“Do you want to come with me?” Minnow asked, back astride Piggy. Walking alongside a Tauril went against every one of the horse’s instincts, but Minnow kept her under control.
“Where?” Karzarul asked.
She’d bought herself new clothes, a wraparound tunic and leggings in blue, the embroidery in white. Her new boots were black leather. She’d tied her hair back with a leather strap, but it was already starting to escape.
It was cute. He was trying not to think of her naked. And wet. He wanted to pick her up and put her onto his back again.
She pulled a map out of her bag, unfolding it in front of her. She’d drawn a grid over it, marking various areas with different colors. “I haven’t mapped this area to the east here,” she said, pointing to a square. “There’s supposed to be some ruins there that I want to see. And one of the villages on the way has a special curry that you can’t get anywhere else, so I want to try that.” She paused. “And maybe Karzarul will be there.”
“Do you think so?” he asked.
“He could be,” she said. “Do you know where he is?”
“I can’t tell you that,” he said.
“Oh,” she sighed. “I don’t like that. I hope you don’t know. Don’t tell me if you know, okay?”
“I won’t,” he said.
“If he’s there, would you have to fight me?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“Okay.” She sighed again, pouting. “You better not be lying,” she said. “I don’t want to have to kill you.”
“Thanks,” he said.
“Do you want to come with me?” she asked again.
“I can’t visit the village,” he said.
“If you were smaller I could hide you in a cart,” she said. “But if I buy the special curry powder, I can make you some. There are supposed to be crabs there as big as I am. Maybe you can catch some while I go shopping, and then we can have crab curry. You’re not supposed to kill them until you’re ready to cook them.” She folded up her little map, putting it away to get a small pamphlet instead. “There’s a recipe in here, so I should be able to make it as long as we can find a pot big enough for the both of us. I might buy some first to make sure I know how it’s supposed to taste. Sometimes I make a new recipe and I think I did it right but it turns out I used the wrong flour so the real kind tastes different.”
“You’re very talkative, for a Hero,” he said.
“Oh.” She tucked her pamphlet back away. “Sorry.”
“I wasn’t complaining,” he said. “Just surprised.”
“I’m usually not,” she said.
He regretted the observation. He hadn’t meant to shut her down. She had no way of knowing what he knew, how many Starlight Heroes he’d known, how many had killed him and how many hadn’t. He couldn’t explain it to her, the contrasts in the way she moved and the shape of her mouth and the curve of her hips. He couldn’t explain how he kept expecting, hoping, to see Laurela’s smile or Jonys’ hair. Something, anything, some sign that they could be friends again, that she wasn’t Elias or Tomas or any one of hundreds of reincarnations.
They were all supposed to be the same. But they weren’t, really. And he’d never seen one like this.
“I only mean,” he said, “I’m surprised you don’t have more traveling companions, when you’re so friendly.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m not. And most people would die.”
He couldn’t argue with that.
“And I imagine we’ll have to meet near the village, or the ruins, instead of traveling the whole way,” she mused. “I don’t usually—one second.” She dismounted from Piggy, plunging into the woods and crouching in the underbrush. She emerged with another flower in her fingers, pulling out her book to press it between the pages.
“I take a lot of detours,” she continued, climbing back into her saddle. “I can’t even bring Piggy, half the time. I don’t expect you to come along spelunking, so it would make sense to split up. Escorting me the whole way would get tedious. But if we were going in the same direction, we could go together some of the way. And when you have places to be, you can leave.”
“Hm,” he said, noncommittal.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “It was just a thought.”
“We can go a way,” he said. He was used to traveling alone since the Moonlight Kingdom had fallen, hiding himself among monsters as he roamed. It had been a while since he’d bothered with a clever plan or a scheme. It all felt so pointless. He could try to reclaim his kingdom, and he’d die; or he’d try to protect the monsters, and he’d die; or he’d try to protect the Hero, and he’d die.
He was bored of it all. He’d rather mind his own business.
Tagging along with the Starlight Hero on her curry quest was not minding his own business.
He couldn’t help it. It seemed interesting. And it felt creepy, to decline and then follow after her in secret. Which was, he already knew, exactly what he would end up doing.
“We can split up there,” she said, pointing ahead to where the road passed alongside a cliff jutting up through the forest. “Piggy knows to follow the road on her own until she gets to the next stable, so if I climb that then I ought to get a good view to work on my map. Then I can glide down and meet up with her further down the road. And you, if you want.”
