“I have outfits,” Minnow announced.
“What?” Leonas said. They’d made camp alongside the rest of the caravan train, all in a circle in a field. Nari had helpfully told Karzarul which wagon held their saddlebags, as they required intermittent contact to keep the moonlight solid. Karzarul had spent most of his time since they’d stopped as a Howler. There were too many people around to feel comfortable otherwise. He did not have Leonas’ enviable ability to ignore when he was being stared at. A Howler was still stared at but didn’t feel as seen.
“There’s a guy who does costumes,” Minnow explained. Her arms were ominously overflowing with fabric. “He modified some so we can have outfits,” she said.
“Did you pay him, or put it on Kavid’s tab?” Leonas asked.
“I gave him some opals,” she said.
“Where did you get opals?”
“Around. Try this on so we can make sure it fits.”
Karzarul shifted into Impyr form and lifted the pile of fabric out of her arms. “Oh.”
Minnow looked down at herself. “Yeah, he fixed one of the dancer’s dresses for me,” she said. It was low in the chest and high at the thigh, dark blue with ruffles down to the ground. Her shoulders were bare, the sleeves ruffled to match the skirt. She was barefoot, her hair loose, and wearing the Starsword sheathed on her back. “Is it good?”
“Good,” Karzarul said, staring.
“It does the thing,” she said.
She backed up to put some space between them and then twirled so that the skirt would flare up around her legs. “The thing!” she said, bouncing on her toes.
“I like the thing,” Karzarul said, and Minnow beamed. He looked around them. “Where should I change?”
She looked around also as if noticing for the first time that people were present and capable of noticing sudden nudity. “Right,” she said. “Kavid’s not in his caravan right now, maybe use that? He won’t mind.”
Karzarul looked to where Leonas was sitting. “Are you coming?”
“I’ll go when you’re done.”
Karzarul was going to say that he’d seen it before, but he supposed he hadn’t. Leonas had managed to stay remarkably dressed regardless of circumstances. It was going to bother him, now that he’d noticed. Was it a coincidence that they’d only ever done things that Leonas could keep his pants on for?
Karzarul’s dress was the same dark blue fabric as Minnow’s, a touch tighter around the chest than he would have considered ideal. Minnow was delighted. The skirt didn’t quite reach his knees, his back bare underneath the laces tied up the back of the dress.
“It does the thing!” Minnow informed him. Karzarul spun experimentally, and Minnow clapped as the dress flared around his thighs.
“I see you’re marking your territory again,” Karzarul said.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I want everyone to be able to tell you’re mine.”
“Ah,” he said, though it sent a frisson down his spine.
“Dark blue again,” Leonas observed, coming up from behind Karzarul. Minnow started to giggle. She’d managed to find him an outfit involving tall boots and tight pants and a tight-laced vest. The shirt beneath was black and frilly. “Please tell me this didn’t used to be Kavid’s.” Minnow continued giggling. Leonas looked over Karzarul’s outfit, eyes stopping at the hem of his skirt.
“Disappointed?” Karzarul asked. His usual skirt showed off more of his legs, not to mention his hips.
“It’s an interesting contrast,” Leonas said absently, eyes still lowered. “The colors.” His fingers twitched, and he pulled his gaze away. “I don’t think we’re going to be in such high demand that you need to mark us,” Leonas said.
“It isn’t like that,” Minnow said, coming closer. “May I?” Leonas shrugged. Minnow ran her fingers over the laces of his vest. “You can still play with other people, if you want to,” she said. “They’re not the ones who get to keep you, is all. And if we’re going to be around people, I want to be sure they know that if they hurt you I’ll kill them.”
“That isn’t necessary,” Leonas asked.
“I know,” Minnow said, patting his chest. “It’s not for your benefit. It’s for theirs.”
Minnow insisted that they sit around the main campfire, finding herself a spot right next to Kavid. Kavid was dressed in some kind of multi-colored knit romper with long legs and sleeves disconnected from the body of the suit. The orange hair on top of his head had been fluffed up enough to disguise the damage done to discolor it, and underneath it fell long and black to his shoulders. Instead of doing his makeup properly, he’d given himself a glitter mask around his eyes.
