Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Two

“When’s the last time you slept?” Vaelon asked.

“You know you’re not supposed to be in here,” Lynette said, still staring at her maps like they might reveal some secret.

“Neither are you, at this time of night.”

Lynette picked up her mug, dragged herself through the door and Vaelon with her. “Somewhere in the Empire,” she said, “the Sun is shining.”

“Somewhere,” Vaelon said, “but not here.” She took a sip from her mug, and he wrinkled his nose, wincing away from the smell wafting from it. “Do I want to know what that is?”

She snorted. “You know how Arik likes to putter around the garden,” she said. “Making little potions out of flowers and things.”

Vaelon laughed. “He’s a grown man, Nettles,” he said. “He’s not shoving leaves into old jars with sticks.”

She shrugged. “He sort of is,” she said. “New jars. Fancy sticks.”

“Don’t you have new babies to baby?” Vaelon asked.

“Always,” she sighed. “I know I don’t choose consorts for a lack of stamina, but at a certain point the situation becomes absurd. The latest was Calae again.”

“At his age?”

“He’s showing off now. Edwin is horrified, as you can well imagine.”

“His son and his brother can have playdates,” he said, and she snorted again.

Vaelon wasn’t imagining that she barely looked at him these days. Walking and talking, eyes on the room, on her mug, anywhere but his face. What did she think she’d see? What did she think he’d see?

“You can’t keep doing this, Nettles,” he said. “You’ve got at least five kids fit to take the throne, if you’ll let them.”

“They weren’t chosen by the Sun Goddess.”

“Were you?” he asked, and her jaw set. “You knew you were worthy. All you needed was proof. You got that. She didn’t descend from above unbidden.”

“Nonetheless,” Lynette said. They passed outside, through a passageway above a courtyard. There was a light drizzle, droplets falling from the edges of the roof.

“You’ve been listening to too many Sun Clerics,” Vaelon said. He’d never cared for the Sun Temple, for the convenient fiction that the Emperor was the Sun Goddess’ earthly vessel. Having a visibly blessed Empress Aekhet had made them insufferable.

If they’d truly believed Lynette’s will was the will of a Goddess, they wouldn’t have spent so much time steering her away from blasphemies.

Lynette stopped to look out over the rail into the courtyard. “They think I ought to give you a title,” she said.

He laughed. “A Voidpriest and a witch?” he asked, leaning backward against the railing. She still didn’t look at him. “How many slurs in this title?”

“It isn’t the Voidsword,” Lynette said with a shrug. “What is a star, they say, but a lesser sun.”

Vaelon’s smile faded. “You’re serious.”

She stared into the middle distance. “I don’t have what you have,” she said. “People listen to you. The Sun Clerics see it, too, even if they don’t like you. In principle. In practice, everyone likes you. Even the ones that hate you.” She looked down into her mug. “I thought it would be enough,” she said. “To be blessed. To be right. I am Empress Aekhet the Thirteenth, Sunlight Empress Immortal, earthly vessel of the divine. All lands touched by the Sun are my rightful domain. I have done nothing but try to help my people, and for all that, still no one fucking listens to me.” Her mug shattered in her hand, dripped tea and broken clay down the rail to disappear in rain.

“Baby,” he said, “that’s too much for one person.”

“Would you do it?” Lynette asked. “If I asked you to serve me, would you feign acceptance of the Light of the Sun? Would you be a weapon for me to wield?”

Vaelon gripped the rail tighter behind him. “… if you asked.”

“If I asked of you atrocities, what then? You could talk a man into his own doom, if you tried. Turn families against each other, start a war with a smile. Would you do it, if I asked?”

“I’d do anything for you.”

“You say that,” Lynette said. “I know you better. It isn’t for you, to do what must be done. Your heart would recoil from it, you could not bear it. You’ve always been the good one, of us. You would despise me for asking, and you would be right.”

“I could never—”

I know you better,” she repeated. “You would not let me make a monster of you.”

The sound of water on stone filled the night air. The moon was full above them.

“That word doesn’t mean what it used to mean,” Vaelon reminded her.

She drummed her fingers on the railing. “How fares Karzarul?” she asked.

“As well as ever,” Vaelon lied.

His episodes were getting worse. They had gone from a fluke to a rarity to a sometimes event, and now they came with the seasons. Karzarul handled them better than he once had, but Vaelon could tell they still affected him. He grew sullen, withdrawn, disappeared through Rainbow Doors without explanation. The closest he had come to discussing it was to say that it had something to do with how monsters were made. The one time Vaelon had tried to inquire further, Karzarul had grown upset, had disappeared for a week. Vaelon still felt awful about it, and resigned himself to the fact that Karzarul would tell him more only when he was ready.