“Why not go around?” he suggested, pointing to where the earth sloped up before it dropped off. It was steep, but not as steep as the flat face of the cliff.
“No,” she said. “Piggy has trouble going through the woods anyway, and it would take longer. I’d end up finding more things, and maybe there’d be monsters, or some caves, or a dungeon. Which—I’ll look there eventually. On my way back. But I don’t want distractions right now. It’ll be better to climb.”
A loud chiming noise came from one of her bags, and she made a sound of disgust. “Ignore that,” she said. “It’s a Seeing Stone, it’s not important.”
It continued to chime.
“You’re sure?” he asked.
“It’s never important,” she said over the sound. “He’s trying to check in and stop me from wasting time. I should have wrapped it in something but I didn’t think, now I can’t touch it without answering. So ignore it.”
“As you like,” he said, tempted to cover his ears. The sound was obnoxiously high-pitched.
“I’ll check in later,” she said, “and pretend I was hiding somewhere and got into a big fight because he can’t leave me alone. Which has happened before so it’s barely even a lie and he deserves to feel bad about it.”
They met again at the coast, Karzarul catching crabs at the beach while Minnow visited the town. She bought a small green dress suited to the climate, which he tried not to stare at. It matched her hair. The skin on her thighs and around her collarbones darkened to match the rest of her.
It took three tries before she had made the curry to her satisfaction, a wok balanced precariously above the campfire. Karzarul thought the first curry was fine. She ate with gusto, burying her toes in the sand.
He was finding himself distracted by her legs.
“Tomorrow,” she was saying, making a note in her recipe pamphlet, “we can start heading down to find those ruins. If you want to join me. Not that you have to. I travel slow.”
“I can go slow,” he said. The large bowl she’d given him fit in the palm of his hand, and had been finished long ago.
“Can you swim?” she asked.
He’d never tried it in this form. “I can,” he said, despite the uncertainty.
“Did you want to go swimming with me?” she asked. The sun was bright, and the water was clear for miles.
“Not today,” he said. He wanted to watch her swim from a safe distance, instead.
“Oh,” she sighed, leaning forward to rest her chin on her knees. She seemed disappointed. “I’ve never seen a Tauril swim.”
“You were teasing me,” he accused.
“A little,” she said. She looked like she might say more, but she stopped, looking somewhere past him to where coconut palms dotted the beach. She inched sideways, reaching out until she could retrieve the pack that was usually strapped to her thigh. Pulling out a telescoping eyeglass, she lifted it to look into the trees.
He turned his head to try and follow her gaze.
“It’s a prism falcon,” she breathed. “I don’t have a prism falcon feather.”
How could she possibly have room in her saddlebags for all these collections?
“Sorry,” she said in a low whisper, putting her eyeglass away. “This hasn’t come up because I actually have a lot of feathers already.” Instead of walking around him, she used him as cover, peering over his back at the trees.
He tried to also keep his voice low. “Would you like me to shoot it?”
She looked at the longbow he wore, with its arrows like spears. “No, that’s… it’s okay. Sometimes they drop feathers on their own, if you follow them and find a nest. Or I could set up a trap.” Her entire body was pressed against his ribcage while she stared at the bird over his back. Then she started climbing over him, which was no less distracting. “Wait here, okay? I’m going to be right back.”
He watched her wander down the coast, going further when the bird took flight with a flutter of brilliant wings. He considered whether he could get away with catching the falcon as a Misthawk and dropping a feather for her. He ate six more bowls of curry since she wasn’t looking.
In an hour she returned, still barefoot and with her hair askew. One of her knees was scraped. “I got it!” she called from afar, waving a feather in the air. “There was a nest!”
She still seemed to be catching her breath as she approached her bags, sitting alongside Piggy so the horse could rest. She found another book, this one bigger than the one she used to press flowers. She thumbed through the pages, each of them decorated with images of different birds and their names. When she found the page for the prism falcon, she tucked the feather in like a bookmark.
“I don’t know if I have any other feathers in here, since the last time I went home,” she said, trying to rearrange her saddlebag to keep the book secure.
“I’ve never seen a book like that,” he said.
“I got it from Leonas,” she said with a shrug. “He has a lot of books like this. Or, he used to. He gave me a bunch of them when he decided to focus on magic. I got some of my old maps from him, too. Most of them were terrible. One time I climbed a mountain and when I got to the top there was a road on the other side.”
