Astielle: Chapter Eight

“I knew it,” Leonas said, and Minnow could tell that he was on the verge of hysteria. “I knew what he was doing, I knew it and I did it anyway. I can take comfort in that when he kills me, that I was right about everything the entire time.”

“Leonas,” she said. She was holding his arms twisted behind his back, sitting on him. She had managed to tackle him only halfway through the garden. He should have been able to outpace her, his legs being as long as they were, but he’d been trying to dodge a tiny rooster. “You need to come inside so I can explain, if you’re yelling out here someone might hear.”

Minona?” called a voice over the hedge. “I think I saw someone trying to break into your garden.”

Yes, thank you Suzan,” Minnow shouted back, venomously peevish.

Ari was a Rootboar, sitting in the grass and watching them both. He looked ready to attack at any moment, which was how all Rootboars looked in the wild. It was still funny to see such an angry white orb, snoot twitching.

“Let me go,” he said, though now he was hissing through his teeth to keep his volume down. “Either let me go so I can run, or let him kill me and get it over with.”

“He isn’t going to kill you,” Minnow said.

“I might,” Ari said.

“You’re not helping,” Minnow said, having to hold Leonas still beneath her.

“If he’s been hurting you,” Ari said, “I’m going to kill him.”

“He hasn’t,” Minnow said.

“That you know of,” Ari said.

Leonas was breathing harder. Minnow worried that the circumstances might be enough to throw him into a fit. She bent down to be closer to his ear, though Ari would hear her anyway. “I’m going to let you up,” she said, “but you shouldn’t try to run. You wouldn’t make it far, and I don’t think you want to get caught again.” He stilled. Minnow hoped he was remembering how bad he was at running. She knew he hated to be embarrassed, and getting winded and then tackled right out of her garden gate would be the most embarrassing. “Okay?” she asked.

“… okay.”

She let his arms go, getting up from where she’d been straddling him and sitting on the ground beside him. Slowly Leonas pulled himself up, kneeling in the grass and trying to brush off his shirt. There were green stains on the elbows. His eyes darted around the garden, as if monsters might be lurking in the bushes. They stopped at the statue.

“Why is there a statue of Toast.”

“Why wouldn’t there be?” Minnow asked.

“What have you been doing with her teeth,” Karzarul asked, surprising them both with the face of a Shadestalker snarling practically nose-to-nose with Leonas. Minnow hadn’t been watching to notice him losing shape, reforming so close. Leonas scrambled backward, his witchmarks flaring and dimming irregularly.

“Ari!” Minnow scolded. “Personal! Space!” She pointed at the spot where he’d been sitting before. He growled, but retreated, sitting back down. “Teeth are not the issue here,” she said.

“I disagree,” Karzarul said. The snake of his tail was lashing behind him.

“It isn’t as if she’s using them,” Leonas snapped, rubbing at his chest. “I even replace them, it’s better than if I didn’t take them.”

Karzarul growled again, louder this time.

“Ari,” Minnow said sternly. “Stop assuming Leonas is using my parts for blood magic.” Ari shifted on his forepaws. “Leonas,” she said, turning back to him. “Are you using my parts for blood magic?”

No,” he said, recoiling from her. “You’ve got—they got remineralized, in the Faewild. That’s why they look like that, it’s why you don’t get any cavities.”

“Any what?”

“She doesn’t even know what a cavity is,” Leonas said in the direction of the Shadestalker, gesturing at her, as if this proved something. “Ordinarily you only find those properties in pixie bones, but those are hollow, so it takes about five pixies to get enough pixie dust to do what can be done with a single powdered tooth.”

“There,” Minnow said, nodding. “You see? An explanation.”

“That he grinds the bones of dead pixies into dust?” Ari asked.

“I don’t,” Leonas insisted, irritated. “I never even did it myself! I bought pixie dust, pre-made, and even that I haven’t done in years.”

“Because you’ve been taking her teeth.”

“Not taking them!” Leonas wasn’t quite yelling, but it was close. His annoyance had overridden his fear to the point that he could address Ari directly, gesticulating in a familiar way that Minnow found reassuring. “I’ve never had to take them, she loses them! All the time, she loses teeth. The fact that they still grow back with as much magic in them as before defies logic. Most of the time she isn’t even fighting when she loses them.” He pointed at her. “She ate a rock,” he said, with that same tone of presenting evidence.

“You shouldn’t let her eat rocks,” Ari said.

“If she wants to eat a rock,” Leonas said, “there is nothing on this or any other plane of existence that I can do stop her from eating the fucking rock.”

“I spit it back out,” Minnow said. She was regretting ever telling him about the rock. “Can we move on, please? I would like to move on.”

Ari huffed, but didn’t argue.

“Leonas, why did you come here?” Minnow asked. “Why would you leave Castle Astielle?”

He rubbed at his face, raking his hair back with his nails. “Because I’m a fucking moron,” he said, and Ari snorted.

“Okay,” she said. “But you’ve never done this before.”

Thanks,” he said. “Travelling through dreams is witchcraft, I don’t have books about witchcraft, I can’t request books about witchcraft. Waiting for Karzarul to make a move was bad enough when I thought he was lurking somewhere in secret. But as soon as he was back, really back, he knew who I was and where I was and there was nothing I could do about it except wait. He left me alone while you were with me, but you were out here and he—did you go to the beach?”

This felt like a non-sequitur. “That was where the ruins were,” she said. “That was where I was going the last time you contacted me.”

“Right.” Leonas rubbed at his forehead. “Okay. So that was real, then. Great. Fantastic.”

“You wanted your books?” she asked. “The old Grimoires, and things?”

“I don’t know what I wanted,” he muttered. “It was only that I. I couldn’t. I waited for so long and then he was there. All I needed to do was keep waiting, a little longer. But you were out here, and I just. I couldn’t. I thought it might work, if I… Lilock Village isn’t so far from Fort Astielle. If Karzarul came to kill me, you’d be there. And I could help. I could try to help, instead of waiting.”

Minnow contemplated this, bending forward to idly hug her knees. “Like when you’ve been travelling,” she said, “and you think you can wait, but once you see your house you have to pee immediately.”

Leonas rubbed his face again. “No,” he said, muffled. “Not like that.”

She still thought it sounded like that.

“Heir,” Karzarul said suddenly. Minnow looked, and realized he’d taken his Impyr form, sitting next to her lupines. One of his knees was bent upward to rest an arm on it, the other on the ground, the panel of his skirt falling between them. His tunic was done back up, gloves on his hands and the Moonbow on his back. Minnow was briefly distracted by his calves, the short fur by his knees and the long fur that nearly covered his hooves. “Where is the Sunshield?”

Leonas swallowed, absent-mindedly running a fingertip under his eye to check the state of his face. “Don’t—don’t talk to me.”

“Don’t be rude,” Minnow chided. “We’re having a polite conversation.”

“He has already threatened to kill me at least twice since I got here,” Leonas said through his teeth.

“That was an honest warning,” Minnow said. “If we couldn’t do that, it wouldn’t be a polite conversation, it would be a passive-aggressive one.”

Leonas opened his mouth, then shut it.

Minnow had never thought to wonder about the Sunshield. What would he need it for, staying in his room? He never used the Rainbow Doors, or fought monsters.

“You should have brought it with you,” she said. “Getting here by the roads without having your shield was much more dangerous than if you’d come through the Door right over there.”

Leonas shifted where he sat, looking at his nails. He pushed at his cuticles while Minnow waited. “I don’t have it,” he said finally. He turned red as Karzarul started to laugh.

“Ari,” Minnow warned, turning to look at him. He had a grin on his face that she hadn’t seen before, sharp and infuriating, running his tongue over the tip of his fangs. She felt her face get hot, but she resisted the temptation to hide by curling into a ball this time. Barely. “You. Don’t. Nice.”

That was not a sentence, but her tongue had stopped working right, so she was working with what she had.

Ari looked at her, his expression softening into something she could handle. “I can nice,” he said.

“Good,” she said, her heartrate returning to normal. “Leonas, why don’t you have it?”

He seemed to debate how much he should say. “It’s the ward,” he said. “It’s built into the ward around Fort Astielle.”

“That’s not possible,” Ari said with a frown. “Only the Heir can use the Sunshield. Warding an area like that would require you to be wielding it constantly.”

“Astielle has always been ruled by powerful enchanters,” Leonas said, his eyes on the ground, “each building on the work of the last. My father designed a mechanism that allows the Sunshield to protect the city without my intervention. There is a ritual every year, so that it’s still… connected to me. In a way.” He curled a fist in the grass. “I won’t say more than that,” he said. “Not in front of him. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Minnow chewed on her hair. “But you had your shield,” she said. “When you got me. I saw it.”

“The ward went up on my fourteenth birthday,” he said. “I came to get you while everyone was busy with preparations. I thought that if I could find you, it would fix things. You’d find Karzarul, and I could have my shield back. Things could go back to the way they were.”

“Witch-prince,” Ari said, leaning closer. “What is your magical instrument?”

Leonas started to turn red again. Minnow looked between the two of them. Leonas had a silent set to his jaw. “What am I missing?” Minnow asked Ari. She knew enough to know about magical instruments, the item that a witch bound themselves to in order to channel their power. A big staff with an orb on it, or an interesting animal bone, or a really good stick. However, the relevance was escaping her.

“An Heir who is a witch would usually bind themselves to a sword,” Ari said. “A Hero might choose a shield. Something that complements their legendary weapon. If someone manages to disarm them of the one, they’ll still have the other. A legendary weapon has the potential to act as a powerful instrument—”

“—but that would be a fucking stupid thing to do,” Leonas interrupted, “yes, we get it, it takes a special kind of moron not to predict losing access to his legendary weapon for over a decade. Only a fool would tie the channeling of his magic to a shield literally tied to his soul, as if that means he could not lose it, this is all very funny for everyone.”

Minnow leaned sideways, reached out to touch Leonas’ hand. “Do you need it?” she asked. “Can you do magic without it?” She felt like a witch ought to be able to do magic without an instrument to channel it through. She didn’t know why she felt that way, and had no facts to support it.