If he’d seen anyone else having this kind of trouble with reproduction, he would have suggested they abstain.

“You’ve gotten really good,” Arik said, lowering his sword. “As good as Mother.”

“I doubt it,” Karzarul said darkly. Karzarul realized this changed the tone of the conversation, and so he tried to smile. A Bullizard’s face was not suited to the expression, and he gave up. It was the only form he had that worked for fencing now that Arik was grown. Karzarul scratched at the scales near the base of his stubby horns. “She’s very good,” he said, as if it were a compliment.

“She’s had a lot of practice,” Arik said, raising his sword again.

“She has,” Karzarul said, trying to keep his tone neutral as he parried the first blow. He focused on their blades, on his feet, on keeping his tail out of the way. As long as he focused on those, he thought he could be fine.

It helped that Arik looked nothing like his mother. Red hair and freckles and green eyes, like his other mother. It was turning white at his temples, lines around his eyes. Aging and dying and that was the other thing Karzarul couldn’t think about. It was one thing to return to some far-off place and find out who’d died in the meantime. It was another to watch it happen, little bits and pieces and sometimes all at once. Visiting one day to find a different person than the one he’d left behind, finding glimpses of the ones he remembered in the person they’d become.

Arik changed the least, and maybe that’s why he was Karzarul’s favorite.

“Have you ever been to the Necropolis?” Arik asked, apropos of nothing.

“No,” Karzarul said. He went where Vaelon took him, and graves were not his area of interest.

“I’ve always wondered,” Arik said, “what Moon Cultists must make of monsters. If they think Shimmerbats are sacred. If they think of you as holy.”

“If they do,” Karzarul said, “no one’s ever bothered to tell me.”

“We could ask Uncle Vaelon, when he gets back.”

Karzarul gave a twist of his sword to disarm Arik. “From the Necropolis?” Karzarul asked. “That’s where he went?” Vaelon hadn’t given specifics, only said he’d needed to run an errand. Usually that meant he was going somewhere that it would be awkward to try to hide a snake under his clothes, or a bat in his pocket.

“Unofficially,” Arik confirmed. “The Moon Cultists have said they won’t talk to Sun Clerics anymore. Bit of a problem when the official position of the Sun Temple is still that dismembering a corpse is sacrilege. Personally, I’d try not offending the only people willing to do death rites for the unclaimed, but what do I know.” Arik picked his sword back up. “Easier to send a Voidpriest over before the bodies start piling up.”

“We leave our corpses where we make them, usually,” Karzarul said.

Arik shrugged. “Too many empty bodies in one place makes problems,” he said. “Doesn’t make any sense with current doctrine, but we’re still doing it, so I assume that means it’s real.” Arik contemplated the blade of his sword, an ornate thing for sparring and special occasions. It wasn’t meant to taste blood. “I’m not happy,” he said suddenly.

“Oh.” Karzarul let the moonlight sword he’d made disappear. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m going to grow old and die here,” Arik said, looking at his reflection in the steel. “There are times when I believe I can accept it. A little life, chemistry and horticulture. Being a good uncle. A good grand-uncle.” Arik gestured to the courtyard around them. “What do I have to complain about?” He dropped the point of the sword toward the ground. “I’ve never done a single thing I’ve been proud of,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything interesting that wasn’t through a window. I’ve never met anyone that didn’t know I was the son of the Empress. I used to fantasize about running away, someday. Making a life of my own, with someone who loved me. Except I didn’t. I never did anything. And now I’m…” He trailed off, rubbing his hand over his eyes.

Karzarul shifted to a Bruteling, and hugged Arik’s legs.

“I want to go somewhere that no one knows me,” Arik said, tilting his head back to look at the sky. “I want to be useful. I’ve been good my whole life, done everything I was supposed to, and all it’s got me is old.”

“You’re not that old,” Karzarul said.

“I feel old,” Arik said. “I’m sorry, Uncle Karzarul. Don’t tell Uncle Vaelon, but I think you’re my favorite.” He patted Karzarul on top of his head.

“You’re my favorite nephew,” Karzarul assured him.

“I already knew that,” Arik said with a smile.

Karzarul smiled back. “When did you want to leave?”

