“Peppers?” Minnow suggested.
“Yes, peppers,” Leonas sighed.
“I don’t understand what you’re allowed to eat,” Minnow said. “No sweets or fats or spices is all the foods. Butter? Is butter like cheese?”
“Butter isn’t cheese,” Leonas said. “A small amount of butter is fine. Milk and butter aren’t as bad. Cheeses get more sunlight added to them.”
“Alcohol,” Minnow said.
“Alcohol is fine,” Leonas said. “Sort of. It’s dimmer, more earth.”
“Earth!” Minnow said. “Earth is new, earth is part of it?’
“Obviously,” Leonas said.
“It’s not obvious,” Minnow said.
“It isn’t,” Karzarul agreed.
They had camped overnight in the Forest of Giants, and had since worked on finding a good configuration for riding on Karzarul’s back as a Tauril. He wasn’t used to having more than one passenger. If he put the Moonbow away, then Minnow could ride with her back up against his. It was significantly more comfortable than straddling him. Leonas was trickier until Karzarul had figured out how to fashion a two-pommel saddle that would fit further back. It let Leonas ride sidesaddle, though it meant he and Minnow were looking at each other for the entire ride. Leonas didn’t care for that part but didn’t say so. Minnow usually looked at the passing landscape.
They had let Minnow pick the Door again. They were out of the forest now, in roads that used to pass through forests. Now the roads passed through rolling hills of fields, and sometimes the fields had small patches of woods in the middle of them. There were long stretches of nothingness and grass, only enough trees to interrupt the view. The breeze here had a pleasant bite to it, air cool in the shelter of distant mountains.
“People are made of earth, water, and sunlight,” Leonas said. “Most people have more of one than others, you have to maintain a balance.”
“I thought it was sunlight, moonlight, and starlight,” Minnow said. “Or magic? Magic instead of starlight.”
“That’s a separate thing,” Leonas said. “Starlight and moonlight are both forms of sunlight.”
“What?” Karzarul said.
“In official doctrine,” Leonas said. “You’re not supposed to take it literally, that’s looking at the Sun. Don’t ask me about that, I won’t explain it right.”
“Okay,” Minnow said. “So everything important is actually sunlight, except for people, which are also dirt and water.”
“Earth and water,” Leonas corrected.
“And you’re supposed to eat dirt.”
“Because having too much sunlight is bad.”
“Having too much anything is bad,” Leonas said. “I have a bright temperament, I’m pre-disposed toward an excess of sunlight. Someone with a severe natural imbalance is going to have a lot of health problems, improving balance can help.”
“What kind of temperament do I have?” Minnow asked.
“How should I know?” Leonas said. “I’m not a Temple physician, I can barely read a chart. Even with a chart and your proportions, without knowing the time and location of your birth it’s useless. If I were guessing based on personality I would say liquid, but that’s nonsense. Not everyone’s personality matches their natural temperament.”
“What’s wet about me?” she asked.
“Don’t start,” he warned. “You’re malleable. You’re forthright, you have an amplifying effect. You lack structure.”
“I’ve never heard of any of this,” Karzarul said. “And I’ve heard a lot of shit.”
“Of course you haven’t,” Leonas said. “You were dormant for centuries. It isn’t as if you were reading human dietary research before then.”
“It sounds like your doctor diagnosed you with hungry and told you the cure is not eating,” Minnow said.
“I’m not listening to the opinions of a woman who thinks all leaves are spinach,” Leonas said.
“Not every leaf,” Minnow said. “A surprising number of leaves. Not as many as cabbage. Lot of things are actually cabbage.”
“How many vegetables do you think are on the side of the road right now?” Leonas asked, gesturing.
Minnow squinted from where she sat, but it was difficult to make out more than indistinct leaves and sprays of wildflowers. “Looks like mostly carrots,” she said.
“Where are you seeing carrots.”
“The white flowers,” she said. “I would have to look closer though, if they’re the wrong size that means they’re poison.”
“That’s not a thing,” Leonas said. “Karzarul, will you at least agree with me that the size of a ditch flower does not correlate to whether it is a poison carrot?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Karzarul said. “I can eat anything. Some of it tastes bad, but it won’t kill me.”
“Shit,” Leonas said. “Neither of you know anything about being a normal person.”
