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.”

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.

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.”

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Four

“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?”

Minnow nodded.

“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.

“Yes.”

“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?

“Hm.”

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.”

“Which?”

“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.

“Oh.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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—”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“What?”

“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.

“Bullshit.”

“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.

“I know.”

“I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Your clerics don’t like women,” Karzarul said.

“… yeah.”

“There’s a taboo against treating men like women.”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Three

“It wasn’t literal,” Leonas said.

“You guys are always saying that,” Minnow said, unrolling another of her maps into the middle of their picnic blanket.

“The world doesn’t have an end,” Leonas pointed out. “It’s poetic license, it means they chased them extremely far, that’s all.”

“Maybe,” Minnow said, rather than point out the strong possibility that Leonas’ ancestors who drove the heretics from Fort Astielle were actually stupid.

“What if they were stupid?” Karzarul asked. Minnow nudged him with her elbow.

Leonas drummed his fingers against his own crossed arms. “Yes, we have fully established that they were in fact quite stupid, thank you.”

Karzarul moved to pat Leonas on the arm, changing his mind when it was too late to pretend that hadn’t been what he was doing. He patted the air beside Leonas’ arm instead. Leonas huffed irritably, snatching Karzarul’s gloved hand out of the air and lacing their fingers without looking at him. His expression didn’t change. Karzarul’s only acknowledgment was to glow faintly and keep his attention fixed on Minnow’s maps.

“We’re only looking at the big-picture maps, because it can’t be any of the places I’ve already been,” Minnow said. “I would have noticed if there were Moon Cultists there. They cut up dead bodies, right?”

“Sun zealots seem to consider it their defining feature,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know that it’s a tenet of their faith. It could be that they were the only ones willing to do the job.”

“That isn’t less true than it was then,” Minnow said. “I would have noticed if I went somewhere and there were bodies being cut up, is all I mean. I’ve been outside of Astielle before, but I’ve never asked what they do with their corpses. All the ones I make get cut up when I kill them, so if Gaigon has a policy they’ve never mentioned it.”

“Who would have mentioned it?” Leonas asked. “Were you often beheading people in mixed company? Dismembering people in the middle of the market?”

“Not often,” Minnow said. “Not to the point where they thought it was worth asking me to clean up after myself while I was at it.”

“Great,” Leonas said.

“Before we left Monster Mountain,” Karzarul said, “Violet mentioned certain diplomatic missions outside of Astielle. We could ask if he knows anything relevant.”

“Good idea,” Minnow said, digging through her bag to find her Seeing Stone. She paused when she found it, staring at the smooth surface. Her previous Seeing Stone had only been able to connect to Leonas.

“It works like the Doors,” Leonas said. “Focus on the connection you want to make.”

She nodded, touching the etching that let her make contact.

“Lady Minnow,” Violet greeted a moment after the connection had been made, when he was able to see who it was. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Do you know what other countries are doing with their dead bodies?” Minnow asked.

There was a moment of silence that could easily have been confused for a broken connection. “Did you want some?” Violet asked cheerfully.

“No,” Minnow said. “I’d just do that on my own, if that was all.”

“Of course.”

“Astielle leaves their bodies empty and whole,” Minnow explained.

“That isn’t good,” Violet said.

“Karzarul says Moon Cultists used to be in charge of funeral rites,” Minnow said. “He thought you’d know if they still were, in other places.”

“I can’t say I’d thought to inquire after anyone’s corpses,” Violet said, “but if you’ll give me some time, I’ll ask around and see what I can find.”

“May I see the Stone?” Karzarul asked, and Minnow handed it off to him, careful not to let the connection break between them. Karzarul hadn’t taken his hand from Leonas.

“Hel-lo your Majesty,” Violet said.

«Cut the shit,» Karzarul said in Aekhite. «Did Vaelon ever talk to me about the Undead?»

«Not really?» Violet said. «You’d think he would have, since he was fucking around at the Necropolis without us—you. Do you think it’s fake?»

«No, we saw some,» Karzarul said.

«No shit?»

«They’re under the Ruined Temple, they’ve been there long enough that there’s a Door in there,» Karzarul said.

«That has implications,» Violet said.

«Yeah,» Karzarul agreed. «I know sometimes you have more clarity than I do about memories.»

«Can’t help you on this one, love,» Violet said.

«Were you going to offer Minnow corpses?» Karzarul asked.

«You know I was,» Violet said.

«I can make my own corpses,» Minnow reminded them again.

Karzarul stared at Minnow. Leonas looked between the two of them. “What the fuck are you people saying right now.”


Minnow brought them to another nondescript cabin, this one in the middle of a forest. She’d been using it for drying rare herbs and flowers, so they hung from the ceiling like a field growing downward. They set up their bedrolls on the floor, Minnow’s next to Karzarul’s so that she could curl herself sideways into his chest. Ordinarily, she would have been fine draped half on top of him and all tangled together, but this time she liked her forehead against his sternum and his hand pressed against her back. She’d considered asking him to be a Savagewing again, to box her in with soft feathers and the weight of him. Except that Leonas wouldn’t be able to see her if they did that. He liked to keep his bedroll at a distance, but it still felt important not to exclude him.

She felt a brush of air behind her and realized Leonas was rolling out his bed for the night beside hers. She started to pull away from Karzarul so that she could see.

“Don’t,” Leonas warned. She stilled. She felt very aware of his movement behind her as Karzarul moved his hand to rest at her arm. Then Leonas wrapped an arm around her waist, chest against her back and nuzzling at her hair. She couldn’t help a happy hum, pressing back against him and uncurling enough that their thighs touched. “Don’t make it weird,” Leonas said.

“I’m not,” she protested. “I like the way we fit, is all.”

“We don’t fit,” Leonas scoffed. “You’re too fucking short.”

“I didn’t say we did,” Minnow said. “I just said I liked it.”

“Hmph.”

Karzarul wrapped his arm around both of them.


When Violet contacted them again, it was to give them a lead he’d found in Vado. Most places did cremation, and Vado was no exception, but they had interesting rituals around war he considered relevant. Because battles made such a dangerous amount of dead, it was considered best practices to travel first to Dragon Canyon. In Dragon Canyon, it was said, the ground was full of ghosts. Shout the time and place of the battle into the empty space, and if the ghosts called it back it meant they’d know to be there. A long-dead ghost was said to be a ward against misplaced sunlight, capable of stealing it for themselves in order to become tangible. Entire battles had been rescheduled due to uncooperative ghosts.

Leonas was not thrilled by the prospect of following a lead from someone who did not understand echoes. Karzarul was more interested.

“They didn’t used to call it that,” Karzarul said.

“What did they used to call it?” Minnow asked. She was sitting on Karzarul’s back again, facing Leonas. Dragon Canyon was too far from any Rainbow Doors to get there easily on anyone else’s feet. She’d pointed out that Mount Saturn was near enough, with a tall enough peak and a steep enough angle to be able to glide down for an hour or more. Leonas had not found this a compelling argument for that mode of travel.

Minnow’s maps only showed one or two roads that passed into or over Dragon Canyon, and none of them were as near as a random Door near a ruined fort. Any trails that had once been taken to this place were gone now, grown over with tall and weedy grasses.

“They called it Spider’s Gorge,” Karzarul said.

“Oh, fuck that,” Leonas said.

“We don’t know why they called it that,” Minnow said.

“The giant spiders,” Karzarul said.

Fuck that,” Leonas repeated.

“We don’t know if there’s still spiders,” Minnow said. “They could be gone. If they’re spider monsters that means Karzarul can take care of them. Right?”

“Spiders aren’t monsters,” Karzarul said. “Spiders are their own thing. I can’t turn into a spider.”

“Small blessings,” Leonas said.

“Not that I’ve ever tried,” Karzarul added.

“Keep not trying,” Leonas said.

“Do you not like spiders?” Minnow asked.

“There are a lot of things I wouldn’t like if there were enough of them to name a gorge after,” Leonas said, “particularly not when they are also giant. Do you think I’d be happier about the giant quail in Quail Valley?”

“That one would definitely be full of ghosts,” Karzarul said.

“What?” Leonas said.

“Quail love dying,” Minnow explained. “Most spiders are harmless,” she added.

“Most,” Leonas said. “Not all.”

“Do we know why they call it Dragon Canyon?” Karzarul asked.

“I would assume because dragons are said to have carved the world,” Leonas said. “The trails they flew left echoes in all the winds and currents.”

“That would have been equally as true before,” Karzarul said, “when they called it Spider’s Gorge.”

“They needed a new name after they got rid of the spiders,” Minnow suggested.

“We can hope,” Leonas said.

“Maybe,” Karzarul said, unconvinced.

“It’s a big canyon,” Minnow said. “It has a serpentine shape. It’s the most dragon-y landmark I’ve ever seen.”

Karzarul sighed. “That could make sense,” he admitted.

“Have you ever seen a dragon?” Minnow asked.

“I was told…” Karzarul hesitated. “Vaelon told me,” he amended. “That every dragon sleeps eternal. For a dragon to rise would portend the remaking of the world.”

“It’s as likely they all died out long ago,” Leonas said. “If they ever lived.”

“Of course they lived,” Minnow said. “Karzarul says I said so.” The sound of a bell rang in her head, and she jumped off Karzarul’s back without warning him first. He slowed to a stop as she walked in widening circles.

“Another star?” Karzarul asked.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “I guess I never bothered to come this way before.”

“That’s surprising, considering,” Karzarul said.

“I always meant to,” Minnow said. “It looked like a place that would have interesting things.” She stopped and pulled out the Starsword to dig at the ground. “There used to be a lot of those fake Taurils around here,” she explained. “I could handle them, but I didn’t like to. Every fight was a whole big thing. You know?”

“Real Taurils are stronger,” Karzarul asserted.

“Sure,” Minnow said noncommittally, pulling the fallen star out of the ground and brushing the dirt from it. “I figured I’d wait until I had a reason to go to Dragon Canyon, that way I could get everything out of the way at once. But nothing ever came up.”

“I wonder what he was hiding,” Leonas said, looking toward the canyon in the distance. From so far away it looked like a mark in the ground, could easily be confused for a river. The size and the depth of it would not become obvious until they were closer, where the scale would become harrowing. “To have placed so many Hollow monsters here.”

“Moon Cultists,” Minnow said.

“It was a rhetorical question,” Leonas snapped. “I wasn’t looking for an answer, we don’t even know if that’s true.”

Minnow pulled herself up onto Karzarul’s back, and being reminded how many Taurils she’d once killed in this field made it feel strange again. She regretted not letting him pick her up, which would have been easier to separate from sense memories. She wanted to wrap herself around his torso, nuzzle at his neck, listen to him speak and remember all the ways that he was different. She sat instead, pressing her palms against his velvet beneath her, leaning her back too-forcefully against his. “It’s Moon Cultists,” Minnow said with certainty.

Leonas rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “Probably,” he muttered.

“Old timey Astians thought the canyon was the edge of the world,” she added.

“Let it go,” Leonas said.

Minnow looked out at the great expanse of grasslands around them. She imagined seeing the shape of a monster on the distant horizon and knowing it still wasn’t far enough.

“Can you run?” Minnow asked Karzarul, tilting her head back. Her hair might have tangled with his, if his was not always so neat. “I like the way the world looks when you run.”

Karzarul’s hooves pushed harder against the ground, dug into the earth to launch himself forward. The grasses closest to them were a blur of green, the horizon distant enough to almost stand still. It felt like the air was moving fast enough to be visible, the way air become audible when something whipped through it quick enough.

Leonas’ seat in his saddle was perfectly secure, but he still glowed with magic to hold himself tight. Minnow couldn’t see his face through the light of it but could imagine his expression well enough. She almost felt guilty, but not quite. He had curls that ought to be windswept. It was one of many wrongs that they hadn’t been, but it wasn’t her fault if he wasn’t used to it yet.

It was a correction, in a way. Or at least she could pretend it was, to justify it to herself.

Karzarul slowed too soon, not close enough to the canyon and not yet to a point where she felt ready to be done. She might have asked him to go in a big circle for a while if she hadn’t thought Leonas would protest.

“What’s the matter?” Leonas asked, his magic’s light dissipated.

“Give me a minute,” Karzarul said, barely advancing. Minnow leaned sideways to look around him. He was holding his hands slightly outward, palms downward, the way she held her hands when she was looking for a star. She wondered if she’d always done it, if he picked it up from her or if she picked it up from him.

“More Shimmerbats?” Minnow asked.

“No,” Karzarul said. “Dragon Canyon is a misnomer.”

Leonas narrowed his eyes. “Is it spiders.”

Karzarul started to speak, then stopped. He pressed a hand to his head, the spot right behind his horns. “It’s. Weird.” His steps slowed to a stop. “I should. You should wait. Here.”

“No,” Minnow said immediately.

His legs wobbled. “I’m having. A problem.”

Minnow jumped from his back again, and Leonas followed her lead to descend. “What’s wrong?” Minnow asked, running her hand over his foreleg as she circled around him. It didn’t do her much good, because he’d started rubbing his face with both hands. It was a gesture she associated more with Leonas than with him.

There was a great rush of air as a shadow emerged from the ground, growing larger until it blotted out the sun. The canyon it had come from obscured its size until it was closer, inky black and all of it too much. Too-wide wings, too many legs, too many eyes. A sky of black scales.

“Drakonis!” Minnow said, delighted despite herself. She hadn’t seen one until Karzarul took the form. She was glad to have never met a Hollow one. “This is a real monster, right?”

“He can’t sense the Hollow monsters,” Leonas murmured, staying close to Karzarul. If Karzarul’s legs had been steadier, he might have ducked right beneath him. Minnow sympathized. Her own instincts were to run and hide, to find a safe place to observe. Figure out if there was a safe way to avoid it on the way to her goals. Despite what Leonas seemed to think, running headlong at the enemy with sword-first was never her first choice.

Minnow pressed her hand more firmly against Karzarul’s leg as Drakonis swooped toward the ground, wings catching the air to land heavy in the grass. Minnow could make out the shape of it, something she hadn’t been able to do when Karzarul was clutching her in enormous claws. It had a long, stretched-out snout with three eyes on either side of it. Horns erupted from the back of its head in crooked shapes like the branches of a tree in winter. Tusks jutted out on either side of its mouth, pointing upward and downward. When it sniffed the air, its snout moved more than it seemed like a snout should, a nose with aspirations toward being a trunk. It blinked in waves, eyes all down the length of its body blinking one after the other before starting over at the beginning.

Black Drakonis touched its nose to Karzarul, and Karzarul uncovered his face to press his forehead against its snout.

“You’re happy to see each other?” Minnow asked after a moment. Karzarul nodded. He and Drakonis were in silent communion, and she wondered how much he felt.

He couldn’t read the minds of monsters, that much was clear. She assumed his sense of them was something felt, but she did not know how much and hadn’t asked. Even if she did, he might not be able to explain it. She had no powers or magic. She had a sword. Perhaps Leonas would understand it, the way he knew how to dream when she didn’t.

“She has been here,” Karzarul said, “a very long time.”

Minnow noticed the mushrooms growing on Black Drakonis’ horns, the crystals wrapped in wire hanging from them.

“Can we keep going?” Minnow asked. “Or do you need to stop?”

“We don’t have to stop,” Karzarul said.

“If you were small, I could carry you,” Minnow said.

“No,” Karzarul said, shaking his head. “I would rather… I don’t want to do that.” Minnow patted his leg. He let Drakonis go, and she raised her head to turn it around, her body trailing after her like a streamer. Walking ahead with her wings tucked in, she stopped before she’d gone far enough for her body to straighten out. She turned her head back around to look at them, nose twitching.

“We’re coming,” Karzarul said, waving her off. She walked only far enough ahead that her body was a straight line before turning and twitching her nose at them again. She made a rolling sound like a drum clucking. She waited until Karzarul started walking after her to forge ahead, but every few minutes she would turn around to make sure they were still following.

“I know we were joking about Quail Valley,” Minnow said, “but I’m getting a distinct ‘mother hen’ sort of feeling.”

“What sorts of mother hens have you met?” Leonas asked.

“Chickens,” she said.

“Chickens aren’t winged nightmares,” he said.

“Did you not meet my chickens?” she asked.

“When would I have met your chickens?”

“In my yard.”

“Pardon me for being a bit distracted by having left my house for the first time in twenty years to find my girlfriend enjoying post-coital pancakes with the man who was going to kill me,” Leonas said.

“I made eggs,” Minnow corrected. “From my chickens.”

“I stand corrected,” Leonas said.

Minnow walked in a way that brought her closer to Leonas, dangerously close to leaning against him. “You called me your girlfriend again,” she said.

“You know what I mean,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I like it.”

“I wasn’t going to kill you,” Karzarul said.

“Obviously circumstances have changed,” Leonas said, “but let’s not lie to ourselves. You were fully prepared to kill me. The fact that it would have been due to a misunderstanding, or whatever you want to call it, would not have made me less dead. I am well aware, knowing what I know now, that the situation could have been resolved by my being even the slightest bit diplomatic. Since that was never going to happen, that is not relevant to the facts, which are that you would have killed me.”

Black Drakonis seemed ready to come back for them the next time she turned around, but Karzarul shooed her away. “I wouldn’t have killed you for being rude,” Karzarul said. “… again. That was a mistake. When that happened. I’ve apologized for that.”

“To me?” Leonas asked.

“To someone,” Karzarul said.

“Would you have killed me if you thought I was a danger to Minnow?”

“This isn’t a fair conversation,” Karzarul said, “when you’ve spent most of your life trying to get Minnow to kill me. That’s attempted murder. All I had was intent.”

“My point,” Leonas said, “was that when a person fears for their life, they tend to focus on that. And not chickens. Which were not a threat to my life. Which is yet another difference between poultry and a Drakonis.”

“I think that what this really shows,” Minnow said, “is that you have some fundamental misconceptions about which things in this world want you dead.”

“I don’t know how that’s your takeaway,” Leonas said.

“Spiders want to mind their own business,” she said. “A spider has no malice in its heart. If a spider is trying to kill you, a mistake has happened somewhere. A mother hen will always choose murder.”

“Is this supposed to make me feel better about the enormous monster you compared to a hen?” Leonas asked.

“I wasn’t saying you shouldn’t be scared of her,” Minnow said. “If Karzarul couldn’t control her, we’d all be running in the other direction. You’re worried for the wrong reasons, is all.”

“She’s enormous and can kill me,” Leonas said.

“Lots of things are enormous,” Minnow said. “Lots of things can kill you. You don’t need to worry about most of them.”

“My worries are not limited by such trivialities as objective reality,” Leonas said. “Why would they be limited by needs? I barely even know what it’s like to have needs. I’m a Prince. I want for nothing.”

“You don’t have to say things just because they’re supposed to be true,” Minnow said.

Leonas pressed his mouth into a thin line.

Black Drakonis clucked back at them one last time before descending into the canyon. The three of them followed the trailing tip of her tail, leaning over the edge to see where she went.

“Fuck that,” Leonas said immediately.

“What do you have against canyons?” Minnow asked.

Karzarul narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at Leonas. “Do you have something against canyons?” he asked.

“What? No.” Leonas scowled at them both. “When would I have been to a canyon to form an opinion. I lived in a tower. I haven’t seen a canyon, met a chicken, or developed a fear of heights.” Leonas pointed to the series of ladders leading downward, sculpted vines growing into the stone walls. “That,” he said. “Fuck that right there in particular. That is not safe, you will not convince me that’s safe, and if a contractor in Astielle tried to get away with that I’d have them beheaded.”

“It’s fine,” Minnow said dismissively. “They’re bridge vines. See?” She pointed further down, to where they extended across the span of the canyon. “I’ve used them before, they work great. Karzarul, you can’t climb like that.” She tried to reach upward to unhook one of the leather bags, but she couldn’t reach. Karzarul unhooked them all and set them down on the ground before shifting into a Savagewing. They grabbed the bags they liked to keep with them, and Leonas tossed a handful of soil over the rest. His eyes glowed, and the specks of dirt all flared bright before settling into a disguise. Their items would look like a particularly disinteresting rock until the magic Leonas had used to bewitch the soil wore out.

A surprising amount of magic could fit into dirt. The reasons why were one of the more boring aspects of gardening, which Minnow hadn’t bothered to retain.

Karzarul jumped off the edge of the cliffside to follow after Drakonis, his wings spread wide as he used them to slow his descent. Minnow took the ladder but didn’t lower herself step-by-step. Instead, she eyeballed the distance to the lowest rung she could see and let go, falling through the air and catching a rung before her speed was too great. It pulled at the vine, which made an unhappy sound but didn’t break or tear away from the cliff face.

“Don’t do that,” Leonas called down after her, but she ignored him and did it again. She heard the sound of a bell and made a sound of distress. “What’s wrong?”

“There’s a star in here somewhere!” she complained, pressing her ear against the stone on either side of the ladder. It didn’t make sense to do so, because the sound was felt more than heard and didn’t involve her ears. It was still habit.

Leonas didn’t take the ladder at all. His eyes glowed, a platform of sunlight only large enough for his boots lowering him down at a steady pace. His arms were crossed over his chest, his expression bemused. Minnow had already unsheathed the Starsword and was trying to dig at the cliff face with it. The Starsword could go through solid stone, eventually.

“You look like a moron,” Leonas said, touching his fingertips to the stone. She could see light pulsing at his fingertips, but couldn’t make out what he was doing beyond that. A few beams of light emerged from the stone to the right of where she’d been hacking at it. “Try there,” he said finally as it faded. Then he resumed his controlled descent.

Minnow had to stretch her entire body to jam the Starsword point-first into the weak spot he’d found in the stone, and it crumbled away around the blade. She sheathed it again and managed to clear it out enough to find the fallen star, though her fingertips could only barely reach it. She was relieved to be able to shove it in her bag and resume falling. Stretching herself out to reach things was annoying. It felt as if she shouldn’t need to. Muscle memory resented the length of her limbs.

She finally hit a ledge of stone before she could catch another rung of the vine ladder, and the shock of landing reverberated up through her bones.

“Have Karzarul take you next time,” Leonas said.