“Karzarul!” Vaelon called as soon as he was through the Rainbow Door. They’d put it in for Karzarul’s benefit, since Vaelon didn’t visit the castle often if at all. Karzarul was always quick to herd Vaelon away from other monsters, and Vaelon was willing to admit that he found their attention off-putting. He was used to being liked. He wasn’t used to strangers with Karzarul’s face.

“Hello, Vaelon,” said a nervous Bullizard standing by the door to the rest of the castle. He was wearing a long tunic, sword and horn at his hip. He didn’t reach for either. He was dwarfed by the size of the room, the entire castle built to accommodate Taurils.

“Can you let him know I’m here?” Vaelon asked.

“He knows,” the Bullizard said without clarifying.

Vaelon paced the length of the enormous hall the Door was kept in, wringing his hands. He heard Karzarul coming long before he arrived, the noisy sound of hooves against stone.

“Vaelon?” Karzarul asked, hooves skidding on the tile as he only barely brought himself to a stop in time.

“Is he here?” Vaelon asked before Karzarul could say anything else.

The Bullizard quietly saw himself out.

“What? Who?”

“Arik,” Vaelon said. “He’s run off somewhere, he—he left a note. I told her she needed to let them get this shit out of their systems when they were teenagers, but did she listen? Now he’s sneaking out of the Imperial Palace with bad knees and doesn’t know better than to leave a note.”

Karzarul scuffed his hoof against the tile. “He didn’t want her thinking someone took him.”

“She thinks it was you,” Vaelon said. Karzarul rubbed the back of his neck. “Was it you?”

“I didn’t take him,” Karzarul said. “He’s not a thing you can steal.”

Vaelon rubbed his hands over his face. “Karzarul. Please tell me you didn’t have anything to do with this.”

“He wanted help,” Karzarul said, and Vaelon made an incoherent sound of distress. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Talk to his mother!” Vaelon said, dropping his hands. “Lynette could have found something for him to do, somewhere for him to go, if he didn’t want to be there anymore.”

“He’s his own person,” Karzarul said. “He didn’t want her help. He asked me in confidence, I wouldn’t betray that.”

“He isn’t just anyone,” Vaelon said. “He’s the Second Son of the Third Consort, it isn’t safe for him to be wandering around out there.”

“He didn’t want to be safe,” Karzarul said. “He wanted to be Arik. There isn’t any reason for anyone to recognize him.”

“You could have talked to me,” Vaelon said. “I would have talked to Lynette for him.”

Karzarul rubbed at the moon on his hand, eyes downcast. “You would have talked to him for Lynette.”

“You don’t know that.”

“There isn’t anything you wouldn’t do for her,” Karzarul reminded him, meeting his eyes. Vaelon started to argue, rubbed his forehead instead. “It’s better this way,” Karzarul said. “You didn’t have to take sides, or do anything you weren’t comfortable with. She can be mad at me, because it’s all my fault.”

“You don’t get to decide that!” Vaelon said, and Karzarul shrank back. It was as close as Vaelon had ever come to yelling at him. “You don’t make decisions like that without consulting me, you don’t get to decide you’re protecting me from hard choices. You don’t get to decide what I can handle.”

Karzarul swallowed, holding his hands close to his chest. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

“I know what you meant,” Vaelon said.

Lynette came through the Rainbow Door.

Karzarul and Vaelon both froze.

She was wearing her crown and a blue silk dress, her boots and her pauldrons. Flawless, except for the murder in her eyes, the sword naked in her hand. Karzarul took a reflexive step back.

“Where is he?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” Karzarul said.

“Bullshit,” she said.

“He asked me to help him get out,” Karzarul said.

“It’s not a fucking prison,” she snapped. “He didn’t need you to help him escape.” She gestured wildly, as if she weren’t still gripping her blade tight. “He could have left!” she said, arms held wide. “Any time, if he wanted to leave, he could have asked. He could have left normally instead of getting whisked away in the night by a fucking monster.” She spat the word.

“Nettles,” Vaelon warned, but she ignored him.

“If he’s free to leave,” Karzarul asked, “why are you here?”

“Because I don’t know where he is!” she shouted, pressing a hand over her heart. “I’m his mother. What if he changes his mind? What if something happens? How am I supposed to keep an eye on him?”

Karzarul was tense, pulse pounding, trying not to make any sudden moves. “Not keeping an eye on him,” he said, “was kind of the point.”

“I never should have let you talk me into letting them meet him,” she said to Vaelon. “It would have been better if they’d been scared of him.”

“You don’t mean that,” Vaelon said.