“I can,” Leonas said. “I just, I might explode, is all. Is something that happens. To witches.”

Minnow looked at Ari. Ari nodded. “Explode?” she asked anyway. Ari spread out his fingers and wiggled them to pantomime an explosion. She stopped touching Leonas so that she could sit back down. “What the fuck.”

Leonas had a tired resignation about him.

“Leonas,” she said, “can I ask you a question?”


“Do you think your dad might be evil?”

Leonas looked at her. He looked at Karzarul. He looked back at her. “Yes,” he said, baffled. “Obviously yes. Of course he’s evil. He’s a king. What do you think a king is?”

“Okay,” she said. “I wanted to make sure we were on the same page.”

“We’re not,” he said, “because you’ve decided to ally yourself with… that.” He gestured vaguely at Ari, who sneered. She added it to her mental list of facial expressions she had trouble looking directly at in mixed company. “Whereas I, personally, still prefer the evil king whose machinations are about saving the kingdom rather than burning it down, as well as—this is key—not murdering me.”

“Oh,” Minnow said.

“Which I also have some questions about, by the way, if we’re sitting here in our little circle in the garden having a conversation before he cuts my fucking head off,” Leonas continued. “Such as: what the fuck. And: when did this happen, exactly?”

Minnow shrank in on herself, wringing her hands in her lap. “It’s complicated,” she said.

“I would never have guessed,” Leonas said. Ari growled like a Shadestalker, though the form was all wrong.

“I only found out who he was the other day,” she said.

Leonas stared at Minnow. He looked at Karzarul. He looked back at Minnow. “Was he in disguise?” he asked.

“He, uh. He was a Tauril, at the time. But he didn’t have any kind of threatening aura? Or try to kill me at all. He wasn’t in a lair, there weren’t other monsters there. I sort of assumed, if I met Karzarul, he would be in a lair surrounded by other monsters and a threatening aura, trying to kill me. And he wears gloves, so I couldn’t see the, the mark.” She pointed at Ari’s gloved hands.

“Okay,” Leonas said. “What I’m asking is, was he, at the time, a moon-white monster, who can talk, wearing a moon-patterned tunic, with moons on his gloves.”

“… what?” Minnow looked at Ari, then back to Leonas. “No.” She stood, walking over to Karzarul and picking up his hand. “This is a circle,” she said, pointing to the back of his glove. “Lots of clothes have circles, this isn’t anything.” She looked closer at the silver embroidery set into the white fabric over Ari’s chest. Ari preened a little, perfectly happy to let her manhandle him to look at his clothes. “This is, like. A cool bug, or a lobster. Abstracted. It’s. Okay. I can see how this might be moons, now that you’ve said something. Like this is the full moon, and these are the crescent moons, and.” She pressed her lips together into a thin line.

It seemed obvious now.

“You met a Tauril,” Leonas said, “who was white, and covered in moon patterns, and he told you he definitely wasn’t Karzarul. And you said, what? Makes sense? Seems fine?”

“Technically I don’t know if he ever told me he wasn’t,” Minnow admitted, still looking at the embroidered moons. She couldn’t actually remember. “You have to be nice to me,” she said before Leonas could respond. “I ate rocks.”

“I told her the truth,” Ari said. “Which is that the monsters she knows, which cannot be reasoned with, are not true monsters. I have no interest in your kingdom. If I want you dead, it is only because I believe you pose a danger to Minnow.” Leonas snorted. “She’s told me some of what you call history. I don’t expect you to believe me. If Minnow wants to protect you, I am willing to tolerate you until such a time as she has realized her mistake.”

Leonas was white-knuckled, his eyes on Minnow’s hands. They were still lingering on Karzarul’s clothes. She pulled back as soon as she realized.

“I think,” Leonas said, “that you’re taking advantage of the fact that she doesn’t remember you.”

“Oh?” Karzarul asked, cocking his head. “You remember me, then?”

“I remember dying,” Leonas said.


“I remember a sword in my back,” he said. “I remember an arrow through my heart, I remember an arrow through my throat,” he counted them down on his fingers as he spoke, “I remember a Howler ripping out my throat, I remember a guillotine—there may even have been a trial, that time, but the only ones there were Brutelings. I remember everything going dark because I couldn’t fucking breathe, again and again—”

“Is that it?” Karzarul asked.


“That’s all you remember?” Karzarul asked. Leonas said nothing. Karzarul stood, rose up to his full height with the sound of bells; Leonas, still on the ground, flinched. “How convenient for you,” Karzarul said, “not having to remember the blood on your hands.” Leonas looked away, didn’t bother trying to get up. “Would you like me to tell you what you’ve forgotten?”

“Didn’t I kill you?” Minnow asked. Karzarul froze. “I don’t remember,” she said. “But you didn’t offer to tell me about it. You never seemed this angry with me.”

Karzarul was still glaring at Leonas. “You never asked.”

“What if I did?” She reached out, but Karzarul pulled his arm away.

“Not yet,” he said. “I’ll tell you, if you ask, but not yet.”

Minnow looked between the two men. She sighed. Then she bent down next to Leonas. “I don’t want you to go back to the castle,” she said. “I want you to stay here, with me. With us. I know this wasn’t the plan. It’s just, this feels like something to me. Figuring out what’s happening with the monsters. I want your help. I want to keep you safe. If I promise not to let him hurt you, will you stay? Or do you think I’ll hurt you?”

“Minnow,” Leonas said. “He is going to kill me.”

“I’m not,” Karzarul said. Leonas didn’t acknowledge him. “If it makes you feel any better,” Karzarul said, “she’ll kill me if I do.”

Minnow opened her mouth to deny it, then shut it again. Unless circumstances changed drastically, she supposed she would. She didn’t know what Leonas could do to make killing him feel warranted, if anything. Killing Karzarul?

“That isn’t better,” Leonas said. “I don’t want that, for her.”

There was a pause. One of the hens sang an egg song in the bushes.

“Good,” Karzarul said. “We should get along fine, then.”

Minona?” Suzan called over the gate. Karzarul was, abruptly, a Rootboar. “We’re getting complaints about the noise levels, if you’re having a party you should have applied for a permit last week.”

Minnow stood wordlessly. She turned on her heel, disappearing inside the house. A moment later she re-emerged, carrying the Starsword.

“Nonononono,” Leonas said, hopping up to his feet and forgetting whatever else he might have said. “Minnow, put the sword down.” He held out his hands, trying to block her path. “We’re not doing this again, just let it go.”

“No judge in Astielle would convict me,” she said, moving left and right but unwilling to push him out of her way.

“That was a one-time thing,” Leonas said, “we’re not doing that again. That’s not going to work if I’m in hiding instead of the acting Prince, okay?”

Ari watched the exchange with interest. Then he trotted over to the wooden gate, and started slamming his trotters against it with loud, angry squeals. Suzan’s scream grew distant. Minnow nearly dropped her sword.

“He can make the sounds!” she gasped with wide-eyed delight. “I didn’t know he could make the sounds!”

“Yes, and now the problem is solved,” Leonas said. “Go put the sword away, and we can all go inside.”

“You’ll stay?” she asked hopefully.

“I’ll stay,” he confirmed. “For now.”

“Oh, good.” She got up on her toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll go put this away, then we can figure out how we wanna do this.”

He didn’t follow her immediately. Instead, he turned, and dropped down to a crouch, blocking Ari’s path into the house. He made serious eye contact with the little white monster and its big silver eyes. Leonas pointed to the memorial statue.

“That,” he said, “is Toast. When Minnow was eleven, she stole a piglet. She refused to listen to anyone who told her why she shouldn’t have a pig. Because it was a regular pig, it became very large. Minnow, as you can probably guess, was very small. I do not, to this day, know how she rode a pig. Pigs as a rule do not tolerate that kind of thing. But she did, and she loved that pig very much. When Minnow was fifteen, Toast was hit with an arrow, and she died. So Minnow butchered her, and ate her.”

Leonas stood. “She’s practical, that way.”

Ari followed him into the house.

Astielle: Chapter Seven

NSFW Content Warnings
Penetrative Sex ❤ Penis-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Unprotected Sex ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Fingering ❤ Frotting ❤ Oral Fixation

“How many times,” Leonas snapped, “do I need to remind you about clothes?”

Minnow looked up from where she was pulling off her shift, having already shed her armor. Ordinarily she would have bathed at home, but Leonas had surprised her with new clothes. She didn’t want to get them dirty, and it wouldn’t be the first time she’d used his bath.

“What,” she said.

“You cannot just take your clothes off around people,” he said. “You’re not a child anymore. You shouldn’t have been doing it when you were a child. There was never a time when pulling your shirt off in public was acceptable.”

“This isn’t public,” she said. “It’s your room.”

“Yes,” he agreed. “With me in it. Who can see you. Along with anyone else who might walk in.”

It was true that sometimes there were other people. She didn’t know if she cared whether they saw her. She still thought of nudity as being a human thing, and still did not think of herself as human. She’d been too long a changeling to consider herself unchanged.

It wasn’t as if the other people were always wearing clothes, besides.

“You’re getting older,” he said, rubbing at his forehead. “That’s why I bought you the clothes, you’re. You’re growing. In ways. Which most changelings wouldn’t need to worry about, but you’re here, so. You need to understand.”

“Leonas,” Minnow interrupted, still half out of her shift. “Are you trying to explain puberty to me?”

He turned bright red under the sudden flaring light of his witchmarks.

“I started bleeding like, three years ago. I think? You’d think it would be easier to keep track but sometimes it doesn’t happen, and other times it happens too much. One time I felt sick for days and then instead of bleeding it all came out as one big blob.” She made a circle with her fingers to demonstrate.

“Don’t tell me about—that can’t be right.” He was immediately distracted from his own displeasure, too puzzled to be repulsed.

“The healer in Lilock says that happens sometimes,” she shrugged. “He says it means I’ll be a terrible mother.”

