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.

Astielle: Chapter Sixteen

NSFW Content Warnings
Maledom ❤ Sadism/Masochism ❤ Biting with Fangy Teeth (no blood) ❤ Breastplay ❤ Physical Restraint ❤ Size Difference ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Weird Monster Dicks ❤ Tentacles ❤ Tentacle-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Facefucked by Tentacles ❤ Multiple Orgasms ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Dirty Talk ❤ Excessive Amounts of Monster Semen ❤ The Vague Implication of Voyeurism

The Rainbow Door was set into a massive boulder, a disrupted segment of earth surrounding a lake. The hole in the ground that formed the lake was deeper and craggier at one end than the other, ringed all around by a forest. The air and the water were still.

“Is it a bad sign that this doesn’t have a reflection, either?” Minnow asked. The moon hung high and bright overhead, but in the clear reflection of the lake there were only stars.

“No,” Karzarul said. “This one’s just like that. He can spew all the magic he wants here, it won’t take root.” He took Leonas down off his shoulder, and flung him into the lake.

Ari,” Minnow yelled, grabbing at him as Leonas fell in with a splash.

“What.”

Leonas popped back up with a toss of his hair, catching his breath and frantically trying to paddle with a shield on one arm.

“What if he couldn’t swim?” she asked, gesturing at Leonas.

“He’s half-pirate,” Karzarul said.

It’s not genetic,” Leonas shouted from in the water. The water was glowing all around him, forming small eddies and waves.

Make an air bubble with the shield and sink to the bottom,” Karzarul shouted back.

Why?

It’s a huge waste of time and energy.

Leonas floated aimlessly, then started trying to channel magic through the Sunshield. Mostly he spun around in accidental whirlpools. Minnow walked further along the water’s edge, because it felt rude to watch him try to figure it out. Karzarul didn’t quite follow her, meandering closer to the forest. He glanced back to where Leonas was fully absorbed in trying to figure out how to make a bubble.

“Okay,” he said, shaking out his hands. “Let’s check the damage.”

Minnow looked back at him, and saw that he’d taken the form he’d used to get them out of Castle Astielle. He was wearing the skirt he always wore as an Impyr, but nothing else. He flared out his wings, and held his arms out at his sides as if showing off an outfit he was not wearing.

“Does any of this look familiar?” he asked. The way he asked was semi-suspicious, and left her wondering if there was a correct answer she was meant to know.

“I’ve never seen one of these,” she admitted.

He looked to her right, then back at her. “It’s rare,” he said. He spun his hands in a ‘come on’ kind of motion. “I’m only looking for general impressions here, whatever pops into your head.”

She gnawed at her lip, rubbing underneath it thoughtfully. “Very swan-like,” she tried.

His eyebrows shot up with hopeful surprise, holding up two fingers to indicate he wanted her to stay on that point. “Swans,” he said. She nodded. “Swans are good,” he said. “That’s a great bird. Elegant. People like swans.”

“Some extra wings,” she noted.

He paused. He drew in the two larger wings, and then the two smaller ones beneath them. He flexed both pairs independently. “Okay,” he said. “That’s. That’s fine. Everyone likes wings. If you’re going to have too much of anything, it might as well be wings.”

“You also have four arms,” she said.

He looked down at his hands, and then down further at his other hands.

Mother Void,” he swore. “Why is it always—this is fine.” He crossed his upper arms and then his lower ones. He uncrossed his lower arms and put them on his hips. “I have to figure out what to do with four of them now,” he muttered before sighing. “It’s not that weird,” he decided. He cocked his head towards her. “Does it look weird?”

“Not that weird,” she said.

“Okay,” he said. “Good.”

“You have feet this time,” she pointed out.

He looked down at them, perking up immediately. “Oh!” He held it out and pointed his toes, holding all four of his hands up and out of the way. “I do! I can wear boots.” He dropped his foot back to the ground, ribbons of moonlight wrapping around him below the knees and turning into white leather. He turned to get a better look at them, narrowing his eyes. He rose up on his toes, and the heels of his boots got longer to meet the ground. “Okay, I like those. This part’s good. Everything below the waist is—” He paused. “I’ll worry about that later.”

“You have princey hair,” she said.

“What?” He grabbed a fistful of white strands to bring in front of his face, confirming that they curled. “Why would I—do you like it?”

She nodded.

“Okay,” he said, trying to set it back to rights.

“You also have—this part’s less swan-like.”

“Oh no.”

“Your ears,” she said.

He touched them tentatively. “Wings?” he said. “Oh, bug wings! I’m a—”

“Moth,” she finished. When he looked confused, she put two fingers up so that they looked like they were emerging from her forehead.

“What?” He gave up on getting her opinion, moving back to the edge of the lake so that he could look at his own reflection. Leonas was still out in the water, where he had figured out a bubble, but couldn’t make it sink. Karzarul stared at the big fuzzy antennae sticking out of his reflection’s forehead, then turned his head and moved his hair out of the way to see his ears. The delicate, translucent wings had little moons on them, long tails hanging downward like earrings. “Shit. A moth? Nobody likes moths.”

“I like moths,” Minnow offered. “It makes sense, anyway, what with the moon and all.”

He traced his fingers over the darker stripe of silver along each of his eyes, the more swan-like aspect of his face. He wrinkled his nose, pursed his lips. “Where did this face come from?” he muttered. She bent down and tilted her head to get a better look at it. It was true that it didn’t look like his other faces. Despite their differences she had learned to recognize the Tauril as a bigger, more bovine version of his Impyr face. What she’d briefly seen of the Abysscale hadn’t been too far from Impyr form, either. But his features this time were different, his nose bigger and the shape of his eyes and mouth rounder.

“I like it,” she said, but he kept frowning at his reflection. “You don’t have to use it, if you don’t like it,” she reminded him. There were a lot of monsters whose form he never used. Until today she’d never seen him be most things.

There was a splash as Leonas dragged himself out of the lake. Karzarul changed back into an Impyr. Leonas wasn’t lit up like a candle anymore.

“Did you figure it out?” Minnow asked.

“No,” he said, tipping forward to lean his forehead against her shoulder. Their height difference meant this was quite a lean. “I’m very tired,” he said, sounding weary down to his bones. Minnow patted his wet hair.

“You have the Sunshield now,” she said. “If you’re tired, we can go home.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Leonas said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are knights in Lilock already.”

“Not the house,” she corrected. “Home.”


“I thought they wouldn’t let you back in here,” Leonas said. Minnow had let him sleep in the hammock hanging from her tree, and had slept on the forest floor curled up with Karzarul. She’d asked him to take Ursbat form, which had the unfortunate side effect of attracting other changelings. Karzarul had woken up covered in a snoring pile of ageless children, which had not pleased him.

“Not at first,” Minnow said. She’d taken her hammock back as soon as Leonas was done with it. It was made of a fishing net, padded with a scrap quilt and filled with even more toys than her nest in Lilock. Trying to sleep in it required a willingness to burrow under and be buried by a layer of unusually round felt animals.

Minnow’s tree was obvious, as it was the one covered in fallen stars. They were wrapped in wire and hooked onto the branches, so many of them it seemed like it should be too heavy to stay up. It was an old and sturdy oak with a thick trunk to support them all, sparkling out from between the leaves. In the quiet of the sleeping Faewild, their song was barely audible over the rustling of the wind.

“I had to do a lot of quests to prove to His Majesty that I wasn’t Astian now, or too human.” Minnow had changed into a beetle-wing dress, while Leonas had turned down multiple offers of the same. He suspected the wings were being held together with cobwebs, and he wasn’t willing to risk it. “It wouldn’t have taken so long, but the last toy he wanted was only made by one specific guy who lives in the middle of nowhere in Malorak. It took me years to get all the way out there and then back.”

Karzarul had decided to wrap himself around one of the tree’s branches as a Slitherskin, far out of reach of where little hands could grab without climbing. Leonas had not possessed this foresight, and had been stuck sitting on the mossy ground braiding hair. Every time he finished one, another changeling would plop themselves down expectantly in front of him.

“Minnow,” said a changeling emerging from behind a large fern. “The Fairy King wants to see you.”

“Ooooooh,” said several other changelings at once. “You’re in trouble.”

“I am not,” Minnow said, tipping herself out of her hammock and onto the ground. “All of us, right?” she asked for confirmation. The first changeling nodded. Karzarul descended from the oak and landed as a Tauril. He looked profoundly uncomfortable. Leonas stood and followed as Minnow walked, despite the protests of changelings with their hair undone. Minnow lead the way through an arch of a tree and a tunnel of growth, to the deeper part of the forest where the Fairy King sat on his throne.

Like the changelings, he looked roughly adjacent to an eight-year-old human child. His hair was a halo of short green curls, his skin a paler shade of the same color. The points of his ears were long, his eyes a solid black as reflective as Minnow’s and his teeth as sharp. His throne was grown from a living tree, covered in moss and with leaves sprouting from it. His crown was made of forget-me-nots and his robes were rabbit fur. On his back were the wings of a dragonfly writ large, translucent and glittering.

Beside his throne was a series of miniature thrones, each one with a toy sitting in it.

Other fairies sat in the grass around the clearing, playing inscrutable games and paying them no mind.

“Hi, Minnow,” the Fairy King said, waving. He was swinging his feet, which did not touch the ground in front of his throne.

“Hi, Your Majesty,” she said, waving back.

“Gosh,” he said. “All three of you haven’t been here together since you got your blessings.” He looked at Karzarul, who was holding his hands awkwardly in front of himself. “How long ago was that?” the Fairy King asked.

“It’s been a while,” Karzarul said.

The Fairy King looked him up and down. “You’re still using that one?” he asked.

“Yes,” Karzarul said.

“It’s not my favorite,” the Fairy King said. “How have the blessings been working out?”

Karzarul looked at Minnow and Leonas. He looked back at the Fairy King. The Fairy King picked up a cup made from a large pitcher plant on the arm of his throne, and sipped at whatever was inside it through a piece of straw, looking attentive.

“Not well,” Karzarul said.

The Fairy King nodded. “Divine blessings are like that,” he said.

“If I may ask, Your Majesty,” Karzarul said, “why would you try to claim the Starlight Hero?”

“I didn’t claim her,” the Fairy King said. “The smiley guy brought her.”

Leonas rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“And you did as he asked?” Karzarul said.

“No,” the Fairy King said. “I kept her so he wouldn’t kill her.”

“I’m surprised you cared,” Karzarul said.

The Fairy King cocked his head sideways. “I liked Vaelon,” he said. Karzarul looked surprised before lowering his gaze to the ground. “I thought it was the least I could do for him.” The Fairy King scratched his head. “Maybe I should have talked him out of accepting the sword. But that was never going to work unless I talked you guys out of taking your stuff, and that wasn’t gonna happen.” The Fairy King gave a big shrug with his hands up by his shoulders.

“I would have listened,” Karzarul said quietly. “If he asked.”

“Pffft,” the Fairy King said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Nuh-uh.”

Karzarul glowed with a brief flare of indignation, opening his mouth before shutting it again without a word.

“You seem better now, though,” the Fairy King said. “You got the whole gang back together.” He spread his arms to gesture to all three of them. “That’s good because everything’s a big mess right now.”

“Can you help us?” Leonas asked.

“No,” the Fairy King said. He picked up his drink and took another sip. “You shouldn’t stay too long, either. We ate some of your extra magic, but it will still be a whole thing if your dad shows up.”

“Do you know,” Leonas asked hesitantly, rubbing his arm, “why it didn’t use more? The… trap. There was so much magic it hadn’t used.”

“Hmmmmmmm.” The Fairy King tapped a thoughtful finger against his chin. “You were getting all your magic shlorped out?”

“… yes.”

“You’re supposed to have a lot of magic,” the Fairy King said. “You must have made more. Lots more. Way extra. You were wringing out all your magic muscles and every time they got bigger.” The Fairy King made a flexing motion with both arms to demonstrate the concept. “It wouldn’t need that much, anyway,” he said, dropping his arms. “Sun and Moon hold each other naturally.”

Leonas responded with a choked sound.

“That’s a bad way to word the concept,” Karzarul muttered.

“What do you think we should do next?” Minnow asked. “Since we shouldn’t stay here.”

“Hmmmmmmm.” The Fairy King took a long sip of his drink while he thought it over, until the cup was empty and the straw made a horrible sucking sound. “You should go to the beach,” he said.

“Which beach?” Karzarul asked.

“Any beach,” the Fairy King said. “It’s beach weather.”


Minnow took them to a small island in the middle of a large lake, ringed by a sandy beach. From the sand, they could see out to the shoreline, the rocky beaches and forest and eventually the snow-capped mountains. The first time she’d come out here it had been for the sake of it, and she’d been surprised to find a Rainbow Door in the middle. The sun was high and bright, and birds were singing from the small stand of trees that sat between the beaches.

Karzarul had insisted on checking the small area of the island as a Howler. This had the fortunate side effect of giving Leonas some time alone to have an existential crisis. Minnow was also there, but this still counted as alone. He was laying on his back in the sand with the Sunshield over his stomach, water lapping up to his waist. He was still fully dressed. Minnow was wearing a short wrap skirt to avoid sanding herself down in weird places, and nothing else, lying on her stomach.

“You know,” Leonas said, “that might be the first time he actually hit me.” Minnow hummed to acknowledge the statement, because she didn’t know what else to say about it. “I always sort of wished he would. Not that I wanted… I mean. I would have felt more justified. About everything. If he’d just… you know? Like that would have made it okay to be upset.”

Minnow patted his shoulder.

“I was already upset, though,” he said. “It wasn’t satisfying. It didn’t prove anything. It just… happened. It’s another thing that happened.”

“Do you want me to kill him?” Minnow asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t think about it yet. If I think about—I could have run away. With you. I could have done it. It would have been better if I had. If I’d gone with you instead of sending you off with a shitty little sword it would have—” He covered his face with his hands with a groan that was almost a scream. “How did I fuck this up so bad.”

“You didn’t,” she said.

“I should have known,” he said, muffled by his hands. “When I went to get you and you didn’t remember anything, I should have known right then that he was. He was lying. He wasn’t spinning it, or being an asshole about it, he was lying. He wasn’t even, it was obvious. It was so, so obvious. I accepted it, I accepted all of it and fucked everything up.”

She patted the top of his head this time. “You didn’t die, though,” she said. “You came and got me, and you helped me as much as you could. You did good.”

Karzarul emerged from the trees, his paws sinking into the sand as he walked. “I haven’t felt any other monsters,” he said pensively.

Leonas pulled himself up to sitting, the Sunshield falling off to the side. He hugged his legs to his chest, resting his forehead on his knees. Water lapped around him.

“We haven’t been many places,” Minnow reminded Karzarul. “Monsters wouldn’t be in the Faewild, and I’ve never seen a monster here either.”

“Maybe,” he said.

Minnow rose up to kneeling, brushing sand from her chest. “Do you want to go swimming with me, this time?” she asked.

Karzarul’s tail started to wag, and he trotted past her into the water. When he was deep enough his shape changed, the curve of an enormous scaled tail visible as he dove. His head popped back up, his hair trailing out onto the surface of the water.

“Do you wanna come?” Minnow asked Leonas.

He coughed a little to clear something out of his throat. “No.”

“If you’re sure,” she said. “Yell if you need something.”

She waded out as far as she could before letting her feet leave the ground, swimming out to meet Karzarul. He pulled her close once she was in reach of his arms.

“I saw Abysscales from far away sometimes,” she said, running her fingers along his face. “Never up close.”

“Do you like it?” he asked.

The face was a little closer to his Tauril face than Impyr, primarily due to the nose. His Impyr face had a sharper, more defined nose than either of the others. His eyes in this form were bigger. His ears looked like fins, pierced through with rings, gills on his neck. She traced her fingers down the scales on his shoulders, the fins at his elbows. His claws were as sharp as his teeth.

“I like it,” she said.

He grinned. “Most people do,” he said, preening a little.

“Which people?” she asked, which brought him up short.

“You have that book,” he said hesitantly. “They wouldn’t have made that if people didn’t like it. Like Abysscales. In general.”

“That’s true,” she said, and he relaxed. “Was Vaelon my name?” she asked. “The first time.”

The fins of his ears folded back, reminding her of a scolded puppy. “… yes.”

“What was I like?” she asked. “The Fairy King said he liked me.”

“Everyone liked you,” Karzarul said. “You were the most beautiful man in the world.”

“Oh,” she sighed. “I don’t know if I can live up to that.”

He kissed her fiercely, which was the first time she noticed that his tongue was split down the middle. “That isn’t how it works,” he said. She felt the scales of his tail rubbing against her legs. “I noticed a spot further down the island if we… wanted privacy,” he suggested.

“Privacy,” she repeated with a frown. “For sex?” she realized, perking up.

“For sex,” he agreed. “If you want.”

She looked back to the beach, where Leonas was sitting in the shallow water. She supposed it might be nice for him to have some true alone time, in case he wanted to be upset while no one was looking.

“Privacy would be good,” she said.


Ari would have been perfectly happy to stay in the water, but Minnow wanted to get a good look at his tail. It reminded her of a snake or a dragon as much as it did a fish, long as it was. His fins were delicate and translucent, powerful muscles rolling under his scales whenever he moved.

“You said that book with the Abysscales wasn’t right,” she said, straddling his tail. “Does that mean you don’t really have big tentacles in your tail?”

“I do,” he said, and she immediately started running her hands over his scales to try and find them. “I only found it offensive,” he said, “for it to imply that a monster would throw himself at anyone who flattered him.”

“Yeah?” she said, running her hands up toward his torso. Her thumbs found a seam in his scales.

“Monsters aren’t stupid,” he said, scales opening and two large tentacles emerging from within his tail. Minnow bit her lip, eyes widening the longer they got. She touched one, and it wrapped itself in a spiral all the way up her arm. The other tentacle wound its way around her thigh. There were no scales on these, only soft slick skin an unearthly white.

“I don’t think you’re stupid,” she said. She tried to unwind the tentacle around her arm enough that she could lick it. He tasted salty and slightly bitter. His tentacles tightened around her. “You’re not gonna fuck me just because I think you’re pretty.”

He swallowed. “Right.”

“I do think you’re pretty, though,” she added, wiggling herself higher on his tail. She determined that she could be rougher with his tentacles that she would have expected, wrapping her hands around it to direct it where she wanted it. She slid it behind her back, around and then up between her breasts so that the tip of it would be near her face. She ran her tongue over it, and made a happy sound when it pushed into her mouth. She rocked her hips as the tentacle wrapped around her thigh started to rub between them, sucking on the one in her mouth.

“You like that?” he asked, and she hummed happily while he watched her squirm. After a moment, she pulled the tentacle out of her mouth so she could speak.

“Are we being nice today?” she asked.

Ari rose up on his elbows, tilting his head. “Nice?” he repeated.

“You know,” she said, still stroking his tentacle with her fingers wrapped around it. “Like, a lot of stuff happened, and some of it was scary, so now we’re, um. Being very careful, and nice. Which I don’t mind, because you deserve nice things, if you want them.”

Ari pushed himself upward to sit fully upright, his tail shifting beneath her. He had a gleam in his eye that made her breath catch, and she bit her lip. He tilted her chin upward with the tip of one claw. “Is there something you want instead?” he teased.

She huffed. “You’re always asking me what I want,” she complained. She let his tentacle go, leaning forward to pull him closer and press her chest against his, resting her head against his shoulder. “It isn’t fair, asking me that like there’s one answer,” she said. “Maybe I want everything. It isn’t fair when I—you said it before, didn’t you?” She ran her fingers close to his gills without touching them, his tentacles stroking her skin. “The wanting. I want more, I always want more, until it’s too much and I can’t and even then. If, if you ask if all I want is to be close to you, it’s yes, and if you ask if I want you to be nice to me, it’s yes, and if you ask if I want you to hurt me, it’s yes. There isn’t anything I don’t want, if it’s what you’ll give me. I want you.”

Both his tentacles tightened, arms wrapping around her in a sudden embrace, pressing his face into her neck. She listened to him breathe, felt the rise and fall of his chest against her. She felt the tips of his tongue run along her jugular, and shivered. He started to nip at her skin, small bites growing larger as they moved down to her shoulder. He moved her back, his tail still between her legs, but now it curled sideways and back again to hold her in the crook of it. He braced his hands on his tail above her shoulders, surrounding her completely, above and below her in all directions. The tentacle that had stayed wound around her thigh pulled it further from the other.

“Say it again,” he said.

“I want you,” she said, and the tip of a tentacle pushed inside of her. She gasped.

“My name,” he said, his other tentacle winding around her other thigh so that he could hold her open.

“Karzarul,” she sighed, reaching up to touch his face because she couldn’t help herself. She pressed her hand against his cheek, and he turned his head to kiss her palm. He gently bit her wrist, and she groaned. The tentacle inside her pushed deeper, deep enough to be almost too deep, making her cry out with an arch of her back. He put his hand under her jaw, around her neck, points of his claws pressing into her skin.

“You want this?” he asked. One tentacle pumped in and out of her, the other sliding higher and pulling her knee along with it. The tentacle wrapped around her breast and squeezed.

Yes,” she said, rocking her hips until the tentacle pumping into her curled along the outside to rub against her clit.