“It’s fine,” Minnow said, brushing detritus and vine sap off on her tunic. She looked at where Karzarul had been waiting, staring down at the forest and winding river below. Ladders and bridges were a tangle across the cliff faces. He’d given himself another crescent crown. “Oh!” Minnow looked in her bag, but quickly realized she didn’t have anything.

“Did you forget something?” Leonas asked.

“No—kind of.” She pulled a thin vine away from the ladder, young enough not to damage the structural integrity. She wound it into a circle as best she could, leaves still sticking out from it. “Can you make this into a circlet?” she asked Leonas, holding it out to him. “You should have a circlet. I should have made you one when we were at the farmhouse, I wasn’t thinking.”

He took it from her with his fingertips, regarding it with suspicion. He’d gone back to basic black and white for his outfit, and so he matched Karzarul more than he did Minnow’s standard torn-up blues. His eyes flared bright and so did the vines, muttering under his breath. When it faded the vines looked like copper and had an unnatural gleam. He moved the leaves around until they satisfied him, then set it on his hair. “Better?” he asked.

“Much,” she confirmed. She began walking down the ledge, treating it as a path until it opened up. It looked like a large cave carved out of the wall of the canyon, and what hadn’t been visible from above was all the buildings cut into it. Some of the streets lead to tunnels further into the underground, and vine bridges lead to another such structure across the way. “Neat,” Minnow said, looking up at the distant ceiling that had once been beneath their feet.

“One small shake and this whole thing collapses,” Leonas muttered, trying not to look up. It was early morning yet, and they made it all the way down the middle of the street and to a square before they ran into someone. He was a young man, wearing white robes and a thick red belt, long dark curls and olive skin.

“Hello!” Minnow said, waving. “Do you speak Astia? This is going to be awkward if you don’t.”

The young man froze. He looked between the three of them. “… hello?”

“Hi!” Minnow said. “I’m the Starlight Hero. That’s the Prince of Astielle. That’s the King of All Monsters. We’re looking for Moon Cultists. Are we in the right place?”

Leonas rubbed his forehead. “How often do you spend your first night in a new place in jail?” he muttered.

“Oh, all the time,” Minnow said.

The young man looked between the three of them again. Karzarul waved with one of four hands. The young man looked toward the center of the canyon, to the edge of the cliff. Black Drakonis was poking her head up, resting her snout in the street. She clucked.

“I should go get a Teacher,” the young man said finally. He spoke with an accent like he was speaking through the mouth of a glass bottle. “You wait here.” He walked at high speed down the street and into one of the tunnels.

“That was Astia, right?” Minnow asked, in case she needed to translate for Leonas.

“It was,” Leonas said.

“That’s a good sign,” Minnow said.

“No, it isn’t,” Leonas said. “If they’re hostile, he’s coming back with reinforcements. And if they are who we think they are, they have every reason to be hostile.”

“They’re not,” Karzarul said. He had his face turned away from them both, looking to where Black Drakonis was watching.

Minnow took the opportunity to get a closer look at the buildings. There were a reassuring number of pots with plants growing in them, flowers and ferns and leafy bushes. Hollows in the walls had no discernable purpose aside from holding plants and clusters of crystals. Some of the walls had murals, skies in blue and purple and pink. The few impressionistic figures that appeared weren’t hard to identify. One always white, the other always copper.

“Are there other monsters around?” Minnow asked.

“Yes,” Karzarul said. His face was still averted. She wondered why he didn’t make himself a set of fans like Violet had, as long as he was staying in that form. On cue, a moonlight silver fan appeared in his upper-left hand. He held it at an angle that obscured the majority of his face, rather than the lower half. She would have teased him about it if his mood weren’t so tense. She couldn’t identify the feeling from the situation or his body language. An unfamiliar body in an unfamiliar place. He’d seemed delicate since the first moment he sensed the presence of Black Drakonis, but not in any way that Minnow could understand.

Leonas was easier. He had fallen into perfect posture, eyes in the middle distance, hands clasped behind him. This, Minnow understood. It was a diplomatic situation, and there was an emotionally difficult man beside him. He was uncomfortable, but a familiar kind of discomfort that knocked him into an old routine. Smiling politely and swallowing the King’s Folly.

Minnow leaned against his arm chest-first. He tensed, startled. “Heeey,” she said. His eyes left the middle distance to focus on her, and scowled when he realized it was only her.

“Stop that,” he snapped.

“Stop what?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at him.

“Whatever this is,” he said. Minnow leaned against him more. He leaned away in imperceptible degrees, unable to overcome his instinct to look presentable in front of hypothetical company. “We are someone’s guests,” he hissed through his teeth. “Behave yourself.”

“I’m behaving,” she said.

“That’s not what behaving looks like,” Leonas said. His witchmarks were shining brighter. She got up on her toes to try to bring her face closer to his. His eyes widened with a sort of frustrated panic. “Heel.”

She sat.

Leonas made a sound like he’d been burned, recoiling from her and stumbling backward. “What is wrong with you,” he demanded, bending down to grab her arms. “Get up, that’s an order.”

Minnow bit his arm.

Leonas shrieked as he backed away from her again, shaking out his arm. “For fuck’s sake,” he said.

Karzarul snorted. At some point he’d shut his fan, and was pressing the back of his hand to his mouth instead. One of his ankles crossed over the other.

Leonas put his hands on his hips. “Well I’m glad you’re having fun,” he said. “Would you like to help me with your girlfriend?” Leonas asked, gesturing to her.

“You need more hands?” Karzarul suggested, and Leonas scowled at him.

“Help me get her—”

“—off?”

“—up,” Leonas enunciated sharply, plosives explosive. “We are in the middle of the street in a foreign city, this is our only chance at a first impression, what is wrong with you two.” His eyes flashed, and his circlet started to grow more copper leaves. “If this is what you two are always like, it’s a miracle I ever don’t want to murder you both.”

Someone cleared their throat.

Leonas straightened and pivoted in the appropriate direction. He pressed his palms together against his sternum. “Apologies.”

The Teacher was an older man who looked much like the younger one, though he had a long and braided beard. The belt tied around his robe was dark blue. “Sunlight Prince of Astielle,” he greeted with a slight incline of his head. “Starlight Hero.” Minnow waved with both hands, but the Teacher was already smiling elsewhere. “Cousin Karzarul.”

Karzarul had the fan out again.

The Teacher yawned loud, with a popping stretch of his back, before shaking his head as if the chase the sleep away. “And what kind of an hour do you call this?” he demanded of Karzarul. “Nobody decent’s awake at this hour, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself if you’re stuck with me.” He beamed, clapping his hands together. “In my official capacity as Teacher Zadven, allow me to first warn you that if you groan that means the ancestors win and you shouldn’t give them the satisfaction.” He was pointing at Leonas when he said this.

“Secondly,” Zadven said, spreading his hands to indicate the city, “welcome to the Neocropolis.”

Leonas groaned.

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-Two

Minnow hadn’t been back to the Ruined Temple since the first time, when she was fresh out of the Faewild with nothing but the sword Leonas had bought her. It wasn’t deliberate avoidance, only a lack of reasons to return. She’d found the Starsword, she’d unlocked the Door, and she’d spent more than enough time in the place before she left. What more was there to do?

Now she had questions. Since the catacombs and the Heretic’s Temple, since she’d been given reason to wonder at leaving the sword for herself. Since she’d listened to Kavid speak of conspiracies and Imperials.

She thought it likely she’d been trying to leave a message for herself. Except the person she was wasn’t the person she’d thought she’d be. A changeling with no context for what she was seeing, no way of knowing which aspects of the situation were strange. Not old enough, not human enough.

She knew a little more about being human, now, even if she couldn’t quite pull it off. She was certainly older. And now she had company. Company that could recognize the things she couldn’t, and could handle a quest alongside her.

A quest with a terrible ending, even.

“Did it look like this, before?” Leonas asked. Minnow turned and realized he was asking Karzarul.

“I haven’t been here,” Karzarul said, subdued. He was looking back at the Rainbow Door, where they’d left most of their bags after he shifted back to Impyr form.

“We couldn’t have come here during the day?” Leonas asked her. She’d woken them up in the middle of the night to come here.

“You don’t want to be here during the day,” she said. Their voices echoed in the silence of the cavernous main chamber. The outside walls were almost entirely stained glass, half of it broken, moonlight casting rainbows over the floor. The doors into the inner rooms were all stone, only small stains of color marking where it had once been painted. There were remnants of humanoid shapes in the mosaics on the floor, tiles smashed to make them unrecognizable. Minnow looked up at the inverted dome of the ceiling, one massive piece of clear glass. It was chipped in places, but still intact.

“There are Shimmerbats here,” Karzarul said, turning back to her. “Lots of them.” His brow furrowed, eyes unfocused as if in thought. “Down?”

“Yeah,” Minnow said, heading for the altar at the center of the room. “It’s weird to see it without monsters,” she said. “Hollow monsters. There were a lot of them by the time I left, last time. Do you think a real monster cleared it out?”

“Could be,” Karzarul said. “They’re gone if they did.”

“Stay outside the circle,” Minnow warned, pointing to a metal ring in the floor that ran all the way around the altar. It mirrored the bowl of glass above in size and location.

Leonas waited where she’d indicated, squinting at the altar as she climbed up the dais. “That’s a decoy sword,” he realized.

“Yeah,” she said, grabbing the false Starsword by the hilt and yanking before launching herself toward them. With an enormous knocking sound the floor fell out from underneath her, the altar splitting into pieces as the floor unfolded downward. She barely managed to catch Karzarul’s arm to pull her onto solid ground. Where the altar had been was now a deep hole illuminated only by the moonlight from above, a staircase spiraling downward along the outside of it.

“That’s too many stairs,” Leonas said immediately.

“Want me to carry you?” Karzarul asked with a waggle of his eyebrows.

“Fuck off,” Leonas said. “Tell me you didn’t fall down there.”

“Not the whole way,” Minnow said. “The walk down isn’t so bad. Up is the part that sucks. Try to stick to the wall so you don’t fall.”

The stairs were steep and narrow stone. If there had ever been railings, they were gone without a trace. The steps had been worn smooth to the point of danger. Minnow noticed a glow at the edge of her vision and realized Leonas was using magic to make his steps surer.

“Don’t use magic down here,” she said. “Hold onto Karzarul, if you have to.”

He acquiesced without grumbling, which startled her. She replayed her own words in her head and realized her tone had been harsh. She considered apologizing but decided against it. She didn’t want to draw attention to her own anxiety.

Minnow slid into the first doorway they reached. It looked much the same as it had the last time she’d been here. She was surprised that she remembered it at all, even if not in detail.

It was empty, for the most part. Whenever it had been made was long enough ago that anything capable of rotting was dust. The rooms underground were older than the ones above, or at least had been abandoned sooner. The worn-down roots of metal bars marred the doorway. There were shelves in the stone, but they were empty. A slab could have been a small bed if there had been a mattress on it. Reliefs carved into the walls were weathered, but still intact. The pastoral scene depicted seemed as banal now as it had when she was young. She examined it for anything that might seem ominous with her greater understanding, but there was nothing. Just cows in a field under the sun, a farmer couple and their children all tending to their work.

One difference was the Shimmerbats. The ceiling was covered in them. They hadn’t been here before, and they seemed unperturbed by the intrusion.

“They kept prisoners down here,” Leonas said, kneeling to look at the remains of what had once barred the door.

“Something like that,” Minnow said, watching the Shimmerbats. “Are these the ones you meant?” she asked.

“Some of them,” Karzarul said.

“Can you talk to them?” Minnow asked.

“I can talk to anything,” Karzarul said. “So can you. Most things don’t speak. They do as I wish, if that’s what you mean.”

It wasn’t. She would have found it more useful to know what they’d seen, if anything.

“Let’s keep looking,” Minnow said, brushing past them both to get back onto the stairs. The next room was much the same as the first. More broken bars, more dull carvings. The same cows, the same sun.

“This is writing,” Leonas said, running his fingers over a patterned band of trim that ran along the bottom of the relief. Minnow looked closer and saw the sharply chiseled shapes. “What does it say?” Leonas asked. His witchmarks were the only light in the room.

“I don’t know,” Minnow said.

“Really?” Leonas said.

“Why would she?” Karzarul asked.

“Ordinarily she can read anything,” Leonas said, “as long as I don’t tell her it isn’t Astian.”

“Those are things she’s known before,” Karzarul said, bending to see the text for himself. “We’ve never been able to read this.”

“Huh,” Leonas said, tracing his fingers over the letters. “If I had some light, I could try to transcribe it.”

“It won’t say anything interesting,” Minnow said. “There are tablets in one of the other rooms, if nothing has happened to them. We can take them with us and you can study them later.”

Leonas pulled his hand away from the wall as Minnow headed back down the stairs. She started ducking her head into rooms only long enough to confirm that nothing had changed, that they were much the same as the first. She only paused when she realized that Leonas and Karzarul were no longer following. Leonas had disappeared into one of the rooms without her, and Karzarul was waiting for him. She trudged back up the stairs to see what he was after.

“I thought I saw something,” Leonas explained when he realized she’d come back for him. He had seen something, and was kneeling on the floor to examine it. It was a small stone bull with wheels for legs. Leonas pushed at one of the wheels experimentally and found that it could still spin.

“Oh,” Minnow said. “Yeah. There’s a few of those.” She didn’t linger, opting to move on and let them catch up.

She stopped again at a room more familiar than most, cluttered up with bits of armor and broken weapons left from Hollow monsters. The shelves still had stacks of tablets on them. She gathered up the tablets, giving them a quick once-over before stacking them up in her arms. In most, small figures of animals were accompanied by the angular letters that must have made up their names. She paused to compare one to the relief on the wall to confirm that the message in the wall said something about cows.

The few tablets with actual messages carved into the clay were written in large letters, whatever message they contained little more than a sentence. If she kept looking, perhaps she could find another one about livestock. She carried them all back to the door and tried to hand them off to Leonas, but he only took one off the top. He had to bring it close to his face to see it better, the glow of his witchmarks enough to illuminate it.

She always forgot his trouble with seeing in the dark.

“Minnow,” Leonas said slowly. “This looks like a primer for children.”

“Yeah,” Minnow said.

“That was a toy,” he said. “Earlier.”

“Yeah.”

“There were children down here.”

“Yeah.”

“What happened to them?” Leonas asked.

“They were Lost,” Minnow said.

“How?”

“The usual way, I assume,” she said. “A plague could account for it, but there isn’t anything about that down here that I remember.” She offered him the stack of tablets, but he didn’t take them. Karzarul finally took them instead, tucking them into a bag at his hip. “I would remember if there was any pictures of doctors.”

“You were down here,” Leonas said. He was staring at the pile of detritus, broken swords and clubs and helmets she’d taken off the corpses of Bullizards and Brutelings. “You were—it took you two months. I never understood how it took two months. You never said. About the decoy sword.”

“I thought you knew,” Minnow said.

“How could I have?” Leonas said. “I wouldn’t have sent you here. I should have stayed.”

“It’s better that you didn’t,” Minnow said. She considered the implications of saying so. “Not that it’s better that the King did what he did,” she said. “I’m not glad any of that happened. I only mean it wasn’t something you could help with.”

“Two months,” he repeated.

“I took breaks,” she said. “I didn’t wander too far from the temple, but I didn’t spend the whole time down here. If that’s what you were worried about.”

That did seem to help with the shape of his shoulders. “I thought… you were supposed to be Elias.”

“I know,” she said. “I am.”

“You’re not,” Leonas said.

“You’re not,” Karzarul agreed.

“I was,” Minnow said.

“You never remembered the way I thought you would, is what I mean,” Leonas said. “It was never going to be as easy for you to get the sword as it was for him to leave it.”

“Sorry,” Minnow said.

“Don’t,” Leonas said. “I only wanted to say that I. That this.” He gestured around them. “This was my first mistake. Making you do this. I knew it was, but seeing it is different. Seeing what I did.”

“This isn’t something you did,” Minnow said. “I did this to myself.”

“That isn’t the same,” Leonas said.

“I know you’re trying to be responsible by taking responsibility,” Minnow said, “but making it your fault is still making it about you.”

Leonas stiffened, but Minnow didn’t linger, heading back to the stairs to resume her descent. She was growing frustrated with how long it was taking. Nothing had struck her much differently yet, not in the revelatory way she’d been hoping for. She didn’t know what she’d been hoping for. Words carved into the walls? Faces etched in stone that she recognized? She was annoyed with herself for making things difficult. It was making her snippish, and she would surely need to apologize to Leonas later. Assuming he even let her, and didn’t sulk a while.

It wasn’t like before, when he would disconnect his Seeing Stone and refuse to answer it when she annoyed him. Sulking was a much more active thing when the person doing it was present.

More rooms, more carvings of cows in the walls. More monster detritus here and there. It was tempting to sit on the stairs and slide down rather than check every room, but she didn’t want to miss something. She knew from experience that sometimes one interesting thing would hide in a sea of same ones. One room with a different mural, one book with a missing page, one trash can with a piece of paper where someone had written down the secret phrase to get into the secret club on the other side of town.

They were getting closer to the bottom. She was hoping they’d have found something before then.

“Do we know what we’re looking for?” Karzarul asked.

“No,” Minnow said. “I don’t know. Something different. Something I would have wanted myself to see.”

“There might be nothing,” Karzarul said. “We don’t know for certain that it was Elias’ idea to send you here.”

“Hero’s intuition,” Minnow said.

“Hm,” Karzarul said instead of arguing.

She huffed a little, trying not to make it obvious that she was irritated. She hated having to explain her thought process. There wasn’t one. She became certain of things and did not herself know why. She wasn’t used to having to retrace her mental steps for someone else’s sake. If given the choice between explaining herself well enough to be convincing, and doing something alone, she chose alone.

“There were monsters here,” she said. “Lots of monsters. Stupid ones. Now we know they were Hollow, and the King was sending them. We know he used them to keep people away from things he didn’t want them to find. I didn’t leave right away when I got the Starsword, but they kept coming. I could have left the Starsword anywhere, but I left it here, at the bottom. I didn’t have to hide it. I’m the only one that can pick it up.”

“It would be reasonable under the circumstances to assume my father would have preferred the Starsword not be kept here,” Leonas said.

“Is he old enough to have known me?” Minnow asked.

“As a teenager,” Leonas said. “He was still a prince.” Leonas hesitated. “He’s said that he looked up to you.”

“Gross,” Minnow said automatically, moving down to continue her search.

Two rooms down one of the shelves had a metal cup that looked like a quail. She had forgotten about it, but remembered all at once. She walked to the far side of the room to pick it up, confirming that it was as she had remembered.

Minnow had agonized over whether she felt right taking it with her. The dead were gone and had no use for things and trinkets. But what of the Lost? Did some part of them remember what they’d been and what had once been theirs? Was it stealing to take it? Was it a waste to leave it? She ran her fingertips over the hammered feathers. The good shape it was in had prompted her to leave it last time. She had already known that she was in no position to take care of fine things, and after all its years this was still a fine thing.

She set the cup back onto the shelf with care, leaving it where it had been for years before and for centuries before that.

Minnow realized the room seemed brighter than it had been, and checked to see if Leonas or Karzarul were glowing. Then she spun to look out into the stairwell, where light was streaming down the center. Her heart thudded once against her ribs. “Shit!” She grabbed at both of them. “We need to hurry out of here, can you fly us out the way you did at the castle? It’s that or we have to block the door until it’s night again.”

A noise was rising from the bottom of the stairs, one Minnow had not heard in decades and yet recognized immediately. Shuffling, thumping. Chaotic, voiceless sounds.

“What is it?” Leonas asked. His eyes glowed as a bubble of light formed around them.

“The Lost,” Minnow said. “They’re awake.” She went out to the stairwell, and they joined her, looking down to the bottom of the pit. They were close enough to the bottom that she could see them all milling about, running into walls and each other at high speed. Some managed to get onto the stairs but didn’t make it far before they fell off the edge and back down to the bottom. Through sheer numbers, some would make it to their level before long.

“They’re children,” Leonas said. “Those are the children.”

“Yeah,” Minnow said.

“Explain what you mean by lost,” Leonas said, “as we are clearly operating under different definitions.”

Minnow frowned, looking down at the crush of bodies running without direction or purpose. “Changelings that try to leave get Lost,” she said. “They’re outside the Faewild, in the thin parts of the forest. Rivers and streams especially, where they tried to get out. I guess you never saw them, since you’re a witch and you could find the Faewild without wandering around.”

“Why wouldn’t you let them back in?” Leonas asked.

“If they’d tried to come back, they could have,” Minnow said. “They were trying to go back to where they’d come from.”

“But they were trapped in the forest,” Leonas said.

“I don’t know about trapped,” Minnow said. “It’s a big forest. They didn’t know the way, and there wasn’t anyone to show them. If they’d been wanted, they wouldn’t have been taken.”

“They’re Undead,” Karzarul said suddenly.

“What?” Leonas said.

“Lost might be what they call it when it happens to changelings,” Karzarul said, “but those are Undead. Someone left too many bodies together and whole in the light of the sun.”

They all looked up to the glass above, and back down to the bodies below.

“You’ve seen this before, then?” Leonas asked.

“No,” Karzarul said. “The reality was superstition before I’d ever been made. I have never known a time or place whose burial rites were not meant to avoid this. Even in war, we have always scattered the bones of the dead.”

“Is there a ritual?” Leonas asked. “A spell?”

“It simply happens,” Karzarul said, “the way flowers bloom or leaves fall.”

“Didn’t you say that you aren’t using the catacombs anymore?” Minnow asked.

“It would be heretical,” Leonas said, “to suggest that the Sun Goddess would make such a mockery of the sanctity of life.”

“She does not think as humans do,” Karzarul said. “A human body is meant to be full of life. It could be that when She sees so many empty, She sees an error in need of correction.”

One of the Lost was running up the stairs, its side dragging against the wall, hitting doors but managing not to fall. Leonas expanded the range of his protective bubble to keep it further away. When it hit the barrier, it pressed itself against it, its hands flat against the wall of light. It looked the way they always looked, human but empty. Any clothes they’d once worn had long since rotted away, and it was coated in a thick layer of grime. Centuries of dirt and dust. Something like pond scum was growing in its hair, making it slimy.