“You’re a prince,” Karzarul reminded him.
“A prince with a rudimentary education and a regular diet of things that weren’t found in a ditch,” Leonas said.
“I saw feasts at the castle before,” Minnow said. “With cakes and chocolate birdcages and things.”
“Those were for guests,” Leonas said.
“You couldn’t even eat the chocolate birdcage?” Minnow asked.
“That’s fucked up,” Karzarul said.
“I could,” Leonas said. “I can do whatever I want. I’m a prince.”
“Uh-huh,” Minnow said.
Karzarul stopped, a tilt of his head. “Someone’s coming,” he said. “Wagons. Other side of those trees.” The road further down split into an intersection, patches of forest blocking the view of any road not straight ahead. “Should we wait?”
“Nah,” Minnow said. “Keep going.”
“I think they’re going to notice the Tauril on the road,” Leonas said.
Minnow shrugged. “So?”
“You don’t think they might panic?” Leonas asked.
“People panic about a lot of things,” she said dismissively. “I’ve ridden a moose down a busy road before. Everyone gets out of your way and then they move on. It’s a weird story they’ll tell later.”
“The fact that you can get on top of something doesn’t mean you should ride it,” Leonas said. “Don’t,” he warned before she could say anything. “Why a moose?”
“Guy said he’d give me his hat if I could.”
“You can buy hats,” Leonas said. “You can buy many hats.”
“It had to be that one,” she said. “There was a kid that wanted it.”
“What did the kid have?”
“The hat, once that guy saw my moose.”
“This seems unsafe,” Karzarul said, returning to the matter at hand.
“If you’re really uncomfortable with it we can wait,” Minnow said. “I don’t think we need to. If they’re hostile, we can book it. If not, then all you have to do is walk normal. Whoever it is will try to play it cool, because if you’re not already charging them then they don’t want to get your attention. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. I scare people on the road all the time.”
At that, Karzarul resumed walking.
“I thought we were laying low,” Leonas said.
“What we’re doing is not questing,” Minnow said. “We don’t have to lay low to not quest. If wandering merchants can’t handle seeing monsters going about their business, that their problem. They don’t have to like it to start accepting that it’s gonna happen.”
“I think you overestimate people’s willingness to accept things that don’t make sense to them,” Leonas said.
“I think you overestimate people’s willingness to admit when things don’t make sense to them,” Minnow said. They approached the crossing, a train of wagons and caravans coming into view from the east. Minnow patted Karzarul underneath her. “Ignore them, you’re fine.”
“I know I’m fine,” Karzarul said. “It’s awkward, that’s all.”
The wagon’s horses all slowed to a stop before the roads crossed, and without the squeaking wheels or hoofbeats it felt very quiet.
“See what I mean?” Karzarul said.
“Yeah, that happens,” Minnow said. She looked down from Karzarul’s back. “Nari?” she asked.
The woman who’d been leading the main wagon seemed to be going through a lot, internally. “Starlight Hero?” Her obvious alarm had not abated at all. “Is this. Your. Tauril?”
Karzarul stopped since Minnow seemed to be having a conversation. “This is Karzarul,” Minnow said, gesturing with her thumb.
Nari looked between Karzarul and Minnow. “The Monster King.”
“I thought he was supposed to have more heads than that.”
“No. Over there’s Prince Leonas.”
“Okay,” Nari said.
“Is Kavid with you?”
Karzarul started walking again. Minnow jumped off his back to stand in the road, ruining his attempt at a retreat.
“Is he in trouble?” Nari asked.
“Yes,” Leonas said.
“No,” Minnow said.
“Is it Hero business?” Nari asked.
“Yes,” Minnow said.
“I’ll see if he’s up,” Nari said, climbing down from her perch and heading back toward the other wagons.
Karzarul took a step back so that he could bend down toward Minnow. “What Hero business?” he asked.
“I’m the Hero,” Minnow said. “All my business is Hero business.”
“I thought we were doing boyfriend things,” he said. “Dates.”
“Watching you swoon over a bard is not my idea of a date.”
“I don’t swoon,” Minnow said indignantly. “I’ve told you before, he knows stories. I have questions. This is convenient.”
“If you pick her up,” Leonas called from on Karzarul’s back, “we can leave before he gets out here.”