Karzarul had been trying not to think about the Heir. The Heir wasn’t always a rat-fink bastard, but more often than not they were worse than the Hero. Something about the Sunshield made them into manipulative little shits, weaponizing other people rather than stay on the defense.
Karzarul liked the Hero, this time. Experience said the Heir would be three times as shitty to compensate. Maintain balance in the universe, or something.
“You’ve spent a lot of time with him?” he asked, trying to be casual about it. “Prince Leonas?”
“Some,” she said, sitting down with her legs stretched out in the sand. “He has a Rainbow Door in his tower, but he’s not allowed to use it. I can visit sometimes, but if it’s too much the King gets weird about it. It’s usually easier to use the Door to the watchtower and then sneak in his window. And he gave me my Seeing Stone but he mostly uses that to yell at me.”
“Ah,” he said.
“I haven’t told him about you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Minnow said. “He might have useful information in his library—you know, how you said the monsters are different? But I’d want to feel things out first, and I’d have to do it in person to be sure it was safe. Right? You haven’t said that you’re trying to be sneaky but it seems like you’re being sneaky. I haven’t seen you talk to anyone but me.”
“I am avoiding drawing unnecessary attention to myself,” he said.
“I thought so,” she said, satisfied. “I’m sure if Leonas knew he’d think you were a spy for Karzarul and give me a lecture about it. Would you tell me if you were a spy?”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I won’t tell, anyway.”
“I know little of this prince,” he said. “Is he wise?”
Minnow snorted. “He thinks so,” she said. “I used to think he was old, but he might not be much older than me. I think I was supposed to be the older one, but then I was a changeling. His mother was the Pirate Queen Cyrnae, the sea witch, so that’s why his witchmarks can look like waves instead of sunbeams.” She drew little shapes under her eyes with her fingertips to signify, though it didn’t quite get the idea across.
“I had not heard that the Queen of Astielle is a pirate.”
“She isn’t,” Minnow said, arching her back in a stretch that felt like a danger to her dress. “They say she left Leonas at the doors of the castle, before sailing to the edge of the world.”
“An interesting thing for them to say,” he said.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “I think Leland killed her. It seems like something he’d do. I don’t know if Leonas always does as he’s told because he knows or because he doesn’t. We don’t talk about his mother.”
Karzarul considered these revelations. He considered another bowl of curry. “What do you talk about?”
“How I need to kill Karzarul, mostly,” she said. “And his magical experiments. He does a lot of magical experiments. He says he doesn’t like that I waste time, but secretly he likes getting rare supplies.”
Experiments. He had known Heirs, and he had known their experiments. Aimon and Malgath, they had been the experimenting type. Cold comfort that he had killed Malgath in the end, those centuries ago.
“Hm.” Karzarul looked out at the ocean. “Is he nice to you?”
“Not if he can help it.”
“I don’t like him,” he decided.
Minnow giggle-snorted. “He’s not likeable.”
“Do you like him?”
She shrugged. “He’s fun.”
He wanted to throw her Seeing Stone into the ocean, to keep her far away from the witch prince and whatever his experiments entailed.
“Do you know Karzarul?” she asked.
“Some,” Karzarul said.
“What does he look like?” She was watching him intently.
“It changes,” he said, watching her right back.
“Do you like him?”
“He’s an idiot,” he said. “He’s done a lot of dumb shit.”
Minnow laughed. “Is he nice to you?”
“Not if he can help it.”
She laughed again. “Then I don’t like him. He should be nice to you.” She rubbed at her throat. “I should stop talking,” she said. “I don’t usually, it hurts now.”
He hadn’t thought they’d been talking long at all, and wondered if she was making excuses. She pulled herself up out of the sand, brushing it from her legs before walking to the water. In a few steps she was up to her knees, and she turned back to look at him. She didn’t ask, but he shook his head. She pouted, but turned around to wade deeper until she was far enough to swim.
Karzarul dreamt of a man with copper curls. Or a man with copper curls dreamt of him. It was hard to say.
He could see what Minnow had meant about the witchmarks, now. His skin was dark, for Astielle, though not much darker than the Hero. He had the sky-blue eyes of all Heirs, and which Karzarul could not help but find hateful.
In the dreamscape, Karzarul was formless, or formfull. He was all things, he was nothing, he was moonlight.
