“I warned you,” Zadven said. “You think we’re bad?” he asked. “We’re the classy ones. Those guys over there?” He pointed across the canyon with his thumb. “Newcropolis.”
Leonas remained very still. “Ah,” he said finally.
“You don’t have to be nice about it,” Zadven said with a wave of his hand. “It’s terrible, they’re doing it on purpose, everyone knows.”
“You guys are different things?” Minnow asked, pointing across the way. “Different cities? I thought they were with you.”
“They’re with us,” Zadven said. “Like a boil. Let me clarify, it’s all one city. The rift is purely physical. Metaphorically? One big happy family. That happens to have different sports teams.”
“What do you play?” Minnow asked.
“Ball,” Zadven said. “That’s all we’ve been able to agree on so far. Last year the Neocropolis Tarantulas brought whackball to the field, but the Newcropolis Harvestmen did bowlball. Terrible game, huge waste of dishes, whackball was much better.”
“I see,” Leonas said.
“I don’t,” Minnow said. “I’m confused. Do you take turns?”
“Never,” Zadven said. “Listen, what kinds of sports do you play where you’re from?”
“The normal ones would be, I guess…” Minnow started counting them off on her fingers. “Fencing, racing, rowing, candlepins, handball, ringette, shinty, yak polo, curling, bull-dancing—”
“That’s fine,” Zadven said, cutting her off. “Who decided on the rules?”
“I don’t know,” Minnow said.
“Everyone decides,” Zadven said. “Someone teaches you how to play the way they learned to play. If you don’t like it, you don’t play. If enough people don’t like it, they change the rules until enough people want to play. Our teams spend the year workshopping new games. If they can ever make a game both teams want to play, that’ll be the new game. It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s a first time for everything. We almost won with hoopball about two hundred years ago, but I think it’s been long enough to risk trying it again.”
“Why is it a risk?” Minnow asked.
“We could win,” Zadven said. “Then we’d have the play hoopball every year. Can you imagine?”
Minnow nodded. “I get it,” she said.
“Do you?” Leonas asked, head tilting sideways.
“It’s a good system,” Minnow decided.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” Leonas said.
“You called me ‘cousin’,” Karzarul said slowly. He hadn’t moved from where he stood or taken the fan from his face.
“Ah—maybe that’s more familiar than you’d like?” Zadven said, scratching his beard. “You’re Auntie Moon’s kid, so that makes you a cousin. We can stop calling you that, if it makes you uncomfortable. We’ve never had a chance to ask.”
“It’s fine,” Karzarul said.
“Auntie,” Leonas repeated, as if he may have misheard due to Zadven’s accent.
Zadven grinned. “I take it your Temple has a different attitude toward the Aunties,” he said.
“We have no Temple,” Leonas said automatically. “We hold Her Light in Shrines until She allows us a Temple once more.”
“Auntie Sun has always favored harsh truths,” Zadven said sympathetically.
“Which one is mine?” Minnow asked, turning with her hand on the hilt of her Starsword to indicate who she meant.
“Granny Void?” Zadven asked, and Minnow gasped.
“Someone else knows about the Void Goddess!” she said, turning to make sure Karzarul had heard. He didn’t need the validation, but perhaps he would appreciate it regardless.
“Not Mother?” Karzarul asked.
“My mother’s name is Jillhemina,” Zadven said.
“I confess to unfamiliarity with your doctrine,” Leonas said carefully.
“Would you like to learn?” Zadven asked, with a wag of his finger that felt like a warning.
“… usually…?” Leonas said.
“Come on, we’ll find a classroom,” Zadven said, waving for them to follow.
Black Drakonis, who had been watching, made a discontented sound.
“Don’t you start,” Zadven said. “Ignore her, it’s not time for her to eat yet. If we feed her now she’ll pretend we didn’t when the time comes.”
Black Drakonis whined, sticking her head further into the road and twitching her snout at Zadven.
“Go wait downtown,” Zadven said.
Black Drakonis clucked aggressively at him.
“You haven’t earned this,” Zadven said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out something that looked like a muffin. “I shouldn’t be giving you this. It’s not going to work next time. Okay?”
There were loud thumping and scratching sounds as her body moved despite her head staying in the same spot. Zadven reared back his arm and pretended to throw, which got Black to move her head long enough for him to fling the muffin at high speed over the edge of the city. Black disappeared to chase it down.
