Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Eight

“Your Majesty, can we talk privately?” Minnow asked. She was still holding Karzarul in her hands, though he had at least uncurled.

The Fairy King sucked a tadpole through the straw in his drink and chewed it contemplatively. Changelings were all in a dither through the Faewild, figuring out which stones were actually monsters and then chasing them as they tried to roll away. “How private?” he asked.

“Can we go to the forge?” she asked.

The Fairy King frowned. Whatever happened at the forge would be between themselves and the Goddesses. “I guess,” the Fairy King said, reluctant and suspicious. He may have been picking up on Minnow’s mood; he’d known her the longest, after all.

Minnow was miserable, and did a poor job hiding it. It did not suit her the way it did Leonas, who had at all times a general aura of discontent.

“You better not want to talk to any Goddesses,” the Fairy King warned once they were alone.

“We have to ask about the Lost,” Minnow said.

The Fairy King blinked. “No.”

“We gotta,” Minnow said, holding Karzarul closer, her shoulders all hunched and drawn in on herself. “Astielle doesn’t scatter bones right, and—and they’ve got all this sunlight magic now, and—and we found out how they’re Undead, and somebody made a wish they shouldn’t have. And we thought we had a lead but then we didn’t and now we’re stuck. And if they made a wish that means you—”

“It’s not my fault,” the Fairy King said, raising his voice and stomping his foot. Minnow flinched. His wings buzzed. “That wasn’t me.”

“I know,” Minnow said. “But you know stuff, right? You were there?”

“I didn’t do anything,” the Fairy King insisted. The buzzing was getting louder, pressing dangerously against their eardrums and crawling into veins. The air felt heavy. “It’s not my fault every time a stupid grown-up makes a stupid wish that ruins everything.”

“I know,” Minnow said.

“You don’t,” the Fairy King shouted. The buzzing was palpable, the sound of it crowding out the sun and there were dark shadows all around his black eyes. “They aren’t mine and they aren’t supposed to be here. I don’t want to fix your stupid problems!”

Sunlight hummed against Minnow’s skin, Leonas being overprotective. Minnow wasn’t worried about that. She only felt terrible. The sound and fury of the Faewild was scary to an outsider, but a changeling would always recognize him as home. A person who was a place, made as one back when dragons still flew. A place where children lived forever, and a boy to take care of them. The whole world moved outside of him, and he stayed here. Accepting more changelings, always. Those precious few who would be fairies swallowed up into the Faewild with him so it could grow to hold their charges.

Until the day there was something else a lost child could be. Something that could happen to changelings that strayed.

She was surprised when Karzarul moved out of her hands. He was a shape and then he wasn’t, all indistinct between moments. He was smaller than his usual forms when he had one, almost the same size as the Fairy King.

Karzarul was a Bruteling, hugging him fiercely.

The Fairy King burst into tears.

He collapsed into ugly, noisy, wailing sobs as Karzarul patted his back. Karzarul made soothing sounds as the heaviness dissipated. Minnow rubbed her shoulder, trying to avoid looking at either of them.

“Do you want to go sit over there with me?” Karzarul asked the Fairy King, pointing to a log on the other side of the forge. The Fairy King nodded, holding up a hand to shield his face from view. “Okay.” Karzarul held his hand to lead him away, the Fairy King sniffling and rubbing at his eyes all the while.

“It’s weird that Karzarul might be the closest thing to his age,” Leonas said finally, “when the Fairy King is so much older.”

“You’d think they’d hang out more,” Minnow said.

The immortals were speaking too quietly to eavesdrop.

“Are we going to talk about the fact that he exploded?” Leonas asked finally.

“I don’t know,” Minnow said.

“You’ve never seen that monster before,” Leonas said more than asked. Minnow shook her head to confirm. Leonas bent down to pick up a rock, which unfurled in his hand. He held it up by its tail, and its little legs moved furiously as it tried to swim away through the air. “And yet they’re everywhere. Unavoidable.”

“I don’t know if we’re supposed to have noticed,” Minnow said with a touch of irritation.

“What?” Leonas said, setting the little monster back down. It got a running start to curl back up and roll away into the woods.

“Talking about things before you’re supposed to notice them is rude,” she said. “People get mad.”

“Karzarul gets mad about a lot of things,” Leonas said.

“So do you,” Minnow said, and Leonas scowled.

“We’d have to be stupid not to have noticed that he made a new monster.”

“You’d have to be stupid not to notice a lot of things,” Minnow said. “You still want to believe you’re getting away with it.”

“Don’t get snippy with me,” Leonas said.

“I’m not snippy,” Minnow said. “I try to be careful about what I say and then you act like I’m stupid.”

“I do not,” Leonas said.

“You do,” Minnow said. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I’m sure you do.”

Minnow rubbed at her eyes. “This was too soon,” she muttered. “We were taking a break from questing. I shouldn’t have—I didn’t mean for it to turn into a quest. I shouldn’t have let it turn into a quest.”

Leonas tentatively patted the top of her head, but Minnow jerked her head away. After a moment of still surprise, he grabbed her by the hair to pull her close, wrapping an arm around her neck to hold her back against his chest. She stiffened, going very still rather than lash out at him.

“Minona,” he warned in her ear. “If you are going to have a breakdown, wait until we’re done here.” She made a sound of irritation, angling her head to bite down on his wrist. Leonas hissed through his teeth but didn’t otherwise move. “I know. I know. You’ve been having nightmares for a week.”

She took her teeth from his skin. “They weren’t,” she said.

“They were,” he said. “For you, they were. You’re exhausted. You’re upset. But you’re going to have to wait, because the only one here is me, and I can’t help you with this. Not the way you need. This is the best I can do for you right now.” He stroked her hair, and she relaxed minutely. “You’re very clever, and you haven’t done anything wrong. Wait a little longer, and you can be upset after we leave.” He paused and kissed the top of her head. “Not at me,” he added. “That’s not allowed.”

“Okay,” she said. She felt bad about biting him when he was delicate. She licked at the droplets of blood on his skin.

“Don’t be weird,” he said. The spots glowed and disappeared in a flash of sunlight. “… he did definitely explode a new monster into existence, though.”

“Stop it,” Minnow warned.

“Do you know something?” Leonas asked. “Is there something you’re not supposed to tell me, is that why you’re being like this?”

“I don’t know!” she said, frustrated again. “I don’t know what I know, or figured out, or remember, or made up. If we talk about it without Ari I’ll forget that he’s not supposed to know what we think we know. It’s too much. Keeping track of what I know is hard enough without keeping track of everyone else on top of it. I’m tired, Nettles.”

“I’m sorry, love,” he said, kissing her hair again. “Come here.” He turned her around so she could hide her face against his chest, pressing his palms against her ears. She sighed, relaxing into him. “I’m asking him about this later, though,” Leonas muttered. He tilted her head up towards his so that he could dot kisses over her face. “Better?” he asked as he took his hands away from her ears.

“Maybe,” she said, wrapping her arms around his waist with another heavy sigh. “I don’t know. I don’t like this. I want to go somewhere that no one is and let everyone else deal with it. With everything. Maybe when the King is dead.”

“If my father dies,” Leonas reminded her, “I’ll be the King of Astielle.”

Minnow hummed noncommittally.

“I’m feeling better,” the Fairy King announced. Karzarul had shifted into a Howler, and the Fairy King was riding on his back. “Karzarul explained it so I’m fine now.” Minnow turned herself a little, but didn’t let Leonas go. “I don’t listen in on people’s wishes, so I can’t tell you what dumb thing that guy said to ruin corpses. Karzarul said people think he might have been a king? He didn’t look like a king of anything, but I don’t know. I didn’t ask because I didn’t think he’d be important. Most people just gaze upon the divine and die, so I don’t bother getting attached.”

“That’s okay,” Minnow said. “It doesn’t matter. We were hoping there’d be a clue about how to make the Undead regular dead.”

“You can’t,” the Fairy King said with a shake of his head. “The best you can do is stick them in an old log and let mushrooms eat them.”

Minnow frowned. “Does the Faewild have a Shadow Garden?” she asked.

“We don’t call ours that,” the Fairy King said. “The Sleeper Stumps are in the Deep.”

“I thought it was fairies who sleep in the stumps of the Deep,” Minnow said.

“It can be both,” the Fairy King said. “Fairies can’t die. When a fairy gets tired, we let them sleep, same as the Lost. We can do the same for you someday, if you want.”

Leonas held her tighter. “A changeling who leaves the Faewild is mortal,” he reminded the Fairy King.

“Yeah,” the Fairy King said, “but you’ve all got blessings. You could kill each other, I guess, but then you’d be born again and it’d be a whole thing.” Leonas’ eyes narrowed. The Fairy King looked down at Karzarul beneath him. “Does he not know?”

Karzarul scuffed his paws against the dirt, ears pinned back and head low.

“What don’t I know?” Leonas asked.

“You do know,” Karzarul said. “Our weapons are what kill us. That’s why it’s always the Hero who kills me.”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“Once one of us dies, we aren’t together anymore. You two become mortal again.”

“What.” Leonas slowly let Minnow go. “You’re—killing you kills us?”

“You guys like to be together,” the Fairy King said, sliding off Karzarul’s back and patting his ruff. “You’re real bad at it sometimes, is all.”

“We can die other ways,” Leonas said. “If my head gets cut off, I’m going to die.”

Karzarul scuffed his paws again.

“Nah,” the Fairy King said.

Nah?” Leonas repeated, incredulous.

“You’re like fairies, right?” the Fairy King asked Karzarul. “It knocks you out for a while.”

“They come back wrong,” Karzarul said, ears still back as he sat on the ground. “If—if you die. Sort of die. You don’t die, but you don’t really… it would be better if you did.”

“I. Okay.” Leonas rubbed at his forehead. “That sounds. We’re immortal now?”

“Yeah,” the Fairy King said. “You forgot a lot, huh?”

“Yes.” Leonas let his hand rest at his temple. “You’re saying if Karzarul had awakened sooner, I could have had the skin of a twenty year old forever?”

Minnow made a face, wrinkling her nose and sticking out her tongue.

“That’s fine,” Leonas said. “I’m fine. With that. This won’t haunt me at all. What were we—where were we?”

“We were trying to figure out if there’s a way to undo all the Undead,” Minnow said. “The Fairy King’s been there from the start and he puts them to sleep the same as the Moon Cultists, so that’s a bust.”

“What if we destroyed the blessing?” Karzarul asked. “When Vaelon asked if he could give up the Starsword, you said that he could, but it would destroy him with it.”

“Not destroyed,” the Fairy King said, shaking his head. “Wiped from existence. Backwards and forwards and everything that ever happened because of you and because of the blessing. He could have done it right then, but now it’s complicated. You’d unmake a lot of stuff.”

“Has anyone ever done that before?” Minnow asked.

“I don’t know,” the Fairy King said. “No one would ever know. That’s the point.”

“Do you remember what the blessing was?” Minnow asked.

“I would prefer not to create any paradoxes that cause us to never have existed, thank you,” Leonas said.

“I only mean, if his is like ours, maybe we can find the guy,” Minnow said. “Or the reincarnation of the guy.”

“It wasn’t like yours,” the Fairy King said. “You guys bound your souls to your blessings with your wishes. People with self-centered wishes usually die.” Karzarul ducked his head into his shoulders, abashed. “His was bound to the dead, I think. All the dead? I would check but I got mad and ate his terms and conditions. I thought if he came back I could trick him into unbeing.” The Fairy King scratched his head. “Don’t tell anyone,” he added.

“We won’t,” Minnow promised.

“I don’t keep track of people’s blessings,” the Fairy King added. “You’d have to ask your mom.”

Minnow pointed at herself, and he shook his head. Warily, Leonas pointed to himself, and the Fairy King nodded. Leonas said nothing.

“How did the Pirate Queen come to have it?” Karzarul asked, watching Leonas while pretending not to.

“Adventures,” the Fairy King shrugged. “She wanted to live forever, but the Nightshard doesn’t work like that.” Leonas remained very still. “She came here thinking she could trade it for a wish? I gave her some starter quests but she gave up before long. Which is good, because I was running out.”

“I don’t remember any starter quests,” Karzarul said.

“I didn’t give you any,” the Fairy King said. “I liked Vaelon.” His wings buzzed briefly, and he gestured at Leonas. “If it had just been you, I might have,” he admitted. “Your vibes weren’t great.”

Minnow laced her fingers with Leonas’, and he didn’t protest. “We’re waiting until after we leave,” she reminded him. He nodded.

Karzarul looked up to the sky. “Minnow,” he asked, “did you ever read your terms and conditions?”

Minnow blinked. “Yeah?” she said. “A long time ago.” It had made her eyes glaze over, nonsensical and contradictory for the most part. In turns of phrase she caught familiar concepts, but in the end it was nothing useful. Words and words and her soul stamped at the end of it.

“Okay,” Karzarul said. “Vaelon said he learned to cut Rainbow Doors. When he read it. Is why I asked.”

“Oh,” she said, frowning as she tried to follow the change in topic. “I made those?”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

“Vaelon was deeply in tune with the Void,” the Fairy King said, patting Karzarul’s ruff.

“Should I work on that?” Minnow asked, in case that was why Karzarul had brought it up.

“No,” the Fairy King said. “It was because he was sick. You’re better now.”

Minnow touched the Starsword. “I can’t do cool stuff, though,” she said.

The Fairy King hummed. “Being able to do cool stuff,” he said finally, “doesn’t seem to end well for you.”


“Do you think I could learn to make more?” Minnow asked, her hand against the stone of the Rainbow Door.