“Don’t tell me what I mean,” she snarled. “I am well the fuck aware that you’re going to defend him. You always defend him. No matter how much he does to undermine me, no matter how many times he tries to take everything I have and make it his.”

“I haven’t—” Karzarul began.

“Shut up,” she snapped. She pointed her sword at him, and he took another step back.

Abysscales in the West and Taurils in the North and Bullizards to the South, everywhere he’d ever thought he might be able to do more good than harm. Never big things, always small ones, guarding one ship or one town or one caravan but it was still too much to be borne. Soldiers and knights all killed their share but it was worst when it was her, she wasn’t interested in allowing for strategic retreat. He would have given up but the monsters were more stubborn than he was, always determined that they’d do better this time.

“Get down here if you want to talk to me,” Lynette said. “I’m not talking to that.”

“Don’t talk to him that way,” Vaelon said, trying to stand between them both. “And don’t point your sword at him.”

Vaelon acting as a shield was more than Karzarul could take. He shifted on instinct to trade places, to put himself before the point of the sword.

Ten comets of light left him, darting out the doors and windows.

“Are you fucking kidding me.” Lynette lowered her sword, but not for any loss of fury. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do that?

“You wanted me down here,” Karzarul said helplessly.

“You stupid motherfucker.” Lynette struck out with her sword, and suddenly Karzarul had one of the Moonbow’s arrows in his left hand, using it like a dagger to block her blade. He pivoted with her to draw her away from Vaelon, who thankfully was not trying to throw himself between them.

Lynette,” Vaelon pleaded.

“Of all the fucking things you could have done,” Lynette said, as Karzarul continued to block her strikes with his arrow, backing away as she advanced. “You made a new one. Another fucking monster, with his face.”

Karzarul hadn’t realized he’d done that. He had hooves again, some kind of a dress but he couldn’t tell what, couldn’t catch his bearings when she wouldn’t stop advancing.

“Do you think that’s going to stop me?” she asked. “Or do you think you’re proving something, making me kill him? Having to see his face, again and again and again, every time I kill one of those fucking things? His face, staring back at me, every fucking time and now you’ve made another one. You, with your castle, with your crown, letting your monsters do as they please. Respecting no laws, no borders, making no treaties. What do you think a king is? Do you think it’s a name you can give yourself, like a toy for you to play with? Do you think it doesn’t matter where your subjects are, where they go? I know no exports from your kingdom but cannon fodder wearing his face.”

“Lynette,” Vaelon said, “what did you do?”

Karzarul was blocking every blow, matching her step for step, and he realized he’d seen this before. He’d watched her strike him down so many times he could catch all her tells, follow all her movements in reverse. He made a sword in his right hand, and used it to try and parry in earnest, to hold his position or drive her back.

“What have you ever done,” she snarled, “except show up where you weren’t invited, and make a nuisance of yourself?”

“I was trying to help,” Karzarul said.

No one asked you,” she said. “I never needed your help, I never wanted your help, if Vaelon hadn’t pitied you I would have killed you from the first and saved us all a lot of trouble.”

“Karzarul,” Vaelon said, “you need to get away from her.” He strummed a few shaky notes.

Lynette laughed bitterly. “We both know you can’t cast for shit when you’re upset,” she said, managing to hit Karzarul in the side. He roared, light and silver leaking from the wound. “Of course you’re upset,” she said. “You might actually have to choose, for once.”

Karzarul bared his teeth and hissed, gave her an opening and let her strike him again so that he could stab his arrow deep into her sword arm. She roared as he pulled away, summoning another arrow to replace the one he left. She didn’t bother taking the arrow out, switched her sword into her other hand. The change took away some of Karzarul’s advantage, unused to seeing her fight with her off-hand. He tried to move faster, felt himself go soft around the edges when he did it. Off-key and intermittent notes came from Vaelon, stopping and starting and unable to string together even a short tune.

If he could disable her other arm, if he could get her to stop, maybe then Vaelon could finally talk her down. Maybe seeing her like this would change something, maybe things would be different, as long as he got her to stop.

Shadows rose quiet from the floor as Vaelon gave up on playing.

Karzarul managed to parry Lynette’s sword downward, aiming his second arrow at her left arm.

Shadows grabbed them both, tried to pull them apart, but inertia was still pushing them forward and unprepared for the interference they fell into each other with legs dragged out from underneath them.

The shadows dissolved as soon as they collapsed. Lynette tried to speak, gurgled blood from the arrow in her throat. Karzarul’s sword and both arrows disappeared all at once as he grabbed at her, tried to stop her falling.

