Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Six

“We should go see a play,” Minnow suggested. “Or we could go to a restaurant! A nice one, with tables.”

Minnow had amused herself kissing Karzarul thoroughly and at length, allowing Leonas to finally finish taking his notes in peace. Karzarul had not realized the extent to which she had been restraining herself to be considerate. She’d been holding Karzarul’s hand since they’d stood to leave. Leonas had grudgingly accepted her hand when she offered. She had not let them go since.

“I don’t know where you think we’re going to be able to do either of those things,” Leonas said.

“Girlfriends go on dates,” Minnow insisted. “Go to shows, and have picnics.”

“We already went to at least one show,” Leonas said, “and picnicking is indistinguishable from how you normally eat.”

“That wasn’t a date,” Minnow said. “You weren’t my boyfriends yet so it didn’t count. And it isn’t a picnic unless we have a big quilt, and a special basket with at least five different kinds of cheese.”

“We could do that,” Karzarul said.

“Don’t encourage her,” Leonas said. Karzarul squeezed Minnow’s hand tighter, and she squeezed back. “All we’ve done is given a name to whatever we already had, it doesn’t have to be a whole thing.”

“I want it to be a whole thing,” Minnow said. “That’s why I wanted the name. Names are important.”

“That’s rich, coming from you,” Leonas said.

“Am I misremembering,” Karzarul said, “or did she name your horse Cum?”

“Frederick,” Leonas snapped. “It wasn’t a horse, it was an extremely rare variety of beetle. It was a gift, from her, which I made the mistake of thanking her for before I asked if she wanted to be the one to name it.”

Karzarul raised an eyebrow. “You thanked her by…?”

Leonas grew flustered, turning both bright and red. “Have you met her?” he demanded. Minnow beamed.

“Your Highness,” came a call from off the path. Karzarul rolled his eyes as Leonas stopped to try to locate Violet. Violet waved from where he’d been standing in the trees. “Am I interrupting?” Violet asked, fanning himself and making no move to join them.

“I shouldn’t think so,” Leonas said. He glanced down at where Minnow was holding his hand but didn’t pull away.

“Unfortunately this is more of a practical question than a fun one,” Violet said, strolling closer to the path. “If we were able to provide the materials, would you be willing to enchant us a few Seeing Stones?” He clutched his fans two-handed with an apologetic half-bow. “As of right now we lose all communication as soon as you leave the mountain. I’m sure you can understand why I find this unacceptable.”

“Of course,” Leonas said. “I would need a little time, and some of the materials are a bit…”

“We can get the materials,” Violet said. “Put together a list whenever you have a moment, I’m sure His Majesty will let me know when he needs me.” Violet fluttered his highest fan, used the lower one to gesture to Minnow’s hands. “I see Lady Minnow is doing well.”

Minnow held up the two men’s hands. “They’re my boyfriends now,” she said.

“They weren’t before?” Violet asked.

“Not officially,” Minnow said, lowering their hands. “Now they have to take me on dates.”

“Congratulations,” Violet said sweetly, giving Karzarul a sly look through his eyelashes. Karzarul didn’t look at him. “Might I trouble the Royal Girlfriend for a private audience with His Majesty?” He did not ask Karzarul.

“You may,” Minnow said magnanimously, letting Karzarul go although he didn’t seem to want to.

“I won’t be long,” Karzarul said, stepping off the path to follow Violet. “What is it now?” Karzarul asked when they were out of earshot of the other two.

“Congrats on the girlfriend,” Violet said instead of answering, fluttering his fans, one of his wings stretching outward to nudge Karzarul’s shoulder. Karzarul crossed his arms and kicked a rock ahead of them. “I assume the roaring was related. We could all hear that by the way. It carries. That’s how roaring works.” Karzarul kicked the rock further this time, glowing. “She seems very into that, good for her. I assume you’ve reached a wary truce with the perfidious Heir.”

“I hate you,” Karzarul said.

“Did you figure it out already?” Violet asked, delighted.

Karzarul kicked a rock hard enough to go through the trunk of a tree. “… Minnow thought I was flirting on purpose,” he admitted.

Violet cackled and clapped both pairs of hands as Karzarul fumed. “Oh, I do like her,” Violet said. “Obviously. I thought for sure it would be at least another decade before you noticed, if you ever did.”

“Fuck off,” Karzarul said, and Violet fluttered his fans again.

“As to the other matter I wanted to discuss,” Violet said, “you’re definitely not going to be able to stay here long-term. The level of fucky energy coming off of you right now is untenable.”

“I’ll eat you,” Karzarul warned.

“Don’t I wish,” Violet said. “I’m not kidding, though. The Brutelings and Bullizards get a little rowdy, which is fine, but you’re going to get into a loop with the Taurils. They’re going to start knocking shit over trying to do the Vaelean every time they see your girlfriend looking cute.”

“That’s not a thing,” Karzarul snapped.

Rather than argue, Violet turned, backing up to the nearest tree only to lean against it with his upper-right elbow. “Hey,” he said with his voice pitched low as Karzarul bristled. Violet waggled his eyebrows. “This would look charmingly casual,” he said in his mock-imitation voice, “if I were a soft little man instead of huge and horny.”

Karzarul hissed and grabbed at him as Violet laughed, twirling around the tree in a flutter of sleeves and feathers. “Don’t threaten me with a good time,” Violet warned. “We both know we’re getting mixed up already.”

Karzarul huffed and tried to fix his hair, glowing. “Whatever.”

“You’re going to need more time to get all this fuckiness out of your system,” Violet said, gesturing to Karzarul with a folded fan. “Which is fine, love that for you, but some of us are trying to get some work done.”

“It’s weird,” Karzarul said, “that you’re so… proactive.” He didn’t think that was the word, but couldn’t think of a better one. He’d tried to be something like that, a long time ago, tried having goals and working toward them. He’d given up quickly. He’d never done it for its own sake.

Violet shrugged. “I like it,” he said. “Being useful, fixing problems.” He held up a fan and one of his wings as a shield to stage whisper. “Especially being useful for the sort of person who has a lot of bureaucracy problems.” He winked dramatically.

“Dammit,” Karzarul muttered, rubbing above his eyebrow. Violet started to giggle. “That’s.” Karzarul rubbed his face with both hands. “Fuck.” Violet cackled. “I’m so fucking stupid,” Karzarul said, muffled.

“Don’t I know it,” Violet said with a shake of his wings and a wiggle of his shoulders, sticking out his tongue. “Anyway, since you’ll be leaving soon—”

“I never agreed to that.”

“—I thought you might benefit from a little to-do list.” Violet produced a neatly folded piece of paper with a flourish.

Karzarul narrowed his eyes. “Did you write me a quest log.”

“It’s a good idea,” Violet said. “Your girlfriend has a lot of good ideas. Like that bit with the wooden swords, loved that.” Violet unfolded the paper. “First one’s a gimme, see about doing something about the king who kept killing your boyfriend.”

“Minnow’s boyfriend,” Karzarul corrected.

“Sure,” Violet said. “I assume she’ll be taking point on that one, it’s only on here because it would be weird if it wasn’t. Item number two, work on our image.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Listen,” Violet said, “I get it. Really, I do. It isn’t fair that you have to explain and justify the fact that you exist. You ought to be able to mind your own business. I’m not arguing with that. But Jonys had the right idea. It didn’t do anyone any good, in the end, standing back and letting him be the face of you. If you’d stood by him instead of standing back, gone with him when he—”

“I’m not talking about that right now,” Karzarul said.

Violet sighed. “I know you’re not,” he said, fanning himself. “There was a window there, a brief window, when you hadn’t given up on personhood yet. When we could travel and trade. Monsters made the best mercenaries and threw the best parties. They almost liked us, outside of Aekhite. Even within Aekhite, it was only the Imperial government that didn’t like us.”

“It’s safer this way.”

“It would be a lovely thing,” Violet sighed, “if every King felt his wars so keenly. But it’s given you a skewed perspective, you must realize that. All you remember is the dying. All I remember, don’t forget about that. Impyrs and Savagewings remember, even if we never felt it. But there were other times, before and after. It isn’t the same when you can feel the worst times and only hear about the good ones. You wouldn’t believe how delighted Indie was to be around humans again. He ought to have the option, if he wants it. Go places. Do things. Meet people.”

Karzarul rubbed at his eyes. “I know. I know. No one’s stopping him. Any of you.”

“For now,” Violet said. “You always say that, let everyone scatter and do as they will. Until the next time someone turns against monsters, and you decide the only thing to be done is to stay out of their way. In those early years, you just…” Violet sighed again. “You wanted to be useful,” Violet said. “We all want to be useful. You left us in all the places you would have been if you hadn’t been following Vaelon. It isn’t any wonder we got hurt, when you treated us as an extension of yourself. Look what you do to yourself.”

Karzarul had already turned away from Violet, arms crossed tight. “I thought you were trying to give me a quest,” he said curtly.

“I’m not saying you have to go around telling everyone that monsters are great,” Violet said. “What I am saying is that, in most places in most of the world, a monster isn’t any more alien a thing than a Starlight Hero. Or a prince with witchmarks that glow. You’re not any more terrifying than they are. You’re more obvious about it, but that’s all. Stay with them, let them introduce you. Stop letting other people tell the story of us. Lie, if you must, but at least make it yours.”

“I’ll think about it,” Karzarul said.

“I’ll take it,” Violet said. “A small victory still counts. Item number three—”

“We’re still doing this?”

“I’ll be done when I’m done,” Violet said. “Three ties back into two, most of the Hollow monsters weren’t in Astielle.”

“What?” Karzarul turned back around.

“Within Astielle’s borders he was obvious, left them in places he didn’t want people. Neighboring countries have it worst, those are the, ah. The ones I mentioned before, do nothing but attack. Very convenient for him. He’s at war with five countries that don’t even know it.”

“I hate this political shit,” Karzarul muttered.

“I know, baby, I know,” Violet said with a dismissive wave of one fan. “Some of the Savagewings and Impyrs have been helping out, that’s why it ties into the second point. It doesn’t fix anything, but it does help to have someone this pretty—” Violet gestured to his own face with two empty hands. “—showing up to say that they’ve been given full authority by the Monster King himself to dispatch all interlopers. I made you a Royal Seal and then used it to save time, I assume that’s fine.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Karzarul said. “Wait,” he amended. “What’s it look like?” Violet reached into one of his sleeves and produced what looked like a small statue of a Rootboar. He turned it to display the seal underneath the base, a crescent with a crown of forget-me-nots in the center that made it look like horns. It was set in the circle of a full moon, but on closer inspection, the pattern of its craters were instead the petals of a carnation. “Okay, yeah. That’s fine. Why is it a Rootboar?”

“Everyone likes a Rootboar,” Violet shrugged, putting the seal away. “It might be a good time to consider visiting places outside Astielle to let them know they’re at war. Or don’t! Ignore the quest log, see if I care. Fourth item, this is the last one.”

“Thank fuck.”

“Black Drakonis,” Violet said.

“Oh no,” Karzarul said.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Violet said, “but I don’t know where she is.”

“What?”

“One of the last things I remember from when I was you,” Violet said, “was that she didn’t come back. Every other monster that died while you were gone came back, except for Black Drakonis. We’ve been looking, we’ve been listening, we have nothing. No sightings, no rumors. Nothing.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Karzarul said.

“No shit,” Violet said. “That’s why it’s on the list. Actually, I lied about this being the last one, I’m adding another one.” He pulled a pen from his sleeve and scratched something out in loose handwriting, holding the page against an open fan to write against. “Twenty-one years ago, Leonas said something about that. You were distracted being jealous at the time.”

“Was not.”

“Was too.” Violet put his pen away, waiting for the ink to dry before folding the page back up. “He tried to ask quickly and move on, it reminded me of you. When you’re avoiding a conversation.”

“If he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t have to.”

“You don’t have to interrogate him,” Violet said. “Keep it in mind if the conversation goes in that direction.”

“Nosy,” Karzarul accused.

“Don’t act like you’re not curious, now that I’ve said something.” Violet handed Karzarul the folded page. “Don’t eat it,” he warned.

“I wasn’t going to eat it,” Karzarul lied, tucking it into a pocket of his tunic.

“I’m well aware you’re going to do whatever the Hero wants to do,” Violet said. “But maybe you’ll learn how to multi-task, miracles happen every day.” He turned on his heel, heading back toward an area of the winding path further down the mountain. “My job is done, let’s get you back to your girl so I can get back to fussing with my hair until Sid gets here.”

“What?” Karzarul took longer steps to catch up to Violet, getting ahead of him and walking backward. “Sid?” he asked. “Obsidian? Really?”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Violet said. “We don’t all have your issues. Some of us even like us.”

Sid, though,” Karzarul said, turning around. Violet caught him around the shoulders with one arm and around the waist with another, leaning against him as they kept walking.

“Yes, well,” Violet said. “Somehow, I seem to have ended up with a predilection for men who find me insufferable.” Violet brought his face close to Karzarul’s, as Karzarul ignored him and tried to keep his eyes on the ground ahead. “Isn’t that weird?” Violet pressed. “I wonder why that might be. What a fascinating mystery this is.”

Karzarul finally batted at one of Violet’s antennae, and Violet hissed as he turned his head, stroking the sensitive fluff to set it back to rights. “I’m not happy about it either,” Karzarul pointed out.

“I never said I wasn’t happy about it,” Violet said. “I’ve already embraced that sometimes in life, I will see a large man with baggage and want nothing more to see how much dick it takes before he doesn’t have room for it. For some reason.”

“Stop trying to flirt,” Karzarul said, and Violet giggled, fluttering one fan and making no move to let Karzarul go. “At least pretend to have better standards.”

“If the Moon Goddess didn’t want us to be sluts,” Violet said loftily, “then She should have given us a gag reflex when She had the chance.”

Karzarul snorted, covering his mouth to smother an ugly laugh. Violet cackled, squeezing him in a side-hug.

That’s more like it,” Violet said triumphantly. “Things are looking up, act like it.”

“Don’t say that,” Karzarul said. “Someone will hear you.”

Violet let Karzarul go with a pat on the back with two hands, falling back to a more appropriate position for a King’s advisor. Karzarul stepped back onto the path, but Minnow and Leonas hadn’t made it that far. Karzarul had to backtrack higher to find where Leonas was holding a bundle of flowers, Minnow bent to pick another one from underneath a fern.

“There was a delay,” Leonas said flatly as Minnow stood back up. She pulled a leaf off a tall stalk and squinted at it. Then she stuck it in her mouth and started chewing. Leonas did a double-take when he noticed. “What are you—what do you have? Are you eating something? What’s in your mouth, spit it out.” Minnow retreated when Leonas tried to grab her, swallowing fast. “Don’t just eat leaves for fuck’s sake.”

“Leaves are food,” she said.

Some leaves,” Leonas said. “You can’t eat leaves as a category. They have to be edible.”

“Those are edible,” Minnow said. “I ate one.”

Leonas took a closer look at the plant. “It’s powdery,” he said. “That can’t be good. This is—what even is this.”

“It’s spinach,” Minnow said.

Leonas tore off a leaf and held it up incredulously. “Is this what you think spinach is?” he demanded. “Have you been putting leaves you found on the roadside in our food?”

“Only if the recipe calls for it,” she said.

“Sweet Sun above.” Leonas dropped the leaf, rubbing waxy powder from his fingers. He was still holding the flowers Minnow had foisted off onto him in his other hand. “Sorry about the distraction,” he said to Karzarul and Violet. “I meant to tell you before, the broken Door was fascinating but I doubt we’ll be able to do anything with it. Most contemporary research suggests the opening of a Door was done separate from its construction. Whatever enchantments could accomplish it were lost when the Sunlight Empire fell, we’ve only barely started to recover even some of what they had.”

“Oh!” Violet said with a wide-eyed flutter of his eyelashes. “You call it the Sunlight Empire, that’s fun and not creepy at all. Totally lost technology, then.”

“I’m afraid so,” Leonas said.

“It was the ancient empire that built all of those,” Violet said rather than asked, gesturing with a closed fan as if to a tiny map.

“… yes.”

Violet turned to look at Karzarul, who was watching Minnow crouch and inspect the petals of a wildflower. “How odd,” Violet said, fluttering his fans. “When would this lost empire have built a Rainbow Door in our castle, I wonder.”

Minnow looked up from her flower, and Karzarul smiled at her. She smiled back.

“When they built the rest of it, I would assume,” Leonas said.

“Oh!” Violet said with another flutter. “Did they? Build? Our castle?”

“Someone must have,” Leonas said. “Most ruins past a certain age, it’s safe to assume they were Imperial.”

Minnow stood and offered Karzarul a flower. He brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply. Minnow did the same, then bit down on the petals and started eating it. Karzarul took that as permission to do the same. She looked pleased that he appreciated it.

“Right,” Violet said. “So then, they would have built a castle on an impassable mountain, put a Rainbow Door in it, and then… we would have politely asked if we could have it?”

“Ah,” Leonas said, realizing he’d erred. “I’m not accusing you of anything. Fort Astielle is built entirely on Imperial ruins. I know that monsters don’t really…” He paused, and looked further down the mountain, where Brutelings were building their strange little neighborhood. “Don’t usually,” he amended, before stopping again. “Lately,” he tried, before giving up, eyes narrowed in thought as he turned his head back around. “Hm.”

“Hm,” Violet agreed, covering the lower half of his face with a fan. “I’m sure you all have a lot to not talk about,” he said, glancing toward Karzarul. “I’ll leave you to it, Your Highness,” he said. “Good luck.” He took a deep bow before leaping upward to take off. The jump gave him enough height before his wings beat that the motion of the air didn’t disrupt Leonas’ hair.

Leonas looked at the flowers in his hand. “Did you want these?” he asked Minnow, a little stiffly.

“For me?” she gasped.

“… they’re yours.”

“They’re beautiful,” she said, taking the collection of random wildflowers like a bouquet.

“I. Okay.” He raked a hand through his curls and followed as Minnow headed down the mountain, Karzarul not far behind.


“Are we still doing this?” Karzarul asked, taking form an Impyr again.

Leonas shrugged. “Might as well,” he said, sitting in nothingness. “Is that a problem?”

Karzarul shrugged in turn, creating a field that stretched in all directions. Leonas drew his knees up close to his chest again.

“You don’t have to cater to me,” Leonas said. “You can ignore me and do… whatever.”

Karzarul raised an eyebrow, and Leonas rubbed his face.

“Not like that,” Leonas amended. “I’m not trying to be a voyeur. Even if it keeps happening.

“Uh-huh,” Karzarul said.

“Was there…” Leonas sighed, uncurling to lay back in the grass. “Was there any point to that?” he asked, watching a too-real cloud drift overhead. “Taking notes, studying that Door.”

“I don’t know anything about enchanting,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know how they work. If you want to try making another, you’re on your own.”

“Okay,” Leonas said, taking a deep breath. “I thought that maybe—I don’t know what I thought.” He clasped his hands over his stomach. “Busywork.”

“You were right,” Karzarul said. “That it only keeps it open.” He added mountains to the horizon, something to make the unnatural expanse look better. “The Starsword cuts them open.”

“Oh.”

“Vaelon was the only one who could do it.” He set a lake in the distance for good measure.

Leonas, watching the sky, was oblivious to the changing landscape. “He was the first?” he asked tentatively.

“Right,” Karzarul said. “I forgot you weren’t actually part of that conversation.”

“Yeah,” Leonas said. “You didn’t want to say that, about the Starsword. Around Minnow.”

“I did not.” Karzarul adjusted the ground to add rolling hills toward the mountains.

“Is it a bad sign? That she can’t seem to use its powers.”

“They’re all different. Vaelon could cut holes through space, but that was all. Jonys could summon powers greater than any Hero before or since, but he couldn’t do what Vaelon could. It doesn’t seem to hinder her.”

“Okay,” Leonas said, silent for a while. “I worry that her time in the Faewild, our being out of sync, that it broke us,” he said finally. “Secretly, I always did think there must have been another Heir. A missing one. The one that was supposed to be Minnow’s. Except she died, whoever she was, and Minnow was lost, and now we’re mismatched.”

“You’re not meant to be a matched set,” Karzarul said. The idea irritated him unduly. “It’s random. Like any other pair of people.”

“It would have made more sense,” Leonas said. “If we were broken. If that’s why it feels like this. Like someone made a mistake somewhere, picked the wrong person to be this.”

“I think that’s what it’s supposed to feel like,” Karzarul said, adding forests around the distant lake.

“Great,” Leonas sighed. “Did I offend Violet?”

“No.”

“It seemed like I offended him.”

“Don’t worry about him.”

“I like him,” Leonas said. “He’s nice.”

“That’s what he wants you to think.”

“It’s working,” Leonas said. “You should try it.”

The dream clouds above turned dark and started to pour rain exclusively on Leonas. He shot upright, sputtering, and darted out of the raincloud’s limited range. The water stopped immediately as Leonas tried to wipe water from his face.

Childish,” Leonas said, shaking water off his arms.

“Am not.”

“Are you jealous?” Leonas asked.

“I don’t have to be,” Karzarul said. “I can look just like him.” He changed Leonas’ clothes out for dry ones, took the water out of his hair.

Leonas looked down at himself. “Have you been able to do that this entire time?” he asked warily.

“Yes?” Karzarul frowned. “I don’t know why you’re saying it like that. You’re not the one that got put in an awkward position.”

Leonas blushed under his glow. “That was an accident.” He looked around at the dreamscape, all vast and unnatural and perfect. “We don’t have a record of it,” he said. “What my name was. All the emperors were named Aekhite, is what I’ve read.”

“Lynette.”

“Oh.” Leonas paused, then rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know why I thought that would do something. Like I’d hear it and remember something. Anything. Can you tell me about her?”

“No.”

“Okay.”

“Not now,” Karzarul added.

“Okay,” Leonas said. He pushed at his cuticles with his thumbnails. “I’m trying to reconcile it,” he said. “The legends and the memories with the person who leaves his clothes on the floor, and…”

“And?” Karzarul prompted.

“And,” Leonas said like it was an answer.

Karzarul did not move closer, simply was closer, all dream logic and moonlight. Leonas didn’t flinch. “And what?” Karzarul asked. His tail swished behind him. Leonas traced a fingertip over the edges of the embroidery in Karzarul’s tunic, not looking at his face. Karzarul stilled.

“And makes me flowers, sometimes,” Leonas said.

“Oh.”

“The story goes,” Leonas said, “that the Sunlight Empire reached anywhere the Sun Goddess could shine. Seeing all its glory and its worship made the Moon Goddess jealous. So She made monsters, who stole the Emperor’s sons. But the Sun Goddess blessed his only daughter, and so she became the Sunlight Empress, who would usher in a new era of prosperity for the Empire. The Star Goddess saw this divine avatar, and in trying to make her own, the ones she touched became witches. Though the Sunlight Empress should not have borne the insult of their creation, the most powerful of the witches was a man of such charm that he could seduce the Goddesses Themselves. The Empress was seduced; but so, too, was the monster called Karzarul. He came to the Empress with promises of peace, and brought her stories of the Fairy King and the great weapons he could forge. She did not know, until it was too late, that such a weapon could kill an avatar of the Sun; he did not know, until the deed was done, that with their souls so bound the Empress would never truly die.”

“About how wrong is that?” Leonas asked, voice different once he wasn’t reciting.

“Completely,” Karzarul said.

“Figures,” Leonas said.

“He was very charming,” Karzarul corrected. “That wasn’t wrong.”

“I like enchanting,” Leonas sighed. “It’s obvious when something’s wrong, because it doesn’t work.” He leaned closer to Karzarul, didn’t quite rest his head against his chest. “You could tell me stories, sometime. Different ones.”

“Would you believe them?”

“I try not to believe things,” Leonas said, “if I can help it.”


True to his word, Violet was able to acquire the necessary materials for Seeing Stones in a matter of hours. Minnow made herself scarce before Leonas could start working because watching him work would only make her want to distract him. She thought it best to keep Karzarul away for the same reason. They had a lot in common, that way.

They had a lot in common a lot of ways. She didn’t know if that was a Hero thing, or a changeling thing. She thought it must be a Hero thing. It was nice to think they got along this time because a changeling was more like a monster. It felt more likely that they got along because a changeling was less like a Hero. She didn’t think they’d get along as well if she were like him in the wrong ways. In his sharp edges and bluster, in the competitive parts of him. If she were fearful and uncertain and angry.

Minnow used the long morning to work on maps. She liked to work in a sketchbook first, big picture overviews followed by picking sections to draw in more detail. Interesting things, landmarks. Deciding what was worth adding to the big map.

Ari stayed in Tauril form, walling her off with the way he lay on the ground. He touched her intermittently as she worked, though not in a way that felt like a request or an invitation. Idle fondling, the same way he stroked her hair or ran his fingers down her back. Touching for the sake of touching. She understood the impulse. Sometimes it made her sad that Leonas couldn’t stand it. Some other time she and Ari would have to trade places, let her play with his hair and explore all the shapes of him when he wasn’t all wrapped up in her. He had so many bodies she could learn. She wanted to map all of them with her fingers until she could draw them from memory on the backs of her eyelids. Bask in the smell of him, like a clean sword in fresh snow.

The other monsters weren’t like him. Their bodies weren’t like his. They were flesh and blood like she was. Ari was nothing but a soul made solid. She didn’t know how much of himself he did on purpose. Not that much, was her guess. She was getting a sense for the deliberate things. The too-pretty, too-perfect things. Same as anyone else, that way, even if he had an advantage.

She was still sketching when Leonas tracked them down, his work done. “Am I interrupting?” he asked.

“No,” Minnow said, though Ari had an enormous hand up her shirt. “You got the Seeing Stones done already?”

“I’ve done it before,” Leonas shrugged. “We tested them, they seem to be working as they should.”

“We?” Ari asked, taking his hands off of Minnow to sit upright.

“Violet helped me,” Leonas said.

“I didn’t know you needed help,” Ari said.

“I didn’t,” Leonas said. “Until the end, when I needed to test them. I needed to give him a Seeing Stone anyway.”

“Hm,” Ari said.

“Also he sucked my dick,” Leonas added. Ari stiffened.

“Really?” Minnow asked, perking up immediately.

“No,” Leonas said. Ari scowled even though he relaxed. “Would it be a problem if he had?”

“I don’t care where you put your dick,” Ari lied. Leonas looked upward, thoughtful. His eyes glowed, and the clouds above swirled. There was a crack of lightning in the otherwise sunny sky. Minnow clapped as Ari shifted uncomfortably.

“That’s surprisingly easy,” Leonas said as the light faded, letting the clouds disperse. “Good to know.”

“Are we going to need that?” Minnow wondered.

“Maybe,” Leonas said. “Violet mentioned something about heading out today?”

“The other monsters find my presence distracting,” Karzarul said. “Visiting is fine, long-term stays will be inadvisable until everything is… settled.”

“Should we make a plan?” Leonas asked. “Start questing?”

“No,” Minnow said firmly. “We’re decompressing.” While she was not an expert, it felt likely that attempted filicide was the sort of thing that took longer than a week to deal with as a thing that happened.

“I do not find it relaxing to be idle,” Leonas said carefully.

“You’re not going to be idle,” Minnow said. “You’re going to be doing boyfriend things with me, because we couldn’t before.”

Leonas ran a hand through his curls. “That’s something you want?”

“Very much,” Minnow said.

“Okay,” Leonas said. “I can work on that. We’ll have to find somewhere else to stay.”

“I have a list,” Minnow said, patting her bag.

“Of course you do,” Leonas said.

“There’s a lot of abandoned places out in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “If they’re in good spots sometimes I keep stuff there.”

“You’re rich,” Leonas reminded her. “Don’t steal houses.”

“It’s not stealing,” Minnow insisted. “No one’s using them.”

“You said that about the pumpkins, too.”

“If someone else wants them, they can have them,” Minnow said. “But they don’t, so they’re mine. There’s a bunch that would be good for picnics. One of them is a boat!”

“Not that one,” Leonas said.

“Okay,” she said. She looked up at Karzarul. “We can get stuff for picnics, right?” she asked. “Or should I stop somewhere first, for fancy cheese?”

“I’m sure we can figure something out.”

Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Five

NSFW Content Warnings
Maledom ❤ Sadism/Masochism ❤ Fighting as Foreplay ❤ Edging ❤ Biting with Fangy Teeth (no blood) ❤ Bruises/Scrapes ❤ Physical Restraint ❤ Voyeurism ❤ Size Difference ❤ Cunnilingus ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Weird Monster Dicks❤ Penis-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Tentacles ❤ Anal Tentacle Sex ❤ Multiple Orgasms ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Dirty Talk

Leonas choked on his congee. Karzarul looked between him and Minnow.

“If he was your boyfriend,” Karzarul said, “what would I be?”

“Also my boyfriend,” Minnow said. “Either you’re both my boyfriend or no one’s my boyfriend.”

“Oh.” Karzarul looked down at his bowl. “That seems fine, then.”

He and Leonas had spent all morning carefully avoiding eye contact.

“See?” Minnow said to Leonas. “It’s fine.”

Leonas finished off his meal with an impressive amount of speed considering the dainty size of the bites he took. “Right,” he said, sliding his seat back to stand. “I’m going to go wash this,” he said, taking his bowl and heading for the kitchen.

Sort of a kitchen. It wasn’t entirely a house yet.

“I wasn’t trying to put you on the spot,” she called after him. “Don’t feel obligated!” She sighed as she contemplated her congee.

“What brought that on?” Karzarul asked.

“You need to be clearer about the fact that you like him,” she said.

Karzarul recoiled. “What?”

“I know that he’s got that thing,” Minnow said, “where it’s really fun to poke at him until he finally snaps and punishes you for it. But when I do it, he knows I’m playing, because he knows I like him. I don’t think he knows that’s what you’re doing.”

“He’s not—I’m not—that isn’t—is that? No. That’s not—no.” He narrowed his eyes at his congee.

“It’s okay,” she assured him. “I do it all the time. It’s only that, if you’re going to flirt with him, you should be more obvious about it. That way he can be sure that’s what you’re doing.”

Karzarul continued staring at his bowl.

“Sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to embarrass you, or anything. And you have more experience flirting than I do. I know Leonas pretty well, is all. He’s used to people who want him being obvious about it.”

“I should go wash this,” Karzarul said, standing and taking his bowl to the kitchen.

“Kay,” Minnow said, helping herself to more.

Leonas was wearing waterproofed leather gloves and scrubbing more furiously at his bowl than felt necessary. The counter was a long piece of raw wood, the sink a small trough. They could have taken a Rainbow Door to proper lodgings, but the Brutelings were very proud of their last-minute handiwork to accommodate them on the mountain.

Karzarul set his bowl down. Leonas ignored him. Karzarul tried leaning sideways against the counter with his elbow to be closer to eye level. “Hey,” he said.

Leonas stopped scrubbing. His eyes flicked over Karzarul. “Are you making fun of me?” he asked. He kept his voice low enough not to carry.

“What?” Karzarul stood straight, giving up on eye level. “No. I was saying hi. Am I not allowed to say hi?” He was equally cautious about the possibility of being overheard.

“Do what you want,” Leonas said, returning his attention to his bowl.

Karzarul reached out to tug on one of his curls.

“Not that,” Leonas snapped, a crack of magic on Karzarul’s fingers like a switch. Karzarul hissed as he took his hand back. Leonas wasn’t looking at him. “Don’t touch me.” Karzarul’s jaw set with a growl. “If she doesn’t get to touch me without permission, you definitely don’t.”

That gave Karzarul pause. Then it irritated him all over again. “Touching you,” he said, “is not some privilege I plan on begging for.”

Their eyes met. “Then don’t.”

Karzarul sputtered and stormed out of the kitchen.

“Everything okay?” Minnow asked.

“Fine,” he said, heading for the door, which was actually a curtain made of small pieces of broken glass and rocks that had been tied together into strands.

“Are you two fighting?” Minnow asked.

“No.”

Minnow pushed her bowl aside and propped her chin up on her hands. “Is this about the dreams?” she asked.

Karzarul froze.

Leonas poked his head out of the kitchen. “What.”

“I know I shouldn’t bring it up because it’s rude,” Minnow said, “but you guys are acting weirder than usual.”

Leonas slowly emerged from the kitchen, eyes narrowed as he took off his gloves. “Have you been? Seeing? My dreams?”

“I don’t wander into people’s dreams when they’re using them,” she said, offended. “I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do. I never learned dream stuff.”

“Right,” Leonas said. “But it seems like you know something.”

“Have you ever gone over to someone’s house,” she said, “and it turns out they’re having a fight with their boyfriend, but they don’t want you to know they’re fighting? So they’re extra polite and excuse themselves to another room and start arguing in there like you can’t hear? And you have to sit there and pretend not to notice because it’s awkward?”