Karzarul had a certain amount of difficulty figuring out how to sit in so short a dress. He finally settled for kneeling in the grass, tail twisting anxiously behind him. Leonas knelt down beside him.
“You are looking quite stylish,” Kavid said.
“Yes,” Minnow agreed.
“Zaros made stew for dinner,” Kavid said. “Lots of spices, good with rice. You want some, yes?”
“Yes,” Minnow said before Leonas could speak.
“I don’t need any,” Karzarul said, and Minnow frowned. “Humans need to eat. I don’t.”
“I’ve seen you eat,” Minnow said.
“Recreationally,” Karzarul said. “I’m fine if I don’t. I’m not taking food from people who need it.”
“You think we are bad hosts?” Kavid asked. “That we cannot show you a good time? Of course we will feed you.” Kavid snapped his fingers in the air. “Nari! Bring food for our guests.”
“We can get our own,” Leonas muttered.
“Nari.” Kavid snapped more insistently until Nari made a rude gesture, which he took as confirmation that the message had been received. “Do not trouble yourselves, you will be fed shortly.”
“Does Costa still make those donut things?” Minnow asked.
“For you, Starlight?” Kavid said. “Of course. And for everyone else, also. We drink, they are fried, she cannot stop making the donuts. There would be a riot.”
“We’ll get you some of those later,” Minnow said to Leonas.
“You don’t need to feed me,” Leonas said.
Minnow patted Karzarul’s knee, and so Karzarul patted Leonas’. Leonas scowled. Nari brought her carefully balanced bowls, giving one first to Kavid and then handing them out down the line.
“Thank you,” Karzarul said. Nari made a flustered sound of acknowledgment, clutching the pendant around her neck.
“Thank you,” Leonas said, holding the bowl above his knees so that he could bow his head. Nari tried to bow while squeaking incoherently, then fled. “She seems nice,” Leonas said.
“She is not,” Kavid said. “Do not let her fool you. One day she is all sweetness, the next she is yelling about dishes and throwing you into rivers.”
Their bowls were split into rice on one side and stew on the other. Leonas carefully dipped a spoonful of rice into a small amount of stew before tasting it.
“Is good, yes?” Kavid asked. Minnow had already mixed her entire bowl into a uniform slurry to consume at top speed. Someone on the other side of the camp had set up stakes for a game of horseshoes, and here and there a cheer would go up as someone managed to throw a ringer.
“Yes, thank you,” Leonas said automatically.
Karzarul bent his head down sideways to speak softly into Leonas’ ear. “If it’s too much for you,” Karzarul said, “you can have my rice. If you want.”
Leonas shook his head. “It’s good,” he said. “I’m not allergic. I don’t usually, that’s all.”
“Is the story,” Kavid asked, “that Starlight seduced the Monster King?”
“No,” Minnow said.
“She didn’t have to,” Karzarul said.
“So you seduced her,” Kavid said.
“I don’t think so,” Karzarul said. “Maybe.”
“You have been enemies eternal,” Kavid pressed.
“Not always,” Karzarul said.
“Ah!” Kavid said, brightening, pointing with his spoon. “That is a different story. You were friends, once. A great tragedy, you and the First Hero, friends before it all went wrong.”
“Not the first,” Karzarul said. “He was…” Karzarul stared at the fire. “Friendship is a kind of love,” he said. “It’s a thing you show, not a thing you say. I considered myself his friend. The feeling was not mutual.”
Minnow leaned against Karzarul’s arm. Kavid hummed. “I can work with that,” he said. Someone passed him a wineskin, and he poured some into his mouth before handing it off to Minnow to do the same. Karzarul passed it straight to Leonas without drinking. Leonas scowled at the wineskin as he struggled to determine the best way to drink without a glass. He gave up, eyes glowing as he made himself a glass out of sunlight, pouring wine into it and handing the skin back to Karzarul. Karzarul’s reach was long enough to pass it along on Leonas’ behalf.