“What is this?” Prince Leonas asked. His voice was higher-pitched than Karzarul had expected.
“What am I, you mean,” Karzarul said. “You know very well, witch prince.”
Leonas frowned without alarm. “This isn’t what he looks like,” he said, reaching out and nearly touching the edges of the moonlight. Karzarul pulled away, and settled into the form of a Shadestalker. In the nothing of the dreamscape, he created a floor to stand on, pushed it outward into a room.
His old throne room, from once upon a time, all white marble and silver.
“Do you dream of me?” Karzarul asked despite the mouth of a giant cat, prowling toward his throne. Leonas shut his eyes, and seemed surprised to open them again to the same scene. “This is my dream,” Karzarul said. “You, interloper, may change nothing.”
Karzarul sat in the throne, draping his paws over the arm of it, the snake of his tail lashing.
“Karzarul?” Leonas asked warily.
“What did you imagine I looked like, I wonder,” Karzarul said, “that you do not recognize me now.”
He could feel the prince reaching for magic he did not have here, trying to alter a reality that was not his own.
“You’re awake,” Leonas said.
“I am dreaming,” Karzarul corrected.
“You aren’t dead,” Leonas said.
“Why did you bring me here?” Leonas asked.
“I didn’t,” Karzarul said.
“You lie,” Leonas said. “You took me where the Hero could not follow.”
At this, Karzarul took the form he’d once used most—an Impyr, the closest thing he had to human. His old rings, his old tunic, his old crown. “Do you think she is your bodyguard?” he asked. “That her fate is to serve you?” He stood with the sound of silver horseshoes hitting marble.
Leonas tried to retreat, but dream-logic kept him in place, unable to maintain the space between them. Karzarul caught him by the throat, resisting the temptation to crush it.
“Do you think she is a toy for you to play with until she isn’t needed?” he asked, and Leonas blanched. “You are not the first Heir of your kind I have seen, but I wish you would be the last.” He brought his face close to the prince’s. “How much do you remember?” he asked. “Do you remember watching me die? Do you remember dying? Shall I remind you?”
Did he remember what he’d done to Jonys? This new Aimon, this witchmarked Heir.
The prince’s slender fingers pried at his hand. “She’ll kill you,” Leonas said.
“Maybe,” Karzarul said. “Stay away from her, witch prince, or I’ll be sure to kill you first.” He closed his fist, and again he was alone.
Minnow was more pleased than she would admit when Ari agreed to join her. They’d stopped twice already for fallen stars, and more times than she wanted to count for new flowers. He had more patience than any human she had met. She wondered, often, if she had ever traveled with someone like this. Not now, but before. It must have been before, if it had been at all.
She had déjà vu. Not occasionally, not sometimes, but most of the time. She always felt like she’d forgotten something important, or was on the brink of remembering. There was always a word on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t quite seem to recall. Everything was familiar and she never knew why. She knew things she’d never learned and had skills she was never taught, and there were some she might never know, if no one asked.
It was frustrating. She still forgot things in the normal way, after all. She could never remember whether she’d actually forgotten something, or if she’d never known it. Everything was new but everything was familiar and nowhere felt like home. She felt foreign, or like everyone else was foreign, a whole world full of interlopers. She didn’t know how much of that was the Hero thing, and how much was the changeling thing. There wasn’t anyone she could ask.
Leonas had seemed to think that she ought to remember how to wield a sword. She did, a little. But she couldn’t explain how it always went wrong, how she would stumble or err because some part of her expected her limbs to be longer. It was a little like being a teenager after a growth spurt, but in reverse. Ducking to avoid hitting things a foot over her head. She was better about it, now. She had practice being herself. It was still difficult.
Collecting made things easier for her. Anything that wasn’t in her collection didn’t count, no matter how sure she was that she’d seen a chickatoo before. If a flower or feather or stone was in her collection, she knew she’d seen it. If a recipe pamphlet was on her shelves, she knew she’d made it. If she didn’t remember harvesting the quartz in her display case, that meant she’d forgotten it the way everyone forgets things.
Emotionally, it was easier. Harder in every other way, but she didn’t mind that so much. It was always going to be hard. She’d rather things be hard in the way she chose. She accepted that this made her a problem. There were things to be done, and she was not doing them. Children were born when she had begun to not do them, and those children were men now, with her work still not done.
