s so smart,” Minnow said, leading Leonas to start moving again. “Now we all get to dance together!”
“I don’t think that counts as dancing,” Leonas said, since Karzarul was wrapped around Minnow’s torso and not moving of his own volition.
“It does,” Minnow insisted, pulling Leonas close for a sudden spin. The song changed to something with stronger percussion, and Minnow tossed her hair, light on her toes. He could practically see her biting her tongue not to sing along. “I can feel it,” she said. “He’s dancing.”
He looked like a regular monster snake, to Leonas. He wasn’t going to ask exactly what it felt like, because he didn’t think he’d like the answer. He also didn’t like thinking about an Impyr wearing a fluttery skirt, covered in bells.
It was for the best that Karzarul had to hide, couldn’t take Leonas’ place this time dancing with Minnow in earnest.
Leonas would try to enjoy it for now. If not the music and the action itself, then getting to watch Minnow, her hair all loose and stars in her eyes. That was one big advantage over royal balls and birthday parties. And unlike those, he could look forward to when it was over. When they could leave, and make camp somewhere quiet. When he could tie up his hair, and wash his face, and curl up in a bedroll that for all its flaws was his own.
When there might be nightmares, but there might instead be a willow tree.
Adventuring wasn’t so terrible, if it could just be this.
“Thank you so much for all your help.”
Karzarul wasn’t listening to the usual offerings of thanks and praise. They’d been asked to help with a bandit problem, and so they had. He’d used his Howler form, for the most part. With large groups of enemies and only one Starlight Hero, there was always the risk that a Tauril might trample the wrong person. How well the fight would have gone without him, he could not say. But if anyone thanked him—if anyone tolerated him—it was only if they could bring themselves to think of him as assisting the Starlight Hero.
He didn’t mind it, though. This was always all he’d wanted.
“Ari, man, pull me up!”
Karzarul reached down to take Jonys by the hand, giving him leverage to pull himself up onto Karzarul’s back. He rode there often enough that he’d started to get a little bowlegged.
“Guess who just got paid,” Jonys said, drumming a quick beat onto Karzarul’s lower set of shoulderblades. Jonys enjoyed putting a weird, intense emphasis on certain words for no apparent reason. His bracers were covered in hazelquartz seeds that rattled when he moved, and he’d tied more of them to his bootlaces.
“Were you paid in money this time,” Karzarul asked, starting to walk, “or fish?”
“What are fish,” Jonys said philosophically, “if not the money of the water?”
“We’re on land,” Karzarul reminded him. “Money is the money of the land. I don’t think you can buy new pants with fish.”
“Aw, and I definitely need new pants, too,” Jonys said, rubbing his nose. “The ladies do not love this pants situation.” They were getting completely worn out again, great big holes in the knees and the thighs. It was cute, to a point, but soon the legs were going to fall off entirely. That would be cute, too, but somehow Karzarul didn’t think Jonys would approve.
“She seemed to like it,” Karzarul said, nodding his head back at the farmhouse behind them.
“Oh, she most definitely did,” Jonys said. “Her father did not. And he was standing right there. Otherwise she totally would have invited us in for dinner. Especially if you’d gone Impyr. Or Abysscale? Babe.” Jonys drummed on Karzarul’s back again. “Ladies love Abysscales.”
“I don’t think that’s universal,” Karzarul said.
“It totally is,” Jonys said. “You’re cool with fish for dinner, right?”
“I wouldn’t want to eat your water money.”
“What is money,” Jonys said, “if not what disappears when I’m hungry?”
“You’ve got me there,” Karzarul said. Jonys started to snap his fingers, drumming on himself, whistling a tune through the gap in his teeth. Karzarul couldn’t see him, but he could feel that he was dancing. As much as it could be called dancing, when sitting on a Tauril’s back. The tempo of his hoofbeats adjusted to match reflexively. “It wouldn’t kill you to sing sometimes,” Karzarul tossed back.
“I am not that kind of instrument, babe,” Jonys said, still drumming. “You wanna be on vocals, you hop in anytime.” He resumed whistling, and Karzarul snorted. When they hit an open stretch of road, Jonys upped the tempo until Karzarul had to gallop to keep up. Not moving to the music wasn’t an option.
They made camp where the road passed close to the river, a clear space along the bank through the forest. Karzarul lit the fire, because Jonys was paranoid about lighting up the grease in his hair. Which was fair. He’d done it seven times since they’d met, and only once deliberately. Karzarul also cooked, because Jonys considered ash a variety of spice.