“That is,” Kavid said, “unsettling.”
Leonas shrugged, sipping at his wine.
“He does not need to cast?” Kavid asked Karzarul, having decided that he was the most social of the three. “No wielding of his instrument? He waves his fingers, his will is done?”
“He is an Heir,” Karzarul said. “His magic is sunlight, shining as no other witch can. He bound it to an instrument to which his soul was already tied. So long as his light can reach his shield, he is not constrained as other witches are. His limitations are his own capacity for magic, and whatever the physical world can bear to contain.”
“Terrifying!” Kavid said.
“Yes,” Karzarul agreed. Leonas regarded Karzarul with suspicion. Someone around the fire started to pick at a guitar but did not play a song. Karzarul listened carefully.
“Will you dance with me, later?” Minnow asked. “You couldn’t before.”
Karzarul looked at his empty bowl. “Maybe,” he said.
“Does the Monster King dance?” Kavid asked.
“Beautifully,” Leonas said. Karzarul glowed faintly.
“You’ve seen?” Minnow asked, wrapping her arms around Karzarul’s bicep. “I’m jealous.” She pouted, and Karzarul kissed her forehead.
“I’ll dance with you,” he said.
Kavid hummed. Then he tossed his bowl aside and stood, heading for a caravan. “Devin,” Kavid snapped. “Now is not the time for your practicing. Give the guitar to Alia. Strangle a tone-deaf cat, if you must, it will sound better.” He returned to Minnow’s side with his lyre, and Minnow clapped with excitement. “I will not sing,” Kavid warned, playing a quick scale. “My voice needs rest. But my fingers, they work always.” He waggled his eyebrows as he started to play, and Minnow giggled.
Minnow leaned against Karzarul’s arm again but didn’t pressure him to get up as Kavid played. The pace of the song quickened as the guitar joined in. It was not a song Karzarul knew, but Minnow must have since he could hear her humming along. A woman on the other side of the fire started drumming on a box between her knees. Karzarul could taste his own pulse, his tail thrashing behind him. Leonas patted Karzarul’s knee.
One of the dancers, in a dress much like Minnow’s, set a heavy board on the grass to act as a small stage. Other members of the troupe, though not all, started to clap out a beat. Minnow joined them, but Karzarul kept his hands still save for the tapping of one finger. The dancer stepped onto the board to cheers and started to drum a rapid-fire beat with the heels of her shoes. Her hips moved as she danced, the cut of her skirt letting it flare and show off the motion of her legs when she twirled. Unlike Minnow, her dress was layered in green and white, and when she moved she looked like waves frothing with seafoam.
“I can’t dance that well,” Minnow said to Karzarul.
“I’m sure you’re beautiful,” Karzarul said. He was watching the dancer intently, tracking the beat and the motion of her feet and how she held her arms. When she stepped down she joined the clapping, another dancer replacing her, replicating what the first dancer had done before making it her own. Her dress was blue and orange, looked like a candle flame in a storm. A third dancer in grey and white looked like a thunderstorm, repeated the pattern of replication and elaboration before ceding the stage back to the first dancer.
Karzarul had started to drum on his thighs with his hands.
“You want to play?” Minnow asked him. Karzarul stopped drumming.
“I wouldn’t want to interrupt,” Karzarul demurred.
“You should,” Leonas said. “You’d be good at it.”
“We’re guests,” Karzarul said. “I don’t want to be rude.”
Minnow stood and approached one of the dancers waiting for her turn. She gestured to Karzarul as she spoke. Karzarul did not think he could get away with turning into a Howler. The dancer in green held her hem up out of the grass as she approached Karzarul.
“You want to try?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t know how,” Karzarul apologized.
“We can show you,” she assured him, holding out her hands to help him up. Minnow clapped as Karzarul rose up onto his hooves. “You like to dance?” the woman asked.