“Let’s go before she comes back and starts making sad eyes at me,” Zadven said, heading down the road to where it turned into a tunnel. Minnow followed first, with Karzarul trailing behind. Minnow admired the paintings that lined the walls of the tunnel. “No one should be using this one,” Zadven said as he pushed a door open. “Except Crabapple. I don’t know why it’s in here. Who let you in here?”
Crabapple oinked, and Minnow immediately shot into the room by fitting herself in the small space of the doorway beneath Zadven’s arm. She picked up the round pink Rootboar without hesitation, and it oinked in surprise. There were small coins and tokens hanging off its antlers beside the pink crabapple blossoms.
“I love it,” Minnow said without hesitation.
“It’s a sweetie,” Zadven said, moving into the room to check beneath the podium at the front. There were glowing crystals set into the walls to light the room, but the light they made was fluttery. Zadven harrumphed. “It got into the snack stash, the little bastard,” he said.
Leonas’ eye was drawn to the seats all carved into the stone that comprised the room. They all faced toward the center podium, no desks or shelves.
Karzarul lingered in the doorway, watching Minnow hug the well-decorated Rootboar. “How long has that been here?” he asked.
“Longer than Black Drakonis,” Zadven said. “Crabapple watched them carve the first classrooms. And ate some of the first bridges. Be careful talking about fruits around it, if you mention its favorite it’ll go nuts because it thinks you brought it one.”
Crabapple started to squirm in Minnow’s arms.
“You should set it outside,” Karzarul said, stepping clear of the door. “It shouldn’t stay near me.”
“Should it not?” Zadven asked, surprised.
“It should not,” Karzarul confirmed as Minnow carried Crabapple back out to the road. “It’s complicated.”
“Complicated as in complex, or complicated as in none of my business?” Zadven asked. Karzarul hesitated. “Say no more,” Zadven said. “The monsters who live here are easy to avoid if that’s what you’d like to do.” He stood behind the podium and gestured for the three of them to sit wherever they liked. “Shall I begin at the beginning, or would you rather guess that part based on context clues?”
“The beginning would be good,” Leonas said, setting his bag in his lap when he sat to dig for a notebook.
“I have to ask that you not take notes,” Zadven apologized.
Leonas stilled. “What?”
“Our truth survives from the mouths of our Teachers,” Zadven said. “It dies in writing.”
Leonas closed his bag with slow suspicion, waiting for Zadven to reveal the punchline to the joke. “The written word can outlive us all,” Leonas said.
“Words can,” Zadven agreed. “The truth does not live in the words of its telling. What you write may be eternal, but we would not call it alive.”
Leonas’ expression was blank in a manner Minnow associated with diplomacy. “That two and two make four does not cease to be true when it’s written,” Leonas said mildly.
“You’re thinking of facts,” Zadven said. “Not truth.”
It would not have been accurate to say that Leonas relaxed, but there was something less tense in the air around him. “How do you draw the line between the two?” Leonas asked.
“The same as any,” Zadven shrugged. “Messily enough that no one’s quite sure where it is.”
“Hm,” Leonas said.
“Truth is a living thing,” Zadven said. “It is changeable, flawed, forgettable. It varies from person to person. Moon Cultists derive important truths from consensus, and it’s those truths that Teachers teach. Whether you accept it as your truth is up to you.”
Minnow was sitting cross-legged with her chin propped on her hands. Karzarul still had not sat, and Zadven accepted that he would not.
“Let’s begin at the beginning,” Zadven said. “Or as close to the beginning as we can get. Auntie Sun and Auntie Moon are lovers born of Granny Void. It’s safe to assume there’s some backstory there, but we doubt it’s comprehensible.”
Zadven turned and used a piece of chalk to draw on the wall behind him. He managed to achieve a surprising amount of depth with very few lines. It didn’t clarify much, but it was fun to look at. The idea of light and space more than the shape of them, and in the breathy glow of magical illumination they almost moved.
“Auntie Sun burns bright, illuminating anything She can be made to reach,” he said, sketching out rays and shadows. “Auntie Moon prefers to mind Her business. The world was made when Granny Void gathered enough things together to take some of that relentless light. It wasn’t that Granny didn’t like the attention, it was only that She found it all a bit much. You know how it is, with family. She made many worlds, made of many different things, so that Auntie Sun could always find something new to look at. But Granny Void provides a canvas, not a work. And Auntie Sun, for all Her energy of observation, was ill-equipped for an empty page.” Zadven wiped the wall clear of chalk with his sleeve.