It was the eyes that Minnow liked least. She would have preferred it to have blank eyes, filmy eyes, corpse eyes. Instead they looked like ordinary eyes in an ordinary color, indistinguishable from the living. It made the newest ones the worst, that way. Old like this, the rest of its body gave away that something was wrong. New, they looked like the person they’d been before, difficult to believe that they weren’t.

The light of the barrier pulsed.

“What—” Leonas began.

“They draw the sunlight out of things,” Minnow said, grabbing at Karzarul. She tasted bile. “They can take your magic, your spells won’t work, we have to get away from it.” She could still remember it vividly, could remember the darkness encroaching on her vision, knew now that what it had felt like was bleeding out. She did not want to learn what they might be capable of doing with Leonas, who was his own small sun.

The Sunshield’s light faltered.

Shimmerbats seemed to flood from every door in the stairwell, uniting into a single swarm. The sound of their cries and their leathery wings echoed as Leonas’ protective barrier fell, replaced by a whirlwind of wings. Karzarul shifted to a Savagewing, pulling both of them close without warning and launching himself upward. The stairwell was only barely large enough to accommodate Karzarul’s wingspan, and all around them the Shimmerbats followed, swarming with him. They were only in flight a moment or two before he emerged back out into the main hall of the Ruined Temple. Shimmerbats streamed out and burst forth around them, disbursing into the rest of the temple. The trap door slammed shut behind them, and Karzarul landed with silent steps and a flutter of feathers. Minnow held on a moment longer as Leonas pulled himself free to brush off his vest.

She felt silly for letting herself feel so unsettled by the Lost. She’d assumed before coming here that it was something she’d grown out of, even if she had been trying to avoid seeing them. Some part of her had been sure that if she did see one, she would realize they were small and weak and a little bit ridiculous.

Except they still made her feel sick, and nothing about fighting them felt worth it.

“This temple is older than you are,” Minnow said, still holding on to Karzarul. “Do you think they are, too?”

Karzarul took longer to answer than he ordinarily would have. “If there is a Rainbow Door,” he said finally, “then Vaelon must have come here. Occasions where I did not accompany him often pertained to sensitive matters for the Empire. A temple such as this, with creatures such as those, would have been a sensitive matter.”

“How did we know?” she asked. “The first time, before we were this. How did we know to go to the Faewild if we wanted to speak to a goddess?”

“I don’t know,” Karzarul admitted. “Old stories, I would think. You had made the decision before I ever joined you.”

“It’s only,” she said, “that it feels like, seeing this place, that there must have been legends before us. This place is so old, and the world so much older. There must have been someone who spoke to the Sun Goddess before an Heir ever did. I didn’t think about it before, when I was from the Faewild where all things are eternal. I didn’t wonder about the Lost, because I thought I knew what they were. But it’s strange, now that I know that they aren’t changelings. That all of them are children, children dead before we were anything. Before goddesses gave us the things we asked for instead of the things we wanted.”

The temple was quiet, and they could not hear the Undead below.

“That’s speculation,” Leonas said finally. “Even if we could prove it, it isn’t actionable.”

“Sometimes it’s nice to know,” Minnow said.

“You don’t have to sell me on the merits of knowledge for its own sake,” Leonas said. “We’re only guessing. A library of books has been written by hundreds of scholars doing thousands of hours of research on our own history, and we only know that every one of them is wrong because Karzarul was there. Even then, that doesn’t mean he’s right.”

“Hey,” Karzarul said.

“Memories are flawed,” Leonas said. “Even yours. If someone had been alive—would the Fairy King have been alive?”

“He doesn’t like to talk about the Lost,” Minnow said. She let Karzarul go and tried to smooth out his tunic.

“Hmm,” Leonas said.

“Now that you’ve said it, I’m certain he does know,” Minnow said. “We could ask him, but I don’t want to.”

“Sometimes it’s nice to know,” Leonas reminded her.

“Sometimes it isn’t,” Minnow said. She nudged at a bit of tile at the edges of where mosaic had been destroyed. Faces all smashed out in the floor. “Not if it’s the Fairy King.” She looked up at Karzarul. She couldn’t help thinking he didn’t look like himself as a Savagewing, even though he always looked like himself. His other faces felt more comfortable, a correctness about them surely borne of familiarity. This face felt like a stranger yet, even with Karzarul wearing it. “Not if it were you, either.” Karzarul drew his wings in tighter, and she couldn’t interpret the body language yet. “You tell me when it matters,” she said. “Right?”

“Right,” Karzarul said.

“It’s different,” Minnow said. “When it’s someone you care about. Prying into things they buried. Digging it up just because I want to see it. If we get a better reason, then I’ll ask. If he buried something we need.”

Karzarul ran a hand over her hair.

Minnow looked down at the Starsword and gripped the hilt. “I still don’t know what Elias would have seen here that I don’t.” What little she knew of Elias was all wrapped up in her house and her neighbors. Her impression was that he would have hated what he’d become, in becoming her. Her impression was that he hated a lot of things. He’d had a lot of strong opinions about the heights of fences and the colors of houses. Minnow headed for one of the stone doors to an interior room, her footsteps echoing.

“Elias was a zealot,” Karzarul said. “He claimed to serve in the Light of the Sun.”

It was as difficult to imagine as caring about the heights of fences. She peered into a room, the contents newer than the structure. The wooden shelves were rotting, a mildew smell permeating the scrolls and books she’d once left behind. “Was I happy?” Minnow asked.

“No,” Karzarul said, having followed her along with Leonas. He did not hesitate. Minnow wondered how long they had known each other before Elias had killed him. She was glad not to remember.

“Maybe that was it,” Minnow said. “I didn’t want to be what I was. I wanted to see this before it was too late. Force me to fight an enemy that was Hers. Abominations She’d made.” She wished it were easier to pretend to be her past selves. It would make it easier to follow her own logic.

“It is possible,” Leonas said carefully, “that Elias overestimated your emotional response to a temple built to animate the corpses of dead children.”

She frowned, looking back to the door that lead to the altar. “Do you think it bothered him that much?” she asked. She poked at a scroll, which started to fall apart.

“Don’t touch that,” Leonas scolded automatically. “If not the children, then certainly the temple,” Leonas said. “But yes. Most people would be very bothered. By Undead children.”

“I’m not unbothered,” Minnow said. “I’d seen it before, that was all.”

“Most haven’t,” Leonas said.

“I hadn’t,” Karzarul confirmed. “I had heard it was possible, but those stories were of warriors. Battles. Not this.”

“Are there so many of these Lost near the Faewild?” Leonas asked.

“Their very nature suggests there cannot be few,” Karzarul reminded him.

“I was in the Faewild a long time,” Minnow said. “There are a lot of unwanted children. There aren’t many children who don’t want.” She hadn’t thought this would be something that needed explaining. It felt like an underlying fact of the universe, like the sky being blue.

“Is that what the Faewild did to you?” Leonas asked. “Made you not want?”

Minnow rubbed at her nose. “Maybe I explained it wrong,” she said. She didn’t like the implication when he said that, in that way. “It isn’t like everyone starts out the same. They’re still people. Children are. They’re just guys, but little. Not everyone’s suited to the Faewild. They want to have the life they had before, or the life they thought they’d have when they grew up. They want the families that didn’t want them, they want to prove they’re worth wanting. It isn’t that changelings don’t want anything. It’s only that the Faewild has all the things we want.”

“Some of them must have made it,” she continued. “There are too many stories about brave kids making their way home. One parent who didn’t want them, and the other one did. Not everyone who left was Lost. It didn’t have to be everyone to be a lot.”

“Every fairy was once a child with old eyes,” Leonas murmured.

“Yeah,” she said. “They’re the ones that… it isn’t the same as the ones who want to grow. It’s more like it’s a habit, taking care of the ones that the grown-ups won’t. The Faewild gets under their skin, and tells them they can make things right. It’s important to be fair, to follow the rules, to say what you mean, to thank the ones that help you. Not everyone fairy-touched can be a changeling, and not every changeling can be a fairy.” She mulled it over. “Some of us were never going to be good at being human,” she decided. “The too-human ones, they’re the ones that were Lost.” She frowned. “Died,” she corrected.

“In Astielle,” Leonas said, “children are meant to be precious. Real children, the ones that don’t have a soul eternal. They’re supposed to be protected, kept away from terrible things.”

“Do Astians know that?” Minnow asked.

“I’m not naïve,” Leonas said. “I only mean… Elias couldn’t have known you’d be a changeling. If he served Astielle, he may have thought you’d be Astian also. Made Astian, if you weren’t born it. That you would find this as shocking as he did, if you believed the things he did.” Leonas gestured back toward the altar. “What does it mean to serve in the Light of the Sun,” Leonas asked, “if the Light of the Sun does that?”

Minnow pulled a book from the shelf, and its binding fell apart as soon as she opened it. “Is this Old Astian?” she asked. Leonas came closer to get a better look.

“Looks like,” he confirmed over her shoulder. Karzarul looked over her other shoulder.

“Do you recognize it?” she asked Karzarul.

“Yes,” he said. “If she understands it, so do I. I do not know which Hero would have spoken it, or when. There were many times I was not told which language I was speaking.”

“Is that how it works?” Leonas asked.

“It’s how I work,” Karzarul said. “She is the one who spoke to me. She is the one I understand. No Goddess bound me to her; I bound myself from the first.”

“Astian is said to have descended from Aekhite,” Leonas said, changing the subject. “That would put Old Astian somewhere between the two.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Karzarul said immediately. “This doesn’t look anything like Aekhite. Aekhite symbols are rounder, more delicate, spaces for modifiers for vowel hierarchy. Aekhite is always written right to left, top to bottom, regardless of context.” Karzarul pointed to the page that Minnow was holding open. “This one already has the paracoronis and the directional interpunct you use, and it’s more geometric than the letters you use now, not less.”

“You’re an expert now?” Leonas asked, incredulous.

“I read,” Karzarul said defensively.

“Orthography does not follow naturally from reading,” Leonas said.

“It’s self-evident,” Karzarul said.

“It is not,” Leonas said.

“Look,” Karzarul said, pulling one of the tablets out of his bag. He took one look at it, then put it back and dug around for one that didn’t only name animals. “They’re different, but some of the letters are the same. Different sections are separated into blocks, but you can see how a block could be reduced to a paracoronis at the beginning and end. If this vertical section is clarifying or expanding on the horizontal sections, that would be another similarity Aekhite doesn’t have.”

Leonas snatched the tablet out of Karzarul’s hand to inspect it, and Karzarul let him. “Shit,” Leonas said. “Now that you’ve said it I can—not read it, exactly, but I’ve studied enough Old Astian that it’s almost familiar.” He held the tablet so that Minnow could see its surface. “Do you see it?”

Minnow shook her head. “I don’t look at letters,” she explained. “I just read it.”

Leonas sighed deeply, handing the tablet back to Karzarul without a word. “What does this say?” he asked, pointing to a segment of the open page.

Takink these kompounds tokeder, kofer with klear wine and let stand sefen days,” she read.

Leonas used his hands to cover all but a single letter of the sentence. “Which sound does that make?” he asked.

“I can’t read it like that,” she said.

“Okay,” Leonas said, throwing up his hands. “Sure. Why not. Why should your ability to read be the thing that makes any fucking sense.”

“How long ago did Old Astian get used?” she asked.

Leonas rubbed his forehead. “That looks like late era, anywhere from five to eight hundred years ago.”

“If this writing is the newer version of the writing on those tablets, that means it’s the same people,” Minnow said. “This temple is older than Karzarul, and this book might only be five hundred. That’s thousands of years they kept using this place, with the Undead trapped beneath them.” She set the broken book down on a dusty shelf. “If the King is an Imperial, he thinks that Astielle is descended from the refugees of the Aekhite Empire. But this looks like Astielle came from here. It didn’t start at your blessing, it started at theirs.”

“It could be both,” Leonas said wearily. “There isn’t anything to say the two groups didn’t merge.”

“Do you believe that?” Minnow asked.

“No,” Leonas said. “I would like to be able to pretend that the driving forces in my life had some basis in plausibility. As opposed to being completely, obviously pointless and stupid in every possible respect.”

“Okay,” Minnow said. “So you know you’re not descended from yourself.”

“I know,” Leonas said.

“No one is,” Karzarul said. “Nothing breeds that lives forever.”

Leonas went very still. “Needle was said to have many children,” he said carefully.

“So did Lynette,” Karzarul said. “They were born of her consorts. Blood was not such a concern then as it seems to be now.”

“Ah,” Leonas said.

“Karzarul,” Minnow warned, wiping her hands off on her hips.

“What?” Karzarul said.

“I am going outside,” Leonas announced. “If anyone follows me, or tries to speak to me before I’ve come back of my own volition, I will stab them.”

“Okay,” Minnow said. She nudged Karzarul with her elbow.

“Fine,” Karzarul lied.

Leonas swept out of the room, though his lack of cape or long coat made it less sweeping than it could have been. Minnow made a mental note to find him one.

“Why is it fine?” Karzarul asked Minnow. As a Savagewing, his height was closer to hers, which if nothing else made quiet conversations easier.

“He needs to go scream for a while,” she said.

“That doesn’t sound fine,” Karzarul said.

“He doesn’t like to be seen upset,” she said. “Or heard. If he doesn’t want to talk yet, he’ll shut down if you try. He wouldn’t actually stab us, he only said that because I said it before.”

“Okay,” Karzarul said. Minnow sighed, turning to rest her head against his chest. Karzarul wrapped all four of his arms loose around her, tighter around her waist.

“The King would send him women,” Minnow said, “because he wanted to continue the line of succession.”

“Right,” Karzarul said. “… by blood, you mean.”

“Yeah,” Minnow sighed. “I’m sure Leonas knew all along he didn’t have the blood of the Empress. But knowing he was never even going to have a regular kid anyway is different. Like he said before. About it being stupid. Did we not mention it before?”

“You’ve talked around it,” Karzarul said. “Bad dates. I had the vague idea that his father had pushed him to select politically-advantageous consorts, and he’d refused.”

“They don’t do consorts,” Minnow said. “They choose their heirs by blood alone.”

“That’s stupid,” Karzarul said.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “I don’t know how much it was ever really about that, though. Over a decade and still trying. If it had worked early on, then Leonas would have a child old enough to be a father already. That could make it possible to kill him and try to get another Sunlight Heir, if Leonas didn’t work out. I don’t know for certain that was what he wanted, but I have a feeling. It’s been too late for that for a long time, though. I think the King would have stopped letting him see anyone at all, except that loneliness can drive men mad and desperate. He could have company, but only the right company. Responsibilities instead of anything real.”

There was a loud crack of stone as one of the walls broke open, a rapidly growing branch forcing its way through.

“That seems bad,” Karzarul said.

“Give him a minute,” Minnow said. She looked up and realized Karzarul’s wings had an arch to them, his feathers fluffy. “Let him try to handle it himself.”

Karzarul kept watching the branch and its blooming leaves, and in the distance they could hear the creak of wood, the thumping of broken stone, the shattering of glass. After a moment the noises slowed, then stopped.

“See?” Minnow said. “He’s okay. He’s having a moment, that’s all.”

“Okay,” Karzarul said, though the lay of his feathers didn’t flatten completely.

“You said you’ve always scattered the bones of the dead,” Minnow said, “but they don’t do that in Astielle. Not anymore.”

“The Sun Temple held that it was sacrilege to dismember a body,” Karzarul said. “They got around it by letting Moon Cultists do it instead.”

“I’ve never met a Moon Cultist,” Minnow said.

“Neither have I,” Karzarul said. “They kept to themselves.”

“I didn’t even know it was a thing someone could be,” Minnow said. “If they took care of corpses, would they know what to do with the Undead? I know once they’re Undead, it’s too late to cut them to bits.”

“If magic or Moon Cultists could get rid of the Undead,” Karzarul said, “they would not have been down there.”

The thought nagged at her, but not in any way she could verbalize. Walking corpses and Moon worship as treason. Skulls with marbles for eyes, jibbering in eternal darkness.

“We should find the Moon Cultists,” Minnow decided.

“Okay,” Karzarul said.

“Not now,” she added. “Later.” She nuzzled at his shirt, let her eyelids press against the fabric. “Right now I want somewhere dark.”

Karzarul stroked her hair, and his feathers rustled as his wings curled around her to block her in.

Astielle: Chapter Thirty-One

“I have a question,” Karzarul said. He was a Howler, resting his head in Minnow’s lap as she sat in the grass.

“Okay,” Minnow said, still stroking his head.

“About Leonas.” It was still early morning, the sky pink and the grass dewy. Leonas had been washing his hair in the river. He’d made a shield of light for privacy.

“Right.”

“Has he…” Karzarul paused to consider tactful phrasings. “Does he take his clothes off? With you?” Early on it had felt natural that Leonas would want privacy around Karzarul, when they disliked each other. After that, it could have been coincidental that he got ready while everyone else still slept. Now that Karzarul had noticed, it seemed as if he wasn’t even being subtle about it.

Minnow had to stop and think about it. “Not usually?” she said. “I don’t know if he ever did. Before. We were always in a hurry so his dad wouldn’t catch us.”

“Right,” Karzarul said. “Because the King didn’t like you.”

“Kind of,” Minnow said. “It was bad to let him know when things were important. And I didn’t want him to see me. I don’t know if he watched. I think maybe he just listened sometimes? It was creepy, anyway.”

“That is creepy,” Karzarul agreed.

“I assume Leonas took his clothes off for other girls,” she continued. “I never worried about it because I like being looked at more than I like looking. I don’t actually know how he was with other girls, now that I’m thinking about it. I tried to wait until he talked about things so that I’d know I was allowed to talk about them. He never wanted to talk about who he had sex with. He’d ask about who I’d been with sometimes so he could threaten to kill them, but that’s not the same.”

“What?”

“I guess that sounds bad,” she said.

“It does,” Karzarul agreed.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It was the safe way to ask. If it seemed like he was trying to threaten someone I cared about to be mean or controlling, that made it okay. I knew he was pretending because I didn’t actually care. If he actually wanted someone dead I assumed he’d ask me. I don’t know why he wanted to know, though. Maybe it was hot? I should ask him about it. Later on. I’m nervous about asking him things yet. I don’t want to stick my fingers in an open wound if I don’t need to get anything out of it.”

“That’s fair,” Karzarul said.

“It’s hard,” she said. “Normal people are like. I’m trying to buy some milk and they’re telling me how much they miss their grandma for some reason. I go and I find their grandma’s favorite flower and then they decide to deal with their weird grandma issues so I can buy some milk without them being a huge bummer every time.”

“Sure.”

“I don’t have to ask people those kinds of things, most of the time. I don’t mind asking things if it’s for a quest. Or if I think there will be a quest. But asking for the sake of it feels weird. If he were someone else I would try to find something from his mom to give him. Except it’s him, so even if I could find something it would feel wrong. He’s not a quest. You know?”

“No,” Karzarul admitted. He’d lost track of the conversation and could not pinpoint when.

“I don’t remember why we started talking about this,” Minnow said.

“I still haven’t seen Leonas with his shirt off,” Karzarul said.

“Right,” Minnow said. “I’m pretty sure he’s just like that. He never wants to do anything with his makeup off, either.”

“That’s true,” Karzarul said. “You think he’s self-conscious?”

“Could be,” Minnow said.

This shouldn’t have made him feel better. Karzarul felt a certain relief anyway to know that it wasn’t something he’d done, something he was. Not a slight against him. They weren’t him, and he wasn’t them, but he liked having small points of comparison to attach himself to. Ways that he was not different.

When Leonas let his light barrier fall, he was dressed again, a different outfit Minnow had stolen from Kavid. The high-waisted dark blue trousers laced around his ribs, and the white shirt was the least fluffy Minnow had been able to find. She would have preferred fluffier, but Leonas’ willingness to let her play dress-up had limits.

“Having fun?” Leonas asked as he approached.

“Not yet,” Minnow said. “Was there anywhere you wanted to try visiting?”

Leonas hesitated. “No,” he decided. “I’m not yet in the habit of thinking about places I would rather be.”

Minnow patted the grass beside her. “Come sit,” she suggested. He did, and Minnow leaned against his shoulder to admire the view. “I should make breakfast,” she sighed.

“I’ll get fish,” Karzarul said, standing with a shake of his fur. He loped down to the river and shifted to an Ursbat to watch the water.

“Does it mean anything?” Leonas asked eventually. “When he takes animal form.”

“Not really?” Minnow said. “Sort of, but not.”

“Great,” Leonas said. “Thanks.”

“It’s like, he wants to be touched, but not in a touchy way,” she clarified. “He can snuggle with a person shape. But when you snuggle in a person shape, sometimes it turns into something else. In an animal shape it never does.”

“He’s not in the mood, is what you’re saying.”

“That’s very negative,” Minnow said.

“No it isn’t,” Leonas said. “Not being in the mood is neutral.”

“It has negative connotations,” she insisted. “It’s—it’s active. Actively not wanting. This is more like… actively wanting something else.”

“Hmm,” Leonas said. “About Valeria,” he began, and Minnow giggled.

“Did you see that?” she asked.

“A little,” Leonas admitted. “Do you do that often?” he asked.

“Pretend to be someone else?” she asked, and he nodded. “No. There aren’t that many games where I have to be someone else. I can be Minnow and still fish, or play house, or cards. There’s only some people that won’t play with me while I’m me.”

“Hmm,” Leonas said. He wasn’t sure if this was comforting at all. “Do you like it? Pretending to be other people.”

“Sometimes,” Minnow said. “It’s more fun to remember than to do, it seems like. Valeria isn’t very happy. You know?”

“No,” Leonas said. “Where did you come up with her?”

“I dreamed her,” Minnow said.

“Oh.”

Karzarul was splashing in the river, enormous white paws scooping at fish that wriggled away downstream.

“I used to use some of her dreams, I mean,” Minnow clarified. “Since she wasn’t. I didn’t dream about her, I was her. You know how it is, with dreams.”

“Right,” Leonas said, who had never been haunted by the dreams of the dead and therefore did not know. “Is it like being possessed?”

“What? No.” Minnow frowned. “I don’t think. I’ve never been possessed by anything so I don’t know what that’s like. I was using her dreams, and because of how dreams work I was her. Which made it easier to pretend to be her, later. Is that not how dreams work when you make them? Where you’re you, except you’re also a different person?”