“Sometimes,” Karzarul said.
“Here,” she said. “Copy me this first time.” Karzarul waited as she took to the little stage, drumming out a short beat with slower steps than before. Then she stepped aside, waving him closer to encourage him.
Karzarul tried not to think about humans watching, thought about Jonys, tried not to think about Jonys. Thought of Minnow, because a show for Minnow felt like something he could do. If he thought of it as trying to play along with strangers it was almost mortifying. But trying to impress the Hero, that was second nature. Made it easy to drum his hooves and roll them just-so, summon an overskirt made of moonlight that he could twirl. The dancers cheered before he could lose himself in it completely, and so he stepped aside to let another one take her turn.
They did not slow down for him this time, danced in earnest while he joined in clapping the beat. When his turn came around again, he could not resist the temptation to luxuriate in it. He tapped out a more complicated beat with his hooves, twitched his hips, shook his hair to make his bells ring. Rolled his hips gratuitously when the sound of bells reminded him of Leonas, slender fingers and sunlight chains. Someone whistled, and the strings hit a crescendo, and with a final twirl and a stomp all the music seemed to dissipate into happy noise.
He was startled when Minnow pounced on him, arms over his shoulders and legs hanging in the air so she could press a kiss to his mouth. “Mine,” she whispered, and he purred. He wrapped his arm around her waist as a different tune started, and twirled with her in the grass so that both their skirts would fly. She was difficult to keep up with once she started dancing, quick steps on tiptoe and all around him like a maypole. Fairy steps, wind and shadow and pounding rain. It made his hooves feel too big and too heavy, though she crushed the grass as much as he did. The sun had dipped behind the horizon, and firelight reflected from her eyes like twin mirrors.
“Leonas,” Minnow called suddenly, stopping and reaching her arms toward him. “Come show me fancy dances.”
Before Leonas could argue, Kavid switched his song to something more suitable for a ballroom. Leonas glowered at him, and Kavid grinned as all the other players followed his lead. Someone had begun to play pipes. Leonas pulled himself up to his feet to join them amidst the other dancers, only some of whom were bothering to follow the steps.
“You put your hand here,” Leonas said, lifting her right hand to his shoulder before placing his hand on her waist. “We hold the other ones.” Instead of clasping her hand, he laced his fingers with hers. She didn’t notice the difference. “It’s a box,” he said. “Forward, right, back, left. Right?”
“Back left right?”
“Here,” he said. “I’m going to put my left foot forward, you’re going to put your right foot back.”
Karzarul watched as Leonas painstakingly walked Minnow through the steps, which did not come naturally to her at all. If she’d been wearing shoes, her tendency to step on him may have been a problem. It took all of five minutes for him to give up, his eyes flaring as sunlight slippers appeared on her feet.
“Oh,” she said as the shoes moved for her. “This is much easier,” she decided.
“Yes,” Leonas agreed, finally able to move from the small patch of grass to move her along in sweeping arcs.
“You used to dance a lot,” she said. “On your birthday.”
“I did,” he agreed.
“Like this?” she asked.
“On my birthday,” he said, “an orchestra plays a song the composer spent a year writing just for me, and I waltz between great marble fountains with the prettiest and richest women in all Astielle.”
“Oh,” she said. “But you can’t.”
“I’m never there,” she reminded him.
“You are the prettiest,” he conceded.
“And the richest,” she added.
“Horrifyingly so,” he agreed. “Every nobleman there would be vying for your hand.”
“I’d have them all beheaded,” he said, his eyes still suns beneath his eyelids, featureless light that made his witchmarks look dim.
“Jealous,” she accused.
“No,” he said. “The beheadings would be unrelated. Someone’s been committing tax fraud, if we’re going to frame anyone it may as well be a Duke. They’d give up on you soon enough, anyway.”
“Even though I’m the prettiest?”
“You’re also the sharpest,” he reminded her. “And bitiest. And most obnoxious. And you come with a monster attached, which most people find off-putting.”
