Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Six

“We should go see a play,” Minnow suggested. “Or we could go to a restaurant! A nice one, with tables.”

Minnow had amused herself kissing Karzarul thoroughly and at length, allowing Leonas to finally finish taking his notes in peace. Karzarul had not realized the extent to which she had been restraining herself to be considerate. She’d been holding Karzarul’s hand since they’d stood to leave. Leonas had grudgingly accepted her hand when she offered. She had not let them go since.

“I don’t know where you think we’re going to be able to do either of those things,” Leonas said.

“Girlfriends go on dates,” Minnow insisted. “Go to shows, and have picnics.”

“We already went to at least one show,” Leonas said, “and picnicking is indistinguishable from how you normally eat.”

“That wasn’t a date,” Minnow said. “You weren’t my boyfriends yet so it didn’t count. And it isn’t a picnic unless we have a big quilt, and a special basket with at least five different kinds of cheese.”

“We could do that,” Karzarul said.

“Don’t encourage her,” Leonas said. Karzarul squeezed Minnow’s hand tighter, and she squeezed back. “All we’ve done is given a name to whatever we already had, it doesn’t have to be a whole thing.”

“I want it to be a whole thing,” Minnow said. “That’s why I wanted the name. Names are important.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” Leonas said.

“Am I misremembering,” Karzarul said, “or did she name your horse Cum?”

“Frederick,” Leonas snapped. “It wasn’t a horse, it was an extremely rare variety of beetle. It was a gift, from her, which I made the mistake of thanking her for before I asked if she wanted to be the one to name it.”

Karzarul raised an eyebrow. “You thanked her by…?”

Leonas grew flustered, turning both bright and red. “Have you met her?” he demanded. Minnow beamed.

“Your Highness,” came a call from off the path. Karzarul rolled his eyes as Leonas stopped to try to locate Violet. Violet waved from where he’d been standing in the trees. “Am I interrupting?” Violet asked, fanning himself and making no move to join them.

“I shouldn’t think so,” Leonas said. He glanced down at where Minnow was holding his hand but didn’t pull away.

“Unfortunately this is more of a practical question than a fun one,” Violet said, strolling closer to the path. “If we were able to provide the materials, would you be willing to enchant us a few Seeing Stones?” He clutched his fans two-handed with an apologetic half-bow. “As of right now we lose all communication as soon as you leave the mountain. I’m sure you can understand why I find this unacceptable.”

“Of course,” Leonas said. “I would need a little time, and some of the materials are a bit…”

“We can get the materials,” Violet said. “Put together a list whenever you have a moment, I’m sure His Majesty will let me know when he needs me.” Violet fluttered his highest fan, used the lower one to gesture to Minnow’s hands. “I see Lady Minnow is doing well.”

Minnow held up the two men’s hands. “They’re my boyfriends now,” she said.

“They weren’t before?” Violet asked.

“Not officially,” Minnow said, lowering their hands. “Now they have to take me on dates.”

“Congratulations,” Violet said sweetly, giving Karzarul a sly look through his eyelashes. Karzarul didn’t look at him. “Might I trouble the Royal Girlfriend for a private audience with His Majesty?” He did not ask Karzarul.

“You may,” Minnow said magnanimously, letting Karzarul go although he didn’t seem to want to.

“I won’t be long,” Karzarul said, stepping off the path to follow Violet. “What is it now?” Karzarul asked when they were out of earshot of the other two.

“Congrats on the girlfriend,” Violet said instead of answering, fluttering his fans, one of his wings stretching outward to nudge Karzarul’s shoulder. Karzarul crossed his arms and kicked a rock ahead of them. “I assume the roaring was related. We could all hear that by the way. It carries. That’s how roaring works.” Karzarul kicked the rock further this time, glowing. “She seems very into that, good for her. I assume you’ve reached a wary truce with the perfidious Heir.”

“I hate you,” Karzarul said.

“Did you figure it out already?” Violet asked, delighted.

Karzarul kicked a rock hard enough to go through the trunk of a tree. “… Minnow thought I was flirting on purpose,” he admitted.