“More?”

Yeah.” He grabbed her hands to bring them together, between her breasts so that she’d lift them with her own arms. His tentacle wound around her wrists to bind them together before sliding between her fingers. “Oh!” She watched him watch her, her fingers tightening to grip the length in her hands. His thumb on her chin coaxed her mouth open.

“Show me how a good little hero takes it,” he said, his voice low. The sound sent lightning down her spine that made her hips buck, shivering. She opened her mouth wide and stuck out her tongue, and the tip of his tentacle pushed back toward her throat. She sucked, noticed how his gills and his fins all seemed to flare as he filled her mouth.

Minnow hummed with pleasure again, shut her eyes to enjoy the friction against her lips and her palms, the pressure against her clit and the stretch inside of her. “There’s my girl,” he said, and she felt the tips of his tongue catch her nipple and tug gently at it. Her moan was muffled by skin. The segment of his tail underneath her hips moved enough to make her bounce a little. She clenched down on the tentacle inside her as it pumped faster, opening her mouth wide and letting it go slack because it was the easiest way not to bite down. “You’re so fucking pretty when you’re full of cock,” he purred, and when she opened her eyes to see the look on his face it pushed her over the edge.

She went stiff, choking a little on the tentacle still pounding against the back of her throat. She saw stars, groaning hard as her back arched high and then fell. Ari caught her by the hair to hold her head still, the tentacle between her legs slamming into her more forcefully at the sound of her muffled whimpers.

“Again,” he said hoarsely, his eyes boring into her. “I want to see you come for me again, and again.” The wet sound of penetration was punctuated by the slippery slide of skin against her clit, never quite letting her fall off her crescendo, waves moving through her until her legs shook and her fingers couldn’t grip. “My good little hero, lets her monster fuck her until she can’t hold a sword.” A groan escaped her, long and low and a little bit gurgling.

He shuddered as he came, heat pouring out of him at both ends of her, spilling out over her lips and onto her thighs. She tried to swallow, but choked again. The tentacle slid from her mouth so that she could gasp for air, fingers wiping at her chin even as he kept spilling out onto her neck and between her breasts. He leaned back to look at her instead of letting her go, his fingers brushing over her calf with a kind of reverence. She panted to catch her breath, and wondered if she’d ever been so sticky with anything but gore.


When they’d finally washed up and returned to the section of beach near the Rainbow Door, Leonas wasn’t there. Minnow’s initial response was panic, until Leonas came crashing back out of the trees like he was being chased.

“Sorry!” he gasped, sitting abruptly in the sand with the Sunshield in front of him. “I didn’t mean to worry you, I was just. I had to pee.”

Minnow cocked her head sideways. “Okay,” she said, rather than argue the point. Leonas’ witchmarks were glowing again. He rubbed his hands together until they were glowing, too, light passing over them in a flash like something burning away. When he realized what he’d done, he let the same light pass over the rest of him, leaving his clothes dry. He moved the shield to look down at himself, and seemed satisfied by his own ingenuity. Karzarul had taken Howler form once he left the water, but Leonas was still avoiding looking at him.

“We should try to find some monsters,” Minnow decided.

“Great,” Leonas said. “Exactly what we need. More of them.”

“We can’t be sure that breaking the Moontrap worked unless we actually find some monsters, and confirm that they’re acting right,” Minnow said.

Karzarul shifted uncomfortably on his paws. “I can take care of that myself,” he said. “You don’t need to be with me.”

Leonas narrowed his eyes. “Are you saying that because fixing the monsters didn’t make them less dangerous?”

Karzarul huffed and turned up his nose without responding. Minnow patted his head. “I don’t want to split up again if we don’t have to,” she said. “You can explain to the other monsters that we’re all friends, and everything will be fine. Right?”

“… right.”

Astielle: Chapter Fifteen

“Phil, do you think you could—”

“I’m busy, Mona,” Phil said, still powerwalking through the halls. It was the closest they had come to being stopped. He was wearing his keys on his belt so that they jangled, lending him an air of authority that had thus far gone unquestioned.

“How long have you worked here?” Leonas asked, trying to sound casual.

“I get my twenty-five year longevity raise next month, assuming I don’t retire,” Phil said.

“Ah,” Leonas said, slightly strained. “Good to know there’s not too much, ah. Turnover. In that. Department.”

“Oh, no,” Phil said, “we’re always having to fire guys for trying to bring their own swords. We try to tell them, you know, you’re not knights. You’re a castle guard. Leave the swords to the knights. Some guys just don’t listen.”

“Great!” Leonas said. “Great. Good to know. Now. And not sooner.”

Minnow patted his arm. The grip of Karzarul’s body kept tightening around her, scales pressing into her skin. She wished she could ask him if everything was okay.

“Your timing is great,” Phil said. “All the enchantments and everything look so cool at night. You’re gonna love it. You’ve seen it, right, Your Highness? I know they do a whole birthday thing.”

“I am typically preoccupied,” Leonas said.

“Right,” Phil said. “The partying.”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“It’s kind of sad,” Phil said, “how when something’s right in your backyard, you always mean to check it out, but you figure you can put it off and go whenever.”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“It’s one of the reasons I’m thinking I might retire,” Phil said. “Spend more time with the kids.”

Karzarul’s grip around Minnow loosened, lightened. She stopped, alarmed, as she realized light was filtering out of her clothes. “Ari?” she asked, trying to grab at some of the formless light with a rising sense of panic. “Ari!

“Whoa, what is that?” Phil asked.

“Phil, I need your keys,” she said quickly.

“Okay,” he said, holding them up. She snatched them and started to run down the hall, chasing the light.

“Oh, fuck me, we’re running,” Leonas said before chasing after her.

“Good luck with whatever that is!” Phil called after them, waving down the hall.

Minnow chased after the darting moonlight faster than the length of her legs should have allowed, her heart pounding in her throat. She skidded around corners, running into walls and jumping off of them to reroute herself as quickly as possible. Anyone with the misfortune to be walking through the halls who didn’t move when they saw a bright light zooming past was in danger of being run over.

She ran out the double-doors to the Folly Gardens, stopping before she stumbled down the stairs. She watched as Ari, nothing but shapeless moonlight, disappeared into the still dark water of the canal.

She looked up at the moon, hanging full in the sky. She looked at the empty night sky reflected in the canal.

“What happened?” Leonas asked between gasps, having finally caught up to her.

“Why does it look like that?” she asked, pointing at the canal.

“The ward,” Leonas said, coughing. “Moonlight can’t get in so it doesn’t—that’s why they put all the candles, when they open the gardens. So it doesn’t look like that.”

“How do we get in?” Minnow asked, grabbing his arm. “Do you know where the door is? I didn’t ask Phil.”

“Down to the left of the stairs,” he began, yelping as Minnow suddenly and without warning lifted him and threw him over her shoulders. She held him by one leg and one arm as she ran. “Minona put me down right this instant,” he demanded, his voice two octaves higher than usual.

“You’re slow,” she explained, stopping at a door barely visible behind rosebushes. “This it?”

“Yes,” he said, “I can—” He had a coughing fit, because his lungs still weren’t happy with him. Minnow started to flip through Phil’s keys and immediately gave up, tossing them aside and unsheathing the Starsword. Leonas tried to flinch away, but it was hard when he was draped over her shoulders like a stole. Sparks flew as she hit the padlock hard enough to shatter it, kicking the door in to run inside. He had to cling to her since she only had one free hand now to grip his leg, the other holding her sword.

She descended the stairs three at a time, lower and lower, deep as the catacombs. None of the doors at the bottom were locked, but she kicked them open anyway. Her patience for doors was at an all-time low as she made her way toward whatever was underneath the canal.

She stopped inside the last door, finally letting Leonas go enough that he could slide down to his own feet.

“It—it didn’t look like that,” Leonas said weakly. “The enchantments I put the Sunshield into, that’s not what it looked like.”

The bottom of the canal was glass. The entire massive construct, enough water to boat in, all of it sitting on a thick layer of glass that let the light through. The cavern, its walls chipped away and unfinished, was massive. It had to be, to span the canal from one end to the other, the length of the entire Folly Gardens.

Down the center of the entire cavern was the enchantment mechanism, as big as anything Minnow had ever seen. A sideways column of roiling white light, it looked like a single piece of etched crystal. She could not imagine a stone so large. Rings of glass tubing surrounded it, ring after ring spaced evenly down its length, pulsing with sunlight. The only illumination came from the sunlight tubes; the column itself, despite the light inside it, had no glow. The whole cavern hummed.

It was so large Minnow couldn’t actually locate the Sunshield on it.

She made her way down the last flight of stairs, moving closer to the mechanism. She realized that her sense of scale had been off. The enchanted suits of armor used to move heavy equipment, littered throughout the room, were at least as tall as a Tauril. The mechanism dwarfed them. She looked closer at the armor, the harness and controls in the chest, the glowing glass tubes and crystals embedded in the arms.

This wasn’t what Leonas had agreed to, when he’d given up his Sunshield. A legendary weapon was meant to be too heavy for any mortal to use. They should have needed his permission.

“They can move it,” Minnow said. “Without you.”

“Great,” Leonas said, taking deep breaths. He was walking after her, not bothering to try keeping up. “Love not being needed.”

“It’s not a ward,” she said.

“Yes, I can see that, thanks.” Every time he looked at it he looked away, trying not to see whatever it was he could see in all the etchings and moving parts. None of it meant anything to Minnow, because she knew nothing about enchanting. “It’s a prism light,” he said, “one of those little—the ones you use instead of candles. Except instead of taking in any light and spitting it back out it only takes in moonlight and never lets it leave.”

“Moontrap,” Minnow said.

“It’s not trapping the entire moon,” Leonas said.

Minnow ignored him, moving closer to the Moontrap. “If we turn it off, what happens? Can Ari get out?”

“I don’t know,” Leonas admitted. “I—I assume so, but he’s mixed in with every other monster and scrap of moonlight that’s caught in there. I don’t know how he works, if he could get… tangled.”

“He doesn’t die like we do,” Minnow said.

“He hasn’t,” Leonas corrected.

Metal clattered against the stone floor, echoing through the cavern. Enormous, armored footsteps. Minnow put herself between Leonas and the direction of the sound, but Leonas pushed her out of the way. Tried to, at least. “Find the Sunshield,” he hissed. “You’re the one who can run.”

His logic was sound, even if she didn’t like it. She bolted toward the underside of the Moontrap, and told herself it would be fine. No one was going to hurt the Prince of Astielle. Even if they did, he could protect himself once he had the shield. And Ari could help them, once he was free. Standing in front of Leonas and flailing with a sword was the least useful thing she could do.

Even if it was what she wanted to do.

The glass tubes surrounding the Moontrap were big enough that she could have fit inside one. They connected to smaller pipes, and she tried to follow them to find where they led. Etched gears slowly rotated on the pumps close to the floor.

“I see you decided to come home,” Leland said, nothing to absorb his voice, only metal and stone to carry it. He was using one of the suits of armor, thin pale limbs all wrapped in copper with sunlight veins. His legs disappeared into the armored boots, but the rest of the suit rose up behind him like a second torso, a second set of arms. “I’m sure you feel terrible about all the trouble you caused. Fortunately, there wasn’t much. Most people never even noticed. So that’s one less thing to worry about.”

Leonas scratched at his wrist, his eyes in the middle distance toward the wall to the right of his father. “Clever,” Leonas said. “With the armor.”

“You noticed?” Leland held his arm up, the armor following his movement so he could admire his handiwork. “It seemed easier than asking your for help, what with how busy you always are. Is your girlfriend here?”

“You’re going to have to be more specific,” Leonas said.

“We both know that’s not true,” Leland said. He reached out with the armor and used it to tousle Leonas’ curls, the metal hand as big as Leonas’ chest. “Tell her to be careful,” he said, raising his voice to carry better. “The enchantments holding this together are very complicated, if you’re going to take the Sunshield out of it there’s a procedure that needs to be followed. Otherwise you’re going to end up leveling the city with monsters before you go on your little adventure.”

Minnow finally reached the center point of the Moontrap, where all the pipes converged into a hole in the floor. Above them was the Sunshield, set into the enormous glass ring around the crystal. Pipes all around it fed into the glass tube, the Sunshield pulsing with the light all around it. Minnow got on her knees to try and stick her head through the hole to see where the pipes were going. There was a tank underneath the floor. She couldn’t see what was inside it, but she could guess. More troubling was that, turning her head, she couldn’t see where the tank ended to determine how big it was.

She sat back up. “That doesn’t seem good.”

“This isn’t what I agreed to,” Leonas said haltingly.

“You agreed to help protect Astielle,” Leland reminded him. “It’s okay if you changed your mind. You don’t need a reason.”

“I don’t think this is protecting Astielle,” Leonas said.

“You think you can do better?” Leland asked. “Nothing but you and a shield. It ought to work out better this time, right?” Leonas bit his tongue. “It’s a kind of brave,” Leland said, “that you’d still want to try that again, after I already did all of this so you wouldn’t have to.” He gestured around the cavern, at the Moontrap, with both his arms and the armor’s.

“I never asked you to do that,” Leonas said.

“Would it kill you to at least pretend to be grateful for once in your fucking life?” Leland snapped, and Leonas flinched. “Sun above, you’re just like your mother sometimes.”

“Good,” Leonas said.

“Hey.” Leland and the armor bent down toward Leonas, and before Leonas could back away the hands of the armor had grabbed him by either side of his head. Leonas tried to push them away, or at least turn his head, before giving up. Leland disengaged the sleeves so that he could gesture without the armor letting Leonas go, pointing a warning finger in his face. “She left you,” Leland said.

Leonas swallowed. “She—”

“She left,” Leland repeated, “because she didn’t want you. She did not want you. I wanted you. I’m the one who kept you. I have done everything for you. Find me another father who loves his son as much as I do. There’s no one who’d put up with as much as I do.”

Minnow had been trying to figure out if there was some kind of switch or knob leading to the Moontrap. Anything that might let her start to shut it down slowly, to make sure nothing blew up.

“Actually,” Minnow said, “fuck this.” She gripped the hilt of the Starsword with both hands, and started to hit the glass next to the Sunshield. It cracked immediately.

“What is she doing?” Leland asked, slipping his arms back into the sleeves to let Leonas go and stand the armor back upright. “She’s going to get you killed, you realize that.”

Minnow kept hitting the same spot until it gave, shattered open to let sunlight-colored magic come pouring out of it. The force of the spill cracked it open further, up through the ring and back down to the Sunshield. The light of the Sunshield dimmed, the crystal core of the Moontrap growing brighter. The moonlight seemed to push outward with a physical force, and all the glass rings started to crack, starting from the middle and moving outward in bursts of shattering glass. As the enchantments fell apart, the moonlight started to consolidate, shooting upward in a massive beam of light. An alarm started to sound, a great ringing gong.

The heavy glass under the canal cracked.

“… oops,” Minnow said.

After only a moment’s delay it broke through, cutting a hole through the glass big enough to see the shape of the moon through. Water started pouring into the cavern, a waterfall onto what had moments before been the Moontrap.

Once the magic had breached containment, it hadn’t stayed where it was. It had started to rush, instead, back to where it belonged. It was a small enough amount at first, but soon light was pouring into Leonas from all sides, more than he could imagine had ever been inside of him. He tried to focus on breathing, tried not to think about exploding, tried not to think about anything at all that could result in something happening.

More of the moonlight coalesced inside the room, shone onto the floor and consolidated into a bone-white Bruteling. It stumbled on gangly, child-like limbs, tufted ears pinned back as it shook its head. More moonlight kept pouring into it. Instead of staying inside the monster it shot back out in pieces like comets, back into the stream of light pouring upward through the water pouring down. “Oh—oh, this is weird,” the Bruteling said, its voice high and grating like a blade against rough stone. It looked at its hands, rubbed its stubby fingers over its wrinkled feline face. “Why would I do this one?” It looked up to try to identify the location of the ringing gong.

It changed suddenly, turned into a Howler and shook its head. “What?” it said, that same grating voice through its snout. It turned in a circle, looking at its own tail and at all the moonlight filtering in and then shooting out of it. It seemed like the light was moving faster, hundreds of balls of light leaving its body in quick succession. It turned abruptly into a Slitherskin, and had to raise its head to stay out of the water now pooling on the cavern floor. It kept rising, took to its wings as a Misthawk, too many eyes on its head and one great wide eye on its stomach. Then it was an Entboar, a great porcine forest unto itself, before shrinking back down into the familiar roundness of a Rootboar. “Wait, is this—” It became a Shadestalker, a Shimmerbat that practically exploded with moonlight, expanded all at once into an Ursbat. Its massive bear paws splashed in the water, its little wings flapping uselessly. “We cannot be doing this.” Then it was a Bullizard, standing on two legs and looking at its hands again. It was wearing the Moonbow on its back this time. “Oh, I hate this.”

Karzarul drew in more moonlight than left him for the first time, expanding into the familiar shape of a Tauril. “Okay, this one’s good,” he said, sounding for the first time like himself as he shifted his front hooves, his arms held up like it would stop him from moving. “This is a good one, let’s keep this one.” All the moonlight of him collapsed like gravity into the water, and he was an Abysscale, comets of light shooting out of him at a rapid pace once more. “Shit,” he said around a mouth full of shark teeth, using a hand to rake his hair out of his face. The massive length of his finned tail wound and unwound, splashing in the rising water. Then he rose up into an Impyr, his edges unsteady. Only a few points of light left him this time as he caught his bearings. “Oh! Okay. So we skipped—okay. Makes sense.”

Magic, an impossible amount of magic, was still pouring into Leonas as the alarm rang. He was glowing bright enough to make him difficult to look at. Leland grabbed him with the massive hands of his armor, lifting him into the air. “What did I tell you?” he asked, before slamming Leonas flat on his back onto the ground, submerging him in the still-shallow water. Leonas dimmed as all the air was knocked out of him, fighting the reflexive desire to inhale. “She’s getting you killed, because you would rather free the Monster King than do as you’re fucking told.”

“Ari!” Minnow shouted, pointing at Leonas and Leland with her sword. She knew she couldn’t get there in time, knew she didn’t know any of the magic that would let her sword reach that far.

“Right!” Karzarul said, changing back into a Tauril to charge toward Leland. He drew the Moonbow, nocked an arrow and loosed it as he ran. Leland had to let Leonas go to move out of the way, the arrow embedding itself into stone before vanishing. Leonas sat upright, coughing up water. Karzarul nearly overtook the Prince, stopping with his hooves on either side of him. He roared.

“He can’t control that much, you moron!” Leland shouted, gesturing at his son. “You’re not saving him, you’re just killing everyone in range.”

Minnow shoved the point of the Starsword underneath the edge of the Sunshield now that it was dim, using it as a lever to crack it away from the glass. She caught it one-handed and tossed it away from the tank pit, yelping as it burned her fingers. She waded to where she’d tossed it, shoving the sword’s blade through the straps under the back of the shield to pick it up. They clattered, the two weapons whining and shaking in protest. “Bring him here!” she yelled across the cavern.

Karzarul bent, picking Leonas up by the back of his shirt and rearing up on his back legs to pivot back to Minnow. He’d only run to the halfway point between them when, without warning, Minnow swung her sword and launched the shield toward them at high speed. Not wanting to get burned, he held Leonas up in front of him reflexively, before he could consider why this was actually a terrible idea. Leonas screamed, but did manage to catch the Sunshield, though it hit him directly in the stomach when he did.

Ow,” Leonas said, fumbling to try and get the shield onto his arm while hanging from his own shirt.

“It can’t hurt you!” Minnow called. “It’s yours!”

“It can’t reject me!” Leonas snapped. “A brick isn’t going to reject me either, that doesn’t mean you can throw it at my head.”

Karzarul set Leonas down next to Minnow. Leonas’ glow hadn’t dimmed, had instead only entered the Sunshield so that it glowed to match him. Sunlight magic in the water was still flowing into him in currents. He could feel the change of it, how it evened everything out into a single electric feeling. He could hear a bright high note emanating from the shield and into the hum of his skin. He tried to channel some of the feeling through the shield, thought about safe things.

Trees started sprouting out of the water, trunks bursting up out of nothing with roots cracking the stone, willow trees with spiraling pink leaves.

“The trees were an example,” Karzarul muttered, rubbing his forehead. “You don’t always have to do trees, you’re so bad at trees. Look at a tree. One tree.”

Knights were joining Leland at the far end of the cavern, forming a protective barrier that would soon be an offensive front. Some were climbing into enchanted suits of armor.

“Can you fly us?” Minnow asked, sheathing her sword to grab Karzarul by the arm. “Like, a monster that can carry us through that. Is there one of those?” She pointed at the hole in the canal, water still pouring through it in one direction while light poured out through the other.

Karzarul stared at the waterfall. “Yeah,” he said, “I can do that.” He took a few steps backward, still looking up at it. “Big enough to carry, small enough to fit, fly through water.” He swung his arms, still backing up, like he was trying to build up momentum. “Yeah, I can do that. I definitely have something for that. Easy, no problem.” When he’d put enough distance between them, he ran right for them, grabbed them off the floor and jumped.