“Try me,” Minnow warned.
“We don’t like him,” Karzarul said.
“You don’t like a lot of people,” Minnow said.
“We don’t all have your friendly disposition,” Karzarul said, and Minnow snorted.
“Starlight!” Kavid called in greeting, and Minnow barely restrained herself from clapping. “And…” Kavid faltered. “Friends.”
He wasn’t wearing his costume. His clothes were rumpled and looked slept-in. He had a black scarf tied over his hair, short-cropped unnatural orange jutting out from underneath it. He had the leftover remnants of makeup still staining the edges of his eyes black and smudgy. Without makeup, he had faint freckles splattered over the entirety of his otherwise pale face.
“King of All Monsters,” Minnow said, pointing over her left shoulder with her right hand. “Prince of Astielle,” she said, pointing over her right shoulder with her left hand.
“Hello,” Karzarul said. Leonas didn’t even bother waving.
“Lovely to be meeting you,” Kavid said automatically, doing a half-bow before turning to Nari. “So when you said that the Starlight Hero wished to see me—”
“I know,” Nari apologized.
“—and when I said, ‘I need not get dressed, she has seen it all before’—”
“I know,” Nari apologized harder.
“—you could not have maybe mentioned the Sunlight Heir and the Moonlight Monster? Also being here?”
“I didn’t think you’d believe me,” Nari said.
“For reference in the future,” Kavid said, “‘you should get dressed’ is a complete sentence.”
“Got it,” Nari said.
Kavid turned back to Minnow. “Starlight,” he greeted again. She was smoothing her braid out over her shoulder, staring at him. He held out a hand, which she took eagerly so that he would twirl her around before pulling her close. He kissed the backs of her fingers, and she giggled. Leonas turned his head so she wouldn’t see him roll his eyes. “I take it he is not to be killing you?” Kavid asked, with a slight nod toward Karzarul.
“We’re dating now,” Minnow said.
“Oh,” Kavid said, still holding her hands. He looked at Karzarul, then at Minnow. “Good for you. You are a powerful woman.”
“This is why you have come to see Kavid?” he asked.
“Can we speak in your caravan?” she asked.
Kavid looked at Karzarul and Leonas again. “All of you?”
“I am certain this is not the first time it has been said to him,” Kavid said, “but this gentleman is much too large. He will not fit. I cannot accommodate him.”
“He gets smaller,” Minnow said.
“In this weather, who doesn’t?” Kavid said. “But, no. The cold water can only do so much, there are limits.”
Minnow turned around. “Karzarul.”
Karzarul sighed. He turned around and offered Leonas a hand. Leonas sighed as he accepted it, a sunlight glow of magic slowing his descent to the ground as he dismounted. Karzarul shifted, letting the harness and all the bags attached to it fall. Leonas barely caught them before they crashed. “Don’t just drop things,” Leonas said.
“It’s fine,” Karzarul said, rolling his shoulders. His shift into Impyr form had included his crown this time.
“This is what he looks like?” Kavid asked Minnow.
“Yeah,” Minnow said.
“This changes matters,” Kavid said. “I will be happy to have you all at my earliest convenience.” He let Minnow go to snap his fingers. “Nari, retrieve for them their bags, we cannot be lollygagging in the crossroads.”
“I’m not—” Nari began, but Kavid continued snapping his fingers at her until she gave up.
“Nari is busy,” Kavid said as he lead the way into his caravan, “and so you must make the tea.” He waved a hand toward the small woodstove nestled amongst the cabinets of his kitchenette. There were clothes on the floor and dishes in the sink. Minnow immediately set to filling the kettle from a pitcher, looking much too at home for Leonas’ liking. Karzarul had to bend awkwardly to fit inside the caravan with his horns.
The back end of the caravan was taken up by a bed, the blankets all a tangle made worse when Kavid balled them up with the pillows and threw them into the bed’s corner. Then he flopped onto it and rolled onto the far side before reaching into the mattress. He pulled, revealing that the mattress was divided into segments with a collapsible table supporting a significant portion. He knocked the segment of mattress and the various clothes on the table to the floor before reclining into one side of the L-shaped couch that remained. He yawned. “Sit,” he said, waving at the other side of the couch.