Violet cackled and clapped both pairs of hands as Karzarul fumed. “Oh, I do like her,” Violet said. “Obviously. I thought for sure it would be at least another decade before you noticed, if you ever did.”

“Fuck off,” Karzarul said, and Violet fluttered his fans again.

“As to the other matter I wanted to discuss,” Violet said, “you’re definitely not going to be able to stay here long-term. The level of fucky energy coming off of you right now is untenable.”

“I’ll eat you,” Karzarul warned.

“Don’t I wish,” Violet said. “I’m not kidding, though. The Brutelings and Bullizards get a little rowdy, which is fine, but you’re going to get into a loop with the Taurils. They’re going to start knocking shit over trying to do the Vaelean every time they see your girlfriend looking cute.”

“That’s not a thing,” Karzarul snapped.

Rather than argue, Violet turned, backing up to the nearest tree only to lean against it with his upper-right elbow. “Hey,” he said with his voice pitched low as Karzarul bristled. Violet waggled his eyebrows. “This would look charmingly casual,” he said in his mock-imitation voice, “if I were a soft little man instead of huge and horny.”

Karzarul hissed and grabbed at him as Violet laughed, twirling around the tree in a flutter of sleeves and feathers. “Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Violet warned. “We both know we’re getting mixed up already.”

Karzarul huffed and tried to fix his hair, glowing. “Whatever.”

“You’re going to need more time to get all this fuckiness out of your system,” Violet said, gesturing to Karzarul with a folded fan. “Which is fine, love that for you, but some of us are trying to get some work done.”

“It’s weird,” Karzarul said, “that you’re so… proactive.” He didn’t think that was the word, but couldn’t think of a better one. He’d tried to be something like that, a long time ago, tried having goals and working toward them. He’d given up quickly. He’d never done it for its own sake.

Violet shrugged. “I like it,” he said. “Being useful, fixing problems.” He held up a fan and one of his wings as a shield to stage whisper. “Especially being useful for the sort of person who has a lot of bureaucracy problems.” He winked dramatically.

“Dammit,” Karzarul muttered, rubbing above his eyebrow. Violet started to giggle. “That’s.” Karzarul rubbed his face with both hands. “Fuck.” Violet cackled. “I’m so fucking stupid,” Karzarul said, muffled.

“Don’t I know it,” Violet said with a shake of his wings and a wiggle of his shoulders, sticking out his tongue. “Anyway, since you’ll be leaving soon—”

“I never agreed to that.”

“—I thought you might benefit from a little to-do list.” Violet produced a neatly folded piece of paper with a flourish.

Karzarul narrowed his eyes. “Did you write me a quest log.”

“It’s a good idea,” Violet said. “Your girlfriend has a lot of good ideas. Like that bit with the wooden swords, loved that.” Violet unfolded the paper. “First one’s a gimme, see about doing something about the king who kept killing your boyfriend.”

“Minnow’s boyfriend,” Karzarul corrected.

“Sure,” Violet said. “I assume she’ll be taking point on that one, it’s only on here because it would be weird if it wasn’t. Item number two, work on our image.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Listen,” Violet said, “I get it. Really, I do. It isn’t fair that you have to explain and justify the fact that you exist. You ought to be able to mind your own business. I’m not arguing with that. But Jonys had the right idea. It didn’t do anyone any good, in the end, standing back and letting him be the face of you. If you’d stood by him instead of standing back, gone with him when he—”

“I’m not talking about that right now,” Karzarul said.

Violet sighed. “I know you’re not,” he said, fanning himself. “There was a window there, a brief window, when you hadn’t given up on personhood yet. When we could travel and trade. Monsters made the best mercenaries and threw the best parties. They almost liked us, outside of Aekhite. Even within Aekhite, it was only the Imperial government that didn’t like us.”

“It’s safer this way.”

“It would be a lovely thing,” Violet sighed, “if every King felt his wars so keenly. But it’s given you a skewed perspective, you must realize that. All you remember is the dying. All I remember, don’t forget about that. Impyrs and Savagewings remember, even if we never felt it. But there were other times, before and after. It isn’t the same when you can feel the worst times and only hear about the good ones. You wouldn’t believe how delighted Indie was to be around humans again. He ought to have the option, if he wants it. Go places. Do things. Meet people.”