Karzarul had taken the lead through the Door this time, and he’d brought them back to the little wildflower cabin by the big willow tree. He’d promptly turned into a Rootboar and parked himself in the grass, looking out at the fields instead of anything close.

“Lynette’s enchanters made the Doors,” Karzarul said. “Vaelon could cut through any two places, but they’d heal themselves shut.”

“That would be even more useful,” Minnow complained. “I never said how I did it?”

“You tried to explain sometimes,” Karzarul said. “You said the universe is vast, and made mostly of void—empty spaces keeping all things from being one thing, and this world so small that any one place may as well be another. Connecting all the nothingness to fit things through the empty spaces.”

Minnow frowned, searching her memory and finding nothing. “That’s what the terms said,” she complained, crouching down. “About empty nothing. But it’s not.” She plucked a clover from the ground. “There’s so much. In this spot here, there’s so many things. And over there, it’s all different things, even though it isn’t far away.”

The thing about picking every flower was that it quickly became apparent how many flowers there were. If she’d been sensible, she would have whittled her list down to the more popular or interesting ones. Instead she dropped to her knees in every new place and scoured the ground by inches. Even the dirt in one place contained a million different things, all of them different from the dirt elsewhere. Nowhere was anything like anywhere else, not in any of the places she’d been; she could not pretend them alike enough to superimpose them.

“Vaelon was the only one who could make it work,” Karzarul said, his round little Rootboar shape resembling a large egg in the grass. “Some of the others could wield Starlight as a weapon, but that was all.”

“I can’t even do that,” Minnow sighed, pulling the Starsword out of its sheath. She examined the blade as if to do so would reveal something to her.

“Jonys said he played it,” Karzarul said. “Like an instrument.”

“It doesn’t sing for her,” Leonas said. He’d tried to sit himself down by the willow tree, stiff and too aware of the location. He had given up, standing and pretending to look at things that weren’t Karzarul, aimlessly pacing in misshapen circles. He was trying not to think about the Faewild. “I’ve asked.”

“It rings sometimes,” Minnow said. “Only near stars. I don’t know how I’d play it.”

“You used to swing it in figure-eights,” Karzarul said. “Playing along with your heartbeat. If that helps.”

Minnow considered trying it. But trying to do sword tricks made her self-conscious, and she didn’t think her fingers were clever in that way. Rolling and spinning and flipping blades. Something itched at her memory, but she didn’t know whose memory. High-pitched sounds scraping at the inside of her skull, her pulse in the marrow of her teeth. She refocused on willow leaves and wildflowers rustling in the breeze, the distant chirping of birds. “Maybe,” she said, sheathing it again. “You didn’t want to tell me this, before,” she said.

“No,” Karzarul said. “I don’t like… telling you about yourself. Talking about them.” He took a long, slow breath. “But I… I think your heart has always been your heart. Even when it hurts me. So. I don’t know.” He set his chin on his front trotters, grass tickling his snout. His posture was more like a dog than a pig.

“Was this hers?” Leonas asked, with a small gesture toward the cabin.

“It was supposed to be,” Karzarul said. “That was later. The Door was just… he liked the view. The cabin was for Laurela. When she was older.” He paused. “I still don’t want to talk about that.”

“Okay,” Minnow said.

Karzarul transitioned into light, blossoming upward and taking shape as a kneeling Impyr. He was wringing his hands, scratching absently at the pitch-black moon. “I gave up,” he admitted. “After Laurela. I—I used to offer. I would offer to let you stay with me. When we fought, if I won. I stopped, after Laurela.” He scratched harder, claws digging into his skin, dripping silvery light. “If I’d offered, last time—if I’d tried—”

Leonas was pulling Karzarul’s hands apart, bent down over him with copper curls falling over his shoulder. “It wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said. “If it had, Minnow wouldn’t be here. Not being the one to save her isn’t the same as being the one who hurt her. I am sorry, for whatever it’s worth.” Karzarul’s skin was whole again, but when Leonas let him go Karzarul held on.

“It wasn’t you,” Karzarul said quietly.

“Same heart,” Leonas reminded him.

“It wasn’t mine yet,” Karzarul said.

Leonas’ witchmarks flared bright, skin flushing beneath them. His eyes sought out Minnow, fingers drumming on the hilt of the Starsword. “Are you okay?” he asked, changing the subject. “I know you weren’t feeling well. Before. With your—the Fairy King.” Karzarul still hadn’t released his hands.

Minnow blinked. “I’m good,” she said.

“Are you sure?” Leonas asked.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “The bad part’s over, so I’m good now.”

“You don’t have to be,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Minnow said. “Don’t push.” She was aware as soon as she said it that it made her sound like a liar. But not being believed was irritating. “Are we going to be sleeping outside, or inside?” she asked.

“We can go inside,” Karzarul said, reluctantly releasing Leonas’ hands.

“I might have messed it up,” Minnow warned.

“Good,” Karzarul said. “It was supposed to be yours.” He hesitated, then shifted to a Howler. His ears and tail were both low, but Minnow was secretly relieved. If he’d started crying as a Rootboar, she did not trust herself not to laugh by accident.

The inside of the cabin was dusty, but most things were by the time she got back to them. There wasn’t much, aside from extra rocks she hadn’t wanted to keep carrying the last time she’d been through. She’d meant to come back for them but had forgotten. The root vegetables in the kitchen bin had started growing. She opened all the windows and the oversized front door, dragging the quilts outside to shake them out. The Sunshield and the Starsword leaned against opposite sides of the doorframe.

“Is this lapis?” Leonas asked, picking up a craggy hunk of blue.

“Do you want it?” Minnow asked from outside.

“No,” he said, setting it back.

Karzarul stuck his front paws on the sill of the back window to look outside. “The rhubarb is still there,” he noted. “And the walking onions.” Most of the tension had left him now. The space was too much Minnow’s to lose himself to the past.

“There’s like six rhubarbs now,” Minnow said. “And so many onions.”

“I’m not hungry,” Leonas said.

“There’s rolls and apples in my bag,” Minnow said. Leonas headed straight for where she’d set it down outside, digging through it until he found the handkerchief tied around the bread. He ate by tearing off small pieces, heading back inside to sit on a chair made of a log. Karzarul sat on the floor in something like companionable silence.

Minnow paused as she brought the quilts back inside, looking Leonas over assessingly. “You called me love earlier,” she said. Karzarul’s ears shot up, looking between the two of them.

Leonas choked, witchmarks flaring. “I said a lot of things,” he managed. It was all a bit of a blur. It had briefly seemed as though the Fairy King might stick them in trees, his boyfriend had exploded into a rock, his girlfriend had been on the brink of a tantrum, and he’d been reminded that his mother had a life before he was born. A man could say a lot of things under those sorts of circumstances.

“You did,” she said. “You’ve never called me that before.”

“I might have,” he said.

“You haven’t,” she said. “Is that what you’re going to call me now?”

“Absolutely not,” he said too quickly.

“Okay,” she said, apparently unperturbed. She patted down the wooly mattress to make sure it was suitable for sleeping on before throwing the quilt back over it. Leonas kept his eyes on his roll, picking at it without eating. It bothered him that she was unbothered.

“I do love you,” Leonas managed finally, not looking up. Karzarul stayed very still.

Minnow rolled the words over in her mind for a moment. “I don’t know what that means,” she said finally.

“… what.”

“I sort of know what it’s supposed to mean,” she said defensively. “That’s not how anyone uses it.” She raked her fingers through her hair, pulling some of the tangles apart. “Lots of people say they love me,” she said. “Like people have said they love you.”

Karzarul curled in on himself slightly.

“I don’t know,” Leonas said, irritated now that his attempt had not been received as intended. Irritated that other people had ruined it by thinking that they loved her. That she would compare it to anyone who’d ever said they loved him. “I wanted to say it. That’s all.”

Minnow was irritated that he was irritated. She closed the gap between them, reaching out to touch him without asking permission first. He tensed as her hands cupped his jaw, tilting his face towards her. “You’re pretty,” she said, and he scowled. “You’re very smart, and really stupid.” His expression did not improve. “You know me. You pull my hair and you let me bite you. I like your eyes, I like the way you look at me.” That felt inadequate, so she hunted for the words to clarify. “Sometimes you look at me the way you’d look at a specimen. But sometimes you look at me like a toy you want to break. I like it when you’re greedy, and selfish, and tell me I’m not allowed to be mad at you. When you let yourself do the things you think you shouldn’t want.”

She bent to bring her face closer to his. He’d stopped scowling, but he hadn’t softened. “You make me happy,” she said. “Even when I’m mad, and I hate you. It makes me happy when you’re happy. I know you hate it, the way that we are and the things we’ve been, but I’m glad you’re stuck with me. I want you to stay with me. I want to see the whole world, and show you all the things I see so that you can tell me why they’re terrible and so am I.” She touched the tip of her nose to his. “Does that mean I love you?”

“I don’t know,” Leonas admitted. “I want to stay with you. I don’t like it, but I want it. I would die for you if I thought you’d let me.”

“Is that what your love is?” she asked.

“For you, I think it might be.” He leaned forward to catch her mouth in a kiss, brief and terrified. Minnow pulled away, straightening, but he caught her hand to kiss the callouses on her palm.

Minnow looked at Karzarul, sitting hunched on the floor. “Can you be a person?” she asked.

“Sometimes,” Karzarul said. “Not well.” He shifted rather than be obtuse, an Impyr still sitting on the ground. Minnow’s fingers trailed behind as she left Leonas, sitting herself in Karzarul’s lap. She sighed, leaning her head against his chest.

“I already said, didn’t I?” she asked. “That I want you with me.”

“You did,” he agreed.

“It’s different now, though,” she said. “It must have been a memory before. That you should be with me always. Remembering that you were someone I should love.” She rested her head at his shoulder, looking at his earrings as she reached up to touch his neck. Her thumb stroked the hollow beneath his ear, fingertips pressing at his nape. She didn’t want to look at his face, too sure that it was sad. “I wanted you very much,” she sighed. “But not the way I want you now. I didn’t know you before. Or, I did, but…” She sighed. “It’s complicated,” she complained.

“I know,” Karzarul said.

“My heart knew your heart,” she decided. “The same heart. But Minnow didn’t know Karzarul. Not the way I know Leonas. It helps that it’s both of you. I can see more of you, when it’s the two of you. You’re a brat.”

“Hey.”

“You have that in common,” Leonas muttered.

“Yes,” Minnow agreed, pleased. “I like that about us. I want you to stay with me. I want to find new flowers, and catch new fish, and dig for truffles with you. I want to be touching you. Not all the time, but a lot of the time. Is that loving you? Is that enough to call love?”

Karzarul said nothing. “Could you live without me?” he asked finally. His eyes met Leonas’. “Without us?”

“I did,” she said. “For a long time. I don’t want to anymore, that’s all. I can give you breaks sometimes, if that’s what you mean. If Leonas wants to stay home and read, or you want to hang out with the other monsters. I don’t mind being alone.” She hesitated. “Is it not love if I don’t need you always?”

Karzarul turned his head to kiss her forehead. “That’s the right amount of wanting,” he said, and she relaxed. “I love you, too,” he said, and she hummed. “Before I was anything, I was something that loved you. Even if I hadn’t made myself to be loved by you, I would have loved Minnow.”

“Yeah?” she asked breathlessly.

“Yeah,” he said.

There were a lot of things he could have told her. About the way she spoke to him like a person and tried to warn him away from danger. The way she was wild and beastly. The unfortunate and unflattering reality that she made him feel more like a person by acting like less of one.

“You’re cute,” he said. She giggled.

Leonas and Karzarul’s gazes met again. That neither rushed to reassure the other said as much as anything. Karzarul looked away first.

“I don’t love you yet,” Leonas said before he could feel awkward about it. “I don’t know what it would feel like if I did. I care for you. If anything happened to you I would be… upset. But I’m not…” Leonas struggled to put words to the ways that it was different. “I don’t know you,” he decided. “If there was a time when I knew you, I don’t remember it. She knows you well enough to love you now, but I don’t.”

Karzarul nodded slowly, rubbing Minnow’s back. It was a relief that Leonas had said it when Karzarul had been wary of offending. Karzarul still had trouble interpreting his own feelings, where Leonas was concerned. Everything a tangle of fear and lust and bad memories.

“You think I’m hot, though, right?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas made a startled sound of offense that made Karzarul start laughing. Leonas immediately pulled off his boot to throw it at Karzarul’s head. Karzarul ducked out of the way with Minnow, cackling.

“I’m taking the Door without you,” Leonas announced, staying seated and shoving little pieces of bread into his mouth.

“You’re really hot,” Minnow assured Karzarul, patting his chest.

“Thanks.”

hungry thirsty roots: 07

The Goblin Lord’s notes were less helpful than she might have hoped. The Winter Tongue had many more symbols than felt necessary, for many more sounds than felt practical. There were a number of spots where she could not tell if he had written a deliberate intensifier, or his ink had simply dripped, as the shape was not quite right for an accent. In spots he had written Veren words, pointing to the letters to indicate the proper sounds, but these only confused the issue further.

In what way could it be said that a symbol mapped to the letter X, if it was pronounced like the J he alleged was present in the word croissant?

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hungry thirsty roots: 06

The room felt somehow more claustrophobic with the door open. Clara became hyper-aware at all times of what she was doing, of what he could see her doing. And he did watch. He would stand in the doorway sometimes, eating candy and watching her go about her business. What little business she had. Washing her hair and staring quietly at the walls.

She didn’t exercise while he could see her. She didn’t want him to forbid it, or else have it give him ideas.

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hungry thirsty roots: 05

“I’m going to start leaving this door open,” the Goblin Lord decided.