“No,” Leonas said.

“Yes,” Karzarul said.

“It was like that,” Minnow said. “Except usually with Leonas his dreams would leak blood, but lately it’s been flowers, which felt like a good sign. And I sorta, I tried to wander over, actually? After you said it was possible, and didn’t need a complicated spell. Only I never really got the hang of dreams. I never went to kindergarten, or wherever they teach you that stuff if you have parents. No one ever taught me how to make my own dreams. I always used dead people’s, since they weren’t using them. I thought I figured it out a long time ago, but after everything Karzarul said and after I got to sleep at home, I realized it was actually the stars. Which means I never learned how to make my own dreams, and you’re not allowed to make fun of me for it because I’m only telling you so you know I wasn’t spying.”

Karzarul’s brow furrowed. “It wasn’t literal,” he said. “The thing about dreams.” He frowned. “Was it?”

“You were having ghostly visions with my dream blood leaking into them this whole time, and you never thought to mention it?” Leonas asked.

“It’s not like it happened all the time,” Minnow said. “I didn’t even know whose blood it was. You never talked about it, so I thought it was off-limits.”

“Dreams just happen,” Leonas said. “There’s nothing to learn. You didn’t miss a class that everyone else took.”

“I’ve seen it,” Minnow insisted. “A teacher had a quest for me, and he wanted me to come talk to him while the students were in nap class.”

“Naptime,” Leonas said. “Toddlers get naptime. Because they get tired. Not because they need to learn how to dream.”

“I can’t tell if you’re messing with me.”

Why would I be messing with you.”

“How should I know!” Minnow said. “Why would I know how it’s supposed to work? It’s not like anyone told me. It’s like the hair thing all over again.”

Leonas held up a staying hand before Karzarul could ask. “Changelings don’t brush their own hair, it’s a whole thing, let’s stay on topic which is this weird dream thing Minnow has going on.”

“Why is that the topic?” Minnow asked. “I thought the topic was how you guys were acting weird.”

“We’ve moved on,” Leonas said.

“You’re changing the subject,” Minnow said.

“Does he make you ask for permission to touch him?” Karzarul asked.

“Stop it,” Leonas snapped.

“He doesn’t make me,” Minnow said. “He won’t enjoy it if I don’t, that’s all.”

“You agree that the dream thing is weird, right?” Leonas asked Karzarul. “Has she always been like that, or is this new?”

“It’s—in retrospect it’s possible she’s always been like this,” Karzarul said. “There have been some weird dream situations. Historically.”

“Are you being awkward because I kept bringing up the boyfriend thing?” Minnow asked. “I thought you were only being weird about it because of Ari, but if you really don’t like it I’ll leave it alone.”

Leonas rubbed his temples. “It’s like trying to have a conversation with puppies in a butcher shop,” he muttered. “Let’s summarize: you have a weird dream situation.”

“Right,” Minnow said.

“It made you tangentially aware of our weird dream situation.”

“Right,” Minnow confirmed.

“You don’t know details.”

“Right.”

“But you feel we are acting unusually.”

“I know you are,” Minnow said. “What I don’t know is if it’s because you had a dream fight, or if it’s because you don’t actually like the idea of me being your girlfriend and don’t want to admit it.”

“You’re in a relationship with Karzarul,” Leonas reminded her.

“He said he’s fine with it,” she said.

“He says a lot of things,” Leonas said.

“Hey,” Karzarul said.

“Do you want to test it?” Leonas asked. “Because we can test it.” He came closer to Minnow, stood behind her to wrap his arms around her shoulders where she sat. He rested his chin on her head. “Does he look fine with it?” Leonas asked.

Karzarul was neither growling nor snarling, and was instead stone-faced, the muscles of his jaw all tense.

“Hmm.” Minnow stood, Leonas letting her go as she walked up to Karzarul and grabbed him by the hand. His expression softened immediately. She dragged him back toward Leonas, who she grabbed by the collar and yanked downward so that she could press a hard kiss to his mouth. He made a muffled sound of protest, and she let him go. “There,” she said, gesturing to Karzarul. Karzarul looked at the floor as if he had not been watching the two of them with interest. He had a sheepish glow about him. “See?” She held up his hand, her fingers looking smaller and darker than usual next to the size and moonlight color of him. “He doesn’t like being left out, that’s all.”

Karzarul stared at where she held his hand. “Huh.”

“That’s…” Leonas swallowed.

“Knock-knock!” Violet called from outside, not actually knocking. “If there’s spitroasting happening don’t stop on my account, I’m coming in.”

“Can you not?” Karzarul snapped.

“I can’t not,” Violet said, moving the ‘curtain’ out of the way with a closed fan. “We really need to have a talk about appropriate uses of materials,” he mused, looking at the bits of broken glass. His eyes landed on Minnow’s hand holding Karzarul. “Oh, that’s cute,” he sighed.

“Good morning,” Leonas said.

Violet smiled. “And you, Your Highness. Did you sleep well?”

Leonas almost said yes as a reflex, then glanced at Karzarul. “That’s complicated.”

“I bet,” Violet said, snapping his fan open to give it a flutter. “Do let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

Karzarul growled.

“Your Majesty,” Violet said as if just noticing him. “We were wondering if, considering your company, you were planning to try fixing the Rainbow Door in the castle ruins. We’re rebuilding the castle, incidentally. What we do with that whole wing depends on whether there’s going to be a Door there.”

“It’s deactivated?” Minnow asked.

“Destroyed,” Violet corrected. “All in pieces.”

“Rainbow Doors can’t be destroyed,” Leonas said.

“They can, actually,” Violet said with a flutter of his eyelashes. “Under the right circumstances.” His gaze flicked over to Karzarul before returning to Leonas.

“That’s very interesting,” Leonas said. “I might like to see that.”

“I thought you might,” Violet said, looking pleased. “As His Majesty seems indisposed, perhaps I could—”

“I’ll take care of it,” Karzarul said. “Go away.”

Violet laughed, stuck his tongue out at Karzarul and gave a small kick of his heel as he left the room.

“Actually, I need to go ask him if they have a privy set up yet,” Minnow said, letting go of Karzarul’s hand. “You guys go ahead and I’ll catch up.” She grabbed the Starsword from where it was leaning against the wall and followed after Violet.

“Right,” Karzarul said. Leonas busied himself retrieving the Sunshield. “Follow me, then.” Karzarul headed out, but paused at the doorway. He half-turned, not enough to be facing Leonas directly. He started to speak, stopped. “You don’t have to ask,” he managed.

Leonas looked up from the tuft at the end of Karzarul’s tail. “What?”

Karzarul hesitated again. “Permission,” he clarified. “Just. So you know.” Then he headed out the door.

“… oh.” Leonas took a minute before following. He used the Sunshield to move the curtain, bringing it up high enough to protect his face. Karzarul was walking at a pace that Leonas would have been able to keep up with unassisted. Leonas struggled to determine the appropriate amount of polite distance as he slipped the Sunshield onto his back.

“How does this work?” Leonas asked finally, touching Karzarul’s sleeve only briefly before taking his hand back. Karzarul’s steps almost imperceptibly faltered, looking down at the spot. “Your clothes,” Leonas said. “I don’t know how they work. I assume they’re made out of moonlight, but so is the rest of you.”

Karzarul said nothing, then looked at Leonas. “Your boots are made out of skin,” he pointed out.

“… not my skin,” Leonas said.

“Same thing,” Karzarul said.

“So you don’t feel it,” Leonas said, touching his sleeve again, “the way you’d feel skin.”

“No.”

“But you can control it, like the rest of you.” Leonas hooked two fingers into the wrist to rub at the hem with his thumb. It felt like ordinary stitched silk. The backs of his fingers brushed against Karzarul’s glove.

“Not… exactly,” Karzarul said. “I can create or destroy it. If I want it in a different configuration, I have to destroy it and remake it.”

“Then there isn’t any reason to go leaving your clothes on the floor.”

“It’s more fun,” Karzarul said. Leonas looked up at him. “Taking things off.”

Karzarul cleared his throat as Leonas let his sleeve go for a more polite distance again. They both found the grass overtaking the edges of the path extremely interesting until Minnow rejoined them.


“I’ve never heard of anything that could do this to a Rainbow Door,” Leonas said, sitting on rough stone that had once underlaid tile. It was a ruin more than a room, open to the outside, vines and weeds growing in all the cracks. Whatever it had been before, it was nothing now. Leonas had a pocket-sized notebook and took notes with a pencil. He ran his fingertips over the gold etchings in the pieces of the Door. “No one’s ever been able to reverse-engineer them. At best they’ve determined how it keeps the Door open, but not how it collapses all the space between every Door.”

Karzarul said nothing. He was watching Minnow watch Leonas. She was crouched near where he was sitting, watching his face the way a cat watched a hole in the ground. Leonas was fully absorbed in his task, taking measurements with his knuckles as points of reference. There was something about it. The way his brow unknit, the way he stopped checking his periphery to focus. The lines around his mouth disappearing, lower lip sometimes caught between his teeth.

He had very long eyelashes.

Minnow had been inching closer until she was almost resting her head on his shoulder. Leonas finally noticed her, narrowing his eyes. “No.”

“I wanna see,” she protested.

“Bullshit.”

“It looks interesting.”

“Not to you, it doesn’t.”

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to a particular diagram in his notes, all of them written painfully tiny.

“That’s—stop trying to distract me.”

“Am I distracting you?”

“You know you are.”

“I can help,” she suggested.

“Doing what?”

“I could hold things.”

Leonas looked at the broken remains of the Door. “Hold what.”

“Things.”

Tch.” He tapped her on the nose with the wrong end of his pencil. “Go play with Karzarul.”

Minnow looked at Karzarul as Leonas turned his attention back to his notes. Karzarul gave her a suggestive lift of his eyebrows. To his surprise, she grinned. It was predatory, all sharp edges, did not suit the game of childish petulance she’d been playing. Then it was gone, replaced by a pout as Leonas tried to ignore her.

“Leonas,” she whined. He raised his pencil to tap her on the nose again, but quicker than he could react she snatched his notebook out of his hands.

Minona,” he snapped as she darted out of his reach, waiting there and bouncing on her toes. He didn’t get up. “Get back here.”

She shook her head. “I wanted to see it,” she said, despite making no effort to look at it. Instead she closed the leather cover and wrapped the strap around it, the better to keep it safe and avoid smudging.

“I’m not going to chase you,” Leonas warned. “I’ve seen you run. It’s not happening. Get over here.”

She shook her head again, tucking the notebook inside her chest wrap underneath her tunic. “What do I get?” she asked. “If I come back.”

“Do I look like I have candy?” he asked. “Where would I have even found any candy.”

Karzarul knelt closer to Leonas’ level, though he did not close the distance between them. A thought had occurred to him, with the look in her eyes, but it was a thought with sharp edges. Verbalizing it felt sharper still. “Do you… want me to get her for you?”

Leonas froze. Minnow looked like a tightly-coiled spring. Leonas met Karzarul’s cautious gaze, and the bright blue of his eyes gave Karzarul a frisson of something like fear.

Like, but not quite.

“Yes,” Leonas decided, looking away. “Try not to hurt my notes.”

Minnow bolted. Karzarul took off after her, but Impyr form wasn’t designed for running. He shifted to a Howler, fast enough to keep up without overtaking her too quickly. She shrieked with glee, dissolving into giggles as she ran through the crumbling ruins. Doors without walls and walls barely there at all, everything of value stripped away and stolen. She bounced her way up a corner on alternating feet, pulling herself up onto what remained of the second floor. He changed forms to fly up after her, landing as a Shadestalker to better handle the narrow platforms.

He found a shortcut as she made her way back down to the first floor. He leapt down onto her back to tackle her to the ground. She shrieked again, a familiar worrying laugh as they tumbled together on the stone. He changed back to Impyr in the confusion, pinning her facedown on the floor.

“Caught you,” he said, his hand on the back of her neck, one knee beside her hip. The other couldn’t risk touching the hilt of her sword, so it pressed into her back. Her giggling had a touch of mania. She squirmed, and he half-growled, half-purred.

“Caught me,” she agreed, sing-song. “What do I get?”

He had ideas. He had a lot of ideas. Mostly they were variations on the same idea, holding her down and fucking her into the ground. Making her beg for more, or mercy, or both. Make her scream his name in the ruins of his castle, where he’d killed her and she’d killed him and now he could ruin her.

“I’m supposed to bring you back,” Karzarul reminded her.

“What if,” she said breathlessly, “there was a delay?”

“No,” Karzarul said. He squeezed the back of her neck a little, and she shivered. “Are you going to behave, or do I have to make you?”

“Oh,” she sighed, “make me, make me.” She giggled. “When you let your guard down, should I try to run, or try to wrestle you?” she asked.


“Did you fight?” Leonas asked incredulously.

“Little bit,” Karzarul said. He’d changed forms and back to fix his clothes. In retrospect that looked worse, considering Minnow’s state of disarray. He pulled her down from where she’d been bent over his shoulder, his arm around her waist so her boots didn’t touch the ground. Her hair was loose and all over, her leggings scraped and her tunic rumpled. He’d stolen the strip of leather from her hair to bind her wrists in front of her. Her face was flush, grinning broadly and barely restraining her delight.

“You look like you had fun,” Leonas said mildly, standing up and brushing dust from his legs. Minnow nodded eagerly. Leonas reached into her shirt to take his notebook back and tapped her on the nose with it. “Bad,” he scolded, and she hummed. “Good,” he said to Karzarul, which made something under Karzarul’s ribs flutter. “Can you…” Leonas hesitated, trying to determine acceptable limits using nothing but passing glances. He knew the way this game went when it was only the two of them, the way she expected it to go based on the way she watched him. It was only the presence of an unknown variable making him hesitate. “Keep holding her for me?” he asked as he stuck his notebook back into his pocket.

“I can do that,” Karzarul said, arm around her waist tightening, pressing her back into his chest. There was nothing to stop her from kicking, but he didn’t think they needed to worry about that. Even holding her was for the principle of the thing.

“You,” Leonas said, and as soon as he touched her Minnow stilled. He cupped her face, thumbs stroking over her cheeks. “You don’t actually need to be quiet, do you? In theory, you could make as much noise as you want. We can do all sorts of noisy things. No time limit.” He dropped his hands to her belt, unbuckled it so that it fell to the ground and brought the Starsword with it.

“Yeah?” she asked, breathless and hopeful.

“No,” he decided, covering her mouth with his left hand. He pressed his forehead to hers, tried not to think about why she matched his height. If he focused on Minnow and pretended nothing was different, he could almost sort of handle it. He had to avoid Karzarul’s arm as he slid his free hand under her tunic, into her leggings, but he didn’t think about it. He rubbed a fingertip hard near her clit without touching it, a trick he’d found that bypassed figuring out how touchy she was feeling. The hood of her clit was enough of a barrier that he could apply hard pressure to it without the risks of direct contact.

The risk being that she might be feeling sensitive that day and accidentally sprain his wrist bucking him off like a fucking horse.

“Same rules as always,” he warned her, as she tilted her hips to try and grind against his fingertips. “Make a sound and I stop.”

She was bad at it, she was always bad at it, already whimpering muffled against his palm as he touched her. He slid his fingers lower, hooked two inside of her and pressed his hand against her. He pushed deeper as she ground against his hand, already soaked and clenching around him as he curled his fingers. He wasn’t trying to time it, but he was timing it, how many minutes and how much noise and did he hear anything on the stairs. If he pretended it was Minnow, just Minnow, his fingers coaxing notes from her throat, he could handle that. It was when she got quiet, was the trick, once she got quiet was when he had to take all the pressure from her clit and give a hard shove of his fingers while letting her mouth go. That was when she’d let out a surprised cry, bite back her frustration when she realized what she’d done.

Except that she didn’t need to, now. “That’s cheating,” she complained, as he pulled his fingers out of her and out of her clothes. “You always cheat.”

“If I’d been fair,” he said, “I would have stopped sooner.” He licked his fingers. He risked a glance at Karzarul. Karzarul’s eyes were on Leonas’ mouth. Leonas felt a frisson of… something. Excitement or trepidation or satisfaction or desire. Not a negative something, only a very large something, electric and dangerous under his skin.

Something about people who could kill him, would kill him and had killed him, treating him as a thing to be wanted on his own merits. Something about obedience for its own sake, wanting and yet waiting.

“She’s all yours,” Leonas said, turning back to the rubble he’d been studying. “Not all,” he corrected. “Above the waist.”

“Oh, not fair,” Minnow complained as Leonas sat back down, idly resting his fingers between his teeth. “Karzarul,” she said, turning big eyes toward him.

“You heard him,” Karzarul said, finally setting her down. “Rules are rules.”

“I changed my mind,” she decided, turning on her heel to face him. “You’re not allowed to get along anymore, you shouldn’t listen to Heirs. It’s wrong, and evil.”

“Uh-huh,” Karzarul said, stroking her cheek with gloved fingers. His thumb touched her lip, and she bit him, points of her teeth pressing into the leather over his first knuckle. He pushed it further into her mouth, pressed down on her tongue until her mouth opened wider. She acquiesced and started to suck. “You like it,” he teased. Minnow hummed.

Behind her back, Leonas was watching them.

Karzarul’s form changed, and Minnow made a sound of surprise as the digit in her mouth grew larger. He was a Tauril, lying on the stone with his hooves curled beneath him, leaning forward to loom over her.

She took her mouth off him, taking a step backward. “We’ve talked about this,” she warned, and he grinned.

“Above the waist,” he reminded her. He pulled her closer again by the strap around her wrists and didn’t miss the look in her eyes when he did it. His lower body tilted, hooves curling off to the side to bring his waist lower. He bent forward enough to brace one hand on the ground, catching her mouth in a kiss while he did so. The force of his descent was enough to push her onto the ground, almost kneeling and then sitting clumsy and crooked.

“You’re big,” she observed.

“You’re cute,” he said, lifting her tunic. He couldn’t remove it entirely without untying her, so he pulled it over her head and behind her back instead, sleeves still on her arms. It protected her skin when he gave her a little push, made her lie on the ground. He tugged her chest wrap down, squeezed one of her breasts and nipped at her neck. She made small, wanting sounds, arching her back and pressing her thighs together.

Karzarul,” she pleaded.

He almost changed forms at the sound of his name on her tongue. “You want me?” he asked.

Yes.”

“Karzarul,” Leonas said. Karzarul stilled, looked up. Leonas was sitting with his legs curled neatly sideways, his chin propped in one hand and his elbow in the other. “You still have your gloves on.” Karzarul looked down at his hands. He hesitated, then pulled the glove off his right hand with his teeth. The black crescent stood out in sharp relief against his skin.

Minnow hummed happily as soon as she felt him touch her, nothing between them. He pulled the glove from his other hand, bunched her tunic up over her bound wrists to pin them above her head one-handed. She started to giggle, louder when the sound made him grin. She wiggled and tried to move her wrists, though not in earnest, playing at being weaker than she was. He tried to growl, but it came out as more of a purr.

“Do you remember,” she asked, “when you roared for me?”

He summoned a roar from the bottom of his chest, lip curled and teeth bared, and she pulled at his grip with an arch of her spine.

“Yeah,” she sighed as he ran his hand over her stomach and along her ribs. “Like that.” She was crisscrossed with faint scars, blades and teeth and burns. She was scraped up from when he’d had to wrestle with her earlier, sore spots where she’d hit the ground. There were fingerprints pressed into one of her arms. He shifted nothing but his claws to make them short enough to touch her safely, polished round nubs at the ends of his fingers.

She’d left an imprint of her teeth in his skin, but it hadn’t lasted. He wondered if that was something he could make a part of himself, if he tried, like his hairstyles or his jewelry. Scars and bruises both held a fascination for him, souvenirs of healed trauma and recent pain. He only had what he chose to keep. Nothing he could point to and say, this is what you did to me, nothing he could touch to make pain echo and prove that he’d been hit. What would it mean, to leave the shape of her teeth in his skin? How would it be different, if he could pretend he hadn’t wanted it there?

“If you stay in that form,” Leonas said, “she’s all yours.” He was sitting with his legs pulled up to his chest, his arms crossed over his knees. He didn’t bother pretending to be casual, or doing anything but watching. He still looked as if he might take notes.

The idea that he ought to be putting on a show gave Karzarul pause. He had not thought himself given to performance anxiety. Turning his attention back to Minnow helped, seeing a different kind of anxiety betrayed in the softness of her face.

“As I recall,” Karzarul pointed out, “looking like this didn’t stop you from wanting me.”

“I know,” she said shakily as he let her hands go to pull off her boots. She took a deep breath. “It’s only, it’s feeling more real, if you’re going to touch me like that.” She was getting tense again, like she might pounce as soon as he let her go.

“Good or bad?” he asked.

“I—I have this thing, I get mixed up, I—looking like this and touching like that, I—pin me?” Her tenor had grown increasingly frantic, breathing irregular, and Karzarul wasn’t sure what to make of it. He thought of the first time, when she hadn’t wanted to look at him.

Not until he’d beat her, fair and square.

He covered Minnow’s mouth in such a way that she could bite him, a human little growl as he splayed the fingers of his other hand over her stomach and pressed her down. Her bound hands clawed at the forearm of the hand holding her face, more forceful than her usual play struggles but still not with her full strength. He roared, and once again the effect was instantaneous, bracing herself with a fierce grip on his arm before relaxing. Some kind of relief, breaking whatever tension had been buzzing in her blood.

“I win,” he said, and she hummed, running her tongue over the indentations she’d left in his skin. He uncovered her mouth, held her down by her neck and moved his other hand lower. He pulled off her leggings, and she wiggled her hips to help him.

“Sorry,” she sighed, in a dreamy way that didn’t sound sorry at all. “My brain knows I don’t need to fight you,” she said. “It’s less confusing if it feels like I already lost. Is that bad?”

“I have,” he said, sliding his middle finger inside of her, “mixed feelings.” She clenched around him, arching her back. “Do you fight him?” he asked, though he knew he shouldn’t compare, though he was sitting right there even now and listening to them both.

“She likes,” Leonas said quietly, “when I treat her like a prisoner.”

Oh,” Minnow gasped, Karzarul’s finger curling inside her, thumb stroking her clit. “Do I really?”

“Mm,” Leonas said rather than clarify at all.

That shouldn’t have made him feel better. It did, a little.

“Don’t let her finish yet,” Leonas added.

“No!” Minnow protested, clamping her thighs shut to hold Karzarul’s hand where it was. “Don’t listen to him, you should fuck me actually.”

Karzarul laughed. “Are you trying to break my wrist?” he asked. She started to shake her head, then stopped.

“Am I in trouble if I am?” she asked, and he grinned. He stopped moving his fingers, and she made a sound of protest, rocking her hips against his hand.

“It’s cute,” he said, “the way you squirm when you’re desperate.” She huffed with indignance, and he thought she might try to kick him. He let her neck go to rest his hand on one of her knees. “I’d eat you out,” he said, “but you might try to rip my horns off.”

She stopped gripping his arm with her legs immediately. “It’s safe!” she assured him hastily, as though it were a real concern. She held up her bound wrists to demonstrate, her tunic falling down to her elbows. “See?” She brought her hands back down to hold her face, chin in her palms and fingers on her cheeks. “I’m helpless,” she said, unconvincingly.

“Nothing about that is stopping you from grabbing me,” he pointed out.

“Helpless,” she repeated pointedly, narrowing her eyes.

“You’re not—”

Helpless,” she interrupted, louder.

Karzarul’s nose twitched, ears flicking as he fought a smile. She stared at him with uncalled-for intensity, as if daring him to say something. “That’s—”

Help. Less.

He turned his head away, used the hand not between her legs to cover his face as he started to giggle.

Helplesssss,” she hissed, and he had to pull away from her completely as he giggled in earnest, tipping sideways so that his horns touched the ground, still covering his face. It took him a minute to recover. When he moved back towards Minnow, she was looking extremely pleased with herself. Karzarul glanced at Leonas.

He wasn’t sure what Leonas’ expression was, but it definitely wasn’t ‘aroused’. Or amused, for that matter. Karzarul cleared his throat, ears flicking again. “Sorry,” he said, turning his attention back to Minnow. “I’m taking this very seriously,” he told her, in as stern a tone as he could manage. She nodded eagerly. “You’re—where were we?”

“You were about to eat me out,” she said, “because I’m—”

“Don’t say it,” he warned, covering her mouth again. He felt her grin against his skin. “You were about to convince me to eat you out,” he corrected, “by asking nicely and promising not to snap my fucking neck with your thighs.” He took his hand away so she could speak. She hesitated, licking her lips. “Let me hear you tell me you want me,” he coaxed.

She bit her lower lip, opened her mouth and shut it again. She curled her fingers to suggest he come closer, something shy in her eyes. He bent lower, and she craned her neck to be closer to his ear. He heard her breath catch, her shaky exhale.

Helpless.

He dropped his forehead to her collarbones, the curve of his horns pressing into her shoulders as his own shoulders shook. She’d already dissolved into triumphant giggles, his own muffled by the skin of her stomach. “You’re trying to kill me,” he accused, and she laughed outright. “I am—doing a great job of not letting you finish, you have to give me that.” She snickered with a happy wiggle of her hips. “I’m shoving something in your mouth next time,” he said.

“Promise?” she asked, arching her back as he licked one of her nipples. He kissed his way down her body, held her knees apart and kissed the inside of her thigh. “You’re big,” she said again, more intensely this time.

“Mm-hmm,” he hummed, moving a hand underneath her to hold her hips up. He slid his tongue inside of her, and she groaned, clenching around him. His mouth was large enough that he found it safest to open it wide, his fangs touching fur and less sensitive skin, his tongue long enough to press her clit and curl inside her at the same time. He watched her while he did it, basked in the taste of her and the look of awestruck arousal on her face as she watched him back. He purred, vibrating through his tongue, and she tossed her head back with a cry. Her heels dug into his shoulders. He withdrew his tongue, turned his head to press his fangs into her inner thigh.

Don’t stop,” she protested, even though he already had. “Karzarul, please.” He purred again, not that it did her any good with his mouth on her leg.

“You going to be good for me?” Karzarul asked.

“Uh-huh,” she said, nodding.

“You want to be bad for me?”

Yeah.”

That,” Karzarul said with satisfaction, “is what a helpless Hero sounds like.”

“I want,” Leonas said evenly, “to see her face when you fuck her. Would you do that for me?”

Karzarul’s eyes met Leonas’ as he ran his tongue long and slow between Minnow’s legs. He shifted while he did it, until he was an Impyr circling her clit with the tip of his tongue. He hadn’t bothered making himself clothes. Leonas’ expression might have looked detached, except that his witchmarks were blazing.

“You have a really nice mouth,” Minnow sighed. The flex of her legs made clear her desire to wrap them around his neck. He appreciated the self-control. He moved to turn her over, and she accommodated by rolling, letting him move her legs as needed. She propped herself up on her forearms, clasping her hands together. Her legs had to spread far to straddle Karzarul’s thighs, but there wasn’t any way around that. Her legs were too damn short compared to his to be able to rest her knees on the ground.

He couldn’t help admiring the way his fingers sank into her flesh, made divots in the softness of her as he spread her apart. He liked to see it, the way his tentacles held her lips open and his cock pressed against her. Her all soft and pink and swollen, watching himself push inside of her felt like it shouldn’t have been allowed. Too much, too hard, too bright. An unnatural thing, a violation. They didn’t fit together the way human bodies fit, didn’t belong together like puzzle pieces. The wrong color and the wrong shape and she let him do it anyway, spread her open and stretch her full.

She whimpered as he thrust slow, watched her body struggle to take more of him. Finally he leaned forward, holding her by the hips to thrust in earnest. “Say my name.”

Karzarul.

“You like being full of monster cock?” Two tentacles rubbed at her clit as he rocked in and out of her.

“Yes, yes, you’re so good it’s so good I want it, I want, I’m—” She clenched down on him with a shuddering groan.

He wanted to gloat, make her say he fucked her best, claim her as his own. Make her say it out loud, that she was his, that he could have her and keep her because no one else would do. Under the circumstances, it didn’t feel right. He felt a vague frustrated confusion, which he expressed by bending down and growling in her ear. She shuddered, and he flexed his fingertips to draw out his claws, pressed sharp points against her skin. He kept his right hand on her hip, used his left to hold her neck underneath her chin and keep her face pointed forward.

“Is this what you wanted?” he asked in her ear, though he was looking at Leonas. Still sitting there, still watching, unmoving.

Yes,” she gasped, arching her spine and pushing back against him. “Hard, harder.” He slowed the motion of his hips instead, and she made a keening sound of dismay. It changed to surprise when a slick tentacle pressed against her ass. “Yes!” Her vehemence made him lose control of his tentacles, all writhing over her clit and spreading her open and pushing inside of her. She pulled at the strap on her wrists and clawed at the stone with a low grunt as he started to move again. Only her rumpled tunic kept her from scraping the skin off her arms, her body rocking with every thrust. “Fill me, fuck me, I’m your good bad little Hero—”

She was cut off with a choked cry as he started pounding into her, cock driving deeper into her cunt with a tentacle sliding in and out of her ass. He growled right in her ear, and she pushed back harder. He let it grow to a small roar, and even that was enough to make her body buck beneath him with strangled guttural sounds. She nearly collapsed as her limbs went shaky, no longer had the strength to provide resistance. He was careful to let her head down gently so that she could rest it on her hands, pressing her fingers against her mouth even though dizzy groans kept escaping her throat. Her front half was practically lying on the ground, but he used his hands on her hips to pull her back onto him at the same time as he thrust.

“Karzarul,” she sighed, her voice all sing-song and dreamy again. “You’re wonderful, you’re so pretty and you fuck me so good and you’re mine.” His breath caught, gripping her tight and burying himself inside her with a shudder. She laughed, delighted. “Mine mine mine mine mine,” she chanted. His tentacles writhed and his cock twitched, and he buried his face in her hair, purring loud. She reached up behind herself to pat his hair. He wasn’t sure when she’d snapped the leather around her wrists.

“Leonas,” Minnow asked, “you didn’t want to play?”

“No,” he said. Leonas had not let his legs drop, had continued to sit curled up and watching.

“Are you sure?” she asked. She stuck her tongue out at him, as much an offer as a taunt.

“I’m sure.”

“Was it good?” she asked with a pout.

“You did good,” he said, and she beamed. “I am… enjoying having me to myself. If that makes sense.” Karzarul didn’t understand what that meant, but Minnow nodded.

“I should get up,” Minnow sighed, wiggling her way off Karzarul’s lap. He shifted to standing, fully dressed, offering her a gloved hand. She accepted it, wearing nothing but the thin band of a bunched-up chest wrap underneath her breasts. She didn’t bother fixing it. She looked a little like she’d gone rolling sideways down the entire mountainside. “I’m gonna go find a bush outside to pee in,” she announced, combing her fingers through her hair and heading straight for the biggest hole in the wall.

Karzarul knelt to pick up her much-abused tunic, wrinkled and stretched out and now slightly torn. “I don’t suppose you can fix this,” he said, standing.

“Possibly,” Leonas said, pulling himself upright. Karzarul couldn’t help a glance at his trousers. He didn’t know if he was disappointed, or why. Leonas examined the fabric without taking it from Karzarul. Little threads of light started to spread throughout it, Leonas’ eyes glowing. Karzarul tried to decide if he found it horrifying.

“You care for her very much,” Karzarul ventured.

“She is the only reason I never jumped out a window,” Leonas said flatly. “Anything else is a lie I told myself.”

“Oh.” It felt obvious that he’d let her have whatever he thought she wanted, if that was the way of things. Giving grudging approval from a safe distance.

Leonas let the spell end, then looked up at Karzarul. The blue of his eyes hadn’t stopped being startling. They were both still holding the tunic between them. “I find you obnoxiously attractive,” Leonas said. Karzarul swallowed. “I thought that if I told you that I wanted to see what you looked like fucking her, it would make you self-conscious. So I lied.”

Karzarul froze, and tried to remember what he had been doing with his face. He had a worrying feeling that he’d been making a lot of silly faces.

“I liked it,” Leonas added. “I like the way you look at her.”

Karzarul felt lightheaded, eyes drifting to Leonas’ mouth.

Leonas moved even closer, reached up to brush his fingertips along Karzarul’s jaw. Rising up onto his toes, his fingers curled around the back of Karzarul’s neck, pulled him downward until their mouths could meet. Not much, and not for long. A brief, soft press of Leonas’ lips against his.

“I’m going to remember to have some dignity, in a minute,” Leonas said, barely enough space for words between their faces. “Some self-preservation instincts. I only wanted to make it clear, before then, that I… I don’t know if you meant it as an invitation. But I’m taking it. If you’ll let me.”

Leonas kissed him one more time, only a little harder before he pulled away. Karzarul didn’t stop him.

Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Four

“What the fuck was that about?” Fynn snapped.

Karzarul took the shape of an Impyr sitting in the grass, yawned even though he was dreaming. “Are you here again?” he asked.

Fynn ran his fingers through his hair. “We can’t be taking detours every time you see soldiers doing something you don’t like,” he said. “If we don’t catch Orynn in time it’ll be a lot worse than some collateral damage.”

“If it bothered you so much,” Karzarul sneered, “you should have said something.”

Fynn fumed. “Real fucking funny,” he said.

“You can still make sounds,” Karzarul shrugged. “Figure it out.”

“I never should have asked for your help,” Fynn said, starting to pace.

“You going to kill him yourself?” Karzarul asked, shifting to standing instead of moving to rise. “It wouldn’t be the first time.”

Fynn ruffled his own hair with both hands. “You know I can’t do that,” he muttered.

Karzarul had been trying to avoid them this time around. For the most part. He’d tried watching from a distance, for a while, but it had made it too tempting to say hello. To see if things could be different, if they remembered him, remembered anything but fear. Wondering if they could make a space for him wasn’t sustainable. Easier to stay away and hope they’d do the same.

He knew better than to invite himself.

It had worked out well enough for the thirty years or so since they’d recovered their weapons. Fynn left his sect to let it wither, let Orynn sweep him off his feet. Then Orynn got his head scrambled. It wasn’t clear if it was the Starsword singing to him, glimpses of memories, or another thing entirely. Locking himself away and lashing out and finally attacking Fynn. Convinced he was a trickster, a traitor, trying to turn his head with sweet words.

Karzarul wouldn’t argue with the general sentiment. But it felt unfair to Orynn, to let him be this way.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Fynn said, still pacing.

“Yes, you’re very special,” Karzarul dismissed. “Do you have anything important to say, or is it only that you missed hearing yourself talk?”

“Sun above but you’re the fucking worst,” Fynn said. Karzarul grinned. “I don’t know why I’m surprised, I didn’t seek you out for your personality.”

“At least I have my looks,” Karzarul said.

Fynn looked like he might have thrown something, if he had anything to throw. “You kill Heroes,” he snarled. “Try to focus on that.”

“My track record with Heirs isn’t bad, either,” Karzarul growled.

Fynn stopped to laugh bitterly. “Try me,” he said, spreading his arms. “What could you possibly do to me that’s worse than what’s already been done?”

“I’m sure I could think of something,” Karzarul said, deliberately looming.

“Oh, please,” Fynn shot back, head tilted back to meet his eyes. “I can already tell you wouldn’t have the stomach for it.”

Karzarul caught him by the throat.

“Try harder,” Fynn said. “I’ve had boyfriends choke me harder than that.”

Karzarul let him go, recoiling. “What? Why?”

Fynn raised an eyebrow.

“Did you—oh! Oh. You meant that you—okay.” Karzarul rubbed at the moon on the back of his hand.

“Are we done with the posturing,” Fynn asked, “or did you want to try again?”

Karzarul looked him over, taken aback. “Did you want me to?” he asked, confused.

“What? No. Don’t touch me.”

Karzarul poked Fynn in the shoulder before he could stop him.

“Fuck’s sake,” Fynn said, rubbing his temple. “Trying to save my husband from himself and all I’ve got with me is the world’s oldest brat.”

“Am not.”

“He’d better appreciate this when he gets back.”

“He’s not,” Karzarul said. “Coming back.”

“He dies, he gets reborn,” Fynn said. “That’s how it works.”

“His soul comes back,” Karzarul said. “He doesn’t. Being born at all doesn’t happen until most of us are dead. You won’t get to see whatever he comes back as. Not the way you are now. You’ll be new, same as him.”

Fynn raked his hand through his hair. “But you stay the same,” he said. “Same person, same memories. Even if you die.”

“I’m me,” Karzarul shrugged. “Always.”


Fynn was an important object lesson in not implying that murdering him would bring someone’s husband back from the dead. Pointless, when the man had wasted away anyway, food an ordeal that choked him and tasted of nothing.

These new ones hadn’t given him much time to recover, all smitten with each other and determined to kill him. The ones in a rush to kill him were the worst. Old enough to be dangerous, young enough to make him feel bad about it. Odd now, to think of Vaelon and Lynette so young, setting out for the Faewild ready to die. Karzarul hadn’t realized yet how young that was, for a human. How bizarre, to bind their souls to things so vast after only a quarter-century. It seemed too young, to live like that forever. It seemed too young to die.

His sympathy was dampened by the unrepentant killing of the monsters on the mountain below. Karzarul braced his hands against the parapet, maintaining Tauril form even as he watched from within and without the deaths of Bullizards and Brutelings. He always told them to stay out of the way, but they’d stopped listening since Needle.

“Elm,” Saina called from behind the Sunshield, casting her barrier wider around them. “You’re falling into his trap!”

Sid leaned closer to Karzarul. “Did we set a trap?” he asked.

“No,” Karzarul said. They’d only half rebuilt the Monster Kingdom after last time. He would have thought not having a ropeway would have made it harder to loot. That was the whole reason he’d picked this mountain, that no one else seemed to want it. It turned out that the calculus changed when it was someone’s.

“Every time you kill one,” Saina said, “he gets stronger.” Elm stabbed a Howler, and a comet of moonlight shot into Karzarul, blissfully unaccompanied by memory. “See?” she said.

Karzarul narrowed his eyes.

I see you have discovered my secret,” he announced, projecting his voice further than strictly necessary.

Sid slowly turned towards him, raising a single eyebrow. Karzarul tried to ignore him, then finally shrugged. “If it works, it works,” he said. “Look, they’re heading straight up here now.”

“Great,” Sid sighed. He gave his spear a twirl as he stepped back from the parapet. “I’ll go poke some holes in them for you.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Karzarul said.

Sid shrugged. “Either I come back in a few weeks or I don’t,” he said. “They’re going to try to kill you, you know.”

“I know.”

“Do or die, now or never. Giving them chances will only make you feel worse.”

“I know.”

“Fight back like you mean it.”

He dreamt of desert nights, cold and clear.


“You should leave it down here,” Cori signed. “Let us have the next one who comes down to retrieve it.” The copper of the Sunshield glinted on the ocean floor, the sunstone at its center dim. Karzarul had already buried the man who’d carried it, weighed down his corpse with rocks.

“Maybe,” Karzarul signed as Cori wrapped his arms around Karzarul’s shoulders from behind. He wound his tail around Karzarul’s, nuzzling at his shoulder.

“Captain Skyla is doing a rum run soon,” Cori signed, holding his hands out far enough that Karzarul could see them in front of him. “You know you’re her favorite.”

Karzarul batted his hands away, glowing faintly. It was always tempting. Hard to tell where his own temptation started and the other Abysscales ended. They were all lust and violence, skin and scales. He knew most of it had to be them. Drink didn’t carry the same appeal when he couldn’t get drunk, not the way other monsters could. But their wanting made him want, and they always picked up on it.

Merri drifted nearer, tugged at Karzarul’s hair until Karzarul turned his head to kiss him.

There were times when he wanted to stay here. There wasn’t any reason he couldn’t stay here. Only that it all became too much, eventually. Whatever joy he could wring out of himself would run out, needing more to feel less until the thought of being touched repulsed him. Until he couldn’t bear to be looked at, felt a fool for thinking it could ever be enough.

It was Skyla who noticed the ship trying to overtake them, cannons at ready. The flag bore an eight-pointed star.

Karzarul crossed the distance a Misthawk, landed on two hooves. He didn’t like to take this form around just anyone, but, well. Either the Hero would be here, or Karzarul would sink the ship. Negotiations with random ships were beyond his current patience.

Except that the Starsword was on the hip of someone tall and broad-shouldered and large-chested, red curls down to her knees and freckles over her sternum.

“Oh!” Karzarul’s mind went suddenly and terribly blank. “Hello.”

Slowly, she descended the stairs to the main deck, her eyes narrowed. “What,” she said, “are you.”

“You’re the. The Starlight Hero? Now?” Karzarul had not prepared for this eventuality, though he should have realized it would happen. Her hips were doing a lot of things, going down stairs, that he wasn’t used to seeing in a Hero. A lot of her was doing a lot of things. There was a lot of her, was the thing.

“Maiete,” she said, still watching him, hand on the hilt of her sword.

“Right,” Karzarul said. Her shirt was tucked into her trousers instead of buttoned shut, and he kept getting distracted by her navel. Standing there was beginning to feel awkward. In an attempt to seem nonthreatening, he leaned against the nearby mast with his elbow, propping his head against his hand. “Hey.”

She looked, if anything, more suspicious.

“Are you the Monster King?” she asked, incredulous, looking him over.

“Depends on who’s asking.”

“… I am.”

“… right.”

“You’re Karzarul,” she said, not a question this time. “Why are you here?”

He stood straighter, brushing off his elbow with a shrug. “Maybe I wanted to say h—” She rolled her shoulders back, hands on her hips. “—hhhh. Hi.” He averted his gaze to the horizon, clearing his throat as if that was what had happened to the pitch of his voice. “Hello,” he said, overcorrecting and pitching his voice too low. He cleared his throat again.

“You’re here to say hello?” she asked.

“I don’t see why not.”

“What kind of ploy is this?”

“Must it be one?” he asked. He gave his braid a toss so that his bells would ring. “I’m not so terrible as my reputation would have you believe. I’m quite reasonable, in fact.” He fluttered his eyelashes a touch more than was coy, regretting it immediately.

“Is that so,” she said, cocking her head. “Are you trying to tell me you didn’t kill Taeryn?”

Karzarul paused and thought about the Sunshield half-buried in the sand. “I’ve never heard that name,” he said, which was not a lie.

“He was out killing sea-beasts,” she said, “and never returned.”

“Perhaps,” Karzarul suggested, “he should not have been.”

“They’re bad for business,” she said.

“Some consider them lucky,” he said.

“I’ll consider them lucky,” she said, “if you can bring me my husband back before I’ve killed every last one of the ugly bastards.”

Karzarul rubbed at the base of his horns. “You could have just. Lied. Instead of… you couldn’t even play along for—fine! Fine. Die, then, for all I care. Join your shitty husband. I killed your husband, by the way. You’re welcome.”

He rose from the deck before her sword could strike, and a Drakonis’ roar filled the air.


The Monster Kingdom was destroyed, again, after Zeno and Elruil killed him. Looted and left in rubble, again.


“Girls, it’s time to go,” Brissa said as she entered the den.

“Shhh!” said her youngest daughter. “It’s the best part.”

“You’ve heard this story a thousand times,” Brissa reminded her. Nonetheless, she knelt with the children to listen. Nene had gotten very good at telling it over the last two hundred years or so. They and Arynna had only adopted two children, but over the generations those children had multiplied into a whole passel of them to crowd into the floor of their den. The idea of Nene and Grandy as having ever been young felt as legendary as anything else when they’d been old longer than some countries existed.

“I didn’t waste my time,” Nene said, “fighting any of those other monsters. Remember, I was trying to get this over and done with quick as I could so I could marry my girl.”

Arynna patted their hand, skin wrinkled and paper-thin. Nene’s pale hand grabbed Arynna’s dark one, brought it higher to kiss her knobbly knuckles before letting her go to gesture again.

“With Arynna’s enchantments, I didn’t have to unlock any Rainbow Doors. She stacked so many on that glider I’m still surprised it didn’t explode. You’re not supposed to be able to use that many, but she found a way to stack them special. I got launched so high in the air, all I had to do was try to hit the top of Monster Mountain without breaking my ankles.”

“Are monsters scary?” asked one little boy. None of the children had ever seen one, when the Monster Kingdom had fallen so long ago.

“Very scary,” Nene said, holding their fingers up to their mouth like fangs. “And King Karzarul was the biggest, meanest, scariest monster of them all. A giant, with hooves and horns and fire breath. Five heads, each one uglier than the last!”

He only had the one head, and they hadn’t actually seen any fire breath, but it made the story better.

“When I saw him standing there, I aimed myself right at him, sword-first. I thought for sure it would never work. But he must not have planned for an attack from above, because the Starsword went right through him. He roared so loud he shook the mountain, and in his great and terrible voice, he said: what manner of Hero are you?”

He hadn’t actually roared. What he’d actually said was: what the fuck? But that wasn’t good storytelling.

“And I told him: I’m the Hero that killed you fastest of all.” They struck a pose. “You can call me Needle.” They’d named themselves after the Hero of legend, for luck. “With a final mighty roar, all the monsters vanished.”

The monsters hadn’t vanished on their own, but that part had been tedious. And they always left out the part where Karzarul had made a face, his brow furrowing and his mouth twisting, and he’d said: again?

That part didn’t make for a good ending.


Karzarul crouched, resting his chin in his hands. “Any last words?”

“This is a farce,” Malgath spat.

The Brutelings had put together an impressive guillotine on short notice. Karzarul did not think Malgath was adequately impressed by the guillotine. He didn’t have to like it to admit it was impressive.

“You could have used that opportunity to say something interesting,” Karzarul said, “for posterity.” He stood. “For the crimes of murder, attempted murder, attempted murder, torture, murder, desecration of a corpse—”

“That wasn’t me,” Malgath said.

Karzarul had taken the Sunshield away from him, as well as the sword he used as his magical instrument. The Brutelings had bound him up in sharp wire, an attentive audience as well as a jury. Karzarul thought he was controlling himself well, considering the state of bloodthirst all around him. They’d as happily rip out Malgath’s throat with their teeth, but they wanted to see how the guillotine worked. One Bruteling had already gotten worked up enough to kill another one.

They did that sometimes over trivial annoyances. Knowing they’d be back after the next full moon meant they considered it a form of time-out.

“Vivisection, then,” Karzarul decided. “That’s the word for it, isn’t it, when you cut out a man’s beating heart?”

“I put it back,” Malgath sputtered.

“Cutting off his fingers, cutting off his arms.”

“It was an experiment,” Malgath said. “Kelruil agreed to it, he agreed to all of it, he wanted answers as much as I did.”

“Did he?” Karzarul asked. “Did you tell him it was important? Did you make it feel right, carving him into pieces?”

“He’s fine,” Malgath said. “I would have put him back together even if the sacred spring hadn’t, he was never in any danger.”

“Is this what your love looks like?” Karzarul asked, crouching again. “That you need to see the bones of him, shine a light on every dark place inside of him rather than trust that it’s there?”

“I didn’t like doing it,” Malgath said. “He’s the only one who could. Enchanters will learn to make miracles with our work. No one else could do what we’ve done.”

“Who asked you to do it?” Karzarul demanded. “Only because you could? Does the fact that he could bear it constitute an obligation? You love the way a fire loves a forest. You tell me all the wonders that will grow because of you, while I stand here in the ashes.”

“Who are you,” Malgath said, “to stand in judgement of me? Do you think you’ll find him grateful that you’ve saved him from himself? He’s mine, forever and always. He’ll kill you for this, and the world will be no better for the loss of us.”

“Let him kill me,” Karzarul said. “If it means he lives a long and happy life, there is no better world.”

“Kill me, then,” Malgath said. “Cut my head off and get it over with. You could have killed me from the start, what was the point of this? Does it make you feel better to pretend that this is justice?”

Karzarul stood, threw his hands out with a twirl to gesture to the monsters and the ruins all around them. “The point is that I’m bored,” he suggested. “I am tired of this, I am tired of you. The absolute unmitigated horseshit of you. I am tired of letting him love you when this is what you do with it. I am tired of letting you have him. I am going to take everything you’ve ever accused me of. No more empires, no more kingdoms, no more legacies.”

He gestured to the Brutelings, who took their cue with gusto.

“No more head.”


Folwyth had known from the start the battle would be difficult. After the white wolf had killed Tanyth, he’d made it his mission to kill the Monster King. He’d traveled far and wide, learned every trick, made himself a weapon. He’d killed more men than monsters, but men weren’t easier to kill.

It was still harder than he could have dreamed. The Howler first, that great white wolf that had killed the greatest hunter in all of Yurith. Then it had changed, taken the form of a Tauril, massive and with a bow to match. Folwyth had managed to dodge the arrows, the axe that came down when he moved too close, had managed to strike if not ever at the core of him. He’d even managed to avoid the occasional fall of a lantern, iron bowls full of oil that burned to light the barren mountainside.

Then Karzarul had taken the form of a Drakonis, luring Folwyth higher up the mountain. Great gnashing teeth and fire breath, eyes that watched his every move. But if he timed it right, Folwyth could send out starbursts to explode in those many eyes and blind him. It gave him enough time to build up enough energy for a supernova, though it took a lot out of him to even try.

It seemed like it might be enough, as the moon-white Drakonis started to fall out of the sky. But then its shape turned to light, the way it had before.

“Another one?” Folwyth asked breathlessly despite himself.

What could be worse than a Drakonis?

Karzarul landed with two hooves on a high ledge, a toss of his braid and a swish to his tail. He stretched his hands above his head with an arch to his back, stroking his horns as he worked out the kinks in his limbs. The crescent of his crown sat in front of them, the shape of his skirt baring the thick muscle of his thighs. “Well,” he said with a ringing twitch of his hip, “I’m willing to concede that I’ve had worse.”

“… what.”

“If you were clever,” Karzarul said, summoning the Moonbow into one hand and twirling an arrow into the other, “this would be the part where you’d surrender.” He licked the tip of his arrow, nocked it with a wink.

What.

Folwyth almost didn’t dodge out of the way in time, the arrow embedding itself into the stone where he’d been standing. Pure concentrated power, they drove a hole straight through whatever they hit.

Whatever else he’d been prepared for, this hadn’t been it. He’d thought Drakonis would be the worst of it. No one had mentioned the King of All Monsters looking like that. The way he laughed when Folwyth stumbled, the way he chimed as he moved. The tinkling of bells echoing on the hard cliffs of the mountain. Folwyth tried to throw more starbursts, but Karzarul twirled away from them with a roll of his pelvis that felt… deeply unnecessary.

Folwyth tried to focus on getting closer, and not on what he was getting closer to. He needed to drive the Starsword straight through his heart if he wanted to end this.

“You just can’t stay away from me, can you?” Karzarul asked.

The tone also felt unnecessary.

Karzarul sighed, the Moonbow disappearing from his hand. “I never could say no to a pretty face,” he said, taking one impossibly great leap to land on the farther side of the flat area where Folwyth had been standing. Folwyth had to spin around to follow his descent, no more than fifty feet of level ground between them. Karzarul pulled his tunic off with a long arc of his arm, briefly not visible as he tossed the garment aside.

“That wasn’t necessary,” Folwyth muttered. The exertion of the fight was getting to him, making his face feel hot.

Karzarul rolled his shoulders, cracked his neck. A chain appeared around his left forearm, and with his right he twirled the heavy end of a meteor hammer. “Swords are a bit intimate,” he said, “don’t you think?” With that, the hammer flew toward Folwyth.

It wasn’t only the matter of the hammer, of the chain. It was the way Karzarul kept moving like the bells he wore were an instrument, and it was all Folwyth could do to time the music and determine when the strikes would come. It was the way Karzarul would spin his entire body along with the twirling hammer, dodging a low supernova with a cartwheel. If Folwyth tried to aim higher, he’d fall to the ground, legs out to either side of him, letting the chain wrap around his neck before dropping his head to let the hammer strike out.

As Folwyth tried to figure out a plan of attack—any plan—he tried to parry the hammer instead of dodging it. The chain caught around the blade of the Starsword, but Folwyth held tight to the hilt, and as a consequence Karzarul yanked him closer along with it. Folwyth found himself face-to-face with the Monster King, silver eyes looking straight down into his, a hoof between his boots.

“You never take me dancing anymore,” Karzarul sighed.

In a panic Folwyth tried to unwind the chain from his sword, spinning his entire body with it. Karzarul did the same, parallel motions until they’d untangled themselves. Before Folwyth could take advantage of the closer quarters, Karzarul used his elbow to control the spin of the hammer, sent it knocking into a lantern. When it rebounded, spinning in confounding configurations around Karzarul, it was covered in burning oil.

“It’s on fire now?” Folwyth complained, barely audible over his own ragged breathing.

“You can try again, you know,” Karzarul said, the blazing hammer still spinning. “I won’t stop you if you want to leave. Run away, pretty Hero, and fight me again some other day.”

He wanted to run. He wanted to stop. “I am no coward,” he spat.

“You’ll die a very brave death,” Karzarul said, and Folwyth only narrowly dodged a great burning sweep of the hammer at the level of his head.

Folwyth tried to move closer, tried to spin and weave so that he could move in the direction he wanted without getting hit. “I am no fool,” he said, “to trust the kindness of the King of All Monsters.”

Karzarul laughed. “You think that would be kindness?” he asked. The flame went out on the hammer, a sudden turn and a flick of his arm to send the chain wrapping around Folwyth’s wrists so that the weight would drag them down. Karzarul stepped on the other end of the chain, the Moonbow in his hand all at once, arrow nocked and drawn at the level of Folwyth’s chest.

“Kindness,” Karzarul said, “would be letting you surrender.” He tilted his head, looking down at the Hero who couldn’t hold his sword. “I’d even let you stay the night,” he said with a wry smile. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” he said, “to get a good night’s sleep?”

It shouldn’t have been tempting. It wasn’t tempting. Not to stop, not to rest, not to breathe. Not to lose, not to be done, not to give up. Not those eyes, not that smile. Not the sound of him or the way he moved, not the unspoken promise of him.

“You killed Tanyth,” Folwyth said.

“I did,” Karzarul agreed.

“One of us has to die,” Folwyth said.

“We don’t,” Karzarul said.

“I can’t live with that,” Folwyth said.

“You could learn,” Karzarul said.

“My dreams,” Folwyth said, “are haunted. I would rather die than bear it.”

Karzarul sighed. “Maybe next time.”


“Laurela,” Karzarul said, brushing willow branches out of his way. “It’s dinner time, come on.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” she said, which she had probably been saying since he’d first tried to call her in using her bell pendant. She was curled up in the spot where the trunks split, nearly upside-down with her book against her knee. There was a leaf in one of her ruddy-blonde braids, and the Starsword was cutting into the bark of the tree. She liked to keep the sword strapped to the stump of her left leg now that she was tall enough, the blade exposed, leather armor covering the hilt. She never wanted to wear anything but short pants and long tunics. The willow branches were dense enough to give the illusion of privacy, a curtain between her and the world.

“Yes,” he agreed, taking the book away from her and tucking a silver piece of moonlight between the pages. She protested, wiggling to try and threaten him with her sword leg. “In a minute. Not ten minutes, not when the book is done. It’s time for dinner.” He tucked it into the saddlebag on his lower right shoulder.

“When I’m the Monster Queen,” she said, “I’m going to make it monster law that dinner is whenever I say it is.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, picking her up by her arms to haul her out of the tree. She kicked her legs in front of her in an obnoxious flail that was not enough to endanger him. “Put your leg away,” he added. With a huff she pulled the flattened sheath off her back, strapping it onto the Starsword.

She’d been saying she was going to marry him for ten years now, since the first time she’d made a Tauril bring her home, six years old with her leg hacked off. She’d lost it to Gwenviel along with her parents, though she hadn’t seemed as upset by that as she had by Karzarul’s refusal to treat her as an authority figure.

Karzarul set her down on his back, and she sat with her back against his. She balanced with one bare foot pressed against him and her sheathed sword sticking straight out. He headed back down the gentle slope of the hill, hooves crushing wildflowers. Yellows and pinks and blues dotted the grass in all directions, wild horses grazing in the distance. Vaelon had found the spot when the willow tree was small and left a Door to come back when it was bigger. “I remembered more,” she said.

“Yeah?” he said. He didn’t get his hopes up. She remembered a lot of things. Only some of the memories were hers. She’d been given the Starsword when she was practically a newborn, no sense of distinct personhood yet. Her mind had grown around it in strange ways. Sometimes she seemed old for her age. Most of the time she did not.

“I remember a place,” she said, “called the Rusty Spoon.”

Karzarul swallowed a lump in his throat, but didn’t stop walking. “You liked the beer,” he said, “and playing irritating songs.”

“I knew that was a real one,” she said, triumphant. “The songs must be why he stabbed me.”

“What?”

“The man with the red feather in his cap.”

Karzarul sighed. “That never happened,” he said. “Pretty sure that’s an unrelated murder.”

“Really?”

“I would remember if you’d been stabbed by an angry fop,” he said.

“Shoot,” Laurela said. “Who got stabbed, then?”

“I don’t know,” Karzarul said. “Lots of people get stabbed.”

“We should look into it,” she said. “Check records and things. Make sure they caught the guy.”

“Solve mysteries later,” Karzarul said. “Safi says you’ve been skipping self-defense classes.”

“I don’t need self-defense,” she insisted, wiggling her sheathed leg in the air. “I can do the sparky thing, and the boomy thing. If Gwenviel shows up I’ll kick her in the head.”

“That won’t help if you lose your sword,” Karzarul said.

“I’m not gonna lose my sword,” she said. “Besides. I’ve got you to keep me safe.”

“You can’t count on that.”

“I can always count on you,” she said. She noticed the leaf in her hair and tossed it aside. “Can we have cake for dinner?”

“I made goat stew,” Karzarul said.

“The mint one or the peppers one?”

“The peppers one.”

“Can we have cake after?”

“Knock Safi over without using your sword,” he said, “and you can have cake.”

“If there’s a cake,” she said, determination in her voice, “I’ll find it.”

“If you want to end up grounded, you can.”

“I’m too old to get grounded,” she protested.

“Try me.”

She huffed. “You’re mean,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

“You’re the worst,” she added.

“I know,” he said, ducking his head to walk through the Rainbow Door.

“When I’m Monster Queen, we’ll always have cake for dinner,” she said as they emerged on the mountain.

“Uh-huh.”


By the time Karzarul awoke, Tomas had already killed Gwenviel. It was anticlimactic, not getting the opportunity to avenge himself. Tomas had more a right to avenge Laurela than anyone, but Karzarul still would have liked to help.

He didn’t have it in him to kill Tomas, and it didn’t seem worth the effort of convincing him that neither of them had to die. What would that life be? Watching an angry young man turn into an angry old one? Better to die, and dream, and see if things could be different next time. Maybe next time there could be a window, however brief, where he could pretend it wouldn’t end the way it always did.


“I have to say,” Karzarul said, twirling his hammer, “the stoicism really isn’t doing it for me.”

The Hero continued to say nothing, all heavily-armored and square-jawed. It had been a while since one had shown up looking like a knight. Karzarul was irritated as much by the lack of reaction as he was by the murder attempt. Even when they were trying to murder him, Heroes usually had the decency to acknowledge that he was fucking with them.

The total silence, nothing but the clatter and creak of armor as he avoided the meteor hammer, was creepy.

“Do you have a name, at least?” Karzarul asked, as the hammer slammed down into the ground and left a crater. “Am I supposed to write ‘return to sender’ on your back before I kick your corpse downhill?” He cartwheeled over a supernova, twirled through starbursts with only minor damage to his legs. He spun his hammer in wide enough arcs to give himself some space, striking out before the Starsword could build any more energy on its blade.

“I am not here,” the knight said finally, “to reward the attention-seeking behavior of an abomination.”

“Rude,” Karzarul said, though he wasn’t sure which part he found most objectionable. A shame with that jawline. ‘Abomination’ was a tricky one to come back from. “Is that what they told you? Which kingdom’s Heir broke you this time?”

“I follow no false prophets,” the knight said, gathering almost no energy on the blade before swinging it outward. It was still enough to be annoying. “I serve in the Light of the Sun.”

“Oh, they made a mess of you, didn’t they?” That trick with the smaller arcs of light was proving to be troublesome, since it happened too quickly to interrupt the wind-up. “And still no introduction.” Karzarul pivoted the turn of the hammer with his leg so that it would wind around the Starsword’s blade, using it to yank the knight closer. The knight attempted to headbutt him, which felt uncalled for. Karzarul moved his head out of the way just enough to catch his ear. “Scared to hear me say your name?” he taunted.

The knight kicked him in the chest, which was something of an accomplishment in that much armor. Karzarul let his meteor hammer disappear, throwing the knight off-balance, pulling too hard at a free blade. He fell backward, rolled back up to his feet with murder in his eyes. Karzarul was already swinging the hammer he’d remade.

“Vile, shameless thing,” the knight said through his teeth, swinging the Starsword at a rapid pace, starbursts and supernovas falling off it irregular and staccato.

“One does one’s best,” Karzarul said, though more of those strikes were hitting their mark, the knight better able to get closer as the arc of his hammer was repeatedly interrupted.

“Hideous, aberrant, nightmare.” Closer and closer, Karzarul could have summoned an arrow, but did he want to? He could call it a mercy killing, getting rid of a man so miserable, but then he’d have to sit and wait for the next one. “Shut up.”

He liked dreams. No one ever died there.

“Make me, mystery man.”

The knight was too focused on sliding the Starsword through him to stop Karzarul from grabbing his face, pressing a kiss to his mouth that he didn’t deserve.

“Elias,” the knight croaked, “you fucking horror.”

“Elias,” Karzarul sighed, “try being less of an asshole next time.”

Elias pulled the Starsword back and tried to cut off a head that was already gone. His hands shook.


Breakfast was congee, and the table was a half-broken crate, sawed-off tree trunk logs for chairs. Karzarul had already helped himself to three bowls. Minnow had given Leonas a second bowl without asking. Leonas had been awake for three hours by the time the sun rose. He was wearing a white blouse and tight black pants that had been left ‘mysteriously’ in the morning, accompanied by a scrap of paper with a purple lipstick kiss. Karzarul had eaten it before Leonas saw it.

“So,” Minnow said between spoonfuls, “how would you feel about it if Leonas were my boyfriend?”

Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Three

They cleaned up the room with the Rainbow Door before they closed it. It wasn’t as if they could fix it, without someone who could use the Starsword.

They built a tomb, and they put the Starsword and the Sunshield in it until they could be reclaimed.

Karzarul had all the houses torn down and rebuilt, replaced all the strange towers and treehouses with proper houses made with fresh stone. He’d seen enough real houses to know what they were supposed to look like.

The Brutelings had built a ropeway, but they were the only ones who used it. And Rex, once. The cables had snapped under the weight of him, and the Brutelings had to build a new carriage to replace the one he shattered. They’d added a sign to indicate weight limits, carefully painted Aekhite calligraphy. They’d also added a diagram showing a Tauril crossed out, in case that wasn’t clear enough.

It was a little more like a real kingdom, anyway. Karzarul stayed in the castle, and let Impyrs be the ones who did things, Rubelite and Sapphire and Emerald and more. Obsidian stayed on Monster Mountain, though Karzarul could only sometimes bear to look at him. He knew it wasn’t fair, to treat him like a mistake. He was still a mistake. His attitude was the least objectionable of the Impyrs. It was still a touch objectionable.

The delegation from Aekhite were the first humans to use the ropeway. Karzarul resisted the temptation to meet them at the station, waiting in the throne room instead. The throne was itself more of a chaise, better suited to a Tauril’s body. Brutelings had offered to build a more traditional throne, one he could use as an Impyr, but he’d declined. He didn’t want Vaelon or Lynette to see him looking like that when they came back. He didn’t want them to see Sid at all, not until he was sure they’d forgiven him.

Indie and Mo acted as escorts, the most reliable of the Taurils. Bullizards lined the throne room like guards, though they didn’t care for the cold marble that had been put in for the floor.

Karzarul had seen real throne rooms, before. They had marble, not noisy mosaics made of broken mirrors and discarded dishes.

The woman who entered surrounded by knights was neither tall nor broad-shouldered. Older, too, than he remembered Lynette being when she had stopped aging. Karzarul hadn’t realized they would change so much. A much slower version of shifting to a new form.

When she was close enough, Karzarul could see her eyes. The same blue as she’d had before, the color of the sky on a sunny day in summer.

A knight stepped forward to announce her. “Her Highness Mida of Aekherium, Eighth Daughter of the Fourth Consort of Empress Aekhite the Fourteenth.”

“I am here,” she said, her head held high, “for the Sunshield.”

“Hello, Lynette,” Karzarul said. “What do you think of the Monster Kingdom?”

“I am Mida,” she said. “Lynette was my grandmother. You killed her. The Sun Goddess has chosen me as her heir.” Mida held up her right hand to display the sun symbol on the back of it.

“You got better,” Karzarul said impatiently. “Are you still upset? I don’t think you get to be the one holding a grudge, considering.”

“I am not here to play games,” she said. “I am here for my birthright, which you have stolen from me. This visit is a courtesy, as the Empress believes you can be reasoned with.”