“It was not creation in the traditional sense, what Auntie Sun did,” he continued, drawing shapes that might have been worlds. “She did not carve men from clay or craft animals by feather and fang. She made rules, instead. Different rules changed the nature of what Her light created, and so She was free to observe without worrying about the details.”
Zadven paused, turning to face his audience. “Have you ever left bread sitting on the counter so long it seems like a shame to kill whatever it’s become?”
“That’s us,” Zadven said, turning back to the wall. “We aren’t the first or only world. All the stars in the sky were once worlds. We take Her light to grow, but no world grows forever. Eventually every world burns.”
“Auntie Moon likes best the worlds with water. It could be that She likes to see Her own reflection, or it could be that She likes the way Her lover’s light looks when She moves the waves. There isn’t a good consensus on that part, yet, so you can pick the truth you like. One Goddess’ favor brings another’s attention. Sunlight, magnified and amplified in our vast oceans, inevitably becomes life. Sprouting and still, changing someday to things more ambulatory, beasts which use more sunlight in the life of them than a simple plant could burn.”
“That’s not how that works,” Leonas muttered.
“Human beings were once beasts, before deciding they would be people,” Zadven continued. “It was a long time before there was a consensus in that regard,” he added. “It was Vaelon who told us of moonlight that decided to be a man.”
Karzarul turned his head so that his fan would cover his face entirely.
“That it happened then confirmed to us that it could easily have happened before. Thus, the truth as we know it: that a human being is an animal that made itself something more, and we are no Goddess’ creation. There is sunlight in our veins, and moonlight in our hearts, and it is from the void that all of us began. They are none of them our mothers, but they are all of them our family.”
“And yet you are Moon Cultists,” Leonas said. “Neither Void nor Sun.”
Zadven dusted his hands off as he turned back around. “Family doesn’t mean we don’t pick favorites,” he said. “Auntie Moon is a goddess of transformative creativity. What is ordinary in the light of day becomes extraordinary in the moonlight. An artist who struggles at noon finds inspiration at midnight. She is a romantic! She smooths out wrinkles and makes kisses taste sweeter. She keeps secrets and colors dreams. If I sound biased, it’s because I am. I’m allowed. I’m a Moon Cultist.”
“What do you know about the Undead?” Minnow asked.
“They predate our first Teachers,” Zadven apologized. “I can’t tell you any truths there, but I can tell you stories. There are stories of a King who lost his children to schemes. There are stories of a village that fell victim to a plague. There are stories of one large family made small through misfortune. There are many stories, and they agree on little. What’s true is that a parent who outlives their child is capable of terrible things. And it’s true that parents who have outlived their children are capable of more. And it’s an unfortunate truth that whatever request was made to Auntie Sun, She would have granted it to the letter and no further. No light shines inside a beating heart, and She is not one for guessing at what She cannot see. The Undead are bodies with locomotion but without souls, animate without sentience. There is light within to move them, and they are always seeking more; what more is a human being to a Goddess? If a soul is something we gave ourselves, what more could She be expected to do when asked to raise the dead?”
Minnow hummed. “I thought you’d have more ideas,” she said, “since you guys cut up bodies.”
“Burial rites,” Zadven corrected. “If you’re going to cut up grandpa, people prefer if you call it burial rites.”
“Right,” Minnow said.
“Rites,” Zadven said.
“It seemed like maybe the Moon Goddess had said something about the dead,” Minnow said.
“She didn’t,” Zadven said. “Goddesses don’t talk to people, as a rule. Saying you’ve spoken to a goddess is usually a sign that something’s gone wrong. Unless you’ve been to the Faewild. Then something’s gone very wrong and you’ve made some mistakes.”
Karzarul couldn’t help a shrug of his eyebrows to acknowledge the validity of the point.
“Our handling of burial rites has nothing to do with Her,” Zadven said, waving a hand to dismiss the idea. “We do it for ourselves, and the souls those bodies once belonged to. Our only special qualifications are that we aren’t precious about meat, and we’ve been doing it for a while.”
“Then you don’t really deal with Undead,” Minnow said.
“Eh.” Zadven wiggled his hand in a so-so gesture. “We find them sometimes. Battlefields, usually. They don’t do much once you’ve got them planted. Would you like to see the Shadow Garden?”
“… where you plant the Undead?” Minnow asked for clarification.
“Okay,” Minnow said.
Leonas narrowed his eyes at Minnow. He leaned closer to her. “Are we not going to ask what the fuck that means?” he asked.
“He’s showing us,” Minnow said. “Showing is a kind of explaining.”
Leonas was unsatisfied with this answer as they followed Zadven out of the classroom, deeper down the tunnel streets.