Clara stared at him.

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Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Seven

“Did you find anything?” Karzarul asked when he returned in the morning, shifting to an Impyr almost immediately.

“No,” Leonas said.

“Maybe,” Minnow said.

“What?” Leonas asked. “When would you have—let me see your hands.” He grabbed her by the wrists to check under her nails for grave dirt.

“I won’t know for sure until we spend the night at more of the marked spots,” Minnow said, ignoring his inspection.

“What is it?” Karzarul asked.

Minnow shifted her weight with a small purse to her lips. “I don’t want to say until I’m sure,” she admitted. “It won’t be like the dead kids thing,” she added quickly upon seeing their faces. “I would tell you if there was danger like that. This time. I learned my lesson, before.” She took Leonas’ hand in both of hers. “I have an idea,” she said, “and if I’m wrong, I can forget it. But you guys aren’t as good at forgetting bad ideas.”

“Hey,” Karzarul said.

“I don’t want to give you the idea unless it’s real,” she said.

“That… might be good,” Leonas admitted, glancing at Karzarul.

“Don’t look at me like that when you say that,” Karzarul said, putting his hands on his hips. “I know what I can handle.”

Minnow narrowed her eyes at him. He was only able to maintain eye contact for a moment. “You have a lot of stuff you haven’t dealt with,” she said instead of letting him squirm in silence.

“You don’t know how much I’ve dealt with,” Karzarul muttered.

“I know some of what you haven’t,” Minnow said, “which feels like enough to make a judgement call. Like how Leonas won’t let me jump off any buildings.”

“Stairs exist for a reason,” Leonas said.


She was crying screaming laughing wailing. There was a cold wind and a hot sun. She was suffocating gasping, the sky was too big. She was wanted unwanted bait sacrifice. Upset resigned defiant. Furious and glad, unforgivable what they’d done and unforgivable what she did and she would not did not apologize.

The jeweled white snake that slid over her shackles carried sweet temptation on his tongue. He glittered in the sunlight as he promised her salvation. He would save her if she let him. He would kill them if she asked.

He was a weapon he was a test. She was weak failure failed.

The bliss of freedom, of broken chains. The kiss on her forehead, the wind in her hair, the monster beneath her. Enormous glorious terrifying. She dwelled on the lines in his hands, soft skin white as bone. There was something about his hands. The softness size of them.

If she could have stayed there in his hands tracing all the lines of his fortune. If there hadn’t been screaming and blood and satisfaction. She should have mourned.

They wanted a savior and she was their undoing. He was her savior and her undoing. She could not bear it, what she’d he’d done. Could not bear the reminder of what she was wanted.

But there were still those moments, long and terrible. Before the screaming, before the blood. Her heart in his hands, and in dreams she could dwell there.


Dejii was being kidnapped.

Again.

It happened a lot.

He was a middling prince of a minor kingdom, neither the eldest nor the youngest. Close enough to the throne to be a bargaining chip without being an outright declaration of war. Since coming of age, he had narrowly escaped marriage with five different princesses and two princes.

It was a whole thing. He was getting pretty tired of it.

Most of it blurred together. Rides in carriages and wagons and on the back of someone else’s horse. He remembered the wagon, though. The crude wagon of a landless mercenary kingdom seeking legitimacy. He remembered it was an enclosed wagon because that was why he hadn’t been able to see out of it, hadn’t had anyone to talk to or ask about all the strange noises.

He had been kidnapped a lot. He knew what a successful kidnapping was supposed to sound like. It did not sound like yelling, shouting, cracking wood. Sometimes he thought he remembered a glimpse of it, but it was only imaginings, reconstructed later from the things he’d heard.

Until the wagon had opened, and a great white Tauril had peered in at him.

Dejii remembered the Monster King as glorious. Bedecked in silver and jewels, flowers in his hair dripping petals like spring blossoms. Shoulders as broad as Dejii was tall, as light as he was dark.

The middling prince of a minor kingdom, there was no reason to concern themselves unduly with the fate of the world or the favor of goddesses. Those were matters for greater kingdoms, for places where heroes were born marked.

“Are you here to kidnap me?” Dejii asked. He’d never been kidnapped from kidnappers before.

The Monster King cocked his head. “Would you like me to?” he asked.

Dejii was embarrassed at himself for acting self-important. The faux pas would haunt him for the rest of his life at odd moments. “What do you want?” he tried instead.

“Would you like to go home?” the Monster King asked, offering an enormous hand.

“No,” Dejii said, because he could already imagine being brought home to sit and wait for the next kidnapping until his father could settle on a marriage arrangement that satisfied him. The unreality of the moment drove him to honesty when he ought to have known better.

“Ah,” the Monster King said. “Then you were trying to run away with them?”

“No,” Dejii said again.

“Hmm.” The Monster King looked out at whatever was happening outside the wagon, which Dejii still could not see. “How about I kidnap you for now, then?”

“I don’t think I’m allowed to agree to that,” Dejii said.

“Alright,” the Monster King said, meeting no resistance as he hauled Dejii out of the wagon. It was not the first time someone had swept Dejii off his feet. It felt the safest. Perhaps because of the size of him. Dejii rested his head against the Monster King’s chest. He smelled like apple blossoms and clover.


“Hey,” Karzarul said drowsily as Minnow crushed her chest to his, nuzzling hard against his neck. He let his hand rest against her back. “You okay?”

She hummed in the affirmative, dragging teeth over his skin.

“Oh,” he said, less drowsy. “Hello.”

“Sleep,” Leonas ordered without opening his eyes.

“‘m gonna,” Minnow mumbled.

“She’s been sleeping like shit,” Leonas reminded Karzarul. “Don’t enable her.”

Karzarul kissed Minnow’s temple as she huffed in sleepy irritation. “I will,” she muttered. “I just—I want.” Karzarul wrapped both arms around her and squeezed. “Can you lay on me?” she asked.

Karzarul squinted at her hair. “… like a pillow?”

She shook her head. “If I can move I’ll—I’ll—” Her fingers curled, ragged nails scratching at his chest as her fingertips pressed hard into his skin.

“Okay,” Karzarul yawned, rolling over and tipping her off of him in the process. He pulled at the edge of the blanket that had been beneath them, covering her with it. She squeaked in mild protest as he started rolling her over to wrap her in it.

“Are you swaddling our girlfriend,” Leonas asked, still not opening his eyes. Karzarul grunted, rolling her completely over and then settling in on top of her. He slid his arms underneath their pillow beneath her head, letting his chin rest at the crook of her neck.

“How’s that?” he asked in Minnow’s ear.

She sighed and nuzzled her cheek against his.


There were wolves in the woods, the nightmare always of the wolves in the woods, the mad howls and gnashing teeth of the wolves in the woods. There was the drought and there was the frost and everything was hungry. Ryul shouldn’t have been in the hungry woods but it was gnawing at him, eating him from the inside.

He did not know how long he ran. It felt like hours, days, eons. His legs and lungs all burning and his heart pounding up into his throat. The wolves in the woods were hunting and if he slowed at all he’d stop, collapse, driven to their mouths by his hunger.

There were Howlers in the woods. He did not know how long he ran to find Howlers in the woods when the monsters all stayed in the deep dark places. He had never been so far as to see monsters. He did not know when it happened, when what had been wolves became Howlers, the same loping gait and so much larger. He did not know what happened to the wolves. Only that they were gone.

Howlers were much faster than wolves.

It was the white Howler that caught him, its paws on his back and the ground hard beneath him. It caught him and it howled, a terrible echoing sound, vast as the night sky. He waited to die and he didn’t. The Howler left him there, and when he looked up he could see the white of its fur. A dark crescent marked the middle of its forehead.

It passed behind a tree, and it was a Tauril that walked around the other side. He wore a crescent crown, his tunic embroidered in silver. Ryul had the sense to grovel. He did not know what monster had found him, but he knew a difference in status when he saw one. This monster was not a man who knew hunger gnawing at his bones.

“You kneel much too easily,” the Tauril said, but Ryul was well past shame. “Why are you in my forest?”

“There were wolves, my lord,” Ryul said, for if it was his forest then it must be a king.

“Yes,” the Monster King said. “I was there for that part. Why were you in their forest?”

“I was hungry, my lord,” Ryul said.

“So were they,” the Monster King said. “Were you planning to eat the wolves? They’ve already eaten most everything else.”

“I didn’t know, my lord.”

“Did you find anything?”

In an overabundance of caution, Ryul emptied everything he’d collected from his pockets onto the ground. Leaves and pine needles, bits of tree bark. He resumed groveling once his pockets were empty.

“Do humans eat pinecones now?” the Monster King asked. Ryul didn’t answer. “Hmm.” Ryul could hear the hooves coming closer, and he screamed when an enormous hand lifted him off the ground.

“Please, my lord, I will leave—”

“Quiet,” the Monster King ordered as he threw Ryul over his shoulder. Ryul covered his mouth with both hands and prayed to the Moon Goddess that She would show some mercy where the Sun Goddess had not. Ryul’s limbs all felt too weak to hold himself. Howlers flanked their king in all directions.

The deep dark of the wood gave way to sunlight where the Monster King set Ryul back down, allowing him to collapse in the grass. Ryul trembled and might have heaved if he’d anything in him to come back up.

The Monster King set a clay bowl of water in front of him. “Drink.”

Ryul stared. He realized he could hear water, though he still could not bring himself to look up to find its source. Slowly he brought the bowl to his mouth with both hands, and in an instant it was gone.

The season had been so cold and dry. Icy as winter, without even the small blessing of snow to melt.

The Monster King was speaking a language Ryul didn’t understand, slippery sounds with sharp edges. Ryul looked up long enough to see a small figure, then quickly turned his head away.

Brutelings were an ill-omen; better not to look at one directly, even here.

Small hands placed a basket in the grass near him, heaped with berries and flatbreads. Ryul stared again and tried to remember if monsters worked according to the rules of the fae. Was a gift a trap, unsafe to accept or to refuse?

“Eat,” the Monster King said, and Ryul needed no more excuse. His empty stomach overruled his head as he stuffed bread into his mouth, too much to chew and nearly swallowing it whole. Handfuls of berries shoveled onto his tongue, blue and black and raspberries but he was eating too quickly to taste.

A hand on his hair stopped him, and he might have recoiled had the touch not been so firm. Ryul looked up and found that the Monster King had changed again, a scaled thing sitting like a snake in the grass, a man still larger than Ryul though he had no legs. He was a thing that belonged in oceans deeper than Ryul had ever seen. He touched beneath Ryul’s chin, tilting his head upward and brushing his thumb along a stray bit of juice. He let Ryul go and licked the spot of red from his hand. The teeth alongside his tongue were sharp.

“Slow down,” the Monster King said. “You’re going to make yourself sick.”

Ryul was already sick. His hands shook.

“This place is not meant for mortals,” the Monster King said.

“I will tell no one,” Ryul promised, lowering his forehead to the ground again.

“Your people are dying,” the Monster King observed. “You would tell them nothing of food? Of water?” There were slippery voices again, those words Ryul did not know. The tone of an argument. “Shall I keep you?” the Monster King wondered, and Ryul looked up. The Monster King had his hand on his chin, considering him with a tilt of his head. Beautiful and terrible and Ryul felt panic clutch his heart.

If he had stayed. What might have become of him, if he had stayed? Would he have kept him? Could Ryul have stayed there, in that place of impossible waterways, that orchard of bountiful fruit? What price would he have asked, that beautiful and terrible king?

He could have paid it. He should have paid it. He should have stayed.


“With dreams,” Minnow asked, curling tighter against Karzarul’s chest. “Do they get stronger if you daydream them, too?” She’d become more cautious about her dream-related assumptions.

“Yes,” Karzarul said.

“I don’t know that mine ever did,” Leonas said.

“How often did you daydream about me?” Karzarul teased. Minnow headbutted his sternum as Leonas threw a pillow at him.


Ilaya was running from her wedding. A lovely man and she would be lucky to have him, but she wanted something else. She didn’t know what she wanted. She didn’t expect to make it far. But maybe the attempt would speak to the madness of her, and the lovely man would decide he didn’t want her.

She followed the river until it met the mountain, water above spilling over rocks into a wider point like a pond. She stumbled as she tried to stop, and fell sputtering into the water, gasping for air as she came back up.

There were scales in the water, white and glittering as snow. Some great sea serpent misplaced, and she had fallen into its nest. But when she looked up there was a man at the end of it, white-haired and silver-eyed, sharp-featured and shining.

A different kind of lovely man altogether.

“Hello,” Ilaya said, at a loss for anything else.

“Hello,” the monster said, raking claws through his hair the way a maiden with a comb would do. “Who are you running from?” he wondered.

“My husband,” she said.

“Ah,” the monster said. “Would you like me to kill him when he gets here?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head as she realized her mistake. “We aren’t married yet. I don’t want to be married, is the problem.”

“Would you like me to kill him when he gets here?” the monster asked again. Sharp claws, sharp teeth.

“It isn’t his fault,” she said. “It isn’t anyone’s fault but mine.”

“I find no fault with you,” the monster said with a tilt of his head. There were silver rings in the fins of his ears, eyelashes of spun silver.

“I should marry him,” Ilaya explained. “He’s a kind man, with a fine figure.”

“There are many such men,” the monster said. “You can hardly be expected to marry all of them.”

“He would treat me well, and give me a comfortable life,” Ilaya said. “I could learn to love him.”

“Why should you?” the monster wondered. “You don’t want to.”

“I don’t know what I want,” Ilaya said. “It’s ridiculous to give up everything for nothing.”