“I. Suppose that’s how dreams work. Sometimes.”

“I don’t know what’s normal,” she said. “You don’t know what’s normal, either, since you’re a witch. Most people’s dreams aren’t leaky.”

“I know what’s normal,” Leonas said. He reconsidered. “Usually.”

“We can ask Kavid about it later.”

“Kavid doesn’t know what’s normal, either,” Leonas said. “He lives in a caravan and calls himself the world’s greatest bard. No one who’s sang at my birthday party is normal.”

“He’s the most normal person we can ask,” Minnow reminded him.

“That can’t be right,” Leonas said. “What about Nari, she seemed more normal than Kavid.”

“Too normal,” Minnow said.

“That’s not applicable to this problem,” Leonas said.

“It is,” Minnow insisted. “Normal people don’t know how to explain being normal. They think it’s just supposed to happen. And they don’t know anything about not being normal, so they don’t know which parts need explaining. It’s like asking a fish about water when you’re a bird. It’s better to ask a frog.”

“A frog is not the midpoint between a bird and a fish.”

“I never said it was,” Minnow said. “But it is.”

“Jumping does not render something birdlike.”

“It does the way I do it.”

Karzarul rejoined them with a large fish held in his teeth, hooked onto the long fangs that stuck out on either side of his snout. Minnow could not resist the temptation to rise up on her knees, reaching out to rub the fluffy circles of his ears.

“I’m not eating that,” Leonas warned.

“He worked hard to get you breakfast,” Minnow scolded.

“He wanted to play in the river,” Leonas said. “Don’t eat things that have been in other people’s mouths.”

“You only think it’s gross because he looks like an animal,” Minnow accused.

Karzarul shifted back into Impyr form.

“That is significantly more gross,” Leonas said. “There is nothing not gross about a man with an entire dead fish in his mouth. Before, it was an unappetizing fish. Now it is also an unappetizing man.”

“Mean,” Minnow said, taking the fish from Karzarul. “I still think you’re appetizing,” she assured him as he wiped blood from his mouth.

“So does he,” Karzarul said with a grin, licking his fangs.

“Fuck off,” Leonas said, witchmarks glowing.

“Once I cook it you won’t be able to tell it was in any mouths, it’s fine,” Minnow said. “Do we have eggs? Do you want to get eggs while I clean this?”

“I can do that,” Karzarul said, shifting to a Misthawk, wings flapping to stay hovering in mid-air. “Be back in a bit,” he said before taking off.

“Is there something I should be doing to help?” Leonas asked.

“Look pretty,” Minnow said. “Start a fire later. Cooking’s not your job.”

“It could be,” Leonas said. “I can help.”

“Eh,” Minnow said, unsheathing the Starsword and holding it with an awkwardly outstretched arm to gut the fish with the sword’s tip. “It’s not that kind of a breakfast. I want quick and easy. It’s not—” She paused. “Have you ever had King’s Folly?”

“If that’s a new nickname I don’t care for it,” he said, and she rolled her eyes.

“It’s a dish,” she said. “It’s supposed to be the most decadent thing anyone can ever eat, the ingredients are almost impossible to get, it takes forever—I should make King’s Folly.”

“I don’t believe I want that,” Leonas said.

“No, I’m making it,” she decided. “It’s going in my quest log as soon as I can wash my hands.”


“Is that the recipe?” Leonas asked, squinting at her quest log as she tried to hide its pages from him.

“It’s my old quests,” she said, “from the first time I made it. There’s a lot of sub-quests.”

“It looks like you’ve marked out multiple pages.”

“I might,” she said. “It isn’t that bad,” she added. “Most of this stuff, once you’ve done it once it’s a lot easier. Getting lanternmelon wine took years the first time, now I can grab a bottle from the farm. And the hardest part about finding golden truffles is getting up here, but there’s also a Rainbow Door. It won’t take years this time.”

Years?

Hazel Island sat in the middle of a lake so large the shore was not visible except from the top of the mountain at its center. The island was covered in hazelquartz trees, flightless birds, small pigs, and smaller deer. Karzarul fit right in as a Rootboar, snoot to the ground.

Leonas kept finding himself distracted by the storms. They surrounded the island like a deliberate barrier. The water roiled, high waves and rain falling in sheets, the wind whipped up into funnels that dissipated once they left whatever dictated their range. He did not know how Minnow had made it to through the first time, and he wasn’t sure he’d ask.

He could feel it, though. A hum of something under the ground. Something in the water. He hadn’t brought it up since that disastrous night when they’d retrieved the Sunshield. When he’d had too much magic in him, and he’d heard it for the first time. Like a pulse without a heartbeat. The rush of blood under his skin, the skin of the world. He’d thought he was over it—mostly over it.

But perhaps it was only that they’d managed to avoid storms.

“The trick,” Minnow said, “is to look for the hazelquartz trees where the shells grow gold. Usually it’s pink truffles, but sometimes there’s a golden one. We only need one, so as soon as we find it we’re done. Don’t throw out pink truffles, though, I still want those.”

Karzarul was still sniffing intently at the ground as he trotted along. It was unclear if any of this was new information to him. If there was a Rainbow Door, then logically the first Hero had put it here. Karzarul could have been alongside him if things were different then. Karzarul might know what it was, the thing that hummed under their feet and wore a storm as a cloak. Was that why they’d come here, the first time? Was that why they’d built a Door?

Perhaps not. Minnow was the Hero. The Hero was Minnow. The Hero could always have been this, hunting for truffles and letting the world do what it would around her. It did not fit the history Leonas knew, but neither did the world. That was always the subtext about the Hero, anyway. The soul of a seducer, all bound up in worldly things. Danger in soft skin and sweet tastes as much as sharp blades.

The King had always said that Elias had been the best of them.

Leonas touched the bark of a hazelquartz tree and tried reaching out with a thread of sunlight. He could always feel it now, but more when he could touch it. The sunlight inside of things touching the sunlight inside of him. He hadn’t yet tried it with anything more living than a plant. Didn’t want to risk it. He reached down the sapwood and into the roots, through the mycorrhizal network. It connected the whole of the island, made it feel momentarily like the idea of a home. He could identify the spots where the roots hummed electric, buzzed warm. Sickly sweet even without touching them, and he was careful not to.

“There,” Leonas said, pointing in the direction of the nearest one he could feel.

“Oh, you can cheat!” Minnow said with delight, heading in the direction he’d indicated. “C’mon Ari, I bet we’ll find one in no time.” She ran ahead, Karzarul running after her with surprising speed for such short legs. Leonas took his time picking through the underbrush to follow, letting the spell go but holding the mental map of the soil in his mind.

He wasn’t used to it, still. All the forests and grass and fallen leaves, the smell of dirt and rotting things. Even that brief window of time when he’d had the Sunshield, when he could sneak out of the castle as he pleased, when he’d thought things would be different. Even then, it had been the city and the catacombs. There had been the trip to the Faewild, but that had been a singular event, and he’d been in a hurry. Before and after that was only books, and finding the untamed spaces in the gardens. Eventually not even those.

It was difficult to take the world seriously because none of it felt real. Not real like paper and ink and walls. Quiet rooms were real. Mushrooms growing on fallen logs were imaginary things. It was difficult to explain the disconnect to Minnow, who had a forest in her hair. He didn’t think he’d try.

“Leonas, you’re a genius!” Minnow called. “We already found a tree!” She was pulling golden shells from the hazelquartz tree and stuffing them into her bag, rattling as they moved. Karzarul rooted around the ground until he found a spot that smelled right, and started scraping away at the dirt with his trotters. He was much more careful than any pig would have been, not wanting to damage the truffle if he found one. He nudged one out of the ground with the point of his leaf-shaped nose, pink beneath the soil.

“Good find!” Minnow said as she picked it up, petting the top of Karzarul’s head. His curly tail wagged behind him as he rooted at the ground again. “Have you ever had one?” she asked Leonas, dusting off the mushroom.

“I don’t believe so,” Leonas said. There was something unsettling about fungus in that shape and color. It was an irregular blob of faint and pearly pink. A white truffle had the grace to resemble a stone, or a potato gone awry. In pink it reminded him of a tumor.

“They’re really good,” she assured him. She went to a different tree to pluck a hazelquartz from it, sticking it between her teeth to crack the crystalline shell with her molars before extracting it.

Careful,” he scolded automatically, rushing to grab her by the jaw and pry it open to check that she hadn’t broken another tooth. She rolled her eyes and stood with her mouth open until he was satisfied that all her teeth were still intact, nothing bleeding. “Give it to me next time, I’ll magic it open.” She huffed when he let her go, emptying the meat of the hazelquartz into her palm. She unsheathed the Starsword only a little, enough blade exposed that she could run the truffle over it a few times. Once she had a thin shaving, she wrapped it around the nut in her hand and offered it to Leonas.

“Try it,” she coaxed. “It’s fine if you don’t like it, that means more for me.”

He took it from her with wary fingertips, regarding it with suspicion. The color of the truffle was deeper on the inside, marbled more like muscle than fungus. He popped it into his mouth to get it over with, ready to spit it back out in an instant. The truffle seemed to melt on his tongue, which was a relief when he’d feared it would be chewy. It softened out the crunch of the nut and made the whole thing into a single savory confection. He did not know enough about flavor profiles to pinpoint details. It tasted as good as some things only ever managed to smell.

“It’s fine,” he said.

“Yeah, they’re great,” Minnow agreed, grabbing another hazelquartz. Leonas grabbed it from her before she could bite it, focusing light at a point within the shell to shatter it open. She was unperturbed by his interference, extracting the nut to eat it with another truffle shaving. She hummed happily. Leonas was tempted to have another, but not tempted enough to ask.

“Found one,” Karzarul announced. Minnow returned to the tree he’d been sniffing around, circling the trunk to find Karzarul nosing at a lump of gold in the ground.

“That was so fast!” she marveled, bending down to pick it up and brush some of the dirt from it.

Leonas picked a golden hazelquartz out of curiosity. He was wary of the tree, remembered the noise of its roots. Or else it may still have been buzzing, faint enough to be confused for a memory. He reached for the inside of the shell in his hand, the thing that could have been a seed, a promise. He didn’t know what he thought it would tell him. The tree echoed inside the shell, its too-deep roots, its too-sweet sap. Feasting on the buried.

“They’re eating her,” Leonas said.

“Who?” Minnow asked.

Leonas blinked, the sunlight leaving his eyes. “I don’t know,” he said, tossing the hazelquartz aside. “I don’t think we should stay here long.”

“The storms make it pretty creepy,” Minnow admitted. “Even if the deer are cute.” She picked up Karzarul, who snorted once in surprised protest. “Fortunately, our boyfriend is cuter.”

“Debatable,” Leonas said.

“Let’s go to my fishing cabin next,” she said.

“You realize most hobbies don’t require a dedicated building,” Leonas said.

“Speak for yourself,” Minnow said.


Another cabin, another mountain, another lake. The waters were clear and cold, high enough that the air was thin and a layer of snow covered the ground. Night was already falling. Leonas helped Minnow to start the fires that kept the cabin warm while Karzarul took care of the bags. It was the easiest way to keep their things with them, to have Karzarul be a Tauril and leave moonlight saddlebags on whatever side of the Door they lingered on, ready for him to pick them back up when they were done. On her own Minnow was willing to travel light, hopping in and out of Doors willy-nilly to drop things off wherever was convenient. With Leonas with her, she preferred to be more cautious where they traveled, keeping food and clothes enough to last a week at a time. To say nothing of her pots, her pans, her books. His books.

Karzarul didn’t mind being the one to carry it all. He knew that if he didn’t, she would. She didn’t expect it of him. And there was something interesting in how the need to account for physical objects tethered him. His physical form was transient. He did not need to wash his hair, get dressed, lace his boots. He was not in the habit of having to account for those kinds of variables, and the novelty hadn’t worn off yet. Playing at being a person, who did person things like worrying about food and clothing.

He paused as he re-entered the main room in the cabin. “Minnow,” Karzarul said, “what happened to your hair?”

Minnow frowned, grabbing at her hair and pulling it in front of herself to look at it. Streaks of it had gone white where ordinarily it was green. “Oh, that,” she said, tossing it back behind her. “Whenever it’s snowy it acts like it’s winter, which stinks, because it only goes red when it’s actually autumn. And if I go somewhere without autumns it goes back to green. I like autumn, Leonas and I are matchy then. But I guess we’re matchy now.”

Karzarul had been coming closer, and he reached out to touch one of the strands of white. It did match him, but made her look older. The thought of either of them getting older without him was distressing.

“I can think of better ways to get white in your hair,” Karzarul said, and she squeaked, flailing her hands at him as if to bat him away without actually making contact. He laughed as he withdrew, Leonas rolling his eyes.

“I assume we’re here to catch a fish,” Leonas said.

I’m here to catch a fish,” Minnow corrected. “You guys are going to hang out. I’ve still got books here, they aren’t all about fishing.”

“Minnow,” Leonas said. “We’re not going to sit in here while you’re outside in the cold with a fishing pole.”

“You are,” Minnow said. She went to a wall covered in fishing poles and pulled one down. Then she grabbed a feathery lure from a display of them. “This rod was made from a branch off one of those special hazelquartz trees,” she said, “and the line is made out of cactus spider silk. To make this lure I had to catch a phoenix and get a feather off it before it burned, and I had to do it twice so I could keep one for my collection. I bought a stupid number of dragon fangs that turned out to be from a shark or an alligator before Gerry finally gave me a real one. Even after I got all of it I still had to put the lure together with special gold wire. If you have the special rod, and the special line, and the special lure, and pink truffle shavings to use as bait, then sometimes in this one lake on a clear night you might get a bite from a cloudfish. Once it bites, if you don’t follow it exactly while you’re reeling it in, it’ll snap the line and try to steal the lure.”

“What I’m saying is,” she finished, “if I am out there, and a cloudfish bites, and you distract me in literally any way, I will stab you.”

Leonas stared at her.

“Non-fatally,” she added.

“That wouldn’t make it better,” Leonas said.

“I would describe that as better,” Karzarul said.

“I don’t want to stab you,” Minnow said.

“Good,” Leonas said.

“That’s why you two are staying in here while I fish.”

“We have magic,” Leonas reminded her. “We can catch the fish.”

“Can you promise you won’t accidentally tear into it with your claws, or cook it?” Minnow asked.

“N—probably not all of them,” Leonas said.

“There aren’t enough of these stupid fish for probably,” Minnow said. “It’s not a big deal, I’ve done it before. If I do it right we’ll only be here one night. I’m really good at this.”

“If you were that good you wouldn’t threaten to stab me,” Leonas said.

“No one’s that good,” Minnow said. “It wasn’t a threat, it was a heads-up. I’m not going to stab you. You guys can feel free to have sex without me, by the way.”

Leonas sputtered. “That’s not—telling us that isn’t necessary.”

“Is it not?” Karzarul asked.

“I thought I should mention it,” Minnow said. “Since I know you guys might not be as okay with being left out? But I don’t care.”

“Thanks,” Leonas said.

“Not like that,” Minnow said. “It doesn’t bother me, is all I mean. I like it if you two hang out on your own, and do stuff.”

“We’ll keep it in mind,” Karzarul said.


Leonas had successfully located at least one book that interested him. The blank leather cover did not make clear if the book was about fish. Karzarul had amused himself digging through clothes, then bringing their bag of food to the kitchen. Minnow and Leonas had already lit the stove to help warm the cabin. The pots and dishware were dusty, but there was soap, and the water worked. He rummaged through Minnow’s mess of supplies, setting things out into different piles on the counter so that he could figure out what they had.

If Minnow had a system for organizing things, or for determining what was necessary to keep on hand, he did not know them. Karzarul chose to believe that one glass jar was full of yogurt, and did not investigate. The jar of brownish liquid with some kind of spongy something-or-other floating in it was harder to justify, but he would assume it was supposed to look like that. Apples and potatoes sat loose in the bag with dried mushrooms and her recent hazelquartz acquisitions, but she’d at least kept the rice and corn flour in sacks. A few heads of garlic and an onion had left little bits of paper all over everything. Most of her spices were whole, and she’d separated some of them, but not all. Star-shaped anise mingled with curls of bark and cardamom pods, sprigs of dill and basil and mint all tied together. Dried chilis got their own bag, but were clearly different varieties. He set her bits of honeycomb aside as prized treasures, and investigated a bag of treats that included chocolate and cones of sugar.

Once he’d sorted everything to his satisfaction, he set a pot of water to boiling on the stove. He nibbled on a sugar cone before throwing it in with a bit of cinnamon bark, humming as he waited for the sugar to dissolve. He made a whisk instead of finding one when he threw the chocolate in, adding it until it looked like approximately the right color. Then he added corn flour in handfuls until he thought it looked right. He licked the whisk and contemplated adding a chili to it. However, it was impossible to tell which of the peppers Minnow had were the mildest.

Bringing a mug to the room where Leonas had settled himself made Karzarul feel suddenly self-conscious about the gesture. It was not a particularly Monster King thing to do, if a Monster King was what Leonas liked.

Leonas looked up from his book, and his gaze settled immediately on Karzarul’s hemline.

“You’re wearing the dress again,” Leonas observed after a moment.

Karzarul shrugged. “It feels nice,” he said, as if he were not already glowing. “I made chocolate,” he said. “If you want some.”

“Give it,” Leonas said, holding out his hand for the mug.

Karzarul frowned. “Say please,” he said.

“No.” Leonas acquired an imperious tilt to his head. “I want it, that means it’s mine. I don’t have to say ‘please’ for you to give me what’s mine.”

“Is that how it works?” Karzarul asked.

“It is when you’re a prince,” Leonas said. He was still holding out his hand.

“I’m a king,” Karzarul reminded him.

“You’re my boyfriend,” Leonas countered. His witchmarks immediately flared bright, and both men remained very still as they mutually pretended not to notice that they were glowing.

“Right,” Karzarul said finally. “Is that how that works?”

“It is,” Leonas said.

“What if I want you to be nice to me?” Karzarul asked, though he came closer to offer Leonas the mug. Leonas took it, setting his book down in his lap.

“You should get a nicer boyfriend,” Leonas said. His gaze fell to the mug as he blew on it before taking a cautious sip.

“I don’t want a nicer boyfriend,” Karzarul said, leaning to brace a hand against the back of Leonas’ chair. “I want you. Does that mean you’re mine?”

“No,” Leonas said, taking another sip.

“Why not?”

“Because you’re mine,” Leonas said. “Because I said so. Stop looming.”

“Make me.”

“I can,” Leonas reminded him. “If you don’t want to be good.”

“Depends on what being good entails,” Karzarul said.

“Letting me finish my damn chocolate,” Leonas said.

“I’m not stopping you,” Karzarul said.

“Sit.”

Karzarul knelt on the floor directly in front of Leonas.

“Stupid,” Leonas chided, not looking up from his mug. He hooked a finger on one of Karzarul’s horns to pull his head a little closer, setting his mug down on the side table. Leonas put his fingertips underneath Karzarul’s jaw to tilt his face this way and that, looking him over with a dispassionate air. “It’s remarkable,” Leonas said, “how lovely this face is.”

“You’ve always thought so,” Karzarul said.

“Have I?” Leonas asked. “I thought I didn’t care for you.”

“You hated me,” Karzarul said. “You liked the face.”

“Hm.” Leonas traced his index finger down the angles of Karzarul’s nose, back up along the dramatic angle of his eyebrows. Leonas touched the spot where Karzarul’s horns rose out of his skin. “I’ve always had some taste, then.” He ran the tuft of Karzarul’s ear through his fingers, careful of all the rings. Karzarul shivered. “I would like to make a study of you,” Leonas said, “but it wouldn’t be very romantic.”

“No?”

“No,” Leonas said. “Minnow likes it, but she’s fucking weird.” Karzarul shrugged his eyebrows to say he wasn’t wrong. “I could make it sound romantic. Tell you I want to write notes on all the parts of you most in need of touching. It wouldn’t be true.” Leonas ran his thumb over Karzarul’s lower lip, and when his mouth opened Leonas pressed the pad of it against the point of one of Karzarul’s lower canines. Then Leonas let him go, and picked his book back up. He opened it to the page where he’d left off, and held it out for Karzarul to take. “Read this,” he ordered.

“To you?” Karzarul asked, taking the book.

“Obviously,” Leonas said, picking his mug back up to take another sip.

“Is this a book of fish legends?” Karzarul asked, flipping the book back around if only to confirm that it seemed untitled.

“That’s a very generous way of referring to three-hundred pages of an old man detailing all the amazing fish he never caught,” Leonas said, “but yes.”

Despite his misgivings, Karzarul started reading aloud. He supposed he ought to appreciate an opportunity to practice with something lower-stakes than a book of poetry. Leonas settled back into his chair, shutting his eyes with a sigh and holding his mug with both hands. Karzarul found it difficult to keep his eyes on the text, wanting instead to watch Leonas. Strong evidence in favor of the idea that he ought to be memorizing things. Or perhaps it would be less relaxing if Karzarul’s eyes weren’t trapped on the page.

At best, Karzarul could catch him in glances. Spaces between sentences, sipping chocolate and watching Karzarul through his eyelashes. Karzarul quickly stopped paying attention to what he was actually reading, making a game of how best to look up from the page without losing his place or making his inattention obvious.

“Let’s go to bed,” Leonas sighed finally, setting down his empty mug. He plucked the book out of Karzarul’s hands to join it.

“Oh,” Karzarul said.

“Not like that,” Leonas said. “Let me up.” Karzarul had to stand and get out of the way so that Leonas could rise out of the chair. Leonas offered Karzarul his hand, and Karzarul took it, letting himself be led out of the room. “There’s a real bed in this one,” Leonas added.

“Too bad,” Karzarul said.

“I’m old,” Leonas said. “My back prefers a mattress.”

“I’m older,” Karzarul reminded him.

“You can be a snake,” Leonas countered. He paused, turning around and nearly doubling back, stopping again once Karzarul had his back to the wall.

“Hello,” Karzarul said, looking down at Leonas. He didn’t know why he said it.