She had never quite gotten the hang of the passage of time. She didn’t know how much of that was the Hero thing, and how much was the changeling thing. Perhaps when she fought Karzarul, she could ask him. Would there be time for questions before they fought? She hoped so. She had questions.
She pulled Piggy up short. “There,” she said, pointing.
“The ruins?” Ari asked.
“No,” she said. “That arch.” They’d been travelling the roads along the coast, and intermittently the beaches would end, cut off by cliffs jutting out high above the water. This one had formed into an arch, a column of stone rising up to meet the highest point. “I want to go up there.”
Minnow liked high places. They let her see where she’d been, and where she was going. She could work on her maps, and see if any monsters were coming. They made for good launchpoints for her glider. She hadn’t been gliding much since Ari had joined her. She hadn’t seen many monsters. She didn’t mind.
They travelled up the narrow path that broke away from the road, Ari behind her. The area at the top of the arch was a small field of wildflowers, and Minnow dismounted to start picking the ones she didn’t recognize.
“Should we have lunch here?” she asked. There were still seaweed wraps in one of her bags, left from the night before. Piggy nibbled at the grass.
“If you’d like.”
She looked down from the cliff, where the ocean turned to beach turned to grass and then road. She pressed her flowers into her book—she might need an extra book, soon—and started to pull off her boots. They’d sold matching sandals when she’d found this dress, but she hadn’t bought them. She was sure she’d lose them fighting a Bruteling or falling off a mountain; better to wear mismatched boots.
“I’m going to be right back, okay?” she said, unbuckling her belt and letting the Starsword fall in the grass. Then she ran up the hill to the highest point of the arch, overlooking the ocean, and launched herself off of it.
She didn’t know when she had learned to dive, to spin and arc her body and point it all in a line toward the water. She might never have learned it. Even in the Faewild Forest, she’d loved to dive from the waterfalls. At the time, she never wondered. Now she wondered about a Hero who hadn’t been born knowing how to dive.
She liked the falling, the way she felt it in the pit of her stomach as the water came closer. The falling was the best part. For that she could love the cold shock of the water, the moment of gasping for air when she found the sky again.
Something glinted amidst the rocks far underneath her feet. She spun to dive back under, forcing her eyes to stay open as she swam deeper, holding her breath until her fingers found a length of chain. Then she pushed upward from a rock, burst out of the water with another gasp for air.
She probably wouldn’t need a strange, lost necklace. But maybe she would. She wrapped it around her wrist and tried to move the mop of wet hair from her face, rubbing at her eyes. She wondered, as she swam back to shore, if she could dive again without testing Ari’s patience.
Ari was standing in the sand.
“What happened?” she called ahead from the water.
“I came to get you,” he said.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she said. “You were supposed to be eating.” She trudged out of the water and into the wet sand, trying to wring out her hair.
“You shouldn’t walk all that way with bare feet,” he said.
“It’s fine,” she began, yelping as he scooped her up. Her heart raced, and she reached for a sword she didn’t have before remembering that he was Ari. “Ari,” she scolded, hesitating as she grasped for a reason for why this was unacceptable. “Your clothes will get wet.”
“You don’t like riding on my back,” he reminded her as he started to walk. “This is easier.”
Something about his voice rumbled when she was this close to him. She wiggled in his arms until she could press her ear against his chest. She could hear his heart, slow and loud like a drum. “Say something,” she said.
“Something,” he said, all amplified by his own ribcage, and she giggled.
“What does it sound like,” she wondered, “when you roar?”
It started with a groan like a bridge about to collapse, then turned into an avalanche of stones falling through the mountain of him, a growl that became a bellowing earthquake so loud it hurt her ears. It could carry for miles, a sound like that, shaking foundations as well as her bones. She dug her fingers into his tunic with a small shriek of delight.
Somewhere further down the road, they heard a scream.
“Oops,” she said.
“Should we leave?” he asked.
“Will they not report that there is a monster in need of slaying?”
She laughed. “No one fights Taurils,” she said. “They’d die.”
“You fight Taurils,” he reminded her.
“I’m the Starlight Hero,” she said. Her knees were draped over his arm, and she curled legs tighter, pressing his forearm against the backs of her thighs. The embroidery on his sleeves dug into her skin, and she couldn’t feel his claws through his gloves. “I’m not going to fight you,” she said, in case he was worried. “Unless you’re evil. You have to tell me if you’re evil.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Oh,” she sighed. “I might fight you. But not before lunch.”