“There are times when nothing is worth holding on to,” the monster said. “If you are so determined to talk yourself into marriage, I have no interest in talking you out of it.”

“Will you help me?” she asked.

“I already asked if I should kill them,” he said.

“Can you help me get away?” she asked.

“Where do you suppose I would take you?” he wondered.

“You could bring me to the mountain,” Ilaya said.

“The mountain is for monsters,” he said.

“I can be a monster,” she said. “My mother always said so.”

The monster’s gaze was sharp. “Come here,” he ordered, holding out a hand, fingers all ending in sharp points. Her feet struggled for purchase in slick stones under the water. She reached her hand out to take his, but he pulled her closer, a hand in her hair forcing her to bow before him. Her heart thudded hard against her sternum. “Does this look like a monster to you?” he asked. She realized she was looking at her reflection, her face so like her mother’s.

“Yes,” Ilaya said.

He tilted her head back up to look at him, moving his hand beneath her chin. She tried not to make any sudden moves as he considered her.

“I will lead you away from here,” he decided. Her heart leapt. “But I will not show you the way. You may not see where I have brought you, or how you might return. Yes?”

She nodded.

“Close your eyes, then,” he said, “and I will take you as far as you can keep them shut.”

The arms that carried her out of the water did not feel like the arms that had been outstretched to her, but she dared not open her eyes. The back that carried her through the woods did not feel like the back of a man. The hand that guided her when the ground was clear was too large, then too small.

But sometimes they felt the right size. Large, still, but recognizably a man. She wondered what he looked like in those moments, her hand in his. That sharp and lovely man in the water, taking her away.

Ilaya could feel sunshine on her eyelids and smell wildflowers. Something buzzed close to her face, and she stumbled. The arms that caught her felt like a man’s, a man’s chest that she braced herself against. She clung tight to him and told herself she wouldn’t look.

A lovely man, too lovely to be real. All white and silver, carved like ice and snow. His face so close to hers, as pretty as it was, made her breath catch with a sound of surprise.

His brows dipped, and she shut her eyes again. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“I told you,” he said, “that I would take you as far as you kept your eyes shut.”

“It was an accident,” she lied.

“I asked of you one thing,” he snapped, “and even that, you couldn’t give me.”

“It was an accident.”

“Open your eyes, human girl.”

She did so reluctantly and kept her eyes downcast for fear of the look on his face. In the grass, his hooves were silver.

“Look,” he said, and she raised her head in time to see his gesture away from the mountain. The far side of it, opposite her village, stretching out into plains. “Take your pick of human towns,” he said. “Find your way to whichever strikes your fancy.”

Small clusters of buildings in the distance, looking so small from where they stood. Fires were being lit as the sky started to darken.

“It’s too far,” she protested. “It will take days, I can’t make it on my own.”

“You must,” he said, “as I will take you no further.”

“Please,” she said, but where he’d stood a bird had already taken flight.


Minnow had spent the night in her oak tree. Leonas, despite many protestations, had slept curled up with Karzarul while he took the form of a Shadestalker.

Hollows had been deepening under Minnow’s eyes for a week, but the night in the Faewild seemed to fade them.

Minnow brought the two of them deep into the Maze of Roses for something resembling privacy. It was impossible to be certain of true privacy where fairies and changelings were concerned.

“Should we be worried?” Leonas asked, sitting in the grass.

“Yes,” Minnow said.

Karzarul didn’t like being an Impyr in Faewild Forest, but he wanted to look like a person, and a Tauril would be too large to avoid the thorns.

“Dreams can be memories, can’t they?” Minnow asked. “That’s normal?”

“Yes,” Leonas said.

“Usually,” Karzarul agreed.

“Okay,” Minnow said. “I don’t have to explain that part. The dead leave their dreams behind, but they don’t always linger. Some are stronger than others. Usually the scary ones, but not always. There’s the ones they dwell on when they’re awake. Lingering dreams are, they sort of.” Minnow made a vague gesture with both hands that meant nothing. “I don’t like sleeping near graveyards or battlefields because so many people die there, they have so many dreams. They’re left with the dead or dropped by the dying, they don’t stay in the places they dream of. It’s not always obvious, though. The places people leave their dreams behind.” She wrung her hands together. “I think the map was marking places I could dream,” she said.

“About the Nightshard?” Leonas asked.

“About Karzarul,” Minnow said, looking at her hands.

“What?” Leonas asked.

“What?” Karzarul asked.

“I must have—he must have—gone to all the places around Monster Mountain. Looking for. Looking for dreams of you. And he marked them down, when he found them.”

“What?” Karzarul asked again.

“You liked to help people,” Minnow said, still not looking at him. “Is what it seems like. They—they dreamed of it. Of you. That’s what the map is. It’s a map of places I can… I dream of you.”

“Oh,” Karzarul said.

“Minnow,” Leonas warned.

“I know,” Minnow whined. “I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t sure.”

“You—he—” Karzarul grasped at a locket he wasn’t wearing. “He made a map of me?”

Minnow nodded miserably.

“He wanted to see me,” Karzarul said as much as asked.

“You’re sure there weren’t other clues in there?” Leonas pressed. “Something else important about the dreams?”

Minnow shook her head. “It isn’t anything else,” she said. “I can tell.”

“What—who were they? The dreamers.”

“I don’t know if you’d remember them,” Minnow said. “I think you must have tried to save a lot of people.”

Leonas rubbed his forehead.

“Saved,” Karzarul repeated. Minnow nodded again. “Okay. That’s—okay.”

Slowly, Karzarul bent forward and covered his head with his arms. Minnow debated trying to hold him, but recoiled when he suddenly burst into a brilliant white light. Blinding light flying out in every direction, and they could hear fairies screaming in delighted terror as it passed through the Faewild. Minnow had to shut her eyes, and it was a long moment before the light through her eyelids faded enough to open them again.

There was a rock where Karzarul had been.

“Uh oh,” Minnow said.

“Should I be worried?” Leonas asked, his voice higher-pitched than usual.

“Maybe,” Minnow said, cupping her hands in the grass to lift the tiny ball of moonlight. Closer, she could see the edges of armored scales. “Karzarul?” she asked gently. “Is that you?”

The lump was unresponsive.

“Should we contact Violet?” Leonas asked Minnow.

“No,” Karzarul said firmly, startling them both. He uncurled in Minnow’s hands, enough to poke a small furry face out from the hard scales covering his body. The ears that popped out from where they’d been tucked were almost as big as the rest of him, his snout slender and pointed. “Give me a minute,” he said, before sticking his snout and ears back into his belly to hide them.

“Okay,” Minnow said, lowering her hands to hold him in her lap.

“What kind of monster is that?” Leonas asked her.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve never seen one before.” Leonas frowned. “I’m sorry about all this.”

“It isn’t your fault,” Leonas said.

“It was my map,” she said.

“Not really,” Leonas said. “What do we do now? That was our only lead on the Nightshard.”

“I’m going to ask the Fairy King,” Minnow said.

“I thought you didn’t want to.”

“I don’t,” Minnow said. “That’s why we’re waiting until Karzarul can provide emotional support.”

“It might be a while,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Minnow said. “It’s that, or you have to be the emotionally stable one for a while.”

“We should wait,” Leonas said.

hungry thirsty roots: 04

The Goblin Lord did not take the silk dress away from her. She guarded it jealously, didn’t leave it where any lesser goblin could take it while she slept. She washed it in the tub before she washed her hair, and sometimes wore it wet. Without laces to make it fit, it was shapeless and large enough that she could rearrange it to protect her from direct contact with her blankets.

Clara resented his having let her wear it in the first place. Everything else hadn’t seemed so bad until she had the contrast. Surely he’d had something else he could have covered her with.

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Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Six

NSFW Content Warnings
Biting with Fangy Teeth ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Weird Monster Dicks ❤ Anal Sex ❤ Blowjobs ❤ Handjobs ❤ Facefucking ❤ Dirty Talk

“Violet,” Karzarul barked, bursting into the room that Violet had set up as a temporary office. “I need you for something, it’s urgent.”

Violet stood immediately, wings briefly arching. They fell again when the mood failed to meet the tone of Karzarul’s voice. Karzarul was in Savagewing form, making the two of them twins in different colors. Karzarul still insisted on wearing a formal tunic, as well as straightening his hair.

He’d always had the benefit of being the most distinct of all of them.

Violet’s feelings were already getting muddled, a vague anxious sense of dread that he only ever felt when Karzarul was near. The wanting, the ache, the desire to please, the resentment. If anyone else made him feel this way, Violet would assume he had a crush. Instead it was Karzarul and all the waves of his internal life crashing against Violet’s shores. Indistinguishable from being anxious, from resenting Karzarul for making him feel this way.

Violet was proud of his ability to untangle that knot, because he knew them too well. He remembered what it felt like to be them. He knew now what it felt like to be himself.

“What happened?” Violet asked with languid suspicion. Karzarul wasn’t upset enough for it to be a serious matter, particularly when he’d come alone.

Karzarul had started to pace already. “Minnow is interested,” he said. He gestured to himself for clarity’s sake.

“Of course she is,” Violet said, pleased beyond measure. “She’s supposed to be.”

Karzarul huffed in annoyed impatience.

Violet hummed thoughtfully. “Did you want practice?” he asked.

Karzarul stopped pacing, flexing his wings. “Kind of.”

Violet laughed, which brought Karzarul’s wings to an angry arch. He couldn’t decide if they were basically the same person or basically strangers, couldn’t decide if this was worth feeling embarrassed about.

Violet remembered as well as he could the awkwardness of it, the clumsy learning of a new body. Unexpected responses in parts of the anatomy that hadn’t previously existed. And Karzarul was still, Violet was sure, lying to Minnow. Pretending that he’d spent his years getting wise and figuring out what the fuck he was doing. A repeat of the first time with Jonys would be difficult to explain.

“Don’t be so fussy about it,” Violet teased, closing the gap between them. “You know I live to serve, Your Majesty.”

“Fuck off,” Karzarul muttered reflexively, gaze sliding from Violet’s. Violet felt a brief flitting sense of shame before remembering it wasn’t his.

“I liked the fucky energy better,” Violet said. He arched his own wings with a slight flare, a purring little growl to test the waters. Immediately Karzarul raised his wings high toward the ceiling, snarling and baring his teeth. Violet had to resist the temptation to spread his wings out and roar at him. “We’re going to have to decide who’s in charge,” Violet warned.

“I am,” Karzarul said.

“Of course you are,” Violet soothed. “Do you want to be?”

Karzarul hesitated, wings falling a little. “… we can figure it out.”

“Only if you want to end up fighting over it,” Violet said. “I don’t know how many of this body’s instincts you keep,” he explained, “but we like to claim what’s ours.”

“Ah,” Karzarul said, with a faint glow.

“I don’t mind being underneath you,” Violet said, “but you’ll have to pin me like you mean it if you want it to stick.” The space between them was gone, but Karzarul’s heels gave him an extra inch in height. He always wore his crown when he came to visit as if there were any risk of confusing him with another monster. Violet wrapped two arms around his shoulders and the others between Karzarul’s sets of arms. “We already know where Minnow’s predilections lie,” Violet said. “But you could go either way. Isn’t it easier if you let someone else do all the work, the first time?”

“Maybe,” Karzarul said, but their bodies were pressed together and when Violet rocked his hips he could tell it was working.

“If it helps,” Violet suggested in his ear, “you can tell yourself it’s vanity when I call you beautiful.”

Karzarul’s feathers fluffed momentarily as he rolled the word over in his mind and tried to decide how he felt about it.

“Too far?” Violet asked.

“Say it again,” Karzarul said.

“Beautiful,” Violet purred. He reached up to stroke one of Karzarul’s antennae, and Karzarul shuddered. “When you’re with Minnow,” Violet said, “you shouldn’t let her touch these.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Karzarul said before Violet caught his mouth in a kiss.

Despite the problems it presented with the other monsters, Violet did prefer when his King was like this. They were getting caught up in each other already, because ‘horny’ was the kind of feeling that didn’t leave room for many others. Violet hadn’t been his own person long enough to have nurtured feelings as big as the ones Karzarul had, so this felt like the only way he could hold his own. Getting turned on by turning on someone else was almost normal.

“Come on,” Violet said as he pulled away, taking Karzarul’s hands. “Let’s find a bed, these floors are unkind to knees.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Karzarul said, following along as Violet pulled him through the halls.

“Oh, rude,” Violet gasped. “I’ll have you know I am being considerate.”

“Uh-huh,” Karzarul said as Violet pulled him into a room with a neatly-made bed, closing the door behind them.

If it were anyone else, Violet would have used this as a learning opportunity about having a smart mouth. But it was Karzarul, and even when he let Violet be in charge there were going to be limits. It took a certain sort of person for Karzarul to willingly submit, and they typically wore stars on their hands. Violet was only a lesser monster, a less-than person.

Karzarul didn’t know he thought about them that way, but Violet remembered. It was a problem they’d need to work on, was all. And in the meantime, there were limits to what Karzarul was willing to submit to.

Violet kissed him again, face tilted upward to meet his extra inch, unfastening his tunic with all four hands. “How do you get this off your wings?” Violet wondered.

“I don’t,” Karzarul admitted, and the garment dissolved into moonlight nothing along with his gloves.

“So it’s a flex, is what that is,” Violet said with an annoyed crinkle of his nose, untying his robe. Of course Karzarul deliberately wore clothes that anyone else would need to be sewn into. Violet didn’t know why he’d expected anything less.

“Little bit,” Karzarul said, and Violet was startled when Karzarul grabbed him to crush a sudden hard kiss to his lips. Violet growled with a flare of his wings, catching his breath as he pulled away.