“We should get you more dresses,” Leonas said.

“Yeah?”

“For special occasions,” Leonas said. He let Karzarul go in favor of running his hands up his thighs. Karzarul’s breath caught. “I wanted to do this the first time you wore this, too,” Leonas said.

“You could have,” Karzarul said.

“I don’t care for an audience,” Leonas said. His hands rested beneath Karzarul’s skirt, touching nothing but his thighs. Leonas craned his neck upward and Karzarul bent his downward so that he could kiss him. “I am willing,” Leonas said, “to go to bed with you. If you don’t mind keeping your back to me.”

“I can be a Howler,” Karzarul reminded him.

“No,” Leonas said. “Like this. I’ll wash my face, and we can… be close. If you’d like.”

“I would like.”


“You said we were going to your farmhouse,” Leonas reminded Minnow.

“This is my farmhouse,” Minnow said.

“This is a mansion,” Leonas accused. “Or a workhouse. No one has ever used the word ‘farmhouse’ to refer to whatever the hell this is, except for you.”

“It is my house, on my farm,” Minnow said. “That means it’s a farmhouse.”

Karzarul let them argue as he walked, hooves clopping in the dirt. He wasn’t concerned with semantics. There was something soothing about listening to them bicker.

“You don’t think someone’s going to notice that you’re here?” Leonas asked.

“You’d think!” Minnow said. “You’d be surprised.”

“I hate how often you say that,” Leonas said.

“You hate how often I’m right,” Minnow said.

There were no Rainbow Doors conveniently located in the backyard of her farmhouse. Instead, they had to take a Door on a nearby mountain and ride down on Karzarul’s back. It was obvious from the Door’s location that Minnow would ordinarily have glided directly down to her estate, but no one suggested that Leonas do the same.

It was an estate. Three stories of brick, bizarrely symmetrical and covered in windows, broad overhangs on the steep angles of the roof. The appearance of endless brick and windows was broken up by hedges and ivy.

“An old lady gave you this?” Leonas pressed.

“It was smaller at the time,” Minnow said. “And wood. I think the part that used to be the whole house is a hallway now? I don’t know. I gave people money and when I came back it was bigger.”

“The way you think the world works should not be how the world works,” Leonas said.

“Why not?” Minnow asked.

“Because it’s stupid,” Leonas said.

“Yeah,” Minnow said. “That’s how you know it’s real.”

Leonas grumbled as Karzarul approached the building. Someone was waiting for them outside. The majority of her considerable height was leg, accentuated unnecessarily with heels. Her eyes were hard to see through her enormous round glasses, auburn hair in a tight bun on top of her head. She was wearing a riding costume with breeches and holding a crop despite a notable lack of horses present.

“Minnow,” the woman greeted, her voice surprisingly high and nasal. “Prince Leonas.”

“Hi, Dee,” Minnow said.

“Adelain the Destroyer,” Leonas said flatly.

“Dee is fine,” Dee said, adjusting her glasses. The chains attached to the arms of her glasses had bird skulls hanging from them like charms.

“This is Karzarul,” Minnow introduced, pointing to his face.

“Hello,” Karzarul said.

“A pleasure, I’m sure,” Dee said, tapping her crop against her thigh.

“I thought you retired,” Leonas said.

“I did,” Dee said. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

“We still have plenty of phoenix doves, right?” Minnow asked, hopping down from Karzarul’s back.

“Define ‘plenty’,” Dee said.

“I wanna kill three,” Minnow said.

“Three should be fine,” Dee said. “As long as you don’t mind roosters.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Minnow said. “Do you think you could talk to someone about getting us bags made?” she asked, gesturing to their saddlebags. “Right now Karzarul sort of has to make and unmake those ones and it’s complicated. If we had fancy backpacks that we could attach to his harness, that would be way easier.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Karzarul said as Leonas lowered himself to the ground.

“It’s fine,” Minnow said. “She’s good at logistics. Plus she doesn’t need my help getting basic reagents or killing…” Minnow trailed off. “Not monsters,” she said. “We don’t kill monsters. Real monsters. Monsters are good, now.” She gave Dee a meaningful look to impress the importance of this upon her.

“Sure,” Dee said noncommittally.

Karzarul shifted to an Impyr, and it was a reflex by now for Leonas to catch their bags with magic before they hit the ground.

“Well that’s a relief,” Dee said, and Minnow looked at Karzarul and back in confusion. “You’ve made some bad decisions for dick before, but that was a little beyond the pale.”

Hey,” Minnow said, turning red.

“She’s done what, now?” Leonas asked, raising an inquiring finger to get Dee’s attention, but she ignored him.

“Don’t say stuff like that in front of the boys,” Minnow said. “You’ll give them the wrong idea.”

“Uh-huh,” Dee said.

“Send someone to get our bags,” Minnow said, “and have everyone clear out of the kitchen. I’m going to need it. And somewhere to keep the boys.”

“I can think of some places,” Dee said.

“I assume if we try to help in the kitchen, you’ll stab us?” Leonas said.

“Not on purpose,” Minnow said. “Cooking gets intense. There’s a lot of knives, and fire. It’s safer this way.”

Leonas sighed. “When will it be done?”

Minnow did some mental calculations. “If I start soon, I can have it done by tomorrow night.”

“For fuck’s sake.”


“How do you keep them from exploding?” Karzarul thought to ask as Dee passed through the room.

“What?” Leonas asked, looking up from the shelf of books he’d been examining.

“The lanternmelons,” Karzarul said. “If they get too much sun they explode. Not enough and they don’t glow. It’s what makes them rare.”

Leonas narrowed his eyes. “Have I been drinking exploding wine?” he asked.

“The juice is processed to make it inert,” Dee said. “We have a system.”

The sun was setting when she showed it to them, taking them out onto a third-floor balcony on the side of the house facing the fields. From above, it looked like a vast field of green. The fading light made it easier to see the glow of the melons through the leaves of their vines, and only close examination revealed the trick. What looked like an ordinary field was a vast latticework of wooden frames, melons beneath sheltered by their own leaves.

“What happens if one of them explodes?” Leonas asked.

“They all explode,” Dee said. “The trick is not to let any of them explode.”

“Hm,” Leonas said. “Having all your fields of explosives in one place feels ill-advised.

“This isn’t all of them,” Dee said.

Leonas looked out at the sea of green. “Ah,” he said.

“They hardly ever explode since I gave up smoking,” she added.

“Great,” Leonas said. “What would happen to the house?”

“We’ve reinforced the walls since last time,” Dee said.

“Good to know,” Leonas said.


Minnow set plates in front of them with very little fanfare.

“This is it?” Leonas asked.

“This is it,” Minnow confirmed.

“There isn’t any kind of ritual we need to do with a special fork to eat it?” Leonas asked.

“No,” Minnow said. “You just eat it.”

It was an exceptionally small bird, swimming in a sticky sauce of rendered-down lanternmelon wine. It was stuffed with cloudfish roe, shavings of gold truffle covering the crispy skin.

It was small enough that Karzarul could pop the whole thing in his mouth at once. The amount of flatware on the table suggested this would be incorrect. He waited for Minnow to slice off a piece, straight through the small soft bones. She speared truffle and scooped up roe for a complete bite, and chewed contemplatively.

“As good as you remember?” Leonas asked, only then cutting his own piece.

“Yeah,” Minnow said.

Karzarul took a bite.

Because the bird was so small, there wasn’t much meat, and what meat there was had almost no fat. Marinating for so long in lanternmelon wine had made it no longer chewy, but something stranger instead. Gelatinous, interrupted with bizarre crunching of bone. Cooking it down had made the wine a concentrated sweet syrup. The truffle tasted metallic, like it may as well have been gold, gold if gold was a living thing that could bleed. The cloudfish roe was salty, so small it did not want to pop and instead felt like rock salt polished smooth.

“What do you think?” Minnow asked, watching them both intently.

Leonas was expressionless. “Excellent, thank you,” he said. Minnow narrowed her eyes at him.

“This is awful,” Karzarul said.

Right?” she said, perking up immediately.

The careful neutrality left Leonas’ face, replaced with disgust as he dropped his fork. “You knew,” he accused. “You fed us this knowing it was going to taste like shit.”

“I knew that I think it tastes like shit,” Minnow said.

Leonas buried his face in his hands.

“The only other person who’s had this that I know of,” Minnow explained, “is the guy who told me how to make it. He was this old food critic, and he wanted to try it before he died. It took me years and when I finally made it and gave some to the guy, he said he’d finally tasted perfection, and then he died. Which is bullshit! He said that to cover for the fact that it tasted so bad he died. Except I couldn’t prove it! I was the only one who’d had it. I never bothered making it for anyone else, because I know what people are like. They’d lie to be polite, or convince themselves that it was good because it’s stupid hard to make. People do that sort of thing all the time.”

“Stop making excuses and admit you wanted us to suffer with you,” Leonas said. He glared at Karzarul. “Why are you still eating it?” he demanded.

Karzarul shrugged as he swallowed. “I’ve had worse,” he said.

“I’m not finishing this,” Leonas said, pushing his plate away.

“I didn’t expect you to,” Minnow said. She stood to move all their plates out of the way. “I made some rice, I’m gonna fry some eggs and put the good truffles on it.”

“Fine,” Leonas said, leaning back in his chair and rubbing at the bridge of his nose. He kept his eyes shut as Minnow bustled out of the dining room. “Is this what adventuring is?” he asked. “You pick an arbitrary goal, use huge amounts of time and energy accomplishing it, and if you’re lucky you only regret it half the time?”

Karzarul considered it. “In my experience,” he said, “you’ve described life in general.”

Leonas tipped forward, resting his head on crossed arms on the table. “Great,” he sighed.

Astielle: Chapter Thirty

NSFW Content Warnings
Gangbang ❤ Dubious Consent ❤ Maledom ❤ Femsub ❤ Sadism/Masochism ❤ Biting with Fangy Teeth ❤ Breastplay ❤ Physical Restraint ❤ Size Difference ❤ Size Kink ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Weird Monster Dicks ❤ Tentacles ❤ Frotting ❤ Penis-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Anal Sex ❤ Blowjobs ❤ Handjobs ❤ Facefucking ❤ Spitroasting ❤ Double Penetration ❤ Multiple Orgasms ❤ Overstimulation ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Dirty Talk ❤ Excessive Amounts of Monster Semen ❤ Snowballing ❤ Creampie (no impreg) ❤ Sloppy Seconds ❤ it’s a gangbang and there’s dicks and jizz everywhere i don’t know how to make this any clearer

Violet descended from the clouds to land beside Rose in the courtyard of the Castle of Perivo. He would have liked to shake the water from his wings and rest a while—it had been a lengthy flight, after all—but it lacked a certain regality. He fell into a bow appropriate for one royal to another. “Violet Savagewing at your service, Your Majesty,” Violet said. “King Karzarul sends his regards, and his apologies that he could not be here himself.”

“That’s quite all right,” the Queen of Perivo said, which meant the presence of ordinary monsters was horrifying enough. No doubt she had some funny ideas about how many heads the King of All Monsters possessed.

Rubellite and Sapphire stood behind Rose at something like attention, a lazy grip on their spears. Rose’s sleeves were less dramatic than Violet’s, though he kept longer tails on his robe. He liked to keep his hair in a high ponytail tied with a long ribbon, with makeup that emphasized his cheekbones. Rubellite and Sapphire wore tunic vests and knee-length skirts, both in black instead of bothering to match their skin. Sapphire kept his face bare and his hair cut to a sharp chin-length bob, while Rubellite kept his long and pulled into a bun with a neatly-trimmed beard. Little touches to make them distinct, insofar as they were capable of it.

“The Hollow monsters are being dealt with to your satisfaction?” Violet asked.

“There are more strongholds yet,” Princess Camille said with a small bow of her own, “but the bulk of them seem to have been dispatched. Perivo appreciates the assistance of your people.”

“Of course,” Violet said. “We only regret that these beasts have been allowed to wear our faces for so long.”

“Lord Rose has informed us that King Karzarul would be open to trade,” Prince Antonin said. “Perivo has much to offer. We would be interested to know what it is we might have in return.”

Violet had been deliberately garish, gold thread embroidering his robe and a rainbow of gemstones dripping from his neck in delicate gold chain. The hands opposite the ones holding his fans were bedecked in rings that came to sharp points like claws, all connected with more chains. Even his fans had been gold-plated for the occasion. It was all a bit much, but Perivo was the sort of place that responded well to excess.

“We are monsters,” Violet said. “One must be careful what one asks of us.” He snapped his fans shut and flared out his wings to their full and massive span, summoning up a haze of purple moonlight. The ability of any monster but Karzarul to summon moonlight was limited, and though Violet could do more than most, it did little but look impressive. The Knights guarding the Queen moved to protect her.

“We are possessed of wonders beyond your comprehension, constructs and mechanisms beyond your wildest imaginings. We could line our streets in sapphires and gold, so trivial do we find their beauty. What once was ours is ours again, all that was stolen from us reclaimed, and the spires of Karzarul’s Castle climb to glory. If we desired it we could rain riches upon your lowliest peasants, offer to your soldiers more salt than the ocean could bear. Your treasury would be worthless, your crown a trifle, your economy in tatters before the weight of our merciless generosity.”

Violet drew in his wings and clasped his hands. “So we will be trying to avoid that, yes?”

“Of course,” the Queen said, not at all discomfited.

Violet turned his smile to Prince Antonin. “We have observed,” Violet said, “that humans produce a great deal of trash.”

“I beg your pardon?” the Prince said.

“There is the usual kind, as any animal might make,” Violet continued, “such as sewage, bad crops, moldy bread crusts. That sort of thing. But then you have your human trash, the things that don’t rot. Broken pottery, shattered glass, rusted metal, last year’s fashions. As we are not human, you must forgive me if I have misunderstood. It seems to me that your current method of dealing with the problem is to dig a pit, fill the pit, and then when the pit is much too full of things that do not rot, you cover it up with the dirt from digging another pit. Is this correct?”

“It is a simplification,” the Princess said, “but it is not incorrect.”

“Those things that do not rot,” Violet said, snapping open his fan to flutter it again, “monsters can make to disappear. We would be willing to provide this service if Perivo were willing to provide us with sugar.”

“Reconsider suggesting that your refuse ought be its own payment,” Rose warned the Prince, fluttering his own fan beside Violet. “We have offered to solve a problem. It is not out of the kindness of our hearts that we do so.”

“Sugar,” the Queen repeated thoughtfully.

“With your access to the Southern coasts, you are in the best position to provide it,” Violet said, “but far from the only. We are being generous, but mercifully so.”

“Are monsters partial to sweets?” the Prince asked.

Violet smiled, sharp teeth visible despite his fluttering fan. “We are partial to many things,” he said. “We have no shortage of meat, but one tires of things that bleed. To rebuild a castle takes no time at all, but in its work a bee will not be rushed.”

The Princess snapped her fingers, and a woman came forward with a small tray of trifles. “If you are so inclined,” the Princess offered.

“I do hate to say no to a sweet little thing,” Violet said. The woman seemed to lean away as he reached for a small cake. He narrowed his eyes.

“You’re really tall,” she explained apologetically, and it was true that she needed to lean backward to be able to make eye contact. Etiquette meant she ought not to have been making eye contact. Violet took a cake and looked her over, for all the good it did him. Fashion in Perivo went for enormous skirts and tight bodices that gave everyone the figure of a broom. She had brown-black hair in a tight crown of thick plaits, and the hard-sided bodice suited her not at all.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Yes I am.” She remembered to lower her face, but not her eyes, dark hazel-green. He held one of his fans in such a way as to hide his wink. She turned red and retreated.


«Is construction on the castle really so far along?» Rose asked in Aekhite, to avoid being overheard.

«Oh, fuck no,» Violet said, throwing himself at Rose now that they had a room to themselves. They’d been given a suite befitting diplomats even before Violet arrived. «We haven’t even started on the castle, we need to figure out the plumbing first.»

«The fucking plumbing,» Safi said.

«See?» Violet said. «You know. All the King cares about is whether he can take a bath, he doesn’t care about the toilets. We’re figuring that part out first, then we can build the spires. And baths. There’s going to be a huge bath.» He sighed, all his weight still on Rose. «My wings are tired,» he complained. He twitched his wings, ruffling his feathers.

«Poor baby,» Rose said. «No one appreciates all the work you do to take human garbage.»

Violet grumbled, standing upright. «I know we can’t put it past them to start a war with their own infrastructure,» he said. «I want to make it difficult for them, that’s all. The little ones end up stealing it anyway, they hate to waste shinies. Might as well make a job of it the way a person would, instead of getting treated like raccoons.» He reached into one of his sleeves. «I actually came to give you this,» he said, handing Rose a Seeing Stone.

«Oooh,» Rose said, accepting it. «Where did you get it?»

«Leonas made it for us,» Violet said with a flutter of his eyelashes. Rose gasped.

«Did he really? Did you meet him?»

«I did,» Violet preened. «Karzarul brought him home.»

Rose clapped two of his hands with delight. «What was he like?»

«You know what he’s like.»

«With us, I mean,» Rose pressed. «Was he nice?»

«Very polite, it was a little sad,» Violet said. «Such an anxious little thing. Well, not little. He only seems little, you know, with those wrists. I don’t know what they’re feeding him but they should try more of it.»

«Dick?» Rose suggested.

«If he’s eating nothing but dick, that would explain a lot,» Violet said. «Oh, that’s right!» he remembered. «Karzarul figured it out, finally.» Rose shrieked. Violet shrieked back because it was infectious. «I know,» Violet said. «I can’t tell if they’ve had sex yet but they definitely did something. I don’t know the details, he doesn’t tell me anything.»

«I hate that!» Rose said.

«I know!» Violet said.

«Leonas is the new Heir?» Safi asked. He and Ru had settled themselves into chairs.

«I forget you don’t know,» Violet said. «He’s where we got our hair,» he said, fluffing his curls.

«And these,» Rose reminded him, tapping his mouth. Violet pressed a quick kiss to it, and they both giggled. Rose tried to kiss Violet’s neck around his necklace.

«Needy,» Violet accused, using one hand to stroke one of Rose’s antennae. Rose shuddered, leaning his weight against Violet. «I give you two boys all to yourself, and I don’t think you’ve even sat on them.»

«You’re the one who likes them dour,» Rose said. «That’s too much work for me. I like them easy.»

«Oh, rude,» Violet said, gripping Rose’s antenna outright, and Rose gasped at a high pitch as one of Violet’s other hands grabbed him by the throat. His two lower hands held his hips. Violet looked back toward the chairs, where both Impyrs turned their heads in opposite directions, pretending they hadn’t been watching. «If we start fucking, are you going to be sociable and join?»

Safi mumbled something noncommittal, and Ru mumbled an agreement.

«Sapphire,» Violet decided. «Your colors match better, I want to watch you fuck him.»

Safi’s face turned a darker shade of blue.

Violet slid a hand downward to stroke the bulge in Rose’s tights, and Rose groaned dramatically. Ru sat taller, looking toward the fireplace. «I heard something,» he said.

«Don’t be so obvious about it,» Violet scolded the Impyrs, who were now both sitting like they’d spotted prey in the walls. «Keep making fun noises, Rose, I’ll take a look.»

Rose obliged by stroking himself as soon as Violet let him go, gasping and moaning more than was strictly necessary. Violet took light steps to the fireplace, and experimentally summoned a little moonlight haze to feel for seams. He found the latch for a servant’s entrance hidden in the paneling, and in one quick motion pushed it open and caught the lurking presence by the arm. He clapped a hand over her mouth before she could scream, his lower two arms holding her off the ground by the waist.

“Oh!” Rose said with a small flare of his wings, clapping both pairs of his hands together. “It’s the Princess’ pet girl,” he said in Perivo.

“Either they have humans nesting in the walls,” Violet said, “or else we have a spy.” The woman tried to shake her head, and he could feel her trembling. It was tempting to kiss the top of her head, but he doubted she’d find that reassuring.

“Should we kill her?” Ru asked. Safi reached out to smack his arm as the woman struggled in Violet’s arms.

“Rude,” Violet said, holding her tighter. “We’re guests. Don’t threaten to kill the help.” He let her arm go to pat the top of her head. He brought her to the middle of the room and set her down, and her knees gave out underneath her. She knelt on the floor and fell into a prostrate bow.

“I only wanted to see if you needed anything, my lords,” she said in a small voice.

Rose clicked his tongue, snapping his own fan open. “Through the secret entrance for the housekeepers, and without announcing yourself?”

“All alone, to the room full of men?” Violet continued. He snapped a fan open to flutter it. “Not at all the done thing.” He used it to shield the lower half of his face as he nudged her side with the toe of his boot. She kept her head down, unmoving. “Perhaps the Princess sent her sneakiest girl to hide in the walls and catch us in a compromising position.” She shook her head again. “Perhaps she seeks to steal documents for the Queen, or treasures for her own.” She shook her head harder.

“Shall we try to get a confession out of her?” Rose asked.

Violet crouched down, snapping his fan shut and tapping both fans into the palm of the opposite hand. “We are, as always,” he said, “generous and merciful.” He tapped a fan against her shoulder. “Look at me,” he ordered. She raised her head, her face flush and her eyes wet. “Give us a name, dear.”

“Gemma,” she sniffled.

“Gemma,” Violet repeated, lifting her chin with the side of his folded fan. “Leave now, and go very far away, for if we ever see you again there will be consequences. Or, if you would prefer, you can prove you’re not a little sneak.”

“I’m not,” she insisted, sniffling again.

“I know, baby, I know,” he said. He ran the bare pad of a thumb underneath her eye. “Poor thing,” he said sympathetically, licking it off before he stood. “If you want to prove it,” he said, strolling closer to Safi, “you’ll have to take your clothes off.” He sat on the armrest of Safi’s chair, draping one right arm over the back of it and using his other right hand to toy with Safi’s hair.

“What?” she asked. Rose tittered behind his fan, sitting on Ru’s armrest in a mirror image of Violet.

“Your skirts are so big,” Violet said, crossing his legs over Safi’s lap, “and your bodice so solid, you could very well be hiding anything in there. If you have nothing to hide, then show us.” Violet shrugged, hand wandering from Safi’s hair to stroke his horn. “Or else leave, and trouble us no more.” She wrung her hands in her lap. “We’ll stay right over here,” Violet coaxed sweetly, “and you can stay over there. You can even keep your underthings. We’re being very trusting, aren’t we?”