“Before you came to be here,” Karzarul asked slowly, “what was the name of your country?”
“Didn’t have one,” Zadven said. “Still don’t. Everyone in the canyon falls under a broad umbrella of moon worship, but that doesn’t mean much. It’s convenient for other people to treat us as a singular entity, but we try not to agree on anything we don’t have to. There’s other cities down the canyon, with their own truths and their own sports teams. Try to tell any of them we’re in a country together, it’s not going to go well.”
Minnow listened in the silence for sounds associated with caves, the empty echoes and the far-off drip of mysterious water droplets. She could hear running water somewhere, but it sounded like plumbing and not stalactites. The fluttery glow of the crystals in the walls was growing fainter as the street tilted downward. Leonas’ shield and witchmarks were both brighter than they were. It felt warmer here than in the open air.
“Something about your face reminded me of someone I knew,” Karzarul said quietly. “They called it Mirror Lake, when he lived there.”
“A Moon Cultist?” Zadven asked.
“A Voidpriest,” Karzarul said.
“No one is born a Voidpriest,” Zadven said. “It is a lonely faith made of personal truths. For those to whom the darkness calls, it is the only choice; but it is a choice nonetheless.”
“Ah,” Karzarul said. “Then he might have…”
He shifted abruptly to a Shimmerbat, reforming such that he was already perched on Minnow’s shoulder. Minnow gave his head a cautious pet with one finger. He was impossible to read in this form, and moreso when he was mostly hidden by his own wings.
“Is that normal?” Zadven asked.
“Yeah,” Minnow lied.
“What happens to his clothes?” Zadven asked.
“They dissipate into ambient moonlight,” Leonas said. “They’re made of the same fundamental material as the rest of him.”
“Aaah,” Zadven said, nodding. “Like how your boots are made out of skin.”
Leonas muttered something incomprehensible.
The air was getting dense. There were no longer crystals lighting the way. There were mushrooms instead, glowing and pulsing the way the Sunshield did. Some of the growths sticking out of the walls were as big as Minnow’s head. The smell of fungus was growing stronger.
“Don’t eat those,” Zadven warned.
“We weren’t planning to,” Leonas said.
“I was,” Minnow said.
“You could have just said nothing,” Leonas said.
“Usually,” Minnow agreed.
“Here we are,” Zadven said, as the tunnel opened into a larger cave. “It should be fine as long as you don’t touch anything, but we’ve never had a sunlight witch in here, so who knows? I’d stay up here if I were you.”
“Great,” Leonas said. “Good to know.”
“I can carry you if we have to run,” Minnow assured him.
The tunnel transitioned into stairs going in both directions, with a small overlook into the larger cave that formed the Shadow Garden. Someone had put up a helpful sign which presumably said ‘Shadow Garden’ in whichever language they spoke natively here. It was accompanied by symbols indicating that visitors shouldn’t traipse about eating things. Water ran down the walls of the cave in miniature falls, and the only green visible was lichen.
“Can you see?” Minnow thought to ask Leonas, recalling his trouble with the dark.
“I can,” he said. There were more mushrooms in here, giving off yet more pulsing light. All different varieties, coming up from the ground in domes and coming out of the walls in trumpets, big shaggy masses of mushroom and perfectly round puffballs. There were flowers, but their only colors were red and white. Drooping white flowers in clusters that looked formed from candle wax, tall pillars of red like strings of bells, tall staves of flowers with stems striped like peppermint candy. Spiky, scaly, short lumps of berry-shaped flesh-colored plants.
And beneath them all, wrapped in roots and with mushrooms sprouting out of them, were the bodies. They could only have been Undead, every one of them looking placidly asleep without a touch of decay. Darkness did that to them, made them collapse until the sun shone again. It was never enough to bury them when all coffins rot and soil held so much sunlight. Not enough to dismember them when the touch of light would make them whole again, flesh seeking itself out in vining tendrils of meat and blood.
Yet here they did not move, and the undisturbed growth around them spoke to how long they had remained.
“We take the mushrooms out once they’re big enough to use as fertilizer outside,” Zadven explained. “You could probably eat them, but personally I’d feel weird about it.”
“They’re eating them,” Leonas murmured, his gaze in the middle distance of a memory.
“Fungus is an in-between thing,” Zadven said. “Neither plant nor animal, neither living nor dead. It can eat away at the living and kill it, or eat away at the dead to make life from it. Grown in a poison swamp, they are poison; grown in the Faewild, they are magic. Getting the Undead into the dark is what lets them sleep, but once the spores get into them, it draws the sunlight out faster than they can take it in. It’s enough to bring them as close as they can get to an eternal rest.”