“Who’s in charge?” Violet asked before Karzarul could respond to the display.

“Ah,” Karzarul said, unsure if he was offended or aroused, naturally inclined toward offense.

“I’m not trying to be a bitch,” Violet said, throwing himself at Karzarul and draping himself over him dramatically. It was silly enough to defuse Karzarul’s short fuse. “I told you,” Violet reminded him, kissing at his neck. “I can’t help it.” He sniffled, but not believably. “It’s not my fault I’m like this,” he reminded him.

“For fuck’s sake,” Karzarul muttered, rolling his eyes, which meant Violet had succeeded.

“Behave yourself, Your Majesty,” Violet said, running his fingertips along Karzarul’s scalp before tightening his grip on his hair. He pulled his head back to kiss his throat. “I know what you like,” he said against his skin. “I’ll take excellent care of you.”

Karzarul hummed as Violet pushed him toward the bed, urging him to sit. Violet straddled his lap as soon as he’d done so, two hands cupping Karzarul’s face to kiss him. Karzarul quickly forgot himself, because he always did when he had someone’s tongue in his mouth. Violet ground against him, and Karzarul groaned in his mouth, nothing but thin fabric between them. Violet dragged his teeth along Karzarul’s throat, and Karzarul shuddered. Violet let his robe fall to the floor, beating his wings once on principle.

“Ah,” Karzarul said. “She likes the wings.”

“Good,” Violet said into his mouth. “Don’t flap them around on purpose, they’ll go on their own near the end.”

“Yeah?”

“You’ll see,” Violet purred. The thumbs of his higher hands brushed over Karzarul’s nipples, lower hands pulling at his tights until his cocks were free. He caught Karzarul’s moan in his mouth. “Your Majesty,” he giggled.

“Don’t,” Karzarul warned weakly. Violet’s feathers fluffed as he resisted the desire to remind Karzarul who was supposed to be in charge.

“My lord,” Violet sighed, and though it was better it didn’t satisfy either of them. “My heart,” he said with greater conviction, though it made Karzarul’s pulse stutter. “It is,” Violet reminded him, pressing his hand against Karzarul’s chest, grabbing one of Karzarul’s hands to press it to his own. “Where else would it have come from?”

“Ah,” Karzarul said. Violet wrapped his thumb and index finger around one of Karzarul’s cocks, the rest of his fingers around the second so that he could stroke them simultaneously.

“You gave us ex-cellent dicks for getting head,” Violet said as he stroked him.

“Did I?” Karzarul panted.

“Oh, yes,” Violet purred. “If they tilt their heads a little you can rub one against the bulge in their cheeks.”

Fuck.”

“Mm-hmm,” Violet said. “Much less likely to break anything than your other ones.”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “Did you want me to—?”

“You’d regret it,” Violet said.

“No,” Karzarul insisted. “I want to.” Violet kissed him again, stroked him harder and pressed his hands against his chest. “Please,” Karzarul added. “I’d make it good for you.”

Violet pressed his lips to Karzarul’s shoulder, trilled involuntarily while grinding through his tights against Karzarul’s cocks. “Do you think I doubt it, beautiful?” he said in his ear, a hand not already occupied tracing a thumb along Karzarul’s mouth. Karzarul licked the pad of his thumb. “Tease,” Violet accused. “Would you kneel?”

“You know I would,” Karzarul said. “Unless you can think of something hotter.”

Violet laughed. “We could bind your wings and arms behind your back,” he suggested, “and lay you down so I could watch my cock make your throat bulge.”

Fuck,” Karzarul gasped with a buck of his hips. “That’s—”

“—a bit much?”

“Yeah,” Karzarul confirmed. “Later, maybe.”

Violet giggled as he slid off Karzarul’s lap. “We’ll keep it simple, then,” he said, working his cocks out of his tights. Karzarul was on the floor in a heartbeat, two hands on Violet’s thighs and two on his cocks. Violet trilled but didn’t scold him for it. Karzarul ran his tongue along the length of the first before sliding his lips to the base and taking it in his throat, repeating the process for the second. Once they were both slick with spit, he focused the attention of his mouth on Violet’s lower cock. When he took it all the way he could stick his tongue out to lick at Violet’s balls, hand pumping Violet’s higher cock and rubbing it against his face.

Violet groaned a little, running his higher hands through his own curls, lower hands touching Karzarul’s hair. “Oh, I did learn from the best, didn’t I?”

Karzarul hummed an affirmative around a mouth full of dick.

Violet stroked Karzarul’s antennae, and Karzarul faltered, moaning and going briefly slack. Violet used the opportunity to thrust hard into his throat before pulling out entirely. “Isn’t that nice?” Violet asked.

“I like that,” Karzarul confirmed breathlessly.

“I knew you would,” Violet said. “Get your mouth back on me, beautiful, let me do it again.”

Karzarul complied immediately, shuddering and letting out a low sound when Violet started stroking his antennae again. A fortunate oversight that a gag reflex was not something it had ever occurred to Karzarul that he should have. Violet watched him intently, having never been able to see this from the outside before. Silver lashes and soft lips and the odd awareness that it both was and was not his own face. The rhythmic sound of regular thrusts, throat tight around the head of Violet’s cock. As arousing for Karzarul as it was for Violet, or maybe the one simply led to the other. Violet had to stop and pull out for the sudden worry that he’d finish too soon.

“Am I allowed to fuck you?” he asked. Karzarul hesitated. “No,” Violet answered for him. “That’s okay,” he assured him.

“It isn’t like that,” Karzarul said, rising in that too-fast way he sometimes did, momentarily incorporeal. The rest of his clothes went missing in the transition. “I don’t mean it that way,” he insisted, touching Violet’s face. “It isn’t about allowed.”

“It’s okay,” Violet said, trying to get him to lower his hands. Karzarul laced their fingers together instead.

“Leonas has baggage,” Karzarul said.

“I’ll say,” Violet agreed.

“I’m waiting,” Karzarul said. “I haven’t let anyone have me since I came back, you know how it is with that.” The same form but a different form, the same body but a different body. Always the same but after he’d died it always felt new. A fresh start, a clean slate. “If it were anyone but him, I wouldn’t wait.”

“You don’t have to explain yourself to me,” Violet said.

“I do,” Karzarul said, pressing a hand against Violet’s chest. “I can feel it. I need you to know it isn’t you, it isn’t the way I feel about you. I don’t want to make you feel like me. Never like me.”

“Tough luck,” Violet said, giving in and kissing him again. “Like yourself more.”

“I’m trying,” Karzarul said against his mouth. “I really am. You don’t deserve what I do to you.”

“I deserve many sloppy blowjobs,” Violet countered, and Karzarul giggled as Violet kissed his nose. “All right, dear heart, let’s get in bed and figure out what I can do to you that won’t ruin you for other men.” Karzarul let Violet guide him backward but the digression had thrown them off course, left Karzarul feeling guilty and then guiltier for knowing that Violet could feel it too. “Be a good slut for me and stop thinking so much,” Violet teased.

Even if Violet hadn’t felt Karzarul’s frisson of pleasure, he could see it in his wings and his feathery antennae. He hadn’t figured out how to manage his body language yet, the body too new to him still.

“If you want to get comfy on your back, it’s going to help to stretch your wings out a bit,” Violet advised, pushing Karzarul onto the mattress. Violet took off the last of his clothes while Karzarul struggled to figure out what to do with all his limbs. “You’re so fucking pretty,” Violet said.

Karzarul blinked at him, then grinned. “Yeah?”

“You know you are,” Violet said, detouring to the side table to retrieve a bottle of oil.

“Vain,” Karzarul accused.

“Yes,” Violet agreed. “But I’ll admit you might be a little bit prettier.”

Because he was the color of moonlight, and he glowed, and he was always every inch of him entirely himself. And all the rest of them, in his presence, had to accept the reality that they were copies.

“Are you jealous?” Karzarul asked as Violet climbed into bed with him, and so he must have felt it.

“Hush,” Violet said instead of answering, fanning out his wings above them and letting their limbs get tangled as he kissed Karzarul again. “This position’s going to be awkward,” Violet warned. “If we’re on the bottom we’re usually flipped the other way around.”

“Ah,” Karzarul said.

“It’s okay,” Violet said. “We’ll make it work.” He poured oil into one of his palms to start stroking Karzarul’s cocks with it. “It’s a trial run to work the kinks out, it’s not a rehearsal.”

“Right,” Karzarul agreed, breathless.

“Wings out so I don’t get my knees on them,” Violet warned, nudging at Karzarul’s lower wings until both sets were splayed out on the comforter. “Good boy,” Violet said as he straddled Karzarul’s hips, recalling too late that he ought to be more careful with language. Karzarul didn’t take offense, was nothing but pleased when Violet kissed him again. “This is practice for both of us, because I haven’t tried this with another Savagewing before and it might not work.”

“Oh,” Karzarul said, surprised.

“Don’t look like that,” Violet scolded. “I’ve taken it up the ass, that isn’t what I meant.” Violet wound up using three hands to try and guide one of Karzarul’s cocks inside him without the other one doing anything unexpected. “If I’m not careful your dick is going to spear me in the balls and then we’ll have to wait and try again tomorrow once I’ve recovered.”

Karzarul barked a laugh, then covered his mouth as if he could shove the sound back in.

Violet pressed the slick head of Karzarul’s cock against him, gave way almost immediately as he lowered himself onto it. It stretched him open much too easily for the size of it, and maybe that was an advantage they had, that they were so much the same, that they fit so well. That it felt so good to be sitting on Karzarul with one cock balls-deep inside him and another rubbing against him.

He did manage to avoid getting jabbed in the testicles, but it had been a valid concern. The arrangement left Karzarul’s upper cock poking up between Violet’s thighs, rubbing along the skin of his balls near the base of his cocks.

A little clumsy. Certainly not ideal. But it felt fantastic all the same. Violet ran his fingers through his curls again, rocking his hips to feel Karzarul slide in and out of him. “You feel so fucking good,” Violet sighed. He leaned forward to brace two arms against Karzarul’s shoulders. “You like it?” he purred.

“Yeah,” Karzarul said weakly.

“You going to give me what I want?”

Karzarul nodded.

“Going to let me use you to get myself off?” Violet pressed. Karzarul shuddered, breathing ragged. Violet laced the fingers of his lower hands with Karzarul’s, pinning them to the bed. He kissed Karzarul’s jaw, mouth close to his ear. “I want to treat you like you’re mine,” he murmured. “Would you like that?”

Yeah,” Karzarul said.

Violet gripped his hands tighter, rocked his hips to bounce a little on Karzarul’s cock and grind against his stomach. “Even if it hurts?”

Please,” Karzarul breathed.

Overwhelming desire, the best and worst part of them, the feedback loop that made it too easy to finish too fast and just as quick to try again. Violet growled as Karzarul gasped underneath him, thrusting up into him as Violet rolled his hips to encourage it. “You feel so fucking good,” Violet said, capturing his groans in another kiss. “I want to feel you squirm, sweetheart, I want to make you earn it. You don’t get to finish until I’m done.”

Fuck,” Karzarul gasped. Violet took the hands he’d been pinning and guided them to his hips.

“Fuck me, beautiful, I want you to rail me like you mean it,” Violet ordered. Karzarul’s fingers dug into his skin, pulling him down at the same time he thrust harder into him. “Like that, like that.” Violet rose up with his hands braced against Karzarul’s stomach, adjusting the angle of his hips until Karzarul was hitting the right spot. Violet let himself cry out shamelessly, throwing his head back as pleasure mounted inside him.

Violet stretched out his wings, abruptly dropping his head with an awkward curve to his spine to keep the angle of Karzarul’s cock where he wanted it. He kissed Karzarul’s throat before biting his shoulder with a growl. Karzarul made a sound of surprise as Violet bit down hard, thrusting against Karzarul’s skin and riding his cock. With each thrust of Violet’s hips, his wings beat hard, snarling against Karzarul’s skin.

Violet came hard and noisy, teeth breaking skin, cum splattering across Karzarul’s stomach. Karzarul had stopped thrusting for a moment, and Violet only released the grip of his jaw after his pleasure had crested and crashed. He licked silvery liquid moonlight from his fangs.

“Violet,” Karzarul said, his voice low. Violet hummed, basking in the blissed-out feeling. “You said I have to pin you like I mean it, right?”

Oh,” Violet sighed. The idea appealed to him more than it ordinarily would have. He seemed to have fucked himself stupid, which was not usually how this sort of thing went for him. Karzarul took the small sound as approval, using his upper hands to push himself upright. He didn’t actually pin Violet down, cupped his face instead to kiss him hard. Violet wrapped his arms around Karzarul, and they were a tangle of limbs and beating wings.

Karzarul pounded into him, didn’t stop kissing him for even a moment as he bounced Violet in his lap. Violet found himself whimpering onto Karzarul’s tongue, couldn’t tell if it was his own pleasure mounting again or if it was Karzarul’s.

“You’re beautiful,” Karzarul said against his mouth. “You’re so good to me, you feel so fucking good Violet.” Both their wings were moving, air cool against hot skin. Karzarul pressed his forehead to Violet’s, and the lengths of their antennae rubbed against each other.

Karzarul—” Violet descended into loud and incoherent cries, surprised when Karzarul managed to wring another orgasm out of him, making a mess of the both of them. Karzarul’s cocks twitched as he came, spilling out onto Violet’s thighs as well as inside him. Violet’s limbs were all shaky as Karzarul tipped them both sideways.

Karzarul kissed the corner of Violet’s mouth. “I think that worked,” he said.