Ashel had sent a few letters, all of them carefully crafted formalities. Karzarul wasn’t convinced she’d written them herself, or that she would be the one to read them. He had tried to respond in kind, though diplomacy and a way with words were not his strong suit. He hoped she didn’t hate him. Ashel knew as well as anyone what her mother was like.

“You know very well I’m not the unreasonable one here,” he said, rising from his throne and descending from the dais. “What do you think?” he asked, spreading his hands outward. “Does this better suit your idea of a king?”

“My idea of a king,” she said, “does not include a monster.”

Karzarul was beginning to lose patience. “I have made every effort,” he said, “to correct my mistakes since I saw you last. The least you could do is acknowledge that, even if you won’t apologize.”

“What do I have to apologize for?” she asked, indignant. “And to the thing that murdered me, no less?”

“What do you have to apologize for?” Karzarul repeated, voice rising. “If that’s a joke, it’s in poor taste.” Knights moved closer to Mida as Karzarul loomed. “If you wanted to make him choose,” Karzarul shouted, “you should have asked! You think I don’t know? You think, in all this time, I never figured out what you did? Do you not remember how many opportunities you had to stop?”

“I remember,” she said, “choking on my own blood.” His jaw set. “I remember a monster who could not bear to see me have anything of my own. Not my victories, not my title, not my children.”

“Stop it.”

“Parasite, usurper, face-stealer.”

Karzarul roared, and when a knight moved to protect Mida he stomped him with one of his front hooves. Bullizards took it as their cue, blocking the way of knights already trying to take Mida away. She tried to pull her sword, but Karzarul knocked it out of her hand with the same hoof, reached down to pick her up by the collar of her jacket.

“If it weren’t for you,” Karzarul snarled, bringing her face close to his, “Vaelon would yet live. If you ever loved him at all, you’d apologize for that, at least.”

She pulled a dagger from her belt and stabbed his forearm. With a roar, he threw her to the ground. Her body bounced once against the marble, then fell limp.

“Ah.” He hesitated. “You. Used to be stronger. Than that.” He knelt, but her neck was at an odd angle, her eyes already dim.

Another sun appeared on the back of his left hand.

“Shit. Shit.” He rubbed at his face. “I shouldn’t have done that, why did I do that.”

Bullizards and knights were still fighting through the throne room.

He pressed his palms into his eyes and tried to catch his breath. It was less upsetting if he didn’t look at her. “It’s fine,” he said. “She just, she needed more time. Once Vaelon is here, he’ll. We’ll be ready, next time. I wasn’t ready for her to, to be like that. That’s all.”

“Hey, Boss,” Sid said. Karzarul had been too distracted to notice him entering the throne room. The shimmering pitch-black Impyr crouched beside him. “Delegation’s dead.”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said.

“Want me to clean up, act like they never made it?”

“I guess,” Karzarul said. “What else am I supposed to say? ‘Sorry she was being a bitch again’?” He rubbed at his nose, made himself reach down to pick Mida up. “Shit,” he said, holding the limp body against his chest. “She’s—she was too small, this time. She shouldn’t have been so small. Stupid.”

“Don’t know what you feel bad about,” Sid said. “She’s still only going to remember dying twice. That’s not so bad.”

“You’re not helping.”


Despite the disastrous incident with Mida, Karzarul couldn’t restrain his excitement when a man with a star on his hand took the ropeway up the mountain. Karzarul ran to the station instead of waiting in the throne room, standing at the great stone gate at the top of the stairs. He was surprised despite himself when the person who emerged from the carriage was blonde, his features softer even from a distance than the sharper angles of Vaelon’s face.

Karzarul’s heart constricted, and he swallowed down the lump in his throat. He could learn to love a new face. He could love any face, if it was Vaelon’s.

“And what new songs are you here to sing me?” Karzarul asked, projecting his voice down the stairs.

“I am Qaelin,” the human called from below, “Knight of the Imperial Palace of Empress Aekhite.”

“Ashel made you a knight?” Karzarul laughed. “You? I can’t believe you let her.”

Qaelin unsheathed his sword and pointed it up at Karzarul. “I am here to challenge you,” he announced, “and to win back the Starsword that is my birthright.”

Karzarul hesitated, flicking his ears. “I—of course you can have the Starsword. It’s yours. You don’t need to challenge me.” He looked Qaelin over again. “Are you really Vaelon?” he asked, wringing his hands. “You’re acting weird.”

Qaelin switched the hand of his sword, pulled off his armored glove to show the star there.

It still didn’t feel right. His attitude, his body language, none of it was Vaelon’s. Anyone could paint a mark on their hand. “Prove it’s you,” Karzarul said. “Sing for me.”

“I will do not such thing,” Qaelin said, pulling his glove back on. “Do you think I need the Starsword to end you?” he asked. “That I give you the opportunity to allow me to pass is a kindness.”

Karzarul’s heart sank. “You’re not Vaelon,” he said. “Vaelon wouldn’t speak to me that way.”

“I told you already, monster,” he said. “I am Ser Qaelin, and I am here to take back what you’ve stolen.”

“You are a fool,” Karzarul said, “to think that I would believe you, when you are not fit to even speak Vaelon’s name.” Karzarul summoned the Moonbow into his hands, felt time slow as he drew the arrow and let it fly. It ran Qaelin straight through, impaled him into the cobblestones behind him at a sharp angle like a spear through his heart.

Karzarul watched the star appear on the back of his left hand.

“Hey, Boss,” Sid said when he finally found him. “Want me to clean up that mess by the ropeway?”

“It was Vaelon,” Karzarul said. “It was Vaelon and I killed him.”

He hadn’t been able to go down and get a closer look, couldn’t bring himself to see the person Vaelon had become. Who had said those things with Vaelon’s soul.

“If it was Vaelon,” Sid said, “you wouldn’t have killed him. You’d let him kill you first.”

This was true. “Something went wrong,” Karzarul said. “He didn’t—neither of them came back right. They weren’t themselves. They got lost, or—spent too much time as a different person. It didn’t work right.”

“Shit,” Sid said.

“Maybe they aren’t used to it,” Karzarul said. “Having a new body. Being the same person.”

“Humans are pretty attached to their bodies,” Sid said.

“Right,” Karzarul said. “Exactly. This was just the first one. The first one doesn’t have to turn out.”

“You might be thinking of pancakes,” Sid said.

“Shut up.”


Karzarul gave up on being a proper king. His only order was the find the man with the eight-pointed star on his hand, find him in case it was time that was the trouble.

Karzarul fashioned himself a pair of gloves.

He’d gone back to the Faewild to read the terms and conditions again, but all he was allowed were the ones for the Moonbow. They didn’t tell him anything about humans or the Starsword. If there was anything useful in his portion, he could not interpret it.

The Fairy King had no useful feedback. Only a shrug, and a ‘people change’. This did Karzarul no good at all.

Dain was too old already when the monsters finally found him. Karzarul saw him, the star on the back of his hand, using a cheap sword to kill a Bruteling. And another, and another, and another. Karzarul used a Rainbow Door to find him, a Tauril as he galloped across fields trying to find the farm this new Vaelon called his own.

“Sing for me,” Karzarul said, his arrow at Dain’s throat, bowstring taut. “Prove it’s you. Prove it worked right, this time.”

Dain tried to slice Karzarul’s arm at the wrist. Karzarul didn’t move.

“You tell her,” he said. “Tell the Void Goddess to do it right, this time. You tell her to send you back right, or I’m going to kill every wrong one she sends me. I waited. You tell her, I’m waiting, and you need to come back for real this time.”

He let the arrow fly. Another star stained the back of his hand.


Karzarul did not learn until later that her name had been Elisa, the heir to Aekhite that could not bear to ask for her shield back. The one who decided she’d rather go on her own terms. Karzarul could almost be grateful to her, that it wasn’t his mark to bear. She was the last from Aekherium.

Aubron was from Gaigon, newly freed from the yoke of empire. Karzarul was surprised to see a man at all, let alone from there. If he’d asked, Karzarul might have given him the Sunshield. Let him have it, and let him go be not-Lynette elsewhere.

He did not ask. Karzarul had another sun on his hand.

They were young, both of them, younger even than Vaelon had been when Karzarul first took form. Barely adults, childish faces. It was a year after Karzarul killed Aubron that Blade came to the mountain.

“That’s not a name,” Karzarul said. He tossed the belt with the Starsword’s sheath on it across the courtyard. “Take it.”

“I won’t fall for your tricks,” Blade said.

“Take the fucking sword,” Karzarul snarled. The hilt of the blade glittered. Slowly Blade moved closer, close enough finally to pick it up, dropping his other sword. “Remember anything?” Karzarul asked as Blade unsheathed it.

“I remember,” Blade said, “blood.”

Impyr form put Karzarul at a disadvantage, but he took it anyway. He wanted to be closer, wanted him to see, wanted it to trigger something.

It didn’t.

“Sing for me,” Karzarul said, holding an arrow at Blade’s throat like a dagger. “If you can sing for me, I’ll let you live.”

Sid found Karzarul sitting on the castle roof. He was a Bruteling, scratching at the newest star on his hand. Three suns and three stars spiraling outward and toward his wrist, he peeled away his skin and found only light leaking silver onto stone. As soon as his skin was solid it was patterned black again.

“No luck?” Sid asked.

Karzarul’s hand became incorporeal, reformed without light or blood or broken skin, covered by a glove.

“I think,” he began, his voice trembling. He swallowed, and his voice broke. “I think Vaelon is gone.” He drew his knees up to his chest, clutched at his head. “He’s—I didn’t—I didn’t even say goodbye, Vaelon’s been dead for a hundred years and I, I never said goodbye. He was supposed to come back.” Karzarul rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “I waited, and I waited, but it’s forever. We could have had forever, and instead she—” He made a choked sound, sobbed until the sob turned into a roar.

He took off from the castle, too many legs and eyes and wings. Black Drakonis saw him go, and took off after him. They screamed their fury into the sky, and headed in the direction of Aekherium.


The fact that they came to the castle together gave Karzarul a brief moment of hope. That, and their ages, about what they should have been. Karzarul had the monsters give them a clear path to the castle, but to his surprise they broke into the Tomb instead, stole back the weapons and killed any monsters that tried to stop them. As soon as they had them it was clear the dynamic was wrong, a daring swordsman protected by a shieldbearer casting barriers from behind. Vaelon would never take the lead, and Lynette would never let him.

“And what do they call you,” Karzarul asked with more than a little disdain when they entered the throne room.

“Nabeth, Shrinemaiden of the Sun,” the man introduced on her behalf. He wore a tunic and leggings and his hair too short, too thin and too pale to ever be Vaelon. “And Needle.”

“That’s not a name,” Karzarul said.

“It lets people know,” he said with a twirl of the Starsword, “that I’m kind of a prick.”

“Oh, I’m definitely killing you,” Karzarul said.

Except that with both of them armed, working in tandem, it was harder. He’d taken to using a meteor hammer when the distance was too short for a bow, a great heavy ball at the end of a long chain. He didn’t like sparring up close, not with them, not like this. But she blocked his arrows and his hammer with the Sunshield, and if he tried to strike at her Needle would use the distraction to cut at his legs. It was more than he was used to dealing with, unused to anything that could block either of his weapons.

Karzarul tried leading them out of the throne room so that he could take Drakonis form, but Needle found a trick that Vaelon never had. He could swing the Starsword just-so, and release a wave of sparkling purple light.

When Karzarul hit the ground, reforming into something smaller and more manageable, he landed too close to where Needle had already been. As soon as he was standing as an Impyr, Needle was driving the Starsword into his chest. He could feel the blade of it all the way through him, the hot and cold burn of it as the essence of it repelled the essence of himself.

Karzarul looked down at the sword in his chest with more than a little surprise. Light was pouring out of him, and he was already losing his shape.

“Can I… die?” he asked, surprised. “I can die?”

Maybe it would be better this way. He could die, the way Vaelon had died, and come back as someone new. Someone who didn’t remember, the way no one else seemed to remember.

He fell apart. He found himself in ponds and lakes and mirrors and windows. Puddles and wide-open eyes. He dreamed, eventually. Snippets of memories and shapes and voices, it was a long time before he realized he was dreaming. He struggled to reform as soon he realized, fell back into dreaming when he couldn’t. An endless cycle where every moment of lucidity became a struggle to Be.

Until it worked, and he Was.

He was a Bruteling only briefly, turned into a Tauril as soon as there was enough of him. He was standing in his throne room, or what his throne room had been. The walls were collapsing, the marble half-missing.

Karzarul looked down at his hands. A moon on his right, and nothing on the left. “Why do I remember?”

He barely summoned an arrow in time to block the Starsword.

“You again?” Karzarul asked, surprised.

The same terrible man, though not quite the same face, hair gone white and wrinkled skin. A moon on his left hand.

“Why are you old?” Karzarul demanded.

“I’m well-preserved,” Needle said with a grin.

Karzarul looked at the woman who carried the Sunshield, black-haired and smooth-skinned. “She’s not old,” Karzarul said.

“That’s Kalynn,” Needle said. “She’s new. Nabeth couldn’t hack it.”

“What?” Karzarul said, but he couldn’t seem to move fast enough. He’d been formless and dreaming too long, too recent.

Needle ran him through again.

“Seriously?” Karzarul asked.

He fell apart. He dreamed. He had a better sense, this time, of when the time wasn’t right. When it wasn’t enough.

When he might as well make himself at home in his dreamscape.


Karzarul stalked through the forest around their camp. There weren’t many beast monsters to be found, but those he did find, he drew back into himself. He never wanted Jonys to see another monster, not if he could help it. The faced monsters knew to keep their distance by now, since he’d only take them back to the mountain at the next full moon.

Brutelings kept trying to rebuild the ropeway, but Karzarul had told Sid not to let them.

He was something akin to happy. It would strike him at odd moments, the memories of Vaelon and terrible yearning. He would remember all at once that Vaelon was gone and would never come back, and he wanted nothing more than to scream so loud the whole world would hear it.

But there was Jonys. The first time Karzarul thought it might be something like okay without Vaelon. Jonys who watched him with hungry eyes, rough hands and a soft touch and music in his heart. Jonys who always wanted to help, who always paid his debts.

Jonys, who couldn’t have lived if Vaelon hadn’t died.

It felt greedy to think that could make it okay. To be loved and touched and wanted, to be claimed by another man’s hunger almost every night. It felt like a betrayal, as if Vaelon hadn’t been enough. He’d know it was fine if it was anyone else, if it were some other person making him feel this way. Instead it was Jonys, who had the same soul in the body that pressed kisses down his spine. Who covered him in bells and made an instrument of him.

Karzarul could tell when Jonys returned because he could see the glow of the Starsword through the forest. He’d never managed to cut a new Door, but in every other respect Jonys had been a prodigy. Almost as soon as he’d acquired the Starsword, he’d figured out how to form starbursts, how to make it glow in blues and purples without letting it go supernova.

Sometimes the starbursts went off a little too close to his hair, but dancers at festivals were always impressed.

“Did you eat already,” Karzarul called, “or should I make you something?”

It was instinct more than anything that made him jump. He hadn’t consciously realized that the glow had swung loose from the Starsword, a great band of energy flying outward in a blue arc. He only narrowly avoided it striking his hooves as it swept through the forest, knocking down trees long after it had missed him, a great swathe of devastation. Starbursts had followed behind the supernova, exploded as Karzarul hit the ground.

“Jonys?” Karzarul asked, the crash of falling trees all around him, birds taking to the sky and deer falling dead.

Jonys spun the Starsword in figure-eights, accumulating more starbursts along the blade, glowing brighter with every turn. It was a trick Karzarul had watched him do before, but never in silence. The hazelquartz seeds on his bracers rattled without rhythm.

His eyes glowed like sunlight.

“Jonys,” Karzarul called with a rising sense of confusion and dread.

Magic was the Void Goddess’ domain; it wasn’t meant to glow. Aimon the Enchanter was a witch, but with his soul bound to the sun, his witchmarks shone. There was an inherent wrongness to him, a thing which should not have been. Magic was meant to be a cold, dark thing, inviting and empty. It was not meant to burn.

It had not been the only reason Karzarul did not trust Aimon, but it had been enough.

Jonys swung a supernova at him again, and Karzarul barely dodged again, though this time starbursts caught him close enough to tear into his skin. Karzarul managed to get closer, summoning a dull practice blade to block the Starsword when Jonys moved to strike.

“Jonys, you need to wake up,” Karzarul urged. “Whatever he’s doing, you need to resist it.”

Jonys continued to advance, constant attacks with all of his power and none of his grace. Karzarul kept having to push more moonlight into his dummy sword to keep it from breaking, couldn’t take the time to patch the holes in his legs, throbbing pain where the light inside him was exposed to the night air. The ringing of bells and the rattling of hazelquartz clashed with the sound of blades, no rhyme or reason to it.

“Jonys, please,” Karzarul begged. “I won’t leave you here like this, you know I won’t.” What else might Aimon have him do, if he could make Jonys do this? Karzarul tried whistling a few notes of one of Jonys’ favorite songs, one he could never resist playing along to. A fragile hope, that it might be enough to call him back.

Karzarul noticed, when Jonys turned his head, a seam of light over his throat.

“Are—are you okay?” Karzarul asked, suddenly fearing he knew the answer. “You have to resist, you have to be okay.” But now that Karzarul had seen it he couldn’t not, the jagged line of light that didn’t quite close, the stiffness in Jonys’ limbs and the lack of expression on his face. “If you’re—if you can get better, you have to give me a sign.”

Karzarul faltered enough that the Starsword sliced through his left forearm, his hand dissolving into nothing as it came away from his body.

Jonys wouldn’t want to be used like this. It was not a kindness, to let his body persist like this. Full of light, enough to animate his limbs.

But could he wield the Starsword, without a soul inside him?

“I can’t do this,” Karzarul said, his vision getting blurred. “Jonys, I can’t. I’m sorry. If it’s temporary you have to—don’t be mad. You have to kill him for me, I know I should but I, I can’t do it. I don’t want you to be gone. I know it isn’t fair, if it has to be you. I’m sorry. Try to remember better next time. Remember that I love you.”

He let his sword disappear to kiss Jonys’ forehead, the Starsword sinking into his stomach.

He dreamt of drums and firelight.


Annah was well-practiced at making her way down the garden path with her cane, but it was always good to have Helper with her. He would nudge her in different directions, coaxing her away from things that might trip her up, misplaced stones or snails with bad timing. “Good boy,” she said as she touched the edge of the rail on her porch ramp, moving to unlock her front door.

Jerome had built this house for her when they were young. Railings all around, tidy paths and fences, posts to orient herself. She still ought to have moved, after he’d died, but she couldn’t bear the thought. This was her house, and she knew the touch of every wall and chair, the creak of every floorboard. She liked the protection it offered, living in the shadow of Monster Mountain.

Jerome had grown up near the Faewild, and he’d taught her the old ways, how to speak respectful and leave gifts. Monsters weren’t so different, in his estimation. Since they’d built this house, they’d left offerings at the edges of the fences, bowls of beer and slaughtered chickens when they could afford it. She’d kept it up even as a widow, and there’d never been any trouble. Never a bandit, never even a salesman.

A hero, once. A Starlight Hero, real and true, with a Sunlight Heir right beside him. Jerome had seen the symbols on their hands, though she couldn’t. Young and eager, like runaway lovers. Jerome had warned them off the mountain, told them not to make trouble where there was none.

They hadn’t listened, and they hadn’t come back. There had been no trouble since, though Annah was alone and Jerome long gone.

Not quite alone. There was Helper. A stray turned up in a moment of need, when she’d found herself turned around after old fenceposts had fallen. Happy to nudge her in the right direction, to help pull her up, to find things she’d lost. Listening when she found herself rambling, keeping her feet warm while she knit. She’d been trying to knit herself a map of the world using only what she remembered from traveling with Jerome. It wasn’t a good map, but that wasn’t the point. She liked remembering where she’d been, what it had been like to be a runaway lover, young and eager. Helper always barked at the right parts in her stories, and she appreciated that about him.

She sat back in her favorite chair, held out her hand until a familiar furry head pressed itself against her palm. She scritched him behind the ears, and his tail thumped against the floor.

Annah wasn’t a fool. She lived in the shadow of Monster Mountain, and Helper was bigger than any ordinary dog. Too gentle, too clever. Mysterious visitors fixing her fenceposts, repairing her floors while she slept, leaving baskets harvested from her garden on the porch when her arthritis flared up. She left her gifts at the fences, said her thanks to no one in particular, and didn’t question it.

She hadn’t made it to her age by feeling for a good dog’s teeth.

Astielle: Chapter Twenty-Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At his age?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d do anything for you.”

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

“I could never—”

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

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

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

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

“As well as ever,” Vaelon lied.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not that old,” Karzarul said.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“He knows,” the Bullizard said without clarifying.

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

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

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

The Bullizard quietly saw himself out.

“What? Who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know that.”

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

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

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

“I know what you meant,” Vaelon said.

Lynette came through the Rainbow Door.

Karzarul and Vaelon both froze.

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

“Where is he?” she demanded.

“I don’t know,” Karzarul said.

“Bullshit,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t mean that,” Vaelon said.

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

“I haven’t—” Karzarul began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lynette,” Vaelon pleaded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was trying to help,” Karzarul said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the magic and darkness disappeared, and Karzarul screamed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astielle: Chapter Twenty-One

There were seven little heirs to Lynette’s throne now, for the unlikely occasion that she ever gave it up. Vaelon had been visiting them often, since the oldest was born. Karzarul avoided the Imperial Palace entirely. He made excuses for it, as if he had any reason but paranoia. Lynette looking right through him and seeing that he’d been interfering in her empire, in his own little ways.

They’d never been close, she’d only ever barely tolerated him, but she felt like a true stranger since her ascension. He understood swords, and blood, and protecting Vaelon. Simple quests with simple endings. An empress was a thing all wrapped in intricate rituals, paper and pronouncements and temples and armies, the blade of her sword clean. It was alien to him, too human of a thing.

He’d been a person for longer than most humans he met, now. He didn’t like the reminders of the ways he still fell short.

It was Vaelon who talked him into visiting his niblings—he insisted they were uncles. He smuggled Karzarul in as a Slitherskin, under his sleeve. Some of the Palace staff had never even met a monster, and Vaelon was willing to agree that it would kick up more fuss than was ideal.

They were spotted as soon as they entered the private garden. “Uncle Vaelon!” A little boy tackled his legs at high speed.

“Arik!” Vaelon picked him up , immediately setting him back down. “You got big,” Vaelon complained.

“I eat my vegetables,” Arik confirmed.

“Hullo, Uncle Vaelon,” said a teenager standing in the grass. He was holding a wooden sword.

“Did you bring us anything?” asked the teenage girl also holding a wooden sword.

“I brought someone,” Vaelon said. “Say hello before I look like I’ve lost it,” he said to his arm.

Karzarul shifted, light falling behind Vaelon as he changed into his Bruteling form. He’d added a circlet, though he still kept the hood of his cloak over as much of his head as he could get away with. He wore rings in his ears now, but the only hair he’d managed to make work was a thin strip sticking straight up all down the middle of his scalp. Anything else he’d tried looked like a cheap wig.

He peered out around Vaelon’s legs. “Hello.”

“This is your Uncle Karzarul,” Vaelon introduced. “I’ve told you about him.”

“Hi,” Arik said.

“This is Arik,” Vaelon said, “and that’s Edwin, and that’s Ashel, and over there with the book is Hallie.” Edwin and Ashel had a similar jawline, but otherwise none of them looked much alike. “The others are still in the nursery.”

“You’re the Monster King, right?” Edwin asked, shading his eyes. “Aren’t you an adult?”

“I’m being polite,” Karzarul said. “You don’t want me to be any bigger than this.”

“I’ve heard there are monsters big enough to kill whole armies,” Hallie said.

“Battalions,” Karzarul said modestly.

“In the Righteous Siege,” Hallie continued, “monsters as big as Aekherium emptied the streets so that Mother could walk right up to the throne and take it back from the Usurper.”

“Not that big,” Karzarul said.

“Are there littler monsters?” Arik asked nervously.

Karzarul shifted out from behind Vaelon, small and round and oinking. Arik shrieked with delight, and Karzarul started to run in circles around the garden as Arik chased him.

“Don’t let us interrupt,” Vaelon said to the teenagers. “I wanted him to meet you, that’s all.”

“Oh, sure,” Edwin said, watching his brother chase a pig. “That’s not distracting at all.” Ashel smacked him in the ribs with her wooden sword. “Hey!

“Battles are distracting, dingus,” she snorted. “Deal with it.”

“It’s not like we’re going to need this,” Edwin said, parrying the next blow. “Stop being a suck up.”

“Play nice,” Vaelon warned, sitting in the grass and settling his banjo in his lap.

“Yes, Uncle Vaelon,” the teens sighed in unison.


“Hallie, if you never practice you’re never going to get better,” Edwin said.

“I don’t like sparring with you,” she said, refusing to accept the practice sword. “You’re bigger than me.”

“Everyone’s bigger than you,” Edwin said.

“Uncle Karzarul isn’t,” Arik pointed out.

“I don’t use swords,” Karzarul said. He and Arik had been building a house of cards.

“Never?” Ashel asked.

“I can turn into a bear,” Karzarul said.

“That doesn’t mean you’ll never want to swordfight,” Ashel said.

Karzarul couldn’t argue with that. It was only that there wasn’t anyone who could teach him. Vaelon had pointedly never learned how to use the Starsword for anything but cutting open Doors. Lynette had made it clear over fifty years ago that she didn’t want to teach him. Sailors never saw him with legs. Who did that leave?

“I would rather turn into a bear than swordfight,” Hallie said.

“You should still know how,” Ashel said. “What if, someday, you need to have a really epic battle with someone? A tense, dramatic fight in the rain where you cut each other’s clothes off.”

Vaelon stopped playing his banjo. “When did you read Lovers of the Wild Rose?” he asked. Ashel turned pink. “That’s very mature material,” he said, resuming his strumming.

“I’m mature,” Ashel insisted, scratching her nose.

“Here,” Edwin said, handing Karzarul the wooden sword. “As long as you know the basics, that should be good enough for Hallie to practice. She needs to get her confidence up, that’s all.”

Karzarul tried to mimic what he remembered from watching Lynette. It had been a long time, but he’d seen her wield her sword up-close and often. This wasn’t even the first time he’d tried to mimic her, though he’d been alone in the woods then, swishing a stick around while Vaelon was busy.

Hallie wasn’t enthusiastic about any of this. She flicked her practice sword at Karzarul, slow and floppy. He didn’t even have to parry, because she was trying to hit his sword.

“You could at least pretend to try,” Ashel said. “Uncle Karzarul is never going to get better, if that’s all you can do. He’s even got his feet right and you don’t, that’s embarrassing.”

“Mom probably taught him,” Hallie complained.

“I assure you I did not,” Lynette said.

Karzarul froze, lowering the wooden sword immediately. The children all stood at attention. Vaelon kept playing.

Lynette had taken to wearing a cloud-blue dress that went from around her neck down to her hips, leaving her arms and her back both bare. The skirt of it fell in panels to the floor, slits on the sides revealing the musculature of her thighs. Her boots were copper plate armor to her knees, matching the wide torque necklace and the rings that tipped her fingers like claws. Her crown was a copper headband radiating long spikes from her hair, which was as short as it had always been. The Sunshield was on her back, looking like a part of her.

“Hello, Mother,” Edwin said.

“Hello, babies,” Lynette said, tousling his hair. “Listening to Uncle Vaelon?”

“Yes, Mom,” Ashel said.

“You shouldn’t,” Lynette said. “He’s full of shit.” Vaelon laughed. She stepped further into the garden. “I see you’re entertaining foreign heads of state.”

“It’s just Uncle Karzarul,” Arik said.

Lynette knelt down in the garden to be closer to Bruteling height. She was still much bigger than he was. “Hello, Karzarul.”

“Hello, Ly—Your Imperial Majesty.”

“Haven’t seen you in a while.” Decades. “Have you been fighting my children?”

Karzarul looked at the wooden sword. “Hallie needed someone to practice hitting.”

“Hmm.” She looked him over. “I never would have thought I would end up finding this one the least objectionable.” Karzarul rubbed the pads of his feet in the grass. “How fares your kingdom?” she asked with a tilt of her head. He didn’t like how closely she was looking at him.

“It’s only the one mountain,” he said.

“Oh?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “I thought you were King of the Monsters.” She propped her chin on her hand. “Wouldn’t that include all monsters, everywhere?”

He fidgeted with the wooden sword. “Not really,” he said.

“I wonder what the Monster King does, then.”

“I’m the one the monsters point to,” Karzarul said, “when they do something stupid and someone wants to know who to yell at about it.”

Lynette faltered. “That… is how it goes, isn’t it.” Karzarul nodded. “You don’t have any kind of a connection, then?” she asked, tapping her head.

“Not really.” Only when he was nearby. That barely counted.

“Don’t know what they get up to when you’re not there?”

“Did Black Drakonis try to take one of your fortresses again?” he asked.

“No.”

“Stop pestering him, Nettles,” Vaelon said. He hadn’t stopped playing. “He doesn’t expect you to account for every farmer.”

“He could,” she said, standing. “I keep track.”

“You shouldn’t,” Vaelon said. “That’s bonkers.”

“Agree to disagree.”

“Mom,” Arik asked hopefully, “can Uncle Vaelon do a real spell for us, since you’re here?”

“Not in the Palace,” Lynette apologized. “When you’re older, you can visit him someplace safe, okay?”

“I think it would be fine,” Karzarul said, “if he used a selling song.”

Lynette paused. “Oh?”

“Karzarul figured it out,” Vaelon said, playing a scale. “I don’t like having to quit before a song’s over. But some of those songs street vendors use are catchy little things. Work well in a pinch when I need something quick that won’t let me go overboard.”

“I see,” Lynette said carefully. “If you think there’s no harm in trying, then.”

Vaelon looked around the garden for something appropriate to magic at. Then he played a quick riff, and put a little too much black-eyed gusto into two pun-filled sentences about bread. A small round flowerbush emitted wisps of void as it reshaped itself to have porcine features.

Arik clapped gleefully as Vaelon pressed the flat of his hand against the banjo strings. “Not bad,” Vaelon said.

“Clever,” Lynette said. “A little beneath your talent, I would think.”

“I try to avoid having anything beneath my talent,” Vaelon said, and Lynette rolled her eyes.


“Another satisfied customer,” Vaelon said cheerfully. It was Karzarul who’d noticed the little cabin in the valley, the woman trying to gather her escaped quail before they got hurt. They weren’t able to do much for the three birds who’d jumped straight at a donkey’s hooves, but they’d done what they could.

“You don’t charge,” Karzarul reminded him, trotting alongside him down the path as a Howler. He was still discomfited by the quail who’d jumped directly into his mouth and, upon being spit out, died instantly from shock.

“Brownies count as payment,” Vaelon said, licking his fingers.

“You promised you’d pay your tab at the Rusty Spoon next time you went,” Karzarul said.

“There is no promise but oblivion,” Vaelon said loftily.

“I don’t think Karl is going to like that explanation.”

“Karl also doesn’t like it when I try to figure out how many times I can play The Dancer’s Lament before someone notices, I’m not going to let that stop me.”

Karzarul was about to say something else, but a comet of moonlight struck him in the back with enough force that he collapsed. He was an Abysscale named Glimmering, the ocean was frothing and red with blood, he’d already lost an arm when the sword slid through his ribs.

Lynette, using the Sunshield and the barrier it generated like her own personal boat. Armored boots and armored pauldrons and a white silk dress like a dare, but nothing had touched her except saltwater and other people’s blood. There was a wild look in her eyes, but her crown wasn’t even askew.

He was an Abysscale named Karzarul with his hands in the dirt and his tail in the grass and Vaelon was there and he could still taste blood.

He was an Abysscale named Coruscating and Lynette’s sword was cutting through the middle of him, nearly to his spine, all his insides tumbling into the water.

“Hey,” Vaelon asked, kneeling with hands on Karzarul’s shoulders. “What’s happening?”

He was an Abysscale named Resplendent and he’d tried to dive but Lynette had stabbed straight through his tail, dragged him back up before running him through.

Karzarul curled into a ball, wrapped his arms over his head and his tail around his body even though it wouldn’t help.

He was an Abysscale named Luminous and they’d caught him in a net, he was an Abysscale named Dappled in the same net, her sword ran through them both and they watched each other die.

Karzarul was sobbing and heaving and Vaelon didn’t know what to do. He’d grown accustomed to ignoring it, those little balls of moonlight. Borrowed power returning, or something like it. Karzarul was evasive, and Vaelon never wanted to push. Everyone was entitled to some privacy, things they didn’t need to share. Karzarul hadn’t taken much notice of them since the early years, and Vaelon had followed suit. Vaelon tried to rub Karzarul’s back, but he didn’t respond. If he were human, there were spells he could try, magic to stitch things together or cut away what didn’t belong. Karzarul’s injuries had only ever bled silver, never revealed anything inside him but white light in those brief glimpses before he changed forms.