“But it still doesn’t let them die,” Minnow said. “Not really.”
“They can be prevented,” Zadven said, “but they cannot be fixed.”
“I’m worried there’s going to be more of them soon,” Minnow said. “Waiting until nightfall to relocate them all and wait for mushrooms to sprout doesn’t seem ideal.”
“A war?” Zadven asked.
“Something like that,” Leonas said.
“You didn’t hear it from me,” Zadven said, “but you’re not the first Hero to come to the Shadow Garden.”
Minnow blinked. “No?”
“Elias,” Zadven said.
“What.” It was a large voice to come from such a small ball of fluff on her shoulder.
“Did he not consider you heretics?” Leonas asked.
“It was before my time,” Zadven said. “I am made to understand that he made no secret what he thought of us, but his transgressions stopped at being a rude old bat. Age either drove him mad, or else rendered him too sane. The Teachers who spoke to him didn’t know him well enough to say, and it felt rude to ask. I assume you don’t recall?”
“I don’t,” Minnow confirmed. No memories at all, only his house and his garden and the boyfriend he’d murdered. And the soul, of course, but that was as much hers as it had ever been his.
“He said he was seeking the Nightshard,” Zadven said. “An ancient artifact, the magical instrument of a powerful witch imbued with their very soul. The legend goes that anyone who touches it loses every drop of sunlight in their body, so how he was planning to pick the thing up is anyone’s guess. Didn’t exactly report back, so we don’t know if he ever found it. Feel free to report back later, by the way, it’ll make a Teacher’s job easier someday.”
Minnow couldn’t think of anything like that among the things Elias had left her. There’d been a few locked rooms, secret doors, and trapdoors in her house—of course there had. Some safes, a vault. Normal things. There had been artifacts, but they’d been the boring kind that made her better at fighting. A few fallen stars, but that was nothing compared to what she’d found on her own. Mostly it was a lot of papers with names and numbers that meant nothing to her, with all those names dead. He’d kept a list of everyone he thought should be grateful he hadn’t killed them and why, that had kept her entertained for a few days. It was almost entirely petty squabbles with his neighbors and it had gone on for three volumes that somehow never escalated to actual violence.
It had made her feel retroactively a bit guilty about killing Yugo. But he’d deserved it. The judge had even said so after Leonas told the judge what to say.
It was fine. She was allowed to have one thing in common with the person she used to be, even if he sucked. A stopped clock was right about wanting to kill his neighbors twice a day.
“Should it be over there?” Leonas asked, pointing. A Rootboar with blossoms hanging like garlands from its antlers was trotting around the unmoving Undead.
“Wisteria likes to do the rounds,” Zadven shrugged. “The Undead don’t seem to notice monsters. Moonlight means nothing to them.”
Wisteria Rootboar stopped and sniffed at a glowing mushroom before delicately taking it in its snout and tearing it away from the Undead it was sprouting from.
“It’s got a real knack for telling when they’re ready to harvest,” Zadven said with a touch of pride.
Minnow felt the Shimmerbat on her shoulder move closer to her neck, nearly hiding beneath her hair.
“I need to poop,” Minnow announced.
“For fuck’s sake,” Leonas said, rubbing at his face.
“There’s a public privy if you head back where we came from, near the classroom,” Zadven said. “We mark them with little droplet shapes, very tactful. You want I should show you the way, or are you good?”
“I’m good,” Minnow said, heading back to the tunnel. “I’ll meet you guys back at that square when we’re done, okay?” She didn’t wait for an answer as she hurried away, but she also didn’t look for the privy. She ducked back into the empty classroom instead. When she was sure there weren’t any other monsters present, she pulled Karzarul down off her shoulder. She looked down at him, hands cupped to hold him close to her chest. “I’m sorry about all this,” she said. “It seemed like you needed a minute.”
“Yeah,” he said. He reminded her of a dandelion puff wrapped in banana leaves.
“You feel it, right?” she asked. “The other monsters.” He said nothing. “Before I thought you could only sense them, but now I think you must feel it. It explains a lot if you can feel each other’s feelings.”
He still didn’t answer, which she took as an answer.
Little things all adding up. The way he could control the beasts like Shimmerbats but not the people like Brutelings. How agitated he’d been since they’d come close to the other monsters of Neocropolis. How agitated they became. The way Violet looked at him, the way he couldn’t stay on Monster Mountain for long.