«This seems unnecessary,» Safi said, shifting uncomfortably.

«Hush,» Violet said.

Gemma fidgeted with the laces on her bodice. “You won’t tell anyone?” she asked.

“Not even if you leave,” Violet promised. She rose to her feet and started untying her laces. “Rose, do tell me we have drinks.”

“We do,” Rose confirmed, sliding off Ru’s chair and heading for the suite’s dining room. Gemma kept her eyes downcast as she worked at her laces, until she could finally slide her bodice off. This accomplished very little, with her stays and her undershirt still on. She worked at the waist of her skirt next, as Rose returned with a bottle in one hand and glasses in two others. He hadn’t bothered getting any for the Impyrs. He handed a glass to Violet before sitting himself directly in Ru’s lap, sideways to keep his wings out of the way.

“So many layers,” Violet said, sipping at his wine. “I don’t know how they stand it.”

“Do you think we look naked to them?” Rose asked. “They must think we’re indecent.”

Gemma finally managed to get her skirt off, carefully shaking it out and folding it. She waited.

“The stays and the petticoats, too,” Violet said.

“You said I could keep my underthings,” Gemma said.

“Your under things,” Violet said. “Those are your… middle things.”

She set her skirt and her bodice aside much too tidily and started unlacing her stays.

«It’s really too bad there aren’t any monsters with tits,» Rose sighed.

Violet looked down at Safi. «Aren’t there?»

«Hey,» Safi frowned.

«I know the King wouldn’t want to be all… all…»

«Minnowy?» Violet suggested.

«Yes!» Rose agreed. «But it wouldn’t kill him to try it long enough to make us some company. Then humans wouldn’t be so distracting.»

«Of course they would,» Violet said. «We have each other, humans with nice asses aren’t less distracting. Besides, you know what he’s like. He’d end up with six tits and a cloaca.»

Ru snorted.

«Considering how long it took him to get the hang of dicks, let him eat Minnow out a hundred years more before you go asking for anything more complicated,» Violet said. Gemma finally managed to get out of her stays, her figure falling into a more curved configuration beneath her undershirt. Violet clapped politely, and Rose followed suit. Gemma looked flummoxed. “You’re lovely, dear,” Violet assured her. He raised a hand for a stage whisper. “The women here all look like cleaning supplies, you know—sticks with oodles of fabric at the ends.”

She giggled nervously as she let her petticoats fall.

Much better,” Violet said as she shook out her petticoat and folded it to join her skirt. Her bloomers still left a lot to the imagination, but at least she had calves.

Hands empty, she held out her arms and spun in a small circle. “See?” she said. “I haven’t taken anything.” She clasped her hands tightly in front of her stomach.

Violet hummed, sipping at his wine. “Take your hair down,” he said.

“There’s nothing in my hair,” Gemma said, patting at the thick braids wound around her head.

“I don’t care,” Violet said.

“Oh.” After a moment’s hesitation, Gemma started pulling pins out of her hair. She unwound the braids with her fingers until her hair fell crimped around her face.

“That’s cute,” Rose said approvingly.

“Mm-hmm,” Violet agreed, sliding off of Safi’s chair. Gemma shrank in on herself as Violet came closer, flexing his wings. “Drink?” he asked, offering her his glass. She accepted with tentative hands, only to take an enormous gulp. Violet giggled as he took the glass back. “You’re not a thief,” Violet said, “but you still might be a spy. The only way to be sure is to play a game.”

“What kind of a game?” Gemma asked.

“A traditional monster game,” Violet said, “where we see how many dicks we can fit inside you at once.”

Her eyes got very wide. “Oh.” She swallowed. “That’s traditional?”

“Every tradition starts somewhere,” Violet shrugged, downing the rest of his glass.

«I’m not comfortable with this,» Safi said, and Violet frowned, setting the empty glass aside on a shelf.

«Why not?» Violet asked. He bent down to grab Gemma’s chin, tilting her face toward the Impyr with the tips of sharp rings. «You don’t think she’s cute? I’ve seen the other women here, Sapphire, this one has the best arms of the lot so far.» Violet draped another arm over her shoulders.

«She’s obviously not a spy,» Safi said. «She doesn’t need to be punished.»

«We’re not punishing her,» Violet said. «She’s into it.»

«Is she?» Ru asked doubtfully.

«Did you not hear her earlier?» Violet asked. «With her ‘you’re tall’ thing?»

«She says that a lot,» Ru said.

«What did you think that meant?» Rose asked.

«We are tall,» Safi said.

Violet rolled his eyes. «When a human says ‘oh wow, you’re really tall‘ like that, it means they think your meat is huge and they want to see.»

«That’s not a thing,» Safi said.

«It’s a thing,» Rose said. «You guys are just dense.»

Violet looked back at Gemma, whose chin he was still holding. “The Impyrs,” he explained, “are shy.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“Don’t be,” he said. “You’re lovely. How are you at sucking dick?”

She blinked. “I don’t know?”

“Hmm,” Violet said. “Troubling.”

“I can,” she rushed to assure him. “I’ve done it before. Not a lot, is all.”

“I appreciate your honesty. Open your mouth, let’s see.” She didn’t open as wide as he would have liked, but it was enough to slide two fingers over her tongue. “Suck,” he ordered. He nuzzled at her hair as she complied. “She isn’t biting me,” he informed the others, “so that’s a good sign.”

“I’ll let you go first,” Rose said.

“Be nice,” Violet scolded as he took his fingers out of her mouth, and Rose stuck out his tongue. Violet tilted Gemma’s face toward his so that he could kiss her. It took a moment for her to relax enough to kiss him back. “Good girl,” he said, and she looked pleased. “Get on your knees, Gemma dear, let’s see what you can do.” He reached underneath his robe to free himself from his tights, and on the floor Gemma let out a high-pitched almost-shriek of surprise that gave him pause.

“There’s two of them,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“They’re big.”

“Thank you.”

Safi snickered.

«Watch it,» Violet warned, sliding the chains of his fans off his wrists to tuck them into his sleeves. «She isn’t going to be any less alarmed by what you’ve got.»

«We have the advantage of centuries more experience with human dicks,» Rose agreed.

«I don’t know about advantage,» Violet said. «I quite like the tentacles, if I’m honest.»

Safi rubbed at his nose, which did not hide his blush.

“Are you mad?” Gemma asked. “I didn’t mean to yell, I didn’t expect it was all.”

“You’re fine,” Violet assured her.

“I’m worried it’s going to poke me in the eye,” she admitted.

“Tilt your head,” he suggested, “and come to terms with the fact that you’re going to have a dick on your face. You’ll look lovely, I promise.” She opened her mouth. “Wait,” he said, and she stopped. “Constructive criticism,” he said, and she nodded. “Stick your tongue out, go tongue-first. Otherwise it looks like you’re about to take a bite out of it.” She stuck her tongue out this time before sliding her mouth over the lower of his cocks, the second rubbing against her cheek. “That’s fucking beautiful,” he said as she started to suck. “Get sloppy with it, sweetheart, messy is better. Bring your hands up here, there’s a dear.” He pulled out of her mouth, used his lower hands to guide hers and get her palms slick with saliva and pre-cum. Then he wrapped his fingers around her hands and used them to stroke himself, because he could already tell she wouldn’t grip tight enough otherwise. “Keep your hands working if you don’t want to gag on it.”

“You’re so helpful,” Rose said. “I think it’s sweet.”

“I live to serve,” Violet said loftily as Gemma stroked his cocks and started sucking again. “Against your face, dear,” he said, gesturing to indicate what he wanted. She pressed one hand against the base of the cock in her mouth and tried to take it deeper, using her other hand to press his cock against her cheek and stroke it. “That’s so fucking good,” he said, admiring the way it looked against her and how small it made her look. Echoes of memories that were never meant for him.

“Well now I’m jealous,” Rose said, setting down his glass and getting up out of Ru’s lap. He tucked his own fans into a pocket on his top, his sleeves being less voluminous and having less storage than Violet’s. “Let’s see if she can show me what she’s learned.”

“Now that I’ve done all the work you’re eager to reap the benefits,” Violet accused.

“Always,” Rose agreed, standing to the other side of the kneeling woman and getting his cocks out. Gemma looked at Rose, then back to Violet for guidance.

Violet made a suggestive gesture with two hands. “Take turns, sweetheart.”

She had to change the angle of her knees so that she was kneeling facing the Impyrs, allowing her to wrap her fingers around both Savagewings. She worked her mouth over Rose’s cocks, getting them slick enough for her hand to move easily before switching back to Violet.

“She’s trying very hard,” Rose observed as she sucked his lower cock again, pumping at the other cock against her cheek the way Violet had suggested.

“She is,” Violet agreed. “You ought to take the rest of your underthings off, darling, otherwise they’re going to get ruined soon.”

Gemma let them go as she caught her breath, wiping her hands off on her bloomers. She pulled her shirt up over her head, folding it carefully and setting it on the floor.

“She’s all pink,” Rose observed with delight. “Look how cute!” He bent down while she was trying to wiggle out of her bloomers, wrapping his arms around her. His lower right hand went between her thighs while he grabbed one of her breasts with the higher one, left hands running through her hair and stroking her jaw. “We match, isn’t that lovely?” He pinched her nipple between dusky pink fingers, another pushing inside of her without warning. She gasped and stopped moving with her bloomers around her knees.

“It is,” Violet agreed. “You’re being impatient.”

“I’m being very patient,” Rose said. “I didn’t fuck her face even a little, despite how funny it would have been to watch her choke on it.”

“You’re so mean,” Violet scolded, getting down on his knees. Rose moved his hands to hold her arms, squeezing one breast and tilting her face back toward his cocks. Violet pulled the last of her clothes off her legs, hands on her ankles and her thighs. He bent to stick his head between her legs, running his tongue from her entrance to her clit. She made a muffled sound with one of Rose’s cocks in her mouth.

“You’re so nice,” Rose teased, hands fully circling her biceps, giving her enough range of motion to awkwardly try to stroke him as she sucked. “What happened to seeing how many she could fit?”

“I haven’t eaten in a while,” Violet said dryly, and Rose laughed as Violet drove his tongue inside her and curled it.

Hadn’t if he ever had, if it counted. It wasn’t for her sake, but for his. Wanted to feel her muscles twitch under his own hands, feel her on his own face, taste her on his own tongue. His own lips, stolen as they were, his antennae brushing against her skin. It wasn’t about her, really. She could have been anyone who looked at him like that, whose wanting was as palpable as that. Wasn’t that what he’d always wanted, even before he was himself? Wasn’t that what they all wanted? To be what other people wanted?

And she had nice eyes.

He sucked at her clit and pushed two fingers inside her, listening to her moan as he worked them deeper. Violet remembered what he-not-him had felt, summoning those sounds out of someone else’s throat, but he’d never felt it, couldn’t make the feeling his. Had not felt it in the twitch of his cock or the shiver in his feathers, the thrum in his veins. Not his, not like this.

Violet licked his fingers as he raised his head, holding her legs apart and pressing the head of his lower cock against her. Rose moved his hands, holding her wrists and cradling her head so that they could both see her face. The flush to her skin went from the tips of her ears down to her breasts. She made high-pitched, panting sounds as Violet’s cock stretched her open, her eyes unfocused.

“I am beginning to think she may not be a spy,” Rose said. “Much too noisy, this one.”

“We can make her noisier,” Violet said, rocking his hips, one cock pumping into her while the other rubbed against her clit.

“That’ll be a neat trick once her mouth is full,” Rose said.

Violet was finally deep enough inside her that he was unlikely to slip back out accidentally as he thrust. He traced the sharp points of his rings over the skin of her breasts, pressed them into her hip. He kissed her throat, caught her mouth but released her in time to hear her cry when he thrust hard.

“Cute,” Rose teased.

«Don’t move,» Violet warned, and Rose’s breath caught. «Let her head go and hold her arms.»

«What if I promise to behave?» Rose asked, though he did as he was told.

«I wouldn’t believe you,» Violet said. «This is what you get for being a brat.» He kissed the corner of Gemma’s mouth, sliding his fingertips along the back of her scalp as he rocked his hips slower. “Stick your tongue out, darling,” he ordered. She did, and he guided her head to lick at Rose’s balls.

«I didn’t know there were going to be consequences,» Rose complained.

Violet ran the flat of his tongue over the head of Rose’s cock, wrapped his lips around it, and pushed it straight into his throat. With his lips at the base of Rose’s shaft, Gemma kissed the corner of Violet’s mouth, and he made a sound of surprise before pulling off.

“What a sweet girl you are,” Violet praised, thrusting hard and enjoying her noisy groan. «I’m going to make you finish first,» Violet warned.

«Oh, come on,» Rose whined.

«If you didn’t want to make a sloppy mess like a bitch, you shouldn’t have acted like one,» Violet said. «I want to watch you cum all over her face like a horny idiot who can’t control himself.»

«I would also like to see that,» Safi said.

«We’re supposed to be ganging up on her,» Rose pouted.

Violet gripped Gemma’s hips with his lower hands to pound into her harder. “What does our pretty little human think of getting fucked by a monster?” he asked.

“Big,” she managed, but barely.

“Flatterer,” Violet purred. “You’re going to be taking much more, soon enough. Tell us how much you like the taste of monster cock, remember we don’t care if you’re lying.”

“I—I—I like it, I do.”

“You want more?”

Yeah.”

“Say please,” Violet said, tilting her head back so that her face was upside-down, still out of reach of Rose’s erection, still slick with saliva and pre-cum.

Please,” she said, and it came out choked when Violet thrust hard enough to make her body bounce. She pulled against Rose’s hands, still holding her arms. “Please, my Lord, I can—ah—I’ll take it.”

“Fuck me, that’s hot,” Rose said.

Violet wrapped his upper right hand around Rose’s cock, used the other hand not on Gemma’s hips to guide her mouth onto the cock he wasn’t stroking. She sucked obediently, though Violet didn’t make her take him to the back of her throat. “You want more, don’t you?” Violet asked. Gemma moaned on Rose’s cock.

“Violet,” Rose pleaded.

«You want to fuck her face?» Violet asked, stroking faster.

«Yeah.»

«Too fucking bad,» Violet said. «You’re lucky I don’t make you stand there and jerk off in her mouth while we watch.»

“Ah,” Rose gasped. “Fuck, fuck.”

“I know,” Violet said, bending to nip at Gemma’s throat. “But no matter how badly she wants to choke on it, you simply must control yourself. Humans need to breathe, after all.”

Gemma shuddered with a groan.

“Don’t worry, dear,” Violet assured her. “With enough practice you’ll have some monster’s balls bouncing on your nose in no time, I’m sure.” He smiled sharp at Rose. «Be a good boy and cum for me, Safi’s going to need your face to keep his cock warm.»

Rose’s wings flared and then beat as he came, thrusting despite Violet’s instructions. Gemma only choked a little, swallowed what she could though it overflowed quickly onto her face. The cock in Violet’s hand twitched at the same time, painting Gemma’s throat and tits silvery-white as Violet laughed.

«You’re so fucking easy,» Violet said, untying the elaborate bows at his waist to slide his top off. «You two should take your clothes off,» he added to the Impyrs, «because I’ll make a mess of you too.» Violet pulled out of Gemma, sliding his arms underneath her. “Give her here, let’s get her off the floor now that you’ve had your fun.” Rose let her arms go as Violet scooped her up. “Careful not to get your mess everywhere,” Violet warned, and Gemma looked a little bit mortified. «Ru, sit back down, you’re going to need a lap for this.»

Rubellite had been taking his clothes off as instructed, and Violet admired the broad span of his back in the moment before he returned to the chair.

They were going to be hell on the upholstery.

“I brought you a pre-sent,” Violet said cheerfully, arranging Gemma so that she straddled Ru’s thighs. She made a high-pitched sound of alarm.

“I don’t think she likes me,” Ru said.

“That’s just the sound she makes when she sees a dick,” Violet said, patting the top of her head. “Isn’t it, dear?”

“It’s got extra bits,” Gemma said weakly.

“Those are the best part,” Violet assured her. “You should hold onto his shoulders.” Violet had to bend his legs a little to get the correct angle, guiding his upper cock inside her this time. She groaned, and he pushed at her hips to bring them lower, until the cock outside of her could press against Ru’s. “That’s better,” Violet said as Ru growled, his tentacles wrapping around Violet’s cock, “like that.”

Gemma cried out as Violet thrust, one cock squeezed tight inside her and the other pressed between her clit and Ru’s cock. Ru grabbed her by the hair and ran his tongue over her cheek, licking shimmering cum from her face, and she shivered. Then Ru kissed her, the taste of Rose still on his tongue, her face dwarfed by the hands holding it. She whimpered into his mouth and Violet gripped her by her hips and her shoulders to pound faster into her.

“Oh,” Rose sighed, draping himself over Safi before he could sit back down. “I’m jealous again.” He kissed Safi’s throat. «Am I supposed to be getting punished, or edging him?» Rose asked.

«It can be both,» Violet said.

«You should take my clothes off,» Rose said, delighted when Safi started untying his belts. «And kiss me,» he added. Rose moved his wings to help Safi get the robe off of them, curling them protectively around them both as Safi kissed him.

Ru was licking at Gemma’s chest now, sucking at her nipples, sharp teeth against her skin. The tentacles wrapped around Violet’s cock rubbed at her clit as Violet thrust, and she came with a scream, her back arching hard. Violet worked to keep his wings under control as he continued thrusting, her muscles all twitching around him.

Violet nuzzled at her hair and purred as she started to relax again, limp enough that he could drive his cock deeper. “I’m going to fill your tight little cunt with inhuman seed you were never meant to take,” he said in her ear, “and you’re going to say ‘please’.”

“Please,” Gemma gasped, “please please please—”

Violet couldn’t help a few beats of his wings with his final thrusts, burying himself to the hilt as he came, filling her and spilling out onto Ru’s stomach and cock. Ru’s tentacles tightened around him at the same time, made it all the more intense as Violet sank his teeth into Gemma’s shoulder. Ru kissed her, swallowed her little whimpering sounds as Violet beat his wings and pumped his cock a few more times. Instinct to claim her as his, not forever but for now.

Rose made a short, trilling sound of indignance, but knew better than to argue the point.

Violet drew his wings in before he released the grip of his jaw, licking the mark his teeth had left in her skin. He caught his breath as he pulled out, running his fingers down her spine.

«I don’t know if seed is accurate,» Rose mused. «We don’t really plant anything, do we?» He was snuggled up in the chair with Safi, wings draped over them both as they watched the others.

«Don’t be a pedant,» Violet said. «It’s the right amount of fucked-up sounding without being gross.» Rose opened his mouth. «You’re about to start listing things,» Violet said, «and they’re going to be gross and kill the mood, so don’t. Safi, shut him up.»

Safi obliged with his tongue as Violet started moving Gemma’s hips again. “Ru’s turn,” Violet said cheerfully, pushing her down onto him.

Oh,” she gasped. “It’s—I don’t think I can—it’s too much.”

“Doesn’t she say the nicest things?” Violet said. “But I did all that work getting her all wet and stretchy, so she’s going to take it fine.” Violet leaned back, two hands on her hips and the other two on her ass so that he could hold her open and watch. Rubellite’s skin was a deep rich pink, and on his cock it was run through with the faint pulsing light of a lesser monster. The smallest hint of what it was that animated them in earnest. Gemma’s pink was a more natural shade, all swollen now from what he’d done to her, shimmering with mingled fluids. Ru’s tentacles were holding her open, too, as she sank further onto him and stretched open wider.

«Rubellite, love, you look positively vulgar,» Violet said, and Ru growled. «I’m going to take her face in a minute, but I want to see you in her ass first.»

One of Ru’s tentacles wrapped around his cock, coated in cum before sliding upward toward Gemma’s ass. Violet could see the way she clenched reflexively when the tentacle pushed against her, and giggled. “Has our pretty little human never taken it up the ass before?” he asked.

“How fun,” Rose said, still snuggled up with Safi, “that we get to have her first.” He’d started idly rubbing his cocks against Safi’s, pleasant but without urgency.

“I can’t,” Gemma insisted.

“You can,” Violet assured her. The tentacle was slick and slender enough to push its way inside her, and Violet watched in fascination the way her muscles relaxed when she gave up resisting. She cried out, louder when the tentacle started to move. “That’s what I want to see, make her take it.” Violet’s hands on her hips lifted her a little so that he could use her to stroke Ru’s cock. “Hear how wet she is?” Violet teased. “She likes it, give her another.”

Another tentacle slowly joined the first, Ru thrusting upward, and Violet gripped her tighter as he watched her stretch open. “That’s how a good human takes it,” he said, finally letting her go to let Ru do as he pleased with her. Ru held her by her waist to bounce her in his lap, and Violet grabbed her by the hair to pull her head sideways. Violet’s cocks were still soaked, as hard as they’d been inside her, and she struggled to lick him clean with Ru fucking her.

Violet used his two right hands to hold her head still and stabilize her so that he could push his cock into her mouth, the head bulging against her cheek. “See how good your cunt tastes when it’s full of monster cum?” he asked, and she groaned. One left hand squeezed one of her breasts while the other pressed his second cock against her bulging cheek. “Make her cum for me, Ru, I want to spoil her.”

Ru’s tentacles rubbed at her clit, found the spot where she’d press against the touch instead of shying away from it. He kept thrusting into her, tentacles winding in and out of her ass and Violet holding her mouth still on his cock. She shook as she came, her scream muffled by Violet’s skin. “Look how pretty,” Violet said, stroking her hair as her whole body went taut and shaky before going near-limp. He thrust a little as a test, and she was worn out enough that he managed a few times before she gagged. He pulled out, and she tried to catch her breath while Ru was still knocking all the air out of her. Violet bent to kiss her, dragging sharp rings along her jaw. “It’s so con-ven-ient,” Violet said, “how making them cum gets humans to go all soft on the inside. I bet you didn’t even know you could fit that much dick in you, did you?”

She made quiet, helpless sounds that might have been in the affirmative.