“You—you had the Sunshield,” he said. “You could have blocked me. Why didn’t you block me?”

She grinned, blood on her teeth, as her eyes went unfocused.

Lynette.” Vaelon was on the ground beside them both, pulling her frantically out of Karzarul’s arms. “I can fix it, you need to hold on so I can fix it.” He given up on his instrument, black-eyed as dark threads of magic tried to stitch her carotid back together. The floor was already slippery with blood, soaking through his clothes as he held her face. “Nettles, baby, come on. You can’t do this to me. Don’t do this to me.”

“I didn’t mean to,” Karzarul said. “I only wanted her to stop.”

Vaelon pulled the crown from her head, stroked her hair and held her to his chest and started to rock. The Sunshield on her back burned his arm, and he ignored it. “You could have run,” Vaelon said through tears. “You didn’t have to beat her at her own game. You could have flown.”

Something tight in Karzarul’s chest was making it hard to breathe, clutching at his throat from inside his ribcage. “Why do I always have to run?” he asked before he could stop himself. “Why is it always my fault?”

“It’s not your fault,” Vaelon said, holding her tighter, weeping into her shoulder. The light of the Sunshield had gone out.

“It’s—it will be okay,” Karzarul said. “It won’t be forever, it can’t be forever. Our souls are eternal. Right? She’ll be back. We have to wait until she comes back, is all.”

Vaelon’s tears had turned black, void rising like smoke from the ground all around him. “I can’t do this,” Vaelon said, his voice thick. “I can’t, I told Her I couldn’t do it.”

“Vaelon,” Karzarul said. “Please. She’ll be back, she will. Wait with me. We’ll fix it, we’ll make everything right before she comes back.”

Vaelon’s magic was already spreading through all the grout between the tiles, all the seams in the stone that made the walls, filling the room and smothering the light of the Rainbow Door. Karzarul tried to move and realized he couldn’t, magic the color of void all wrapped around his limbs.

“I can’t,” Vaelon said. “I can’t, I can’t, she had her empire and her consorts and her children and you have your monsters and I had two people, all I asked for was two people and this is what I did with them.”

Karzarul tried to change shape to escape the magic’s hold, but it held on even when he was shapeless between forms, only let him move in fits and starts before dragging him back down. All the tiles started to tear from the floor, the walls shaking. “I’m sorry, Vaelon,” Karzarul said, “I didn’t mean to, I really didn’t, please wait with me until she comes back, please Vaelon.”

Vaelon looked at his hand, and realized he was taking it apart piece by piece. He could see all the bones of his fingers, the latticework of veins. There was an impossibly loud cracking sound as the Rainbow Door shattered, the sound of the wound in the world snapping shut. “Okay,” Vaelon said, sounding calmer. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay. You be okay, Karzarul.” He set Lynette down in his lap. “I’d tell you to be good, but you’ve always been good.” Vaelon unsheathed the Starsword.

Vaelon,” Karzarul begged, “don’t, please don’t, you can knock the whole mountain down if you have to, I don’t mind, I’ll be okay—”

All the magic and darkness disappeared, and Karzarul screamed.

Nonononono.” Karzarul scrambled to Vaelon’s side. The hilt of the Starsword burned his hand as he pulled it out from under Vaelon’s ribs. “I don’t, I don’t have magic, I can’t fix it.” He pressed his hands over the wound, although he could already tell it wasn’t going to work. “Please don’t die.”

“I’d better,” Vaelon croaked, his witchmarks turning the color of skin. “If I live after that I’ll die of embarrassment, instead.”

Karzarul couldn’t tell if the sound he made was supposed to be laughter. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “You’re going to come back. You and Lynette, both of you. I’m going to fix everything before you get back. It’ll be different from now on.”

“Love you, Beautiful,” Vaelon sighed, and Karzarul let out a choked sob. He pressed his mouth to Vaelon’s hair.

“You’ll be back,” Karzarul said, all his breathing coming in choked gasps. “I’ll have everything ready before you get back, I’ll get it right this time. I’ll wait, and you’ll come back, and you’ll sing me every new song Mother Void teaches you while you’re gone. You never said you’d stay alive, you only said you’d come back. You’ll be back and we’ll live and we’ll get it right.” He tried to hold Vaelon’s lifeless hand, and realized there was a second star there, one on Vaelon’s left as well as the one that had long been on his right.

There was a small sun on the back of Karzarul’s left hand.