Minnow wanted to believe that she’d figured it out, assembled the clues to solve a mystery. It wasn’t enough. It had to be remembering. Another thing she knew without learning, another person she’d been who’d known him. Sometimes she resented the other selves who’d learned these things. He should belong to who she was, and not who she’d been. Little moments of revelation and intimacy that had been stolen from her by herself. Even if she’d somehow remembered all at once the exact circumstances of how her past self had learned this thing, it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t be a moment between Minnow and Karzarul.
“I know it’s going to take a long time,” Minnow said finally. “Because I’m new, and we’re new. And I know you’re still worried about fate making everything go wrong. It might take hundreds of years, or thousands. But someday… it’s not going to be like this. You’re going to get used to it. Leonas and I, we’re both going to make you get used to it. Until you can come to a place like this, with all these old monsters, and you won’t even notice anymore. You won’t get overwhelmed, or surprised, or upset. You won’t even notice, because you’ll be used to always feeling cherished. Like you’re supposed to be.”
She lifted her hands to kiss the top of his head.
It had been a while since Leonas had a nightmare. It turned out that meeting his worst nightmare and then facefucking him was extraordinarily therapeutic. Not broadly applicable knowledge, but good to know.
So it came as some surprise to see Karzarul snarling at him, all bells and horns and bared fangs.
“That doesn’t work anymore,” Leonas said, dismissing the dream construct. Or, trying to. Leonas narrowed his eyes at the moon-white Impyr, standing in the hazy void of Leonas’ dreamscape. He still couldn’t get the hang of making things on purpose. “What?”
Karzarul lunged at him.
Leonas screamed. He managed to pull together enough self-preservation instinct to remember that he could do whatever he wanted in dreams. With a flail of his arm, Karzarul was knocked chest-first to the ground, bound in metal around his arms and waist. He roared as the fall knocked the air out of him. Since it was a dream, the metal was only metal; no sunlight shackles, no power tingling in his fingertips. Just Karzarul on the ground, growling.
“What the fuck?” Leonas demanded.
Karzarul, still growling, did not explain.
Despite himself, Leonas still had to suppress his fear in order to get closer to him. Leonas pressed a knee against Karzarul’s back to grab one of his horns, using it to tilt his head backward. That snarling face clarified nothing. “This is actually you, isn’t it?” Leonas asked. “Are you having some kind of episode? I don’t know what this is.”
Karzarul let out an animal roar, nearly giving Leonas another heart attack.
Something about the canyon having an effect on him? The Moon Cultists, the monsters, the presence of the Undead?
Leonas bent lower, putting more of his weight onto his knee to press between Karzarul’s shoulder blades. He put his hand under Karzarul’s jaw to turn his head awkwardly toward him. Karzarul snapped at the air, but not convincingly.
“You’re not struggling very hard,” Leonas observed. “Do you prefer being down where you belong?”
Leonas could hear the hitch in his breath, the way his growling hiccupped.
“Ridiculous man,” Leonas sighed, letting him go. He tipped sideways to sit directly on Karzarul’s back, admiring the width of his shoulders as he pulled his knees up to sit cross-legged. Leonas stopped halfway, and experimentally pressed the toe of his boot against the back of Karzarul’s head until his horns hit the ground. He could feel the rise and fall of Karzarul’s chest as he breathed, the enormous mass of the man.
Karzarul could have stood if he wanted. He could have tried. It didn’t matter that it was Leonas’ dreamscape. As dreamscapes went, it wasn’t even a good one. They may as well have been inside a cloud.
“I am well aware of Minnow’s predilections,” Leonas said. “I am aware of what it is you do for her.”
Tattered and bruised, gasping and crying out, great pale hands holding her down.
Leonas still wasn’t good enough to keep the vision from manifesting in the dreamscape, but he ignored it and tried to pretend he was doing it on purpose.
“It is not a service I provide,” Leonas said. “For either of you. If you’re hoping to coax me into kicking the shit out of you, you’ve come to the wrong person. Some of us are civilized.”
Karzarul’s snarl was more a huff of annoyance.
“Minnow did tell me,” Leonas said. “She said you feel what the other monsters feel.”
Karzarul quieted but still said nothing.
“I would hate that, personally,” Leonas continued. “I already know I’m a miserable old fuck, I don’t need contrast to drive the point home.” He wiggled his ankle, the vague notion of grinding the sole of his boot into Karzarul’s perfect silky hair. “Were you hoping I’d treat you the way a monster deserves?”