Karzarul sat at the furthest end since it wasn’t as if he could stand upright. Leonas stood, arms crossed, watching Minnow as she cheerfully brewed a pot of tea.
“You do not like to see her boil water?” Kavid asked, amused.
“Can you not boil your own?” Leonas asked.
“I am Kavid,” he said, throwing up his hands with a flourish. “Such things are beneath me.”
“But not her,” Leonas said icily.
“She does not seem to think so,” Kavid said, yawning again. “Who am I, to say that she is wrong?”
Leonas did not find this compelling.
“You do not like me, Prince of Astielle,” Kavid observed with some amusement.
“You are,” Leonas said, “an egotistical, self-important fop.”
“Ye-e-es,” Kavid said without shame. “She has a type, does Starlight.”
Karzarul frowned. Leonas scowled. Minnow set mugs in front of Kavid and Karzarul, and gave the third to Leonas directly. Kavid pulled himself upright so that he could drink without pouring hot tea all over himself. He wrapped both hands around the ceramic, held it close to his face, and sighed contentedly in the steam. Minnow slid over the table to plop down next to him. This did not improve Leonas’ mood.
“How does it come to pass that you are not killing each other?” Kavid asked.
“I like them,” Minnow said.
“And?” Kavid prompted.
“That’s it,” Minnow shrugged.
“You see?” Kavid said. “This is why you need me.” He shook his head. “No sense of narrative. No tension! No drama! Did you find yourselves overwhelmed with attraction even at each other’s throats? Did you agonize to know they were forbidden? Tell yourself that it was hate that made your heart pound so?”
“No,” Minnow said.
Kavid sighed. “No romance,” he muttered, sipping at his tea. The caravan started to move again.
“I don’t think we’re here so that Minnow can give you the details of our relationship,” Karzarul said.
“Why else?” Kavid asked.
“We have a question only a regular person can answer,” Minnow said.
“So you come to me.”
“Understandable,” Kavid said with a nod. “I am very in touch with the common man.”
“Are foods earth, water, and sunlight?” Minnow asked.
Kavid laughed. Leonas sipped his tea and contemplated a half-empty bottle of wine sitting on Kavid’s floor.
“Who told you this?” Kavid asked.
“An acquaintance,” Leonas said.
“Be careful of your acquaintance,” Kavid said. “That is only a thread in a very big sweater, that one. Old Temple stuff, Imperial conspiracies, all that mess. It might be they are only harmless. People have superstitions, do not know where they start. But, if they are troubling a Sunlight Heir! Could be that they are an Imperial.”
Leonas drank tea fast enough to burn his throat.
“Imperial conspiracies,” Karzarul repeated.
“Oh yes,” Kavid said, looking pleased. “Do you know of them?”
“I do not trouble myself with human stories,” Karzarul said, “except insofar as they inconvenience me.”
“What fun,” Kavid said, “to tell a story to the Moonlight Monster. As conspiracies go—I am interested in conspiracies. Not like that. I do not mention it, people get the wrong idea about it. I find them interesting from a narrative perspective. The stories to explain why people are right. You know?”
“I am not a conspiracy weirdo,” Kavid added.
“I collect them,” he said. “The way you collect pretty things. The Imperial conspiracy is an old one, lots of others are tied into it, sit on top. At the center, it is the idea that the Sun Empire never fell.”
“I would have noticed if it hadn’t,” Karzarul said.
“Everyone would have!” Kavid agreed. “That is what makes it fun. And for you especially, who was there! You were there, yes? You are not as Starlight, who is born always new?”
“I was there,” Karzarul said.
“Right,” Kavid said. “The Sunlight Empress—how much did you know about the Sun Temple? There was a Temple, yes?”
“There was,” Karzarul said. “I had other concerns than theirs, at the time.”
“Certainly,” Kavid said. “In the days of the Empire, the Emperor was the earthly avatar of the Sun Goddess and Her vessel through which to rule Her subjects. Before the Shrines there were Sun Temples, but also the Sun Temple, if you see what I mean. A central organization to which all Sun Temples were beholden, and the Emperor at the head of it. For the Empress to also be the Sunlight Heir, the Empire took this as confirmation of the order of things. Yes?”
“It was why she wanted the Sunshield,” Karzarul said. “To take the throne back from her brother.”