“But you like me anyway,” she said. She couldn’t meet his eyes when they glowed like that, looked at his lips instead.
“You may as well say I like a tourniquet,” he said. “You’re annoying, you’re inconvenient, you’re uncomfortable. I’d die without you.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “Don’t say that. That’s too big.”
He caught her mouth in a kiss, hungry and hot. “It’s not poetic,” he said. “Look at me. I can barely carry my own purse. If I’m going to survive outside a castle I need someone to carry my things.”
She giggled. “Karzarul can carry us both,” she reminded him.
“I suppose there’s that,” Leonas conceded. Then he smiled in a sly way she wasn’t used to. “I didn’t think it would work,” he said.
He looked down, and she followed his gaze to realize they’d been dancing on nothing. Spots of light glowing in the dark, pooling underneath their feet like a spilled sunbeam that the night forgot to swallow. The glow touched the grass far down beneath their feet.
“This way we can’t trip on anything!” she said, delighted by the practicality.
“Shh,” he said. “It’s romantic.” He stopped dancing to cup her face, and she had to shut her eyes.
“You’re too bright,” she said, and though she didn’t feel them descend she soon felt the grass on her bare feet. She opened her eyes to admire the blue of his for the moment he gave her before kissing her again.
Karzarul could have kept dancing without them, but he’d wanted to watch them instead. They suited each other, the sizes and colors of them. Karzarul didn’t think he had a shape that would fit the way they did. Look right, the way they looked right. It pulled at something in his chest. It eased when they sought him back out.
“I’m going to be right back,” Minnow said, leaving them both to head toward the caravans. Karzarul and Leonas listened to the music as they tracked her movement.
“Did you want to dance?” Leonas asked tentatively.
“I would step on your toes,” Karzarul said.
“No you won’t,” Leonas said. Leonas offered his hand, but hesitated when Karzarul took it. “Ordinarily,” Leonas said, “the taller person leads.”
“Do you want me to lead?” Karzarul asked.
“I don’t mind following.”
Leonas set his hand at Karzarul’s waist, and Karzarul set his hand on Leonas’ shoulder, careful of the Sunshield. Leonas swallowed, eyes hanging on Karzarul’s hand. The size and the weight of it on his shoulder, the sensation both familiar and not. His fingers laced with Karzarul’s, gripping it tight. Karzarul let him and didn’t squeeze back. Finally, Leonas started to move, and Karzarul mirrored his steps. Leonas had to tilt his face upward, but his back looked remarkably straight despite that.
“You’re better at being led than she is,” Leonas said.
“I know,” Karzarul said.
“You’re beautiful,” Leonas said, but it didn’t feel the same when he’d been trying. “You should dance for me someday.”
“I thought I did.”
“I assumed it was for Minnow.”
“It can be both,” Karzarul said. “The bells were for you.”
“Ah,” Leonas said.
“Did they sound like dying?” Karzarul asked.
“Ah.” Karzarul glowed.
“Your dress,” Leonas said, “has been driving me insane.”
“That color,” he explained, “in that length makes your legs a marvel.”
“I haven’t seen yours,” Karzarul said.
“There isn’t much to see,” Leonas said. “It isn’t you.”
“You’ll have to be patient with me.”
“I can be patient,” Karzarul said.
“Do you know,” Leonas said, “if I had known this was an option, I might have dreamed of this.”
“Instead of dying?”
“In addition to.”
“I’m very stupid,” Leonas said.
“Is it?” Karzarul asked.
“Wanting you,” Leonas said, “is, based on all available evidence, objectively and factually the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever done.” He spun them both around, eyes and hands aglow as he swung Karzarul backward into a dip to kiss him. Karzarul made a surprised sound into his mouth, purred onto his tongue.
“I understand the appeal now,” Karzarul said breathlessly.
“Good,” Leonas said, “because I’m using a great deal of magic and I still might throw my back out.” He pulled them both back up to standing, and Karzarul had to catch him before he fell.