“Good practice,” Violet agreed, patting Karzarul’s chest.

“Are the baths done yet?” Karzarul asked.

“We have tubs,” Violet said. “Not the baths proper, yet. Don’t make that face, we both know you’re going to shift to a form that isn’t all cummy anyway.”

“I like a bath when there’s nice ones,” Karzarul said. “Did you assign Taurils to herd monsters?”

“Some,” Violet said. “Better to minimize the dead. Particularly when I’m sure you haven’t told Minnow.”

“Courageous Tauril died,” Karzarul said.

“What?” Violet sat upright immediately. “When?”

“Earlier,” Karzarul said. “Astian soldiers, trying to clear out the Howlers Coura was managing. It looked like he was with Temmy?”

“They’re on the buddy system,” Violet said. “Why was this not the first thing you mentioned?”

Karzarul blinked. He was still laying on his side. “I got distracted,” he said. “Temmy seems fine, none of the Howlers seem to have been lost.” He sighed. “I wondered why things were going so well, I didn’t realize you’d set something like that up.”

“It would serve you right if I didn’t bother covering for your stupid lies,” Violet said, poking Karzarul in the sternum. He was still a bit sticky. “I’ll have to check where I had them stationed.”

“I found Drakonis,” Karzarul added.

“What!”

“Yeah, she’s good. She’s having a good time.”

Violet rubbed at his forehead as he processed the fact that Karzarul’s first and foremost concern had been Minnow’s perception of his sexual prowess. “Ridiculous man,” Violet muttered. “Where has she been?”

“With the Moon Cultists.”

Violet pounced on Karzarul, hands on all his biceps. Karzarul was too surprised to respond poorly. “You are going to drive me insane,” Violet said. “I hate this.”

“What?”

“Having to get everything secondhand from you,” Violet said. “I am well aware of how things look when they’re happening versus how you tell it later.”

“I’m not that bad,” Karzarul said.

“You’re awful,” Violet said. “What happened with Moon Cultists? How did we never meet one?”

“You know regular people?” Karzarul asked.

“What?”

“Regular people,” Karzarul said again. “There were always bandits, mercenaries, soldiers, Aekhites, Gaigonians, Sun worshippers. They weren’t regular people.”

“Right,” Violet said slowly.

“But then there were regular people,” Karzarul continued. “The normal… everyone. I guess they call those Moon Cultists, now.”

“That can’t be right,” Violet said.

“You can visit yourself, if you don’t believe me,” Karzarul said defensively. “They’re in Dragon Canyon, you’re the one who figured it out. They ought to call it Drakonis Canyon but she doesn’t seem to mind.”

Violet let Karzarul go to run a hand through his hair. “I’m going to have to visit, I think. I don’t suppose you established any kind of official diplomatic channels.”

“Teacher Zadven was nice enough,” Karzarul said. “You can talk to him. I didn’t notice an official government or anything. They were regular people.”

“Right,” Violet sighed.

“I couldn’t stay long,” Karzarul said. “Drakonis wasn’t the only beast monster there. It was. A lot.” He rubbed a hand over his face. Violet could feel the usual roil of emotions rising up in Karzarul already.

“I know you don’t want to talk about it,” Violet said. “But I already know the worst of you, you know.” He watched Karzarul’s throat bob when he swallowed, still covering his face.

“I almost lost it,” Karzarul admitted. “The whole time I was there, I was losing it. She was so happy, Violet.”

Violet carefully took one of Karzarul’s hands, and Karzarul let him.

“It wasn’t just happy,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know how to explain how… they all felt so… secure. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that. I didn’t even know, until I felt it. Another thing I didn’t even know I was missing.”

“That isn’t your fault,” Violet said.

“All that means is that I can’t fix it myself,” Karzarul said. “I’m stuck like this. And even when Minnow says she wants to fix it, it’s not… she believes it. They all believe it, when they make promises. I don’t know how to pretend to believe it.”

“She’s different,” Violet said.

“They’re all different,” Karzarul said.

“Not like Lady Minnow,” Violet said firmly.

That was enough for Karzarul to peer suspiciously through his fingers. “You’re very defensive,” Karzarul observed.

“I’m just pointing out the facts,” Violet said, letting go of Karzarul’s hand and fluffing his curls.

“Do you have a thing for Minnow?” Karzarul asked, lowering his hands. Violet wished he’d managed to find a different topic to distract him from his own angst.

“I don’t think that’s an appropriate question,” Violet said primly.

“That sounds like a yes,” Karzarul said, sitting up.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t that,” Violet said.

“So what is it?” Karzarul asked.

Violet huffed. “You made us for her, dummy,” he reminded him. “If we have a thing, it’s that we’re hers and we know it. And she likes us. That’s why things will be different.”

Karzarul set his hand on Violet’s this time. “I didn’t mean to make you like her. Just because I have feelings for someone—”

“That isn’t it,” Violet said. “You don’t get it.”

“Is this—the other monsters—”

“Not all of them,” Violet said. “Don’t ask questions you don’t want the answer to.”

“I can see why this is annoying,” Karzarul said. “If this is what I’m like.”

Violet huffed again, blowing a curl off his forehead. “Only some of us were for someone. You have plenty of forms that were as much for you as for anyone. Abysscales were for you. You wanted to get laid. That’s not the same as being for someone.”

“Right,” Karzarul said.

“There’s a lot of Leonas-related confusion here,” Violet said, gesturing to his entire face. “That’s not the same as being for him. I exist to please Lady Minnow.”

“I think before when you kept calling her Lady I assumed you were being a shit,” Karzarul said.

“Good,” Violet said. He reached out to touch Karzarul’s cheek. “You are my king,” he said. “Your heart is my heart. If I thought for even one instant that you were going to do something that would harm Lady Minnow, I would kill you, and you would thank me for it.”

“That’s fair,” Karzarul said.

“I am blessed,” he said, “to have been made with a purpose, and to have had that purpose validated by my Lady’s approval. I plan to live a long and happy life.”

“It will be long.”

“And it will be happy,” Violet said firmly. “I am well aware that you find this indistinguishable from yet another person making promises they cannot keep. But. Even if everything goes to absolute shit. Even if she trips and falls into a volcano.”

“Don’t jinx it.”

“I will be happy,” Violet said. “Because there will always be us. All of us, forever. It would please her to know we could be happy without her, and I was made to please her.” He paused. “I won’t have to, though. She’ll be fine. She’s different.”


Violet took his time cleaning himself up after Karzarul left, using it as a chance to reacclimate to being entirely his own self again. He tried to examine his various feelings to establish which were valid, and which were lingering remnants of what Karzarul had carried in.

It was trickier than he expected. He felt a persistent concern that he’d given too much, said too much, revealed what he shouldn’t have. He wanted to blame that on Karzarul, but he wasn’t sure if he could. It was only that it didn’t make any sense for the feeling to be Violet’s. He knew better than to treasure secrets. It shouldn’t have been his. But could it have been anyone else’s?

He dressed and headed for the construction area, where the castle was climbing ever-higher. Brutelings were delighting in finding interesting new ways to make stone defy gravity. Bullizards were excellent at finding shiny things, a skill they’d been using to mine various magical ores that the Brutelings could use in creative architecture. The ability of Bullizards to stick to walls also came in handy when building upward and sideways.

Brutelings had already figured out how to make one tower look like it was drooping outward, and it was only a matter of time before they managed to make one corkscrew. The core structure was that of an enormous hexagon rising upward, but it didn’t take long for it to split off and be surrounded by a variety of experimental towers and spires.

Out in the open air of the level still under construction, Violet could hear a band of Bullizards playing. It was Ecru and Chartreuse and Alabaster today, all on stringed instruments of their own making. The air was thin and cold this high, and a few wispy clouds were visible above the countryside below. The light of cities and towns could be seen in the distance, always giving Monster Mountain a wide berth. Closer, fires were fewer and further between.

Violet remembered roads and imagined there being roads again. He leaned against the half-built wall to look out at the horizon, the sky swirling stars in blues and purples.

A match lit to the right of him.

“Obsidian,” Violet said, snapping open a fan to flutter it. “Come here often?” he asked.

The Impyr was well-suited to blending in with the night sky, though he was darker than either the sky or the shadows. There was a shimmer to his skin, and in the dark of night he sometimes looked like an illusion, the absence of a person. The effect was somewhat tempered by the double-breasted wool vest in grey over a pale linen shirt, calico trousers that buttoned down the sides and ended below his knees. He wore his sleeves rolled up to his elbows, bent forward to lean against the half-wall as he lit a cigarillo. His tail swayed behind him.

Obsidian wore his hair short, lately, and it fell in an enticing mop that contrasted with the neat lines of his beard.

“Sometimes,” Obsidian said, exhaling smoke and shaking the match out. “Sid’s fine.”

“Having trouble sleeping?” Violet suggested, moving closer in a deliberately casual saunter.

“Nah,” Sid said. “Just wanted a smoke.”

“If you wanted to put something in your mouth, I could have found you something better,” Violet suggested.

Sid took a long drag and sighed, smoke billowing out of his nostrils. He drummed his fingers on the stone of the wall. “You should stop,” he said.

Violet stilled. “I beg your pardon?” he asked archly.

“I haven’t been playing hard to get,” Sid said. “If you keep doing this, it’s going to get awkward.”

Violet’s feathers fluffed. “Fine,” he said as he snapped his fan shut, his voice pitched high. “Fine. I’m not—fine. If I’m not your type, you could have said so. Instead of implying that I can’t take a hint.”

“You’re too new,” Sid said.

“Not that new,” Violet said.

“Too much like Karzarul,” Sid said, flicking ash over the edge of the wall.

Rude,” Violet said immediately.

Sid snorted. “See how offended you got?” he said, and Violet bristled. “You and I, we’ve both got the most memories out of our cohort. I remember this desire, early on. This need to be closer. It feels right, being so close, because you’re him and he’s you. You’ve been a part of him for so long, you want to find a way to be a part of him still. But you know it won’t work, you remember what he’s like. You settle for the next best thing.”

Violet’s wings were drawn in close. “It isn’t like that,” Violet said as Sid took another drag.

“Could be,” Sid said. “It’s different for you. You had a better start, you like yours. Maybe that changes things.”

Impyrs had been for Lynette, after all.

It was a marvel that any Impyr was sane. To be made a mistake, to know that your purpose was doomed from the start. Unable to placate the implacable. The way it must have felt to feel Karzarul’s regret and loathing whenever he was near.

“I don’t know you, Violet,” Sid said. “You don’t know me either. You know me as much as Karzarul knows me, which isn’t much at all. You know all the shit he’s put me through, the things he didn’t notice. The things you think I’ve earned. It could be that I’m wrong. Or else you’re still too much like him. You think of love like a reward you get, a prize you earn. If you keep working hard and letting them hurt you, someone ought to love you at the end to make it worth it.”

Violet turned away from Sid to look out at the darkened landscape again. He clutched his forearms, hidden in his wide sleeves. “You can just say I’m not your type,” Violet reminded him.

Sid took another few drags of his cigarillo in silence. Violet felt as if he’d be conceding something to leave first.

“I’ve been married twice,” Sid said.

What,” Violet said, dropping his hands and whipping his head around. The faint hint of a smile ghosted over Sid’s mouth. “Bull-shit. To humans?”

“Who else?” Sid asked. “Humans’ll love anything, if you let them.”

“When?” Violet demanded.

Sid shrugged. “It’s not like I’ve lacked for free time,” Sid said. “All those times he sent everyone away, wanted nothing to do with any of us. Didn’t want us together causing trouble. Couple times he died so fucking fast the rest of us couldn’t even get there to try helping. Left us waiting around until he came back again. He doesn’t really think about what we do without him, unless it inconveniences him.”

Violet shifted uncomfortably, knowing perfectly well the truth of it. “What happened to them?”

“They died,” Sid said. “Humans do that. Gigi was already in her forties by the time we met, gave me this habit. She was a weaver. Owen was around fifty, we ran a bookstore for a while. I like people that’ve settled into themselves. They know who they are when they’re not loving me.”

Violet was unable to imagine what either of these hypothetical marriages would have looked like. “You did love them, then.”

“Wouldn’t have married them if I didn’t,” Sid said. “It doesn’t have to be all-consuming passion. It can be easy, if you let it. It hurts when it ends, but not enough that I’d give up the person they made me. I never stop wishing they were here, but it hurts less than it used to. I’ve got good memories and bad habits. I know the difference between feeling loved and feeling useful. I don’t know if you do, yet.”

“I wasn’t asking you to love me,” Violet said.

Sid sighed smoke. “Were you not?” he asked.

“I’m tired,” Violet said, turning on his heel to head for the stairs.

“Sleep well,” Sid said, looking up at the stars.

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Five

“It’s not a big deal,” Minnow insisted.

“It’s grave robbing,” Leonas said. “You’re digging up a corpse.”

“It’s my grave,” Minnow said. “And my corpse.”

“That’s not better,” Leonas said. “That’s significantly worse.”

Minnow was using the Starsword to dig at the earth beside the stone marking Elias’ grave. “No it isn’t,” she said. “It’s my stuff. I’m getting my stuff back. That’s all.”

Leonas had given up on telling her that the Starsword wasn’t a gardening tool. “You have fundamentally misunderstood the problem with this situation,” he said.

“I can take care of it, if you want,” Karzarul said. “I’ve handled your corpses before.”

“That isn’t better,” Leonas said.

“Would an Ursbat be better at digging?” Minnow asked, pausing in her stabbing of the ground.

“Anything would be better at digging than what you’re doing,” Leonas said.