Violet raised his head to catch Ru’s mouth, and Ru purred in happy surprise as Violet arranged Gemma to rest against his chest. «I love watching you work,» Violet said, wrapping a hand around one of Ru’s horns. «You get your dick in something soft and you’re like a dumb animal ready to fuck it to death.» Ru snarled, baring his teeth. «Yeah, that’s what we like.» Violet growled, flared out his wings until Ru lost the curl to his lip. “Gemma, darling,” Violet said as he tucked his wings back in, “Rubellite here is about to fuck you like he wants to split you in half.”

“Oh,” she said, wide-eyed. “I, I, I thought he already was.”

“I know, sweetheart, that’s why I’m warning you. If you don’t want to fuck your throat up screaming, you’re going to want to hold on tight and bite down right here.” Violet tapped a finger at the spot where Ru’s neck met his shoulder. Gemma wrapped her arms around Ru, wiggling to adjust her position and bring her head to the level of his shoulder.

“Are you sure it’s okay?” she asked Ru. “You’ll like it?”

“Yeah,” Ru said hoarsely. “I won’t hurt you.”

“You’re already hurting her,” Violet reminded him. “She likes it. You like it when he fucks you hard like that?”

“Yeah,” Gemma sighed.

“Ask nice for the big scary monster to fill you up,” Violet said.

“Please,” Gemma said, because that had worked well enough before, “please, my Lord.” Ru gripped her hips and held her down as he thrust hard and fast up into her, tentacles pumping in and out of her ass as he thrust. Gemma did as she’d been told and sank her teeth into his shoulder, getting a snarling growl out of him as he thrust harder. She made low, guttural sounds as she bounced in his lap, biting down harder, her nails scratching at his back. Violet kissed Ru in time to catch the roar that escaped his throat, cock twitching inside her and flooding her with even more silvery-white, spilling onto both their thighs. Gemma whimpered again as she let him go, but Ru held her face to dot it with kisses.

«He always gets so snuggly,» Rose said.

«It’s your turn again next,» Violet warned him. «Clear out of Safi’s lap, I’m going to need that for girl storage.»

«Do I at least get to have her ass this time?» Rose asked, tucking his wings in and sliding off of Safi’s thighs.

«Ob-viously,» Violet said. “Stop hogging the human, let everyone have a turn,” he scolded, lifting her up off of Ru. “You’re getting prettier all the time,” he told her as he carried her to Safi’s chair. She had a sheen of sweat, her skin flush all over, thighs soaked and lips still slick. He set her down on Safi’s thighs, her back to his chest, and her breath caught.

“He’s not going to—?”

“Not yet,” Violet said, tapping the tip of her nose with one finger. “We’re saving the best for last.” She shook her head mutely. “I know, baby,” he said sympathetically. “We’re working your way up to it, love, don’t worry.” Rose moved between her legs, standing between Safi’s knees at the same time as he spread her thighs apart. “You didn’t think it would fit before, did you, and listen to how much you loved having a big fat cock inside you.” Rose thrust his lower cock into her, and she tried to cover her face in embarrassment at the sound it made from all the mingled fluids still inside her. “Oh no,” Violet warned, pulling one wrist down while Rose grabbed another. “Let’s see that pretty face while you hear what a well-fucked pussy sounds like, sweetheart.”

Her face was turning scarlet as beneath her Safi kissed her shoulder, reaching around to toy with her breasts.

“I know Ru already got her ready for me,” Rose said, holding her jaw as he pulled out of her, “but I want to see what she looks like the first time she has a cock in her ass.” The slick head of his cock pressed against her, and after tentacles had stretched her out she offered little resistance as he pushed one cock into her ass and another into her cunt at the same time. She cried out and tried to squirm, but there were too many hands on her, holding her down as Rose buried himself inside her. Rose kissed at the tears that threatened to fall from her eyelashes. “There’s a pretty girl,” he said, rocking his hips. He rubbed at her clit with one of his thumbs, and she gasped. “That’s better, isn’t it?” he said, and she nodded. “You wouldn’t think it would be such a tight fit, considering what Ru did to her, but she’s still so small.”

“That’s what makes pussy so fun,” Violet said, petting her hair. “You have to be careful with them, that’s all. Ru, I don’t think she’s cleaned up her mess yet.”

Ru moved to the other side of the chair, gripping the base of his cock so that his tentacles would wrap around his hand and stay out of her face. Violet pushed her head toward Ru’s cock, and Gemma licked at it before opening it wide enough to take at least some into her mouth. Violet held her down there, giggling when she let out a nervous whimper.

“She’s so pretty when she’s full,” Violet said. “Harder, loves, I want to hear her.”

Rose started to move in long strokes, pulling half out before thrusting back in, while Safi pinched and tugged at her nipples. Her scream was muffled by Ru’s cock in her mouth, Rose and Violet still holding her wrists and her legs.

“You’re beautiful, darling,” Violet said.

“Never prettier,” Rose agreed. “Do you think I can make her cum again?”

“It cannot possibly be difficult,” Violet said. Ru rocked his hips a little, shallow thrusts into her mouth, only enough to add a bouncy sound to it as she moaned onto him. “Oh, that’s a fun sound, I like that.” Ru pulled out so that she could gasp for air before Violet pushed her back onto him. “I think she’s gotten better at it already, don’t you?”

“Significant improvement,” Rose agreed, rubbing at her clit. “Soon enough I’ll have filled her from both ends, there won’t be any part of her insides I haven’t painted.”

“I’m sure you’re very proud of yourself,” Violet said.

“Always,” Rose said, fluttering his wings. «I want to claim her,» he admitted, though Violet had already done it.

«Too fucking bad,» Violet said.

«I know,» Rose said. «But I want to.» He flexed his wings, thrust hard into her and rubbed hard at her clit until she made a high-pitched sound on Ru’s cock. Violet kept holding her head still and her jaw open as her legs twitched and she tightened around Rose. The head of Ru’s cock moving in and out of her mouth made her rapidly alternate between noisy and muffled. Rose’s hips slammed into her, wings flaring, teeth bared. Violet let her head go to shove his hand over Rose’s mouth, and Rose immediately bit him. Ru pulled out of her mouth so that she could relax back into Safi, who patted her stomach affectionately.

«Don’t test me,» Violet warned, as Rose’s teeth let him go.

«I can’t help it,» Rose complained, his wings in a high arch and his feathers all puffed.

Violet let Gemma go entirely to move around Rose, wrapping two arms around him from behind to pin his wings down. Rose tried to elbow him, but Violet grabbed one of his antennae and bit down on his shoulder. Rose stilled, and when Violet stroked his antenna he shuddered. Rose’s hips rocked gentler than before as Violet bit down harder, Violet’s wings beating once as Rose’s were held still. Rose’s breath came in gasps as he moved faster, gripped Gemma’s hips tighter, and when Violet trilled against his skin he buried himself deep and came with a small cry. Gemma mewled and squirmed as he filled her, Violet letting him go so that his wings could relax.

“Ready for your turn?” Violet asked Safi, who was still toying with her breasts. He nodded. Rose had recovered enough of his senses to hook his hands under her knees, lifting them high and apart so that he could see what he was doing as he lifted her off his cocks. She groaned as he pulled out of her, crying out when he immediately lowered her ass onto Safi’s eager erection. Violet rested his head on Rose’s shoulder so he could watch gravity pull her down, Rose’s cum dripping down Safi’s thick blue cock and getting caught by his tentacles. The light of him made it sparkle. “I told you it would fit,” Violet said, trading places with Rose and letting her legs fall around his hips.

“Again?” she asked him weakly.

“Mm-hmm,” Violet said, tapping the tip of her nose. “It was so much fun the first time, after all.” He bent low between her legs, giving her a long lick that dipped inside of her and filled his mouth with the taste of Gemma and Ru and Rose all at once. Then he caught her mouth with his, cupping her face to kiss her, his tongue stroking hers as she moaned. “Thank Rose for making you taste so good,” he ordered.

“Thank you,” she managed, her voice tiny and strained.

“That’s so fucking cute,” Rose said.

«Go wash your dick off so you don’t make her sick,» Violet said. «Take Ru with you while you’re at it, he had his tentacles in her ass.»

«Oh hell, I always forget about that,» Rose said, grabbing Ru by the arm to pull him toward the washroom. «Humans get sick too easy, they should do something about that.»

«I’m sure they’ll get right on it once you point it out,» Violet said. He kissed Gemma again, swallowed the sound she made when his lower cock slid back inside her. Wet and soft and hot, and when Safi moved his hips Violet could feel it, the stretch of her body against him.

“You feel even better,” Violet said, “now that you’ve got a nice big dick in your ass.” She squeaked and turned her head as if she might bury her face in Safi’s neck. Safi kissed her forehead. Violet kissed her carotid, grinding one of his cocks against her swollen clit and making her squirm.

“Good girl,” Safi growled in her hair as he thrust upward, making her bounce in his lap. She groaned loud as Violet alternated his strokes with Safi’s, something sliding in or out of her at all times.

“What a terrible thing we’ve done to this poor little human,” Violet mused. “We’ve fucked her much too well, we’ve spoiled her for humans now.” Safi purred as Violet grabbed her by the hair. “Haven’t we, sweetheart?”

“Ye—ah.”

“You want a nice little human to be sweet to you?” he pressed.

No.”

“You want the terrible monsters to fill you up like a cumrag?”

Yeah.”

“Rose, you’re back just in time, come make her pretty for Safi.”

Rose wasn’t hard anymore, but he guided Gemma’s head sideways to get her mouth onto him. She sucked each of his cocks in turn, though not particularly well, too easily distracted by the others still inside her. It was enough to get Rose hard again, resting one cock in her mouth and another on her cheek the way Violet had done earlier.

Fuck,” Safi groaned.

“That’s better,” Violet said. “Look at the pretty girl, Safi, look what she lets us do to her. Make her scream for me, I want to see if you can jerk me off using nothing but your dick inside her.” Violet gripped her hips tight, held her still as Safi started to pound rapidly upward. Gemma made a high-pitched keening sound, and Violet allowed himself a twitch of his wings at the feeling. Pressure and friction, Safi’s cock stroking his through the thin barrier of her insides, seeming impossible that she could bear it when everything about her was so fragile.

Safi came deep inside her with a roar through his teeth, and Rose pulled out of her mouth so that they could hear her ragged groan.

“You’ve definitely spoiled her, Safi,” Violet said, pulling her upright to rest against Safi’s chest again. Rose kissed Safi as Violet rocked his hips. Violet kissed her throat, then the shoulder still free of the mark of his teeth. «No one else touch her for a minute,» Violet warned, though it was impossible to avoid when she was still impaled on Safi’s cock.

Violet held her hips with two hands, wrapped the others around her to hold her body against his. He thrust harder and sank his teeth into her shoulder. She cried out and wriggled against his hold, and his wings flared out with a growl against her skin. When she went limp and whimpering he started driving into her in long strokes, wings beating with each thrust. She reached up to hold onto him, fingers digging into his skin. He came inside of her and over her stomach, waiting until he’d nearly finished before giving a few more thrusts for good measure. He pulled away enough to admire the matched bites on either side of her, the minuscule puncture wounds his fangs had left the second time.

«Greedy,» Rose accused.

«Jealous,» Violet shot back, and he didn’t mean of him. «Last call for kisses,» he warned, bringing her knuckles to his mouth. Rose and Safi and Ru all started dotting quick kisses to whichever parts of her they could reach, until she descended into giggles. “Let’s let her up now, come on,” Violet said, moving to scoop her up and lift her off of Safi. She gasped and tried to press her thighs together as he carried her. “Do your legs work?” he asked her.

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

“I’m asking if you can use the lavatory yourself, or if I need to help you,” he clarified.

“I’m fine,” she said immediately, horrified by the prospect of the alternative. “I can wait, actually.”

“My understanding of human anatomy suggests that you cannot.” He opened the door for her and set her down gently, hands still on her in case she toppled over. She wobbled and took shaky steps. “Take as long as you need,” he said cheerfully. “We’ll be running lots of water and being very noisy out here.” He waved as she shut the lavatory door.

He returned when the door finally opened again. “Feeling okay?” he asked. “Nothing broken?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, squeaking as he scooped her back up.

Ex-cellent,” he said. “Then it’s time for the best part.”

“It isn’t done?” she asked with more than a little terror.

“Not at all,” Violet said, carrying her into the washroom. He lowered her into the enormous tub full of steaming water, and she uncurled slowly and with great caution. “Better?” he asked, and she nodded mutely. “Good.” He patted the top of her head.

He ran soapy fingers gently over her shoulders, where the marks of his teeth were rapidly blossoming into bruises.

“Am I correct, pretty girl, that you were sneaking around hoping to get a better look at us?” Violet asked.

Gemma lowered her eyes to the water, rubbing at the shimmer on her thighs. “I’ve never seen monsters like you before,” she mumbled.

“Of course you would want to,” Violet assured her. “We’re v-er-y attractive, aren’t we?”

“Very much, my Lord,” she agreed.

“I didn’t really think you were a spy,” Violet said, using his fingertips to untangle her hair. “I only wanted to get your clothes off. Are you upset with me for lying?”

“No,” she said. “I assumed that was what was happening.”

“Good girl,” he said, coaxing her head back so that he could wash her hair. “As long as you aren’t already spying for anyone,” he asked, “how would you like a job?”

Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Nine

“I have outfits,” Minnow announced.

“What?” Leonas said. They’d made camp alongside the rest of the caravan train, all in a circle in a field. Nari had helpfully told Karzarul which wagon held their saddlebags, as they required intermittent contact to keep the moonlight solid. Karzarul had spent most of his time since they’d stopped as a Howler. There were too many people around to feel comfortable otherwise. He did not have Leonas’ enviable ability to ignore when he was being stared at. A Howler was still stared at but didn’t feel as seen.

“There’s a guy who does costumes,” Minnow explained. Her arms were ominously overflowing with fabric. “He modified some so we can have outfits,” she said.

“Did you pay him, or put it on Kavid’s tab?” Leonas asked.

“I gave him some opals,” she said.

“Where did you get opals?”

“Found ’em.”

“Where?”

“Around. Try this on so we can make sure it fits.”

Karzarul shifted into Impyr form and lifted the pile of fabric out of her arms. “Oh.”

Minnow looked down at herself. “Yeah, he fixed one of the dancer’s dresses for me,” she said. It was low in the chest and high at the thigh, dark blue with ruffles down to the ground. Her shoulders were bare, the sleeves ruffled to match the skirt. She was barefoot, her hair loose, and wearing the Starsword sheathed on her back. “Is it good?”

“Good,” Karzarul said, staring.

“It does the thing,” she said.

“Which thing?”

She backed up to put some space between them and then twirled so that the skirt would flare up around her legs. “The thing!” she said, bouncing on her toes.

“I like the thing,” Karzarul said, and Minnow beamed. He looked around them. “Where should I change?”

She looked around also as if noticing for the first time that people were present and capable of noticing sudden nudity. “Right,” she said. “Kavid’s not in his caravan right now, maybe use that? He won’t mind.”

Karzarul looked to where Leonas was sitting. “Are you coming?”

“I’ll go when you’re done.”

Karzarul was going to say that he’d seen it before, but he supposed he hadn’t. Leonas had managed to stay remarkably dressed regardless of circumstances. It was going to bother him, now that he’d noticed. Was it a coincidence that they’d only ever done things that Leonas could keep his pants on for?

Karzarul’s dress was the same dark blue fabric as Minnow’s, a touch tighter around the chest than he would have considered ideal. Minnow was delighted. The skirt didn’t quite reach his knees, his back bare underneath the laces tied up the back of the dress.

“It does the thing!” Minnow informed him. Karzarul spun experimentally, and Minnow clapped as the dress flared around his thighs.

“I see you’re marking your territory again,” Karzarul said.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I want everyone to be able to tell you’re mine.”

“Ah,” he said, though it sent a frisson down his spine.

“Dark blue again,” Leonas observed, coming up from behind Karzarul. Minnow started to giggle. She’d managed to find him an outfit involving tall boots and tight pants and a tight-laced vest. The shirt beneath was black and frilly. “Please tell me this didn’t used to be Kavid’s.” Minnow continued giggling. Leonas looked over Karzarul’s outfit, eyes stopping at the hem of his skirt.

“Disappointed?” Karzarul asked. His usual skirt showed off more of his legs, not to mention his hips.

“It’s an interesting contrast,” Leonas said absently, eyes still lowered. “The colors.” His fingers twitched, and he pulled his gaze away. “I don’t think we’re going to be in such high demand that you need to mark us,” Leonas said.

“It isn’t like that,” Minnow said, coming closer. “May I?” Leonas shrugged. Minnow ran her fingers over the laces of his vest. “You can still play with other people, if you want to,” she said. “They’re not the ones who get to keep you, is all. And if we’re going to be around people, I want to be sure they know that if they hurt you I’ll kill them.”

“That isn’t necessary,” Leonas asked.

“I know,” Minnow said, patting his chest. “It’s not for your benefit. It’s for theirs.”

Minnow insisted that they sit around the main campfire, finding herself a spot right next to Kavid. Kavid was dressed in some kind of multi-colored knit romper with long legs and sleeves disconnected from the body of the suit. The orange hair on top of his head had been fluffed up enough to disguise the damage done to discolor it, and underneath it fell long and black to his shoulders. Instead of doing his makeup properly, he’d given himself a glitter mask around his eyes.

Karzarul had a certain amount of difficulty figuring out how to sit in so short a dress. He finally settled for kneeling in the grass, tail twisting anxiously behind him. Leonas knelt down beside him.

“You are looking quite stylish,” Kavid said.

“Yes,” Minnow agreed.

“Zaros made stew for dinner,” Kavid said. “Lots of spices, good with rice. You want some, yes?”

“Yes,” Minnow said before Leonas could speak.

“I don’t need any,” Karzarul said, and Minnow frowned. “Humans need to eat. I don’t.”

“I’ve seen you eat,” Minnow said.

“Recreationally,” Karzarul said. “I’m fine if I don’t. I’m not taking food from people who need it.”

“You think we are bad hosts?” Kavid asked. “That we cannot show you a good time? Of course we will feed you.” Kavid snapped his fingers in the air. “Nari! Bring food for our guests.”

“We can get our own,” Leonas muttered.

Nari.” Kavid snapped more insistently until Nari made a rude gesture, which he took as confirmation that the message had been received. “Do not trouble yourselves, you will be fed shortly.”

“Does Costa still make those donut things?” Minnow asked.

“For you, Starlight?” Kavid said. “Of course. And for everyone else, also. We drink, they are fried, she cannot stop making the donuts. There would be a riot.”

“We’ll get you some of those later,” Minnow said to Leonas.

“You don’t need to feed me,” Leonas said.

Minnow patted Karzarul’s knee, and so Karzarul patted Leonas’. Leonas scowled. Nari brought her carefully balanced bowls, giving one first to Kavid and then handing them out down the line.

“Thank you,” Karzarul said. Nari made a flustered sound of acknowledgment, clutching the pendant around her neck.

“Thank you,” Leonas said, holding the bowl above his knees so that he could bow his head. Nari tried to bow while squeaking incoherently, then fled. “She seems nice,” Leonas said.

“She is not,” Kavid said. “Do not let her fool you. One day she is all sweetness, the next she is yelling about dishes and throwing you into rivers.”

Their bowls were split into rice on one side and stew on the other. Leonas carefully dipped a spoonful of rice into a small amount of stew before tasting it.

“Is good, yes?” Kavid asked. Minnow had already mixed her entire bowl into a uniform slurry to consume at top speed. Someone on the other side of the camp had set up stakes for a game of horseshoes, and here and there a cheer would go up as someone managed to throw a ringer.

“Yes, thank you,” Leonas said automatically.

Karzarul bent his head down sideways to speak softly into Leonas’ ear. “If it’s too much for you,” Karzarul said, “you can have my rice. If you want.”

Leonas shook his head. “It’s good,” he said. “I’m not allergic. I don’t usually, that’s all.”

“Is the story,” Kavid asked, “that Starlight seduced the Monster King?”

“No,” Minnow said.

“She didn’t have to,” Karzarul said.

“So you seduced her,” Kavid said.

“I don’t think so,” Karzarul said. “Maybe.”

“You have been enemies eternal,” Kavid pressed.

“Not always,” Karzarul said.

“Ah!” Kavid said, brightening, pointing with his spoon. “That is a different story. You were friends, once. A great tragedy, you and the First Hero, friends before it all went wrong.”

“Not the first,” Karzarul said. “He was…” Karzarul stared at the fire. “Friendship is a kind of love,” he said. “It’s a thing you show, not a thing you say. I considered myself his friend. The feeling was not mutual.”

Minnow leaned against Karzarul’s arm. Kavid hummed. “I can work with that,” he said. Someone passed him a wineskin, and he poured some into his mouth before handing it off to Minnow to do the same. Karzarul passed it straight to Leonas without drinking. Leonas scowled at the wineskin as he struggled to determine the best way to drink without a glass. He gave up, eyes glowing as he made himself a glass out of sunlight, pouring wine into it and handing the skin back to Karzarul. Karzarul’s reach was long enough to pass it along on Leonas’ behalf.

“That is,” Kavid said, “unsettling.”

Leonas shrugged, sipping at his wine.

“He does not need to cast?” Kavid asked Karzarul, having decided that he was the most social of the three. “No wielding of his instrument? He waves his fingers, his will is done?”

“He is an Heir,” Karzarul said. “His magic is sunlight, shining as no other witch can. He bound it to an instrument to which his soul was already tied. So long as his light can reach his shield, he is not constrained as other witches are. His limitations are his own capacity for magic, and whatever the physical world can bear to contain.”

“Terrifying!” Kavid said.

“Yes,” Karzarul agreed. Leonas regarded Karzarul with suspicion. Someone around the fire started to pick at a guitar but did not play a song. Karzarul listened carefully.

“Will you dance with me, later?” Minnow asked. “You couldn’t before.”

Karzarul looked at his empty bowl. “Maybe,” he said.

“Does the Monster King dance?” Kavid asked.

“Beautifully,” Leonas said. Karzarul glowed faintly.