“I brought donut things!” Minnow announced. She stuck one in her mouth, gave one to Karzarul, and then gave a stack of them wrapped in paper to Leonas. Leonas needed to use both hands to hold them all, still leaning against Karzarul.
“This is too many,” Leonas said, suspiciously regarding a fried puff of dough and its coating of cinnamon sugar.
Minnow pulled the donut out of her mouth and swallowed her bite without chewing. “I watched you eat so many churros,” she reminded him.
Leonas’ witchmarks flared. “Those were tests,” he muttered. “That doesn’t count.”
“Test how many donuts you can eat.”
“These are really good,” Karzarul said.
“Costa does a good job,” Minnow agreed.
Leonas licked his fingers before grabbing another one out of his paper. “They’re mostly air, anyway.”
“They barely count,” Minnow said.
Karzarul tried to grab another, but Leonas turned his body sideways to keep them out of reach.
They stayed with the caravans the next morning, riding alongside them for a lack of anywhere else to be. There were things they could do, but Minnow was in no hurry yet, and no one was interested in rushing her.
She had, since they joined the caravan, found two more fallen stars.
“You’d think I would already have all the flowers around here,” she said, on her hands and knees by the side of the road, “but they all bloom in different seasons and some of them are hard to find.” She managed to pluck a satisfactory example of the one she’d been looking for, digging out her book to tuck it between the pages.
“I’m surprised that didn’t get left behind,” Leonas said from where he and Karzarul were both waiting. He gestured to her book of flora.
“It did,” she said. “I went back for it.”
“What?” Leonas said. “When?”
“Earlier,” she said vaguely. “You were washing your hair or pooping or something, I don’t know.”
“You’re a fugitive,” Leonas reminded her. “What if you’d been captured?”
“I wouldn’t,” Minnow said. “I told you, no one goes over there. I took the watchtower Door and then ran, it was fine.”
“That’s not fine,” Leonas snapped.
“I had Ari in my pocket,” she added. Leonas looked accusingly at Karzarul, who shrugged. “I wasn’t gonna leave my glider out there forever. You can go lots of places people want you dead, if you use a Door and run fast.”
“Great,” Leonas said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Please don’t do that again without telling me.”
“If I told you, you’d worry,” she said.
“Minona,” he warned, and she pouted.
“Fine,” she said, without pretending to be happy about it. They looked down the road, to where the long line of caravans and wagons had come to a halt. Figures were moving about with more speed and less noise than they were used to. “I wonder if Kavid lost a shoe again.”
Leonas made a sound of disgust, not improved when it became clear that the figure moving toward them was Kavid. He was wearing some manner of long-legged jumpsuit, baggy enough around the legs to look like a dress.
“Starlight,” Kavid called with a hint of panic. He did not run but walked much more quickly than usual. “I need you, darling,” he said. “You two will need to hide,” he added, waving at Leonas and Karzarul. “There is no disguising you, too shiny.”
“What’s going on?” Leonas asked. Karzarul put a hand on Leonas’ shoulder and shifted to a Slitherskin around his neck.
“There are Astian soldiers at the crossroads ahead,” Kavid said. “I am unclear of what has happened, there is much confusion. They are taking Nari, it seems like? If Valeria could intervene, it would be appreciated.”
“I’m on it,” she said. She ran ahead toward the caravans, hopping into one of them without knocking.
“Who is Valeria?” Leonas asked, jogging after her.
“You have not met her?” Kavid asked, following. “You must play different games.”
“It’s difficult to explain,” Kavid said, “if you have not met her.”
Minnow burst back out of the caravan. She had managed to fit the majority of her hair under a flat cap, nothing peeking out of it but strands of brown with ends so split it created a passable illusion of short hair. Leonas had not known that it was possible to tousle one’s eyebrows, but she’d done so, and it had a remarkable effect on the overall structure of her face—particularly when she had them furrowed more deeply than he’d ever seen, her jaw jutting forward. She’d changed into a button-down shirt and a pair of heavy work pants cut off at the knees, which conspired with her boots to make her look even shorter than usual. Her fingerless gloves were battered and threadbare. Instead of the Starsword, she was holding a clipboard, a ring of keys hooked to her belt.