Karzarul was briefly formless again, but Minnow slammed into his chest, curled up against him and held on for dear life as they rose off the ground. He had an arm behind her back as well as somehow underneath her legs, and she could barely see one arm around Leonas. She reached out to grab Leonas by the arm not clinging to Karzarul. The Sunshield touched enough of her arm to burn, but she ignored it; her hair all stood on end, magic thrumming over her skin. A trail of sunlight was still following Leonas. She had enough foresight to jam her eyes shut and hold her breath as they entered the falling water, fighting the current to rise up through it.

When they emerged she inhaled with relief, looking down at the ground getting further away from them. Their flight path was wobbly.

“Oh, this is weird,” Ari said. She tried to get a better look at him, but it was hard when she was so close. All she could see was skin and a fluttering of feathers. She looked up in time to see four more comets of moonlight shooting out from him into the sky. “Oh, no,” Ari groaned.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“It’s fine,” he said. “It’s been a long time since I—I’m going to try something else.” With a burst of moonlight his arms turned into enormous claws, vast and leathery wings stretching out on either side of them.

“Are you a dragon?” she asked, excited. She didn’t even mind the wind, colder since she’d been drenched in canal water.

“Drakonis,” he corrected. “A dragon is a magical creature, not a monster.”

“A dragon has fewer legs,” Leonas said. “And eyes.”

“Do you remember,” Karzarul asked, “how I said that it felt like a normal amount of moonlight?”

“Yeah,” Minnow said.

“That was stupid,” Karzarul said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this, before.”

“You didn’t think that was notable?” Leonas asked.

“I was dead,” Karzarul said. “You’re useless for almost twenty years after you get back. Excuse me for assuming I needed time.”

“Are you okay?” Minnow asked Leonas, the countryside passing at high speed underneath them.

“Y—no.” He leaned out away from Karzarul’s claws, and dandelion fluff came retching from his mouth.

“Hm,” Minnow said. “Seems bad.” She tapped at the scales on Karzarul’s wrist. Some of the scales on his chest and his arms opened, three enormous silver eyes rolling in her direction. She tried not to recoil, because she thought that might hurt his feelings. “There’s a cave under that hill,” she said, pointing. “It has a Rainbow Door in it.”

The eyes that she could see closed, and Karzarul brought his wings in to dive, spreading them out at the last minute to land without crashing into the ground. He set them both down, transitioning back to his Tauril form. Leonas sank down into the grass, barely upright on his knees, his clothes all soaked through. The dormant wildflowers all around him started to bloom, spreading outward into the field, growing in thick as carpet. Minnow looked back toward Astielle, where a pillar of light still reached toward the sky.

“… that’s probably fine,” she said.

“This is,” Leonas said, “a lot.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He bent forward to curl into a ball, his shield to his right, fingers sinking into his wet curls. “My head hurts,” he said. “I can hear it.”

Since she was still wet, it took her a minute to realize the ground beneath the grass was turning into mud. Water was surging upward through the groundcover, from where she did not know. “Leonas?” she asked cautiously.

He looked up, still curled on the ground. Sunlight was dripping out of his eyes, streaming down his face.

“Hm.” Minnow wondered what the Faewilds would look like, if the Faewilds were a lake that used to be a field. “The excess magic is going to be a problem,” she said. “Maybe the mountains?” If they were going to make a new Faewilds, a mountain that no one ever visited felt like the place to do it.

“I know a place,” Karzarul said. He picked Leonas up, slinging him over his shoulder. She led him around the hill, and Karzarul had to shift to Impyr form to fit inside. He was still hauling Leonas like a leaky bag of flour. He took Minnow’s hand, and pulled her through the Rainbow Door.

Astielle: Chapter Fourteen

“Do you need something?” Leonas asked. He’d balanced a mirror against the wagon, and was shaving above a large bowl of water. He still had a black scarf tied over his hair.

“No,” Minnow said, sitting on the wagon with her legs crossed. Her chin was resting on her palms, her elbows on her legs.

“You’re staring,” Leonas said, opening his mouth to keep his skin taut as he dragged the blade down his cheek. It rasped against his stubble.

“I like watching,” she said, and he raised an eyebrow. “When you work.”

“Shaving isn’t work,” he said, rinsing off the blade before going for another pass closer to his jaw, mouth shut and chin jutting out.

“You’re concentrating,” she said, “and holding something sharp.”

He rinsed the blade again. “There’s something wrong with you,” he accused. He tilted his head to run the blade under his chin, over his neck.

“Yeah,” she sighed. It was the blade against his skin, the muscles in his neck and the shape of his arteries. The smooth, bare skin the blade left behind, and the control in never letting it draw blood.

“Shoo,” he said, trying to wave her off. “Or I’m going to use this on you.”

She offered the back of her forearm.

“I’m not going to shave your arm,” he said, exasperated. He gave up and resumed shaving. She pouted and took her arm back, but continued admiring him. There was something about the hollow in the center of his collarbones, or the spot where the nape of his neck curved toward his shoulder. The length of his fingers, and the precision with which he held a blade, with which he’d grown so good at touching her.

The fact that he was busy made her want to kiss his spine while he couldn’t stop her, until he finished and could try to make her regret it. She wanted to bite his fingertips.

Leonas had not, since leaving the castle, shown any real interest in touching or being touched. She thought he might be enjoying the break from obligatory people-touching. She wondered if touching her might have been an act of desperation from the start, seeking out a way to express friendship within his limitations. She would have to pretend she wasn’t disappointed, if he ever admitted it.

“Do you like me?” she asked, as he rubbed his face with a small towel.

“No,” he said immediately. “You’re a horrible little nightmare woman.”

Thus reassured, she stood, spine curving as she stretched her arms toward the sky. Leonas’ gaze lingered at the corner of his eye. She wandered over to where Ari was keeping watch nearer to the road, a Tauril sitting in the grass with his front legs still straight. She sidled up to him, leaning back against his front legs, near his waist. He reached down to touch her hair, and she made a happy sound.

“Do you remember where you learned that song?” Ari asked.

“Hmm?” Minnow asked, eyes still shut as he stroked her hair.

“The one you were humming the other day,” Ari said. “With Leonas.”

“I don’t remember which one that was,” Minnow said, opening her eyes. Ari hesitated before humming some of it back to her. “Oh, that does sound familiar,” she said. “Is it a lullaby? I pick up songs, sometimes. I don’t always know them.”

“It was a hymn,” he said, “to Mother Void.”

“Oh.” She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. “Are there words?”

“In Aekhite,” he said.

“Oh.” She wondered if she’d sung it before, without realizing.

Singing where someone else might hear was uncomfortable for her at the best of times. She had an irrational revulsion when it came to performance. It was difficult to explain, when she wasn’t averse to observation. She even liked it, sitting still while Leonas drew pictures of whatever bizarre injury she had managed to inflict on herself, being looked at and admired like a specimen in someone else’s collection. If Leonas asked her to stick out her tongue, to hold up her hair, stretch out her arms, spread her legs—she didn’t mind that at all. It gave her a nice feeling, same as Ari stroking her hair. If Leonas had asked her to sing, or to dance, her mind would go all blank with panic. It was not a nice feeling.

He’d never asked, fortunately. Kavid had, once. She’d punched him. He’d apologized later. It all worked out.

All that aside, it didn’t help that all the songs she knew seemed to be songs she’d never learned, dead songs, dead words slipping out over her tongue. Ghosts trying to make themselves heard. She never knew unless someone told her after the fact.

“It gives thanks to the Void Goddess,” Karzarul said, “for beautiful things.”

“I wasn’t totally wrong, then,” she said. “There are lullabies like that.”

“I believe,” Karzarul said, “that such things usually focus less on the importance of fragility, transience, and inevitable destruction.”

“Oh,” Minnow said. “I should have picked a different song.”

“I found it fitting,” Ari said. “It’s why I wondered if you knew.”

She shook her head. “Do you want to sing it for me?”

“No,” he said automatically. “Not that you aren’t—”

She patted his leg. “It wasn’t a request. I was only asking. You don’t have to apologize for answering.”

He picked her up without warning, and her heart leapt even as he pressed her against his chest and kissed her.


“Where is this ward meant to be?” Karzarul asked, looking at the great stone wall bordering Fort Astielle. Minnow had led them to an empty field, a stretch of wall poorly guarded enough that a Tauril could stand next to it without throwing up alarms. He did not ask how she knew this, or about the rusted battle axes in the grass.

“It reaches the wall,” Leonas said. He’d put his hair into a braid, and was trying to determine the best arrangement of hat and scarf to hide both the color of his hair and of his witchmarks.

Karzarul put his hand against the stone. “It doesn’t feel warded,” he said.

Leonas shut his eyes. “Don’t say that,” he said.

“It feels like there’s something in there,” Karzarul said. “Something I want.”

“You think it’s actually luring monsters closer?” Minnow asked.

“Don’t say that,” Leonas repeated. “Monsters don’t enter Fort Astielle, that doesn’t even make sense.”

Minnow rubbed his back. “It might work different for him,” she pointed out. “Maybe the ward only works on the new monsters.”

“That’s not better,” Leonas said. “Nothing about that is better.”

“I want to try to go in with you,” Karzarul said. “I can be a Slitherskin again. We’ve—I’ve gone through cities that way before. If you can prove the ward doesn’t let me in, I’ll stay out here. But I want to try.”

“We can’t abandon the wagon out here,” Leonas said.

“Sure we can,” Minnow said. “I leave stuff out here all the time, no one ever comes out here. I’ll unhook the horses and they can eat grass or walk to a stable or something.”

“You’re a terrible horse owner,” Leonas said, hooking his scarf over his ears and wrapping it around his neck. In conjunction with his wide-brimmed hat and matching leather gloves, he looked like a traveling doctor’s apprentice. “I’m shocked Piggy is still alive.”

“She’s a good horse,” Minnow said. “If Potato and Egg can’t handle it, they weren’t meant to be.”

Karzarul scratched at the wall with one of his hooves, as if he might dislodge a brick from it.

“Don’t start trying to knock the walls down,” Leonas said.

“I was testing it,” Karzarul said. He looked along the curve of the wall. “If there were a hole in it, I could stick my arm through and see if the ward stops me,” he said.

“If there were a hole you could stick your enormous arm through, it wouldn’t be a very good fort,” Leonas said.

Karzarul whacked another stone with his hoof. Tiny bits of mortar chipped away.

“Cut it out,” Leonas snapped.

Karzarul gave it a light tap.

“For fuck’s sake.”

“Okay,” Minnow said. “Potato and Egg are either going to frolic in a field before finding their way to a stable, or they’re going to die. Are we ready to go?”

Karzarul trotted back to her side, bending down to put his hands on her shoulders. His form transitioned through formless moonlight into a Slitherskin, draped loose around her neck. He slid headfirst down her shirt, disappearing under her clothes. He wound his way around her ribcage, hiding his shape under the fall of her clothes beneath her breasts. She worried he might overheat there, but didn’t say so. She also worried about sweating on him.

“What now?” Leonas asked, trying not to look for the shape of Karzarul against her. “We’re not climbing the wall, are we?”

She barked a laugh. “Oh, no, you’d die.”

“Thanks.”

“We can walk in, it’s fine. It’s a big city.”

They trudged through the grass back toward the road. Leonas kept fussing with his scarf, trying to get the fall of it over his shoulders just-so without bringing it too low on his face. The road itself wasn’t crowded, but they entered the gates before and after other travelers, enough of them not to feel too conspicuous.

Leonas kept pulling his gloves on tighter.

A change came over him when they hit Market Street, the smell of cinnamon wafting over them. “Oh!” he said, grabbing at Minnow’s shoulder. “Churros!”

“Yeah,” she said. “Everybody does churros.”

“No,” he said, scanning the stalls. “There’s one place that has the good churros.”

“There are no bad churros,” Minnow said.

“No, but there are good churros,” he said. “I don’t remember which one it was, I know it was Market Street, I know it was a stall.”

Minnow did not ask him how long it had been.

“This might be it,” he said, though he didn’t seem sure of himself as he approached the stall. Minnow paid for his churro. He stuck it under his scarf and took a thoughtful bite. He shook his head. “No, this isn’t it. Oh! That bakery is still there!” Leonas pointed at a storefront with his churro.

“Yeah,” she said.

“It’s the worst,” he said, still eating his churro. “I don’t know why anyone goes there. There’s an old man in there who has a very specific way that he believes you’re supposed to smell pastries, and if you do it wrong, he’ll make you stand there and keep doing it until he approves of your wafting technique. He does it to everyone. Absolutely awful. Imagine forcing someone to take sniff lessons and then expecting them to come back to your establishment ever again. I would have had his business license taken away, if I’d known he was still operating. I thought he would have gone bankrupt by now. Or been murdered.”

Leonas scanned the street again. Minnow thought that later, he would be annoyed with her for not reminding him to stay on task. She did not remind him. If nothing else, he also seemed distracted from the confirmation that Karzarul could have strolled up to Castle Astielle at any point in the last twenty years.

It was also cute.

“That one,” Leonas said, pointing to a stall some ways up the street. “I think that might be the good churros.”

Minnow bought him another churro. He stuck it under his scarf and took a bite. “No,” he said. “This isn’t it.”

“You don’t have to eat it if it’s bad,” she said.

“It isn’t bad,” he said, still eating. “It just isn’t the one I was thinking of.”

Minnow tried to steer him further down Market Street, closer to the center of the city.

“There used to be a toy store there,” Leonas said, pointing to a store that now sold hats. “Kids would go in and play with the toys but never buy anything, and he had a big bin of marbles that everyone stole from. They tried banning kids from the store, so everyone got offended and wouldn’t shop there anyway. I have no idea why anyone would open a toy store, children are awful.”

“Did you buy a lot of toys?” Minnow asked.

“No,” he said, brushing the last of the cinnamon from his gloves. He looked around. “That’s the last one I want to try,” he said, pointing at a distant churro cart. “If this place doesn’t have the good churros, then we’re not going to find them.”

Minnow bought him a churro. Leonas chewed slowly and contemplatively. “Shit,” he said. “I think the good churro guy might have retired.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, patting his arm.

Leonas looked at some of the signs at the nearest intersection. “Oh,” he said, “I know where this is, actually. This is—wait.” He spun around, looking at different buildings. “We should go this way,” he said, grabbing Minnow’s hand to pull her toward an alley.

“What’s that way?” Minnow asked.

“There should be a shortcut back to the castle,” he said as they left the street. “They can’t have changed it.”

“It doesn’t go through a sewer, does it?” she asked.

“No, no, this is through the catacombs.” It looked like a little shed, something that a nearby business might use for basement access. The door was covered over in a lattice of wrought iron.

“The what?” Minnow asked.

“Have you not been in the catacombs?” he asked. “That’s for the best, you would have died.” He let her hand go. “I haven’t done this in a long time,” he warned, “so you might need to smash this lock.” He held his churro in his mouth so that it jutted out from beneath his scarf, and pulled out one of the pins keeping his braid in place, inserting it underneath the padlock. It popped open immediately. He made a surprised sound, putting the pin back and fixing his hair before taking a bite of the churro. “Nevermind, these locks still suck,” he said after swallowing, pulling the door open with a loud rusty creak.

“What’s in the catacombs?” she asked, following him into the dark. “You said there’s no monsters in Fort Astielle.” The door led directly into steep stone stairs, and Leonas pulled his scarf down as they descended. The glow of his witchmarks was faint, but enough to see rough shapes. Minnow forgot, sometimes, how bad human vision was in the dark. She wondered if she ought to take the lead, since she had faesight.

“Nothing is allowed in the catacombs,” Leonas said. He was still eating his churro. “Most of it is unmapped, and it’s completely dark. There are a few safe areas where kids like to hang out, and there was a theater troupe operating out of one of the tunnels for a while. But for the most part there’s only the corpses of anyone who got lost and starved to death.”

They reached the bottom of the stairs, opening out into a wide tunnel. Empty eye sockets stared back at her from along walls built out of stacked bone.

“Oh,” she said.

Leonas finished his churro. “And all the other corpses,” he added. “You can ignore those.”

“Okay,” she said. Karzarul had emerged from the neck of her shirt, resting his head on her shoulder.

“Why do you keep your bones in the sewer?” Karzarul asked.

“It isn’t a sewer,” Leonas said, leading the way into the dark. “The bones have to go somewhere. We don’t put them down here anymore, the Sun clerics don’t like it. What with the, ah. Eternal darkness.”

“You know the way?” Minnow asked nervously. She was sure they could get out regardless, but it felt like a monster was going to leap out at any moment. This was not a rational fear, when she had a monster wrapped around her ribs. The air smelled of must and damp earth and fungus. “You’ve been through here before?”

“All the time, when I was a kid,” Leonas said. “How did you think I went and got you?” he asked. “I didn’t take the front door.”

“You had a carriage,” Minnow said.

“It’s easy to steal a carriage,” Leonas said, “when you’re a prince.”

How strange, to imagine Leonas as the kind of child who would sneak through the city in dark tunnels lined with bone instead of staying home with a book.

“This looks a lot like being lost,” Karzarul said, after a series of turns through tunnels in quick succession that seemed to double-back once.

“We’re not lost,” Leonas said. He reached out and touched a skull in the wall, which Minnow realized had glass marbles sitting in its sockets. They lit up like twin suns until Leonas took his hand back.

“Careful,” Minnow warned. This would be a terrible time to lose control of his magic and explode.

“It’s barely a spell,” Leonas said defensively, continuing along. “A child could do it, it’s not going to kill me to listen to a skull jibber.”

She looked back at the empty marbles. “Was it jibbering?”

“… no.”

“Marbles?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas made an impatient sound. “They were what I had at the time,” he said. “There was a fad, you probably don’t—of course you don’t remember, you were dead. It doesn’t matter, it isn’t like enchanting where you need the right materials.” He touched another skull with marbles in its eyes, lighting them up briefly. “Witchcraft is messy.”

Minnow felt a draft at the back of her neck, or something like it. She turned, but nothing was behind her. Out of curiosity, she peered through an ornate archway that Leonas had walked right past.

“Did you miss the part about getting lost and dying?” Leonas asked behind her.

“Is it a memorial?” she asked. The room had a high domed ceiling, a statue in the center of two women embracing. At least, Minnow thought they were statues. They may have been more corpses, bioluminescent mushrooms growing at their feet, robes of pale lichen. Their hands were bone, the teeth of their skulls nearly touching, their crowns ornate.

“It’s a Heretic’s Temple,” Leonas said. “I tried to avoid it because it gives me the creeps, so thanks for this.”

“What’s heretical about it?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas gestured at the embrace. “They’re sisters.”

“They’re lovers,” Karzarul said.

“That’s heresy.”

“The Void Goddess was the first,” Karzarul said. “The Sun Goddess and the Moon Goddess sprang from her bosom fully-formed. When the Moon Goddess caught the world, and the Sun Goddess gave it life, did that make every living thing a sibling? No. That’s not how deities work.”

Minnow tilted her head, considering the goddess figures. “I can see why they changed it,” she said.

“Don’t defend their shitty doctrine,” Karzarul said.

“I’m not defending it,” Minnow said. “I only mean, if you want the Sun Goddess to be the biggest and best goddess, it makes it hard if she kisses her sister girlfriend in front of her mom.”

“They aren’t sisters,” Karzarul said.

“It makes more sense if they’re all sisters,” Leonas said. “With the way that we are. If they were lovers, the Moon Goddess would have made you nicer.”

“I made myself,” Karzarul said. “I did not concern myself with your feelings when I did so, any more than you have ever considered mine.”

“I’ll have to take your word for it,” Leonas said, heading back down the tunnel. “Keep staring at the weird kissing skulls if you want, I’m moving on.”

Minnow followed after him. “Are you still feeling that thing?” she asked Karzarul. “The lure thing.”

“It’s getting stronger,” Karzarul said. “Pulling at me. I don’t care for it.”

“Don’t say that,” Leonas said.

Minnow rubbed at the shape of a serpent’s body underneath her shirt. “Hold on to me,” she said, “and you’ll be fine.”

“Watch your feet,” Leonas warned, taking a large sideways step. There were two bodies sitting on the floor against the wall, their clothing recent. Their skin was desiccated, pulled taut over their skulls. Minnow’s legs weren’t as long as Leonas’, so she had to step between their feet to pass them.

“They got lost?” Minnow asked.

“It happens,” Leonas said. “It’s why you shouldn’t wander off to look at weird shrines.”

“You’d come back for me,” Minnow said. Leonas harrumphed, but didn’t deny it. He touched a marble-eyed skull and took a right. “I never asked how you got the Sunshield,” Minnow said. “If you had to do a quest.”

“A diplomatic mission to Thexikar,” Leonas said, “when I was nine. They’d built a shrine where it fell, since they didn’t have anyone that could move it.”

“That sounds awkward,” Minnow said.

“Extremely,” Leonas said, taking a left. “The Empress of Thexikar was the second-in-line when Brennia died. She kept asking if I remembered her.”

“Oof,” Minnow said.

“Yeah,” Leonas said. “Very oof.”

“How did Elias die?” Karzarul wondered.

“Being old,” Leonas said.

“He left the Starsword on the altar at the Ruined Temple,” Minnow said. “So he knew it was coming. Or, I knew. Whichever.” Being technically other people made pronouns confusing.