“Oh, right,” Jonys said, digging through his bags while Karzarul piled up blankets for the night. “I got a letter from Aimon,” he said, holding up a scrap of parchment.
“Burn it,” Karzarul said.
“No can do, my man,” Jonys said. “A Hero always pays his debts,” he said, pounding his fist against his chest once.
“He provably does not,” Karzarul said. “I can take you to bars even now that are hoping you’ll come back to pay Vaelon’s tab.”
“This Hero always pays his debts,” Jonys corrected. “Can’t break a promise, babe.”
Karzarul grumbled. “What does he want this time?”
“Nothing major,” Jonys said. “We just have to swing by real quick so I can help him test some stuff. We can find a Rainbow Door, I’ll pop in and out of it, bam, we’re back to partying. There’s a festival in Dalston in two weeks, you know we’ve gotta be there.”
“I’m pretty sure Aimon wants me dead,” Karzarul said.
“A lot of people want you dead,” Jonys said. “It’s cool! It’s all good. The misunderstandings, those are all in the past. We’re out here fixing your reputation, one adventure at a time. Soon enough we won’t be able to walk into a new town without ladies being all over us. Because of our reputations. Our sexy, not-evil reputations.”
“You don’t think the ladies will find it off-putting that you’re riding me?” Karzarul asked.
“See, okay. This is why you need to do Impyr form. Look at this.” Jonys spread his hands to gesture to Karzarul. “Who could resist this?”
“You don’t think the ladies will find it off-putting when I look like this and you’re riding me anyway?” Karzarul asked. Jonys laughed, jumping onto Karzarul’s back, arms around his shoulders and legs around his waist.
“Okay, you got me there,” Jonys said. “You got it wrong, though. Package deal, that just means BOGO, man. Everyone loves a BOGO. And when you think about it? I’m, like, four-thirds of a normal guy. You’re at least five-thirds. That’s three whole guys for the price of one. That’s a fucking steal, man.”
“Are we going to be charging these hypothetical ladies?” Karzarul asked, looking over his shoulder at Jonys.
“Course not,” Jonys said. “But they gotta buy me dinner first. I got class.”
Karzarul laughed. Jonys let go of his shoulders and fell backward so that Karzarul could swing him around his waist, pulling him up to his chest to kiss him. Jonys let his boots drop to the ground, standing on his toes with his arms draped over Karzarul. Karzarul ran his fingers over Jonys’ jaw. “You’re gorgeous,” Karzarul said.
“Damn right,” Jonys said, running his fingers through his hair to make sure it was still in place. “You tired?” he asked, hooking a finger in the neck of Karzarul’s tunic.
“Have something in mind?” Karzarul asked, taking Jonys’ hand to kiss his fingers.
“You know I love to play you, babe,” Jonys said, “but if you’d rather just hit it, we can do that too.”
Karzarul laughed and untangled himself from Jonys. “I don’t know why you ask,” Karzarul said, “like I’ve ever said no to you.”
“I gotta give you the option,” Jonys shrugged, retrieving a wooden box from the abandoned saddlebags. He pulled it up to the fire and sat down, idly drumming as Karzarul stripped down. Karzarul tossed aside his gloves first, looked at the blank skin on the back of his left hand and the crescent on his right, flexed his fingers. He took his time unfastening his tunic while Jonys found his rhythm, rolled his hips all the way up to his shoulders to shrug his way out of it. He took his hair out of its braid, bells still tied, and let it fan out behind him like a cape.
Jonys found a beat he liked, a thump of skin against wood that met the strategic rattle of hazelquartz shells and the clapping of his hands. Karzarul found the empty spaces to fill with the stomp of his hooves, the ringing of his bells when he twitched his hips just-so. He moved his hands in precise arcs, careful of every turn of his wrists and curl of his tail and toss of his hair. He alternated slow rolling motions with sudden sharp movement, all his silver glinting in the firelight. There was an ease in this perfection, fitting himself to the music, another instrument. Mother Void, please let me be an instrument, and maybe if She listened this could be forever.
There was a man with copper curls in the trees.
“I’m dreaming,” he said. He looked down at his hands. “I’m dreaming?” The back of his left hand flashed with echoes of stars and suns spiraling outward from the center, down to his wrist.
“It wasn’t on purpose,” Leonas said. “I wasn’t…”
The forest flickered into flames, out of existence and then back again in quick succession. Karzarul spun around. The memory of Jonys was standing, now, sunlight pouring out of his eyes and mouth. It spilled out from between his fingers in a straight line on his throat.