“We’re saved,” Kavid said with no hint of irony whatsoever.
“Shut up,” Minnow snapped, stalking toward the crossroads.
“Here,” Kavid said, gesturing to the caravan she’d come out of. “You, hide in a box or something.”
Leonas entered the caravan only long enough to find a mirror. As light was necessary to see, he thought he ought to be able to make light ignore him. He focused, and his whole body flared bright before disappearing from the mirror.
“If this only works in the mirror I’m about to make an ass of myself,” Leonas warned Karzarul, heading back outside. He circled around to the other side of the wagons, feeling as if this ought to make a difference. By the time he caught up, Minnow was already at the crossroads. That no one saw him before he ducked behind the first caravan felt like a good sign.
“It’s a necklace,” Minnow was saying, in a voice lower and more nasal than he’d ever heard from her.
“It’s a moonstone pendant,” one of the soldiers corrected. Leonas thought he looked like a child sitting on the shoulders of another child hiding in his armor. He thought that about most soldiers. He was surprised in retrospect that anyone had kicked up a fuss about Minnow when their fighting forces were comprised mostly of tall children with drinking problems. “Moon worship is heretical and constitutes treason against the crown of Astielle.”
“I’m not a traitor,” Nari said, offended. “I’m an artist.”
“Kid, are you new?” Minnow asked.
“Ma’am, I am a captain in the King’s army.”
“Great, good for you, I’m sure your mother’s very proud,” Minnow said. “I’m asking if you’re new.”
“Don’t take that tone with me,” Minnow warned. “I’ll have your commission so fast it’ll make your head spin, you wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last. You think General Xalter’s gonna appreciate your initiative? Fuck no. That’s how I can tell you’re new, you’re still going by the book.”
“The book is the law.”
“Laws are for managing people.” Minnow gestured around them with her clipboard. “You see a lot of people? You’re way out in bumfuck nowhere. They gave you the easy job sending you out here, you’re not supposed to go hauling in the first person you see for high crimes.”
“Corpse-bothering doesn’t become legal in the woods,” the Captain said.
“Lots of folks like keeping moon trinkets out in the boonies,” Minnow said. “It’s harmless superstition, nobody means anything by it, least of all heresy. You wanna try arresting her, be my guest. You’re gonna have yourself a big mess of paperwork, and in the end you’re gonna have to let her go because a pretty necklace don’t mean shit. You think I mentioned Xalter because we’re friends? No. He hates me. I make him do his job. My job is to get this troupe to the show on time, you make me late and I make it his problem, I guarantee he makes it your problem. That’s not a threat, that’s some friendly advice from an old bitch who’s seen a lot of kids fuck themselves being too zealous. They talk a big game in training teaching you how to spot secret weirdos, but take it from me, the weirdos ain’t subtle. You’ll know. It’s fine.”
The looming specter of bureaucracy had taken some of the wind out of the sails of finding secret heretics. It felt plausible that there might be heretical activity going on when it had been a matter of mysterious caravans and eccentrics in costumes. It felt less plausible in the face of someone holding a clipboard and a ring of keys. She added a practical air to the whole affair, akin to a parent having found them in the middle of an important game to remind them about supper.
“Do you smoke?” Minnow asked, pulling a pipe out of her pocket.
“Yeah,” the Captain said.
“Well quit it,” she said, lighting a match. “It’s a bad habit. You’re too young, you’re a baby. Look at you, who gave you a sword? I’ve got kids with haircuts older than you. Why do they even have you guys out here, you piss somebody off?” She puffed at the pipe to light whatever was already inside it, which did not smell as if anyone should inhale it.
“Monster King Karzarul has risen,” the Captain explained.
Minnow looked around at the fields and woods surrounding them. “Out here?” she asked.
“We don’t know where,” he said. “Our Sunlight Prince is hunting him, over land and through Rainbow Doors.”