Karzarul sighed in resignation.
“I can try doing for you what I do for Minnow,” Leonas said. “You don’t have to talk. Keep grumbling about it, if you’d like. But you’ll need to sit up and keep your hands to yourself. Try to fight me and I’ll, I don’t know. Put you in a cage or something.” Leonas slid off Karzarul’s back and stood, straightening out his clothes. Karzarul was, as he’d predicted, fully capable of rising to his knees despite the band around his arms. He had a petulant air around him that did indeed remind Leonas of Minnow. His head was bowed, his hair in a slight disarray that looked calculated.
Or else he could look that good by accident. The thought annoyed Leonas, but he knew better than to believe it. He’d had a better glimpse of how much effort the man was willing to put into a good pose.
Leonas circled him, rubbing his hands together in an idle fidget as he thought. He decided a table would work best, and brought it up from underneath Karzarul, lifting him off the ground. Karzarul looked briefly alarmed, which pleased Leonas.
“That’s better,” Leonas said. He could, if nothing else, dream up a table. He added chains to it while he was at it, replacing the band he’d used with thin shackles around Karzarul’s wrists and ankles. He wondered what it said about him that this was so much easier than flowers. “Can I dress you up when you’re here, I wonder?” Leonas traced his fingertips along Karzarul’s jawline while he considered it. Their eyes didn’t meet, didn’t look at each other the way people were meant to look at people. Leonas looked at him in parts, like a problem in need of solving, like a thing.
He was so goddamn pretty already, was the trouble. The little chains that attached the panels of his skirt, the bells in his hair. Leonas touched Karzarul’s tunic to see if he could make it disappear, and he could. He touched Karzarul’s throat to give him a copper collar stamped with an image of the sun, but decided he didn’t like the aesthetics. He’d rather have a pretty picture than stake an ugly claim. He replaced it with silver, all covered in moons. He liked that better. Less like a prisoner, more like a pet.
Was it sweet or sad that Karzarul had come here? Somewhere Minnow couldn’t see, somewhere he could only ever lash out uselessly. Throwing a tantrum. Leonas didn’t know if this qualified as intimacy, being allowed to see him pitch a fit. It might be trust, or it might be that Karzarul didn’t care what Leonas thought of him.
“This is easier with Minnow,” Leonas said, running his fingers down Karzarul’s arms. “She’s usually got some injury or another I can poke at. It’s hard to know where to start with you.” Leonas picked up one of Karzarul’s hands to trace the lines in his palms, then flipped them over to look at his claws. It was odd, the lack of fingernails. Leonas squeezed one of Karzarul’s fingertips and observed the curve and sharp point of the claw that emerged. He kept holding his hand as he reached up to rub the tuft on one of Karzarul’s ears. Karzarul glowed.
“It’s odd,” Leonas said. “That so many humanoid monsters are… cat-like. There aren’t many feline beast monsters. I’ve only ever seen the Shadestalker. You seem to prefer to be a Howler.” Leonas ran his thumb down Karzarul’s cheek. “I like trying to figure it out. Why you make the choices you do about how you’d like to be seen.” He leaned closer, moving his hand to the top of Karzarul’s head and scratching at his scalp with his nails. “Is it supposed to be a secret that you like to be a good boy?”
Karzarul’s tail thumped against the table. He was shining bright as a full moon in summer and he looked miserable about it.
“A good dog is still a dog, you know,” Leonas said. Karzarul shuddered. “I do wonder sometimes what you’re made of.” Leonas ran a fingertip along the cuticle of one of Karzarul’s horns. “Whether there’s muscle and bone underneath your skin.”
“There isn’t,” Karzarul said. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d showed up.
“Don’t tell me how you know that,” Leonas said.
“The first time I came here,” Karzarul said haltingly. “When you didn’t know it was me. Would you have…”
Leonas touched Karzarul’s chin to tilt his face toward him, meeting his eyes. “Are you asking if I was going to have a wet dream about you?” Karzarul looked so abashed that Leonas couldn’t maintain the distance, leaning forward to press his face into Karzarul’s neck. “Don’t put that idea in my head.”
“You,” Leonas sighed. “Keeping quiet and playing dumb so I’d fuck you.”
“Would you have?” Karzarul asked.
“I don’t know,” Leonas admitted. “I’ve had sex dreams before. Not like that.” He slid his fingers into Karzarul’s hair, wanting to hold him closer but not wanting to be held. “It’s complicated.”