“What?” Leonas recoiled. “No. Why would that—don’t see him again. That’s not how how anything works. I’m having him arrested for incompetence.”

“That’s not real,” she said.

“I’m the Prince of Astielle,” he said. “If I want him in the dungeon, I can have him in the dungeon.”

“Who are you having in the dungeon?” a woman asked, looking down from his loft, black hair cascading downward.

He refrained from snapping despite the expression on his face. “I wasn’t. Talking. To you.” He sounded like a farmer at the market who hadn’t decided if the sale was worth the customer. Leonas looked back to Minnow, waving her off. “Take a bath,” he said, “I need to get back to my research.”

“Stop breathing.”

“I can’t.” Minnow was laying on a table, her leggings pulled down to right below her belly and her shirt raised only as high as her ribs. Leonas had thrown a sheet over her legs for good measure, and another sheet over her chest. She did not understand the function of the sheets, but if they made him feel better she was willing to put up with it. She’d put up with a lot of things over the course of his two-year quest to fix whatever made her bleed wrong.

“This would be easier if you didn’t move so much,” he said, using his fingers to try and measure outward from her bellybutton. He’d tied his hair back into a twist, wearing a scope over one eye. His leather gloves went all the way up to his elbows.

“I’m not moving,” she said.

“Stop talking.” He tossed the hem of the sheet over her chest so that it covered her face. She sputtered and pulled it back downward. “If this doesn’t work,” he said, “it’s going to be your fault for being difficult.”

“What’s it going to look like?” she asked. “When it’s done.”

“Once it heals it won’t look like anything.”

“I thought enchantments needed symbols.”

“Enchanting works by—you don’t need to know how enchanting works.” He cut himself off before he could launch into a lecture. He set down beside her a series of glass vials, each of them containing a needle and thread suspended in liquid. He held another needle over the flame of a candle. Minnow only looked at this array for a moment before pulling the sheet back over her head. “Suffice it to say that as long as the enchantment is there, it doesn’t need to be visible to human eyes. This ought to work.”

She felt the point of the needle touch her skin, and flinched, her abdominal muscles clenching.

Minona,” he said.


“I have to mark out the spots before I can run the thread through,” he said. “When it’s time to draw the pattern I’ll pinch the skin first. It ought to be obvious. I’m not going to stab it straight into you at random, calm down.”

“I’m calm,” she said. “I’ve been stabbed. With swords.”

“If you’ve been stabbed, it means you’re bad at your job. Learn to parry.” She didn’t have to take the sheet down off her head to know the look on his face. A gloved finger poked at her skin. “The needle is going here,” he said, and this time she didn’t flinch as the point pricked her skin to leave a mark. “And here,” he said, before doing it again. And on, and on, over one side of her stomach and then the other, pointing out every spot before the needle marked it. When he was done, she felt like she’d fallen stomach-first into a rosebush.

“I’m going to start stitching,” he warned, uncapping one of his vials.

“Are you sure this will work?” she asked.

“Obviously not,” he said. “How would I have tested it? If you don’t want it badly enough to risk your experiment failing, you don’t really want it.”

“Fine,” she said, hating most of all the time it was taking. Being on the wrong end of a sharp object was bad, but most of the time it at least had the decency to be over quickly. “If I still get cramps after this, I’m. I’m going to be really mad at you.”

“Get in line.”

Leonas was sitting on the floor of his balcony. She didn’t usually see him on the balcony. From here he could see the city, all the way to the walls of Fort Astielle and out to the mountains and forest beyond. It was a nice view. If it were her, she thought she would have spent most of her time out here.

He was drinking wine out of a crystal goblet. He had the bottle with him.

“I remembered this time,” she said, poking her head outside. She’d seen a flyer at a nearby stable announcing the celebration, and realized that she’d forgotten about birthdays. She didn’t have one, so it had never come up. She thought the occasion warranted using the Rainbow Door. Visiting the night before meant she wouldn’t interrupt the real party.

“Of course you did,” he said. He held up his goblet as if to toast. “Ten years,” he said.

“Of what?’

He drank instead of answering.

“I made you a cake,” she said. “Cakes,” she corrected. “I thought it would be easier to eat if they were little cakes, instead of a big one.”

He turned his head, and his eyes dropped before they rose back to her face. “Did you dress up?” he asked.

“I asked the tailor for a birthday party dress,” she said. It was more fitted in the bodice than her usual fare, all fluffy with fabric around the skirt. She was still wearing her sword. “That’s the other reason I used the Door,” she said. “She tried to give me fancy shoes but I kept falling over.” She knelt down a few feet away from him, and set the tray of small cakes down between them. She slid it closer to him. “Try one,” she said.

He picked up a small cake, with its solid shining glaze and sugar-sculpted flowers. “You made this,” he said.

“I got really into cooking, for a while,” she said.

Something shifted in his expression. “I’m sure that killed some time,” he said. “What’s in it?”

“Mashed potatoes,” she said.

“I’m not eating this.”

“You have to try it,” she insisted. “If you don’t like it we can throw them off the balcony.”

He looked at her for a long time, holding the little cake. Then he turned his head before taking a bite, shielding his face from her view. There weren’t many dignified ways to eat a cake without a fork.

“Is it good?” she asked.

“It’s fine,” he said, licking his fingers.

“Are you allowed to leave for the party?” she asked.

“I’m always allowed to leave,” he said. “The whole castle is warded. The whole city.”


“It’s better if I don’t,” he said. “That’s all.”

She ran her hands along her skirt, letting it spread out along the floor. “Are you looking forward to it?” she asked.

His mouth pulled at the corners. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“There must be a lot of food,” she said. “And music. Is there a special ballroom?”

“He opens the Folly Gardens to the public,” Leonas said. “They decorate everything in suns for me.”

“Which ones are the Folly Gardens?” she asked with a frown.

“… the big one. It has its own canal, for all the fountains.”

“What! No. I would have noticed that.”

He leaned towards her. “Have you never seen the Folly Gardens? The great big green area on the other side of the castle? As big as the entire rest of the castle?”

She leaned back. “Why would I have?” she asked defensively. “You’re always here.”

He stared at her.

“Should I go see?” she asked. “Before the party, I mean.”

“No,” he said. “You shouldn’t wander around the castle at night.” He looked at his bottle of wine. “I’ll take you,” he said suddenly, setting the bottle down and using it like a cane to push himself upright. “If I don’t take you, you’ll just go on your own. You never listen to me.”

“I listen to you,” she said, helping him stand. He fixed his curls, straightening out his shirt.

“You never listen to me,” he said again. “Stay quiet, we don’t want to wake anyone.”

Minnow tried to imagine how they could wake anyone in a castle this big, with the rooms so far apart. He took away the chair he’d wedged under his doorknob, since his door didn’t have any locks. It was the first time she’d seen him make an effort to keep people from wandering through. Then he took her by the hand to lead her down the spiraling staircase, down and down and down. At the bottom was a large hall, and through that a smaller hall to another large hall. She was sure they were different areas, but she couldn’t tell them apart. Another hall, another hall, a great room–and then out to the back entryway, wide stone stairs down into the Folly Gardens.

There really was a canal, man-made and large enough to boat in. In the middle was a fountain in the shape of the sun, the same shape as the one that marked the Heir. Smaller fountains, still large enough to swim in, marked a series of plazas. Statues of men made it all look smaller than it was, until she realized she wouldn’t reach the knee of any one of them. The trees were all a uniform shape, the hedges sharp lines. Everything was symmetrical in all directions, and she was sure it would look like a sun if she viewed it from the sky. Candles floated in the canal, paper lanterns strung through every tree.

“Oh,” she sighed, and she pulled him along, down the massive staircase into the garden. “It’s beautiful,” she said.

“Can it be beautiful slower?” he asked breathlessly. She let him go, and he put his hands on his knees, bending at the waist and taking deep breaths. “That was a lot of stairs,” he said. “Not all of us chase horses recreationally.”

“I don’t like the trees,” she decided, spinning to watch her skirt flare. “They’re too smooth. I like the canal, and the fountains, and the lights. It’s like the Faewilds, when we’d catch pixies by the waterfalls. Will there be dancing, tomorrow?”

“There’s always dancing.”

“Will you dance.”

“I always dance,” he said. “That’s my job.”

“Who do you dance with?”

“Anyone who asks,” he said. “Who’s allowed to ask.”

“Does he pick them?” she wondered. “Like the girls in your room.”

“… yes.”

“That’s weird, you know. That he does that.”

“I know.” Leonas leaned back against a tree. “He’s hoping one will stick.”

“Do they know?”

He shrugged. “They want to be princesses. Someday queens.”

“I don’t know why anyone would want to be a princess.”

“I know.” He froze. “Go,” he said, pointing with his chin. “If you follow that hedge it will take you to the edge of the garden.”

She didn’t wait or ask questions. She ducked down to hide as soon as he said something, bending down and moving away from him. When she felt sure he couldn’t see her, she stopped, and waited. Listened.

Steps, coming closer. She didn’t know how he’d heard them from so far away. Or had he heard the door?

“Look who finally decided to come out of his room!” Leland sounded as jovial as always. “And all on his own. We ought to mark it as a national holiday. I suppose it already is one, isn’t it, birthday boy?”

“Thank you, Father,” he said.

“Ready for tomorrow?”

“Of course.”

“You don’t look happy.”

“I’m tired,” Leonas said. “I wanted to see the decorations tonight, that’s all.”

“If you don’t like them, we can take them down. Tear down the whole thing. Would you like that?”

“That won’t be necessary,” Leonas said. “The decorations are lovely.”

“We don’t have to celebrate at all,” Leland said. “It’s all for you. The artisans who made the lights, the decorators who designed it, the servants to put it all out.”

“I know.”

“The chefs, the bakers, the diplomats. All the citizens putting the finishing touches on their new clothes, wanting to look their best. The whole point is for you to like it.”

“I do.”