Nothing like this had ever happened before, and that was terrifying to him when they’d lived so long now. Vaelon felt a touch of panic at the thought that this might be related to their blessings, that it might be catching up to him.

That it might take Karzarul away from him.

He didn’t even remember when it had happened, when Karzarul had become the second person he couldn’t bear to live without. There was a time when he could have accepted it, a monster returning to the moonlight from whence he’d come. It would have saddened him, but it wouldn’t have ended him.

“It’s going to be okay,” Vaelon said, assured of no such thing. He stood and drew the Starsword, and focused not on a specific place, but an idea. Somewhere Karzarul might be safe, somewhere with water enough that he wouldn’t be an Abysscale writhing in the dirt. He focused on infinity, on how small the world was that sat in it, how little difference there was in the grand scheme of things between one place and another on the same speck of rock. He listened to the stars sing, tilted the sword until it found the right wavelength. Then he sliced through the air, and sheathed it again.

There was still the problem of Karzarul, curled up on the ground. He could lift him with magic, but he didn’t know if magic alone could carry him through. He tried to channel through his banjo without playing it, started to sing and stopped. He couldn’t bring himself to sing a hymn to beauty, so he sang one for pain instead. Void wrapped around his body, around his arms, enough to let him pick Karzarul up off the ground.

Those comets of moonlight were slowing, but they hadn’t stopped.

Vaelon carried Karzarul through the hole he’d cut in the world, and his breath caught when he realized they were back at Mirror Lake. There was no reflection in the water.

“Hey, Beautiful,” Vaelon said, trying to descend to the water’s edge. Magic eased his steps, but without a song to give his intent shape it expanded further than necessary, great trailing tendrils of darkness. “We’re home.” He knelt at the water’s edge, lowering Karzarul into it. “I really hope this helps,” Vaelon said, well aware there was no reason why it should. Only that this was home, this was where Karzarul had listened to him sing and decided it would be better to be a person than a thing.

Vaelon might have corrected him, if he’d known, but far too late for that now.

Karzarul let himself sink, and Vaelon watched with no small amount of trepidation the round white shape under the water. Moonlight struck a few more times, but finally seemed to stop. Vaelon reigned his magic in despite its desire to stretch out and worm its way into everything.

“Mother Void,” he said, “please ask Your daughter what the fuck She thinks She’s doing. Mother Void, please let him be okay. Let this be nothing, give me time to make it right.”

Vaelon had never forgotten it, what the Fairy King had said about immortality. He’d clung to it, a hopeful thought when his own life felt too big for him. Yet he’d never applied the idea to Karzarul. Karzarul was moonlight, Karzarul could be anything; aging and dying weren’t meant to apply. He was supposed to have all the time in the world, it was supposed to be Vaelon who had limits.

It was a long time before Karzarul came back up out of the water.

“What happened?” Vaelon asked. His feet were dangling in the water, sitting as far along the edge as he could without falling in. “Are you okay?”

“Sorry,” Karzarul said. He had been able to change and reform, and hoped that meant he looked better. “It’s… monster stuff.”

What could he say? How could he explain, when he’d gone so long without explaining? If he’d explained before, things might have been different. If Lynette had known, she surely wouldn’t have done it. Though it was hard to imagine her as merciful, after dying again and again and again at her hands. He could still feel the echoes of it, shaking under his skin. He had to tell himself that she wouldn’t have done it if she’d known. Wouldn’t have let him see her face, at least, and what a mercy that would have been. And what would it accomplish now, to tell Vaelon? He didn’t want Vaelon upset with Lynette, when he knew what they were to each other. He didn’t want Vaelon to not be upset, either.

He couldn’t think of anything Vaelon could say, or do, that could make any of it better.

“Talk to me,” Vaelon said. “That was awful, I need to know if that’s going to happen again. I want to know what it means.”

Karzarul tried to think of a way to explain, a way that wouldn’t make him want to scream. He moved closer, pressed his forehead against Vaelon’s knee. “Please don’t make me explain,” he said finally. “Can we think of it like a bodily function?” he asked. “A thing that happens, that I… I don’t like it and I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Hey,” Vaelon said, reaching down to touch Karzarul’s face and tilt it towards him. “You scared me,” Vaelon said. “What would I do if I lost you?”

Karzarul pressed his hand over Vaelon’s, claws and scales and heavy fingers. “It wasn’t like that,” Karzarul said. “It can’t kill me, not ever. I’ll follow you forever, if you’ll let me. If I’m not—if you don’t mind. A monster.”

Vaelon looked at him for a long time. Then he bent forward, cupped Karzarul’s face in his hands, and pressed a soft kiss to his mouth. Karzarul froze, eyes wide, staring at Vaelon.

“You…” He swallowed. “I didn’t think you did that.”

“Sometimes,” Vaelon said, stroking Karzarul’s hair. “For the right people. You looked like you needed it.”

Karzarul pulled himself a little further out of the water, so he could wrap his arms around Vaelon and rest his head against the spot where Vaelon’s stomach started to curve outward. Karzarul’s pulse was racing, a tightness in his throat. “You would do that for me?”

“I would do a lot of things for you,” Vaelon said, and Karzarul shivered. “I don’t dislike it, you know,” he added. “Not all of it. If you want something, you can ask me. I never told you that, I thought someday you’d stop being patient and ask on your own, but you never asked. I want to make sure you know that you can. Okay? You have to tell me what you want.”

Karzarul was feeling a lot of things that wanted to come out through his eyes. He nuzzled at Vaelon’s sternum. “I want you,” he said, his voice rough. “Whatever you’ll give me, whatever will let me stay with you forever.”

“That’s a long time,” Vaelon said. “Not aging doesn’t mean that I’m immortal,” he reminded him.

“We’re eternal,” Karzarul said. “I want eternity.”

Vaelon rubbed his fingers along the back of Karzarul’s neck. “I can’t promise you that,” he said gently. “Eternity is big. I like being small. I’ll always give you as much as I can. I won’t give you more. You can’t hurt me by asking.”

Karzarul took deep breaths, wanted to bury his face in the smell of Vaelon’s clothes. “I never want anything to hurt you,” Karzarul said.

“I know,” Vaelon said. “If anyone ever hurt you and lived, I’d make them regret it.”

It was a relief to hear it said, to believe it. To know for certain that it was a kindness Karzarul was doing, keeping Lynette’s secret. He could carry the weight of it if he knew the alternative was giving it to Vaelon.

Karzarul let Vaelon go, sliding slowly back into the water. His chin rested on Vaelon’s knee. “If I wanted…”

“Yes?” Vaelon coaxed.

“Can I hold you?” Karzarul asked.

“We can do that,” Vaelon said. Karzarul pulled himself up out of the water beside Vaelon, his tail trailing down behind him, dripping onto stone. He turned so that they were sitting side-by-side, Karzarul shifting until he found a comfortable resting position. Vaelon set his banjo and the Starsword aside, lying alongside each other. “Where do you want me?” Vaelon asked, and Karzarul started to glow, claws scratching stone as his fingers curled.

“Uh.” Karzarul swallowed. He shifted again, the way a snake shifted to bury itself in desert sand, curling his tail into a loop in front of him. “You could sit here?” he suggested, strained.

“I feel like that isn’t the first thing you thought of,” Vaelon said, climbing over Karzarul’s tail to settle into the middle of it. They adjusted around each other until they were a little bit sideways, Vaelon’s legs draped underneath Karzarul’s right arm and Karzarul’s tail supporting his lower back. Vaelon wrapped his arms around Karzarul’s shoulders. “Like this?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Karzarul said with a shudder. He buried his face in the crook of Vaelon’s shoulder, hands pressed into his back. “I—I love you, you know.”

“I know,” Vaelon said, stroking Karzarul’s hair. “I love you, too.” It felt stupid that he hadn’t said it before. Ingrained in him to be cautious with his words, not say anything that might be misconstrued as a promise he couldn’t keep.

“The way you loved me before?” Karzarul asked. “Before I was a person?”

“No,” Vaelon said, kissing his temple. “I love the person that you are. I love the person who always does his best, and always surprises me. Beautiful Karzarul.”

Karzarul let out a shaky breath, shifting to hold Vaelon one-handed. “You think I’m beautiful?”

“Always,” Vaelon said. “You’re an artist and a work of art. You’re a miracle.”

“I ruin everything,” Karzarul said, muffled by Vaelon’s shoulder.

“You make something new,” Vaelon said, stroking Karzarul’s hair more firmly. “I love the things you do. You’ve made me better.” Karzarul shook his head. “You have. You’re the one who always wants to help. I didn’t used to, not until I saw how much it bothered you. Not helping. You’ve made this time mean something. I wouldn’t have been able to stand it, living this long. Not without you.” Vaelon urged Karzarul to lift his head. Karzarul blinked furiously, trying to chase away the silver pooling on his lower lashes. “Let me do something to make you happy,” Vaelon said, “the way you make me happy.”

“You are,” Karzarul said. “You’re here.”

“Is that really all you want?” Vaelon pressed.

Karzarul got that sheepish glow about him again. “I’m. Uh. You’re here, but you’re also. I’m also. Um.”

Vaelon’s eyes lowered for the first time to the movement of Karzarul’s left shoulder. “Oh! You’re—shit. Can you reach? I didn’t even notice.”

“Sorry,” Karzarul said. “I wanted—I wanted something to feel good again and you said—”

“No, you’re okay,” Vaelon assured him. “You don’t have to justify yourself.” Vaelon started to move, but Karzarul touched his forehead with his before he could.

“Don’t look,” Karzarul asked. “It’s a lot, even people who like it think it’s a lot.”

Vaelon didn’t need much convincing on that front. “Do you want me to help?”

“You’re here,” Karzarul said again. “That’s what I want.” Vaelon leaned back and ran a fingertip underneath Karzarul’s eye, catching a silver teardrop. “Ignore that, I don’t know why that’s happening,” Karzarul said. “That doesn’t usually happen.”

Vaelon smiled. “I meant it,” he said. “Ask for what you want. Let me decide if I can’t.”

“I know,” Karzarul said. “I can’t do more. Not yet. It’s… too soon.”

“Seventy years is soon, for you?”

“It’s a long time,” Karzarul said. “It’s my whole life, that I thought—that I—if I turned into a dog, you’d pet me.”

Vaelon touched his cheek. “Oh, honey.”

“I wasn’t trying to trick you,” Karzarul added. “I like it when you touch me. When we travel and, and you sit with your back against mine so you can play. Or when I’m on your arm in public, and… is that creepy? Now that I’m saying it out loud it seems creepy.”

“It’s not creepy,” Vaelon said.

“I want to be close to you,” Karzarul said. “That’s all.”

“I like that,” Vaelon said, leaning forward to rest against Karzarul’s chest. “I like being with you.”

Karzarul held him tighter with the arm around his back. “Say it again?”

“I like you,” Vaelon said. “I like being loved by you. I like this.”

Karzarul pressed a sudden, hard kiss to Vaelon’s lips, his whole body tense. Vaelon didn’t resist. Then Karzarul relaxed, pressing his forehead to Vaelon’s.

“That was good?” Vaelon asked. Karzarul nodded. “Are you happy?”

“I’m happy,” Karzarul said, holding Vaelon with both arms and burying his face in his shoulder again. “Even without this. You make me happy to be a person. To be alive.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Vaelon said, patting his hair, “considering I’m the asshole who gave you the idea.”

“It was a good idea,” Karzarul said. “I used to dream of you, before I was anything.”

Vaelon hummed. “I never used to have dreams,” he said, contemplative. “Never saw the point, I guess. Not until She showed me.”

They never talked about it, what they’d seen or what they’d wished for. It felt too personal, too private, for all that they’d been together at the time. They could guess around the edges, see the consequences, but to ask outright felt like asking to see their beating heart. Wasn’t it enough to know that it was there?

“Mother Void showed me every star,” Vaelon sighed. “Every one of them a dream, every one of them dead. More stars in infinity than drops of water in the ocean, and all of them dwarfed by nothing. Insignificant and bright. I didn’t even notice them, in all the vastness of Her. It was only later that I realized what She’d given me, some small share of the burden She carries.”

“I can’t tell if that’s good or bad,” Karzarul admitted. He had that problem almost every time Vaelon preached the gospel of the Void.

“It’s good,” Vaelon sighed. “Just heavy. That’s all.”

“I can carry you,” Karzarul said, raising his head. He shifted forms, raised Vaelon higher into his arms as he became a Tauril.

“I know,” Vaelon said, leaning into Karzarul’s chest. “It helps.” He ran his fingers over the embroidery in Karzarul’s tunic. “You don’t have to keep using this”

“A shirt?”

“This pattern,” Vaelon said. “I didn’t do a good job of it.”

“I like it,” Karzarul said. “You made it for me.”

“I should have planned it out better,” Vaelon said. “In my head it looked less like a weird bug.”

“You love weird bugs,” Karzarul reminded him.

“I do love weird bugs,” Vaelon agreed.

“You made the phases of the moon look like a cool bug,” Karzarul said. “That makes it perfect.”

“You’re starting to sound like me,” Vaelon warned.

“Good,” Karzarul said, bending down to press his forehead against Vaelon’s. “Sing for me?”

Vaelon smiled faintly, and sang a hymn for dropped stitches.

Astielle: Chapter Twenty

“I can teach you how to use a sword,” Lynette said.

“I don’t want to use a sword,” Vaelon said, rubbing at the star on the back of his right hand. He still wasn’t used to it. Karzarul was enjoying seeing where the crescent would end up when he didn’t have hands. Usually it was his forehead.

“You have a divine sword,” she said. “You should know how to use it.”

“Nah,” Vaelon said. “If there’s an emergency I’ll point the sharp end at the danger.”

“Vaelon.”

“I’ve managed fine without a sword until now,” he said. “I’ll keep managing just fine.”

“I wouldn’t mind learning how to use a sword,” Karzarul said.

“You have a bow,” she pointed out.

“Yeah,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I’d never need a sword.”

“You can turn into a bear,” Lynette said. “You never need a sword.”

It was hard to argue with the logic of the statement.

A few times since leaving the Faewild, little balls of moonlight had returned to Karzarul. He wasn’t sure why the Moon Goddess had taken those bits of moonlight out of him, where She had sent them or why. He didn’t know why they were coming back to him. In that, at least, he could be honest. He hadn’t told anyone what he’d asked for, what he’d done. He was sure they’d be upset when they realized. He would rather delay that conversation for as long as possible.

Except that another ball of moonlight struck, and when it did he found himself a Bullizard. He was somewhere he didn’t recognize, and a soldier was swinging a sword straight for his neck.

“Karzarul?” Vaelon asked. He and Lynette had both brought their horses to a stop. “Why did you change?”

He changed back to his usual form, whatever heart he may have had racing. He was sure that he’d been somewhere else, someone else, about to die. He thought of the balls of light leaving, returning.

“I need to check on something,” Karzarul said.

“What is it?” Vaelon asked.

“Is this related to your blessing?” Lynette asked.

“I’m not sure,” Karzarul lied. “That’s what I need to go check. Go ahead without me, and I’ll catch up.” He changed into a bird, taking flight and heading for the sky.

He needed to find more monsters if he was going to find answers.

Now he leaves,” Lynette said.

“He’ll be back,” Vaelon said.


Karzarul found the answers he was looking for, but they weren’t the ones he wanted.

The Moon Goddess was not a goddess of creation. She had not created; She had copied. She had taken Karzarul into Herself, and wound him back to his own moments of creation. From them She created duplicates, dropping them into the world in the places where She thought they’d fit, color schemes and patterns taken from other living things in the vicinity.

She also copied his memories, was the thing.

Not all of them. Not for all of them. Only up to the point where he made them, only the ones where he’d tried to be something like human. Something with a face.

Except, they weren’t their memories. They knew the memories didn’t belong to them. They weren’t palpable, tangible things. Whatever connection or sense of self it was that made him think back on who he’d been with embarrassment, they didn’t have it. To them, they were all simply things that happened to Karzarul.

It meant they knew him very well. It would not have occurred to him how much he would dislike this.

He could feel them, the faced monsters and the beast monsters alike. Only within a certain range, thankfully; he thought if he could tell when every Shimmerbat in the world was hungry, he might go a little insane. He might be going a little insane anyway. Finding all the edges of where his feelings ended and other feelings began.

His wish had never been about wanting for company, wanting anyone to feel what he felt. He’d just wanted to know they were out there. He had imagined a world where he could be one of many, where a monster was a normal thing that didn’t need explaining. That he could be a person that way Vaelon and Lynette were people, going to new places and meeting new people.

It was a little like meeting new people, at least.

These monsters She’d made of him had a distinct sense of self that he lacked. They knew what they were, and who they were, without anyone having to tell them. They gave themselves names like Indomitable Tauril, Red Bullizard, Tabby Bruteling. Explaining that words weren’t names didn’t sway them, although they were willing to accept nicknames. He was grateful now that Vaelon hadn’t let him name himself Beautiful, having to deal with Taurils who introduced themselves as Immovable.

It was the faced monsters who brought their memories of their last moments with them to share. He didn’t know why it happened, if it was something the Moon Goddess had done on purpose. Making him look at the consequences of what he’d done.

If Vaelon or Lynette ever found out, he’d never hear the end of it. From Lynette, especially. If he’d asked them about his wish beforehand, she would have been the first to point out that this might happen. Vaelon might have helped him find a better way to phrase the request, something more specific, something that wouldn’t have turned out like this. It was too late for any of that now. The best he could do was try to gather up as many as he could before they got themselves killed.

The second-best he could do was get them dressed. Most of the Brutelings had already stolen outfits, the way he once had. They proved skillful enough with needles to fashion patchwork shirts for the Taurils. Taurils quickly organized themselves into an informal hierarchy based on whose shirt had the most varieties of fabric in it.

“I bet I could jump into the lake from up there,” Reckless said, pointing to a rocky overlook.

“No way,” Tenacious said. “You’d break all your ankles and drown.”

“I could totally do it,” Rugged said.

“You should test it,” Tabby said, riding on Rugged’s back with five other Brutelings.

That was the other thing about them, these copies of himself, him but not him. He would have thought they would have personalities like his, that they would act like him.

They did not.

The thought of Vaelon or Lynette seeing monsters that looked like him and acted like this was mortifying. The thought that they had ever seen him act like this was excruciating. He felt sure he’d never been like this. Had he? Maybe he’d wanted to show off a little, the first time he’d gotten being a person anything close to correct. Deep down he supposed he had wanted it to be impressive, being the one who saved the day. But not like this. He would have known better than to be so… so…

Obvious.


“I’m going to kill him,” Lynette said, slamming her empty glass onto the table.

“No you’re not,” Vaelon said, gesturing for another.

“He could have fucking mentioned,” she said, “that there’d be little hims running all over the place. He knew good and well what he was asking for, I guarantee it.”

“I’m not going to blame him for that,” Vaelon said. “He isn’t like us. He never was. He was the only thing like him. I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to turn out like this.”

Giant wolves killing cattle. Enormous boars destroying crops. Clouds of bats in mineshafts. Little beasties robbing houses, building little forts in the woods. Travelers scared to use roads for fear of the giants in the way.

The thought of what might be happening off the coasts was appalling.

“You were both very sure that he’d be helpful,” Lynette said. “But the whole point of this was to get the Praetorians of the West and South to support me and provide me the armies I need to lay siege to Aekherium. How do you think it’s going to look if I show up to battle alongside the thing that’s been terrorizing their countryside? What do you think they’ll assume I asked for? What deal will they think I’ve made?”

“Empresses don’t need to worry about what other people think.”

“The fuck they don’t,” Lynette said. “Have you not heard of a guillotine?”

“Empresses wielding a tangible representation of their Goddess’ blessing don’t need to worry about what other people think,” Vaelon corrected. “Particularly not when they’re allied with a guy who can turn into a bear.” She huffed. “Besides, for all we know he’s trying to get them gathered all together. They’re scattered. He could have another army for you, when all is said and done.”


“I’m not saying you have to stay here forever,” Karzarul said, hands on the spot where his upper half met his lower. “Everyone keeps getting killed when they’re alone, and everyone’s alone. If you stay here for right now I can work on finding everyone else until we’re all together. After that we can find somewhere better, if you want. This is only—it’s out of the way. There’s fish, and birds, and berry bushes. There was at least one goat. Humans can’t get up here, so we don’t have to worry about it. It’s a good spot.”

“I don’t think you’re going to get the Howlers to stay up here,” Indomitable said.

“That’s a separate issue.” And not one he was particularly worried about. Howlers getting killed wasn’t something he had to experience firsthand every time it happened.

“Getting everyone here on foot seems like it will take a while.”

“I’m working on it.” He’d figured out that he could draw the other monsters into himself, same as when they’d been killed. It was getting them back out that was the trouble. “For now, can you keep everyone from wandering off? Keep the Brutelings busy, find them things to work with so they’re not trying to steal all the time.”

Indie nodded. “You got it, Boss.”


“Hey,” Vaelon said, tapping Lynette on the leg. She was watching her armies attack the walls of Aekherium, assembling trebuchets in the vast fields outside the city. She sat astride her new horse, one of Maggie’s sisters, another beast of a thing with long fur all around its dinnerplate hooves. “I talked to Karzarul.”

“What?” She looked down at him startled. “How? Where is he?”

“I’d tell you,” he said, “but you’ve already got this whole siege thing planned out, and you don’t want to be tempted to change anything last-minute and fuck the whole thing up.” She scowled at him, but didn’t deny it. “He says he’ll be here to help on the night of the full moon.”

“That’s in a week,” she said. “He’s a week out?”

“Kinda,” Vaelon said. “It’s complicated.”

She rubbed at her temple. “I don’t know if it’s even worth it, at this point,” she said. Though the capital city had its own armies, only the Praetorian of the North had been organized enough to bring his own men to support Wynrath. They were focused entirely on guarding the Great River, the port being the only part of the city without walls. To try and fell the walls of Aekherium was madness. They had stood strong since Emperor Aekhite the First had erected them.

But Lynette was mad enough to stare into the face of the Sun Goddess, and she remembered a time before her exile. Discussions of all the work that needed doing, all the infrastructure that needed maintaining. There were certain areas of the walls prone to erosion and weakness, some quirk of instability in the ground below. There was no glamour or majesty in the hard work of maintenance. She knew which areas would be weak now, these many years on.

Victory felt inevitable. Slow, but inevitable. Was there value in introducing another variable?

In introducing the idea that her victory was owed to anyone but herself?

“Don’t be stupid,” Vaelon said. “Shit can always go sideways. At worst you turn a victory overwhelming. He says he can bring Taurils.”

“What?”

“That’s what the big boys are called.”

“According to who?”

“According to them.”

“I suppose it lends itself to a bit more dignity than ‘big boys’,” Lynette sighed.

“Yeah,” Vaelon sighed. “Too bad. Anyway, I’m letting you know because he says they can’t bring their own weapons.”

“Do they need those?”

“Or shirts.”

“Yeah, they need those.” She ran her hand over her hair, scowling at the horizon. “I’ll see what we can do on short notice.”


Things had gone a bit sideways.

Not a lot sideways. For the defenders of the wall to have descended to attack made them vulnerable. They’d made a tactical error in even trying, and another one moving too far from the walls themselves. It allowed Lynette’s soldiers to close in and cut them off, preventing retreat.

The sideways part was that Lynette was in the thick of it, using the Sunshield to protect the main trebuchet. The other sideways part was that Vaelon was with her, because the alternative was having him anywhere except behind her shield.

“Sun’s going down soon,” Vaelon shouted to be heard above the din of fighting and dying. “I should go get Karzarul.”

“How the fuck do you think you’re going to do that?” Lynette asked, jabbing her sword through the Sunshield’s protective aura to skewer someone.

“That’s the thing I didn’t tell you before,” Vaelon said, pulling the Starsword out of its scabbard. “I finally skimmed those terms and conditions.” He turned toward the trebuchet, eyes turning black as he sliced through the air. Lynette almost protested, misunderstanding what he was trying to do, but her complaint died as she saw the hole he’d cut into the world. Opaque with multicolored light, like he’d opened a wound in reality and made it bleed a rainbow. “Be right back,” he said, and he ducked through it.

“What the fuck.”

Vaelon returned in only a few minutes, pulling Karzarul through in his Bruteling form. He looked more like a princeling, his silver and white versions of the clothes Vaelon had made him those years ago. The Moonbow was on his back. “Hello!” Karzarul said.

“Where the fuck have you been?” Lynette asked.

“Sorry,” he said. “I had to take care of some stuff.” He pulled an arrow from his quiver, and stabbed it like a dagger into the slashed-open world behind him; it zipped itself shut immediately.

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask you about some of that,” Lynette said. “And you could have told me you could magically transport assassins for me,” she added.

“Nah,” Vaelon said. “It only works for the three of us, and only if we have our weapons with us. Which is great for Karzarul, not so good for me if I don’t have pants on.”

“Why would you—?”

“Her brother’s in the Imperial Palace of Aekherium,” Vaelon explained to Karzarul. “He’s the one we’re deposing.”

“The big building in the middle?” Karzarul asked.

“You can’t go in there and kill him for me,” Lynette warned. “There’s a protocol, I—we need to be able to get our people inside.”

“I’m on it,” Karzarul said, changing form to a Misthawk and taking flight toward the palace.

“If he kills Wynrath, I’m blaming you,” Lynette warned.

“No you’re not,” Vaelon said. “He won’t, anyway.”

For a time, there was nothing, only the same fighting there’d been before. The sun fell behind the horizon, gave way to the moon hanging full in the sky. A great din became audible even from outside the city walls, over the existing cacophony. Vaelon saw him first, as Lynette was still absorbed in killing anyone too aggressive toward her barrier.

A dragon of legend. Except, not a dragon. Too many legs, too many eyes, wings too wide for a body too long. Karzarul looked like a great and terrible snake, white as the moon above him, shedding light like fleas. A ball of moonlight burst like a firework into a second not-dragon, shining black like a beetle’s carapace. It joined him in wrapping around the Imperial Palace; when Karzarul roared, it roared; when Karzarul spat flame into the night sky, it did the same.

“Holy shit,” Vaelon said. “Biggest boy.”

Enough of Wynrath’s soldiers were giving up the fight as lost that Lynette could stop bloodying her sword for a moment.

“Okay,” she admitted. “That fucking rules, actually.”


“You’ve never read Lovers of the Wild Rose?” Vaelon asked.

“When would I have read it?” Karzarul asked. “I’ve only ever read what you gave me.”

“Oh, weird,” Vaelon said, because he hadn’t actually thought about that. He forgot sometimes that Karzarul had been light instead of a person. “You’ve got to read it sometime,” he said. “I bet they have a copy in the Imperial Library, I’ll grab one before I forget.” He hopped down off of Karzarul’s back without waiting for him to kneel first. Vaelon had been getting less cautious about heights these last few years, more willing to risk injury to save time. Something about the Starsword had made him more durable than he used to be, and he was finally getting used to it. Karzarul wished he wouldn’t test the limits of it. It made him nervous. “We might as well set up a Door here, don’t you think?”

Karzarul looked around. It was a nondescript stretch of road without much going for it. “Here?” he asked for confirmation.

“There’s an intersection over there,” Vaelon said, pointing further down the road to where it split. “Could save us some trouble retracing our steps later.” He headed for a copse of trees, and Karzarul followed. When they felt isolated enough from the road, Vaelon unsheathed the Starsword, and sliced through space. “Be right back,” he said, and Karzarul nodded as he disappeared.

Karzarul could follow and help, in theory. In practice, he made the Imperial Enchanters nervous. Vaelon also made them nervous, but they found the fundamental fact of his entire existence less upsetting.

Vaelon slipped in and out, bringing back pieces of granite etched with precious metals, interlocking shapes at the top and bottom of them. Karzarul got to work on assembly, the large hands of a Tauril better suited to handle the enormous bricks. He liked the making aspect, solving the puzzle of how all the pieces fit, though he knew the enchanters had things they would rather be doing than making a steady stream of Door parts.

Lynette wasn’t thrilled by how far they had wandered since she had ascended to the throne. Empress Aekhite the Thirteenth, Chosen Heir of the Sun Goddess, Glorious and Bright. It was a lot of work, an empire. Despite that, she’d ordered the Imperial Enchanters to find a way to keep the holes Vaelon cut through reality from healing shut. There were plenty of practical applications for being able to visit every corner of her empire at a moment’s notice.

All the skill and power of the Aekhite Empire went into designing the Rainbow Doors, modular pieces of stone that could seal together into a seamless indestructible unit anywhere they wanted.

Vaelon used them to run back to the palace for things he forgot, or to visit his favorite bars, or to mark the best places to watch the sun set.

They weren’t only wandering. Vaelon was developing a reputation as a problem-solver, someone who could find the unfindable and fix the unfixable. Part of that was the growing legend of how he’d assisted in deposing the Usurper Emperor. Another part was that he could travel half the country in a matter of minutes to find rare plants and artifacts.

But, mostly, he was Vaelon. He could talk snow out of melting and fish out of swimming. There turned out to be a lot of problems that could be solved by the presence of a person everyone liked listening to.

Karzarul stayed a Howler around other people. It was easier that way, not having to explain himself, not having to talk about the other monsters people had heard of. People saw him with Vaelon, and assumed the bearer of the Starsword had tamed a monster.

They were right, which saved everyone a lot of time.

Karzarul arranged both halves of the Door to his liking before fitting the final piece between them. The edges of the opaque riot of color immediately snapped to the edges of the structure, filling it and lighting up all the etchings. All the bricks fused into a single piece of granite, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

“Nice,” Vaelon said, patting Karzarul on the side. Karzarul tried not to enjoy the praise too much. He knew he hadn’t actually done anything. Vaelon had opened the passage, and enchanters had built the Door. “Want to test the lock?”

Karzarul pulled an arrow from his quiver, stabbed it into the panel of stone on one side of the Door. The light disappeared, leaving instead the appearance of more granite. Vaelon pushed the Starsword into the panel and turned it, and the light reappeared.

“Looks like we’re good to go!” Vaelon said. “I’ll go grab that book, how about you check on your kingdom while I’m out?”

“Sure,” Karzarul said, with no intention of doing that. He sat and waited for Vaelon to return instead.

Karzarul was in charge of the monsters. Only the beasts had to do as he willed, but the faced monsters usually listened to him anyway. They did have a spot of land, though it was too high in the mountains to be practical for anyone else to use. King Karzarul still felt like a bit much. ‘King’ was a job title akin to ‘Empress’, one that involved a lot of work that Karzarul didn’t want to do. Sitting in a great big building giving orders didn’t suit him the way it did Lynette. He wanted to be with Vaelon, to see the world on its own merits and then again through his eyes. He wanted to do things with his own hands, his own teeth.

While the monsters were enthusiastic about King Karzarul’s Castle on Monster Mountain, they were only doing it for the fun of it. Brutelings liked to make things, and Bullizards liked to guard things, and Taurils liked inventing obtuse rules about fashion even more than they liked hunting impressively large animals. Black Drakonis was a little trickier to manage, but once they’d built her a castle to protect she’d been content to stay on the mountain. It had been at least a decade since she’d gone trying to claim another fortress as her own.

Monsters were always happy enough to see him, but they didn’t need him the way the Empire needed the Empress. They knew him too well to want or expect his company. Karzarul only visited the mountain on full moons. If he focused, he could force most monsters who’d been lost to reform themselves nearby. The only ones he left to their own devices were the Abysscales, content to spend their time in pods below the waves.

When he visited them, it was for very different reasons.

Karzarul used to wonder if it might be something about what he was, the way that he was made. The wanting, the way it ached. Wanting before he’d even known what it was he wanted.

With time he saw it in humans, too. Noticed the way they looked at Vaelon. The way Vaelon never looked back. The way Vaelon accepted offered kisses with less enthusiasm than he accepted strange bugs from small children.

It ached, but it made Karzarul feel better to think that he wasn’t alone. That Vaelon wasn’t uniquely disinterested in Karzarul. Being the one Vaelon would ride with, the one he would sing for, even though he didn’t feel the same—that was enough.

Except for when it wasn’t, and he had to go jump in the ocean.

Other than that, though.


“You can’t still be working,” Vaelon said. It was the time of night that was starting to edge into morning. Lynette was slouched over the table in the war room, its surface covered in maps and little models of horses.

“Nope,” Lynette said, holding up a half-empty bottle of wine.

“Ah, the glamorous life of an empress,” Vaelon said as she stood. She stayed steady as she met him by the door, an arm around his shoulders to herd him out of the room. “Aw, I don’t get to play war?” he asked.