Karzarul shifted to an Ursbat as requested, and his claws sank deep into the earth to begin tossing soil behind him. Leonas backed further away to avoid getting hit, while Minnow put the Starsword away.

“I don’t know why I didn’t ask you to do that sooner,” Minnow said. “Habit, I guess.”

Leonas sighed. “You should have been blessed with a Star Shovel.”

“You probably would have preferred that from the start,” Karzarul agreed. He was already far enough down that his belly was below the level of the ground. “Am I close?”

Leonas’ eyes glowed. “No,” he said as they faded. “I’m not sensing anything magic in there, by the way.”

Minnow frowned, watching Karzarul keep digging. “Why bury it so deep, then?”

“I assume they were trying to dissuade grave robbers,” Leonas said.

“Then it’s a good thing we’re not grave robbers,” Minnow said. “We’re thing-retrievers.”

“That isn’t anything,” Leonas said. “That’s nothing.”

“Lost-and-finders,” Minnow suggested.

“I don’t know what you’re trying to make happen, but you should stop.”

“We should have a name, right?” Minnow asked. “Because on my own I’m the Starlight Hero, but when we’re all together it feels like we should have a team name.”

“Absolutely not,” Leonas said. “What possible benefit could that have?”

“It would be faster than listing all our titles.”

“No it wouldn’t,” Leonas said. “The first time you tell someone we’re the Shithead Squad, they’re going to ask what the fuck that is, and then you’re going to have to introduce us anyway. That’s not faster.”

“Not at first,” Minnow said. “You have to give it some time to catch on. Karzarul, what did they call us when we were a team before?”

“Nothing,” Karzarul said. “You were the Hero. Sometimes I was their unusually large dog.”

“Huh,” Minnow frowned. “Don’t like that.”

Karzarul stood, stretching his neck to peer over the edge of the hole he’d dug. “Am I close yet?”

After a brief flash of his eyes, Leonas said, “A little to your right.”

Karzarul’s head disappeared as he ducked back down to keep digging. “Found it,” he called back up after a moment.

“How do I look?” Minnow asked.

“Dead.” Karzarul lifted up the heavy stone chest that contained Elias’ remains to set it above the edge of the hole. Minnow made a small sound.

“Hey,” Leonas said, alarmed, setting a hand on her shoulder.

“You don’t have to do this,” Karzarul said, having already dissipated and reformed as an Impyr by her side.

“No, no,” she said, waving them both off. “I don’t care about the body, it was…” She held out her hands to try to demonstrate. “The li’l fluffy paws, holding the box and putting it up there. The reachy paws.”

Leonas stared at her.

Karzarul shifted back to an Ursbat, rising up on his back paws to reach with his forepaws into the sky like he was trying to touch a cloud. Minnow shrieked. She pounced at him, hugging his waist. “You’re so fluff!” she said at a high pitch. “I wanna touch the beans,” she demanded, reaching upward. Karzarul lowered a paw so that she could poke at his paw pads. “Oh my goodness bears are so cute, I want to pet every bear.” She backed up enough that Karzarul could get back down on all fours, and she rubbed his fluffy round ears. “This is so good. This is a good shape for you to be, sometimes.”

“I thought bears were scary,” Karzarul said.

“The fact that they’re so pettable is part of why they’re so scary,” Minnow said. “It’s like wolves. They look like they should be cuddly because they’re so cute, but they’re actually full of murder. You have a moment of thinking, oh! A friend! and then it sees you and you realize you’re about to die.”

“Exactly like Karzarul the rest of the time, then,” Leonas said.

“I’m not—you think I’m cute?”

Leonas glowed. “Not right now, Minnow is the only one who thinks that.”

“Nuh-uh.”

Karzarul shifted back to an Impyr. “Now?” he asked.

Leonas glowed brighter. “Cute might not be the right—this is not an appropriate conversation to be having when there’s someone’s remains right there.”

“No, this is the best time for it,” Karzarul said. “He would have hated this.” He looked at Minnow. “No offense.”

“None taken,” Minnow said. “I think of you as being more ‘devastatingly sexy’ than cute.”

“Oh.” Karzarul also started to glow.

“Sometimes you get puppy-dog eyes that are pretty cute,” she added.

“I would say that’s all accurate,” Leonas said. “Can we finish grave robbing first and tell our boyfriend how cute he is later?”

Karzarul mumbled incoherently, rubbing his hand over his mouth in a way that made his expression impossible to read.

“Yeah, okay,” Minnow said before pulling out the Starsword and whacking at the seal on the stone coffin. She kicked the lid off, bending to look inside.

Elias’ bones showed clear signs of charring, efficiently arranged and wrapped in ribbons so as not to take up too much space. His skull sat at the top of the stack, atop a small and rotting pillow. Minnow put her sword away, crouching to lift up the skull and look inside it.

“You could try to have a little respect,” Leonas said.

“Why?” she asked. “It’s mine.” She pulled a glittering gold necklace out from inside the cavity where her soul’s brain had once sat. “Do you think this is it?”

“No, because if that were the Nightshard then touching it would have caused problems,” Leonas said. “We’re looking for an artifact that sucks the sunlight out of people, that’s not the time to be grabbing things at random. And I already told you there wasn’t anything magic in that box.”

“Maybe it’s special,” Minnow suggested. “Secret.”

“Overnight I became the most powerful witch on the planet,” Leonas said flatly. “I can detect magic in rocks. Not even interesting rocks. Regular, shitty rocks. If you had a powerful artifact on your person, I would notice.”

“Not if it was a secret artifact.”

“Nothing is that secret.”

Fiddling with the necklace, Minnow’s thumbnail caught the latch and the locket popped open. Rather than photos or a lock of hair, it contained a folded-up piece of paper.

“Treasure map!” Minnow announced.

“We don’t know that,” Leonas said.

Minnow let the locket hang from her wrist as she unfolded the paper. It opened to reveal a map.

“Lucky guess,” Leonas said.

“She is the one that put it there,” Karzarul reminded him.

Leonas frowned. “Hm.”

Minnow looked the map over. It was old, but of course it would be. Rather than one X to mark the spot, there were several, in different sizes and line weights whose significance Minnow could not glean. Rainbow Doors had also been marked, little squares with routes plotted to the nearest marked location.

“The Nightshard is in parts,” Leonas suggested.

“Could be,” Minnow said. “Or else we need to get all the keys to unlock whatever has the Nightshard.”

“Ugh,” Leonas said, nose wrinkling. “Why is everything always so tedious?”

Minnow took a moment to contemplate this. “You never hear trees complaining about that kind of thing,” she said. “And all they do is grow until they die.”

“First of all,” Leonas said, “what the fuck are you talking about. Second of all, that’s only because they can’t. Every tree is bored to tears. Every winter they feel the hope of believing they might finally get to die, and every spring is a disappointment.”

Minnow hummed. “We haven’t had lunch yet, have we?”

“That has even less to do with anything,” Leonas said.

“We haven’t,” Karzarul confirmed.

Minnow reached into her bag to find a small glass bottle and offered it to Leonas. “Have some juice,” she suggested.

Leonas stared at her. “I am a grown man,” he reminded her, though he took the bottle as he did so. “My crow’s feet have graduated to raven’s feet. My ennui will not be mollified by juice.”

“Drink your juice,” Minnow ordered, taking a closer look at the map. “It looks like a lot of these are around Monster Mountain,” she said. She held it sideways so Karzarul could take a closer look.

“The distance is right that there may have been villages there,” Karzarul said. “A long time ago. Some of the monsters liked to go there after they were abandoned. Humans started avoiding them because of it. It may have seemed a safe place to keep things once he’d killed us.”

“Huh.” Minnow took the map back to frown at it. “Really don’t like that.”

“We got better,” Karzarul said.

“Still don’t like it,” Minnow said.

Karzarul patted the top of her head.

“This one looks closest to a Door, should we start there?” Minnow suggested, pointing at one of the marks on the map. “What do you think?” she asked Leonas.

“Seems fine,” Leonas said.

“If we stop over here first, I can get the mushrooms I’d need to make that recipe Zadven gave me,” she added.

“Sounds good,” Leonas said, brushing a curl out of his eyes. “Were you planning to hold onto this garbage?” he asked, holding up the empty glass bottle.

Minnow snatched it away to shove back into her bag. “Always.”


Minnow shaded her eyes against the evening sun to squint at Monster Mountain. “It looks like they’re making progress,” she said, pointing at the silhouette of the castle under construction.

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

“Have you been checking in?” Minnow asked.

“Yes.”

She narrowed her eyes at him but didn’t press the issue. “Violet could come down and help while we’re close by,” she suggested.

“He’s busy,” Karzarul said immediately.

“I’m not detecting anything,” Leonas said, his eyes still glowing. His fingers trailed over the crumbling stones that had once been part of a structure. Most of the buildings that had once been at the center of the village were now mere outlines of stone on the ground.

“Not even in there?” Minnow asked, nodding toward the only thing resembling an intact shelter. Passing merchants, adventurers, and other travelers often chose the most intact building to reinforce when seeking temporary lodgings in the ruins of nowhere. It resulted in weird patchwork hovels like that one, standing lonely among empty foundations. Minnow had slept in more than her fair share.

“Nothing but dirt floors and shitty graffiti,” Leonas said. “You can double-check, if you want.”

“There must be something,” Minnow said. “It was marked on a map I kept in a locket. That’s treasure shit for sure.”

A ball of white light shot out of the sky, hitting Karzarul in the chest. His shape wavered before returning back to normal.

“… was that the something?” Minnow asked.

“That was unrelated,” Karzarul said sharply. “It happens. Don’t worry about it.”

“That’s happened before,” Leonas said, his eyes fading. “When we were on Monster Mountain.”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “It happens.”

Leonas looked up at the mountain. “Is it because we’re so close?”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

Minnow hummed as Karzarul’s hooves scuffed dirt. “You don’t have to tell us if it’s complicated,” she said. “You can say that instead of lying.” Karzarul’s shoulders rose up closer to his ears. “It’s better if we know what we don’t know. You know?”

“You made it confusing,” Leonas told Minnow. “I dislike not knowing. I dislike being given inaccurate information much more. If you’re certain it’s unrelated to whatever Elias left here, I am willing to leave it.” His displeasure was obvious despite that. Minnow squeezed Karzarul’s hand, but Karzarul neither looked at them nor confessed. She wondered if he would ever stop wearing gloves as a matter of habit.

“Do you want to check if you can see anything from above?” Minnow asked Karzarul. “It’s stupid, but every once in a while I find out that there’s a big arrow made of rocks or buildings.”

“I’ll see,” he said, letting go of her hand as he shifted to a Savagewing. He launched himself upward with a heavy beating of his wings. He appreciated the opportunity to escape the conversation and catch his breath. Minnow and Leonas watched him stretch out his wings, circling low.

“Nothing stands out,” Karzarul said when he landed again. “There’s a little cemetary we could check.”

“No more grave robbing,” Leonas said firmly. “If I’d felt any magic over there, I would have told you.”

“We can check later,” Minnow murmured to Karzarul.

“I can hear you,” Leonas said.

“We’ll check later,” Karzarul agreed.

Minnow took Karzarul’s hand, pulling him closer to reach up and touch his face. “I remembered your hair being bigger the first time,” she noted. “Like Violet.”

“I like this better,” Karzarul said. Long straight hair, and at the front slender locks were gathered with silver cuffs. Minnow touched them and wondered where she’d seen the style before.

“It’s looking more like your face to me,” she said. “I know they’re all your face. But your other faces all looked a little like each other, and this one didn’t. It felt like you were wearing someone else. But now I’m getting used to it, and it feels more like you.”

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, tracing a finger over the lower curve of his mouth. “I like your wings. Do you think you would ever…” She hesitated, biting her lip and turning pink. “Want to play with me?” she suggested.

Leonas sighed. “You can say that you want to get fingerblasted by four hands, we know what you’re asking.”

“Shut up!” she shrieked, letting Karzarul go to cover her face. “I didn’t ask that!” Karzarul was already laughing.

“You woke up this morning with his tongue so far up in you I’m surprised you didn’t choke on it,” Leonas pointed out.

“What does that have to do with anything!” she demanded, still covering her face.

“You’re ridiculous,” Leonas said as Karzarul pulled her closer to kiss her hair. “Use your words.”

“No,” she said with a pout. She lowered her hands enough to see Karzarul. “You didn’t answer.”

He bent, head cocked. He flared his wings upward, stretched out toward the sky, doubling his height with the size of them. “You like the way I look?”

Her eyes were on his looming wings. “Yeah,” she admitted.

Karzarul crossed one pair of arms, put one hand on his hip and the other on his chin. “You want me to play with you?” he teased.

She nodded enthusiastically. He usually only fell into posing for Leonas, back when he’d tried to be subtle about flirting. She appreciated him putting forth the effort for her, even though he didn’t need it. He was very good at looking good. “I was worried you wouldn’t want to,” she said, “since you don’t seem to like this form as much.”

“I always want to touch you,” he said, letting his wings fall, reaching out to take her hands. He lifted them up to kiss her knuckles. “I can be whatever you’d like,” he said against her skin.

“I want you to be what feels good,” she said. She did not say that she wanted him to be happy, although she did. She thought that would put undue pressure on him.

Leonas rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Should I set out the bedrolls so you two can go fuck over in the weird shack?” he asked.

Leonas,” Minnow scolded as Karzarul stifled a giggle. “You’re being rude.”

“We’re trying to figure out why you marked this place out on a map,” Leonas reminded her. “That’s not going to happen while you’re busy making eyes at each other. Unless you think Elias was mapping out romantic getaway destinations, in which case I have questions about the cemetery. We’re going to end up spending the night regardless, because if I don’t sleep you can’t dig up corpses to go through their pockets.”