“Yeah,” Karzarul said.
“I’ve had a lot of bad sex,” Leonas said.
“I’m not used to wanting more than Minnow. I’d never wanted someone the way I wanted you. I didn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know if I could have imagined more. Now I can, but I wouldn’t want to dream it. Not when I could have you.” Leonas kissed the spot beneath Karzarul’s ear. “Am I talking too much?”
“I didn’t used to be like this,” Leonas said. “Before Minnow, before the… the fake ward. I wasn’t some lonely waif. I had friends. I could pass for a regular little boy, sometimes. It doesn’t seem that long ago. I don’t know where the time went. I don’t know how it turned me into this, when I don’t even remember most of it. Days passing one after the other and nothing happening, it doesn’t seem like anything happened. I don’t know what happened.”
“Time is like that,” Karzarul said. Leonas realized he was holding him very tightly, his face buried in Karzarul’s hair, while Karzarul’s shackled hands remained neatly on his knees.
“It was years before I realized why he never let me meet with anyone’s sons,” Leonas said. “Always daughters, I didn’t get it until later. I felt. I don’t know what I felt. He never admitted it. I could have argued if he admitted it. I don’t know if it’s like the, the food thing. If other people have that idea. Masculine and feminine, active and passive, giving and taking.”
“We don’t,” Karzarul said. “Or, I don’t.”
“I have too much sunlight in me,” Leonas explained. “Too much the Empress. Too much of the things that killed the Empire. A sickness in my soul making me predisposed to letting men rule me.” He giggled, but it came out sounding wrong. He put his hand on the collar around Karzarul’s neck, though his fingers weren’t long enough to wrap around his throat. “The funny part is. I really believe he would have been fine with it. If he’d known that I was like this. Sadism is all well and good, so long as we’re not allowing ourselves to be sodomized.”
“Oh,” Karzarul said. “When you said giving and taking you meant—”
“Your dad thought you were a bottom?”
“Please don’t say those words in that order ever again.”
“That’s weird,” Karzarul said.
“I am aware.”
“That wouldn’t have made you like her at all.”
“Lynette,” Karzarul clarified. “Not that I ever—she wasn’t subtle.”
“It’s all very stupid,” Leonas said. “When I try to explain it to you. When Kavid was explaining it. I want you to understand, is all. You ask if I would dream a version of you I could fuck, and I hear an accusation. That I would insult you that way.”
“You stepped on me,” Karzarul reminded him.
“It’s different,” Leonas said. “The way a man insults another man, and the way he emasculates him.”
“I don’t know what that means,” Karzarul said.
“Unmanning. I understand that, I don’t know what it means in this context.”
“It’s stupid,” Leonas said. “I told you it’s stupid. I didn’t think that I believed it, I thought I knew better, I don’t like that this idea is in me. Minnow is better than either one of us, I know that.”
“You’re speaking very quickly,” Karzarul said.
“Your clerics don’t like women,” Karzarul said.
“There’s a taboo against treating men like women.”
“Which doesn’t extend to head, for some reason.”
Leonas’ fingers twitched. “That’s…” He swallowed. “You’re not supposed to do that to women, either,” he mumbled. “So it’s. It doesn’t count.”
“You lost me again.”
“It’s indulgent,” Leonas said.
“Like chocolate,” Karzarul said. “Did you think it would make you sick?”
“I might be,” Leonas said. “It could be symptomatic. Something you could look back at later and realize it was a sign of something wrong. Couldn’t stop sticking my dick in sharp things.”
“Is that feminine?”
“Giving in to temptation despite the obvious danger?” Leonas asked. “I suppose it would be, at that.”
“Convenient for men,” Karzarul said.
“Isn’t it?” Leonas let his hands rest on Karzarul’s bare shoulders. “I wonder what it meant to be a man, when moonlight decided to be one.”
“I don’t know,” Karzarul admitted. “I wanted to be like him. That was all.” Leonas hummed. “I did wonder. Later. If he would have liked me better. But nothing else fit the same way. I can worship beauty, but I can’t protect it.”
Leonas pulled back enough that he could press his forehead to Karzarul’s. “I don’t know why I thought using the standards of a foreign culture long-dead before I was born would be enough to make me seem less effete, but fuck me I guess.” He cupped Karzarul’s face to kiss him, giving up on the shackles and making them disappear. “I can try to protect you, if you’d like to worship me,” Leonas teased against his mouth.
Karzarul kissed him back, and Leonas didn’t stop him. He still kept his hands to himself. “I’d like that.”