“Hm,” Karzarul said, but nothing more.

Minnow had always assumed that the Starsword was left in an old temple full of monsters as a test, or a kind of training. Elias seemed like the type. She hadn’t thought about it at all in years. Now she wondered about heresy, defaced frescos and broken statues, tiles torn from mosaics.

“This should bring us up into the outer walls of Castle Astielle,” Leonas said. It wasn’t quite a ladder, was handholds cut into stone. Small relief that they wouldn’t need to climb femurs. “If we’re careful, we should be able to navigate entirely through the different gardens around the castle without anyone spotting us. I hope. I’m not sure. My father could have eyes in more places, now.”

“He doesn’t think Minnow kidnapped you, does he?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas shifted uncomfortably. “He shouldn’t,” he said. “I left a note.” He started to climb rather than clarify. Minnow followed after him. They emerged into something that looked like a cellar closet, everything covered in dust. Leonas had to jimmy the door open so that they could walk out into another cellar, then up a broken staircase into a nondescript hallway.

“I have a plan,” Minnow said, holding out a hand to stop Leonas from advancing further. “Here, if you take off your terrible disguise this should will work.”

“It’s not terrible,” Leonas said, although he didn’t need much encouraging to remove the hat.

“It’s not great,” Karzarul said.

“Gloves too,” Minnow said, pulling on them to discard them on the floor. “Let your hair down, you need to look princely.”

“Is the plan still that we’re breaking in to steal my shield?” Leonas asked, though he did as she said. “This doesn’t seem like breaking in.”

“We’re breaking in,” Minnow confirmed. “C’mon, let’s go.” She took him by the hand to pull him along down the hall. She was sure she knew where they were, having broken into Castle Astielle many times and in many different ways. Karzarul slithered under clothes, hiding himself, no longer peering out from under her hair. Leonas resisted when she started to pull him into a guardhouse, but she only pulled him along harder.

“Hey, Phil,” she said, dragging Leonas along behind her.

“Hey, Min.” He glanced up from his number puzzle. “Oh, hey. You got the prince out. Take him out for a walk, see some sunshine?”

“Yeah,” Minnow said.

“That’s nice,” Phil said.

“Do you know where they keep the warding mechanism that keeps the monsters out?” she asked.

“Oh yeah, we’ve all seen it,” Phil said. “Have you seen it?”

“No.”

“Want to?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll take you,” Phil said, setting down his puzzle book. “Just give me a minute to grab my keys and lock up, no one ever comes by here anyway.”

Minnow leaned closer to Leonas so that she could whisper in his ear. “We’re in.”

Astielle: Chapter Thirteen

Minnow was hungover. She was dealing with it by sitting in a creek with a towel over her eyes, pretending to be a corpse. Local flies were doing their part by buzzing overhead.

Leonas was trying to be helpful by slicing potatoes, a wooden cutting board balanced on a stump. Karzarul was cooking something over the fire that was mostly potatoes, though he hadn’t given Leonas any details besides how to slice them.

Karzarul had been, all things considered, perfectly polite. Distant, but polite. This was a best-case scenario, and would be an ideal relationship dynamic moving forward.

“Has it never been different?” Leonas asked quietly, not wanting Minnow to hear. Karzarul didn’t acknowledge him. “With the Hero,” Leonas pressed, “you’ve said… you’ve implied. Most of the time, you’re enemies. But not always. Have we always?”

Karzarul said nothing for a time. The knife thumped against the cutting board. “There have been times,” he said finally, “when you seemed willing to tolerate me. It does not last.”

So many years, so many lives. “There wasn’t a time when… you and the Heir had to fight the Hero?” He didn’t want to sound hopeful about it, when an answer in the affirmative would also be bad.

Karzarul let the question linger in the air again. “Once,” he said. “When you were Fynn. Orynn cut your tongue out.”

Leonas stopped with the knife against the cutting board.

“You can add those to the pan,” Karzarul said. Leonas pushed the slices in with the flat of the knife. “Orynn had a good deal wrong with him. I considered it a mercy killing. Once I had done what you could not, you killed me.”

“Fynn killed you,” Leonas said. “I’m not the same.”

The potatoes sizzled. Karzarul cracked eggs into the pan, breaking them up to flow around and between the layers of starch. Leonas retrieved the small mug he’d been using for tea, already lukewarm.

“Human souls,” Karzarul said, “are small. It’s a core, a starting point around which you wrap memories until you’ve become a person. I didn’t used to understand that, that all you really keep are your souls. You can keep some of the memories, when you die. The things you think are important. That you can tie to your core. But you prefer the new memories, most of the time. Let the old ones slough off, let yourself build someone new. Humans can do that without even dying first. But there’s always that vital thing at the core of you.”

Karzarul managed to flip the entire heavy potato-thing in the pan.

“The Hero,” Karzarul said, “is selfless. That’s why he’s the Hero. He doesn’t always remember to be good, or nice. Sometimes he forgets the right way to be selfless, sometimes someone teaches him wrong. But he always tries.” He took the pan off the fire. “The Heir is selfish.”

Leonas flinched, grip tightening on his mug.

“You want what is yours,” Karzarul said. “You would rather die than give it up. You would rather kill him than let me have him. That has always been the way of you, and I have never seen you be anything else.”

“And what vital thing is at the core of you?” Leonas asked. “As long as you’ve put so much thought into it.”

“Mine is not a human soul,” Karzarul said. “I have my memories. I can only ever be myself.”

Leonas sipped at his lukewarm tea. “Unfortunate.”


Karzarul waited until they were loading up the wagon to seize his chance. As Minnow walked past him, he caught her by the arm, spun her around and leaned her back to catch her in a kiss. He was careful to get it perfect, one hand at the small of her back and his forearm supporting her neck, swallowing her sound of surprise.

When he let her back up, she laughed. “What was that about?” she asked.

He headed back into the trees to get the last of their bags.

“Ari,” Minnow asked when she caught up to him, “were you trying to be Kavid?”

“No.”

“It’s not that I didn’t like it,” she said, grabbing onto him and hugging his arm to her chest to keep him still. “It didn’t seem like you, that’s all.”

“It could be like me,” he said, “if you wanted.”

“No,” she said, leaning her head against his bicep. “It would seem like you were doing it for my sake. That’s not the same.”

He harrumphed.

“Kavid is sort of pretend, you know? That’s how he does what he does. He has to really believe he’s the most, so you believe it. Biggest and bravest and strongest and prettiest. It doesn’t matter who I am. Or, it matters, but it matters because he can treat the Starlight Hero the same as anyone else. Does that make sense?”

“No,” Karzarul said, although maybe it did. “Is that what you like?” he asked. “That I’m bigger and stronger than you?”

Minnow laughed again, lacing her fingers through his and lifting his hand to kiss the back of it. She hummed thoughtfully. “I like,” she decided, “when it seems like you really think that.”

“I am bigger than you are,” he said.

“Stronger?” she asked. He hesitated. “Sometimes, you think you are,” she said, patting his hand.

“How can you tell?”

She smiled. “You look scared.”


The old manor was crumbling, the gardens overgrown. This was not a surprise.

Karzarul grew tired of watching Leonas try to carry a bucket of water, and took it from him to offer to the horses. Leonas didn’t thank him for the help.

“Did you buy these horses, or are you renting them?” Leonas asked, stroking the neck of one of them.

“I bought them,” Minnow said. “I might sell them back later. I don’t know. I left Piggy…” She gestured with an arm toward the horizon. “Way out somewhere. Potato and Egg aren’t as good.”

Leonas stopped petting Potato. “Those aren’t their names,” he said.

“They are,” she said. “I just named them.”

“Stop naming things after whatever you last ate,” he snapped.

“Are you still mad about Cum?”

His name was Frederick.”

“If you say so,” Minnow said, checking that she had everything she wanted in her bag. “I don’t think a Tauril is going to fit through that door,” she said to Karzarul. He took the form of a Howler. “You can sniff for clues!” she said approvingly.

It smelled like dust, and rot. Any smell of humans was long gone. He didn’t tell her so.

“I’ll wait out here,” Leonas said. “Someone should watch the horses.”

Minnow shook her head. “The horses will be fine. You’re coming with.”

“I would prefer not to,” he said. “Falling through a rotten floor into a cellar full of monsters is not my idea of a good time.”

“There aren’t any monsters,” she said. “Right?” she asked Karzarul.

He couldn’t sense these new monsters, these wrong monsters. Not the way he could sense a true monster. He smelled the air instead, pointed his ears toward the building to listen carefully. There was the rustling of small rodents, but nothing to indicate the presence of anything larger. Even the wrong monsters, left to their own devices, had enough life in them to walk in circles.

Something about the smell got his hackles up. The Prince’s fear, or the dust and rot. Karzarul didn’t know which. “I’ll scout ahead,” he said. He didn’t wait for an answer, heading straight for the double-doors half-missing in the entryway.

As soon as his paws had touched the stairs, there was movement inside the house. He growled and charged inside, to where a Bullizard was raising a sword to strike down at him. He sank his teeth into its leg and shook his head, trying once more to draw it inside of himself. As before, it dissolved into nothing, wisps of smoke where it had stood.

He was getting tired of this.

He stalked through the manor, down the halls and into rooms, up the stairs, down the stairs, into the kitchen and through the laundry and back. Bullizards where they had no right to be, clinging to the walls and the roof and standing in empty rooms. As if they had made a home here, though they did not interact with their surrounds or each other.

Even the ruins he’d explored with Minnow hadn’t been as bad as this. There, at least, he could pretend it made some kind of sense. Bruteling camps in the forest and packs of Howlers in the mountains, those made the smallest effort to feel correct. This was egregious. This felt like being mocked. Monsters that did nothing but sit around waiting to kill or be killed.

He stood as an Impyr, a form better suited to hiding the extent of his fury. He kicked down what remained of the door.

“It’s clear,” he announced.

Leonas did not look reassured as Minnow pulled him into the building. “Did you find any clues?” she asked as she passed Karzarul.

“I was,” Karzarul admitted, “distracted.”

“That’s okay,” she said. “Do you remember seeing a nursery? Based on what Kavid told me, there ought to be a nursery.”

“What would he know about it?” Karzarul asked.

“He knows stories,” she said. “A family doomed for a father’s desire to cheat destiny is a good story.”

“Upstairs,” Karzarul said.

Minnow pulled Leonas along behind her, and Karzarul brought up the rear. She looked at the walls, which Karzarul realized were empty. No paintings, no needlework. Nothing at all but peeling paint.

She guided Leonas carefully over weak stairs, soft spots in the rotting wood. He looked jumpy. He always looked jumpy. He did not look at the monster right beside him.

“Is this it?” Minnow asked at an open door.

Leonas pulled his hand away. “I’ll wait here,” he said.

Minnow hummed thoughtfully. She stepped into the room. Leonas pushed at his cuticles again, taking slow, deep breaths. Karzarul looked in after Minnow, who was looking around the room. Flowers and cute animals painted on the walls were the only decoration left. There wouldn’t have been any furniture, but someone had built the crib directly into a nook in the wall, surrounded by cupboards. Minnow opened a cupboard to look at the empty shelves, then closed it again. She sighed.

“I’m sorry, Leonas,” she said. “You’re going to have to come in here.”

“No,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “It probably won’t be okay, but it should only take a minute.”

“Go fuck yourself,” he said.

“I know,” she said, moving around him and pushing him into the room.

Don’t,” he said as he stumbled inside. “This isn’t—this isn’t anything, this is nothing. This means nothing. Can I be weird about things without it needing to mean anything? Can I—” He choked. Minnow watched, head cocked, as he gasped for air.

“Is he okay?” Karzarul asked. It felt plausible that this was just a thing he did.

“No,” she said.

“I can’t—” Leonas gasped, clawing at his face. Waking nightmares, memories of dying, Karzarul had seen this but never in the daylight. Leonas started to glow, sunlight dripping from his eyes.

“That’s enough of that,” Minnow said, grabbing Leonas by the arm and pulling him out of the room. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head against his chest, and when Leonas gasped this time he took in air. Sunlight danced over her skin.

Karzarul looked back into the nursery, the thick layer of dust. The empty crib.

“That was him, then,” Karzarul said. He looked back at the two of them. Minnow nodded under Leonas’ chin.

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Leonas managed. Minnow reached up to pat his cheek.

“Making sense is for later,” she said. “This is research.”

“That’s,” Leonas started to protest. He swallowed. “That’s valid,” he said. A leaf sprouted in his hair. Karzarul kept his hands to himself. Leonas’ legs started to give out.

“It’s okay,” Minnow said, slowing his fall. She sat with him on the dirty floor, pulled on his arm until he tipped onto her shoulder. “You did good.” She stroked at his hair, and started to hum a familiar tune. Leonas’ glow started to fade.

Karzarul felt his shape waver.

“I’ll wait outside,” he said, already moving toward the stairs.


“Does Minnow know about the spell bottles?” Karzarul asked finally, walking alongside the wagon. Leonas stared daggers at him.

“The what?” Minnow asked.

“The King has been turning all of Leonas’ magic into spell bottles to power the ward,” Karzarul said, rather than wait for Leonas to explain.

“He’s been bleeding you?” Minnow asked, turning around to look back at where Leonas was sitting.

“What?” Leonas said. “No. Blood isn’t magic. You know that.”

“Oh.” Minnow turned back toward the road. “I always thought spell bottles were full of blood. Weird black blood.”

“No,” Leonas said. “I have no idea why you’d think that.”

“I never use spell bottles,” Minnow said defensively. “I thought I’d have to drink blood, and I don’t want to summon bees.”

“They’re for more than summoning bees,” Leonas said.

“I know,” Minnow said. “But that’s the coolest thing you can do with them.”

Leonas rubbed at his temples.

“I didn’t think magic was a liquid,” Minnow said.

“It’s not,” Leonas said. “That’s why you need to have the right flame source and the right glass and the right etchings in the glass—there’s a process. You can’t bleed magic out of people.”

Minnow hummed thoughtfully. “It’s still bad even though he’s not bleeding him, right?” Minnow asked.

“Yes,” Karzarul said.

“It isn’t that bad,” Leonas said. “I did agree to it. No one made me do anything.”

“You agree to a lot of things,” Minnow said.

Leonas rubbed at a snag on one of his fingernails. “I had options,” he muttered.

Minnow reached back to pat the top of his head.

“Were all the fake Heirs real, then?” Karzarul asked. Leonas pulled his knees up to rest his arms on them.

“No idea,” Minnow said. “I have a list, but most of them aren’t close enough to check. I don’t know if we need to do that again, anyway. There’s usually around twenty years before we come back, right? Once at least two of us are dead.”

“Give or take,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know how it works if you die while you’re still… cooking. So to speak. A human infant doesn’t have any memories yet. It’s just a soul that can poop. There’s nothing it would need to let go of before it could fit itself to a new body. I can’t be sure, as far as I know it’s never come up before.”

“There could have been even more of them, then,” Minnow said.

Leonas rested his forehead on his arms.

“There was a long stretch,” Minnow said, “where it was only Elias. I wonder if I might have killed you? I don’t feel like I’d kill a baby.”

“If you thought the baby was indistinguishable from the adult it had been,” Karzarul suggested.

“No,” Minnow said. “That’s stupid. A baby is a baby. They’re just little guys.”

“Right,” Karzarul said.

“Our next step should be getting the Sunshield back,” Minnow said.

“Nothing about today has changed the fact that monsters—the monsters that exist here and now—are aggressive, powerful, and only being kept out of a city full of innocent people by a ward that needs that shield,” Leonas said. Minnow sighed. “If you are about to suggest,” Leonas said before she could speak, “that the ward around Fort Astielle, the ward that I gave up my shield and my magic for, that I have spent twenty years doing nothing but helping to maintain. That ward. Does nothing of value. As if that is going to be helpful for me right now. I am going to suggest that you reconsider.”

The wagon creaked in the lull in the conversation, alongside the sound of hooves.

“Let’s assume,” Minnow said, “that due to a series of misunderstandings, Leland is actually trying his best and happens to be a huge asshole about it.” Karzarul managed not to snort. “In that case, we still need to do something about the root cause of the monster attacks. Defeating King Karzarul to make the monster attacks stop isn’t going to work, and neither is leaving the ward up forever. Trying to find the root cause of the monster attacks when you have no way to defend yourself, are at constant risk of losing control of your magic, and can’t use a Rainbow Door isn’t sustainable.” Leonas drew in on himself further. “Leaving you behind isn’t an option,” she said. “We want you with us. Right?”

Karzarul sighed. “It’s better than the alternative?” he offered.

“Right,” Minnow said. “We want to get this done, without having you in active danger for months on end while we travel around. If we’re going to do that, we’re going to need the Sunshield. It won’t be good for the city. The monster situation will be bad. But the monster situation will eventually be bad no matter what. If we get the Sunshield now, the Astian army can spend some time holding down the literal fort at home until we can fix the monsters and solve the problem forever and render the ward obsolete.”

“Well aren’t you an expert in project and time management, all of a sudden,” Leonas said.

Minnow had the grace to look abashed. “I am good at quests,” she said. “This feels like a big quest.”

“Whereas finding Karzarul didn’t,” Leonas said, rubbing his face. “Not that you would have been able to, as it turns out.”

“I think I could tell,” Minnow said. “Not exactly, but like a feeling. Like I shouldn’t have to look for him, because he’d find me when he could.” Karzarul was watching her, his expression inscrutable.

“Which was correct, as it turns out,” Leonas said. “You never told me that.”

“It wasn’t a real idea I had in words, or anything,” she said.

Leonas stretched his legs back out, the backs of his knees aching. “I can go to the castle and ask for my shield back,” he said. “That’s always been an option.”

“No, you can’t,” Minnow said. “You can, but Leland will talk you out of it. You’ll end up thinking this is stupid.”

“I already think it’s stupid,” he muttered.

“That’s why we’ll go together,” she said. “We’ll go behind the King’s back to take your shield back, which you shouldn’t have to ask for anyway, because it’s yours. I’ll be with you so you can’t lose your nerve.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Leonas said.

“Ari, you can wait outside the ward,” Minnow said. “Once we have the Sunshield, it should be easy to meet back up and take a Rainbow Door to wherever we want.”

“I don’t like it,” Karzarul said.

“I know,” she said. “But you can’t come inside the city, and especially not the castle.”

“If something happens to you in there, what am I supposed to do about it?” he asked.

“We can bring Seeing Stones,” she said, “to keep in touch.”

“That would let me hear you get attacked,” he said. “That wouldn’t let me do anything about it.”

“As long as we get to the Sunshield,” Leonas said, “the ward will go down. You’ll be able to traipse right in and set the whole thing on fire, if you want. It is but one of the many fun aspects of this plan.”

“I’m not interested in burning down your city,” Karzarul said. “I am interested in what will happen if you are unable to avoid this father of yours, who would have you protect what is yours.”

“He isn’t interested in protecting what’s mine,” Leonas said. “He protects what’s his.”

“It’s Minnow who said you find his arguments compelling,” Karzarul pointed out. “I know nothing of the man.”

“What’s his is a kingdom,” Leonas said. “Every life within it. His legacy, his son. Of course it’s compelling. What’s mine is…” He hesitated. “Nothing, really. Not anymore. But if it makes you feel better, Minnow is as likely to burn the castle down as anyone else.” Minnow shrugged and nodded at the same time. “Even if I did try to betray her for her own good, she’d end up smashing the entire warding mechanism out of spite.”

“Truuuuue,” Minnow said.

“That does make me feel better, actually,” Karzarul said.

“Great,” Leonas said. “I’m glad you’re feeling good about it. Someone ought to.”

I feel good about it,” Minnow said cheerfully.

“Two out of three, then,” Leonas said. “Even better.”

“You never feel good about anything,” Minnow pointed out. “That means this is as close as we’re ever going to get to everyone feeling good about our plan going forward.”

“I’ve felt good about things,” Leonas protested. “… not that it ever ended well.”

“That means that if you did feel good about it,” Karzarul said, “we would need to worry.”

“That’s not what that means,” Leonas said. He frowned. “I hope that isn’t what it means.”


Karzarul nudged Leonas with his hoof. “Hey,” he said. “You’re dreaming again.”

The dreamscape cleared as Leonas panted. “Oh,” he said. The arrows left his back.

“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “You should work on that.”

“Why are you here?” Leonas asked.

“Does Minnow know about this dream?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas sat back on the lack of ground, legs stretched out in front of him. “No. Do you tell people about your dreams?”

“I wasn’t sure if she knew,” Karzarul asked. “Since we’ve figured out why you do the—” Karzarul gestured around his mouth. “Breathing thing.”

“It wasn’t some great mystery that was bothering me,” Leonas said. “I was well aware of being murdered. Previously I assumed you choked me to death, that’s all.”

“I told you,” Karzarul said. “I never did that.”

“What a relief,” Leonas said. “I’ll be sure to keep in mind that I don’t have to worry about you choking me.”

“To death.”

“Right.”

“I have choked you nonfatally.”

“Yes, I got the implication, thank you.” Leonas rubbed at his neck. “Is that why you’re here? Did you think learning the truth would have fixed it?”

“No,” Karzarul said. “I thought it might be worse.”