“Say the word, and we can cancel. Close the castle, lock all the gates. Let everyone know we’re not doing this anymore. I’m sure they’d understand. They don’t need to understand. You’re the prince. You can do what you want.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Leonas said.

“You don’t look happy.”

“I am happy,” Leonas said. “Very happy. The party will be lovely. I’m only tired.”

“I can’t imagine,” Leland said. “It must be very tiring. All your studies. When I was your age, I don’t know if I was ever tired. Not really tired, the way you get when you’re old. I was married to my first wife, then. Trying to hold the kingdom together. It was invigorating, in its way, having so much to do.”

“I wouldn’t know,” Leonas said.

“Would you like to get more involved?” Leland asked. “I’m sure no one would mind, if you wanted to help make decisions. Start advising the advisors, making Astielle in your image.”

“I would not feel qualified.”

“I could understand it if you’d rather be doing something that lets you feel useful,” Leland said. “There isn’t much glory in patience. Learning how to do things the right way.”

“I don’t mind waiting.”

“If you’re sure. I’m sure if I were in your position, I’d want to take my shield and go. Skip the celebration, the ceremony, the ritual. Let the kingdom take care of itself, follow the path of least resistance. Where did the Hero get to, by the way?”

Minnow curled herself tighter against the hedge.

“Left,” Leonas said. “Things to do.”

“Finally wished you a happy birthday, I assume. Is that why you had your door closed?”

“I was rearranging furniture,” Leonas said. “I forgot to move it back.”

“If you want locks, we can get you locks.”

“No,” he said immediately. “That’s fine. I wouldn’t want the room to seem. Uninviting. Because of a misunderstanding.”

Leland hummed. “You have a very big heart,” he said. “Anyone else would try to avoid getting so close, you know. Knowing how things go. It’s very brave of you not to let that bother you. Inviting her in, instead of letting her keep you at a distance. It makes me proud, to have raised a son like that.”

“It’s practical,” Leonas said. “Most Heirs can’t survive without a Hero.”

“Yes,” Leland said, “but there’s always after.”

“I’ve taken it into consideration.”

“I’m sure you have. I hate to see you getting hurt, that’s all.”

“I won’t,” he said. “She keeps me at a distance.”

Leland hummed. “What does a mashed potato cake even taste like?”


Leland laughed. “Well, she can’t be good at everything.”

“Can you use this?” Minnow asked, pulling a geode out of her bag.

“Probably not,” Leonas said. “Maybe. Let me see.” He snatched it out of her hand, holding it up to the light streaming through the windows. Then he brought it over to one of his desks, picking up a scope to look at it closer. “This is fake,” he said finally.



She stomped her foot.

“Where did you even get this?” he asked.

“Dolan,” she said, crossing her arms.


“A traveling merchant I met,” she said. “He had a lot of good stories but I think most of them were fake.” She pulled herself up to sit on one of the tables, letting her feet swing above the floor.

“I hope you didn’t let him talk you into anything else,” Leonas said, setting the geode down. “You shouldn’t listen to salesmen.”

“I didn’t,” she said. “Only the rock. We did have sex, but that was unrelated. He was very clear about not giving discounts.”

Leonas froze. “What.”

“It wasn’t great,” she said. “I didn’t want to tell him so, since he seemed to like it. There’s no rule against sex, is there? For magic reasons?” It would be just her luck if that was the reason she couldn’t do any cool sword magic.

“… no.” He stayed where he was, and she continued to swing her feet.

“Good,” she said. “I want to find someone who’s good at it, but I don’t know how you tell. It might be like cookies, where you have to eat a lot of bad ones looking for good ones. I know there isn’t any rule about cookies. You only have sex with some of the girls, right?”

There was a long pause. “Right,” he said.

“Do you only do it if they’re good? How do you tell? Are there parameters?”

“It. Varies.” He drummed his nails against the wood of the table. His witchmarks were sunny. The way he wasn’t looking at her made her fingers itch.

“Is there a book?” she asked. He had so many books.

“It’s. More hands-on.” He drummed his fingers again. “You let him touch you? This merchant?”

“I asked him to, for all the good it did me,” she said. She grabbed her own breasts to demonstrate. “Mostly he did this.” It hadn’t been especially arousing, and still wasn’t. Leonas looked at her again, and it made her feel silly, so she let her hands fall. “Maybe other people like that? I didn’t like it.”

He took a step closer, hesitated before taking another. “Let’s. Test something,” he suggested. He came close enough to rest his hands on her knees. “Another experiment.” Even being close to him was warm. He’d manhandled her often enough, but now he waited, his hands hovering inches from her. “Take my hands,” he decided. “Put them where he had them. We can see where he went wrong.”

She frowned. He was looking at a spot on her shoulder rather than her face. She couldn’t decide if he was serious.

Taking his wrists, she pressed his hands to her breasts, feeling awkward all the while. “It was—no, this isn’t right. I need to stand.” She slid off the table, but he barely made room for her. “He was behind me,” she said, turning around. “That was the other thing I didn’t like, I couldn’t see what he was doing.” This time it was much easier to wrap his arms around her body, pressing his hands under hers. “Like that,” she said, letting him go. He continued holding onto her, his fingers longer than her own.

“So you don’t like this,” he said, much closer to her ear than she was used to. She swallowed, her face turning hot. He was warm, and he smelled like soap, and she’d seen his face enough to be able to imagine it. Clinical, gleaming like a polished coin.

“It’s different when you do it,” she admitted. His hands squeezed, and she made a sound; she felt him closer against her back, pinned between the desk and his hips. She pressed her hands into the wood to brace herself. “That’s, um. I don’t know what’s different.” He caught one of her nipples between his fingers, tugging it gently through her shirt. “Oh,” she sighed. “I like it, when you do it.”

He let her go all at once, leaving her startled and disappointed.

“Is that it?” she asked, turning around.

“Experiment’s over,” he said, already ducking behind a shelf. “I need to get some work done, go away.”

The Slitherskin bite on her arm had begun to ooze purple. Leonas found this fascinating, and was collecting samples into little glass vials. He took notes on the color and consistency, and the faces she made when he poked at different spots around it. He moved her arm around, rotating her shoulder and writing it down when she found an angle especially painful.

His face had been close to hers, but it was still a surprise when he tilted her head and kissed her. Her sound of surprise was muffled by his mouth pressed too hard against her own, clumsy and aggressive. She always felt clumsy and aggressive, so this suited her.

He pulled away, staring at her face. Then he took notes.

Leonas was checking her teeth again. She’d lost three since the last time she saw him. He had the bag of them now, along with the shards he’d taken after her new teeth had grown in. He had a special stick he used to poke around in her mouth, so that she wouldn’t bite him.

“They still grow back sharp,” he muttered, taking the stick away. She stuck her tongue out at him. He rolled the stick between his fingers, thoughtful. “I would like to do an experiment,” he said slowly.

He didn’t usually ask. This made her suspicious. So did the way he averted his eyes. She wiggled closer to the edge of the desk.

“A hands-on experiment?” she asked. Their eyes met, and then he looked away.


He left, and when he came back he was opening a small jar of honey, his hands bare. His nails were always perfect shining almonds, and she found them distracting.

“Is it magical honey?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Open.”

She opened her mouth wide and stuck out her tongue, the same way she always did. He dipped two fingers into the jar, and stuck them directly into her mouth. Without waiting for confirmation that it was what he wanted, she closed her lips around them and started sucking. The involuntary sound he made shot straight to the core of her. She liked that he was looking at her instead of away this time.

“Careful not to bite,” he warned, which annoyed her, so she bit him. He hissed and tried to pull his hand away, but she grabbed his wrist with both hands. She was stronger than he was, so she held him still while she started to lick him instead, running her tongue along his fingers and through the seams between.

“Stop,” he ordered, and she let him go. He rubbed at his wrist. “Your hands are going to be a problem.”

She realized her mistake. “I can be gentle!” she insisted. “We can do another experiment, I can show you.”

“N-no,” he said, blushing under his witchmarks. He took a step backward, turning away from her. It wasn’t fast enough for her to miss the state of his trousers. “That won’t be necessary.”

She looked at her hands, calloused and sometimes blistered, and decided he was right. “You could, uh.” She grasped feebly at straws. “Try it on other places,” she said, “to see if it’s good. Or see if I taste good? Now?”

He stared at her.

“I’ve been good,” she added, “so you should kiss me.”

“You weren’t good,” he said. “You bit me.”

“Not anywhere important!” She slid off the desk and stepped closer to him. “If you don’t kiss me, I won’t do any more experiments. I won’t give you any more teeth, or poison.”

He looked toward the door, then bent to give her a perfunctory peck on the mouth. She grabbed him and dug her fingers into his shoulders, humming as she demanded more. His strangled yelp made her giggle, but didn’t discourage her at all. She let him go when he kissed her back, his tongue in her mouth tasting like bitter tea.

Then he pushed her away, only enough to put some space between them. “Don’t,” he said, loudly enough that she winced. Then he grabbed her hand, held it up like he was examining the star on the back of it. “Not like that,” he muttered under his breath, rubbing the star with his thumbs like it might fall off. “Not twice. Later. You can’t ask for that.”

He tested the joints of her fingers as she tried to interpret what he meant. He wasn’t usually the cryptic type; if there were things he couldn’t say, he simply didn’t.

“I can ask later,” she said tentatively, and he gave a small nod, pushing all her cuticles back with his thumbnail. “For a… treat.” He nodded more vigorously. “But not more than one.”

“Don’t be greedy,” he said at full volume, which was startling when he was still fidgeting with her hand. “If you’re going to treat yourself, you shouldn’t take so much the people start to notice.”

Right. Okay. They were being sneaky. Too many kisses all at once, and someone might notice. Too much of anything? His hands-on experiments never lasted long. It didn’t feel fair, when she knew he’d had other people. It couldn’t be everyone, that it had to be like this. It was something about her.

Because she was dangerous. Because she was supposed to hurt him. Because he let her in anyway.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll be good.”

He shut his eyes, and shivered.