Karzarul rubbed at his eyes. “I know. I know. No one’s stopping him. Any of you.”

“For now,” Violet said. “You always say that, let everyone scatter and do as they will. Until the next time someone turns against monsters, and you decide the only thing to be done is to stay out of their way. In those early years, you just…” Violet sighed again. “You wanted to be useful,” Violet said. “We all want to be useful. You left us in all the places you would have been if you hadn’t been following Vaelon. It isn’t any wonder we got hurt, when you treated us as an extension of yourself. Look what you do to yourself.”

Karzarul had already turned away from Violet, arms crossed tight. “I thought you were trying to give me a quest,” he said curtly.

“I’m not saying you have to go around telling everyone that monsters are great,” Violet said. “What I am saying is that, in most places in most of the world, a monster isn’t any more alien a thing than a Starlight Hero. Or a prince with witchmarks that glow. You’re not any more terrifying than they are. You’re more obvious about it, but that’s all. Stay with them, let them introduce you. Stop letting other people tell the story of us. Lie, if you must, but at least make it yours.”

“I’ll think about it,” Karzarul said.

“I’ll take it,” Violet said. “A small victory still counts. Item number three—”

“We’re still doing this?”

“I’ll be done when I’m done,” Violet said. “Three ties back into two, most of the Hollow monsters weren’t in Astielle.”

“What?” Karzarul turned back around.

“Within Astielle’s borders he was obvious, left them in places he didn’t want people. Neighboring countries have it worst, those are the, ah. The ones I mentioned before, do nothing but attack. Very convenient for him. He’s at war with five countries that don’t even know it.”

“I hate this political shit,” Karzarul muttered.

“I know, baby, I know,” Violet said with a dismissive wave of one fan. “Some of the Savagewings and Impyrs have been helping out, that’s why it ties into the second point. It doesn’t fix anything, but it does help to have someone this pretty—” Violet gestured to his own face with two empty hands. “—showing up to say that they’ve been given full authority by the Monster King himself to dispatch all interlopers. I made you a Royal Seal and then used it to save time, I assume that’s fine.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Karzarul said. “Wait,” he amended. “What’s it look like?” Violet reached into one of his sleeves and produced what looked like a small statue of a Rootboar. He turned it to display the seal underneath the base, a crescent with a crown of forget-me-nots in the center that made it look like horns. It was set in the circle of a full moon, but on closer inspection, the pattern of its craters were instead the petals of a carnation. “Okay, yeah. That’s fine. Why is it a Rootboar?”

“Everyone likes a Rootboar,” Violet shrugged, putting the seal away. “It might be a good time to consider visiting places outside Astielle to let them know they’re at war. Or don’t! Ignore the quest log, see if I care. Fourth item, this is the last one.”

“Thank fuck.”

“Black Drakonis,” Violet said.

“Oh no,” Karzarul said.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Violet said, “but I don’t know where she is.”


“One of the last things I remember from when I was you,” Violet said, “was that she didn’t come back. Every other monster that died while you were gone came back, except for Black Drakonis. We’ve been looking, we’ve been listening, we have nothing. No sightings, no rumors. Nothing.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Karzarul said.

“No shit,” Violet said. “That’s why it’s on the list. Actually, I lied about this being the last one, I’m adding another one.” He pulled a pen from his sleeve and scratched something out in loose handwriting, holding the page against an open fan to write against. “Twenty-one years ago, Leonas said something about that. You were distracted being jealous at the time.”

“Was not.”

“Was too.” Violet put his pen away, waiting for the ink to dry before folding the page back up. “He tried to ask quickly and move on, it reminded me of you. When you’re avoiding a conversation.”

“If he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t have to.”

“You don’t have to interrogate him,” Violet said. “Keep it in mind if the conversation goes in that direction.”

“Nosy,” Karzarul accused.

“Don’t act like you’re not curious, now that I’ve said something.” Violet handed Karzarul the folded page. “Don’t eat it,” he warned.

“I wasn’t going to eat it,” Karzarul lied, tucking it into a pocket of his tunic.