“Oh.” The colors of the dreamscape shifted, but nothing in particular manifested itself. “Is it practice?” Leonas asked. “That makes your dreams so detailed.”

“Something like that,” Karzarul said.

“But you can’t do that here,” Leonas said, “because it’s mine. And I can’t do anything in your dreams.”

“Correct.”

“That isn’t very useful,” Leonas said. He remembered a flower into his hands, but the details were fuzzy, the leaves indistinct. He forgot to pretend there was ground underneath him, neither rising nor falling, floating in the same space with his legs half-bent. “Trying to sketch without a reference.”

“You want to copy my work?” Karzarul asked.

“Yes,” Leonas said. “No one ever did anything useful having to reinvent the wheel.”

“Making better trees won’t help you know when you’re dreaming,” Karzarul said.

Leonas shrugged, and tried to make a carnation. The leaves came out well enough, but the petals turned a faint green.

“Let me,” Karzarul said, holding out a hand. Leonas stared at it, then slowly offered him the carnation. Karzarul turned it over in his hands. “If you want me to fix it,” Karzarul said, “you have to let me.”

“I’m letting you,” Leonas said, waving at it. “I gave it to you, I don’t care what you do with it.”

“A traveler has no power in another person’s dreamscape,” Karzarul said, “unless the person who invited them actively allows them to make changes. Any changes. It’s all or nothing.”

Leonas blanched, his feet landing on the lack of ground to stand. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Obviously I’m not going to—that’s absurd. Expecting me to be comfortable with that.”

“Then I can’t do anything with this,” Karzarul said, offering the flower back.

“It isn’t as if you’d want me having free reign in your dreams,” Leonas said.

“Yes, I can’t imagine why after seeing what a lovely time you’ve had of it,” Karzarul said, gesturing with the carnation to the endless nothing all around them, the occasional flashing impressions of color and shape without form. Leonas flushed, witchmarks flaring. “What are you worried I’ll do? Stab you with an arrow? Smother you with a pillow?”

A construct of Karzarul nearly appeared before being abruptly replaced by fractals.

“Are you doing math right now?” Karzarul asked.

“It’s relaxing.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Karzarul said. “I want to see what you think I look like.” The fractal grew. “Which fiddly little detail did you focus on to the detriment of all else?” The fractal spiraled aggressively outward. “I’m going to guess it was the fangs,” he sneered. “The big scary monster fangs, on the big scary monster.” He bit the carnation.

Leonas woke up, rolled over, and pulled his blanket over his head.

Astielle: Chapter Twelve

Karzarul had to take the form of a Rootboar again as the road passed close to a stable and inn. It sat at an intersection that led to three different small villages, and saw a lot of traffic as a consequence. It still felt like an unusually large number of travelers to be passing through.

“Is there a festival?” Minnow called down to a small child running along the road.

“There’s a bard visiting!” the boy called back up. Minnow gasped. Leonas groaned.

“Please tell me it’s not Kavid,” he muttered, rubbing at his eyebrows.

“Is it Kavid?” Minnow asked, leaning half out of the wagon.

“It is I!” Kavid said, bursting forth from the door to the inn, his arms aloft. “Who asks for me?”

Minnow shrieked and leapt down from the wagon, leaving Leonas scrambling to grab the reins and bring the wagon to a stop.

“Starlight!” Kavid greeted as Minnow pounced on him, and he pivoted to sweep Minnow sideways into a dramatic kiss.

“What the fuck am I looking at,” Karzarul asked in a low voice, nearly startling Leonas out of the wagon. Karzarul still looked, for all intents and purposes, like a round and angry little monster.

“I give you the Legendary Travelling Bard, Kavid,” Leonas sighed with a half-assed flourish in the man’s direction. “He writes his own legends, which is convenient for him. Minnow is… a fan.”

Kavid had, it could not be denied, an aesthetic. A cape that looked like orange butterfly’s wings, wings on his boots and paper butterflies in his hair. There was a wing painted over his right eye.

He stood back up and let Minnow go, and she stumbled a little. Her toes pointed inward, her knees wobbly, a goofy grin on her face. “Hi,” she said, half-giggling, pulling her braid over her shoulder and trying to smooth it out.

What,” Karzarul said.

“It’s bad,” Leonas agreed. “It’s, the worst.”

“She can’t like that,” Karzarul said.

“She clearly does,” Leonas said.

Karzarul said nothing as Leonas worked on finding parking for their wagon. He had to dig through one of Minnow’s bags to find the gold to pay for it.

“Put me in your pocket,” Karzarul said as soon as the horses had been taken.

“What?” Leonas turned around, and nearly screamed.

Karzarul was a Shimmerbat. His tiny body was nothing but white fluff. He looked like a dandelion gone to seed, but with wings. He had a little leaf nose again, angry little eyes, and talons the size of a sparrow’s clinging to the wagon. He’d brought his silvery wings close to his body and hooked his claws in front of him. It looked as if he was wearing a tiny cape and clasping his hands pensively.

“Where does the rest of you even go?” Leonas demanded.

“Away,” Karzarul said. Leonas had to cover his mouth. That voice coming from that body…

“The pants Minnow bought me are too tight for that,” Leonas said.

“Then bring a bag,” Karzarul said. “Otherwise I’ll fly after her on my own.”

“Fine! Fine.”

Leonas found a bandage he could use to wrap around his right hand and cover his sun symbol. He debated leaving his flower crown with the wagon, but decided to keep it. It didn’t look half-bad, in his estimation, and anything was better than looking like he didn’t know how to accessorize. It hadn’t occurred to him before, how strange it felt to be seen with nothing on his forehead. His forehead, it turned out, was fucking enormous. Absolutely nightmareish. Enough time like this and he’d be giving in to the dark temptation of bangs.

Leonas tried not to think about Moonlight Monster King Karzarul hunkering down in his fucking purse. He put on his best ‘pleasantly neutral’ face, and ventured forth toward the inn to try and figure out where the hell Minnow had gotten to.

He didn’t make it far before someone stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Are you here to see Kavid?” she asked him, blonde and breathless and rosy-cheeked.

“My friend is,” he said. “I only came along to be supportive.”

“Oh, my friends wandered off too,” she said. “Maybe it was meant to be, like it was written in the stars that we were supposed to hang out today.”

“I can think of nothing I’d like more,” he lied. “Unfortunately, if I don’t find my friend soon, I fear I’ll find her later with a bucket on her head—you know how it is.”

“Fran,” a black-haired woman said, grabbing the blonde by the shoulder. “Seriously, girl, leave him alone, you’re not his type.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Leonas protested mildly. He didn’t want to seem rude. He wasn’t even sure if he had a type, let alone one that could be identified on sight.

“You’re fine, honey,” the black-haired woman said, waving him off as she dragged away her friend. “She does this all the time, she’s from the country.”

“Okay,” Leonas said as they retreated. “Great.” He scanned the people milling about outside the inn, wandering through the field, looking for a distinctive streak of green hair. He had not considered the challenge posed by her height. She could have been standing behind just about anyone.

There was a man here with witchmarks on his face, bird-shaped and black as the night sky. Leonas accidentally made eye contact. The witch grinned and waved. Leonas gave a polite nod. The witch started to make his way over.

Shit.

“How’d you get your marks to look like that?” the witch asked, gesturing under his eyes.

“It’s genetic,” Leonas lied.

“That’s cool, man,” the witch said. “I’m Harv,” he introduced, loosely bumping the heels of his palms against each other in front of his chest.

“Leonas,” he said, pressing his palms together against his sternum. Harv grinned again.

“Like the Prince?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re from one of those old witch families, right?” Harv asked.

“Something like that,” Leonas conceded. Harv ran his fingers through chestnut curls, and Leonas’ eyes lingered on his wrist. Harv followed his gaze to the small, perfectly round bruise.

“There’s a guy down in Crickshire,” Harv explained with a hook of his thumb, “that pays pretty good if you let him make a spell bottle. The little ones, you know?” Harv held his fingers up to demonstrate the size of a vial. “For folks who wanna breathe fire or summon bees, or whatever people want magic for.” He shrugged. “You’re not supposed to go in the same spot every time, but I think it looks cool.”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“Obviously you’re not hard up for cash, but some of us make do,” Harv said.

“I wasn’t judging,” Leonas said.

“Sure you weren’t,” Harv said, pulling a metal case out of his pocket. “You smoke?” he asked, offering.

“No, thank you,” Leonas said.

“You drink?” Harv asked.

“Often,” Leonas said.

“You want to?” Harv asked.

“To—oh.” Leonas blinked. He looked Harv over again, and Harv let him, hooking his thumbs in his pockets. The black leather armor did have a certain—

Karzarul was still in his bag, listening to this entire conversation. Leonas gripped the strap of his bag tighter when he realized.

“I really would like to,” Leonas rushed to assure him, though he could feel his face warming. “Unfortunately I do very much need to find my friend, and I’m afraid that would take more time than I have at the moment.”

“Yeah, okay,” Harv said. He leaned a little closer. “I think you might be overestimating how long it’d take you to finish,” he said in a low voice, winking. “I’m very good.”

That brought Leonas up short. He felt a bristle of indignation. He hooked his fingers in the neck of Harv’s armor before he could stop himself, pulling him closer. “I think you might be overestimating how quickly I would let you,” he countered. “I’m better.”

He turned on his heel, walking away before he could think about how stupid that must have sounded.

Leonas had never realized how much he counted on being Prince of Astielle to keep people from trying to have a conversation. Having to talk to people as the Prince was bad enough, but at least there was a script for it. People had to be polite, and wait until they were alone to start making implications about his sexual prowess.

He looked for a crowd, under the assumption that people would gather wherever Kavid was. Where Kavid was, he would likely find Minnow. Leonas checked inside his bag to make sure that Karzarul hadn’t slipped away. The Shimmerbat glowered up at him. He closed the bag again.

Kavid brought a coterie of drummers with him to accompany his lyre. Whatever he was singing wasn’t half bad, except that it seemed to be about how he’d saved a small village from an enormous Howler that was secretly Karzarul himself. As Leonas recalled, it was a regular Howler, and Minnow had killed it. This was not impeding Minnow’s enjoyment, and she had thus far coaxed several people to join her in dancing. She leapt on Leonas as soon as she saw him, grabbing him by the hands.

“I finally get to dance with you!” she said.

“This isn’t the kind of dancing I do,” he apologized.

“It’s okay!” she assured him, pulling him along. “It’s the good kind, there aren’t any steps!”

“Yes, that’s the problem,” he said. Leonas lacked any instinctive understanding of where a person was meant to be putting their feet.

“Here,” she said, spinning him in a circle before he could stop her, pulling him close and wrapping an arm around his waist. She practically galloped across the grass with him, and he struggled to follow her lead. It became easier when he gave up on trying to feel whatever it was she was feeling, and just mirrored whatever she was doing instead.

He stopped when he felt scales sliding underneath his shirt, along his bare skin.

“Is everything okay?” Minnow asked, alarmed.

Leonas grabbed her by the hand and pulled her closer. “Take him,” he said through gritted teeth. The body of a Slitherskin moved across his chest, down his arm to where their hands met to disappear up her sleeve instead. Her eyes widened.

“Oh!” she said as white scales disappeared under her clothes. Karzarul’s jeweled head appeared beside her neck, mostly obscured by her hair. He darted his tongues at Leonas. “That’s so smart,” Minnow said, leading Leonas to start moving again. “Now we all get to dance together!”

“I don’t think that counts as dancing,” Leonas said, since Karzarul was wrapped around Minnow’s torso and not moving of his own volition.

“It does,” Minnow insisted, pulling Leonas close for a sudden spin. The song changed to something with stronger percussion, and Minnow tossed her hair, light on her toes. He could practically see her biting her tongue not to sing along. “I can feel it,” she said. “He’s dancing.”

He looked like a regular monster snake, to Leonas. He wasn’t going to ask exactly what it felt like, because he didn’t think he’d like the answer. He also didn’t like thinking about an Impyr wearing a fluttery skirt, covered in bells.

It was for the best that Karzarul had to hide, couldn’t take Leonas’ place this time dancing with Minnow in earnest.

Leonas would try to enjoy it for now. If not the music and the action itself, then getting to watch Minnow, her hair all loose and stars in her eyes. That was one big advantage over royal balls and birthday parties. And unlike those, he could look forward to when it was over. When they could leave, and make camp somewhere quiet. When he could tie up his hair, and wash his face, and curl up in a bedroll that for all its flaws was his own.

When there might be nightmares, but there might instead be a willow tree.

Adventuring wasn’t so terrible, if it could just be this.


“Thank you so much for all your help.”

Karzarul wasn’t listening to the usual offerings of thanks and praise. They’d been asked to help with a bandit problem, and so they had. He’d used his Howler form, for the most part. With large groups of enemies and only one Starlight Hero, there was always the risk that a Tauril might trample the wrong person. How well the fight would have gone without him, he could not say. But if anyone thanked him—if anyone tolerated him—it was only if they could bring themselves to think of him as assisting the Starlight Hero.

He didn’t mind it, though. This was always all he’d wanted.

“Ari, man, pull me up!”

Karzarul reached down to take Jonys by the hand, giving him leverage to pull himself up onto Karzarul’s back. He rode there often enough that he’d started to get a little bowlegged.

“Guess who just got paid,” Jonys said, drumming a quick beat onto Karzarul’s lower set of shoulderblades. Jonys enjoyed putting a weird, intense emphasis on certain words for no apparent reason. His bracers were covered in hazelquartz seeds that rattled when he moved, and he’d tied more of them to his bootlaces.

“Were you paid in money this time,” Karzarul asked, starting to walk, “or fish?”

“What are fish,” Jonys said philosophically, “if not the money of the water?”

“We’re on land,” Karzarul reminded him. “Money is the money of the land. I don’t think you can buy new pants with fish.”

“Aw, and I definitely need new pants, too,” Jonys said, rubbing his nose. “The ladies do not love this pants situation.” They were getting completely worn out again, great big holes in the knees and the thighs. It was cute, to a point, but soon the legs were going to fall off entirely. That would be cute, too, but somehow Karzarul didn’t think Jonys would approve.

“She seemed to like it,” Karzarul said, nodding his head back at the farmhouse behind them.

“Oh, she most definitely did,” Jonys said. “Her father did not. And he was standing right there. Otherwise she totally would have invited us in for dinner. Especially if you’d gone Impyr. Or Abysscale? Babe.” Jonys drummed on Karzarul’s back again. “Ladies love Abysscales.”

“I don’t think that’s universal,” Karzarul said.

“It totally is,” Jonys said. “You’re cool with fish for dinner, right?”

“I wouldn’t want to eat your water money.”

“What is money,” Jonys said, “if not what disappears when I’m hungry?”

“You’ve got me there,” Karzarul said. Jonys started to snap his fingers, drumming on himself, whistling a tune through the gap in his teeth. Karzarul couldn’t see him, but he could feel that he was dancing. As much as it could be called dancing, when sitting on a Tauril’s back. The tempo of his hoofbeats adjusted to match reflexively. “It wouldn’t kill you to sing sometimes,” Karzarul tossed back.

“I am not that kind of instrument, babe,” Jonys said, still drumming. “You wanna be on vocals, you hop in anytime.” He resumed whistling, and Karzarul snorted. When they hit an open stretch of road, Jonys upped the tempo until Karzarul had to gallop to keep up. Not moving to the music wasn’t an option.

They made camp where the road passed close to the river, a clear space along the bank through the forest. Karzarul lit the fire, because Jonys was paranoid about lighting up the grease in his hair. Which was fair. He’d done it seven times since they’d met, and only once deliberately. Karzarul also cooked, because Jonys considered ash a variety of spice.

“Oh, right,” Jonys said, digging through his bags while Karzarul piled up blankets for the night. “I got a letter from Aimon,” he said, holding up a scrap of parchment.

“Burn it,” Karzarul said.

“No can do, my man,” Jonys said. “A Hero always pays his debts,” he said, pounding his fist against his chest once.

“He provably does not,” Karzarul said. “I can take you to bars even now that are hoping you’ll come back to pay Vaelon’s tab.”

This Hero always pays his debts,” Jonys corrected. “Can’t break a promise, babe.”

Karzarul grumbled. “What does he want this time?”

“Nothing major,” Jonys said. “We just have to swing by real quick so I can help him test some stuff. We can find a Rainbow Door, I’ll pop in and out of it, bam, we’re back to partying. There’s a festival in Dalston in two weeks, you know we’ve gotta be there.”

“I’m pretty sure Aimon wants me dead,” Karzarul said.

“A lot of people want you dead,” Jonys said. “It’s cool! It’s all good. The misunderstandings, those are all in the past. We’re out here fixing your reputation, one adventure at a time. Soon enough we won’t be able to walk into a new town without ladies being all over us. Because of our reputations. Our sexy, not-evil reputations.”

“You don’t think the ladies will find it off-putting that you’re riding me?” Karzarul asked.

“See, okay. This is why you need to do Impyr form. Look at this.” Jonys spread his hands to gesture to Karzarul. “Who could resist this?”

“You don’t think the ladies will find it off-putting when I look like this and you’re riding me anyway?” Karzarul asked. Jonys laughed, jumping onto Karzarul’s back, arms around his shoulders and legs around his waist.

“Okay, you got me there,” Jonys said. “You got it wrong, though. Package deal, that just means BOGO, man. Everyone loves a BOGO. And when you think about it? I’m, like, four-thirds of a normal guy. You’re at least five-thirds. That’s three whole guys for the price of one. That’s a fucking steal, man.”

“Are we going to be charging these hypothetical ladies?” Karzarul asked, looking over his shoulder at Jonys.

“Course not,” Jonys said. “But they gotta buy me dinner first. I got class.”

Karzarul laughed. Jonys let go of his shoulders and fell backward so that Karzarul could swing him around his waist, pulling him up to his chest to kiss him. Jonys let his boots drop to the ground, standing on his toes with his arms draped over Karzarul. Karzarul ran his fingers over Jonys’ jaw. “You’re gorgeous,” Karzarul said.

“Damn right,” Jonys said, running his fingers through his hair to make sure it was still in place. “You tired?” he asked, hooking a finger in the neck of Karzarul’s tunic.

“Have something in mind?” Karzarul asked, taking Jonys’ hand to kiss his fingers.

“You know I love to play you, babe,” Jonys said, “but if you’d rather just hit it, we can do that too.”

Karzarul laughed and untangled himself from Jonys. “I don’t know why you ask,” Karzarul said, “like I’ve ever said no to you.”

“I gotta give you the option,” Jonys shrugged, retrieving a wooden box from the abandoned saddlebags. He pulled it up to the fire and sat down, idly drumming as Karzarul stripped down. Karzarul tossed aside his gloves first, looked at the blank skin on the back of his left hand and the crescent on his right, flexed his fingers. He took his time unfastening his tunic while Jonys found his rhythm, rolled his hips all the way up to his shoulders to shrug his way out of it. He took his hair out of its braid, bells still tied, and let it fan out behind him like a cape.

Jonys found a beat he liked, a thump of skin against wood that met the strategic rattle of hazelquartz shells and the clapping of his hands. Karzarul found the empty spaces to fill with the stomp of his hooves, the ringing of his bells when he twitched his hips just-so. He moved his hands in precise arcs, careful of every turn of his wrists and curl of his tail and toss of his hair. He alternated slow rolling motions with sudden sharp movement, all his silver glinting in the firelight. There was an ease in this perfection, fitting himself to the music, another instrument. Mother Void, please let me be an instrument, and maybe if She listened this could be forever.

There was a man with copper curls in the trees.

Karzarul stopped.

“I’m dreaming,” he said. He looked down at his hands. “I’m dreaming?” The back of his left hand flashed with echoes of stars and suns spiraling outward from the center, down to his wrist.

“It wasn’t on purpose,” Leonas said. “I wasn’t…”

The forest flickered into flames, out of existence and then back again in quick succession. Karzarul spun around. The memory of Jonys was standing, now, sunlight pouring out of his eyes and mouth. It spilled out from between his fingers in a straight line on his throat.

Karzarul turned back to Leonas, and roared as if it had anything to do with him. Leonas disappeared.

Karzarul opened his eyes. Leonas wasn’t on his bedroll, his scarf hanging where it had caught on a low branch. “Shit.” Taking the form of a Shadestalker was faster than standing, better for letting Minnow sleep. The pads of his feet were silent on the ground, chasing the scent of the Prince. He hadn’t made it far. Karzarul stood tall again, grabbed Leonas by the arm. Leonas screamed, clapping his hand over his mouth halfway.

“If Minnow wakes up and sees that you’re gone,” Karzarul hissed under his breath, “she is going to kill me. At least maim. To say nothing of if you manage to hurt yourself out here.”

“It was an accident,” Leonas said, his breath short. “It just happens, I don’t mean for it to happen.” He looked like he was going to hyperventilate.

“Calm down,” Karzarul said, resisting the temptation to slap him. “Imagine a tree again, I don’t know.”

Glowing leaves started to sprout in Leonas’ hair.

Not like that,” Karzarul said, the sense of panic apparently contagious. He let Leonas go to snatch the leaves out of his hair, and shoved them in his mouth. Leonas froze.

“Why did you eat them?” Leonas asked.