“You’ve seen?” Minnow asked, wrapping her arms around Karzarul’s bicep. “I’m jealous.” She pouted, and Karzarul kissed her forehead.

“I’ll dance with you,” he said.

Kavid hummed. Then he tossed his bowl aside and stood, heading for a caravan. “Devin,” Kavid snapped. “Now is not the time for your practicing. Give the guitar to Alia. Strangle a tone-deaf cat, if you must, it will sound better.” He returned to Minnow’s side with his lyre, and Minnow clapped with excitement. “I will not sing,” Kavid warned, playing a quick scale. “My voice needs rest. But my fingers, they work always.” He waggled his eyebrows as he started to play, and Minnow giggled.

Minnow leaned against Karzarul’s arm again but didn’t pressure him to get up as Kavid played. The pace of the song quickened as the guitar joined in. It was not a song Karzarul knew, but Minnow must have since he could hear her humming along. A woman on the other side of the fire started drumming on a box between her knees. Karzarul could taste his own pulse, his tail thrashing behind him. Leonas patted Karzarul’s knee.

One of the dancers, in a dress much like Minnow’s, set a heavy board on the grass to act as a small stage. Other members of the troupe, though not all, started to clap out a beat. Minnow joined them, but Karzarul kept his hands still save for the tapping of one finger. The dancer stepped onto the board to cheers and started to drum a rapid-fire beat with the heels of her shoes. Her hips moved as she danced, the cut of her skirt letting it flare and show off the motion of her legs when she twirled. Unlike Minnow, her dress was layered in green and white, and when she moved she looked like waves frothing with seafoam.

“I can’t dance that well,” Minnow said to Karzarul.

“I’m sure you’re beautiful,” Karzarul said. He was watching the dancer intently, tracking the beat and the motion of her feet and how she held her arms. When she stepped down she joined the clapping, another dancer replacing her, replicating what the first dancer had done before making it her own. Her dress was blue and orange, looked like a candle flame in a storm. A third dancer in grey and white looked like a thunderstorm, repeated the pattern of replication and elaboration before ceding the stage back to the first dancer.

Karzarul had started to drum on his thighs with his hands.

“You want to play?” Minnow asked him. Karzarul stopped drumming.

“I wouldn’t want to interrupt,” Karzarul demurred.

“You should,” Leonas said. “You’d be good at it.”

“We’re guests,” Karzarul said. “I don’t want to be rude.”

Minnow stood and approached one of the dancers waiting for her turn. She gestured to Karzarul as she spoke. Karzarul did not think he could get away with turning into a Howler. The dancer in green held her hem up out of the grass as she approached Karzarul.

“You want to try?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t know how,” Karzarul apologized.

“We can show you,” she assured him, holding out her hands to help him up. Minnow clapped as Karzarul rose up onto his hooves. “You like to dance?” the woman asked.

“Sometimes,” Karzarul said.

“Here,” she said. “Copy me this first time.” Karzarul waited as she took to the little stage, drumming out a short beat with slower steps than before. Then she stepped aside, waving him closer to encourage him.

Karzarul tried not to think about humans watching, thought about Jonys, tried not to think about Jonys. Thought of Minnow, because a show for Minnow felt like something he could do. If he thought of it as trying to play along with strangers it was almost mortifying. But trying to impress the Hero, that was second nature. Made it easy to drum his hooves and roll them just-so, summon an overskirt made of moonlight that he could twirl. The dancers cheered before he could lose himself in it completely, and so he stepped aside to let another one take her turn.

They did not slow down for him this time, danced in earnest while he joined in clapping the beat. When his turn came around again, he could not resist the temptation to luxuriate in it. He tapped out a more complicated beat with his hooves, twitched his hips, shook his hair to make his bells ring. Rolled his hips gratuitously when the sound of bells reminded him of Leonas, slender fingers and sunlight chains. Someone whistled, and the strings hit a crescendo, and with a final twirl and a stomp all the music seemed to dissipate into happy noise.

He was startled when Minnow pounced on him, arms over his shoulders and legs hanging in the air so she could press a kiss to his mouth. “Mine,” she whispered, and he purred. He wrapped his arm around her waist as a different tune started, and twirled with her in the grass so that both their skirts would fly. She was difficult to keep up with once she started dancing, quick steps on tiptoe and all around him like a maypole. Fairy steps, wind and shadow and pounding rain. It made his hooves feel too big and too heavy, though she crushed the grass as much as he did. The sun had dipped behind the horizon, and firelight reflected from her eyes like twin mirrors.

“Leonas,” Minnow called suddenly, stopping and reaching her arms toward him. “Come show me fancy dances.”

Before Leonas could argue, Kavid switched his song to something more suitable for a ballroom. Leonas glowered at him, and Kavid grinned as all the other players followed his lead. Someone had begun to play pipes. Leonas pulled himself up to his feet to join them amidst the other dancers, only some of whom were bothering to follow the steps.

“You put your hand here,” Leonas said, lifting her right hand to his shoulder before placing his hand on her waist. “We hold the other ones.” Instead of clasping her hand, he laced his fingers with hers. She didn’t notice the difference. “It’s a box,” he said. “Forward, right, back, left. Right?”

“Back left right?”

“Wrong.”

She pouted.

“Here,” he said. “I’m going to put my left foot forward, you’re going to put your right foot back.”

Karzarul watched as Leonas painstakingly walked Minnow through the steps, which did not come naturally to her at all. If she’d been wearing shoes, her tendency to step on him may have been a problem. It took all of five minutes for him to give up, his eyes flaring as sunlight slippers appeared on her feet.

“Oh,” she said as the shoes moved for her. “This is much easier,” she decided.

“Yes,” Leonas agreed, finally able to move from the small patch of grass to move her along in sweeping arcs.

“You used to dance a lot,” she said. “On your birthday.”

“I did,” he agreed.

“Like this?” she asked.

“On my birthday,” he said, “an orchestra plays a song the composer spent a year writing just for me, and I waltz between great marble fountains with the prettiest and richest women in all Astielle.”

“Oh,” she said. “But you can’t.”

“Can’t I?”

“I’m never there,” she reminded him.

“You are the prettiest,” he conceded.

“And the richest,” she added.

“Horrifyingly so,” he agreed. “Every nobleman there would be vying for your hand.”

“Really?”

“I’d have them all beheaded,” he said, his eyes still suns beneath his eyelids, featureless light that made his witchmarks look dim.

“Jealous,” she accused.

“No,” he said. “The beheadings would be unrelated. Someone’s been committing tax fraud, if we’re going to frame anyone it may as well be a Duke. They’d give up on you soon enough, anyway.”

“Even though I’m the prettiest?”

“You’re also the sharpest,” he reminded her. “And bitiest. And most obnoxious. And you come with a monster attached, which most people find off-putting.”

“But you like me anyway,” she said. She couldn’t meet his eyes when they glowed like that, looked at his lips instead.

“You may as well say I like a tourniquet,” he said. “You’re annoying, you’re inconvenient, you’re uncomfortable. I’d die without you.”

“Oh,” she sighed. “Don’t say that. That’s too big.”

He caught her mouth in a kiss, hungry and hot. “It’s not poetic,” he said. “Look at me. I can barely carry my own purse. If I’m going to survive outside a castle I need someone to carry my things.”

She giggled. “Karzarul can carry us both,” she reminded him.

“I suppose there’s that,” Leonas conceded. Then he smiled in a sly way she wasn’t used to. “I didn’t think it would work,” he said.

“What?”

He looked down, and she followed his gaze to realize they’d been dancing on nothing. Spots of light glowing in the dark, pooling underneath their feet like a spilled sunbeam that the night forgot to swallow. The glow touched the grass far down beneath their feet.

“This way we can’t trip on anything!” she said, delighted by the practicality.

“Shh,” he said. “It’s romantic.” He stopped dancing to cup her face, and she had to shut her eyes.

“You’re too bright,” she said, and though she didn’t feel them descend she soon felt the grass on her bare feet. She opened her eyes to admire the blue of his for the moment he gave her before kissing her again.

Karzarul could have kept dancing without them, but he’d wanted to watch them instead. They suited each other, the sizes and colors of them. Karzarul didn’t think he had a shape that would fit the way they did. Look right, the way they looked right. It pulled at something in his chest. It eased when they sought him back out.

“I’m going to be right back,” Minnow said, leaving them both to head toward the caravans. Karzarul and Leonas listened to the music as they tracked her movement.

“Did you want to dance?” Leonas asked tentatively.

“I would step on your toes,” Karzarul said.

“No you won’t,” Leonas said. Leonas offered his hand, but hesitated when Karzarul took it. “Ordinarily,” Leonas said, “the taller person leads.”

“Do you want me to lead?” Karzarul asked.

“No.”

“I don’t mind following.”

Leonas set his hand at Karzarul’s waist, and Karzarul set his hand on Leonas’ shoulder, careful of the Sunshield. Leonas swallowed, eyes hanging on Karzarul’s hand. The size and the weight of it on his shoulder, the sensation both familiar and not. His fingers laced with Karzarul’s, gripping it tight. Karzarul let him and didn’t squeeze back. Finally, Leonas started to move, and Karzarul mirrored his steps. Leonas had to tilt his face upward, but his back looked remarkably straight despite that.

“You’re better at being led than she is,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Karzarul said.

“You’re beautiful,” Leonas said, but it didn’t feel the same when he’d been trying. “You should dance for me someday.”

“I thought I did.”

“I assumed it was for Minnow.”

“It can be both,” Karzarul said. “The bells were for you.”

“Ah,” Leonas said.

“Did they sound like dying?” Karzarul asked.

“No.”

“Ah.” Karzarul glowed.

“Your dress,” Leonas said, “has been driving me insane.”

“Has it?”

“That color,” he explained, “in that length makes your legs a marvel.”

“I haven’t seen yours,” Karzarul said.

“There isn’t much to see,” Leonas said. “It isn’t you.”

“Okay.”

“You’ll have to be patient with me.”

“I can be patient,” Karzarul said.

“Do you know,” Leonas said, “if I had known this was an option, I might have dreamed of this.”

“Instead of dying?”

“In addition to.”

“Oh.”

“I’m very stupid,” Leonas said.

“Is it?” Karzarul asked.

“Wanting you,” Leonas said, “is, based on all available evidence, objectively and factually the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever done.” He spun them both around, eyes and hands aglow as he swung Karzarul backward into a dip to kiss him. Karzarul made a surprised sound into his mouth, purred onto his tongue.

“I understand the appeal now,” Karzarul said breathlessly.

“Good,” Leonas said, “because I’m using a great deal of magic and I still might throw my back out.” He pulled them both back up to standing, and Karzarul had to catch him before he fell.

“I brought donut things!” Minnow announced. She stuck one in her mouth, gave one to Karzarul, and then gave a stack of them wrapped in paper to Leonas. Leonas needed to use both hands to hold them all, still leaning against Karzarul.

“This is too many,” Leonas said, suspiciously regarding a fried puff of dough and its coating of cinnamon sugar.

Minnow pulled the donut out of her mouth and swallowed her bite without chewing. “I watched you eat so many churros,” she reminded him.

Leonas’ witchmarks flared. “Those were tests,” he muttered. “That doesn’t count.”

“Test how many donuts you can eat.”

“These are really good,” Karzarul said.

“Costa does a good job,” Minnow agreed.

Leonas licked his fingers before grabbing another one out of his paper. “They’re mostly air, anyway.”

“They barely count,” Minnow said.

Karzarul tried to grab another, but Leonas turned his body sideways to keep them out of reach.


They stayed with the caravans the next morning, riding alongside them for a lack of anywhere else to be. There were things they could do, but Minnow was in no hurry yet, and no one was interested in rushing her.

She had, since they joined the caravan, found two more fallen stars.

“You’d think I would already have all the flowers around here,” she said, on her hands and knees by the side of the road, “but they all bloom in different seasons and some of them are hard to find.” She managed to pluck a satisfactory example of the one she’d been looking for, digging out her book to tuck it between the pages.

“I’m surprised that didn’t get left behind,” Leonas said from where he and Karzarul were both waiting. He gestured to her book of flora.

“It did,” she said. “I went back for it.”

“What?” Leonas said. “When?”

“Earlier,” she said vaguely. “You were washing your hair or pooping or something, I don’t know.”

“You’re a fugitive,” Leonas reminded her. “What if you’d been captured?”

“I wouldn’t,” Minnow said. “I told you, no one goes over there. I took the watchtower Door and then ran, it was fine.”

“That’s not fine,” Leonas snapped.

“I had Ari in my pocket,” she added. Leonas looked accusingly at Karzarul, who shrugged. “I wasn’t gonna leave my glider out there forever. You can go lots of places people want you dead, if you use a Door and run fast.”

“Great,” Leonas said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Please don’t do that again without telling me.”

“If I told you, you’d worry,” she said.

“Minona,” he warned, and she pouted.

“Fine,” she said, without pretending to be happy about it. They looked down the road, to where the long line of caravans and wagons had come to a halt. Figures were moving about with more speed and less noise than they were used to. “I wonder if Kavid lost a shoe again.”

Leonas made a sound of disgust, not improved when it became clear that the figure moving toward them was Kavid. He was wearing some manner of long-legged jumpsuit, baggy enough around the legs to look like a dress.

“Starlight,” Kavid called with a hint of panic. He did not run but walked much more quickly than usual. “I need you, darling,” he said. “You two will need to hide,” he added, waving at Leonas and Karzarul. “There is no disguising you, too shiny.”

“What’s going on?” Leonas asked. Karzarul put a hand on Leonas’ shoulder and shifted to a Slitherskin around his neck.

“There are Astian soldiers at the crossroads ahead,” Kavid said. “I am unclear of what has happened, there is much confusion. They are taking Nari, it seems like? If Valeria could intervene, it would be appreciated.”

“I’m on it,” she said. She ran ahead toward the caravans, hopping into one of them without knocking.

“Who is Valeria?” Leonas asked, jogging after her.

“You have not met her?” Kavid asked, following. “You must play different games.”

“What?”

“It’s difficult to explain,” Kavid said, “if you have not met her.”

Minnow burst back out of the caravan. She had managed to fit the majority of her hair under a flat cap, nothing peeking out of it but strands of brown with ends so split it created a passable illusion of short hair. Leonas had not known that it was possible to tousle one’s eyebrows, but she’d done so, and it had a remarkable effect on the overall structure of her face—particularly when she had them furrowed more deeply than he’d ever seen, her jaw jutting forward. She’d changed into a button-down shirt and a pair of heavy work pants cut off at the knees, which conspired with her boots to make her look even shorter than usual. Her fingerless gloves were battered and threadbare. Instead of the Starsword, she was holding a clipboard, a ring of keys hooked to her belt.

“We’re saved,” Kavid said with no hint of irony whatsoever.

“Shut up,” Minnow snapped, stalking toward the crossroads.

“Here,” Kavid said, gesturing to the caravan she’d come out of. “You, hide in a box or something.”

Leonas entered the caravan only long enough to find a mirror. As light was necessary to see, he thought he ought to be able to make light ignore him. He focused, and his whole body flared bright before disappearing from the mirror.

“If this only works in the mirror I’m about to make an ass of myself,” Leonas warned Karzarul, heading back outside. He circled around to the other side of the wagons, feeling as if this ought to make a difference. By the time he caught up, Minnow was already at the crossroads. That no one saw him before he ducked behind the first caravan felt like a good sign.

“It’s a necklace,” Minnow was saying, in a voice lower and more nasal than he’d ever heard from her.

“It’s a moonstone pendant,” one of the soldiers corrected. Leonas thought he looked like a child sitting on the shoulders of another child hiding in his armor. He thought that about most soldiers. He was surprised in retrospect that anyone had kicked up a fuss about Minnow when their fighting forces were comprised mostly of tall children with drinking problems. “Moon worship is heretical and constitutes treason against the crown of Astielle.”

“I’m not a traitor,” Nari said, offended. “I’m an artist.”

“Kid, are you new?” Minnow asked.

“Ma’am, I am a captain in the King’s army.”

“Great, good for you, I’m sure your mother’s very proud,” Minnow said. “I’m asking if you’re new.”

“Ma’am—”

“Don’t take that tone with me,” Minnow warned. “I’ll have your commission so fast it’ll make your head spin, you wouldn’t be the first and you won’t be the last. You think General Xalter’s gonna appreciate your initiative? Fuck no. That’s how I can tell you’re new, you’re still going by the book.”

“The book is the law.”

“Laws are for managing people.” Minnow gestured around them with her clipboard. “You see a lot of people? You’re way out in bumfuck nowhere. They gave you the easy job sending you out here, you’re not supposed to go hauling in the first person you see for high crimes.”

“Corpse-bothering doesn’t become legal in the woods,” the Captain said.

“Lots of folks like keeping moon trinkets out in the boonies,” Minnow said. “It’s harmless superstition, nobody means anything by it, least of all heresy. You wanna try arresting her, be my guest. You’re gonna have yourself a big mess of paperwork, and in the end you’re gonna have to let her go because a pretty necklace don’t mean shit. You think I mentioned Xalter because we’re friends? No. He hates me. I make him do his job. My job is to get this troupe to the show on time, you make me late and I make it his problem, I guarantee he makes it your problem. That’s not a threat, that’s some friendly advice from an old bitch who’s seen a lot of kids fuck themselves being too zealous. They talk a big game in training teaching you how to spot secret weirdos, but take it from me, the weirdos ain’t subtle. You’ll know. It’s fine.”

The looming specter of bureaucracy had taken some of the wind out of the sails of finding secret heretics. It felt plausible that there might be heretical activity going on when it had been a matter of mysterious caravans and eccentrics in costumes. It felt less plausible in the face of someone holding a clipboard and a ring of keys. She added a practical air to the whole affair, akin to a parent having found them in the middle of an important game to remind them about supper.

“Do you smoke?” Minnow asked, pulling a pipe out of her pocket.

“Yeah,” the Captain said.

“Well quit it,” she said, lighting a match. “It’s a bad habit. You’re too young, you’re a baby. Look at you, who gave you a sword? I’ve got kids with haircuts older than you. Why do they even have you guys out here, you piss somebody off?” She puffed at the pipe to light whatever was already inside it, which did not smell as if anyone should inhale it.

“Monster King Karzarul has risen,” the Captain explained.

Minnow looked around at the fields and woods surrounding them. “Out here?” she asked.

“We don’t know where,” he said. “Our Sunlight Prince is hunting him, over land and through Rainbow Doors.”

“Aah,” Minnow said. “So you’re covering the ‘over land’ part.”

“Something like that,” he said. He finally took his hand off Nari’s arm, and she inched her way back toward Minnow. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen any monsters.”

“We see a lot of monsters,” she shrugged. “Wandering around, you know. Doing monster things. In the distance, ideally. Haven’t seen many lately. Might be a bad sign, yeah?”

“Might be,” he agreed.

Minnow clapped Nari on the shoulder, nodding her head to indicate she could get back on the caravan. “We go all over,” she said. “Haven’t seen any legendary immortal battles so far, but who knows. Kavid’s scheduled to do a show in Thornhaven in two days, I assume more of you will be there?”

“Lieutenant Kyric is stationed in Thornhaven,” the Captain said.

“Oh, hell, Kyric?” Minnow asked. “He still got that moustache?”

“He won’t get rid of it,” another soldier said, and the Captain glared at him, shutting him up immediately.

“Hate that fuckin’ thing,” Minnow said. “We see any princes between here and Thornhaven, I’ll let Kyric know about it. You got a name?” She pulled a pen out of her clipboard, pipe held between her teeth, and waited.

“Slif,” the Captain said, shifting awkwardly as she scribbled out his name.

“I’ll see if I can put in the good word for you with Kyric,” she said. “Or the bad word. Depends on if he’s still pissed at me for what I said about his shitty moustache. Big fuckin’ baby, anyhow.”

The other soldier from before snickered.

Leonas waited until Kavid was alone and a safe distance before grabbing him. “Kavid,” Leonas hissed.

Kavid clapped a hand over his own mouth to suppress his scream. He stared at the nothing that was holding him, which sometimes shimmered.

“What the fuck was that?” Leonas asked.

“Valeria,” Kavid said as if that explained anything. “She is very good with these situations.”

“Minnow’s tried to lie to me before,” Leonas said. “She’s terrible at it. Have you been giving her lessons, what the fuck was that?”

“Did you not know?” Kavid asked, delighted. The spot where nothing was holding his arm became suddenly very hot. “That’s fine and normal, why would you know? Bad at lying, good at pretending. Excellent pretending. Give her a person to be, if she knows the person she will be them.”

“That’s just complicated lying,” Leonas said.

“Yes,” Kavid shrugged. “The trick to a good lie is, you must make yourself believe it. Starlight, she can make herself believe anything. It is only that she must believe she is a person who would believe it. She cannot make herself believe that the girl who is Minnow would know nothing of her boys. The woman who is Valeria does not need to lie, for she has a job to do and she would not know the things that Minnow knows. You see what I mean?”

“Yes,” Karzarul said before Leonas could complain. “She likes to play.”

“Exactly,” Kavid said. “She is a woman with a sword made of stars, who can do whatever she believes and who can believe anything. She is a changeling, fairy-touched. Every fairy was once a child with old eyes, you know? Children eternal, always in-between. A fairy does not lie, has many rules to make the world manageable. There are many reasons to like Kavid, but she likes the game we play. Where she is a human woman, playing at the things a human woman does. You, who are a witch and a monster, perhaps you do not see it? The way that she is Starlight, a wolf pretending to be a dog for the sake of the lambs. Taciturn, for to speak too much would show her teeth.”

“Hm,” Leonas said. He was slightly mollified, though he was still bothered more than he would admit. An unpleasant reminder that she’d lived her life away from him, and perhaps it was many lives, whole entire selves that had wandered the world without a thought to him. Bad enough after Karzarul to know that she could keep secrets when she’d always been his only one, worse to think she might have preferred another life as another self in which he only interrupted. That she was playing Minnow as much as she played Valeria.

“May I cease now to stand between wagons speaking to myself?” Kavid asked, and Leonas let him go. “Do not fuss yourself so,” Kavid said, brushing off his arm. “We have all of us known the horror of realizing our woman loves improv. Count your blessings so long as she does not ask for you to play party games.”