Karzarul turned back to Leonas, and roared as if it had anything to do with him. Leonas disappeared.
Karzarul opened his eyes. Leonas wasn’t on his bedroll, his scarf hanging where it had caught on a low branch. “Shit.” Taking the form of a Shadestalker was faster than standing, better for letting Minnow sleep. The pads of his feet were silent on the ground, chasing the scent of the Prince. He hadn’t made it far. Karzarul stood tall again, grabbed Leonas by the arm. Leonas screamed, clapping his hand over his mouth halfway.
“If Minnow wakes up and sees that you’re gone,” Karzarul hissed under his breath, “she is going to kill me. At least maim. To say nothing of if you manage to hurt yourself out here.”
“It was an accident,” Leonas said, his breath short. “It just happens, I don’t mean for it to happen.” He looked like he was going to hyperventilate.
“Calm down,” Karzarul said, resisting the temptation to slap him. “Imagine a tree again, I don’t know.”
Glowing leaves started to sprout in Leonas’ hair.
“Not like that,” Karzarul said, the sense of panic apparently contagious. He let Leonas go to snatch the leaves out of his hair, and shoved them in his mouth. Leonas froze.
“Why did you eat them?” Leonas asked.
Karzarul swallowed. “I don’t know!” he snapped, patting at the shining spots in Leonas’ hair until the magic seemed to dissipate. “Did you want Minnow to see?”
“No,” Leonas said.
“Okay then,” Karzarul said. “Are you calm? Is this calm?”
“I’ve never been calm before and I’m not about to start now,” Leonas said. Light kept trying to gather in the lines of his palms, and he shook them to make it fade.
“You’ve been without a magical instrument for how many years?” Karzarul asked, annoyed. “And you still don’t have a handle on this?” If her idiot prince exploded because he couldn’t handle his own magic, it wasn’t going to be Karzarul’s fault, but Minnow was still going to blame him.
“I don’t usually have this much,” Leonas protested before pressing his mouth shut. When it opened again it was to cough up an apple blossom.
“For fuck’s sake,” Karzarul said. “Why would you—” He paused. “You do a ritual on your birthday,” he said. Leonas pressed his knuckles to his mouth, shaking his head, but Karzarul ignored him. “You said your birthday is soon, that means it’s almost been a year. Do you—does it use it all? Somehow?”
Leonas coughed up more blossoms, pounding at his chest. “Spell bottles,” he admitted. “Big ones. Enough to keep the Sunshield going for another year. It works out, I couldn’t blow myself up if I wanted to. Most of the time.”
Karzarul started to run his hands through his hair, stopped with his palm against his forehead. “Completely?” he asked. “All of your magic, every year.”
“The Sunshield is warding an entire city, every minute of every day,” Leonas said. The conversation seemed to have distracted him enough to stop blooming. “It uses a lot of magic.”
“It would have to,” Karzarul said. The thought of that much magic being stored, loose, was terrifying. “You should work on… this.” Karzarul gestured to the fallen petals.
“Yes, thank you, I am aware that it would be best if I didn’t risk exploding every time I threw a fucking fit,” Leonas snapped.
“Have you tried throwing fewer fits.”
“Fuck off.” Leonas smacked Karzarul’s arm with the back of his hand, then immediately started shaking it out because he’d hurt himself. “Don’t expect people to behave reasonably under unreasonable circumstances,” he muttered, rubbing his hand. “Was that…” He hesitated. “That was Minnow?” he asked.
Karzarul bristled. “That was the Hero,” he said. “They aren’t interchangable, she’s not—he isn’t less dead.”
“Aimon was me?”
“Yes,” Karzarul said flatly. “A witch and an enchanter, as you are now. You may recognize the name, from your books about ‘meat puppets’.”
“Ah,” Leonas said, looking at the ground.
“That’s the last I say about it,” Karzarul warned. “We will not speak of this again. You saw nothing. We go back to camp, and when Minnow wakes we pretend this never happened. Yes?”
“Of course,” Leonas said, fidgeting with his nails. Karzarul grew impatient with his downcast eyes, pressed his palm over Leonas’ mouth in the process of grabbing his face to turn it toward him. Leonas clawed at Karzarul’s wrist before he’d processed what was happening, his witchmarks flaring.
“Stay in your own dreams,” Karzarul warned, and Leonas stilled. “Make your own willow trees. I’m not here for you.”
Karzarul dropped his hand, and took Leonas by the wrist to lead him back to camp. Leonas didn’t protest.