Karzarul swallowed. “I don’t know!” he snapped, patting at the shining spots in Leonas’ hair until the magic seemed to dissipate. “Did you want Minnow to see?”

“No,” Leonas said.

“Okay then,” Karzarul said. “Are you calm? Is this calm?”

“I’ve never been calm before and I’m not about to start now,” Leonas said. Light kept trying to gather in the lines of his palms, and he shook them to make it fade.

“You’ve been without a magical instrument for how many years?” Karzarul asked, annoyed. “And you still don’t have a handle on this?” If her idiot prince exploded because he couldn’t handle his own magic, it wasn’t going to be Karzarul’s fault, but Minnow was still going to blame him.

“I don’t usually have this much,” Leonas protested before pressing his mouth shut. When it opened again it was to cough up an apple blossom.

“For fuck’s sake,” Karzarul said. “Why would you—” He paused. “You do a ritual on your birthday,” he said. Leonas pressed his knuckles to his mouth, shaking his head, but Karzarul ignored him. “You said your birthday is soon, that means it’s almost been a year. Do you—does it use it all? Somehow?”

Leonas coughed up more blossoms, pounding at his chest. “Spell bottles,” he admitted. “Big ones. Enough to keep the Sunshield going for another year. It works out, I couldn’t blow myself up if I wanted to. Most of the time.”

Karzarul started to run his hands through his hair, stopped with his palm against his forehead. “Completely?” he asked. “All of your magic, every year.”

“The Sunshield is warding an entire city, every minute of every day,” Leonas said. The conversation seemed to have distracted him enough to stop blooming. “It uses a lot of magic.”

“It would have to,” Karzarul said. The thought of that much magic being stored, loose, was terrifying. “You should work on… this.” Karzarul gestured to the fallen petals.

“Yes, thank you, I am aware that it would be best if I didn’t risk exploding every time I threw a fucking fit,” Leonas snapped.

“Have you tried throwing fewer fits.”

“Fuck off.” Leonas smacked Karzarul’s arm with the back of his hand, then immediately started shaking it out because he’d hurt himself. “Don’t expect people to behave reasonably under unreasonable circumstances,” he muttered, rubbing his hand. “Was that…” He hesitated. “That was Minnow?” he asked.

Karzarul bristled. “That was the Hero,” he said. “They aren’t interchangable, she’s not—he isn’t less dead.”

“Aimon was me?”

“Yes,” Karzarul said flatly. “A witch and an enchanter, as you are now. You may recognize the name, from your books about ‘meat puppets’.”

“Ah,” Leonas said, looking at the ground.

“That’s the last I say about it,” Karzarul warned. “We will not speak of this again. You saw nothing. We go back to camp, and when Minnow wakes we pretend this never happened. Yes?”

“Of course,” Leonas said, fidgeting with his nails. Karzarul grew impatient with his downcast eyes, pressed his palm over Leonas’ mouth in the process of grabbing his face to turn it toward him. Leonas clawed at Karzarul’s wrist before he’d processed what was happening, his witchmarks flaring.

“Stay in your own dreams,” Karzarul warned, and Leonas stilled. “Make your own willow trees. I’m not here for you.”

Karzarul dropped his hand, and took Leonas by the wrist to lead him back to camp. Leonas didn’t protest.

Astielle: Chapter Eleven

“The tailor got my order in!” Minnow announced, kicking in the door to her own house. Her arms were overflowing with packages. “Leonas, you won’t have to wear my extra shirts anymore!”

“Oh, thank the Sun,” Leonas said, joining her in the front hall immediately. She dropped everything to the ground instead of trying to hand it off with grace, since they were clothes and couldn’t break. She had been able to coax him a few times now into staying home alone with Karzarul so that she could get supplies. He accepted the necessity more quickly now, if no less sullenly.

“And I got a longer dressing gown to sleep in,” she added. “Even though you look cute in the other one.”

Leonas turned pink and his witchmarks glowed, but he continued looking through the different shirts and trousers she’d bought. Since Minnow was shorter than Leonas as well as wider, she thought the two dimensions evened out reasonably well. Leonas disagreed, and washed his old clothes to keep wearing them as often as possible.

“Ari,” she called, pulling the largest package out of the pile. “I got you a dress!”

“What?” Ari called from the kitchen. He’d been entertaining himself by trying to make the strangest desserts in her recipe collection, consistently resulting in horrors. It kept him busy, and from pestering Leonas, so she didn’t complain.

“I told the tailor it was for a quest,” she said, bringing it with her, “to explain the measurements.”

“I have clothes,” he said.

“Yes,” she said, “but they’re always the same clothes? Magical moonlight clothes. I thought it might be fun to get you different clothes. I assumed you wouldn’t be able to wear pants. Was I right that you can’t wear pants?”

Ari was holding a wooden spoon and a mixing bowl full of something purple and gloopy. He looked down at one of his enormous hooves. “That’s accurate,” he said.

“I thought so,” she said. She opened the paper with a touch of hesitation. “You don’t have to wear it,” she said.

“I’ll wear it,” he said, the bowl already set aside, unbuttoning his tunic. She didn’t understand how his clothes worked. They disappeared when he changed forms, and when he came back they weren’t always the way he left them. When he left them laying around, they seemed to disappear on their own. In the morning, he liked to trot around the garden as a Rootboar, sunning himself and rolling around in the grass, leaving the robe she made him wear to bed on the floor. It did not disappear on its own. Then when he took Impyr form again, all his clothes were back and pristine.

She might not have noticed, but Leonas had a secret and angry page of notes about it. She only read them because he hid them, which meant they were interesting.

Ari pulled the dress on over his head, his clothes in a pile on the kitchen floor. Minnow clapped her hands together, biting her lip to restrain excessive gleefulness. He smoothed it out, examining the fabric. It had holes at the shoulders so that she could see their shape, a neckline deep enough to reveal most of the fur on his chest. It flared at the waist and down to his knees, and when he turned it had a swish to it.

“Interesting choice of color,” he observed. She’d picked out something in a deep blue-black, set with tiny chips of gold all over; the skirt gradually lightened to a true blue at the hem.

“It makes sense,” she insisted, fidgeting with her hair. “Because the moon is in the sky.”

“Uh-huh,” he said, because her eyes kept falling to his chest. “So this isn’t, for instance. Marking your territory.”

No,” she scoffed, too loud and too slow. “I thought, it would look nice on you, is all.”

“In your colors.”

“I don’t own colors,” she said. “They’re just colors.”

“It fits well enough,” Leonas was saying, coming closer to the kitchen, “but the colors—”

He stopped inside the kitchen door. Minnow had to cover her mouth to restrain a shriek at the sight of him. His cravat was a confection of fluffy lace. The sleeves of his shirt were trimmed with more lace at the wrists, longer than was practical, hanging downward. His trousers were fitted tight in deep blue black, and the bottom of his vest matched it, gradually lightening to true blue at the top. It was set with tiny chips of gold all over.

“Ah,” Leonas said, once he’d finished processing what Karzarul was wearing.

“Hm,” Karzarul said.

Minnow couldn’t stop giggling, backing away enough that she could look at them both at the same time. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that she wouldn’t be able to get away with this unnoticed. It was not subtle at all. Her giggling transitioned into a high-pitched sound without any conscious decision on her part.

It was very good to look at.

“Are you okay?” Leonas asked. She nodded vigorously. Leonas looked at the clothes on the floor. “Are you going to pick those up?” he asked Karzarul.

“No,” Karzarul said.

“What are you making?”

“A salad.”

“Right. I’m not wearing this right now.” Leonas turned to leave the kitchen, but Minnow made a sound of protest, grabbing him by the arm. He jumped, startled.

“Please?” she asked. “Just this once? You won’t be able to wear it on the road anyway, it isn’t practical.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why would I be on the road?”

“Oh! Right. We’re taking a trip.”

“We are?” Leonas asked.

“Are we?” Karzarul asked.

“We are,” Minnow said. “That thing you said about the fake Heirs bothered me, so I went and talked to Hettie—she’s out by where the old general store used to be, before they built the new general store—because she’s super-old and she loves scandals. She gets special newsletters in the mail for gossip. It’s horrible, and not usually useful. But she gave me some names and dates that I was able to cross-reference with historical data, and one of the estates is only a few days’ ride from here. According to my maps and journals I’ve even been there already, years ago. I don’t remember it, so it can’t have been interesting, but it’s on my map.”

“Wait,” Leonas said. “I don’t understand what this has to do with anything.”

“Neither do I,” Minnow shrugged, “but, like I said, it was bothering me. Now we’re gonna go look!”

“Were you going to ask how anyone else felt about this?” Leonas asked.

“Why?” she asked. He stared at her. “I know I’m going,” she said, “and if I’m going, then Ari is going.” Ari nodded. “And if we’re both going, then you’re going, because otherwise you’d be alone in a house only a few days’ ride from Fort Astielle, while I was alone with Karzarul.”

Leonas opened his mouth, then shut it. “You have the option of not going,” he said. Minnow shook her head.

“Hero’s intuition,” Karzarul offered helpfully.

“I already added it to my quest journal,” Minnow said.

“That means nothing,” Leonas said. “You can erase it from your quest journal.”

“That’s not how the quest journal works,” Minnow said.

“Respect the quest journal,” Karzarul agreed.

“Don’t say that like it means something,” Leonas snapped at him. “We both know that doesn’t mean anything.”

“We’re going,” Minnow said firmly. “I bought a wagon and two horses, so you can bring books along and keep working as we go. We can get packed up tonight, you can figure out which books you want to bring. We leave first thing in the morning.”

Leonas rubbed at his temple. “I. Okay. I guess.” He gave up on arguing, leaving the kitchen to head back toward the book room. He’d been spending most of his time there since arriving, despite Minnow’s attempts to get him to join her in the garden. It wouldn’t hurt a book to be in the garden.

Now he would have no choice but to work outside in the sunshine. It wasn’t why she was doing it, but it didn’t hurt.

“Should I bring a book?” Karzarul asked.

“If you want,” Minnow said, although he was clearly teasing. She followed Leonas, in case he needed help with something heavy.

“Maybe I’ll bring some of those art books,” Karzarul suggested, following after her. “With the orgy detective.”

“Please don’t,” Leonas sighed ahead of them.

“Have you found the ones with the monsters yet?” Minnow asked.

Karzarul stopped. “What?”

“With the pirates!” Minnow said, and Leonas also hesitated before forging on ahead. “It’s a whole series about this sexy Abysscale, and all the pirate crews that he seduces.”

“Oh,” Ari said.

“Did you really not find it?” she asked. “I thought you were looking through all of those.”

“I browsed,” Ari said. “I didn’t read them all.”

“Here, look,” Minnow said, moving ahead to the proper shelf and pulling out a volume. “The joke is that he’s bad at being a monster, because whenever he attacks a pirate ship, he gets distracted having sex with all the pirates.” She opened it up to a particularly graphic page and held it aloft. “This was the only thing I’d ever seen with a talking monster in it, before I met you,” she said. “I thought they made it up so the pirates wouldn’t be gross perverts doing sex crimes, but these ones are pretty old. Could it be based on a real monster? Since the monsters used to all be able to talk like you?”

“Are you implying,” Leonas said, moving books into different stacks, “that Abysscales used to roam the open seas, seducing human women?”

“And men!” Minnow said.

Ari had taken the book, and was slowly paging through it. Minnow could not interpret the look on his face. She sidled up next to him, rising up on her toes to look along with him. “Is it accurate?” she asked, on a watercolor involving much longer tentacles than the ones Ari had.

“No,” he said, slamming it suddenly shut. “You shouldn’t read these,” he added. “They’re… slanderous.” He held it out of her reach. She squinted at his face.

“Are you glowing?” she asked.

“No.”

“If returning the monsters to their previous state of being,” Leonas interrupted, “means we’re going to be replacing the rampaging murderbeasts with rampaging fuckbeasts, I’m not helping you anymore.”


Leonas sat under the willow tree again, and listened to memories of birdsong.


“These roads are a nightmare,” Leonas said. “That’s the first thing I’m doing when I’m king, I’m fixing these fucking roads.”

“These are actually some of the better roads,” Minnow said, “since we’re close to a village.”

“Sun above,” Leonas said. He was sitting on a pile of the bedding Minnow had brought along, and had given up on being able to take notes on anything. Karzarul was a Rootboar again, sitting in the opposite corner of the wagon.

“It’s less noticeable when you’re on a horse,” Minnow said. She was sitting up front to hold the reins. “I don’t think you have a lot of practice riding, though.”

“I ride in parades,” Leonas said.

“That doesn’t count.” She waved as they passed a merchant carrying a cart. “If we did this on horseback you’d be even less comfortable.” The wagon jolted over a stone.

“I’ll take your word for it,” he grumbled.

“The good part is that I’ve gone through this way a bunch of times,” she said, “so we shouldn’t have to stop too often, unless I see something rare.”

“Hooray,” Leonas said, watching the trees pass them by.

The horses slowed to a stop.

“Okay,” Minnow said, reaching back to find a large wicker basket. “I know what I said, but I only need a minute, this one time.”

Leonas watched her bend over the foliage that edged the road, then turned to see Karzarul watching him watch her. Leonas opened his book, and tried to read as long as they weren’t moving.

Minnow returned with her basket overflowing with wildflowers, daisies and sweet peas and foxgloves and violets. “Here,” she said, holding out her fist and waiting for him to accept whatever she had. Leonas held up his palm, and she dropped raspberries into it. “Most of them weren’t ripe yet,” she said, “but these ones looked good.”

They were small and slightly crushed, staining his skin red. “Thanks,” he said, and she beamed, pulling herself back up onto the wagon with her basket next to her. Leonas found the raspberry that looked most intact, and tentatively placed it on his tongue. It was tart enough to make his mouth water, and the taste lingered.

Karzarul was watching him again, snout twitching. The end of his nose looked like an angry leaf.

Leonas ate another raspberry, then leaned forward to drop the rest onto a trunk strapped down into the wagon between them. He settled back into the pillows, frowning at the stain in the middle of his hand. He licked it before finding a handkerchief to wipe the rest of the residue away. Karzarul snorfled up the offered raspberry remains in an appropriately piggish fashion. Knowing that he could still speak made it weird.

Leonas watched the trees again, and the birds, and the little signs of wildlife. Chipmunks and squirrels and other small things. He leaned over the edge of the wagon to get a better look at a turtle near the side of the road. He considered mentioning it to Minnow, in case it was in danger of being trampled, but thought better of it. She wasn’t the kind of person to not stop for a turtle, if the turtle was worth stopping for.

She dropped something onto his head.

Leonas removed it with great caution so that he could look at it. She’d taken some of her wildflowers and woven the stems together, forming them into a little wreath crown. He sniffed at the sweet peas, and tried to decide if he could pull it off. He’d worn simple black trousers with a white double-breasted shirt, with as small a cravat as he could tolerate. Keeping it simple for the road, and the looming specter of camping. It was basic enough that it was difficult to clash with, so he put the flowers back on. He turned to see that Minnow was still multi-tasking, a loose hold on the reins while she continued to braid flowers.

Further down the road was a commotion in a nearby field. Minnow pulled the horses to a stop again. Karzarul had his trotters up on the edge of the wagon, and looked ready to leap out. “Wait here, I’ll be right back, ” Minnow said, jumping down from the wagon.

It was a pack of Brutelings, descending upon someone who was trying to defend himself with a cheap sword. Leonas looked at Karzarul, but the Rootboar’s gaze was fixed on the Brutelings, snout twitching again. His trotters hit the sides of the wagon impatiently, yearning to ignore Minnow’s directive.

Minnow unsheathed the Starsword, and took the head off the first Bruteling before they’d taken their attention off their target. She skewered another one through the middle, then cut the arm off of one about to hit her with a mace. She split its stomach open, knocked another one down with her foot at the same time and stood on it while she cut the head off another. The torso of the one she stood on seemed to cave inward. When a Bruteling jumped on her back, she grabbed it, flinging it with such force at a nearby tree that they could hear the crack of it from the wagon.

She waved goodbye to the man she’d helped as she returned to the road, hair escaping from her braid again. “Sorry about that,” she said, wiping blood from the flat of the blade onto her thigh. She sheathed the Starsword again, hopping back up into the wagon. Leonas offered her a clean handkerchief from his bag. “Oh! Thank you. Sorry, am I a mess?” She wiped blood from her hands and a splatter from her face. “Did I get it?”

Leonas took the handkerchief back, and dabbed at her forehead. Then he took her by the shoulders to turn her around, and undid her hair so that he could fix it. “You look like shit,” he said.

“I know,” she pouted. He started braiding at the crown of her head instead of at the nape of her neck.

“A lumberjack cutting down trees has more technique than that.”

“It works, though.”

“If you ever have to fight—” He paused. “Anyone important,” he said. “Cutting through them like a thicket is only going to get you hurt.”

“I have techniques,” she said. “Advanced techniques.”

He tied off the end of her braid, and took an orange poppy from her basket to tuck it into her hair. “Running in a big circle around them isn’t a technique.” He kissed the top of her head before remembering that he shouldn’t, recoiling as if he’d been burned.

She huffed and started the horses again, waiting to resume her flower weaving. Leonas sat back down, and tossed his bloody handkerchief over the edge of the wagon rather than have to clean it later.

“We should be far enough out that you can change,” Minnow said.

Karzarul jumped out of the wagon, growing larger while he did so that his hooves were massive by the time they hit the road. The horses protested and tried to pull away from him, but Minnow tugged the reins until she had them under control. Leonas empathized with the horses.

That’s what he looked like?” Leonas demanded, pointing at Karzarul. “When you met him, he looked like that?”

Leonas had never had the misfortune of seeing a Tauril in person. He’d known that they were large, which was different from riding in a wagon alongside one. It felt unnatural that anything so large could be mobile. The thought of striking up a conversation with such a thing was baffling. It would trigger a fear response even if he didn’t recognize him.

Recognize the Tauril more clearly than he’d ever recognized the Impyr, knew that face and had seen it kill him. Kill him again and again, night after night, more nights than not for years on end.

That was fine. He was over that.

But Karzarul’s tunic had that embroidered moon motif again, full moons on the backs of his gloves, silver crescents along the holes in his earlobes and an impossible silver longbow on his back. Which had, again, a lot of moon imagery. All of which was more obvious due to the sheer size of him.

“We already talked about this,” Minnow said. “He was nice. I thought he might be monster royalty? Like a prince.”

Karzarul snorted.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with being a prince,” she said.

“There’s plenty wrong with it,” Leonas said. “Being a monster prince would also be bad,” he pointed out. Karzarul raised an eyebrow. “In theory. If Karzarul were planning to kill you. Which we’ve decided he’s not.”

Karzarul huffed.

“He isn’t,” Minnow confirmed. “Like how I’m not planning to kill either of you, and you’re not planning to kill either of us. Right?”

“Right,” Leonas said.

“You said the King was planning to kill you,” Karzarul reminded her. Even his voice was bigger in this form.

“Yeah,” she said. “He was, right?” she asked Leonas.

“He strongly implied that you would kill me if I didn’t have the good sense to kill you first,” Leonas said. “You know how he is.”

“I don’t know why he thinks I would,” she said. “It isn’t guaranteed that we kill each other. I know what Leland says, and I know what Ari said before.” Karzarul grunted. “But it seems like it’s mostly Karzarul that gets stuck in a kill-or-be-killed. You and I only kill each other sometimes.”

“If I kill you both first, that doesn’t count as not killing each other,” Karzarul said. “There’s no way of knowing what you might have done if you had the chance.”

“Even still,” Minnow said. “Sometimes the Moonlight Monster is defeated, and the Starlight Hero and Sunlight Heir go their separate ways and it’s fine. You knew it was going to be fine, right? That I wasn’t going to kill you?”

Leonas shrugged. “It was always a possibility.”

Leonas,” Minnow said, scandalized as if he’d admitted to not washing his hands.

“I’m not saying I wouldn’t deserve it,” he said. “I wasn’t planning to deserve it. No one plans to construct a tax policy so disastrous they become known as a tyrant king. Things happen, mistakes are made, kings are beheaded and sometimes the Hero does it.”

“I wouldn’t behead you because of taxes,” she said.

“You can’t promise that,” Leonas said. “You’ve never even paid taxes. Pay taxes, then see what you’re willing to behead me for.”

“If you need money, I can give you money.”

“It isn’t about the money,” he said. “Taxes are an example. There are a lot of ways to fuck up being a king, that’s why kings are a terrible idea.”

“I think you’ll be a good king,” she said.

“That’s not a thing,” Leonas said. “The best we can hope for is unremarkable. Boring. That elusive middle-ground between conquering and conquered, where there aren’t any wars and everyone’s getting fed but no one’s happy about it. Years later historians focus on what must have been wrong with me anatomically because they’re desperate for something interesting.”

“Should I let people know that there’s nothing wrong with your anatomy?” Minnow said. “So the historians know.”

“Minnow,” Leonas said, “are you suggesting that you are going to approach strangers, say ‘the Prince of Astielle has a normal dick’, and then leave? Because I don’t think that’s going to have the effect you think it will.”

“Oh!” she said. “I thought you meant they’d say you have a secret peg-leg. Because you’re part pirate.”