“Nope,” Lynette said, taking a swig from her wine bottle. They made their way into another study, and she sank into a chair. Vaelon stole the bottle to take a swig before she stole it back. She picked up a pen from the side table, rolling the feather between her fingers.

“How’s things?” Vaelon asked. “Haven’t seen you in a bit.” He found excuses to visit regularly, but let her schedule determine how long he stayed. She wasn’t always available when he dropped by.

“You’ve been gone,” she reminded him.

“You’ve been busy,” he countered. “Official business. I’m a civilian, remember?” She grumbled. “You doing okay?”

“Great,” she said, not sounding great. “My first heirs are in the works.”

“Oh!” Vaelon gaze went lower, but she waved him off.

“Calae,” she said, naming one of her consorts. “He’s been working his way through the other consorts for years, now some of them finally have bellies to show for it.”

“Convenient,” Vaelon said.

“Does save me some trouble,” she sighed. “Makes new trouble.” She contemplated her pen. “We aren’t aging, Vaelon.”

“We’re well-preserved,” he said.

“Bullshit,” she said. “We’re pickled if we’re anything. You may not have noticed, spending all your time with a monster that wouldn’t age anyway.”

He sighed. “Yes, Nettles, I noticed.” It was getting hard not to. He was in his sixties, now. It was easy to lose track of time, traveling everywhere on foot with Karzarul and letting themselves get distracted by whatever caught their fancy. He’d never realized how quickly time could pass, when he let it. He wondered if time was slipping through her fingers, or if she felt every minute of it.

“Empress Immortal,” she mused, testing the sound of the words.

“You could always step down when you get bored,” he suggested, and she laughed bitterly.

“And do what?” she asked. “No. This is all I’ve ever wanted. I am fixing things, slowly but surely. Four steps forward, three steps back.”

“A vacation wouldn’t hurt,” he said, but she shook her head.

“They wonder,” she said. “When they don’t know where I am, what I’m doing. They wonder about the Sunshield, about the deals I’ve made. Monsters.”

“What?”

Lynette set the pen down, and looked at the bottle of wine. “We haven’t seen any off the mountains in years,” she said, “but. During the siege. Some of the soldiers did notice. Your face. And with the rumors about those things in the ocean—” She sighed, letting her head fall against the back of the chair and staring at the ceiling. “I don’t know. It’s nothing. Treasonous whispers, and not many of them.”

“It bothers you, though.”

“No,” she said. “It’s better if you come here, that’s all. So everyone can see who you are.”

“Not a consort?” he teased.

“You could be,” Lynette said.

Vaelon laughed. “Bit of a problem with the job description,” he pointed out.

“You wouldn’t actually —I wouldn’t make you. It’s only a title. It would give you an official legal designation. To stay here, with me. We’d be partners. The way we were partners. Before.”

“I’ve gotten used to wandering,” he said.

“I’ve noticed.”

“I would have thought…” He hesitated. “I thought it was frustrating for you,” he said. “Being with me.”

“You’re a frustrating person,” she said.

“Sex-wise,” he clarified.

Once, early in her exile and not long after they’d met, there had been a single abortive attempt at a makeout session. He’d already loved her dearly. It wasn’t as if he was opposed to sex, even if he didn’t see the appeal. If he could do it over again, he might have figured out in advance what role she wanted him to play, made a game of it. He hadn’t realized at the time that she would find passivity upsetting when what she wanted was enthusiasm.

She had a lot of consorts, now. Big ones, little ones, pretty ones. He didn’t understand why she’d want one she wouldn’t consort with.

“Is that how I made you feel?” she asked. “Like you were frustrating me?”

“No,” he said. “But you always do that.” He leaned against the wall on his elbow, propping his head against his hand. “Wanting to fuck me is not an act of aggression.”

She scowled.

“It’s flattering,” he shrugged. “I don’t offer to give it a try because I feel guilty. I offer because I like making you happy. Except that it wouldn’t make you happy, because what you actually want is for me to feel something I don’t. Which seems like it would be frustrating.”

“I’m not a child,” she said, “to dwell on dreams and hypotheticals. I would rather have the reality of you, if I have you at all.”

“You say that,” he said, “right up until you see other people looking at me the way you look at me.”

She drummed her fingers on the bottle. “I’m not other people.”

“Can you see how the fact that you think it takes great strength of will to handle being kinda horny for me might raise some concerns?”

She sputtered, picking up the pen and trying to throw it at his head. “Fuck off.” The feather fluttered to the floor. “That isn’t—that’s not what I meant.” She took a swig of wine. “Go back to your pet monster, if he handles it so well.”

“You were right, you know. About how he feels.”

“Of course I was.”

“He’s a lot like you,” Vaelon said. “He never asks for anything.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” she spat. “We’ll add it to the fucking list of things he’s better at than me.”

“It isn’t like that,” Vaelon said, coming closer to her. “You know it isn’t.” He reached down to take her face in his hands, turning it toward him. “Nettles,” he said, “if the choice was between losing you, and staying in this palace until I die, I’d stay.” She pressed her hand over his, bare skin knotted with callouses and scar tissue. “I’d be your consort, your prisoner, mop the floors. Whatever it takes not to lose you. You’ll always be the one that saved me.”

“You weren’t the one dying.”

He brought her hand up in his to kiss the backs of her fingers. “Anything you want from me, all you have to do is ask.”

“I would never put you in that position.”

“I know,” he said. “That’s the problem.”


Something was wrong in Gaigon.

Karzarul wouldn’t have known, except he’d gone to visit the pod of Abysscales that lived there. He still had a soft spot for the port city of Rison. The sailors there had always been friendly, even when all the ones he’d known from his first visit had retired. They were always helpful when someone got caught in a net. It was the only place he knew of where monsters were considered lucky.

New ships had been off the coast. Golden ships, carrying sun-painted banners.

Karzarul still remembered what Lynette had said, before she’d been Sunlight Empress Immortal. It didn’t seem right that she’d be sending out the Imperial Navy to attack Gaigon vessels. He was sure Vaelon would have mentioned it, if there were a war or a rebellion of some kind. Karzarul could have asked Vaelon, except, well.

What if they weren’t rogue ships? What if they were following Lynette’s orders, and Vaelon didn’t know?

Or, worse: what if Vaelon knew?

What if there were good reasons why Gaigon sailors needed to die?

Karzarul decided he would rather not ask than risk knowing. Abysscales could tear the boards off of ships without ever needing to come up from under the water. As long as they tried not to kill Imperial sailors, it was fine. As long as they left the lifeboats alone, that was barely any harm done.

He’d add it to the list of things not to mention around humans.

Astielle: Chapter Nineteen

“You realize if your brother finds out about this, he’s going to have the Governor of Yostia as well as the Praetorian of the West beheaded?” Vaelon asked.

“I am aware,” Lynette said. “I don’t have time to spend years wandering around the desert looking for water with shiny rocks in it. My brother is running Aekhite into the ground now. The Yostian Governor’s palace is on the way to the desert anyway.”

“This plan is much too complicated,” Vaelon said, looking over the parchment Lynette was using to diagram. “There’s five different points where you could get caught, you’re making a lot of assumptions about the state of their laundry chutes, and I’m going to have a lot of trouble acting as backup even if I do manage to talk my way into the ballroom. And you haven’t accounted for Karzarul at all.”

“He’s lookout,” Lynette said, pointing at the drawing of a bird.

“Right,” Vaelon said. “But what I’m saying is, you’re the extremely distinctive First Daughter of the First Consort of Emperor Aekhet the Twelfth, Gloried Be His Memory. You have created a plan that depends on no one in this palace recognizing you, because there are so many women out there twenty hands tall blessed with Summer eyes. The plan subsequently involves fitting some very broad shoulders into some very narrow spaces. Meanwhile, you have taken the person who has no known affiliations and who also can shapeshift, and you’ve stuck him outside. You’re seeing the problem here, yes?”

Lynette frowned at the parchment. “I have to collect the sunbeam,” she said.

“No one said you have to do it personally,” Vaelon said. “You decided that on your own. Even if you did have to take it with your own two hands, this isn’t a good plan.” He picked up her pen and dipped it in her inkwell before she could stop him, using it to draw. “Here’s an alternate plan,” Vaelon said. “Karzarul turns into Biggy Piggy, and knocks half the palace down. In the confusion, you dig through the rubble and find the crystal sunbeam. Bam! Took it with your own two hands, can blame the whole thing on a mystery pig.”

“Is that what you think Biggy Piggy looks like?” she asked, pointing to the drawing Vaelon had made. It was a circle with stubby legs and a snout, a flower on its head.

Karzarul had come up with what Vaelon called Biggy Piggy to assist in destroying the camp of some brigands that had drawn Lynette’s ire. His explanation for why the house-sized wild boar was also somewhat a tree was ‘battering rams’. He had not elaborated, and was upset by the implication that he should.

“Basically,” Vaelon said. “I left out some of the less important details.”

“This is an orb,” Lynette said. “I’m not taking planning advice from a man who can’t tell the difference between an enormous wild boar, and an orb.”

Karzarul, who’d been laying on the ground in his wolf form, finally took an interest in the discussion. He got up on his back paws to put his forepaws on the table, so that he could see the picture.

“This is basically you, right?” Vaelon asked, pointing at his drawing.

Karzarul got back down from the table. He’d been less vocal lately, Lynette had noticed. She wasn’t complaining. His voice was horrid.

Transitioning through light, Karzarul adopted a new form. This one was, in fact, orbular.

“Holy shit,” Vaelon said, running around the table to scoop Karzarul up in his arms. “Nettles. Nettles. Are you seeing this?”

“I’m seeing something, alright.”

“This rules,” Vaelon said, setting Karzarul back down. Karzarul experimented with oinking, which had Vaelon smooshing his own cheeks with his hands. “Karzarul, you’re Itty Piggy.”

“He’s future bacon, is what he is,” Lynette said. Karzarul trotted in a circle, but was too round to see his own curly tail.

“You’ve got to take advantage of this,” Vaelon said. “Looking like this? He could walk right in there. No one would stop him. Everyone would make way. This is the best animal. The only flaw is that no one would want to let him leave.”

“I’m glad you’re taking this seriously,” Lynette said.

“I am taking it seriously,” Vaelon said. “He shouldn’t actually use Itty Piggy. But we’ve already established he can become a bird, a snake—who knows what else. He could break into the palace without anyone ever finding him, they couldn’t keep him even if they could catch him, and if they caught him there’d be no way of connecting him to you. No one expects a pig to be involved in political intrigue.”

Karzarul sat and tried to look like a valuable asset, which was also a small round pig.

Vaelon leaned against the table toward Lynette. “The only reason to plan this out the way you have,” he said, “is because you don’t trust anyone to get this right except you.”

She glowered at her building diagrams.

“This isn’t about Karzarul,” Vaelon added, “because you won’t let me do this, either.”

“Absolutely not,” she agreed.

“And that is correct,” Vaelon said. “I would fuck this up big time. Karzarul wouldn’t, though. This is right in his wheelhouse. He’s a shapeshifter and he likes being given tasks. Right?”

“I like helping,” Karzarul said.

“There’s a clear goal, a clear set of limitations. This is ideal for him. But you’d still rather handle it on your own.”

“It’s my quest,” she said. “Not his.”

“Do you want to be a mercenary, Nettles?” Vaelon asked. “Or do you want to rule an empire? Because only one of those things is going to let you do your own dirty work. Empress Aekhet is going to need to delegate a lot of tasks to a lot of people she doesn’t really know. If you can’t handle letting someone who’s consistently pulled through for the last six months steal a rock, how are you going to handle a government?”

“I will not be lectured on what it means to be Empress by you,” she snapped. “My entire life has been preparation for the day I would rule. I have known the Praetorian Prefects since I was a toddler. I am well the fuck aware that I am going to need to delegate.”

“And yet,” Vaelon said, pointing, “you put the shapeshifter outside to stand watch while you infiltrate.”

She rolled the parchment up. “I’ll think about it.”

He patted her shoulder. “There’s my girl.”


It was the first time they’d run into a gang of bandits that had trained attack dogs. Karzarul’s usual strategy for helping did not account for the presence of dogs. His solution was a different form, bigger teeth and bigger claws, a larger and more dexterous body.

“Vaelon,” Lynette shouted, kicking a dog in the face at the same time as she parried a blade, “could we get a song over here?”

“Oh, certainly,” Vaelon called from where he was still waiting on his horse. He plucked at his banjo, and started in on a popular pub tune about the many ex-lovers who now wanted him dead.

He made it to the second round of the chorus before Lynette asked, “What exactly is this supposed to be doing?”

Vaelon stopped. “Oh! You wanted a spell. Sorry, I thought you meant something for the mood.”

Lynette cut a man’s arm off. “For fuck’s sake.”

“I liked it!” Karzarul called back.

“Don’t encourage him,” Lynette snapped.

“Which one of us is supposed to not encourage the other?” Vaelon called.

“Yes,” Lynette said, blocking a club with her shield and a sword with her own.

Vaelon started to play again, the same song as before. This time his eyes turned the color of void, dark shadows rising like smoke from his fingertips. Curls of smoky blackness rose from the ground like it was on fire, enveloping those bandits who did not have the sense to flee at the first glimpse of it. When it caught something living it solidified, shrank, tightened its hold on whatever it had until bones started to crack. Anything the magic held was crushed and ripped apart, torn into smaller pieces as the radius of the spell only increased.

“Vaelon,” Lynette called, sheathing her sword. “That’s enough.” The blackness spread, fingers strumming faster. “Vaelon.”

He stopped, hand flat against the strings. “Sorry,” he said, as all the darkness retreated and his eyes returned to normal. “Got really into it, there.”

“I know,” she said, as Vaelon dismounted to see if there was anything worthwhile left in the blood soaked dirt. It let him get a closer look at the new form Karzarul had made.

“I understand why the panther,” Vaelon said, “but why is your tail a snake?”

The tail, which was a snake, lashed anxiously. “The dogs kept biting it,” Karzarul said unhappily. He tried to groom the blood from his paws with his great raspy tongue.

“I almost like this one,” Lynette said. Karzarul perked up immediately. “Not that much.” He sighed.


“He’s taking too long,” Lynette said, pacing. She’d been pacing almost since Karzarul had left, taking flight in his bird form toward the Yostian Governor’s palace. They weren’t able to wait as close as Lynette would have preferred. The Governor had opted to build his palace outside of any cities, to avoid dealing with local mayors. The only cover here was in the mountainous terrain, the weather too hot and the ground too hard for forests. It was an almost-desert, no sand or soft dunes, all sharp shrubs and prickly plants and everything red.

The gardens of the palace still managed to be lush and green, but that was no surprise.

“You said that five minutes after he left,” Vaelon reminded her. He strummed idly on his banjo.

“What happens if he gets caught?”

“He escapes.”

“What if he decides not to come back?”

“He will.”

“What if he can’t hold his form together outside the presence of a witch, and he turns back into light?”

Vaelon stopped strumming. “That doesn’t sound right,” he decided, and started playing again. “You weren’t worried about that in Faewild Forest,” he said.

“He would have been fine,” she said.

“Then he’s going to be fine,” he said. “Give him time. For all we know he has to slither all the way back so no one catches him. That’s slow going.”

Lynette grunted, but didn’t stop pacing.

It was hours later, in the deep of night, that the sparkle of a star came closer. It crash-landed near Vaelon with a frantic flapping of silvery wings. It was enough to wake Vaelon where he’d been snoring. He blinked sleepily at the little point of light. “Holy shit.”

“I got the sunbeam!” Karzarul announced. He held it over his head using the thumbs sticking out of the crook of his wings. Lynette bent low to take it from him, turning the crystal over in her hands. It looked like solid daylight.

Vaelon scooped Karzarul up with both hands. “You’re so tiny!” Vaelon said at a startlingly high pitch.

“There were a lot of bats roosting around the palace,” Karzarul explained, “so I tried to blend in. I don’t think I got it exactly right, but no one seemed to notice.”

“This is adorable,” Vaelon said, and Karzarul glowed in his hands.

“That’s the part you got wrong,” Lynette said. “Bats are usually scary.”

“I like bats,” Vaelon said.

“Exactly,” Lynette said. “Good work getting this,” she added, holding up the crystal sunbeam. Karzarul glowed brighter.

They gathered their things, and made it a good distance before they ran into the first patrol. The theft had been discovered, and all roads through Yostia were being watched.

“What do you think?” Vaelon asked as they rode closer. “We can bluff our way through it, run like hell, try to scare them off, or kill them. Shall we vote on it?”

Karzarul made a unilateral decision instead, leaping into the road. His form changed to be enormous, and he roared as he gallumphed toward the patrol on four paws. The patrol, unprepared for an enormous white grizzly, rapidly fled or else found themselves trampled by their own panicking horses.

“I scared them,” Karzarul said, his return making Lynette and Vaelon both struggle with their mounts. Up close, it was more obvious that he had a long set of fangs sticking out on either side of his snout.

“You missed a spot,” Vaelon said, gesturing to his back, where two small leathery wings flapped but accomplished nothing.

“Bats are scary,” Karzarul said, changing back into a tiny puffball. Lynette laughed.


The desert was unpleasant. Lynette had to carry a parasol to keep from burning, and burned anyway. Vaelon developed an aesthetically pleasing tan. Karzarul created a new form inspired by lizards that he refused to stay in when Vaelon came near. They had found three oases, but only one so far had a single crystal sunbeam sitting in the water, barely perceptible.

At night, when temperatures dropped to freezing, Lynette would sprawl in the sand with her armor off and sleep like the dead. The relief of being cold had become a vital part of her routine the last two months. She had abandoned any pretense of dignity, because the heat didn’t allow for it.

When they camped, Karzarul remained wolf-like so that Vaelon could use him as a pillow.

“If you want to ride along as a lizardman tomorrow,” Vaelon said, “I don’t mind. You should get more practice with it.”

“No,” Karzarul said. “The lizard thing was a mistake.”

“It isn’t that bad,” Vaelon said. “Why do you think it was a mistake?”

“I wanted to have hands,” Karzarul said. “And be closer to people-size, so I could help with people things. I… forgot, that I shouldn’t try to be part-people. Like my first form.” He hardly used that one now, since he could ride on Vaelon’s shoulders as a snake or curl up in his pocket as a bat. Vaelon couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen that form.

“I like your first form,” Vaelon said. “With your kitty ears.”

Karzarul looked up at the moon. “Is there anything you… don’t like?” he asked tentatively.

Vaelon hummed as he thought it over. “I’m sure there is,” he said, “but it’s tough, when you put me on the spot.”

“Mosquitoes,” Karzarul suggested.

“They aren’t so bad,” Vaelon said. “They’re trying to feed their little families. Can’t have the satisfaction of a scratch if you don’t itch. One of life’s reminders that you’re alive and full of blood.”

“Hm,” Karzarul said.

“All things are equal in the eyes of Mother Void,” Vaelon said, “as She renders all things inconsequential. If anything has consequence, it is only what we’ve given it. If we wish for things to be beautiful, then we need only find them to be so.”

“Some things are more beautiful than others, though,” Karzarul said. “You said… you called Lynette the most beautiful girl in the world.”

“I did,” Vaelon agreed, “because she is.”

“Which things make her the most beautiful?” Karzarul asked. “More than other girls.”

Vaelon hummed. “She’s very tall,” he said. “Legs for days and shoulders for weeks. She can crack walnuts in her elbows. Her biceps are as big as my thighs, and her thighs? She can crush skulls with those things. And has. She’s got a voice like she gargles gravel for breakfast and I am extremely into that. Everything about her is really big and strong and her. You know?”

“Hm,” Karzarul said. “If I wanted to pray,” he asked, looking up at the moon, “would I pray to Mother Void, or the Moon Goddess? Which one is mine? Which would answer?”

“They’re all ours,” Vaelon said. “Pray to the Sun Goddess, if you’d like. Prayers are not for answering. Prayers are for the knowing that comes with asking. Pray for a better world She cannot make, and know that you want things to be better. Pray for absolution She cannot give you, and know that you want you to be better.”

“What do you pray for?” Karzarul asked.

“Voidpriests pray in gratitude,” Vaelon yawned. “It might not matter to Mother Void that She receives it, but it matters to us that we give it.”

Karzarul curled himself more around Vaelon’s head. “Sing for me?” Karzarul asked.

Vaelon sang a quiet hymn to beauty as he fell asleep. Karzarul stayed awake until the last note faded, watching Vaelon breathe.


They had found the third crystal sunbeam, and were headed to the nearest port. The distance was such that taking a ship back east toward Faewild Forest would be faster than traveling overland, when they had no landmarks to reach.

There was also the matter of the desert heat, which Lynette would not tolerate for a single moment longer than necessary. The ship could have been slower, and she still might have preferred it.

Cresting a hill toward the edge, they could see a road at the bottom of the canyon. There was a group traveling along it, shining armor on horseback with banners fluttering above them. Lynette raised her hand above her eyes to see better.

“Those are Aekhite soldiers,” she said.

“Think they know you’re here?” Vaelon asked.

“Worse,” she said. “Gaigon did not join the Empire quietly, and they have not forgotten the Kingdom they once were. Every few decades or so, whoever is Governor starts kicking up a fuss to further their own ends. A few delegates and a bit of flattery is usually all it takes to get the matter sorted.”

“Right,” Vaelon said. “So he’s sending soldiers.”

“Not even an army,” Lynette said. “A single battalion. What’s one battalion going to do? Fucking die, that’s what. Let Gaigon know that they might as well try to secede in earnest, justify bringing a whole goddamn army in for a pointless slaughter, all so Wynrath can feel like a big man.”

“Nettles,” Vaelon warned.

“He’s sent them on a suicide mission,” she said.

“You’re in no position to send them back.”

“If it’s one of the old generals,” she began.

“You won’t know that it is until it’s too late.”

“It would be just like him,” she said, “sending one of Father’s men to die without honor.”

“I could try to scare them back,” Karzarul suggested. He was wrapped around Vaelon’s neck like a serpentine talisman.

“A vampire bear isn’t going to cut it this time,” Vaelon said.

“What if I blocked the road?” Karzarul said.

“I don’t think you can get that big.”

“With a rock, I mean,” he clarified. “There are a lot of big rocks. I could knock them down.”

“Vaelon,” Lynette said. “Do you think it’s possible—could you collapse the canyon ahead of them? Bar the way ahead.”

“Oofta,” Vaelon said, leaning to see better. “That’s a big’n.”

“I know,” Lynette apologized. “I wouldn’t ask if it weren’t—”

“I know,” Vaelon said. He slid out of the saddle to the ground. “Wait here,” he instructed, unwrapping Karzarul from around his neck and setting him in the seat. He walked close to the canyon’s edge as he took his banjo off his back, strapped it back on the right way around. Leaning forward, he ululated into the empty air and listened to it echo. He looked at the striations in the canyon wall opposite, the different layers of stone.

“Yeah,” he decided, playing a chord. “I can do that.”

He started to play, gently at first, his eyes closed. It was a hymn for corpses turned to stone, immortality and use found in death. His fingers flew faster, his voice grew louder, until he opened void-black eyes and let the lyrics fill the canyon from the bottom of his lungs. Lynette had to cover her ears. The ground rumbled as the walls of the canyon at the limits of their vision started to tear away and fall. Vaelon seemed swept up in the chorus as rock sheared from rock, dust rising in a storm from the growing wreckage. The scale of it was hard to comprehend without looking downward at the full-grown trees dwarfed by even the smallest fallen detritus.

Lynette was the first to notice the spiderweb of blackness running through the canyon wall opposite them. “Vaelon,” she shouted, struggling to be heard. It didn’t work. He’d shut his eyes again, black smoke rising from his fingertips as he poured his heart into another round of the chorus. The ground underneath them was shaking in earnest now. The battalion below had already reversed course, as quickly as a few hundred men could.

Lynette leapt from her horse, but when she grabbed Vaelon by the arm the spell stopped in an instant. Whatever unstable structure had been borrowed from the web of magic collapsed, taking the stone around it with it. The ground started to go out beneath them. Realizing her error, Lynette pulled, fully prepared to throw Vaelon bodily back onto his horse.

Before she could, she was grabbed herself, practically tossed in the same manner she’d planned for Vaelon. Everything was a jumble of limbs and fast motion as she found herself sprawled like a floursack on the back of something much larger than a horse. Vaelon was much the same beside her.

Maggie,” she screamed, reaching out as if she might somehow catch the horse already falling backward into the canyon. The ground collapsed fast, but Karzarul ran faster, everything around them turning into a blur of color. She managed with great effort to pull herself up to straddle the massive back, holding tight with her legs so that she could check on Vaelon. He was limp, but he’d managed to twist the banjo strap in time to get it onto his back. Or maybe it had done that itself. She wasn’t clear, with magical instruments.

She managed to pull Vaelon upright enough to hold onto him, clinging tight and telling herself it was for safety.

When they finally came to a stop, the ocean was in view. Karzarul dropped to a kneel so they could dismount.

“Are we there yet?” Vaelon asked blearily as Lynette brought him down to the ground with her.

“Thank you,” Lynette said, pulling him into a hug. “Thank you so much for doing that for me, thank both of you.”

“Is anyone hurt?”

Lynette and Vaelon both froze.

“Oh! Oh, that’s new.” Karzarul was as surprised by his own voice as anyone, deeper and significantly more pleasant than usual.

“You can sound like that?” Vaelon asked.

“This might just be my voice now,” Karzarul said.

Lynette had gotten a good look at him for the first time, the massive bull’s body, the torso like a legendary giant. “What is that face.”

Karzarul hesitated, reaching up to touch it. “I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t seen it yet.”

“She’s right,” Vaelon said, squinting. “That’s familiar.”

“It’s you,” she said, with more than a little disgust.

“It is?” Karzarul asked hopefully.

“Oh, yeah, I kinda see it,” Vaelon agreed. “It’s like me, if I were some kind of a sexy cow man.”

Karzarul paused. “Sexy?” he repeated, intrigued.

“Don’t listen to him,” Lynette said. “He doesn’t know.”

Vaelon made a face. “I can still tell,” he said, offended. “I’m not blind.”

Karzarul rubbed between his eyebrows, where the angle should have changed, and followed the shape of his nose downward with his fingers. “I don’t think I got it right.”

“Not for a human face,” Vaelon said, “but it’s still a good look.” Karzarul looked to Lynette for confirmation, but she wasn’t looking at him. “What was the concept, here?”

Karzarul looked down at himself, and felt suddenly self-conscious that he wasn’t wearing a shirt. Having a humanoid torso made things complicated. Ribbons of moonlight wrapped him in a simple shift. “Big,” he said, “and fast. With hands, so I could catch you.”

“Look at the arms on you,” Vaelon marveled. Karzarul flexed experimentally. “Nice.” Karzarul did a small hop, kicking out his back legs. “This is definitely your best look so far.” Karzarul had to figure out how to run his fingers through his hair with horns in the way, trying to decide on the best way to arrange it.

“You’re so fucking vain,” Lynette muttered.

“Which?”

“Yes,” she said. “You,” she corrected herself, poking Vaelon in the chest. She caught his arm when he looked like that might be enough to tip him over. “You need to rest,” she said.

“It’s gonna have to wait until we get to Rison,” Vaelon said, referring to the port city in the distance. “All our supplies went kaput with Maggie. Sorry about your horse.”

“It’s fine,” Lynette lied.

“I should be able to get us there in not too much time,” Karzarul said.

“I am not going to ride you,” Lynette snapped. Karzarul frowned.

“Nettles,” Vaelon said, throwing his arm over her shoulders as best he could from his height. “Nettles. Look at me.” She did not. “Nettles. Baby. You can either suck it up and get up there with me, or you can meet us at the nearest pub in three days after you walk there. Because I dressed to ride a horse. These boots were not made for walking. These boots were made to look good as hell on a horse. You coming with, or are we meeting you?”

Lynette huffed. “Fine,” she spat. “Fine. But this is the only time.”

Vaelon tousled what hair she had. “There’s my girl.”


“At a certain point,” Vaelon said, “it becomes too many push-ups.”

Lynette continued to do push-ups on the deck. “We can’t all magic ourselves stronger,” she said.

Vaelon moved closer to the rail to look out at the ocean. “He’s been gone a while,” he said thoughtfully.

“Good,” she said.

“Don’t be petty,” Vaelon scolded. “It isn’t his fault I have the objectively best face.”

“Fuck off.”

“You liiike me,” Vaelon taunted.

“I’ll throw you overboard,” she warned.

“Karzarul would save me,” he said, fluttering his eyelashes. She huffed, though it could be mistaken for exertion. “It isn’t the same, anyway. He changes up the nose, that’s most of a face. And his eyes came out bigger this time. Totally different.”

“It isn’t that different.” She finally stopped, rising up to kneel on the deck. “Not wanting to see his weird you-face isn’t why it’s good he hasn’t been aboard,” she said. “He shouldn’t be spending too much time around the sailors.”

It had been impossible to hide Karzarul from the captain and crew, but the captain had already been someone willing to smuggle the Usurper Emperor’s fugitive sister to the Faewild. He seemed willing to accept the explanation that Karzarul was ‘sort of a fairy thing’ and also ‘witch business’.

“Why not?” Vaelon asked. “They seem to like him fine.”

“Oh, they like him alright,” she snorted.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“If you had a child you’d leave them unsupervised in a candy store within minutes.”

There was a noticeable splash at the edge of the ship, then the distinctive sound of something climbing up the wood. A rise and fall of voices, sailors calling out greetings. Karzarul pulled himself up onto the railing, swinging his tail part of the way around so that it could loop around itself and he could sit. He raked his hair out of his face, water still dripping from him. The overabundance of shirtless men had left him more willing to skip clothes.

“Did I miss anything?” Karzarul asked.

“Me!” Vaelon suggested, to which Karzarul laughed.

“Did you miss me?” he asked eagerly.

“Of course,” Vaelon said, and Karzarul grinned wide, the end of his tail thumping against the railing. He looked at Lynette, but she quickly turned her head away, picking up the hem of her shirt and using it to wipe the sweat from her face. “I like your bag,” Vaelon added.

“Thank you,” Karzarul said, fidgeting with the length of rope that made the strap. “Dobbs made it for me.” He searched the deck, then pointed toward the sailor in question. “He’s really talented.”

“That’s one word for it,” Lynette muttered. Karzarul looked abashed, glowing faintly.

“Is everyone being nice to you?” Vaelon asked.

“Mostly,” Karzarul said, glancing to where Lynette still wasn’t looking at him.

“I don’t need to be supervising?” Vaelon teased.

“No!” Karzarul said immediately. “That’s—that would be—maybe? No. They’ve just, been showing me how to play cards, and things.”

Lynette snorted.

“Ooh, I like cards,” Vaelon said.

“It’s in the morning,” Karzarul added. “The early morning.”

“Ooh, mornings do not like me,” Vaelon said.

“Do you like mornings?” Karzarul asked.

“In theory,” Vaelon said. “Can’t say as I’ve met many. We can play our own game of cards later. What do you think, Nettles?”

She stood, barely glanced at Karzarul and then away. “No,” she said, wiping sweat from her forehead and into her hair. Her face was still flush, her shoulders stiff. “And put a shirt on,” she snapped, before stalking back toward their cabin.

Vaelon patted his shoulder. “You’re fine. She’s frustrated, that’s all.”

“Because it’s taking so long,” Karzarul said.

Vaelon looked out at all the sailors manning the deck, and considered what he knew of Lynette’s tastes. When she acted weird and he didn’t know why, nine times out of ten it was some kind of sex thing. “Yeah,” he said, “let’s go with that.”


“Aw, man,” the Fairy King said, “you guys really did it, huh?” He set his drink aside, and hopped down from his throne. “Okay, let’s go to the forge I guess. You got big, by the way.”

Karzarul rubbed at the back of his neck, hooves scuffing the moss.

The Fairy King led the way behind his throne, leaving the rest of the fairies behind. Through a curtain of willow branches was a great circle of stone, impossible shapes and equations carved all throughout it. Trying to follow the lines of them was impossible, slippery and eluding the eye. Above, suspended in the canopy, was a prism that refracted the light into rainbows.

The Fairy King slapped the side of a weird machine. “Throw ’em in,” he said with a tilt of his head toward the large funnel at the top.

Lynette looked at the funnel, then at the crystal sunbeams in her hands. “Throw these?” she asked hesitantly.

“Yah,” the Fairy King said. “In this part.” He pointed into the funnel.

It took a great deal of effort for Lynette to let them go, dropping them down into the device with an ugly clatter.

“Get in the middle,” he said, pointing to the circle. “Oh! You know you might die, though, right?”

“What?” she asked. Behind her, Karzarul recoiled.