“Oooh,” Kavid said, sitting straighter, eyes bright. “I like that version, I have not heard it before. It fits! Imperials say that you killed all the Emperor’s sons, and thus the Empress.”
“No,” Karzarul said. “She was the eldest. The throne was always meant to be hers.”
“Oh-ho!” Kavid said, even more delighted. “Perhaps this was before the whole thing about women?”
Leonas retrieved the half-empty wine bottle off the floor and poured some of it into his mug. He smelled it to confirm that it was wine and that no one had pissed in it. Then he filled the rest of his mug and started drinking it.
“They say women were made in the image of the Sun Goddess,” Kavid explained, “but they are flawed, because on their own they cannot create. Men were created to fix this flaw of women, in no one’s image but their own.”
“I had not heard that,” Karzarul said.
“They leave it out!” Kavid said cheerfully. “You must be very deep before they mention these things. This was the downfall of the Empire, they believe, that a flawed facsimile could not serve a Goddess so well as could an independent creation. She sought a man to complete her, and so was lead astray by witches and monsters.”
“Hm,” Karzarul said.
“Did you truly seduce her?” Kavid asked. “I had wondered, you see, before I knew you could be this.”
“She despised me,” Karzarul said. “I was briefly useful.”
“Aaah,” Kavid said. “Yes, that version would not fit with theirs. Better for them if you seduced her. When the Sunlight Heir was born outside the Empire, this is when the trouble started. There was a schism between those who thought the head of the Temple ought to be the Empress, and those who thought it ought to be the Heir. Kingdoms tore away, there were civil wars, all a big mess. You remember this?”
“I was otherwise occupied,” Karzarul said.
“Ah, well,” Kavid said dismissively. “Important things happen every day of which I will never know. Everyone agrees that the capital city was finally sacked and ruined. This is when the Empire fell, and the Old Temple with it. Imperials believe it did not! They say the Empress fled and declared a new capital, for they believe it was the Emperor and not the Heir who carried the will of the Sun Goddess. To them, the Empire was betrayed by heretics who would follow the Heir. The Empire will rise again, they think, when the blood of an Emperor once again runs through the body of an Heir.” He sipped at his tea.
Leonas had already emptied the wine bottle. He set the bottle and his mug down by the sink, before carefully navigating the blankets and laundry and cushions on the floor. He took off the Sunshield to prop it against the wall. Then he sat himself sideways on Karzarul’s lap without warning, back toward Kavid and gaze somewhere in the middle distance. Karzarul went still but otherwise did not acknowledge that this was bizarre.
“How does this relate to cheese?” Minnow asked.
“Right,” Kavid said. “In olden times, all of the doctors had to be Sun Clerics. It was the Temple that taught medicine. Which was, you know. Measuring people and writing down their birthdays and telling if they were allowed to eat hams. Which sounds silly! But they were also washing hands, and having sewers and clean water. It was an improvement, because before that everyone ate things that made them vomit. A vomit-based healthcare system. No good. That is where the Temple persisted, after the fall. The physicians. Even now, when the good doctors go to medical universities to learn enchantments, there are Temple physicians. Some people get nervous, having magic put inside them. They like the Temple physicians, who measure their fingers and tell them to stop putting cinnamon in their oatmeal. It is a good story! That it is your fault you are sick, something you did, something you can fix. Disease as a thing to deserve.”
“But regular people don’t think that,” Minnow said.
“A little,” Kavid shrugged. “A good narrative is hard to kill. It lives on in many who only know parts. Once they are telling you which foods are earthy and wet, that is when you worry.”
“Having this acquaintance near the Prince,” Karzarul said, “would be bad. That’s what you’re saying.”
“Oh yes,” Kavid said. “Every country has their own Imperials, convinced theirs is the new seat of the Empire. They made it to high office in Perivo, convinced the King that Heirs and Heroes ought to be given their weapons as close to birth as possible. Thought themselves quite clever when their child-Queen could speak as an Empress. Less clever when she could kill as one.”
“The Mad Queen Gwenviel,” Leonas mumbled.
“It is said she killed her Hero,” Kavid said, “when they both were only six. I have a song about it.”
“The Hero lived,” Karzarul said. “Eleven years more.”