“We aren’t going to do that,” Minnow said.

“Are we not?” Karzarul asked.

“We’re not telling him that we’re doing it, it’s a secret,” Minnow said.

“I can hear you,” Leonas said. “I’m not going to keep arguing with you, but I am going to insist that we not wait until I’ve already taken my makeup off for the night to start getting frisky. I’m old. I get cranky without my juice and when you make me stay up past my bedtime.”

“I thought that was babies,” Minnow said.

“You are the youngest one here,” Karzarul said.

“It’s old people, too,” Leonas said. “The natural state of humanity is that we want to stay in bed and consume things we don’t need to chew. There’s a brief period in the middle where we pretend otherwise to get laid. I bypassed that by getting extensively laid while never leaving my house.”

“And never getting any juice,” Minnow said.

“I had wine,” Leonas said.

“Wine doesn’t make you less cranky,” Minnow said.

“I mean it,” Leonas said. “Don’t waste my time acting like you’re not in the mood. Otherwise I’m going to wash my face first thing, which means I won’t be able to participate, which means neither of you will have any sex because you’ll feel awkward about it.”

Mean,” Minnow accused.

“Actually,” Karzarul said, scratching the back of his neck. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to use this chance to visit Monster Mountain and check in.”

“A King doesn’t need permission to rule his people,” Leonas said.

“Right,” Karzarul said.

“He needs their permission,” Minnow reminded him. “Which they give by not beheading him.”

“You’ve been paying attention to me?” Leonas asked, surprised.

“I like listening to you,” Minnow said.

“I can contact you with Violet’s Seeing Stone if anything comes up,” Karzarul said.

“Do you think you’ll be back in time to not dig up bodies?” Minnow asked.

“I can try,” Karzarul said.

“I’m going to contact Violet and tell him to keep you there,” Leonas warned.

Karzarul bent to press a kiss to Minnow’s lips, not as brief as he intended. He always meant to be gentle, and she always crushed herself against him and made it impossible. “I’ll see you in the morning,” Karzarul said. He hesitated when he turned toward Leonas.

“Come here,” Leonas said impatiently, reaching out to grab him by his tunic and pull him closer. It was a quick kiss that left him nonetheless breathless. “Don’t take too long,” Leonas said.

Minnow sidled closer to Leonas as they watched him go.

“It’s just us tonight,” she said.

“Don’t be too disappointed,” Leonas said, reaching over to give her hair a gentle tug.

“You know I’m not,” she said. She tilted her head, her cheek chasing his fingers until he acquiesced and cupped her face. She sighed, nuzzling his palm.

“I wonder why,” he said.

“I know I can’t miss you, because you’re here,” she said. “But it’s different now than it used to be.”

“Do you wish I were still a special occasion?” he asked.

“No,” she said firmly.

“You could have seen me more often,” he said.

“I couldn’t,” she reminded him. Visiting too often drew attention.

“Did you want to?” he asked.

“I wanted to take you with me,” she said.

“Ah.”

“I didn’t think you would like traveling, or adventures,” she continued. “I thought you could stay at one of my houses, or stay in different houses based on your mood. And I could see you as much as you’d like.”

He turned to face her more directly, the hand on her cheek directing her to do the same so that he could hold her face in both hands. “Is that what I seemed like?” he asked. “Someone to be kept?”

“I’m sorry,” she said, reaching up to place a hand over one of his. “You were always so anxious, was all. Adventuring is dirty. There’s bugs.”

“I’m still anxious,” he said. “I’ll always be anxious. There is no hypothetical future circumstance where I am not anxious, regardless of proximity to bugs.”

“We should work on that,” Minnow said.

“I’m fine with it,” Leonas said. “You’re not anxious enough. Together we’re the right amount.” He brushed his thumbs over her skin. “I don’t miss it,” he said. “Any of it. You were the only good thing that ever happened to me. I would cut my hair off and wear rags if it meant I never had to go back.”

“You don’t have to do that, though,” she rushed to assure him.

“Shallow,” he accused. “What do you miss?” She hummed, waffling. “Spit it out.”

“The way you used to look at me,” she said. “Taking notes.”

“Hmm.” He let her go to tousle her hair. “You’re sure you can’t spy on dreams?”

“Have you dreamed about it?” she asked, delighted.

“Something like,” he said, which was not untrue. “Would you like me to pretend I have a reason again, or can we discard the pretense?”

She tapped her fingertips together. “Can we pretend?” she asked shyly.

“We can fuck, you know,” he pointed out. “We needed excuses before, but I can feel you up for the sake of it now. We’re free to have sex like normal people.”

“I’m not normal people,” she said.

Leonas polished his nails while Minnow worked. She set up their bedrolls so that they overlapped, giving them plenty of space to sit together in the little patchwork structure. Setting her boots by the door-less doorway, she knelt down and immediately started staring at Leonas with an expectant air.

“Am I supposed to set the scene?” Leonas asked. “Shall I introduce myself as Dr. Leonas?”

“I don’t know,” Minnow said, flustered. “It’s not that much pretending. You always looked me over. When you hadn’t seen me. It seems like.” Her lips pursed in a pout.

“Okay,” Leonas sighed, kneeling in front of her. “Don’t make faces. I would have noticed if you’d eaten any rocks, but open your mouth anyway.” Minnow started to protest. “Open,” he ordered before she could, and she stuck her tongue out. His eyes glowed as he used a stick of sunlight to poke around and confirm what he already knew. His eyes returned to normal when it dissolved. “You’ve been sucking too much dick,” he said. She squeaked in alarm, recoiling and covering her mouth.

“You can’t see that!” she said. “You’re making that up.”

“How would you know?” Leonas asked, watching her turn red.

“You would have said something before!”

His eyebrows shot up. “Would I have?” he asked. “Pardon? What were you doing, exactly, that I would have noticed when you came to see me?” She covered her face. “No, no,” he said, taking her wrists and pulling them gently away. “Let me see you, ridiculous girl. You’re here so I can look at you, aren’t you?”

“I changed my mind,” she mumbled without conviction. “You can’t really tell, can you? It hasn’t messed anything up?”

“I’ll check,” he said seriously, placing his hands on either side of her neck and walking his fingertips back and forth. Then he cupped her face in his hands again. “If he broke your esophagus,” Leonas said, “you would notice. You’re fine. I don’t know what you thought could have happened.”

“I don’t know!” Minnow said. “I don’t look down there. Maybe the little dangly thing is gone and that’s why I don’t gag now.”

“That would have happened years ago,” Leonas said.

“Or it could be shaped weird, if it got stretched out.”

“That’s not how that works,” Leonas said. “Nothing you’ve said is a real thing.”

“You started it,” Minnow accused. “And! Ari doesn’t even—he’s too big. Most of the time. You’re the only person who isn’t scared to really go for it. So if anyone was going to break my esophagus, it would be you.”

“I’m good at not breaking what’s mine,” he said, and she shivered. “The only person?” She nodded. “In all Astielle?”

“In anywhere,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’m the Hero, or if it’s because of my teeth.”

“The teeth,” Leonas said.

“Yeah,” she sighed. “You should make sure I’m not sick,” she said, holding out her arms.

“Who’s running this exam?” he asked.

“I am,” she said. “You didn’t even want to do it.”

“Horrible woman,” Leonas said, wrapping his fingers around her wrists. He pressed his thumbs into the spot that would let him feel her pulse, tapping into the flow of energy all through her. Secretly, he did quite delight in this part. He could almost visualize it, the shape of all the blood under her skin. “You haven’t been getting enough sleep,” he said. “Though I don’t know why you’d listen to me, we’ve already established I don’t actually understand how bodies work.”

“I think you’re right, though,” she said. “Do the higher one.”

Leonas sighed again, running his hands up her forearms to press his thumbs into her elbows. He could feel in the beat of her heart the cloud around her spine. “Has your back been hurting again?” he asked. She nodded. He huffed, loosening his grip. “I’m—you see why it’s confusing for me. Trying to sort out what’s real. Why would there be anything wrong with what I was eating when I can take your pulse and figure out what’s bothering you? Why would this work if the rest of it’s fake?”

Does it work?” Minnow wondered.

“You watched me do it,” Leonas said. “I’ve done it before, I’ve never been wrong.”

“Right,” she said, “but you’re you. Do you know if it works when other people do it? People who don’t have a special magical connection to the animating force of all human beings?”

Leonas narrowed his eyes. “… shut up,” he decided.

“Okay,” Minnow said.

“Lie down so I can fix your back,” he said. She pulled her tunic off over her head immediately.

“Can we have sex after?” she asked hopefully, tipping over and sprawling out on her stomach.

“No,” Leonas said, straddling her waist. She pouted, rested her head on her arms. “I am going to brush your hair, and then I’m going to get ready to sleep. And you’re going to touch yourself while I do it.”

“Oh,” she sighed as his fingertips trailed down her back.

“You’re not allowed to finish,” he added.

Mean,” she complained, and she gasped when one of his fingers pressed hard into a point to the right of her spine near the small of her back.

This was another thing that had always worked, though Leonas had wondered why his charts had been wrong. If he hadn’t stolen the charts in the first place he might have thought someone had lied to him. As it was he’d needed to make his own charts according to what he could feel.

“No begging,” he said. “Cover your mouth so I can hear you fail to keep quiet.” He pressed his thumb into a spot above her shoulder blade, right beside where her neck ended. She covered her mouth and groaned loud through her fingers. “Yes,” he said, “like that.”

“If I’m good?” she suggested.

“You can be the little spoon,” he said. “I’m not always in the mood. Don’t take it personally.”

“If Ari were here?” she asked.

“I might watch,” he said. Leonas paused with his hands against her skin. “Are you worried I like him better?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “He’s very pretty. I don’t have horns, or a tail. I’m not big. It must be more exciting for you.”

He pressed hard at a point near her hips. She cried out, then moaned as she relaxed. “Idiot,” Leonas said. “If I fuck you more when he’s around, it’s only because I don’t have to. I don’t like feeling obligated. You know that.”

“I know,” she sighed. “I like it, though. When you fuck me.”

“I know you do,” Leonas said. He let sunlight fill his hands as he rubbed her back. She moaned gratuitously. “Be patient.”


Raelle had been named for her grandmother. Her grandmother was dead and gone, though she’d outlived Raelle’s parents. All that was left now was Raelle and her siblings, which meant all that was really left was Raelle. Being the eldest left her feeling obligated to hold down the fort, giving them a place to rest when work got too hot.

Which was all well and good until work followed them home.

Evyn hadn’t hidden his tracks well enough when he’d come running back to the farm, and a competing group of bandits had followed him here. Raelle hadn’t raised a pack of bandits without learning to stand her ground, but the numbers weren’t in their favor. She’d run out of crossbow bolts eventually, and they’d be taking torches to the house as soon as they could get close enough. They’d tried throwing rocks with burning rags tied to them already, but they’d all puttered out before striking.

“I’m sorry, Raelle,” Evyn said again, passing her another bolt with the arm he still had. His stump was starting to bleed through the bandages. He ought to have been resting.

“Sorry’s not gonna save our asses,” she muttered, loading the bolt. A noisy whoop came from outside, and she realized she’d taken too long. Already she could smell smoke. “Shit.”

Things were jumbling together. The fire. The blood. Her grandmother baking bread in the kitchen. The house when she was young. The house when it burned. A different house altogether, smaller and quieter, did it burn? Was this where Evyn died? Gasping for air as the smoke rose, the doors barred, couldn’t get out. Couldn’t breathe. Dragging Evyn out onto the roof, though the house would collapse beneath them. Did it collapse? Was that a different house? Evyn was their father before he was Evyn again. Evyn, lines in his face and a hook at the end of his wooden arm. The screaming as the moon fell out of the sky.

This was the part she could never forget, vivid as the moment it happened. A dragon, or something like it, pure white lifting them both from the fire and carrying them away. The world, her whole world, looked so small beneath them. When they landed it felt like being carried on a cloud, until the hands that set them down belonged to a man instead.

A Tauril, but a Tauril could be a man. She remembered him as a man.

“Are you okay?” he asked in a low rumble of a voice. Evyn, already sitting on the ground, nodded. She wavered on weak knees, gripped tightly at the hand he’d offered. White gloves, like a gentleman too fine to have ever entered her home. He caught her before she could fall, sweeping her up into his arms as if she were too good for dirt. Her breath caught.

This was the part where she stopped remembering. Where he would kiss her and steal her away the way monsters were said to do. Steal her away to where none of her siblings would find her, and the world would be small under his wings. He would save her from the fire, from her small life, from men who didn’t deserve her. The memory of his hands blending seamlessly into the idea of what could have been. Painted vivid and real through years of practice, this was the part that she dreamed.


Minnow opened her eyes to the ramshackle roof. Leonas was still sleeping peacefully beside her.

“Huh.”

hungry thirsty roots: 03

“You have guests,” the Goblin Lord said.

Clara stared at him.

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hungry thirsty roots: 02

Clara categorized goblins by the animals they reminded her of. The green goaty ones, the orange catty ones, the brown owly ones. One of the goaty ones was the first she saw, what felt like later in the day.

She didn’t know how long she slept after she washed a second time. She’d tried to make herself vomit, but it hadn’t worked. She had wrapped herself in blankets, and when she woke the torches were lit and there was a glass bottle in the middle of the floor. It was nothing but milk mixed with honey. It would keep her from starving, at least, and quieted her stomach. She stayed in her makeshift bed, wrapped in blankets, and drank it slowly.

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