“I’m well aware you’re going to do whatever the Hero wants to do,” Violet said. “But maybe you’ll learn how to multi-task, miracles happen every day.” He turned on his heel, heading back toward an area of the winding path further down the mountain. “My job is done, let’s get you back to your girl so I can get back to fussing with my hair until Sid gets here.”

“What?” Karzarul took longer steps to catch up to Violet, getting ahead of him and walking backward. “Sid?” he asked. “Obsidian? Really?”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Violet said. “We don’t all have your issues. Some of us even like us.”

Sid, though,” Karzarul said, turning around. Violet caught him around the shoulders with one arm and around the waist with another, leaning against him as they kept walking.

“Yes, well,” Violet said. “Somehow, I seem to have ended up with a predilection for men who find me insufferable.” Violet brought his face close to Karzarul’s, as Karzarul ignored him and tried to keep his eyes on the ground ahead. “Isn’t that weird?” Violet pressed. “I wonder why that might be. What a fascinating mystery this is.”

Karzarul finally batted at one of Violet’s antennae, and Violet hissed as he turned his head, stroking the sensitive fluff to set it back to rights. “I’m not happy about it either,” Karzarul pointed out.

“I never said I wasn’t happy about it,” Violet said. “I’ve already embraced that sometimes in life, I will see a large man with baggage and want nothing more to see how much dick it takes before he doesn’t have room for it. For some reason.”

“Stop trying to flirt,” Karzarul said, and Violet giggled, fluttering one fan and making no move to let Karzarul go. “At least pretend to have better standards.”

“If the Moon Goddess didn’t want us to be sluts,” Violet said loftily, “then She should have given us a gag reflex when She had the chance.”

Karzarul snorted, covering his mouth to smother an ugly laugh. Violet cackled, squeezing him in a side-hug.

That’s more like it,” Violet said triumphantly. “Things are looking up, act like it.”

“Don’t say that,” Karzarul said. “Someone will hear you.”

Violet let Karzarul go with a pat on the back with two hands, falling back to a more appropriate position for a King’s advisor. Karzarul stepped back onto the path, but Minnow and Leonas hadn’t made it that far. Karzarul had to backtrack higher to find where Leonas was holding a bundle of flowers, Minnow bent to pick another one from underneath a fern.

“There was a delay,” Leonas said flatly as Minnow stood back up. She pulled a leaf off a tall stalk and squinted at it. Then she stuck it in her mouth and started chewing. Leonas did a double-take when he noticed. “What are you—what do you have? Are you eating something? What’s in your mouth, spit it out.” Minnow retreated when Leonas tried to grab her, swallowing fast. “Don’t just eat leaves for fuck’s sake.”

“Leaves are food,” she said.

Some leaves,” Leonas said. “You can’t eat leaves as a category. They have to be edible.”

“Those are edible,” Minnow said. “I ate one.”

Leonas took a closer look at the plant. “It’s powdery,” he said. “That can’t be good. This is—what even is this.”

“It’s spinach,” Minnow said.

Leonas tore off a leaf and held it up incredulously. “Is this what you think spinach is?” he demanded. “Have you been putting leaves you found on the roadside in our food?”

“Only if the recipe calls for it,” she said.

“Sweet Sun above.” Leonas dropped the leaf, rubbing waxy powder from his fingers. He was still holding the flowers Minnow had foisted off onto him in his other hand. “Sorry about the distraction,” he said to Karzarul and Violet. “I meant to tell you before, the broken Door was fascinating but I doubt we’ll be able to do anything with it. Most contemporary research suggests the opening of a Door was done separate from its construction. Whatever enchantments could accomplish it were lost when the Sunlight Empire fell, we’ve only barely started to recover even some of what they had.”

“Oh!” Violet said with a wide-eyed flutter of his eyelashes. “You call it the Sunlight Empire, that’s fun and not creepy at all. Totally lost technology, then.”

“I’m afraid so,” Leonas said.

“It was the ancient empire that built all of those,” Violet said rather than asked, gesturing with a closed fan as if to a tiny map.

“… yes.”