“I need you to help me test something,” he said. He clapped a hand over her mouth before she could say anything. “All you have to do,” he said, “is wait here, with your Seeing Stone ready. Okay?”

She bit his hand, and he pulled it back with a yelp. “Okay,” she said.

He pointed a warning finger at her, and then disappeared under the table.

He had, for reasons she did not yet know, built himself a blanket fort. There were at least three heavy down comforters and a quilt, and on top of it all was some kind of embroidered sheet. The patterns were slippery and difficult to look at.

She waited, but nothing seemed to happen.

Leonas poked his head out from under the many blankets. “Did anything happen?”


“Excellent.” He pulled out his Seeing Stone, and her own started to chime. “Answer it,” he ordered. She picked up her stone, and held it out so that he’d see himself on it. “Don’t do that,” he said, before disappearing back under the table. She looked at her stone, but there was nothing on it, no image and no sound. The connection was still there, but nothing was going through. As soon as Leonas came out again, he reappeared on her stone.

“Did it work?”

“I think so,” she said, because he hadn’t actually explained what he was doing.

“Good! Good.” He stood up, brushing himself off, and set his stone down on top of the table. “All that’s left is to run the final experiment, and see if it works.” He took her stone out of her hand, and set it beside his. Then he lifted up the edge of the blankets, and gestured underneath the table.

Minnow looked underneath the table. She looked at Leonas. She pointed at herself, and then underneath the table. He nodded. She put her hands on her belt buckle. He nodded faster. Taking off her belt, she left the Starsword next to their Seeing Stones, and ducked underneath the table.

It wasn’t the best blanket fort she’d ever been in. There were only two pillows, which wasn’t enough by far. It needed more decorations, maybe some small glowing stones to make it feel cozy.

Leonas ducked under the table, and before she could react he’d grabbed her face and started kissing her. He was half on top of her, and she pressed her elbows into the floor, trying to brace herself and keep from hitting the leg of the table.

“Ten minutes,” he breathed into her hair, already working his fingers into the waist of her leggings. “I can’t risk more than that. Sound can still get out the normal way so I need you to be quiet if this is going to work, can you do that for me?” She nodded, trying to move to make it easier for him to peel her clothes off. “Good, you’re so good, you’re always so good.”

Everything he said was whispered, frantic. He kissed her again, pulled her up and sat on the floor so that she was sitting sideways on his lap. Her leggings were only down to her knees, otherwise dressed, and she could feel his erection through his trousers. He kissed her again, slid his hand between her legs, rubbed a fingertip too vigorously directly on her clit. She bit his tongue, then pulled back to shake her head. He adjusted, circled her clit instead, too light at first but she kissed him when he found the right tempo.

He buried his face in the crook of her neck. “It will be better,” he murmured. “Next time. This is a trial run.” His fingers moved so that he could slide one inside of her, adjusting his thumb until her hips rolled against him. He was warm, too warm. “I’m going to figure you out, I’ll solve you.” She buried her fingers in his curls. “All the magic in you.” He managed to unfasten his trousers, and she spread her legs enough that his cock could rise up between her thighs. She pressed them together, and he thrust up between them with a groan.

“There isn’t time,” he apologized, leaning back and taking her face in his hands. He stroked his thumbs over her cheeks, watched her eyes. “I need you to do this for me, this one thing. Guide me inside, let me see your face.”

She would have nodded, but he was holding her face still. He was shining bright, lighting up their little hideaway. She reached between her legs, gripped his shaft with one hand and his shoulder with the other. She had to rise up a little before she could lower herself back down. It was hard to get the angle right, but once she did, gravity pulled her down onto him faster than she would have done herself. She nearly cried out, had to bite down hard on her lip to muffle it.

“There,” he said, still holding her, thrusting upward so she whimpered. “Just this once, just so I know.” He moved forward, taking her with him, until she was on the floor again with him above her. She wasn’t entirely sideways, but her hips were still at an angle, her knees bent together underneath his arm. He kissed her, muffled the sound he made when he thrust into her. She pushed against the floor with one arm to keep herself from sliding, the other one gripping his hair.

“Next time will be better,” he promised.

“I like this,” she whispered. “I like you.”

He covered her mouth with his hand, and thrust hard. Again, harder, deeper, his nostrils flaring and nothing but the smothered sound of her grunts and of his cock getting wetter. He worked his hand underneath her shirt, pulled at her chest wrap until he could feel her bare breast against his palm. She arched into his touch, tried to angle her hips but couldn’t manage it. It was good, the pounding and heat and furious intensity of him, but it could have been better. Giving up, she let him go and shoved her hand between her thighs, rubbed at her clit and clenched down on him.

This was much better than touching herself on its own.

Leonas pulled out suddenly, thrust between her thighs instead. He took his hand off of her mouth. “Open,” he ordered, and she opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue, fingers working furiously at her clit. Heat splattered on the back of her hand, against her thighs. She liked seeing his face, the way his jaw clenched and his eyes shut. It took another few seconds to bring herself to a crescendo, her back arching and her legs twitching, the sudden burst of pleasure all through her skin.

She wished he’d still been inside her. Ten minutes wasn’t that long, when she wasn’t expecting it. They’d need to figure out some kind of signal next time, before she came over. She could bring a dirty art book, and show him all her favorite parts.

He wiped himself down with a handkerchief. “I need to put the cloak away, I can’t…” He hesitated.

“I’m good,” she said, licking the back of her hand. She wrinkled her nose. “You can go take care of it.”

He kissed her one last time, crushed his mouth to hers with his hand in her hair. Then he left her, and she could hear the sound of fabric sliding against fabric.

If his theory of what they could get away with was wrong, would it be better or worse to pretend she’d been masturbating in a blanket fort without his knowledge?

Astielle: Chapter Six

NSFW Content Warnings
Maledom ❤ Fighting as Foreplay ❤ Sadism/Masochism ❤ Biting with Fangy Teeth (no blood) ❤ Hair Pulling ❤ Physical Restraint ❤ Size Difference ❤ Bruising ❤ Cunnilingus ❤ Penetrative Sex ❤ Penis-in-Vagina Sex ❤ Rough Sex ❤ Finger-fucking ❤ Unprotected Sex ❤ Creampie (no impreg) ❤ Weird Monster Dicks ❤ Tentacles ❤ Dirty Talk

“Who was it?” Ari Karzarul asked. He was a Tauril again, and she didn’t know if she wanted him to be an Impyr. She did, but she didn’t. It was a lot.

“Who was what?” she asked.

A number of dicks,” he repeated. She scowled. “You don’t have to tell me,” he said. “I’m curious, is all.”

“I’m allowed,” she said. “There’s no rule about sex.”

“There isn’t,” he confirmed.

“Traveling merchants, mostly,” she said. “Adventurers. A pirate. A bard. I’d save them, or we’d go on an adventure together, or something.”

“Ah,” he said. “No… long-term companions, then.”

“No?” she said uncertainly. “I don’t think Leonas counts.”

“I should hope not,” Karzarul said. Birds chirped in the trees along the road. “Unless you mean—you don’t mean…?”

“He always calls it an experiment,” she said, “but it’s definitely sex.”

Ari stopped in his tracks.

“It’s okay,” she rushed to assure him, seeing the look on his face. She stopped walking. There was always a certain distance between them while they walked, because if they were too close she couldn’t see his face. “I know it’s sex, and he knows. He has problems, is all.”

“When he does experiments,” Karzarul began.

“Not always,” she interrupted. “He does regular experiments, with magic and frogs and teeth.”


“He doesn’t get out,” she said. “The King sends him people, but I don’t know that he likes them. It’s—it is educational. The experimenting.”

Karzarul rubbed at his face.

“Are you mad at me?” she asked. “I would have mentioned it sooner, but I didn’t think it would come up, because I didn’t know that you were planning to kill him or that we could have sex.”

“I’m not mad at you,” he said. “I don’t like that he touched you.”

I liked it,” she said. “He’s pretty.” Karzarul grumbled and growled and muttered, but it felt important that she be clear. She started walking again. “I know that you hate him, but threatening to kill him while he’s trying to sleep isn’t fair.”

“There were extenuating circumstances,” he said, following after her.

“Like what?”

“I wanted to kill him.”


“If I told you what he said, you’d understand.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Minnow said, tilting up her head. “He would say it to my face.”

“That’s worse.”

“We have an understanding,” she said. “I don’t expect you to be friends, or like him, or even talk to him. It’s better if you don’t, isn’t it?” Karzarul grunted, but said nothing, so she continued. “You should leave his dreams alone, if we’re going to keep a low profile.”

He keeps coming into my dreams,” he said. “Don’t complain to me about it.”

Minnow frowned. That didn’t seem right. Leonas’ panic at the thought of sleeping, of dreaming, had been very real. She thought of sleepwalkers, wandering through unlocked doors. “How does it work? Can I see your dreams?”

“Maybe,” he said. “The Starsword gives you a certain baseline amount of magic, even if you can’t draw on it deliberately. It might be enough.”

Minnow did not appreciate the reminder that she still couldn’t do any cool sword magic. “What would we have to do?” she asked. “If I wanted to try it.”

“Focus on each other while falling asleep,” he said. “As long as one person is willing to leave their own dreamscape, it gives permission for them to enter another.” He shrugged. “A traveler has no power in another person’s dreamscape. It’s why most don’t do it, even if they can.”

She mulled it over, kicking a rock down the road. Then she set the thought aside for later. Talking about the Heir irritated him, that much was clear. If this plan was going to work, she was going to have to keep them apart. Better not to tempt fate by putting them in murdering range. No point worrying about logistics now, when everything was still so new and she barely understood anything.

“This has never happened before, with the monsters, right?” she asked.

“I have lived and died for thousands of years,” he said. “I’ve never seen a monster made of anything but moonlight.”

“I don’t know what that means,” she said. “I thought monsters were made of meat, and blood.”

“Yes,” he said. “And the meat and blood is made of moonlight.”

She chewed on her thumbnail. “Humans aren’t made of sunlight, though.”