“You’re communing with the divine,” the Fairy King shrugged. “It might make you crazy, or your soul might leave your body. You could get ripped to pieces, or your brain might leak out your ears. Goddess stuff. You know.”

“You can change your mind,” Vaelon reminded her.

“No,” she said, steeling herself to stand in the circle. “I can’t.”

As she stood in the center, the Fairy King started to turn an enormous crank on the side of the machine. Sunlight seemed to pour out of it, filling the grooves carved into the stone platform. When it was full, the prism focused an intense beam of light, bursting outward and enveloping her in impossible shapes. The light was too bright, too blinding; the heat of it was scorching, pain in all her pores and lighting up her brain.

WHAT ARE YOU

The words weren’t words, were etched into the marrow of her bones. She tried to unravel them, to find the trap hidden between them, the thing that would undo her. What was she? A princess, an empress, a soldier? Angry, strong? Was it meant to be aspirational, or was it meant to be factual? What could encompass the whole of her, everything she had been and everything she might someday be?

Guardian, she said without words, and a bell rang at the center of the world, echoing through all things.

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO

So many words and so many ways to go wrong. There was no more air in her lungs, if she even had lungs. Should she state facts, make a demand? Was this Her way of asking if her quest was a worthy one? She thought of her father, and her people, and of Vaelon.

I’m going to protect what’s mine, she said, and a bell rang again.

WHAT DO YOU WANT

Did that mean she’d passed the test? Had it been a test at all? Was this her blessing, her reward? She could ask for an empire, for a throne, but that was no guarantee that she would get the one she wanted. Specifying Aekhite wouldn’t help—who knew what Aekhite could become. She knew fables about clever wordsmiths, let me see my kingdom prosper from the throne, but more words were more pitfalls, more things to twist. And who was she, that she needed a Goddess to hand her these things? Was she not the First Daughter of the First Consort, who could bend the world to her will for so long as will she had? What more did she need?

I want the strength of will to do what must be done, she said, and with the final ring of the bell the light faded. It poured back into the device, and something clattered into the output.

“Blessing’s ready,” the Fairy King announced. Warily and on unsteady legs, Lynette approached. She reached inside and pulled out a shield, a circle of copper emblazoned with a sun. The round gem at its center looked like a sunbeam crystal, and its light pulsed with her heart. It felt like a limb she hadn’t known she was missing.

“A shield?” she asked.

“The best offense is a good defense?” Vaelon suggested.

“No takebacks,” the Fairy King warned as Lynette stepped down from the circle.

“Can I see?” Vaelon asked. She tried to hand it to him, but as soon as it left her hands it fell like a stone. Vaelon tried to pick it back up, but couldn’t make it move. She lifted it with ease, running her fingers over the sun motif.

“If I wanted a blessing,” Karzarul asked, opening his massive hand to reveal three perfect moonstones, “can I do that?”

“I knew it,” Lynette said.

“We’ve known he wanted to try it for at least a year,” Vaelon reminded her. “It’s not that surprising.”

“Same deal,” the Fairy King said. “Throw ’em in, hop up, might die.”

“That’s a big risk,” Vaelon said.

“I can do it,” Karzarul said. “If two of us have a blessing, that’s better than one, right?” He dropped the moonstones into the machine, and stepped onto the platform. The Fairy King turned the crank, and moonlight poured into the grooves in the stone. White light poured out of the prism above, and Karzarul was lost in it. It was a touch unsettling to have the edges of himself so ill-defined, but he wasn’t too worried. He’d pulled himself out before, and he could do it again.

WHAT ARE YOU

People were always asking him that.

I’m me, he said with a touch of irritation, and a bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things.

WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO

A lot of things. That all depended on what Vaelon was going to do.

I’m going to follow my love, he said, and he smiled to even think it out loud, even knowing he couldn’t hear. A bell rang.

WHAT DO YOU WANT

A blessing, sort of a wish, and secretly this was what he’d been waiting and hoping for. This one chance.

More like me, he begged, and the bell rang all through him. He felt himself revert to his first form, second, third, something reaching deep inside him and tearing off pieces.

“Did it do that when I was in there?” Lynette asked, watching balls of white light shoot out of the forest by the hundreds and thousands.

“It did not,” Vaelon said.

Karzarul fought to keep himself intact, grabbing at new bits of moonlight as quickly as he lost them. When it was over he was in his water form, collapsed on the stone circle as the light drained away.

“You good?” Vaelon called anxiously. Karzarul nodded, pulling himself back up onto a bull’s hooves. His blessing fell out of the machine, and he looked the bow and its arrows over. All silver and set with moonstones, it felt like a part of him. He drew it into himself the way he would with clothes he didn’t want anymore, and it disappeared. He pulled it back out, and it appeared in his hand.

“Convenient,” Lynette said as Karzarul stepped down.

“Vaelon,” Karzarul asked, “can I have my bag?” It wasn’t safe to let him hold things most of the time, since anything not a part of him could be dropped as soon as he changed forms. Vaelon handed it off, and Karzarul’s hand barely fit inside to find what he wanted. “I got these for you,” he said, offering Vaelon three fallen stars, “if you want them.”

Lynette’s face softened. “Vaelon, you could—”

“I should probably mention,” the Fairy King said, “that She’s the most likely to kill you.” They all turned to look at him. “Fallen stars are the easiest to find,” he said, “but the Void Goddess is, you know. Kind of a lot. Way riskier to even look at Her.”

“You don’t have to,” Lynette said, even as Karzarul withdrew his offered hand.

“Hand them over, you big baby,” Vaelon said, holding out his hands. Reluctantly, Karzarul handed them over.

“I’m sure She’ll like you,” Karzarul said.

Vaelon brought the stars closer to the Fairy King. “Level with me,” he said. “What are the odds this ends terribly?” The Fairy King made a face, shrugged and wiggled his hand in a so-so gesture. “Eh. I’ve had worse.” He dropped the stars into the funnel, and hopped up onto the stone circle with an unnecessary spin. Starlight filled the circle as rainbows fell out of the prism, and then everything went dark.

Not dark, but empty. The vast emptiness of infinity, and Vaelon could see all of it before him, the scale of the cosmos unfurling endlessly. It did not need to seep into him; it was already there, had always been, he was mostly the nothing in the spaces between what he was.

You’re gorgeous, he said. You have got to let me take you dancing sometime.

WHAT ARE YOU

A friend, he said with a wink, and a bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things. He turned his head at the word, looked through all of nothing to the infinitesimally small space where Lynette and Karzarul stood clutching their new blessings. It was a terrible idea to give them those, you know.

You know better than a Goddess?

Oh, I don’t know a damned thing, he said. It’s only that they’re going to try to kill each other with those, one of these days, assuming they don’t kill everybody else first.

And what are you going to do?

He smiled. What else? I’m going to try to stop them.

A bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things.

What is it that you want?

He hummed thoughtfully. He hadn’t planned on asking for a blessing, but it was hard to give up an opportunity to be noticed by Mother Void, who sees all things and notices none. Tempting though it was, he didn’t think it would do to ask Her out for dinner. It was hard to think of anything that he wouldn’t rather share.

I don’t want any of us to be alone, he said wistfully.

A bell rang in the center of the world, echoing through all things.

“That was nice,” Vaelon said.

“That was horrifying,” Lynette said. “I couldn’t even see her and that made me want to die.”

“Oh, don’t we all.” Vaelon lifted up his blessing by the hilt, and made a face. “A sword?” He looked at the Fairy King. “No takebacks?”

“If you really want to get rid of it,” the Fairy King said, “it’ll wipe you from existence, is all.”

Ugh. What if I want to make it into something else? Like a new banjo, or a really good stick?”

The Fairy King scratched his head. “If you wanna be picky,” he said, “bring a thousand stars next time. That’d be enough to do whatever.”

“Fine, fine,” Vaelon said, stepping down. “Do you want it?” he asked Lynette, offering it to her. She touched the hilt, and immediately recoiled when it burned her hand. “Whoops.” He looked the blade over. “I’ll figure something out,” he decided.

“Terms and conditions,” the Fairy King said, pulling a long piece of paper out of the machine and squinting at it. “The Sunshield can block any attack and protect any target, and its effect can extend as far as its light can reach. The Moonbow’s arrows can pierce any defense, and they never run out. The Starsword is the sharpest blade in the cosmos, and can never lose its edge. It’s also…” He ran several more feet of paper through his hands. “I’ll send this home with you,” he decided. “I’m not reading all of this. Your weapons are as eternal as the Goddesses themselves, and you have bound your souls to them, rendering them also eternal.”

Lynette’s breath caught. “Immortal?”

“Your souls,” the Fairy King said. “It might be a package deal, but don’t jump off any buildings counting on it.”

“Eternal?” Vaelon said, making a face. Then he shrugged. “I guess it’s a good thing we all did it,” he said. “At least this way we’ll have company.”

Astielle: Chapter Eighteen

There was a crater in the center of the valley where a piece of the moon had fallen. The Moon Goddess had cut her hair, or dropped her earring, or trimmed her nails too short at the Sun Goddess’ request. Many explanations were given, but they all amounted to the same thing: a piece of the moon had fallen there, and carved a hole into the world. The rain and the snowmelt from the mountains had filled it, and now that hole was a lake, a mirror where the Moon Goddess could see herself.

Mirror Lake at night was Vaelon’s favorite place to pray. He could imagine no place better than this one to sing a hymn to Mother Void, to heap upon Her praises for all that She would one day claim. Even before he’d been a Voidpriest, when he’d only been a witch full of wanting, he’d come here with his 5 string banjo to serenade the moon.

His skin was all olive and gold, his eyes so dark as to almost be black. His witchmarks were shaped like stars, scattered underneath his eyes and the color of a void. He wore his black hair long and loose, with gold hair cuffs near the front to match his earrings.

He was, in a word, insufferable.

Lynette could see her breath forming clouds in the air as she trudged through the trees to find him. She followed the sound of his clear tenor, the rapid strum of his fingers. It felt dangerous that he still played it as a musical instrument when she knew it was also a magical one. Vaelon insisted that he knew what he was doing, but Vaelon insisted a lot of things. Most of them were dumb as hell.

She waited for a lull in his singing to interrupt.

“You know,” she said, “the Void Goddess is going to get jealous, if you keep singing to the Moon Goddess this way.”

Vaelon laughed, still strumming. He was sitting along the edge of the crater, dressed in his vestments, the night-colored trousers and gold-trimmed black robe. “How would the moonlight shine,” he asked, “if not for the dark of the void?”

“Careful,” she said, nodding to the full moon’s reflection on the water. “She might hear you.”

“It is not the place of Goddesses to eavesdrop on the cares of men.”

“And yet still you pray.”

“I’ve told you before, Nettles,” he said, changing his chord. “A prayer is for its maker.”

“This shit’s why no one likes Voidpriests,” she said, and he laughed again. “At least the Sun clerics have the sense to make promises.”

“There is no promise but oblivion,” he reminded her.

“You’re so fucking weird,” she said. She knelt by the edge of the crater, and looked into the water. “This place gives me the creeps,” she said.

“I love it,” he said.

“Of course you do,” she said.

“The moonlight on this lake,” he said, “is the most beautiful in the world.”

“How would you know?” she said. “You haven’t seen the moonlight everywhere in the world.”

He hummed. “The same way that I know you’re the most beautiful woman in the world,” he said.

“So you don’t,” she said. “You’re just full of shit.” He laughed. She looked at her reflection, her close-cropped yellow hair and the breaks in her nose. The moonlight glittered. “It doesn’t seem right,” she said, “that it moves like that when the water is still.”

“It’s putting on a show for you,” Vaelon suggested.

Lynette stood, because the sight of it was making her uneasy. “You’re sure it isn’t magic?” she asked. “You aren’t giving it ideas or anything?”

“I’d know if it was,” he said. “I have checked, you know. I’m not completely hopeless at my job.” He shrugged. “It’s only moonlight. You can’t make anything out of it. Creation is the Sun’s domain.” He finally set his banjo down, and started untying his robe.

“You’re going to freeze to death,” she warned him.

“If only,” he sighed, letting his robe fall to the ground. The dark curls on his chest trailed down over the thick layer of flesh padding his middle. “One last swim before tomorrow,” he said. He jumped in with less of a splash than she would have expected, resurfacing with a toss of his hair.

“You’re sure you’re ready to go?” she asked.

“I will be,” he said. She could see his breath, but if he was cold he didn’t show it. “It isn’t like we’re never coming back.”

“We may not,” she said. “There’s no guarantee we’ll live long enough.”

“That’s why I start my meals with dessert,” he said. “Besides, I never said alive. I only said we’d come back. Leave my bones at the bottom of the lake, if you love me.”

“I don’t know how I would,” she said, “when I’d be as dead as you.”

More moonlight seemed to reflect off the water around him than further out, created the illusion of a spotlight, like it was gathering close to him.

“Ah, well,” he said. “The fairies won’t be that bad, anyway. They’re basically kids.”

“Exactly,” she said. “They’ll eat us alive if we let them.”

“Kids are great,” Vaelon said. “They’re just little guys.”

“They’re vicious.”

“You only think that because they can sense fear.” He grinned up at her, his face bright with reflected moonlight. “The Fairy King likes gifts, right?” he asked.

“No.”

“You didn’t even—”

“You’re not bringing a kitten on our perilous journey to the Faewild,” she said firmly. One of Goldie’s cats had given birth to a litter of kittens, and Vaelon had spent the entire time since trying to come up with an excuse to keep one. He stuck his tongue out at her.

“You wait and see,” he said. “A mouse is going to get into our provisions and it will be all your fault.”

“If you’re going to fixate on things too helpless to take care of themselves,” she said, “work on yourself.”

“Nettles,” Vaelon said, putting his chin in his hands, “if you think I’m as cute as a kitten, you only have to say.”

She stuck the toe of her boot in the water to splash him.


Lynette pulled her horse to a stop, and Vaelon followed suit. “What’s wrong?” he asked, checking the road ahead for signs of bandits.

“Someone’s been following us,” she said, her voice low.

“What?”

“I noticed it the other day,” she said. “Keep moving ahead, I’m going to go back and see if I can catch them.”

“If you’re sure,” Vaelon said. He wasn’t sure if she was trying to get him to a safe distance, or to act as bait. He didn’t ask. He had faith in many things, and Lynette’s ability to take down anything she perceived as a threat was one of them.

He sang as his horse kept walking slow down the road, a hymn for floods and drought.

He stopped when there was a clamor behind him. When he turned, he could see Lynette’s horse waiting in the road. She emerged from the woods holding a small cloaked figure at arm’s length. “Got it,” she announced.

“It?” Vaelon repeated.

“I am a normal human child!” it announced in a voice like nails on a chalkboard, legs flailing in the air. The sound was enough to make Lynette wince. She shook it until the hood fell down off its head.

“Holy shit,” Vaelon said, dismounting.

“I have a cold!” it insisted, trying to pull its hood back on.

Its skin was bone-white, and its ears gave it away immediately as something not human. Big, translucent, animal-like things that ended in tufted points. It had another wispy tuft of hair in the middle of its wrinkled forehead. Its eyes were the bulging kind of too big, a nose and mouth both halfway to a cat’s.

It stilled when Vaelon came closer to get a better look at it, Lynette holding it higher for his inspection.

“It looks like a cat fucked a pervert,” Vaelon marveled. Its face sank, ears drooping.

“Could you use your way with words to say something good, for once?” she asked, disgusted. “Is this a fairy, or what?”

“Hey, you’re okay little guy,” Vaelon said, realizing he may have hurt its feelings. “I’m loving this whole look you’ve got going on.” It perked back up hopefully.

“Of course you do,” Lynette muttered. Vaelon touched its forehead, his eyes turning briefly void-colored.

“Nope,” he said. “No magic at all. Not a trace.”

“What?” Lynette looked between the two of them with no small amount of horror. The thought that this might actually be a human child was distressing.

“Set it down,” Vaelon said. Lynette did as he asked only because it seemed to have calmed down in his presence. Lynette had faith in few things, but Vaelon’s ability to charm a brick wall was one of them. Vaelon got down on one knee to get on its level. “What’s your deal?” he asked. It fidgeted with the hem of its rough shirt.

“You said you were leaving,” it said with a touch of defensiveness. “You might come back as bones.” It wrung its hands, short stubby fingers with claws at the tips. “I thought, if you couldn’t come back to me, then I should go with you.”

Vaelon squinted at the white skin, the silver eyes. It was possible, wasn’t it? Hadn’t fairies been flowers and shadows, once? “Moonlight?”

“I told you this would happen,” Lynette said. “You gave it ideas and made a monster.”

“No he didn’t,” it said. “He wouldn’t do that.”

“Did the Moon Goddess make you?” Vaelon asked.

“No one made me,” it said, a defiant jut to its chin. “I made myself.”

Vaelon mulled that over. “Do you know,” he said, “I don’t think that’s ever happened before? I believe that would make you a miracle.”

It beamed, which split its face into too-many too-sharp teeth. Lynette made a face.

“Why does it look like that?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest. Its ears drooped again.

“It’s not bad,” Vaelon assured it. “We’re wondering where you go it, is all. Moonlight doesn’t usually look like this.”

It fidgeted, shifting its weight from one paw-like foot to the other. “You like little guys,” it said with a bit of a pout. “And. And cats.”

“Aaaaah.” Vaelon’s eyes lit up. “So you thought you could split the difference.”

It glanced nervously at Lynette’s wary disgust before looking back to Vaelon. “This may have been a mistake,” it acknowledged. “I should have picked one. Is it the face? Human faces are complicated. I should have… just the cat.” It tapped its fingertips together. “If I’d been all cat, you would have liked that better.”

“But then I may not have noticed what a wonderful little marvel you are,” Vaelon said, and it brightened. Somewhat literally. “Are you a boy, or a girl?” he asked. Its eyes narrowed in thought. “Boy,” Vaelon clarified, pointing to himself. “Girl,” he said, pointing to Lynette. “You don’t have to be either, if you don’t want.”

“Boy,” he said firmly.

“You sure?” Vaelon asked.

He nodded. “Boys are the best ones,” he said.

“Sun above,” Lynette muttered, rubbing the bridge of her nose.

“Common misconception,” Vaelon said. “We’ll work on that. Do you have a name?”

He thought about it. “Beautiful,” he said finally. Lynette let her head loll back and squinted at a blank spot in the sky.

Vaelon smiled. “That is what I called you, isn’t it?” he said. The little monster nodded. “But that isn’t really a name,” Vaelon said apologetically. “For one thing, no one outside the Empire would be able to pronounce it. They don’t have ⟡, or ⬚. I knew a fellow once whose parents tried to name him Clever Son, but anyone who wasn’t Aekhite called him Weird Smell. We obviously don’t want that.”

“Right,” the monster said warily. He wasn’t ready to give up on the name.

“Here, look,” Vaelon said, spelling out the word ‘beautiful’ in the dirt of the road. “Let’s try taking out the higher vowels, and switching them out for lesser vowels.” He brushed away some letters to add new ones. “There, see? Can you read?”

The monster sidled beside Vaelon to look at the symbols in the dirt. “No.”

Vaelon pointed along as he read. “Kar-za-rul,” he read. “See?”

“That’s doesn’t mean anything,” the monster said.

“Yet,” Vaelon said. “But it could mean you. And you and I would both know, secretly, that it means a kind of beautiful that no one can mess up. A name should be more than a word.”

“Karzarul,” he repeated slowly.

“We need to talk,” Lynette said, grabbing Vaelon by the arm and hauling him up to drag him away. Karzarul crouched in the road and traced his fingers over the letters in the dirt. “What the fuck are you doing?” she hissed in Vaelon’s ear when they felt a safe distance.

“We’re going to need to call him something,” Vaelon shrugged.

“No the fuck we aren’t,” she said. “Don’t encourage this. Are we looking at the same thing right now? Because what I’m seeing is that the moon’s reflection got so obsessed with you that it grew itself some legs and a gender.”

“Obsessed seems harsh.”

“I’m going to wake up in the morning and find that thing wearing your skin as a suit.”

“You said the same thing about Delia,” Vaelon said dismissively.

“And now she’s on her fourth husband,” Lynette reminded him.

“They do keep dying, don’t they?” Vaelon sighed.

“I don’t know which part of you is broken to make being a Voidpriest seem like a good idea,” Lynette said, “but I assume it’s the same thing that’s made you incapable of seeing red flags.”

“I can see them,” Vaelon said. “It’s only that the red flags are the prettiest.” He waggled his eyebrows at her, and she huffed and smacked him gently on the back of the head. “Nettles, we’re trying to do something no one’s ever done before. Now something’s happened that’s never happened before. Void, Sun, Moon. We’ve got all three now, baby! That’s gotta mean something.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said, scratching her nose and turning pink. “Fine. You can keep it, for now. But if it tries to wear your face, I’m killing it.”


Karzarul was tame enough, as these things went. He stayed out of the way, didn’t eat too much, and listened attentively as long as it was Vaelon that was talking. He picked up reading, though it was hard to say how quickly. He spent some time pretending he couldn’t so that Vaelon would continue reading to him. Vaelon fashioned him his own bedroll, which Karzarul always set down right next to him. Vaelon also made him a new outfit, which he found far more delightful than Lynette did. She did not share his fascination with small versions of ordinary clothes.

Karzarul always wanted songs, and Vaelon always obliged. At night, in the morning, on the road.

“Wait,” Lynette said, pulling her horse to a stop. Vaelon did the same, Karzarul seated on the same horse.

“What is it?” Vaelon asked.

“Trap,” she said, dismounting. She pointed with her chin. There was a rope stretched across the road, the right height to catch an inattentive rider taking advantage of the long stretch of empty.

“Wouldn’t staying on the horse give you an advantage?” he asked as she stalked down the road, her shield on her arm and her sword in her hand.

“I’m not risking Maggie,” she said. “A good horse is hard to find.”

“True enough,” Vaelon said. He adjusted his position on the horse so that he could hold his banjo at ready.

“Are you going to sing me a song?” Karzarul asked.

“Nettles might want a spell,” Vaelon explained. “But we’re waiting, because the wrong spell at the wrong time makes her real cranky.”

“Everything makes her cranky,” Karzarul muttered with a pout. Vaelon gave him a quick pat on the head.

Lynette swung her sword in a high arc to cut the rope, and in moments that bandit gang that had claimed this road descended on her. Vaelon tensed as he saw the number of them, enough to take out a small caravan. The quality of Lynette’s armor may have marked her as a worthwhile target, or it may have been a matter of attitude. Her complete and blatant disinterest in feigning either fear or respect. Sometimes that was all it took to make her seem like a person worth overkill.

She nearly beheaded one bandit with her first strike, everything but spine cut straight through. The second she got through the stomach, and the third through the ribs when he tried to get a good angle from behind her. Her shield caught intermittent bolts from someone standing further back, who did not seem concerned about striking his comrades. After the fourth man she impaled, it really seemed as if more of them should have been discouraged.

“Need a hand?” Vaelon called, projecting his voice an impressive distance, hands hovering over his strings.

Not yet,” Lynette called back, cutting out the backs of someone’s knees.

Karzarul looked up at Vaelon, who was watching Lynette. He looked at Lynette, losing ground behind her shield even as she took another bandit’s head off. “I can help,” he decided.

“Absolutely not,” Vaelon said with a frown. “It’s important not to get in her way.”

Karzarul looked between the two of them again. Vaelon had not looked at him even to speak, eyes locked on Lynette the entire time.

“I’ll help,” Karzarul said, jumping down from the horse before Vaelon could stop him. He ran toward Lynette, determined; halfway through, the light of him lost its solidity, became only light in a vaguely humanoid shape. The shape changed, and then he was running on four paws, growling as he ran.

Lynette was blocking a strike to her left with her shield, following through to push the shield upward and make room for her sword to sink into her attacker’s stomach. Another bandit was taking his opportunity on her right, until Karzarul leapt directly onto him, teeth sinking into his face. He screamed, and Karzarul bit down a second time on his throat, crunching as he crushed and tore it out. He jumped toward another one, locked his jaw onto the man’s forearm and felt the bone break, sword dropping. Lynette cut off the man’s other arm in the confusion.

Karzarul’s teeth found more meat and bone, Lynette’s sword spilled more viscera, until nothing was left but corpses in the road and blood on Karzarul’s muzzle.

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Lynette said, sheathing her sword. Karzarul’s ears pinned back.

“I didn’t know you could do that!” Vaelon said. He’d dismounted, retrieving the clothes that Karzarul had dropped and stepping around blood and severed limbs.

“Yeah!” Karzarul said, the same voice as always coming from somewhere within him despite his mouth not moving.

“Sun above, it still talks,” Lynette swore, startled. “Could you not change the voice?” Karzarul tried barking. “Why is that weirder?” she asked.

“I thought I would try being a dog this time!” Karzarul said.

“A dog?” Vaelon repeated. Lynette laughed. Karzarul’s tail stopped wagging, and he tried running in a circle to get a better look at himself. “That’s not a dog,” Vaelon said. “That’s a wolf. That’s a really big wolf.”

“A wolf is a kind of dog,” Karzarul said defensively. “I need to be big, so I can protect you.”

“That’s not your job,” Lynette said.

“I can help,” Karzarul said. “He should be extra safe.”

“He’s got you there, Nettles,” Vaelon said, crouching down to rifle through a bandit’s pockets.

“Seriously?” she asked.

“Yes,” Vaelon said, pulling out a small bag of coins. “I’m precious.”

“I was referring to the looting,” she said.

“Sacred rites,” Vaelon said. “They have returned to the magnificent apathy of Mother Void, and have no need of earthly things.” He tucked the bag into his belt. “Unlike me, who has much need.”

“It’s a very convenient belief system you have there,” she observed.

“Isn’t it?” he said. “Say the word if you ever want to convert, there’s a special drink I make with three different kinds of liquor that’ll really have you embracing the Void.” Karzarul sniffed at Vaelon’s elbow, and Vaelon started to pet him.

“Is that part of the conversion process?” Lynette asked. She watched as Karzarul’s tail wagged furiously, pushing his head into Vaelon’s hand.

“It is the way I do it,” Vaelon said. Karzarul licked stray smears of blood from Vaelon’s wrist.

“Karzarul,” Lynette said. “You gonna get yourself some hands and help him out, or keep distracting him?”

“He’s a good boy,” Vaelon said, which sent Karzarul’s tail to wagging until he saw the look on Lynette’s face. He changed to light again, and wavered there a moment before turning back into his usual form. Karzarul touched his face, but it was the same as it had always been. Vaelon looked up from where he’d been digging through the pockets on someone’s dismembered lower half. “Did you make yourself clothes?” he asked.

Karzarul looked down at himself, where he’d created a facsimile of the clothes Vaelon had made him in silver and white. “Should I get rid of them?” he asked.

“Absolutely not,” Lynette said.

“Nah,” Vaelon said, trying on a ring to see if it fit. “It looks good! It’ll last you longer than what I made.”

Karzarul pulled at the hems of his new moonlight clothes. “I like the ones you made.”


That night when they made camp, Karzarul took the form of a wolf again, joining Vaelon on his bedroll. Vaelon laughed, rubbing Karzarul’s head while his tail wagged.

“Hmm,” was all Lynette said, with one eyebrow raised.

“He’s a dog, Nettles,” Vaelon said. “Dogs are nature’s foot warmers. It’s not weird. Don’t make it weird.”

“Uh-huh,” she said.

Karzarul rested his head on the softest part of Vaelon’s stomach, looking pleased with himself. “Sing for me?” he asked. Vaelon immediately started in on a hymn for insomnia.

She rolled her eyes, turning over to go to sleep.


“You’re not going to be able to pass as a child or a dog,” Vaelon apologized. “It won’t take that long. You can wait out here and… chase squirrels?”

“What if you stay out here, with me?” Karzarul asked, not letting go of Vaelon’s sleeve. “She can go in without you.”

“I’m not the one who wants a drink,” Lynette said. “I’m just the one who needs one.”

“I have all this money now, is the thing,” Vaelon said, “so now I need to get rid of it.”

“I could eat it,” Karzarul offered.

“I would rather drink it,” Vaelon said.

“I’ll hide,” Karzarul suggested, “so that I can go in with you.” He lost his form again, all the light going to where his hands were on Vaelon’s sleeve, wrapping up and around his arm.

Vaelon squinted at the result. “Were you trying to be a snake,” he asked, “or jewelry?” Karzarul darted his tongue and said nothing.

“That’s not going to pass for a bracelet,” Lynette warned.

“I think I can pull it off,” Vaelon said. “Besides, my sleeve will cover most of him. It’s fine, it’ll be fine.” He dismounted from his horse, and headed for the inn.

“We still need to see to the horses,” Lynette called after him.

“Thanks, Nettles!” Vaelon called back.

She sighed.


“The mountain pass looks clear,” Karzarul said, coming in for a landing on a nearby branch.

“This new animal you’ve made,” Vaelon began. Karzarul shifted his weight from one foot to the other uncomfortably, talons curling and uncurling around the branch.

“I can fly very fast,” Karzarul said, with a small flap of his wings. “For scouting. It’s a good bird. Strong.”

“The eyes,” Lynette said, aghast.

“It is a lot of eyes,” Vaelon apologized.

Karzarul blinked the six eyes on his head, and the one large eye sitting in the middle of his belly. “For seeing,” he said. “Seeing is important for scouting.”

“Could you try being a regular animal, next time?” Lynette asked.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” Karzarul said. The whining made his voice more painful than usual.

“You’re okay,” Vaelon said, stroking his head with one finger. “You’re not an animal, and you’re better than regular.”

Karzarul shone.


Karzarul’s attempt to pass as a normal human child in Faewild Forest was not successful, despite telling the changelings that he had a cold. Since there were no normal human children in Faewild Forest, they were perfectly willing to pull him into their games.

“Looks like you brought them a gift, after all,” Lynette said. Vaelon laughed.

“I’m not letting them keep him,” he said.

Lynette turned to stand closer, her voice low in his ear. “Are you sure about that?” she asked.

“Yes?”

“You said he’s the only one of him,” she reminded him. “You don’t think it might benefit him to stay with the other horrible nightmare children?”

“The changelings are cute,” Vaelon said.

“You say that about him, too,” she said.

“It wouldn’t work on him,” Vaelon said. “The magic that keeps them young.”

“He doesn’t need it,” Lynette said. “He isn’t a child. He looks like that because he thought you’d like it. He would have looked like an adult, if he thought you liked that. If he stays here, he’ll stay like this, with things that are at least a little like him. If he stays with us, he’s going to keep trying to be something you’ll like better. How do you think that will end, when he figures out there isn’t anything you’ll like any different than you liked the first?”

Vaelon lowered his eyes. “He doesn’t—even if he isn’t a child. He isn’t human. He’s moonlight.”

“I don’t care what he’s made of,” she said. “I know what he looks like when he looks at you. I know what it feels like.”

“Nettles—”

“I know. You’re married to the Void. Don’t tell me again like it matters. Like it’s the job that stops you from wanting anyone as much as they want you.”

He picked up her hand, skin against her armored glove, and kissed the steel. “I do love you,” he said. “We’re partners. I’ll stay with you as long as you’ll have me. I could—if you wanted me to—”

“No,” she said. “You’ll never love me the way I love you. I’ll never love anything the way you love everything. That’s the way it is, and we’re not changing. I can want things in the abstract while knowing I don’t want the reality.”

“You say you know what it feels like,” Vaelon said, “but that doesn’t make him any more a threat than you are.”

“I know the world’s not fair,” Lynette said. “Does he?”

A changeling tagged Lynette. “The Fairy King will see you now,” she said.

The Fairy King sat on his throne, a crown of lilies in his green curls. “Hello,” he said.

“Hi!” Karzarul said before anyone could stop him.

The Fairy King smiled. “I like your ears,” he said. Karzarul beamed.

“Speaking of ears,” Vaelon said, “you’ve got something behind yours.” The Fairy King frowned and patted behind the points.

“Oh, Sun above, Vaelon,” Lynette muttered.

“Here,” Vaelon said, ignoring her. “Let me.” He stepped up to the throne, reached behind the Fairy King’s ear, and produced a gold coin. The Fairy King snatched it out of his hands.

“Is this real?” the Fairy King asked suspiciously.

“Bite it and see,” Vaelon suggested, stepping away from the throne.

“I can’t believe this,” Lynette sighed.

The Fairy King bit into it. He took it back out of his mouth, unwrapped the foil, and started eating the chocolate. “You didn’t use any magic,” he marveled. “How did you do that?”

“Ancient Voidpriest secret,” Vaelon said, wiggling his fingers outward in an arc. “Trade me some good mushrooms and I’ll show you later.”

The Fairy King nodded. “Is that why you guys are here?” he asked, taking small bites of his chocolate so it would last. “You want the good mushrooms?”

No,” Lynette said, stepping forward. “It is said the Fairy King knows a way to commune with the divine.”