“Aah,” Minnow said. “So you’re covering the ‘over land’ part.”
“Something like that,” he said. He finally took his hand off Nari’s arm, and she inched her way back toward Minnow. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen any monsters.”
“We see a lot of monsters,” she shrugged. “Wandering around, you know. Doing monster things. In the distance, ideally. Haven’t seen many lately. Might be a bad sign, yeah?”
“Might be,” he agreed.
Minnow clapped Nari on the shoulder, nodding her head to indicate she could get back on the caravan. “We go all over,” she said. “Haven’t seen any legendary immortal battles so far, but who knows. Kavid’s scheduled to do a show in Thornhaven in two days, I assume more of you will be there?”
“Lieutenant Kyric is stationed in Thornhaven,” the Captain said.
“Oh, hell, Kyric?” Minnow asked. “He still got that moustache?”
“He won’t get rid of it,” another soldier said, and the Captain glared at him, shutting him up immediately.
“Hate that fuckin’ thing,” Minnow said. “We see any princes between here and Thornhaven, I’ll let Kyric know about it. You got a name?” She pulled a pen out of her clipboard, pipe held between her teeth, and waited.
“Slif,” the Captain said, shifting awkwardly as she scribbled out his name.
“I’ll see if I can put in the good word for you with Kyric,” she said. “Or the bad word. Depends on if he’s still pissed at me for what I said about his shitty moustache. Big fuckin’ baby, anyhow.”
The other soldier from before snickered.
Leonas waited until Kavid was alone and a safe distance before grabbing him. “Kavid,” Leonas hissed.
Kavid clapped a hand over his own mouth to suppress his scream. He stared at the nothing that was holding him, which sometimes shimmered.
“What the fuck was that?” Leonas asked.
“Valeria,” Kavid said as if that explained anything. “She is very good with these situations.”
“Minnow’s tried to lie to me before,” Leonas said. “She’s terrible at it. Have you been giving her lessons, what the fuck was that?”
“Did you not know?” Kavid asked, delighted. The spot where nothing was holding his arm became suddenly very hot. “That’s fine and normal, why would you know? Bad at lying, good at pretending. Excellent pretending. Give her a person to be, if she knows the person she will be them.”
“That’s just complicated lying,” Leonas said.
“Yes,” Kavid shrugged. “The trick to a good lie is, you must make yourself believe it. Starlight, she can make herself believe anything. It is only that she must believe she is a person who would believe it. She cannot make herself believe that the girl who is Minnow would know nothing of her boys. The woman who is Valeria does not need to lie, for she has a job to do and she would not know the things that Minnow knows. You see what I mean?”
“Yes,” Karzarul said before Leonas could complain. “She likes to play.”
“Exactly,” Kavid said. “She is a woman with a sword made of stars, who can do whatever she believes and who can believe anything. She is a changeling, fairy-touched. Every fairy was once a child with old eyes, you know? Children eternal, always in-between. A fairy does not lie, has many rules to make the world manageable. There are many reasons to like Kavid, but she likes the game we play. Where she is a human woman, playing at the things a human woman does. You, who are a witch and a monster, perhaps you do not see it? The way that she is Starlight, a wolf pretending to be a dog for the sake of the lambs. Taciturn, for to speak too much would show her teeth.”
“Hm,” Leonas said. He was slightly mollified, though he was still bothered more than he would admit. An unpleasant reminder that she’d lived her life away from him, and perhaps it was many lives, whole entire selves that had wandered the world without a thought to him. Bad enough after Karzarul to know that she could keep secrets when she’d always been his only one, worse to think she might have preferred another life as another self in which he only interrupted. That she was playing Minnow as much as she played Valeria.
“May I cease now to stand between wagons speaking to myself?” Kavid asked, and Leonas let him go. “Do not fuss yourself so,” Kavid said, brushing off his arm. “We have all of us known the horror of realizing our woman loves improv. Count your blessings so long as she does not ask for you to play party games.”