“They are,” Ari said. “Same as animals. You get it from plants.”

“That sounds fake.”

“What do schools teach now?” he wondered.

“I dunno,” she said. “I didn’t go to school.”


“I have books, though.”

“Astian books,” he said.

“Yeah,” she said. “And other books sometimes, in old places. People leave them all over.” She started reciting the history, kicking the same stone. “The Sun Goddess, the Moon Goddess, and the Star Goddess are sisters. The Sun Goddess made the world, and gave it life. The Moon Goddess saw the world, and gave it death. And the Star Goddess saw all the things in the world, and she gave it hope to guide the way. When they fought, as sisters do, the world couldn’t take it. So they vested their power into three chosen heroes. The Sunlight Heir is born to shield a people with all that they inherit, and the Starlight Hero gives them hope. The Moonlight Monster seeks the death and destruction of all things.” She paused. “Is what they say. In books. Which may not be accurate.”

“It isn’t,” he said.


They walked, and listened to the birds sing.

“She isn’t the Star Goddess,” he said finally.


“She is the Void Goddess,” he said.

She looked down at the Starsword on her hip, which was not called the Voidsword. The dark hilt glinted with innumerable points of light, flecks of gold embedded in the fallen stars of its making. “That doesn’t sound right,” she said.

“The things called natural are the realm of the Sun Goddess,” he said. “She is life, thriving. The things called unnatural are the realm of the Moon Goddess. She is life, persisting. The Void Goddess is the nothing in which all things dwell, the home of possibility, all things which could and will not be. She is death, inevitable. Every star in the sky is a dead world, held close to her breast and remembered for all time, awaiting the day we join them. Every fallen star is a dead world’s wish, all its hopes and dreams still seeking out the living who might make them real. The Heir seeks growth, but his shield can only keep him safe; the Sun Goddess knew better than to arm ambition with a blade. The Monster seeks only to be, and so his bow is for hunting, for keeping his enemies at a distance; the Moon Goddess was merciful in her pity.

“The Hero… is the Hero. They do not seek; they are sought. They wield a weapon hammered from dead dreams and wasted wishes, and its price is wanting. Dreamers and their desires stick to the Hero like burrs, and only satisfaction will make them leave. The dreams they wield are so heavy, they cannot bear to carry more for long. They are a vessel for infinity, and if they gaze inward they can lose themselves in it. If they bring hope, it is not the hope of a guiding light or a brighter future. It is the hope of emptiness, of nothingness, of all that might be made to fill it.”

Minnow kicked her rock into a bush, causing a chipmunk to flee.

“That’s a lot,” she said.

“It is,” he agreed.

“How much do you remember?” she asked.



“As much as anyone would remember, after thousands of years. Big things, important things. I don’t always remember what I had for breakfast.”

“Hmmm.” Minnow didn’t remember anything, or else the things she remembered weren’t things that counted as memories. Like being able to read Quedian. She was glad now not to remember more, not to remember killing him. That would make kissing him awkward.

“We could have sex, you know.”

Minnow choked on air. “That’s—I know that now.”

“In this form,” he said.

She was turning very red. “I have organs,” she said. “And bones. This isn’t an, an out-of-practice situation.”

“That’s not the kind I meant,” he said.

She risked looking back at him, and regretted it when he stuck out his tongue. Her heart skipped and her stomach flipped sideways. She let out an indignant squeal, covered her mouth, then tried to cover her entire face. She shook her head, dropping down to a flat-footed squat that was nearly sitting in the road, hiding her head between her knees. “Ng⟡vit◌!”

Karzarul started to laugh. “Aekhite?” he asked. “You speak Aekhite, still?”

“No,” she said through her hands, still curled up near the ground.

“You just did,” he said.

“That doesn’t count,” she said. “That just happens, sometimes.”

Ari was large enough that when he knelt down she could hear it, and he poked her in the shoulder. “Are you going to do this every time?” he asked. “Should I ask for advice from pirates, and bards?”

“Not! Every time!” She did not, however, look up.

“Twice now,” he said, “you have been made aware that we have options if you would like to pursue them. And both times, you have responded in the manner of an angry hedgehog.”


“If this isn’t how you respond to everyone’s advances,” he continued, “I might start to get my feelings hurt.”

“Have you ever been to a meal,” she said, “and someone there sees the meal, and they say ‘oh no get this away from me’, but they don’t mean that they don’t like the meal, they mean that they’ll eat the whole thing and no one else will get any and they’ll make themselves sick?”

She was still muffled by her hands.

“… I’m a meal?”

“I guess,” she said, peering out between her fingers.

Ari had, at some point, become a Rootboar. She screamed. His edges softened, but she grabbed at him. “No!” she said before he could change, suddenly hugging him to her chest, falling backward to sit on the ground. He was very small, and very round, with tiny little branches growing out of his head like antlers. There was a dark crescent in the middle of his forehead. And he had, most importantly of all, a snoot.

“I should have anticipated this,” he sighed. The fact that his voice hadn’t changed was as funny as it was unsettling.

She gasped with realization. “I should take you home!”


“I didn’t think I could before,” she said, “because my neighbors would notice if I came home with a Tauril and I don’t think they’d be very happy about it. They won’t be happy about a Rootboar, either, but.” She touched her nose to his, and giggled. “I don’t care. I wanna—I wanna go places.”

Minnow was still holding Ari against her chest when she came out through the Rainbow Door behind her house. Instead of stopping to get her bearings, she kept walking with full momentum downhill.

Minona?” a woman called, but Minnow didn’t slow down. “Is that a pig? You can’t bring another pig here. The Village Council had a vote after last time, remember?”

“It’s not a pig, Suzan!” Minnow snapped, walking faster. Ari didn’t have much of a neck in this form, but he tried to look around Minnow’s arm to see who was talking.

“When are you coming to a Council meeting?” the woman asked, voice sounding closer. “We need to talk about your hedges, the official height limit—”

“I’m a little busy, Suzan!” Minnow interrupted, opening the large wooden gate into the hedged-in garden and immediately shutting it behind her. “I’ll show you the garden later,” she muttered, “if we stay out here she’ll start peeking through the slats in the door.”

Since he didn’t want her nosy neighbor noticing the talking Rootboar, he wiggled all his legs so that Minnow would put him down. He still followed after her, his trotters tapping on the cobblestones, but it was easier to look around this way. There was a large fountain, and flowers from all around Astielle were growing in careful arrangements. Miniature chickens were wandering in a flock, scratching at the grass and pecking at neatly trimmed berry bushes. Tiny orbs of quail stayed underneath the shrubs, where they could find the illusion of safety. There was a log covered in shelf mushrooms, some of which were glowing despite it being daytime.

She had what may have been a memorial statue for a pig, which raised a lot of questions despite the ones it answered.

He bit the head off a dandelion, and chewed it as he followed her into the house.

“You have a lovely garden,” he said, carefully wiping his trotters clean on her welcome mat.

“I got really into gardening for a while,” she said, shutting the door behind him. “They had a gardening competition and I wanted to get first place. I don’t know why, it isn’t like it mattered.” She kicked off her boots to leave them by the door. “They stopped having it after that because they didn’t want to ask me not to enter. I ignore them about the property regulations because I don’t care and there’s not really anything they can do about it. Do you want to see my rock collection? Or we can look for books about monsters. I tried to turn some of my rooms into a library but I didn’t organize it well.”

He stood up, stretching into his limbs and assuming a form less spherical. He appreciated that her ceilings were high enough to accommodate his horns. He balanced on one hoof to stretch the other, knee bent and a hand on his ankle, shoulder rolling as he worked out the kinks. Rootboars didn’t have much in the way of joints.

“Oh,” she gasped, turning around rather than look at him.


“Minnow,” he warned.

“I know,” she said, and she did sound a touch upset about it. But it was still… irritating. Not in an obnoxious way. More in the manner of a poorly-fitted shirt. “A minute, give me a minute.” She wrung her hands in front of her. “You got your bow back,” she noted. “I wondered, when you were little.”

“It’s a part of me,” he said. “No point having it when I can’t use it.” He stepped closer to her, and his hooves were loud in the quiet room. She froze, but didn’t retreat. He slid his hands onto her waist, and her oh this time was small and high-pitched and wound all through with a yearning he could feel. He bent down until his cheek brushed her hair, and nuzzled until his chin rested on her shoulder. He took a deep breath.

She smelled like dirt, and blood, and sweat. Like moss on a rotting log. Meat, and bone, and dying flowers. His grip on her waist tightened. He wanted to sink his fingers into her skin, he wanted to taste her. She was sweet, and soft, and had earned every kindness he could give her. He was a monster with moonlight skin, a thing that made his home where he was not wanted.

She didn’t remember him. She never remembered him. Not really, not down to his bones, not the sound of his heart. Minnow didn’t remember Elias remembered Tomas didn’t remember Laurela who’d remembered so much she’d remembered—

So many Starlight Heroes. Always the same Moonlight Monster.

One little Minnow, and maybe for a time that was enough.

“Can you use a sword?” she asked breathlessly, as he pressed his lips against the fabric at her shoulder.

“If I need to,” he said.

“Could we spar?” she asked.

“Now?” he asked. He wanted to pull her closer, wrap his arm around her neck.

“I know that might be bad for you,” she said, “since you remember. We don’t have to.”

“Would it help?” he asked.

“It might,” she said. “I have practice swords, it wouldn’t—I wouldn’t hurt you.”

She always hurt him, he always hurt her. That was how it worked.

“I’ll do it,” he said, “if it means you’ll look at me.”

She certainly was looking at him.

He was a monster, was the problem. He was so handsome it hurt. He made her instincts go haywire, and she didn’t know whose instincts. She wanted to kill him, she wanted him, she craved a catharsis that a kiss wouldn’t give her. She didn’t know what she wanted, only that she wanted and it was building up under her skin like a scream.

This was helping.