“I will need more details,” Kavid said, “if I am to update my song.”
“You won’t get them,” Karzarul said.
Kavid clicked his tongue. “As bad as she is!” he chided. “All the same, you strong and silent types. Though you are more talkative than she, in truth.” He nudged Minnow with his elbow. “She gives me nothing to work with, this one.”
“How did you come to know each other?” Karzarul asked, finally picking up his mug to sip his tea.
“She has not told you?” Kavid asked, feigning hurt.
“He wanted to come with me on a quest,” Minnow said. “I thought he was pretty.”
“You see?” Kavid said. “Taciturn, that is what she is. All business. No poetry in her soul.” Minnow giggled. Leonas rested his head against Karzarul’s shoulder. “I’d sing the song I have about it, but I need to rest my voice, you understand.”
“It’s a bad song,” Leonas mumbled. Karzarul cautiously patted his thigh.
“It was many years ago,” Kavid began, “when our tour of the continent brought us through a great and terrible forest near the border of Astielle. We had been warned against the route, but we were running late, and felt certain we could manage any danger. Our caravans are sturdy, after all, and we had not yet had the misfortune of encountering many monsters! No offense.”
“Hollow monsters,” Karzarul corrected.
“The King of Astielle has been making fake monsters for a hundred years,” Minnow said.
Both of Kavid’s palms hit the table. “What.”
“Basically,” Karzarul said.
“You cannot simply say these things,” Kavid said. He snapped his fingers in Minnow’s face. “Details! Details.”
“The King sucks,” Minnow said.
“This helps me not at all,” Kavid said. “You seek to drive me mad, I am sure of it.”
“The King used his son’s shield to capture moonlight so that he could frame monsters for the violence he wanted done,” Karzarul said.
“That I can work with,” Kavid said. “Excellent, thank you.”
“Weren’t you telling a story?” Leonas asked.
“Ye-e-es,” Kavid said. “When Bullizards emerged from the wood to attack us, who but the Starlight Hero came to our aid? Striking down with brutal efficiency the terrible monsters—no offense.”
“It’s fine,” Karzarul said, sipping his tea.
“When at last we were safe, we asked how we might repay this mighty Hero. Imagine my surprise when she asked for a song! I was quite intimidated, of course. I am glorious, as I am Kavid, but who can say what stirs the heart of a Hero? She has a way of watching, with those dark eyes of hers. Intense. You know?”
“I’m familiar,” Karzarul said.
“I decided to sing her a local tune, about a cave of wonders hidden beneath a mountain. To my surprise, she took it quite seriously, and resolved to find the thing. It took all my bountiful courage to tell her I would join her. She agreed without hesitation. It was not until our travels progressed that I came to realize she was… a fan.”
“An aggressive one, at that,” Kavid said. “She is not shy, the Starlight Hero.”
Karzarul paused with the mug halfway to his lips. “No?” he asked. Minnow was looking at a knot in the wood of the table.
“Not at all!” Kavid said. “I am sure you know this. She leaves no doubt as to her desires, yes?”
Leonas turned around in Karzarul’s lap for the first time, straddling his thigh and leaving Karzarul to carefully maneuver his tea out of the way. Leonas propped his chin up on his hand, his elbow on the table, leaning forward. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Let’s hear more about that.”
Kavid considered Leonas’ sudden interest. He looked at Minnow, who was watching him with a different kind of intensity altogether. “Ah… perhaps not.”
“No, no,” Leonas said, “please continue, we’re both very interested.” Leonas looked at Karzarul. “Aren’t we?”
“Our relationship,” Karzarul said tactfully, “is unique.”
“You would like to compare notes?” Kavid suggested.
“Always,” Leonas said.
Kavid scratched at his chin. “In truth?” he said. “She did not allow me my nerves for long. She asked if I was interested, and when I said yes, informed me that I was free to kiss her at any time. I was surprised, of course. She had not seemed much charmed by me outside of my performances. I did not yet know the way of her, that she speaks little. Have you not seen much the same?”
“Yes,” Karzarul said. “Taciturn.”
“All business,” Leonas agreed. “You know her well.”
“It is why I am the greatest of bards,” Kavid said without modesty. “My insight into the natures of people.” He kissed Minnow’s temple, and she smiled.