“… even if piracy were genetic,” he said, “a peg-leg isn’t something you’re born with.”

“Gerry said they were born with theirs.”

“Don’t listen to Gerry.”

“Who’s Gerry?” Karzarul asked.

“They’re a pirate,” Minnow said.

“They bring her quests, sometimes,” Leonas said. He didn’t try to sound catty about it, but he also didn’t try not to. “Given what Minnow’s collection has taught us about the predilections of pirates, I’m sure you’ll get along wonderfully.” Karzarul did not respond, the tips of his ears flicking, which Leonas had not realized they could do.

“You’re part pirate,” Minnow reminded him.

Leonas felt his face warm. “It’s not genetic,” he snapped.

Minnow held out her finished flower creation toward Karzarul, because she couldn’t reach to place it on his head. He took it gingerly, and had to place it behind his horns, hoofbeats slowing as he tried to get it right. He checked that it would stay in place before he lowered his hands. The flowers looked much daintier on the head of a Tauril. Minnow giggled like an arrow straight to Leonas’ heart.

“Where’s yours?” he asked, noticing her basket was already empty. If they were going to be a matched set, it only felt fair that it be all of them. That Minnow wear flowers instead of just blood.

She giggled again. “I don’t have one,” she said. “Heroes don’t need crowns.”

Astielle: Chapter Ten

NSFW Content Warnings
Maledom ❤ Sadism/Masochism ❤ Biting with Fangy Teeth (no blood) ❤ Breastplay ❤ Oral Fixation ❤ Physical Restraint ❤ Size Difference ❤ Blowjobs ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Weird Monster Dicks ❤ Tentacles ❤ Tentacle-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Frotting ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Dirty Talk ❤ Moneyshot

“Use the shampoo bar,” Leonas snapped. Minnow frowned at the bar of soap she was holding.

“It’s fancy soap,” she protested. “It’s got milk in it.”

“I don’t care,” he said. He was sitting at her vanity, whose function she had never entirely understood until now. Since it didn’t have a sink, she hadn’t been able to enjoy watching him shave. He was trying not to look at her while she took a bath.

Karzarul hadn’t been happy about the arrangement, but Minnow refused to have someone waiting to use the good bathroom when they could have both been using it. She also refused to let Karzarul in, though certain forms could be accommodated by the wasteful largeness of the space. Even hesitant willingness to let them speak alone felt like progress.

“Which one is the shampoo bar?” she asked, looking at all the little bars and bottles of things that Leonas had left the night before.

“The one with the gold flecks,” he said. His hair was still in his scarf, and he was rubbing things on his face from little dropper bottles whose function she could not imagine. After each one he would turn over a tiny hourglass he’d set onto the vanity, and wait.

Leonas’ idea of essentials to bring on the run had turned out to be the contents of his bathroom. Since he’d made it unscathed, and she liked looking at his face, it felt rude to judge.

“Will this make my hair shiny?” she asked.

“No,” he said, and she pouted. “You haven’t had a haircut in—I don’t think you’ve ever had a haircut.” She opened her mouth. “If a sword was involved it doesn’t count.” She closed her mouth. “It isn’t even right to call them split ends anymore, your hair is just split.” He took out a bottle of something orange and started spreading it under his eyes with the pad of his middle finger.

“It looks like you got the wrong color,” she warned.

“I don’t tell you how to kill monsters—”

“Yes you do.”

“—so don’t tell me how to make myself fit to be seen in society.” He added lines of green down his nose and onto his cheeks, over his witchmarks. Minnow moved around the bathtub to the edge closest to him, resting her arms on it to watch him. “You barely participate in society. You’re not even thirty yet. I’m old. If the circles under my eyes get any deeper my eyeballs are going to fall out of my fucking skull. Concealer is the only thing holding me together.”

“It seems like a lot of work,” she said.

“Well we can’t all have skin made out of moonlight,” he said, dabbing a sponge aggressively at his face. “Some of us have pores.” When he seemed satisfied, he switched to an enormous brush, patting powder onto his face with an equal amount of fury. She worried for his eyes. “We either take measures, or accept that passing citizens can see them from the street.”

Minnow couldn’t tell what difference all that powder had made, except that his witchmarks looked dusty now. He took a small brush to his eyelashes and his eyebrows, then found the tiniest brush she’d ever seen to dip into a pot of shimmery copper dust. She perked up.

“You should use the big brush for that one,” she said. “More sparkles!”

He ignored her, giving his eyes the barest edge instead. “We are going for subtlety,” he said, “we are going for regality. We are not going for the Sunlight Heir and Prince of Astielle looking like a common whore.”

“What about an uncommon whore?”

“They prefer ‘courtesans’, and they’re doing a new thing where they rip their eyebrows out and draw on new ones with little pictures in them,” he said, leaning closer to the mirror to see better. “Only about three of them can actually pull it off. I am playing to my strengths, which include having eyebrows.”

Minnow ducked under the water to rinse her hair out, sweeping it back out of her face when she came back up. “Some of them were courtesans, right?” she asked. “The ones you had sex with? I feel like some of them were fancy ladies, but other ones were being paid for sex stuff. I’ve never been able to ask before.”

“Some of them were courtesans,” he confirmed. “There is a limit to how many noblewomen even exist within the kingdom, to say nothing of those eligible for marriage. He gave up on most of the ones that wanted courting, and settled for the more mercenary families. Even they weren’t willing to throw their daughters at me for too long. It’s been down to the dregs for a while now.” He dipped a brush in oil, using it to clear the makeup off his witchmarks with sharp-edged precision. “I prefer the courtesans,” he said. “We have an understanding.”

“Does he think it makes it better?” she asked. “Not being able to go out.”

Leonas snorted, drawing slender edges of copper along his witchmarks. “He’d like a grandchild before I’m dead,” he said. “That’s all. Whoever gets there first gets to be Queen.”

“Even the courtesans?”

“Those are a stop-gap measure,” he said. “So I don’t… forget.”

She narrowed her eyes. “How to fuck?” she asked.

“Something like that.” He considered his face from different angles in the mirror. Satisfied, he picked up a bottle, shut his eyes, and sprayed his face.

She stood up in the tub, and started wringing out her hair. Leonas glanced at her, then away. “Was he always listening?” she asked.

“He couldn’t have been,” Leonas said. “It wouldn’t be practical. Either he checked in at irregular intervals, or else he set a trap array to catch words and voices that he thought were important.” Leonas unwrapped the scarf from his hair, and started to untie the ribbons he’d used to keep his curls defined. “I searched that room from top to bottom and never found it, whatever it was. The best I can come up with is that it was the entire room, with enchantments carved into the inside of the walls.”

“Creepy,” Minnow said, wrapping a towel around herself. “Is it nice, being able to say whatever you want while you’re here?” she asked.

He fluffed his curls, still checking his reflection. “Yes, fantastic,” he said. “I’m a middle-aged man who ran away from home, I have no skills outside of theoretical research, no powers, no money, barely have clothes, and I’m cock-blocking a man who already wanted to kill me. But now I can explain the details of my horrible sex life, and isn’t that its own reward, in a way.”


“I have a question,” Karzarul said.

Minnow was helping Leonas to gather books he thought were of interest. He had an elaborate note-taking system involving many more bottles of ink than she would otherwise have considered necessary, as well as rulers. She thought she saw a protractor, once. It was intimidating to watch.

Leonas did not like to leave the desk he’d claimed as his own. He would use the bathroom, make tea if the kitchen was unoccupied, and that was about it. Minnow wasn’t convinced that he’d been in a kitchen before. She had discovered that the best way to make sure he ate was to leave little baskets of savory breads on his desk, and mugs full of soups thin enough that he could drink them without looking up. Plainer foods worked best, as he didn’t always seem to notice he was eating them. It made her feel better about having dinner without him.

Karzarul was sitting on the loveseat again, reading history books. He also had a pen, but was making his notes right on the pages. Minnow had a hunch that most of what he was writing was rude. Sometimes he stared in a way that made her wish she’d worn the kind of dress with a shape to it.

“Okay,” Leonas said, not looking up from his notes.

“How long ago did Elias die?” Karzarul asked. “Every time I come back after dying someone’s changed how years are counted.”

Leonas paused, looking slightly upward to do mental math. “87 years, about. He slayed you nearly 150 years ago.”

Karzarul frowned, doodling on the inside cover of his book. “I never met the Heir that cycle, did she kill him?”

“Elias killed Brennia not long after he killed you,” Leonas said. “Thexikar never fully recovered from the loss of the Princess, Astielle was able to fill the void of power in the aftermath.”

“And how old are you?” Karzarul asked.

“33,” Leonas said. “34 in a few months.”

Karzarul hummed thoughtfully. “That doesn’t add up,” he said. “A resurrection cycle shouldn’t take this long”

“They don’t always match up,” Leonas said.

“Yes, I know,” Karzarul said. “I was there. Tomas was born while Gwenviel still lived, Needle lived long enough to kill me twice. The first Needle. Even when one lives, my own awakening usually coincides with the resurrection of the second. The rest of the time, Heroes and Heirs are born within a few years of each other. And I’ve never taken so long to reform after a resurrection cycle had already begun.”

Leonas had switched to a different piece of paper so that Karzarul’s tangent could have its own page of notes. “How does that work, exactly?” Leonas asked.

“I die,” Karzarul said. “I dissipate into nothing but the core of my being, dormant. Awareness of my counterparts brings me back to myself. I begin to gather moonlight, until I have enough to form a body once more. Once there is enough of me, I awaken.”

“Is there a specific place?” Leonas asked.

“Why would I tell you if there was?” Karzarul asked in return.

“It’s relevant,” Leonas said. “If a location is required, it could have been interfered with in such a way as to cause a delay.”

“Certain locations are preferable, but not required,” Karzarul said. “Whatever soul I have is bound to the Moonbow, which is itself bound to the Moon Goddess. It will outlive the world, same as yours. There is no circumstance that can stop me from from building a body for myself.”

“Is the Moon okay?” Minnow asked.

“We would have noticed if it went missing,” Leonas said.

“I know,” she said defensively. “I only mean, it took him a long time to make a new moonlight body, and all the monsters don’t have moonlight in them.”

“It’s a reasonable question,” Karzarul said. “Under other circumstances, I would say that I would know if something had changed, if the moonlight were being blocked somehow. But I’ve been dead.”

“Does it matter?” Leonas asked.

“Think of magic,” Karzarul said. Leonas frowned at his notes. “Spend long enough in a place where magic is thin, and eventually you stop noticing. It isn’t until you’ve been drenched in it again that you realize how little you’ve had. I cannot give an objective measure of how much moonlight is in the world. I can only tell you that it feels normal to me.”

“Informative,” Leonas said, the nib of his pen gliding over paper. “Not useful, but informative.”

Karzarul growled, but only for half of a second. Minnow considered this progress.

“Are Heirs always the future ruler of a powerful empire?” Minnow asked. “Maybe that was why. None of the countries were strong enough.”

Karzarul shook his head. “They can be Heir to anything, as long as what they stand to inherit has value. A duchy, a fortune, a church. An unusually large boat.”

“It’s an easy mistake to make,” Leonas said. “It goes in the other direction. The presence of a Sunlight Heir can be enough to raise an empire.”

“How lucky,” Karzarul said dryly, “for Astielle.”

“The odds were in her favor,” Leonas said, eyes on his notes. “My father is the King of Astielle, and my mother was the Sea Witch Pirate Queen. That’s three.”

“Two,” Minnow said.

“Three,” Leonas said again. “Cyrnae was the Pirate Queen, and she was also the Sea Witch Queen.”

“I didn’t know you could be the queen of that,” Minnow said.

“You can be the queen of anything,” Leonas said, “if you can kill anyone who disagrees.”

“The King definitely did that on purpose, right?” Karzarul asked. “We all agree he had a child with a queen twice-over to try and have an Heir?”

“Obviously,” Leonas said. “The only question has ever been why Cyrnae would participate. I try not to dwell on it.”

“You did not say, when I called you witch-prince,” Karzarul said, “that you were the Sea Witch King.”

“No one knows for sure if my mother is dead,” Leonas said. “Under the circumstances, the title hardly suits.”

Karzarul added a note to the timeline he’d been trying to construct. “It still doesn’t fit,” he said. “Could there have been another cycle, after Elias died? One that neither of you is aware of?”

“It isn’t as if no one noticed the gap,” Leonas said. “Everyone got very antsy, thinking you might have done something. The nationality of the Hero and the Heir, whether they are the same or distinct, it’s an important historical event. There was a series of scandals involving fake Heroes with tattoos and counterfeit swords. A few ill-conceived attempts to claim the birth of an Heir.”

“You’re certain they were fake?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas sighed. “The Heroes were rather notoriously humiliated when they were found out. As for the Heirs, they were Astian. My father was on his second wife. He had every incentive to claim an Heir for our kingdom if he could do so, even if it wasn’t his true heir.”

“Your dad’s real old,” Minnow said.

“One of the many benefits of being an enchanter,” Leonas said. “Based on how long my grandfather lasted, I could make it to two-hundred, assuming I’m not murdered.”

“Have you found anything interesting yet?” Karzarul said.

“It has been less than one day,” Leonas said. “If what you’re describing is real, it’s an entirely new magical phenomena wherein the fundamental nature of an entire class of creatures has changed. That’s the kind of event that could take years, if not decades, to unravel.”

“Oh,” Minnow said, taken aback. “It’s not all reading, though.”

“Yes, it’s all reading. Practical research comes later.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Minnow said.

“Unfortunately, this is it,” Leonas said. “This is what I bring to the table. So far I’ve found information on tangible illusions, which wouldn’t bleed when Minnow cuts them, or meat puppets, which would require someone to be in active control. They also wouldn’t turn to dust when Karzarul does… whatever it is he does.” Karzarul hmphed. “There’s a certain amount of research into autonomous artificial life, but it requires a prohibitively large amount of magic and usually ends when the researcher is killed by his own creation. Because. Well. Imagine the sort of person that wants to research autonomous artificial life.”

“You’re saying you haven’t found anything,” Karzarul said.

“This is an exploratory literature review,” Leonas said. “A negative result is still a result. I’m looking at moonlight, now. It may be that the monsters have had something happen to their lifeforce on a massive scale. That would require moonlight manipulation of some kind.”

Minnow sighed heavily. “I know this is important,” she said, “but it’s also really boring.”

“If you’d like,” Leonas said, “you could ask Karzarul to scatter my notes in a crumbling castle somewhere, and you can read them as part of painstakingly gathering them back up.”

“Really?” she asked hopefully.

“No.”


It wasn’t that Karzarul didn’t like it when Minnow called him beautiful, called him wonderful, deemed him to be everything he’d worked so hard at being. Intellectually, he enjoyed it very much. Emotionally, it warmed him greatly.

But there was that other thing.

That thing.

It didn’t satisfy the thing inside him that craved her disdain and her desire in equal measure. He wanted her to loathe him, to find him loathsome, to understand that he was loathsome. He wanted her to understand that he was vile, that she was too good for him, that she was lowering herself by allowing him to touch her.

He wanted her to know better, and he wanted her to want it anyway.

She knew he was a monster, even while she flattered him. She delighted in it, was the difference. He’d seen glimpses of it here and there, since the Heir had joined them. Since he couldn’t help baring his fangs, looming, taking up space. Acting like a massive dickhead.

He could see it in her eyes and the catch in her throat, the way her pulse fluttered. Maybe they were the same, that way. Maybe she wanted a loathing he could not give her.

He tried it anyway, while Leonas was busy getting ready for bed. A rare moment alone since the Prince’s arrival.

Karzarul cornered her in a hallway on the other side of the house, and the way her breath caught was enough to make him grin. He ran his thumb along her jaw, let himself feel self-satisfied about it when she leaned into his touch.

Could her prince do this? Make her shiver like this?

“If we were alone,” Karzarul said, “I would have fucked you over that desk already.”

“Oh,” she sighed. He kissed her, could feel her teeth graze his tongue before he kissed a line down to her neck.

“I wanted to fuck you when you woke up this morning, with your hair all sleepy,” he said. “I wanted to fuck you when you were wet out of the bath. I wanted to fuck you over the breakfast table, and at lunch, and every time you stretched your arms over your head in this cute little dress.”

“Like this?” she asked, reaching over her head.

“Like that,” he confirmed, his knee bent between her thighs and his tail brushing her bare skin. He wrapped his fingers around her forearms to hold them against the wall, purring when she seemed to wobble.

“It seems like you want to fuck just, generally,” she said.

“Not generally,” he corrected. “Just you.”

“Oh!” she said. “Here, let me try something.” He let her go when she pulled her arms free, since she wasn’t playing along. She fussed with the buttons on her dress, undid enough of them that she could pull her breasts free of her chest wrap. “How’s that?” she asked, looking back up at him. Her hair was falling wild around her face, her eyes bright, but it was her enthusiasm making the tentacles around his cock writhe. She looked so pleased to be putting herself on display for him.

His answer was a kiss, his hands on her breasts pushing into the softness of her skin, trying not to sink his claws in. She moaned into his mouth, and he wrapped his tail around her leg. He felt her hand slide between them, under his skirt, and his tentacles grabbed reflexively at her. She giggled even as she wrapped her fingers around his shaft.

“If I promise not to bite,” she asked, “can I taste it?”

His tentacles squeezed her hand to tighten her grip. The earnestness of her was going to fucking kill him. Mother Void, forgive me, but of course She never did. “You want that?” he asked, running a fingertip along her lower lip. She licked his finger, wrapped her lips around the digit and sucked. He kept his claws retracted, pushed a second finger into her mouth, his tentacles writhing over her hand while she stroked him. Calloused hands used to gripping a sword, a mouth full of sharp teeth, a fearsome little creature with her tits out and her cheeks hollowed.

He slid his fingers out of her mouth, and she slid down the wall onto her knees. She had to kneel fully upright to reach him, the front panel of his skirt draped off to the side. She ran her fingers over the veins of light, admired it like a treasure. He braced his hands against the wall, looking down at her looking up at him. The glow from his cock reflected off her pupils, made her look starstruck, had him struggling to breathe.

She gave him a preliminary lick, but two tentacles abruptly filled her mouth; her eyes widened with a muffled squeak. She was hot, and soft, and wet, and even the feel of his tentacles pressing into her teeth was not enough to stop him from wanting to fill her too full. His claws dug into the wall as he forced himself to behave, his tentacles to retract. He tried to wrap them around each other to keep them busy as she caught her breath. She pressed his cock against her cheek, and the scale of those two things beside each other did things to him. Terrible, terrible things.

She opened her mouth wide, slid the head of his cock along her tongue and into her mouth, and it was a struggle to keep his tentacles in control. Her hand around the base of him and her lips around his shaft, she was doing her best but she was just too fucking small. It was an absurdity, was what it was, and it delighted and terrified him. He wanted to wrap his tentacles around her face, around her neck, hold her mouth open and sink into her throat.

Since he didn’t want her to fucking die, he would not be doing that.

But Mother Void was it difficult, when she figured out that she could squeeze her own breasts, lift them higher, high enough that the tips of his tentacles could wrap around her nipples.

“Wait,” he said, taking a step back, and she nearly overbalanced and tipped forward. This was all still too new. He could not be trusted with his dick near her face. “Get up here,” he said.

She hesitated. “I’m sore,” she admitted, pressing her thighs together. He would keep to himself how arousing he found this.

“Okay,” he said, joining her down on the floor. She looked surprised when he kissed her, pressed her back into the wall. “We’ll try something different. Turn around.”

Her eyes got big as saucers.

“Not that different,” he amended. “If you don’t like it, you can punch me and we’ll see where that goes.”

It was a touch unsettling how that got her biting her lip, turning herself around and pressing her palms against the wall.

“Just like that,” he said, hiking up her dress with his hands on her hips. “Legs together,” he said, using his knees to press against the outside of her calves, holding them there. He slid his cock along the curve of her ass, between her thighs, heard her whimper as the head of it slid along the heat of her. It was difficult when he couldn’t see what he was doing, but he knew he’d gotten the angle right when she gasped, the head of his cock rubbing at her clit.

He wouldn’t pretend it was as good as being buried as far as he’d fit inside her, but her thighs were thick and well-muscled and soaked with her own arousal. She clenched her thighs tight around him, tighter still when he bent to sink his fangs into her shoulder. She leaned further forward, her forearms pressing hard into the wall to push back into him.

“Look at me,” he said as he lifted his head, “let me see you.” She turned her head, twisted a little so that he could see her over her shoulder. He licked her cheek. He didn’t know why. It felt right in the moment, and like he was a stupid animal in rut immediately afterward. She made a little sound of surprise that was neither mocking nor disgusted, and he didn’t know if that was what he wanted. One of his tentacles started to push inside of her, and the look on her face made him thrust harder against her clit. “Too much?” he asked.

“Good,” she gasped, and the tentacle pushed deeper, “good, it’s good, you’re good—” She clenched around the tentacle pumping in and out of her, her hips rocking. He stopped thrusting for the gratification of feeling her grind her clit down onto his cock, squeezing her breasts to feel her squirm harder. “More,” she groaned, “hands, your hands, I want—” She opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue, so he shoved two fingers into her mouth. She latched onto them, eyes shut, and he felt her start to spasm around his tentacle. Her strangled cry was muffled by his skin.