She was terrible at sparring. She was used to open fields and forests, room to run and give herself breathing room. He gave her none. They’d taken off their true weapons to be sure they wouldn’t hurt each other, not in any way that mattered. His tunic was almost-but-not-quite the one he’d worn as a Tauril, his white gloves still hiding his mark. His skirt fell in long panels down to his calves, open on either side and leaving his legs free; his hooves were silver, and so were his horseshoes. His hair fell in a thick braid down his back, bells in his hair and in the trim of his skirt. His tail was tied with ribbons. Every time he moved, it was a song, graceful and precise.

He was even trying to go easy on her. It wasn’t working. The dull wooden blade hit her forearm, and she cried out. He retreated.

“Again?” he asked.

She laughed in that way that no one ever liked, shaking out her arms and bouncing on her toes. “Again,” she urged, “again, again.”

He moved, and she dodged to block, the both of them spinning in circles around the room. She waited for a tell that never came, a break between movement, couldn’t think about anything but where to move and where he was moving. Couldn’t think, couldn’t think, didn’t want to think.

This, finally, felt right.

Her wooden sword finally snapped, and she let the force of it knock her aside, a shrieking laugh of glee as she hit the ground long enough to catch his tail and yank. He hissed and wrapped it around her arms, turning to grab her by the hair. She groaned, throwing her arms around his neck once they were free and pulling herself close enough to claim his mouth.

“More,” she gasped as soon as she was able. Her feet weren’t touching the ground, his arm around her back, so she wrapped her legs around his waist.

“This was what you needed?” he asked, holding her tighter, his fingers in her hair. She nodded helplessly. “You want a monster?”

“I want you,” she said, so he kissed her again. He started to move, then stopped.

“Where the fuck is your bed,” he said, looking at all the doors visible from where he stood, and she laughed. She pointed to the ladder on the far wall, the one that skipped the second floor entirely and went straight into the turret that jutted from her roof. “You’re kidding.”

“It doesn’t usually matter,” she apologized. “There’s never anyone else.”

He made a guttural sound at that, and abruptly lifted her to throw over his shoulder. She shrieked and kicked her feet, though not at all in protest, watching the floor get further away as he climbed up toward her room.

She hoped she hadn’t left anything embarrassing out.

“Of course this is your room,” he said, letting her fall into her pillows. She’d covered the floor in futons and comforters and as many souvenir throw pillows as she could find, soft toys and animal furs and anything else that seemed nice for sleeping.

“What’s wrong with it?” she asked.

“Absolutely nothing,” he said, dropping to his knees with his hands on either side of her head. “Maybe this,” he corrected, picking up a small stuffed toy of a Bruteling and tossing it to where it wouldn’t be watching. She tried to unfasten the clasps on his tunic, getting stuck almost immediately because her hands were shaking. He pulled off his gloves, and as soon as he touched her face she nipped at his thumb. “There’s my girl,” he said, his voice rough.

She took off her belt while he took off his tunic, pulling her own tunic up over her head. Unwinding her chest wrap was more of an ordeal, made her wish she’d brought a knife.

“Perfect,” he said as he shrugged out of his shirt. He descended on her, kissed a trail from her lips to her collarbones. His fingers were long enough to span her breast, dragging a thumb over one of her nipples. She slid a hand down his chest, down his stomach, toward his skirt. He caught her, laced his fingers through hers and pinned her hand above her head instead. “Not yet,” he said. Her sound of protest mingled with her groan, making a token attempt to pull her hand away just so he’d pin it again.

He bent his head, squeezed one breast and licked the other, traced the curve with his tongue before pressing his fangs into her skin. One of his horns grazed her cheek. She arched her back, rocking her hips against nothing. Her muscles all ached, wrung out and weak, and she could feel her pulse in her mouth and all her bruises. His fingertips found a long bruise he’d left on her ribs, and she cried out in more than pain. He kissed her again.

“Did I do that to you?” he asked against her mouth.

“Yeah,” she sighed.

“Did you like it?”

“Mm-hmm,” she hummed, running her leg along his thigh.

“Say my name.”

“Ari,” she said, and he pressed at her bruise so she’d cry out again.

“The other one.”

“Karzarul,” she said, and he let her go to kneel upright. Her worked her leggings off her hips and down her legs, pushing her knees up toward her chest in the process. Then he let them fall onto his shoulders, his hands under her hips. “Karzarul.” He pressed his teeth into her inner thigh enough to leave a mark, and her hips rocked again.

She didn’t mean to grab him by the horns, but once his tongue was inside her she wasn’t sure what else to do. Her heels dug into his back as he thrust his tongue in and out of her, the point of it curling deeper than any tongue had a right to go. Whenever his head moved, she could hear the bells in his hair. His fingers pressed a bruise on her thigh, and she gasped, clenching around his tongue. He nipped at her other thigh as she pulled harder at his horns, tried to grind against his face. Then he dipped his tongue into her again, slid it higher before sucking at her clit.

It was a marvel that she didn’t pull his horns off, all the stars in the void lighting up behind her eyes.

His kiss still tasted like her, and he slid a finger inside of her to replace his tongue. “Good?” he asked, sounding like he knew perfectly well the answer.

More,” she said, and a second finger joined the first. His hands were large enough that this was already a stretch.

“Tell me what you want,” he said, his forehead touching hers. It was a question with a right answer, which she resented when she couldn’t think. She pressed her head a little harder against his, the ghost of the idea of a headbutt.

You,” she said. “More. You have to tell me what to say, I don’t know what to say.”

He kissed her, kissed her neck and brought his lips close to her ear. He worked a third finger inside of her, stretching her open as she tried to spread her legs further. His thumb brushed her oversensitive clit, just enough to make her whimper. “I want the Starlight Hero,” he breathed, “to tell me how badly she wants my filthy monster cock.”

“I don’t think you’re filthy,” she protested instead of saying the right thing. “I—I do want to be full of monster cock, though.” She tried to adjust her position enough to look down between them, but then his hand was on her jaw and he was pushing her head back into the pillows. It left her unable to see him at all, looking at a spot above her head while he touched her.

“Don’t,” he warned, his fingers sliding out of her.

“Why not?” she said, though her complaint died when something that could only have been the head of his cock slid over her clit. It felt… different. “I want to see,” she said.

“If I let you see,” he said, with a sound of buckles and shifting fabric, “you’re going to change your mind.”

His cock started to push inside of her, agonizingly slow as he split her open. He let her move enough to see his face, the furrow of his brow and the flare of his nostrils. He pressed his forehead to hers again to keep her there, his eyes locked onto hers. She was trying to interpret what she was feeling, but it was difficult when she was feeling so much. Big, like the rest of him. A shaft that seemed to get thicker, spreading her wider the deeper he drove. Something else, something that wasn’t inside her and wasn’t his fingers. She bucked and cried out when it touched her clit again.

“Karzarul,” she said, reaching up to pull him close, her teeth touching the point of one ear. “Please? I want to see what it looks like when you fuck me.” He thrust hard, too much too fast, forcing all the air out of her lungs. His breathing was ragged, now.

“Okay,” he said hoarsely. He kissed her eyelids as she grabbed at pillows, sliding them underneath her to raise her head to a better angle. He held himself still while she adjusted herself, still impaled on him as far as she could tell. She braced her hands on his shoulders, spreading her knees, and he didn’t stop her from looking down this time as he pulled out of her.

“Oh!” Some of what she’d intuited had been correct. It did get wider at the base, for one thing. It did have more texture to it than was usual for skin, ridges that were almost scales. She hadn’t expected the silvery moonlight pulsing down the length of it, lines in a pattern that reminded her of certain rare flower petals. She had also not expected the tentacles flaring around the base of it. Her nails dug into the skin on his back. “Fuck me,” she said, excited. “I want to see you inside me.”

He thrust all at once, more than looked like could fit though he still couldn’t hilt it inside of her. She bit her lip so that she wouldn’t scream in his face, voice ragged against her teeth, arching up to meet the tentacles grabbing at her body. She fell back against the pillows, satisfied now that she could imagine what was happening.

“You’re beautiful when you fuck me,” she said dreamily, cut off with a gasp when he thrust again. “It’s so good,” she said, “when you do that—that thing, where you fill me up and then keep going and then I bounce. I like bouncing.” She laughed, though it came out sounding choked and strange, because he’d started pounding into her while she spoke. What a delight to be able to do that to him with nothing else but words, when the right words were the thing she had least often.

“You can bounce on my cock as much as you’d like,” he said, a growl though his teeth.

“Oh,” she sighed. “You promise?”

Harder and faster and he’d certainly taken it to heart, making her bounce, but he was still being careful and she could tell that he was. It was good that he was, because he was already deep enough to feel dangerous, the good kind of dangerous but the dangerous kind of dangerous. She didn’t know if he could actually rearrange her organs, but she didn’t want to find out.

“Ari?” she said, which felt like breaking character but she didn’t want to distract him with the sound of his true name. “If you flip me over you could go harder, if that’s, if you don’t mind.” She was worried she’d given him a complex about not looking at his face.

She grunted as he pulled out of her, leaving her feeling both emptier and squishier than would have been ideal. She rolled over, grabbing a pillow to prop under her stomach while pulling herself up onto shaky knees. She kept her head low, resting on her arms. His hands were on her hips, and she tried to look over her shoulder at him. “Good?” she asked, because it seemed like he was waiting for something.

“Good,” he said, kneeling upright where before he’d been leaning back. His hands squeezed her ass and spread her apart, and she realized he was looking at her. She hugged a pillow close to bury her face in it. “Very good,” he said, and then his cock was pushing into her again. She moaned low and raw, louder as she felt tentacles sliding in all directions. Along her ass, up to her clit, spreading her open. She could feel her own arousal dripping down her thighs.

“Your hands,” she managed, struggling to articulate her thought. “My back, I want—push me down, please, Karzarul.” She felt his palm along her spine, his fingers spread wide around her shoulderblades and the pressure of his weight pushing her down into the pillows. “Yes,” she gasped, and he started to thrust, “like that, like that, I like that, I want that.” She trailed off into muffled screams as she bit down onto her pillow, wished it was his arm, wished he had a form like this one with more hands to hold her and fill her and tear her apart.