Violet turned to look at Karzarul, who was watching Minnow crouch and inspect the petals of a wildflower. “How odd,” Violet said, fluttering his fans. “When would this lost empire have built a Rainbow Door in our castle, I wonder.”

Minnow looked up from her flower, and Karzarul smiled at her. She smiled back.

“When they built the rest of it, I would assume,” Leonas said.

“Oh!” Violet said with another flutter. “Did they? Build? Our castle?”

“Someone must have,” Leonas said. “Most ruins past a certain age, it’s safe to assume they were Imperial.”

Minnow stood and offered Karzarul a flower. He brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Minnow did the same, then bit down on the petals and started eating it. Karzarul took that as permission to do the same. She looked pleased that he appreciated it.

“Right,” Violet said. “So then, they would have built a castle on an impassable mountain, put a Rainbow Door in it, and then… we would have politely asked if we could have it?”

“Ah,” Leonas said, realizing he’d erred. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Fort Astielle is built entirely on Imperial ruins. I know that monsters don’t really…” He paused, and looked further down the mountain, where Brutelings were building their strange little neighborhood. “Don’t usually,” he amended, before stopping again. “Lately,” he tried, before giving up, eyes narrowed in thought as he turned his head back around. “Hm.”

“Hm,” Violet agreed, covering the lower half of his face with a fan. “I’m sure you all have a lot to not talk about,” he said, glancing toward Karzarul. “I’ll leave you to it, Your Highness,” he said. “Good luck.” He took a deep bow before leaping upward to take off. The jump gave him enough height before his wings beat that the motion of the air didn’t disrupt Leonas’ hair.

Leonas looked at the flowers in his hand. “Did you want these?” he asked Minnow, a little stiffly.

“For me?” she gasped.

“… they’re yours.”

“They’re beautiful,” she said, taking the collection of random wildflowers like a bouquet.

“I. Okay.” He raked a hand through his curls and followed as Minnow headed down the mountain, Karzarul not far behind.

“Are we still doing this?” Karzarul asked, taking form an Impyr again.

Leonas shrugged. “Might as well,” he said, sitting in nothingness. “Is that a problem?”

Karzarul shrugged in turn, creating a field that stretched in all directions. Leonas drew his knees up close to his chest again.

“You don’t have to cater to me,” Leonas said. “You can ignore me and do… whatever.”

Karzarul raised an eyebrow, and Leonas rubbed his face.

“Not like that,” Leonas amended. “I’m not trying to be a voyeur. Even if it keeps happening.

“Uh-huh,” Karzarul said.

“Was there…” Leonas sighed, uncurling to lay back in the grass. “Was there any point to that?” he asked, watching a too-real cloud drift overhead. “Taking notes, studying that Door.”

“I don’t know anything about enchanting,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know how they work. If you want to try making another, you’re on your own.”

“Okay,” Leonas said, taking a deep breath. “I thought that maybe—I don’t know what I thought.” He clasped his hands over his stomach. “Busywork.”

“You were right,” Karzarul said. “That it only keeps it open.” He added mountains to the horizon, something to make the unnatural expanse look better. “The Starsword cuts them open.”


“Vaelon was the only one who could do it.” He set a lake in the distance for good measure.

Leonas, watching the sky, was oblivious to the changing landscape. “He was the first?” he asked tentatively.

“Right,” Karzarul said. “I forgot you weren’t actually part of that conversation.”

“Yeah,” Leonas said. “You didn’t want to say that, about the Starsword. Around Minnow.”

“I did not.” Karzarul adjusted the ground to add rolling hills toward the mountains.

“Is it a bad sign? That she can’t seem to use its powers.”

“They’re all different. Vaelon could cut holes through space, but that was all. Jonys could summon powers greater than any Hero before or since, but he couldn’t do what Vaelon could. It doesn’t seem to hinder her.”

“Okay,” Leonas said, silent for a while. “I worry that her time in the Faewild, our being out of sync, that it broke us,” he said finally. “Secretly, I always did think there must have been another Heir. A missing one. The one that was supposed to be Minnow’s. Except she died, whoever she was, and Minnow was lost, and now we’re mismatched.”