Before she was done he thrust harder between her legs, spread his fingers apart to force her mouth open so he could hear her guttural sounds. She looked helpless and messy and slightly ruined, she was too good for him to ruin her entirely but she’d let him ruin her just enough. Beautiful and soft and almost something like his.

He pulled back so that he could watch his cum splatter onto her skin, her ass and the backs of her thighs. Then he pulled her closer before she could stop him, fell back so that he had a lap he could hold her in. She was almost limp, her limbs all trembling, both of them sticky now.

“There’s a less-good bathroom on this side of the house,” she said, a little hoarse. He made a sound of acknowledgement, but didn’t let her go. He resented that he could not fuck her in her bed and then fall asleep there with her. “It isn’t that I don’t like being covered in stuff,” she added. “No, that’s not true. I said that to be nice. It gets sticky and weird after a minute and I don’t like it. But humans have to pee after, or they have problems.” She patted his leg underneath her. “It isn’t anything about you in particular. Okay?”

“Okay,” he lied.


“Really?” Karzarul asked. “Was this really easier than imagining a tree?”

Leonas looked flustered. “It isn’t like I did it on purpose,” he said. “Don’t you need to have been thinking of me, for this to happen?” he shot back, hands on his hips. “You said before that’s how it works.”

“You’re in Minnow’s bed,” Karzarul said. “She has asked me to be polite, which means I can’t have cunt for breakfast until you leave.” Leonas recoiled, turning his back to Karzarul and crossing his arms. “I fell asleep annoyed. It happens.”

“Charming,” Leonas said.

“Here,” Karzarul said, waving a hand. “Have a tree.”

The willow was large enough, its branches long enough, to obscure Leonas from view. He spun around, startled. Then he lifted a branch to look closer at the leaves, the stems and veins and imperfect little brown spots.

“There’s never anything here,” Leonas said. “When I get here.”

“Some of us have the sense to clean up when we have guests.”

Leonas looked down at his feet, at the blades of grass that had spread outward from the trunk of the willow tree. There were wild strawberries blooming, and clover. A very fat bee appeared on one of the blossoms.

He waited for something to happen, but nothing did. Eventually he sat down, his back against the willow tree trunk. He picked a clover blossom, and tried to find a mistake in its petals.

Astielle: Chapter Nine

“This is the book room that has your old stuff in it,” Minnow said to Leonas, leading the way. “Most of them I stuck on shelves without sorting, the witchcraft books are the least organized because I never use them. I did use a lot of your animal and plant books, and books about places. I put them back when I’m done but some of them got pretty messed up. I don’t think we need those ones anyway, right? We want magic books, about magic stuff.” She didn’t consider it a library, because a library had a system. She’d seen enough of them to know the difference.

Leonas ran his fingers over leather spines, familiar titles.

“And there’s a whole shelf of dirty books over here!” she said more gleefully, spreading out her arms to indicate.

He choked. “Those ones are not mine,” he sputtered, turning red.

“I think this one was,” she said, pulling out a tattered volume. “It was on the bottom inside of an encyclopedia, but when I found it I noticed it had a number at the corner, so I’ve been trying to find all of them.” She held onto the slim booklet with care. “These were the hardest to find out of everything I have,” she said. “People get so weird about anyone finding out they looked at a drawing of a boob.”

“Good work?” Leonas managed. “I don’t think that’s going to help us right now.”

“I know,” she said. “But since I got the whole series I thought you might want to read them later. I figured it would have been frustrating, never knowing the whole story.”

“I know what happens,” Leonas said. “He has sex.”

“Yeah,” Minnow said, “but he also stops the coup attempt.”

“The what.”

“Yeah!” Minnow said, excited. “See, in the one you had, he has sex with the Baron’s many perfidious daughters, and then also the perfidious Baron.” She opened it to point to one of the pages, which featured a lot of improbable anatomy. “But if you look closer, he’s wearing a little badge, which they don’t explain. In the earlier ones they establish that he’s a detective for the Kingdom of Orgyite—”

No.

“—and he’s trying to uncover the head of the rebellion. With his dick.”

Ari looked over her shoulder at the book, and the watercolors on the pages. He pointed at it, looking at Leonas. “This was yours?” he asked.

“… I was thirteen,” Leonas said, turning his attention back to the shelves. “My judge of quality was poor.”

“Hmm.” Ari wrapped an arm around Minnow’s shoulders, resting his chin on her head. Leonas glanced over, then turned his back to them both, focusing on book titles. Ari purred loudly against her hair.

Minnow put the book away, and pulled away from him.

“Karzarul said monsters are supposed to be made of moonlight, and people are sunlight,” she said, wandering between the shelves. She looked them over, but wasn’t actually reading at all. The thought of actually trying to do research made her eyes glaze over.

“Everyone knows that,” Leonas said. She stuck her tongue out at his back.

“Are fairies made of sunlight?” she asked, falling into one of her big comfy chairs. Her legs went over the armrest.

“They’re magical creatures,” Leonas said, taking down a book to check the table of contents.

Minnow bounced her feet. “So there’s sunlight, moonlight, and… magic,” she said.

“I know,” Leonas said. “But it isn’t starlight. Enchanters used to believe magic was starlight, and they fucked up a lot of enchantments that way. Lots of theories that never went anywhere. Treating magic as distinct works best for practical applications.”

“It’s void,” Ari said. He was leaning against one of her bookshelves, and fortunately it was one braced against a wall. If he’d done that on a loose bookshelf it would have tipped.

“Oh, right,” Minnow said. “Karzarul says the Star Goddess isn’t the Star Goddess. She’s the Void Goddess.”

“Hm.” Leonas’ mouth was a thin line, but he said nothing.

“Magic is void,” Ari said. “Potential. It becomes what’s made of it, what’s put into it. Places like the Faewild—it would have been an ordinary forest, once. But for whatever reason magic started to pool and gather there, picking up all the things that people carried into the forest. Their awe, their dread, the things they thought might lurk. It became a forest that felt, in some way, like more of a forest than others. It compounded on itself, drew more magic in, and now it is Faewild Forest. Fairies and pixies born of the things men saw in the corners of their eyes at night, magic as dense as water in an ocean. Heroes have always been drawn to the Faewild; you are the only one I know to have been drawn there young enough to be changed by it.”

Minnow considered the forest she’d grown up in, and how thin the air had felt as soon as she’d left it. “Does that sound right to you?” she asked Leonas.

“Magic is drawn to magic,” Leonas confirmed. “Deep wells of magic are a danger, and the Faewild Forest is one possible consequence. As to the nature of your patron goddess, as well as magic itself, I would want to see citations.”

“I predate your modern understanding of the universe,” Karzarul said.

“That’s not a citation.”

Ari snorted, meandering toward the chair where Minnow had settled herself. He leaned over, bracing one hand against the top of the chair, caging her in. His grin had a little of that sharpness to it, that bite that made her feel all fluttery. She slid out of the chair and away from him before he could kiss her. The look on his face made her feel bad about it, but not much.

Leonas was pointedly ignoring them, and so Minnow ducked through a door and out into the hall. Ari followed, but she was in no mood for the look on his face. “You need to stop,” she said, her voice low.

“Oh?” He reached toward her, but she smacked his hand away, startling him.

“I’m not a weapon,” she snapped. He looked stricken. Her piece said, she moved around him to rejoin Leonas. He grabbed her arm to stop her.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said.

“You didn’t want him to see?” she asked. “You didn’t want it to hurt?”

He shifted, scuffing his hooves against her floor. “I wanted him to see that you like me,” he said. “That it’s mutual. That you’re not ashamed of me.”

“You know that I’m not,” she said.

“I want him to know,” he pressed. “If it upsets him, that’s his problem, not yours.”

“If I go in there and kiss him,” she said, pointing, “would it upset you?”

He averted his gaze, nostrils flaring. “That’s different,” he muttered.

“Because you don’t trust him?” she pressed, leaning and stretching her neck to get in his face. He turned his head in the other direction. “Because you think he’s going to hurt me?” He said nothing. She flicked at his hand on her arm, and he pulled it back, shaking it out like he’d been stung. “Stupid,” she said, and he flinched. “You’re being…” She searched for the word. “Insecure.”

Ari’s shoulders had been rising like hackles, his jaw acquiring a sullen jut. “Why would I be secure?” he shot back. “Of the Heroes not eager to kill me all on their own, the rest were turned against me. Those few Heirs that could not twist my words chose to kill the Hero themselves. What security do I have, when you trust him and turn on me for daring to want to touch you?”

She hummed, giving due consideration to his furrowed brow and bared fangs, the lashing tail and angry ringing of bells behind him.

“Have we done this before?” she asked. “You and I, before I was me. Were we ever together?”

“I…” He wilted. “Once,” he said. “Almost twice.” He rubbed at the spot on his hand where she’d flicked him. “There were times when things were almost different, they could have been different. In the earliest reincarnation cycles, I. Made a lot of mistakes. Later, when we were together, I thought things would change. They didn’t. This is the first time you’ve let me touch you, since.”

“Would it be better if I remembered?” she asked.

“No.”

“What was my name?”

He hesitated. “Jonys,” he said.

She turned the name over in her head. It was familiar, but only insofar as she recognized it as a name. He could have said any name and she likely would have felt the same. “It doesn’t sound like me,” she said, “when you say it.”

“You were tall,” he said, and she got up on her toes. “Black hair. You were very proud of your hair.” She fidgeted with a lock of mossy brown, frizzing as it dried, the ends all split. “Very kind. A little bit stupid.” She scowled and dropped back down to flat feet, and he smiled. “Shoulders are the same, though. And you have tits now, that’s an improvement. I think you would have liked those.”

“I do,” she confirmed. “Have I ever been tall and had tits?”

“When you were Maiete,” he said. “I killed you.”

“Oh,” she sighed. “I was too powerful. What about short, but with a really big dick?”

Ari made a face. “How would I know?” he asked. “Needle was pretty short, I don’t know what your dick looked like. You were called Needle. The first time, when you were a horrible man. The second time you were tall, I don’t know why you called yourself Needle again. You lived a very long time as a horrible man named Needle, I don’t know why that wasn’t enough. You may not even have had a dick the second time, I never asked.”

“That’s fair,” she said. “That would be off-putting.”

“It would,” he agreed.

She’d known intellectually that the Hero was, if not always a man, then usually. Knowing someone who’d known her made it different, made her wonder. How much of herself was muscle memory? Forgetting about personal space and being careful and keeping her shirt on. Not a changeling thing, but a Hero thing, taking his clothes off and cozying up with strangers and no one noticing it enough to mention it?

When they re-entered the book room, Leonas was sitting at her desk, going through papers.

“Are you reading my mail?” she asked.

“Yes,” Leonas said, still reading. “Do you own a farm?” he demanded, holding up one of her letters. “When did you buy a farm?”

“You know I don’t know,” she said, because she’d never gotten much better with time. “I know it was a long time ago, but post-Toast. I saved an old lady so she gave me her farm in Graswick. It wasn’t even a farm, it was a collapsing barn and a field.”

“A collapsing barn and a field wouldn’t make this much money,” Leonas said.

“I didn’t leave it like that,” she said. “I fixed up the barn, and cleared out all the rocks and weeds so I could plant some things.”

“How did you become a farmer without me noticing?” he asked, looking at the letter again.

“I did it between other stuff,” she shrugged. “Find seeds, stick ’em in the ground.”

“That’s not how farming works,” Leonas said, picking up a different letter and frowning at it. “I don’t think that’s how farming works.”

“It didn’t work well,” she said. “It did better after I hired a guy, and then he hired more guys.”

Why,” Leonas asked, “have I had to intervene multiple times regarding reports of the Starlight Hero stealing pumpkins when this entire time you were some kind of…” He sputtered, waving the letter aggressively. “Lanternmelon tycoon!”

She scratched her nose. “I like free produce.”

“It wasn’t free. You stole it.”

“They left it sitting in a field.”

“Yes. Because that’s where they grow. On the farm. Which you should know. Because you’re a lanternmelon tycoon.” He set the letter down, looking at them spread out in front of them. “I know this winery,” he said. “I’ve had this wine.”

“Is it good?” Ari asked. He’d sat on a loveseat, and was taking up the entire thing with the spread of his knees.

“It’s magical melon wine,” Leonas said. “It’s impossible to fuck it up. Minnow, according to these reports, you have the capacity to single-handedly devastate the economy. Any economy. The core concept of an economy.”

“Oh!” She perked up. “Is that good? Can we use that?”

“No!,” he said. She pouted. “Why would that be good?” He hesitated. “Although if the rumors I’ve been hearing about the negotiations with Perivo are correct—no. This is a nightmare. I don’t understand how I could have not known about this. Do you not pay taxes?” He shuffled through pages again. “Why don’t you pay taxes.”

“Dee is in charge of that,” Minnow said, pointing at the letters. “She sends me the big letters. She says I’m a legal entity.”

“What.”

“The entity is. It’s old. Older than Astielle, and money, and stuff.”

Ari snorted, but made at least a token effort not to laugh outright.

“That can’t be right,” Leonas said. “Your current body was still born in—we don’t know where you were born.” He tapped the first knuckle of his index finger against his lower lip, staring into the middle distance. “Even still, the property itself is… but if you’re the acting avatar of the will of the Star Goddess—”

“Void Goddess,” Ari corrected.

“Whatever,” Leonas said.

“You’re not going to get her to pay taxes,” Ari said, standing. His bells sang as he walked over to the shelf where Minnow kept her rarest, filthiest books, his tail swaying. Leonas flinched.

“I know that,” Leonas said. “Are the bells necessary?” he asked. “Have you considered the merits of not sounding like a low-rent dancing girl?”

“I’ve considered them,” Ari said with a ringing toss of his braid. “I have found them wanting.”

“Great,” Leonas muttered, shuffling through papers without actually reading them. “You’re perfect for each other, you can share bards. She’ll sing, you’ll dance, he’ll take turns. Fun for everyone.”

Ari hesitated in the middle of taking a book off the shelf. “Does she?” he asked casually.

“Hm?”

“Sing.”

Leonas looked up, glanced at each of them in turn before lowering his eyes again. “No,” he said. “Not usually. She’s tried to explain songs to me, but it’s as close as she’s come. Around me.”

“It feels weird,” Minnow said. “Having an audience.”

“Ah.” Ari let the book fall back into the shelf.

“I should get back to… things that aren’t this.” Leonas pulled her letters together into a neat stack on the edge of the desk. “If I keep looking at these I’m going to lose my mind. More than I already have.”


“This room has the best furniture, if you want to use it,” Minnow offered.

Leonas peered in at the ornately carved wood. “What makes it the best?”

“It’s the most expensive,” she said.

“Where?”

“Anywhere. As far as I know. I haven’t been everywhere. When I need to decorate I usually buy all of the most expensive things and that seems to work.”

Leonas looked over the room without entering. Minnow looked at him, looking at the room.

“The door only locks from the inside,” she added.

“Right,” he said.

“Is it that if you think you’re alone, Ari will kill you, or that you think that if I’m alone Ari will kill me?” she asked. Leonas’ mouth flattened. “Both?”

“I’m not leaving you alone with him,” Ari said.

“Okay,” Minnow said. “Technically, everyone can fit in my room.”

“Which one is your room?” Leonas asked.

“The one at the top.”

“So, the tower.”

“… yes.”

“Great.”

“Everyone will just have to stay on opposite sides of the room,” Minnow continued, “and sleep, quietly, on their side. Because the first person to cause problems and wake me up is going to be stabbed.”

“Works for me,” Ari said.

“Fine,” Leonas said.

“Would you feel better if he looked like a Howler at night?” Minnow asked.

“Absolutely not,” Leonas said.

“What about a Rootboar?” she asked.

He frowned. “No,” he said, “that feels stinky.”

“I don’t stink,” Ari said.

“I didn’t say you did,” Leonas said. “I said it would feel stinky.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ari said.

“Not right now, I mean if you were a little, a fat pig thing,” Leonas said. “I’m not implying that you have some kind of perpetual stink aura.”

“Right,” Minnow said. “Ari can stay an Impyr, then, and that’s fine and no one’s going to be weird about it.”

“Sure,” Ari said.

“What do you need before bed?” she asked. He’d brought a small bag, abandoned by the door when he’d gone running. It didn’t seem large enough to hold a change of clothes. “A dressing gown? A scarf? Special fancy face soap?”

Leonas started to turn red, crossing his arms. “I don’t need…” The skeptical look on Minnow’s face spoke volumes. “I brought my own,” he mumbled. “Except for. I might need something to sleep in. If you have something big enough.”

“I was planning to sleep naked,” Ari said.

“He will also need something to sleep in,” Leonas said.


Karzarul wasn’t trying to harass the Prince.

Maybe a little.

Mostly, he was curious. He’d mulled it over, the issue of the travelling through dreams. An Heir unable to access the Sunshield, a witch unable to do magic. If it were a ploy, Karzarul couldn’t imagine to what end. Cultivating an air of uselessness?

If dwelling on how much he disliked the Heir before going to bed was enough to open his dreams, then surely the Heir’s dreams ought to be accessible to him.

A dreamscape was rarely well-defined. Most people had no control over theirs, no awareness. Even still, this was unusually messy. Swimming in disconnected sensory inputs, rapid-cycling fragments of someone else’s half-forgotten memories.

Karzarul found the constructs of himself disturbing. The shapes weren’t exactly correct, fuzzy around the edges with occasional sharp detail. An indistinct Tauril body with vivid hooves, a Howler that was mostly fuzz aside from the teeth. That wouldn’t have been so bad on its own, but most of them seemed to be missing a face. Faceless Taurils, Abysscales, an Impyr that was nothing but a ringing shape. One a little more than a white blur, to the extent that he could not imagine which form it was meant to represent. In each of them were intermittent flashes of something worse, the nonsense-beasts of a child’s nightmares, nothing but eyes and teeth and holes in the world.

Leonas had swords and arrows sticking out of him, clawing at his own face, struggling to breathe.

Karzarul nudged at him with his hoof. Leonas did not respond.

Karzarul crouched down, and snapped his fingers closer to Leonas’ head. “Hey,” Karzarul said. “You’re dreaming.”

“I can’t—I can’t—” Leonas gasped.

“Yeah,” Karzarul said. “I don’t know why you’re doing that. I did drown you, once, but this doesn’t look like that.” He gestured a circle with one finger in the air around Leonas’ face. “This is a different thing.”

Leonas’ eyes finally seemed to focus on him. “Oh,” Leonas said, and he managed to inhale. “You’re real.”

“Yeah,” Karzarul said. He poked one of the arrows sticking out of Leonas. “This isn’t,” he said. “You can imagine this gone.”

He didn’t. “You’re in my head?” Leonas asked.

“Dreamscape,” Karzarul corrected. “I can’t do anything about whatever all this is,” he said, gesturing around them. “This is all you. It was me, to be fair. I did this, before. Killing you. But this, right now, the dreamscape, is you.”

“Why are you here?”

“You were thinking about me,” Karzarul said. It wasn’t entirely a lie. He couldn’t be here if Leonas hadn’t accidentally consented to his presence.

“What?” The arrows and swords disappeared all at once. The flashing fragments changed, constructs of Karzarul from earlier in the day rather than before he’d died.

“You don’t have to put every passing thought you have out here,” Karzarul said. “I can see why you don’t stay in here, if it’s always like this, but you have options. Aside from launching yourself out of your nightmares so hard you land in your nightmare’s dreams. That’s a bad strategy.”

Leonas curled up with his forehead on his knees, covering his head with his arms.

Karzarul scratched at his jaw. “Have you tried imagining a tree?” he offered. He looked at the tree now sitting in the dreamscape. “A better tree, though,” he said. It turned pink. “It doesn’t have leaves,” he specified. “If I look closer it’s blurry blobs. There isn’t bark, either, or roots.”

Leonas sat back up to look at it. His gaze was intense as the tree became more defined.

“If you can think of something more interesting for me to look at than a tree,” Karzarul added, “feel free to imagine that instead.”

Leonas looked at him, still crouched close. The tree abruptly disappeared, cycling through mental constructs instead. Karzarul, Minnow, a progressively less dressed Minnow, Karzarul again but this time his shirt was missing. Leonas looked away from him and resumed trying to make a tree. “Feel free to leave any time,” Leonas said.

“What I don’t understand,” Karzarul said, admiring his claws, “is how you had enough control to leave my dreamscape on your own, when you can’t make a tree.”

“I woke up,” Leonas said. “Same as the first time.”

“The first time,” Karzarul said, “I killed your roaming dreamself, which woke you up. The second time, you left.”

“You were going to kill me again.”

“It didn’t seem to wake you up here,” Karzarul pointed out.

“This is my dream,” Leonas said. “I’m used to it. That was your dream, and it was really you. It woke me up.”

“Hmm.” Karzarul reached out, and pulled on one of Leonas’ curls to see if it would bounce back.

Karzarul woke up. It was still dark, Minnow curled up in the middle of her pillow nest, wrapped around a stuffed toy bear almost as big as she was.

He could hear, on the far side of the room, Leonas’ ragged panting.

Karzarul yawned, rolling over and grabbing a stuffed pig to rest his head on as he fell back asleep.