“Yeah,” the Fairy King nodded.

“I seek a blessing from the Sun Goddess,” Lynette said. “A blessing greater than the prayers of Sun Clerics can bring me.”

“Because it’s too big, or because they suck?” the Fairy King asked.

“It can be both,” Vaelon said.

“I need the Sun Goddess’ blessing,” Lynette said, “to fell my brother, to claim his throne, and to lead my people.”

“Oof,” the Fairy King said. “That’s a biggie.” He licked the last of the chocolate from his fingertips. “For something like that from the Sun Goddess… hm.” He leaned over the side of his throne, and picked up an abacus that had been tucked beside it on the floor. He clicked beads back and forth with no clear rhyme or reason. “Crystal sunbeams,” he decided. “Three of them. For that much She might consider it.”

Lynette’s expression was determined. “Where do I find them?” she asked.

The Fairy King shrugged, tossing his abacus aside. “How should I know?” he asked. “Sometimes they form under water in the desert.”

“The desert,” she repeated.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s a tricky one.” He pointed at Vaelon. “If he wanted a blessing from the Void Goddess, that wouldn’t be so bad. There’s fallen stars all over. He could find three of those just digging around for a while.”

“What if I want a blessing?” Karzarul asked. Lynette glared daggers at him.

“Three perfect moonstones,” the Fairy King said. “They form in underwater caves where the water is clear enough for the moonlight to reach inside. That’s harder for people with lungs.” Karzarul nodded.

“We thank you for your counsel,” Lynette said, holding her shoulder to bow.

“That was facts,” the Fairy King said. “Counsel would be tell you this quest is a bad idea, and you should buy yourselves a nice caravan and form a traveling troupe. You’d all be way happier.”

Vaelon shrugged with his eyebrows, nodding behind Lynette.

“Nonetheless,” Lynette said, a hint of tightness in her voice.

Karzarul tugged at Vaelon’s sleeve. “Are we going on a quest?” he asked. Vaelon nodded.

“Not yet,” the Fairy King said. “First you have to show me how to get chocolate out of my ears.”

Astielle: Chapter Seventeen

To save time, they started hopping in and out of Rainbow Doors, standing near them long enough for Karzarul to tell if he could sense any monsters nearby. Karzarul grew restless as they travelled to remote mountains and forests without luck.

“You’re a King,” Minnow said. “Did you ever have a Kingdom?”

Karzarul hesitated. “In the mountains,” he said. “It was destroyed long ago. There isn’t anything worth seeing there, now. The air is thin, there’s no easy way for a monster to travel to it. I don’t even know if the Door would be intact.”

“It can’t hurt to try,” she said, touching his arm.

“You’d think so,” he said. Despite that protest, he lead them back through the Door to make the attempt.

The area itself wasn’t so bad, Minnow thought. The grass was green and the air was cool, and the mountain was forested with evergreens. Though overgrown, there were paths winding their way along the mountain to make it navigable.

“There’s someone here,” Karzarul said warily. He lead them off to the left, deeper into the woods, though the woods were not truly deep. There weren’t enough trees for that, the trees themselves growing tall and slender. Leonas’ breathing grew labored after not long at all, the air being as thin as it was. Then the Sunshield glowed brighter on his back, his exhalations shining and coming easier to him.

When Karzarul stopped, Leonas and Minnow could both see why. In the distance several of the trees were covered in platforms and crude structures, walkways between them. There was a sound of hammers and faint voices.

There was much more intent to it than Minnow had grown used to seeing. The monsters she’d seen before had always lingered in rough camps or former human structures. She could see what they were doing better as they approached, the weird architectural style that involved mostly round shapes and shingles. It looked like all Brutelings in all different colors, but closer inspection found Bullizards in the trees keeping watch.

One of the Brutelings was trying to plant seeds, but a Rootboar was following behind him and eating them.

When their approach was noticed, there was a lot of shouting and clamor and monsters running in various directions, disappearing into what they’d built of their treehouses. The only ones to head straight for them instead were three Brutelings, each of them wearing their own little tunics and cloaks. The Brutelings she’d killed so many of had always come in simple colors, browns and greens. But these ones reminded her of cats: one solid black, another black with white hands, and a dark grey tabby. Because it was the color of the skin on their furless faces, it was not as cute as it could have been. Their only fur was the tufts at the ends of their ears and another wispy tuft in the middle of their wrinkled foreheads.

“I’ll talk to them,” Karzarul said, stepping forward to intercept, but all three ran straight at his legs and then peered around them at Minnow.

“Hi,” said the tabby in his high and grating voice.

“Hi,” said the white-handed one, in a more nasal version of the same.

“Hi,” said the black Bruteling, trying to pitch his voice deeper and failing.

“Leave her alone,” Ari said, flustered, trying to shoo them away. She noticed that at some point he’d added a crown to his outfit, a silver crescent climbing his horns. The tabby slipped between Ari’s legs and held his hand out for Minnow to shake.

“I’m Tabby,” he said. Minnow tentatively gave his hand the briefest shake.

“I’m Socks,” introduced the other, having successfully avoided wrangling, holding out his hand.

“I’m Midnight,” said the other, shoving the other two out of his way to hold his hand out.

“He’s Spot,” Socks said, shoving him back.

“Midnight,” he said again, shoving Socks. They started slapping at each other until Ari picked them both up by their collars.

“Stop it,” he hissed through his teeth, and the Brutelings’ ears both dropped.

Tabby peered suspiciously at Leonas. “Hi,” Leonas said. Tabby bared his fangs and hissed at him. Leonas rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Fantastic,” he said. “Wouldn’t want to make too many changes all at once, would we.”

“Be polite,” Ari said, grabbing Tabby with his tail since his hands were occupied. “How do you think this makes me look?” Socks tried to kick Midnight while still hanging by his collar. “Stop it. Keep this up and I’ll eat you.” He set them all down in a sullen row. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“We live here,” Tabby said.

“Since when?” Ari asked.

“We used to live here, a long time ago,” Midnight said. “Now we’re going to live here again.”

“On whose orders?” Karzarul asked, because they weren’t his.

“Violet told us,” Socks said.

“Which one is Violet?” Minnow asked, squinting at the treehouses and the faces peering through the open windows.

“He’s not here right now,” Tabby said. “We’re supposed to be on our best behavior, and not kill anyone until he gets back.”

“Not greeting His Majesty wouldn’t be best behavior,” Midnight said.

“I’m keeping an eye on him,” Socks said, pointing at Midnight, “so he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

“I wanted to meet the Hero,” Tabby said rather than feigning higher motives. “We’re not supposed to try to kill her because she’s with you, right?” He leaned to look around Karzarul again, and waved. Ari made a warning sound, and Tabby stood straight again.

“Is Sid here?” Ari asked. “Ru, Safi… anyone?”

Socks raised his hand, jumping up and down until Ari pointed at him. “Violet told Sid to go make himself useful so that’s why he’s not here right now.”

“Indie and Mo are a little further down the mountain if you wanna try talking to them,” Tabby said, pointing in the appropriate direction. Minnow leaned to see better, and realized there were a few Taurils loitering on the path. They were, as Ari had once said they should be, wearing shirts. Beyond that, she couldn’t make out any details.

Socks grabbed Midnight, looking upward. “Violet’s coming back,” he said. “We’re gonna be in trouble and it’s gonna be your fault.”

“You’re already in trouble,” Ari said. “With me. That’s worse.”

“You’ll just eat us,” Tabby said. “That’s not so bad.” He grabbed Socks by the arm. “C’mon, dummies, if we hurry he might not see it’s us.” All three Brutelings bolted back toward the shelter.

“You little—” Ari looked like he might grab them, but instead he turned to squint at the sky where Socks had been looking. “Shit.”

“Oh!” Minnow said as the monster landed in front of them, grabbing at Ari’s arm. “It’s a—you never said what they were called.”

“Savagewing,” the monster offered. He was, indeed, violet. His wings and his skin were pale purple, deep purple lines over his eyes in that same swan mask that Karzarul’d had. He was wearing a short, embroidered silk robe in purple tied around his waist, with long sleeves and white tights. His boots weren’t quite as high in the heel as the ones Karzarul had given himself, but these were tall enough to reach his thighs. He was holding a folded fan in his upper right hand, and another in his lower left, dainty chains around his wrists so that he wouldn’t drop them. His fingernails were cut short and painted black. He pressed his empty palms together sideways over his chest, and bowed low. “Violet Savagewing at your most humble service, Your Majesty.” He rose with a toss of his curls, the feathery antennae rising from his forehead following the tilt of his head.

Karzarul did not look happy to see him.

Minnow found herself looking closely at Violet’s face. She had noticed before that Brutelings all looked about the same, but the coloration on the new ones made them distinct enough not to notice. Violet, however, looked much as she remembered Ari looking in that form. He’d added little touches with paint around his eyes, but she still had a sinking feeling that it was exactly the face that Ari had.

Ari had taken care of so many of the monsters, since they’d met. She never looked that close at Tauril faces, couldn’t remember the one and only other Impyr, all a blur of adrenaline and violence. Hadn’t had the opportunity to take a good look since she’d met Ari. She’d simply never considered it, that taking the same shape would mean taking the same face.

“I’d never seen a Savagewing,” Minnow said, “until the other day.”

Violet grinned, unfolding all the etched steel plates of his fans and hiding his teeth behind the flutter of the higher one. “What a shame,” he said, and he turned his eyes toward Karzarul under gratuitously thick lashes. “I wonder why that is?” he asked sweetly.

“I explained,” Karzarul said, “that your kind is rare.”

Violet cackled behind his fan. “Oh, and we are,” he said. He turned his fan sideways so that Minnow could see him, mirrored by a wall of his wings on the other side of him, and explained in a stage-whisper, “We’re v-er-y expensive.” He winked, and Minnow giggled. Karzarul glowered.

“I think we need to have a conversation in private,” Karzarul said.

Violet snickered, snapping his higher fan shut and shielding his mouth with the back of his hand instead. “I can see why you’d think so!” he said cheerfully. “We’ll be staying right here, thank you. Is the magic helping with your breathing, Your Highness, or would you rather I find you something to sit on?”

Leonas blinked as he realized he was being addressed. “I’m. Fine?”

Ex-cellent.” Violet snapped his second fan shut, and tapped both fans against their opposite hands. “Progress report,” he said. “Once we’d finished manifesting ourselves, the boys and I got together and agreed that we’ll be taking over the position of second rank monster.”

“Is that so.”

“It is,” Violet said. “We’re simply the best suited for it, owing to our—let’s call it maturity. Impyrs were never well-suited to the position, what with the anger problems.” He snapped his right fan open and fluttered it. “No offense.”

Karzarul grunted.

Violet used the closed left fan to count off on the fingers of his lower right hand. “Your new chain of command in descending order has me on top—ob-viously—followed by Rose, Marigold, and then poor little Buttercup. Not that we deliberately arranged things by size, but so it goes.”

“You’re the tallest?” Minnow asked.

“No,” Violet said, snapping his right fan shut again. “The usual order of things continues after that, so not such a big change. Sid took the other Impyrs out to take care of the remaining Hollow monsters while the boys and I work on getting everyone settled.” Violet gestured with both fans at the mountain around them. “Letting the little ones run loose in other people’s countries is how we end up at war with literally everyone, which—I think we can all agree—would be bad. The Taurils have been assisting with transport—they are, as always, just happy to be included.” Violet gestured to where Minnow had noticed them before. One of the Taurils noticed her back, and waved from afar. She waved. He threw his axe into the air and then caught it. Minnow wasn’t sure what that was supposed to mean, so she tried to give a thumbs-up. She didn’t think he would actually be able to see it from so far away, but the Tauril reared up triumphantly while the one next to him also tried to toss his axe.

“Ignore them,” Karzarul muttered, grabbing her by the shoulder and moving her to the other side of him.

“You probably should,” Violet agreed apologetically. “A little too excitable, but very sweet, and they’ll do about anything if you can find them a shirt that fits with enough sparkles sewn into it.”

“They aren’t that bad,” Ari said.

“I’m not judging,” Violet said with a shrug of one shoulder. “It isn’t as if the rest of us are any better, put a pretty thing in front of me and I’ll do all sorts of messy things.”

“I like this one,” Leonas decided. “This one’s the best monster, more of them should be like this one.”

Violet laughed, snapping both his fans open to flutter them. “I know,” he said, giving Leonas a wink this time.

“You only think so because he’s the one that hasn’t threatened to bite you,” Ari said flatly.

Yet,” Violet said. “But I would ask nicely first, if that helps.”

Minnow had still been contemplating Violet’s appearance. “Your ears are different,” she realized.

“These?” Violet asked, using an empty hand to brush his hair back so that she could see it better. It was still a moth wing, but this one was a different shape than Ari’s, without the moons or the trailing ends. “Yes, well.” His fans fluttered faster as he let his curls drop. “We can’t all have His Majesty’s subtle touch.”

Ari sighed with something like frustration. “Why are you like this.”

Violet laughed again. “You cannot begin to imagine how happy it makes me that you don’t know.”

“You said something about Hollow monsters?” Leonas asked.

“Our erstwhile replacements,” Violet said. “Depressing little constructs. They’ll win in a fight against a human, but that isn’t saying much. No offense.” Leonas raised an eyebrow. “A little offense,” Violet admitted.

“Constructs would require—”

“—a huge amount of magic?” Violet finished with a tilt of his head, fluttering his eyelashes in time with his fans.

Leonas paused. “No,” he said. “No, that still doesn’t make sense, because the attacks started before. And he, he wouldn’t have been able to build the Moontrap. He didn’t have my shield.”

Violet shut the rightward fan again, resting his hand underneath his chin. “Monsters don’t die,” he said. “As long as we have our King, we can always come back.”

“Careful,” Karzarul warned.

Violet rolled his eyes. “It’s not a state secret, you big baby.”

“Is it not?”

“Maybe a little,” Violet admitted. He waved Karzarul off with the leftward fan that was still open. “It’s fine.” Violet looked back at Leonas. “While Moonlight Monster King Karzarul lies dead and dormant, his kingdom falls into ruin,” Violet said matter-of-factly. “Any monster killed in his absence goes dormant alongside him, and cannot return until he begins to gather power. It’s why we show up before he does, and it’s always the first thing on the list, killing the King of All Monsters.” Violet used the closed fan like a pen to write a checkmark in the air. “Based on a rough estimate of the timeline, once you—” He booped Minnow on the tip of her nose with the closed fan. “—killed Karzarul as Elias, you would have had at least eighty years of monster hunting to kill off all the rest.”

Minnow chewed her lip. “I killed you?” she asked. It was difficult to explain what was upsetting about this. Something about the ugly-cute faces of the Brutelings, barefoot in the grass and trying to shake her hand. It was different, when they were holding clubs and daggers. It would be different, if Violet were trying to kill her.

Violet opened his mouth, then hesitated. “That’s complicated,” he settled on, “and if I explain more than that His Majesty might eat me.”

“I might eat you anyway,” Karzarul grumbled.

Violet opened his second fan again to resume fluttering. “Somehow I get the feeling you’re not actually that eager to have me inside you,” he said.

Leonas snorted, then smothered it with a polite cough.

Karzarul’s nose twitched. “I deserved that,” he decided. “I walked right into that one.”

Violet cackled again. “We’re going to have so much fun,” he said, “once you stop doing—” He gestured to Karzarul with his fan. “—whatever this is supposed to be.” He sighed. “The Moonlight Monster and all his ilk would stay dormant until such a time as the Sunlight Heir and the Starlight Hero had claimed their true power. That part takes care of itself, assuming you’re willing to stick one or both of them into long-term baby storage. The Hollow beasts are easiest for an enchanter, once they’ve been constructed they use no magic until a living thing comes near enough to trigger an attack.”

Violet held up a fan and a wing conspiratorially, in the opposite direction than he’d done for Minnow. “And between you and me,” he stage-whispered at Leonas, “there are sources of magic besides you out there.” He retracted his wing and lowered his fan. “You’re convenient, is all. Like growing your own basil in the windowsill.”

Leonas exhaled, and it glowed. “There weren’t only beasts,” he said. “There were monsters with faces.”

Violet shrugged. “The tricky part,” he said, “is making them look alive. He found workarounds for that, too, gave them a short list of pre-approved tasks to loop through that only runs in the presence of true life. Very efficient. But if all you need is for them to attack, endlessly and blindly until they can’t anymore, no specific or forbidden targets? That’s relatively cheap. Once the up-front costs are taken care of, they may as well be free.”

Leonas swallowed. “If it was—twenty-one years ago. Would that have been… Hollow monsters?”

Violet tapped a closed fan under his chin while he thought about it. “Yes,” he said, “they must have been.”

“Okay,” Leonas said. “That’s—I probably could have guessed that.”

Violet moved closer to Leonas, and started fanning his face. “Breathe, Your Highness.”

“I’m breathing,” Leonas said. “I’m fine.” Violet offered a free arm, which Leonas started to refuse before wobbling and holding on to it.

“The air is thin here,” Violet apologized. Over Leonas’ head, he gave Karzarul a look, the corner of his mouth turned upward. Karzarul swallowed a small growl. “I am being diplomatic,” Violet said with an eyelash flutter.

“He only tolerates me,” Leonas said, his focus still somewhere in the middle distance. “You should be more diplomatic, and less nice.”

Violet grinned, still looking at Karzarul, and started winding a purple curl idly around his finger. “Is that what it is?” Violet asked, raising an eyebrow. “What a shame,” he said, affecting a pout.

With Violet standing so close to Leonas, Minnow wondered at the hints of similarities, the shapes of their lips and the sculpted arches of their eyebrows. She looked at his outfit, and thought of Karzarul’s boots.

“Do you make your own clothes, the way Ari does?” she asked.

Violet’s mouth twitched at ‘Ari’. “Unfortunately not,” he said.

“You look really good.”

“Thank you,” he said, fanning himself and Leonas simultaneously.

“That’s a good point,” Karzarul said. “It’s only been a few days. Where did you get those?”

Violet paused in his fanning. “There may have been,” he admitted, “a minor diplomatic incident.”

“Minor,” Karzarul repeated.

“Over in—I don’t know which country is over there anymore, someone hasn’t been keeping up with his geography.”

“Vado,” Minnow offered.

“Right,” Violet said. “That. We didn’t steal anything, if you’re worried about that. We’re monsters, I can fly, Taurils like to smash things, we’ve got gold for days. It’s fine. It’s only that, in order to expedite the clothes-having process, I did descend on a small village. A little bit. Nothing serious, just a sort of…” Violet stood tall, throwing his shoulders back and flaring out his wings, holding two arms up and out while the other two he held out sideways. He seemed to emanate a purple haze.

“Weep and rejoice that your day of reckoning is at hand, for the King of All Monsters has risen, and the Moonlight Monster King Karzarul grants you the mercy of requesting tribute. Bring forth your blacksmiths, your weavers, your tailors, and you shall know rewards the likes of which you have not seen. Defiance of the will of King Karzarul will bring only pain, for his mercy and his patience are both finite.”

Violet relaxed again, drawing in his wings and resuming the fluttering of his fans. The haze of power disappeared. “You know,” he shrugged. “That sort of thing.”

“That’s a minor incident?” Karzarul asked.

“It isn’t as if I was in a population center,” Violet said defensively. “It was a middle-of-nowhere village, news doesn’t travel that fast. I’m not a Drakonis, it wasn’t going to have the same impact. They weren’t even intimidated that long, as soon as Indie saw the blacksmith he started making an ass out of himself. They were more impressed by the gold than the speech.”

“That’s a lot of words,” Karzarul said, “to say that you risked pissing off an entirely different kingdom than the one currently trying to kill me, all because you wanted a nice outfit.”

Violet arched an eyebrow. “Are you going to try to tell me you wouldn’t do the same?” he asked.

Karzarul may have had a retort, but it was lost when a ball of white light shot out of the sky to strike him in the back. He staggered where he stood, glowing, his expression one of surprise. Minnow’s hand went to her sword, but she held back. It wasn’t unfamiliar to her. She’d watched hundreds, thousands of those things go shooting out of him after he’d escaped the Moontrap.

“They come back?” she asked, brow furrowed.

“Your Majesty.” Violet had let Leonas go, his fans folded and hanging from his wrists. It gave him an unsettlingly serious air as he offered his hands to support Karzarul. Karzarul held up a staying hand.

“We will talk about this,” Karzarul said as his glow faded, “privately.”

“Really?” Violet said. “Still?”

“Yes, still,” Karzarul snapped.

“Fine,” Violet said, withdrawing his offer of help and fixing his curls. His bow was shallower and more perfunctory this time. “I shall await debriefing in The Tomb, Your Majesty.”

“Don’t—” Before Karzarul could stop him Violet took flight with a single powerful push of his wings, darting high above the trees. “Shit,” Karzarul said again.

“Should we wait here?” Minnow asked.

“Not right here,” Ari sighed. “Unless you want more Brutelings showing up trying to introduce themselves.”

“No, thank you,” Leonas said.

“It’s okay,” Minnow assured Ari. “Go take care of Monster King stuff. We can handle ourselves for a bit.”

Ari sighed. He tried to run his fingers through his hair, but stopped when he hit his crown. “I’ll—I should be back soon.” He changed to a Misthawk, and took flight after Violet. Minnow watched him go.

“Wanna find a place to sit where the Taurils can’t see us?” she asked Leonas.

He leaned a bit to get a better look at the Taurils down the mountain. He gave a cautious half-wave. One of them thumped the handle of his battle axe ominously into his left palm. “Yes,” Leonas said, standing straighter. “Let’s.”

He followed Minnow as she picked a direction and headed through the grass. “You know,” he said, “when I said that I didn’t want monsters turning into rampaging fuckbeasts, what I did not mean was for most monsters to still want to kill me, specifically, while showing a suspicious interest in my ex-girlfriend.”

“Your what?”

He stopped as he realized his error, then resumed as if he hadn’t. “Obviously we weren’t—I don’t mean that you—whatever relationship we may have had wasn’t that. There’s this thing people do in conversations where they utilize hyperbole to humorous effect. Is all.”

“Is girlfriend the one that means we’re getting married?” She could never keep track of relationship rules. ‘Friends’ seemed to encompass everything up to and including the occasional hard fuck, so it was all she’d ever needed. Still, hearing the word ‘girlfriend’ in reference to herself intrigued her. She knew enough to feel that it was mismatched, that it was a word for women who did things she did not, and that made her want it.

“No.”

“What makes a girlfriend?”

“… intimacy…?” he suggested feebly.

“Sex,” she translated.

“Not necessarily.”

She found a patch of grass she liked the look of, and sat in it, sprawling her legs out in front of her. “Why ex, then?”

He sat more carefully at a safe distance from her. “For one thing, these days you get semi-regularly railed by a man with a horse dick, so.”

“It’s more of a bull dick,” she corrected.

“Great.”

“And I don’t let him rail me when he has that,” she continued. “I’ve been very clear about that.”

“Oh, lovely,” he said. “Small blessings.”

“So a boyfriend or girlfriend is something you’re only allowed to have one of.” That took away some of the appeal.

“You’re allowed,” he said. “Just not when the boyfriend or girlfriend is Karzarul.”

“Because he’s big,” she guessed.

“No.”

“Because there’s a limit to the number of penises—”

“No,” Leonas snapped. “It’s because he’s jealous, he’s the jealous type, he wants you to himself. If he saw you kissing anyone else I think he’d kill them.”

She considered this. “He saw me kiss Kavid,” she pointed out.

“If he saw you kiss me, specifically, I think he’d kill me,” Leonas corrected. “And you’re about to say,” he said before she could speak, “that you wouldn’t let him, but the fact that he would try would be enough to ruin him for you. So let’s not test it, and then you can assume I’m being paranoid. Yes?”

That wasn’t what she’d been about to say, but she did consider it relevant. She chewed on her thumbnail while mulling it over. “No,” she said. She pulled her legs in to press the soles of her boots together, leaning forward and crossing her arms over her feet to rest her head on them. “Was I actually your girlfriend that whole time?” she asked.

“Generally that is something both parties agree to beforehand,” he said.

“You never asked,” she said. “Neither did Ari. That means we’re all still just friends.”

“Fine,” Leonas sighed. “Only one of us is the friend you’re going to be crawling all over.”

Minnow narrowed her eyes at him. She sat up, and scooted closer to him. “Ari doesn’t make me ask for permission to touch him,” she pointed out.

“You don’t have to ask for permission—” Minnow set her fingers on Leonas’ knee, and automatically he took her wrist and moved her hand away. “—to touch me, that’s absurd.”

Minnow stared at him. He looked at her face, his knee, and then back at her face. His witchmarks started to glow. “That was unrelated.”

“If I touch you without permission,” she said, “you don’t like it. Sometimes you’re busy freaking out, or pretending you’re not freaking out, or dying. But you still don’t like it.”

He intently examined a piece of grass. “That was circumstantial.”

She leaned against his arm, and he leaned away. “Uh-huh,” she said, sitting upright again. She wondered if this was one of those things she was supposed to pretend not to notice. He was starting to look upset. “I don’t know if they have any bathtubs up here,” she said, “but if you want we can find a river and I can leave you alone to lay in it and scream underwater for a while.”

“When did I tell you about—that was also circumstantial. If I wanted to scream here, I would scream.”

She sighed. “I miss it, is all,” she said. “When you touched me. You were always really good at finding excuses to touch me.”

He brushed her hair back, and leaned sideways to press a kiss beneath her ear. She hummed and tilted her head to give him room, but he was already withdrawing. “You’ll get used to it,” he said. She pouted, and tried to summon patience.

Ari was really going to need to do a better job of showing that he liked Leonas.


Karzarul’s hooves echoed in The Tomb. It was one of the few structures left still intact after all these years, though the stones were all worn and the plants were growing in the cracks. Grape vines were crawling through the windows.

Monsters were all at the periphery of his awareness again. He could feel all their excitement and trepidation and annoyance all pressing infectious against him. It had, as always, the potential to turn into a self-perpetuating mess. He wanted it and he hated it and having the Hero and the Heir here made it complicated. Being a person was complicated.

“Who was it?” Violet asked before Karzarul could say anything. He had a pen in one hand and was holding a scroll open with two others. “Is it starting?”

“No,” Karzarul said. “It was Rex, he misjudged a jump and fell into a fucking canyon.”

Violet relaxed a little. “Of course he did,” Violet said, rolling his eyes. He crossed something out on his scroll and made a note. “Reckless Tauril, made it a whopping three whole days after the full moon before killing himself. You’d think spending more time dead than alive would teach him something.” Violet rolled the scroll back up, putting his pen away in the hollow core of it before tucking the scroll into his belt. “How do you think this is going to work, when the armies of Astielle descend righteous upon the monstrous hordes? You’ll stand there, bombarded by moonlight, saying ‘this is fine, ignore this, it happens sometimes’?”

“I’ll deal with it when it comes to it,” Karzarul said, and Violet scoffed.

“You’ll try to keep secrets as long as you can get away with it,” Violet said, “as if the people around you won’t come up with their own explanations to fill in all the gaps you’re leaving.”

“Fuck off,” Karzarul snapped. He gestured back out of The Tomb. “What the fuck was that?” he said, still annoyed about his insistence on speaking in front of the other two. “What the fuck is this?” he asked, gesturing at Violet’s entire person.

Violet rolled his eyes again. “Mother Void, why am I surprised? You’re insulted.” Violet spread his arms. “You think this is insulting?”

Karzarul’s nostrils flared, but he didn’t know how to respond.

“You did the same thing with the Impyrs, don’t think I don’t remember.”

“What you do isn’t remembering,” Karzarul said.

“An Impyr shows up all grumpy and murderous,” Violet continued as if he had not spoken, “and you take it personally.” He adopted a mocking tone. “I’m not like that, why is he like that? Is that what he thinks I’m like? Then you go off and brood about it.” Violet took a folded fan in one hand, and used it to prod Karzarul in the sternum. “You’ve been the biggest bitch alive since you killed Lynette, so don’t act so surprised to see me.”

Karzarul smacked the fan away, so Violet smacked his hand back. Retaliation descended briefly into a slapfight before they broke away and hissed at each other. Then they both tried to fix their hair and pretend they hadn’t done that.

“I have had a lot of time,” Karzarul said, “to think, and… mature.” Violet snorted. “I’m different than I was.”

Ob-viously,” Violet said, spreading his hands with a flourish to indicate himself. “I won’t argue different, but you won’t get me to buy you being anything other than a big ol’ baby constantly missing the obvious because you’re too busy being caught up in your own feelings. Sell it to someone who stopped being you more than a week ago.”

“You weren’t me,” Karzarul said. “If you were me you’d feel it.”

“You know what I meant,” Violet said, opening a fan to wave him off with it.

“I don’t understand how I ended up with—with this.” Karzarul stepped into Savagewing form, beginning to pace as he gestured to himself.

“You do not need that high of a heel,” Violet said, fanning himself.

“Shut up,” Karzarul snapped. He changed his skirt into tights, and wrapped his torso in his usual tunic.

Bo-ring.”

“Shut up.” He stopped, and narrowed his eyes at Violet, as if he could use the other monster as a mirror. “Swan wings make sense,” Karzarul said. “They can fly wet. The arms aren’t great but I needed to carry a lot. The moth thing was a mistake.”

“The butterfly theme isn’t what she likes about him,” Violet said.

“Shut up.” Karzarul raked long nails through his hair to straighten it out. “I can fix the hair,” he said. “I know she likes it, but the hair is too obvious.” He tried to tousle it so it fell loose over his shoulders. “This feels familiar,” he said, pinching the thick bridge of his nose while moving closer to Violet to get a better look.

“Jonys,” Violet supplied. “You always liked his nose.”

“Oh.” Karzarul swallowed and took a step back, still looking at Violet’s face. “That’s fine, then.”

“Minnow’s eyes,” Violet added.

“I do like those,” Karzarul admitted. He touched his mouth, opened it to ask and then decided not to. “This… could be worse. They don’t know, and even if they find out it’s. Not obvious. The only confusing part is that you’re like…” He gestured with all four of his hands to Violet.

Violet sighed, holding a folded fan in two hands under his chin with a thousand-yard stare and a wistful air. “Like an underappreciated actress who left the stage to become a high-priced courtesan, only to find her true calling as the madame of a brothel, losing herself in caring for her charges and handling the bureaucracy while never losing that certain something about her that so appeals to the local sheriff that she secretly lusts after despite still yearning for her first tragic lost love.”

“Yes,” Karzarul said, turning back into an Impyr. Being a Savagewing while Violet was talking made him uncomfortable in ways he couldn’t yet define. “I don’t know why that was so specific, but yes. Is it specific because you’re doing it on purpose?”

“No,” Violet said, dropping his hands. “I’m self-aware, you should try it sometime.”

“I don’t understand where you would have gotten that,” Karzarul said. “I guess I can see—no. Is Minnow supposed to be the sheriff?”

“The forbidden and disapproving yet attractive authority figure who could as easily represent your downfall?” Violet asked. “No.”

“I don’t think this works as a metaphor.”

“That’s because you’re so fucking dense it’s going to kill me,” Violet said. He pulled the scroll out of his belt to wave it at Karzarul. “I’m going to log that as my cause of death, King Karzarul was so fucking dense that I died.”

“You could try explaining it,” Karzarul said, “instead of being an asshole about it.”

“I could,” Violet agreed. “But this is funnier.”


Karzarul was definitely harassing the Prince, at this point.

He didn’t think it was entirely his fault. Something about it bothered him, the way Violet had been doting on Leonas while looking so fucking pleased with himself. Leonas cheerfully declaring him his favorite, as if the function of a monster was to please him.

Karzarul had become more inured to seeing broken memories of himself in Leonas’ dreamscape, but the ones this time were different. Memories from this life, little pieces all stitched together into something incoherent. Standing with his shirt undone and sitting in the grass and sitting on the couch and tossing his hair in the library, lying on the beach with Minnow. That in particular was a strange thing to see from the outside.

And then there was Leonas, pulling at his tunic and unfastening clasps with nimble fingers, pressing kisses to his face.

“I don’t remember agreeing to kneel,” Karzarul said, because it was the first coherent sentence that popped into his head. Leonas was straddling his thighs, the only way to match his height.

“Stop talking,” Leonas said, grabbing one of his horns to tilt his head back and catch his mouth, hungry and hard. “For once can you please stop talking, don’t say anything awful for five fucking minutes, try and do that for me.”

Hm.

“You’re dreaming,” Karzarul said.

“No shit,” Leonas said, sliding his hands inside Karzarul’s tunic and kissing his throat.

“So am I,” Karzarul added.

Leonas stopped. He rose and leaned back, looking wide-eyed at Karzarul’s dazed face.

Fuck.

Karzarul woke up.