“You’re not meant to be a matched set,” Karzarul said. The idea irritated him unduly. “It’s random. Like any other pair of people.”

“It would have made more sense,” Leonas said. “If we were broken. If that’s why it feels like this. Like someone made a mistake somewhere, picked the wrong person to be this.”

“I think that’s what it’s supposed to feel like,” Karzarul said, adding forests around the distant lake.

“Great,” Leonas sighed. “Did I offend Violet?”


“It seemed like I offended him.”

“Don’t worry about him.”

“I like him,” Leonas said. “He’s nice.”

“That’s what he wants you to think.”

“It’s working,” Leonas said. “You should try it.”

The dream clouds above turned dark and started to pour rain exclusively on Leonas. He shot upright, sputtering, and darted out of the raincloud’s limited range. The water stopped immediately as Leonas tried to wipe water from his face.

Childish,” Leonas said, shaking water off his arms.

“Am not.”

“Are you jealous?” Leonas asked.

“I don’t have to be,” Karzarul said. “I can look just like him.” He changed Leonas’ clothes out for dry ones, took the water out of his hair.

Leonas looked down at himself. “Have you been able to do that this entire time?” he asked warily.

“Yes?” Karzarul frowned. “I don’t know why you’re saying it like that. You’re not the one that got put in an awkward position.”

Leonas blushed under his glow. “That was an accident.” He looked around at the dreamscape, all vast and unnatural and perfect. “We don’t have a record of it,” he said. “What my name was. All the emperors were named Aekhite, is what I’ve read.”


“Oh.” Leonas paused, then rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know why I thought that would do something. Like I’d hear it and remember something. Anything. Can you tell me about her?”



“Not now,” Karzarul added.

“Okay,” Leonas said. He pushed at his cuticles with his thumbnails. “I’m trying to reconcile it,” he said. “The legends and the memories with the person who leaves his clothes on the floor, and…”

“And?” Karzarul prompted.

“And,” Leonas said like it was an answer.

Karzarul did not move closer, simply was closer, all dream logic and moonlight. Leonas didn’t flinch. “And what?” Karzarul asked. His tail swished behind him. Leonas traced a fingertip over the edges of the embroidery in Karzarul’s tunic, not looking at his face. Karzarul stilled.

“And makes me flowers, sometimes,” Leonas said.


“The story goes,” Leonas said, “that the Sunlight Empire reached anywhere the Sun Goddess could shine. Seeing all its glory and its worship made the Moon Goddess jealous. So She made monsters, who stole the Emperor’s sons. But the Sun Goddess blessed his only daughter, and so she became the Sunlight Empress, who would usher in a new era of prosperity for the Empire. The Star Goddess saw this divine avatar, and in trying to make her own, the ones she touched became witches. Though the Sunlight Empress should not have borne the insult of their creation, the most powerful of the witches was a man of such charm that he could seduce the Goddesses Themselves. The Empress was seduced; but so, too, was the monster called Karzarul. He came to the Empress with promises of peace, and brought her stories of the Fairy King and the great weapons he could forge. She did not know, until it was too late, that such a weapon could kill an avatar of the Sun; he did not know, until the deed was done, that with their souls so bound the Empress would never truly die.”

“About how wrong is that?” Leonas asked, voice different once he wasn’t reciting.

“Completely,” Karzarul said.

“Figures,” Leonas said.

“He was very charming,” Karzarul corrected. “That wasn’t wrong.”

“I like enchanting,” Leonas sighed. “It’s obvious when something’s wrong, because it doesn’t work.” He leaned closer to Karzarul, didn’t quite rest his head against his chest. “You could tell me stories, sometime. Different ones.”

“Would you believe them?”

“I try not to believe things,” Leonas said, “if I can help it.”

True to his word, Violet was able to acquire the necessary materials for Seeing Stones in a matter of hours. Minnow made herself scarce before Leonas could start working because watching him work would only make her want to distract him. She thought it best to keep Karzarul away for the same reason. They had a lot in common, that way.

They had a lot in common a lot of ways. She didn’t know if that was a Hero thing, or a changeling thing. She thought it must be a Hero thing. It was nice to think they got along this time because a changeling was more like a monster. It felt more likely that they got along because a changeling was less like a Hero. She didn’t think they’d get along as well if she were like him in the wrong ways. In his sharp edges and bluster, in the competitive parts of him. If she were fearful and uncertain and angry.

Minnow used the long morning to work on maps. She liked to work in a sketchbook first, big picture overviews followed by picking sections to draw in more detail. Interesting things, landmarks. Deciding what was worth adding to the big map.

Ari stayed in Tauril form, walling her off with the way he lay on the ground. He touched her intermittently as she worked, though not in a way that felt like a request or an invitation. Idle fondling, the same way he stroked her hair or ran his fingers down her back. Touching for the sake of touching. She understood the impulse. Sometimes it made her sad that Leonas couldn’t stand it. Some other time she and Ari would have to trade places, let her play with his hair and explore all the shapes of him when he wasn’t all wrapped up in her. He had so many bodies she could learn. She wanted to map all of them with her fingers until she could draw them from memory on the backs of her eyelids. Bask in the smell of him, like a clean sword in fresh snow.

The other monsters weren’t like him. Their bodies weren’t like his. They were flesh and blood like she was. Ari was nothing but a soul made solid. She didn’t know how much of himself he did on purpose. Not that much, was her guess. She was getting a sense for the deliberate things. The too-pretty, too-perfect things. Same as anyone else, that way, even if he had an advantage.

She was still sketching when Leonas tracked them down, his work done. “Am I interrupting?” he asked.

“No,” Minnow said, though Ari had an enormous hand up her shirt. “You got the Seeing Stones done already?”

“I’ve done it before,” Leonas shrugged. “We tested them, they seem to be working as they should.”

“We?” Ari asked, taking his hands off of Minnow to sit upright.

“Violet helped me,” Leonas said.

“I didn’t know you needed help,” Ari said.

“I didn’t,” Leonas said. “Until the end, when I needed to test them. I needed to give him a Seeing Stone anyway.”

“Hm,” Ari said.

“Also he sucked my dick,” Leonas added. Ari stiffened.

“Really?” Minnow asked, perking up immediately.

“No,” Leonas said. Ari scowled even though he relaxed. “Would it be a problem if he had?”

“I don’t care where you put your dick,” Ari lied. Leonas looked upward, thoughtful. His eyes glowed, and the clouds above swirled. There was a crack of lightning in the otherwise sunny sky. Minnow clapped as Ari shifted uncomfortably.

“That’s surprisingly easy,” Leonas said as the light faded, letting the clouds disperse. “Good to know.”

“Are we going to need that?” Minnow wondered.

“Maybe,” Leonas said. “Violet mentioned something about heading out today?”

“The other monsters find my presence distracting,” Karzarul said. “Visiting is fine, long-term stays will be inadvisable until everything is… settled.”

“Should we make a plan?” Leonas asked. “Start questing?”

“No,” Minnow said firmly. “We’re decompressing.” While she was not an expert, it felt likely that attempted filicide was the sort of thing that took longer than a week to deal with as a thing that happened.

“I do not find it relaxing to be idle,” Leonas said carefully.

“You’re not going to be idle,” Minnow said. “You’re going to be doing boyfriend things with me, because we couldn’t before.”

Leonas ran a hand through his curls. “That’s something you want?”

“Very much,” Minnow said.

“Okay,” Leonas said. “I can work on that. We’ll have to find somewhere else to stay.”

“I have a list,” Minnow said, patting her bag.

“Of course you do,” Leonas said.

“There’s a lot of abandoned places out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “If they’re in good spots sometimes I keep stuff there.”

“You’re rich,” Leonas reminded her. “Don’t steal houses.”

“It’s not stealing,” Minnow insisted. “No one’s using them.”

“You said that about the pumpkins, too.”

“If someone else wants them, they can have them,” Minnow said. “But they don’t, so they’re mine. There’s a bunch that would be good for picnics. One of them is a boat!”

“Not that one,” Leonas said.

“Okay,” she said. She looked up at Karzarul. “We can get stuff for picnics, right?” she asked. “Or should I stop somewhere first, for fancy cheese?”

“I’m sure we can figure something out.”