“Say my name,” he growled as his body pounded into hers, and she thought of his voice in her ear and the words he wanted.

“I w—ah—nt, King Karzarul, t—oh—fill me with his monster cock, I want you, Karzarul—”

He bent to hook his chin over her shoulder, his chest against her back and his whole body pressing her down. His hips slammed into her ass, tentacles rubbing at her, one of them bearing down on her clit until she screamed into her pillow. Her body tried to arch and buck and writhe, but there was too much of him holding her still, holding her open.

He stilled, and she felt his cock twitching inside her, her own inner muscles still spasming around him as he moved. Heat was dripping down her thighs, sweat in her hair and on her back and she didn’t know whose any of it was.

“Thank you,” she breathed, sing-song, and he growled and thrust one last time before pulling out of her. She pressed her legs together before she tipped over, as if they would in any way minimize the mess. He picked up her hand, and started kissing the knuckles of her fingers.

“Pretty little Hero,” he murmured against her skin.

She hummed. “I think if I try to get to the bathroom myself I’m going to fall down the ladder and sprain my ankle.”

“This still seems like an omelet.” Ari was sitting with Minnow at her kitchen table, eating the meal she’d made with the eggs and mushrooms he’d managed to round up from her garden. He thrown his tunic back on, but hadn’t fastened it, leaving the center of his chest still exposed. His skirt was hanging off one hip with the front panel falling between his legs, leaving most of his thighs bare. None of his hair had fallen out of his braid, which offended her.

“Perivo scrambled eggs aren’t an omelet,” she said, taking another bite. Her hair was still wet from the bath, and she’d thrown on a loose dress with nothing underneath it. She had a vague notion that she might be getting naked again soon enough to make dirtying more clothes wasteful.

“I’ve had omelets like this,” he said.

Maloran omelets, maybe,” she said, scoffing at the very idea. “Maloran omelets are mostly buttered ground mushrooms. Perivo scrambled eggs are eggs, with some tree mushrooms.”

“That sound like something Perivos made up,” he said.

They paused as the back door to the garden opened.

“Did you not lock your door?” he asked quietly, frowning.

“Why would I lock my door?” she asked as she stood. “Everyone knows it’s my house.”

“Your house full of treasure.”

“My house full of me, and my swords.” She froze in the doorway to the kitchen.

Leonas froze in the middle of her sitting room.

She stared at him. He wasn’t wearing his circlet, but he was still dressed like a prince. She thought wearing purple instead of blue might be his idea of a disguise. She could not process the sight of him here, out of his element, out of his room.

He stared at her. He stared, also, at what was clearly Moonlight Monster King Karzarul, King of All Monsters, standing over her right shoulder. He stared at her wet hair. He stared at Karzarul’s gratuitously open shirt.

“Right,” Leonas said, nodding. “Right, okay. Great. Bye.”

He bolted back out the door.

Astielle: Chapter Five

There was a watchtower near the outside of Fort Astielle with a Rainbow Door in it. She wasn’t clear on who in Astielle’s history had put a Door in the tower, or what would happen if the tower fell. Looking at old maps suggested that what was originally a fort had expanded into a city, had expanded outward until it met what was once a distant tower suitable for scouting.

She tapped her Seeing Stone, but didn’t hold it. It was a good way to make Leonas’ stone chime just once, to let him know that she wanted to come in.

He chimed back once, but didn’t actually make contact. That meant he was awake, but it was a bad time. She sighed and went to the watchtower window.

The city had grown so much even since she was young. It had reached the limits of the warding, now, and expanded upward. As monster attacks grew worse, more and more Astians with the means to do so moved out of the villages. There were no wards out there, only passing adventurers and sometimes a Hero. A large enough village or town could withstand it, but not the little lonely places.

Out on the other side of the tower were the farms, farmers who decided they’d rather live in town and travel to their fields than risk the alternative. They were pretty enough, but these days there were guards, and that made it awkward to wander through stealing carrots and the occasional melon. Which was too bad. There’d been a man with muskmelons growing that she very much liked to steal. She’d rather not have someone reporting her melon-theft to the King.

Her Seeing Stone started to chime in earnest, so she picked it up. “You brought tea?” Leonas asked, looking ill.

“I got a jar,” she confirmed.

“Bring it,” he said, severing the connection.

Minnow climbed to the outside of the watchtower and onto the roof, standing at its highest point. Unfolding her glider, she jumped, soaring over the small houses that filled the outer streets of Fort Astielle. Rather than aim straight for the castle, she angled herself to hit the first Sun Shrine she saw. Sun Shrines liked to have spires on top of their domes, which made them good checkpoints for her. And there were enough of them that she could almost reach the castle.

Her usual route was through a specific guardhouse built into the outer walls of the castle. It saved a lot of time over the sneaking through the aqueduct that she used to do.

“Hey, Phil,” she said, passing the guard working on a number puzzle.

“Hey, Min,” he said, not looking up. “Kill the King of all Monsters yet?”

“Workin’ on it,” she said, climbing onto his shelves to wiggle through the window into the garden. From there she could go into the laundry, up one of the chutes, back out, then over a parapet onto the tallest tower. She was intimately familiar with the stones along the outside, which ones made the best footholds and which were too smooth. Pulling herself up onto the balcony, she stayed sitting on the rail, because Leonas was already standing there.

“You didn’t wear the new dress,” he said.

“You said you didn’t like it.”

He paused. “Give,” he said, holding out a hand.

“No,” she said.

“Do you have the tea or don’t you?” he asked.

“I do,” she said. “But you can’t have any until you’ve slept.”

“If I wanted to sleep, I wouldn’t need the tea,” he said.

“The Old Man said you need real sleep.”

“Piss on the Old Man.”


“Not literally,” he snapped. “Don’t you start with that. You’ve been out of the Faewilds for twenty years, you know good and well when something’s idomatic.”

“It hasn’t been that long,” she said. “Has it?”

“How would you know? You don’t even know what day it is. Is the jar in your bag? It must be in your bag.”

She slid off the balcony railing and past him, avoiding him as he tried to grab her pack off of her. “I’m not giving it to you yet,” she said.

“Then why are you even here,” he said, shutting the balcony doors and following after her.

“I want to make sure you sleep,” she said. “I brought other things, too.” She dropped her pack, digging around until she found a small drawstring bag. She held it out for him, and when he took it he looked inside.

“Is this part of a molar?” he asked. He squinted at her jaw. “What did you even do?”

“I read this soup recipe that said it was traditionally made by taking hot rocks and putting them in a skin so you don’t need a metal pot, and I tried it, but some of the rocks I used were too small and they blended in.”

He stared at her.

“I didn’t swallow them,” she added, in case he was worried.


“I got you these lizards, too,” she said, presenting him with a glass jar full of what initially looked like dried chilis, but were on closer inspection desiccated lizard corpses.

“… the lava lizards?” he asked. She nodded. “I asked for those four months ago,” he said.

“I waited until I was going through the mountains anyway,” she said. “I was being efficient.”

He rubbed at his eyes. “Right. Right. Great.” He took the jar out of her hand, turning his back to her and heading to the desk where he kept most of his current projects.

Minnow wandered through his shelves while she waited, trying to determine if any of his books on magical theory were about monsters. She could ask, but she didn’t want to raise his suspicions.

“Drink,” Leonas said, between the shelves with her and shoving a vial in her hand. She downed it in one shot, having gotten better at pouring it straight down her throat. He held out a handkerchief. “Spit,” he said, and she whined, stomping her foot, because her tooth was still growing back and the root had gone deep. Then she spit blood and bits of molar into his hand. He rolled up the handkerchief and stuck it in his pocket. “Open.”

“Aaah,” she said, sticking her tongue out. He pushed it out of the way with a small copper stick, squinting into her mouth.

“Good,” he said, letting her shut her mouth again. “All better, nothing weird.” Nothing she’d healed with one of his potions had ever turned into anything weird, but there was a first time for everything. He gave her a perfunctory peck on the forehead, but lingered there.

“You’re unwell,” she said, and he sagged, not backing away from her the way he ordinarily would have. “Promise me that if I leave the jar of tea, you’ll go to sleep as soon as I’m gone.”

“You don’t have to leave right away,” he said, not modulating his volume for how close he was standing.

She frowned. “You’re very unwell,” she said, because he was always telling her to leave. Go, and find Karzarul. Go, and kill Karzarul. Get rid of Karzarul, and he could finally leave the castle, leave his tower, go anywhere at all without having to worry about being murdered and leaving the Kingdom without an heir or an Heir.

He came close enough that she was pinned against his shelves, his arms on either side of her. It was, to put it mildly, unlike him. “I want to experiment,” he mumbled against her hair.

“You’re ill“, she reminded him, frowning at his cravat because she couldn’t see his face.

“Sleeping,” he said. “Stay here, while I sleep. I am the Prince of Astielle, and I—I order it. I order you to stay.” He pressed against her, nearly collapsing.

“Don’t say it’s an order, I’ll bite you,” she reminded him, trying to help support his weight.

“Well then what are you even good for,” he snapped at full volume again, standing all at once as if being pulled by a string, turning on his heel and stomping away. She blinked after him. “Leave then,” he said. “It was a stupid idea anyway, it wouldn’t have worked. You don’t know anything. All you have is a sword, you can’t stab dreams.”

“I can stay,” she said.

“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t want you here. Go away.” He was already heading up the spiral staircase to his loft. “I’ll order better company, you’ll only be in the way.” She followed him, and found him laying over his covers fully-dressed and sideways, staring at his ceiling. It was painted with a mural of the sun. She pulled herself up onto the mattress beside him. “Get your disgusting boots off my bed,” he said.

She carefully worked his circlet out of his curls, while he pointedly shut his eyes rather than look at her. Then he covered his face with his hands. “Go away,” he said again, muffled by his palms. She ran her fingers through his hair to catch it all as she lifted his head, wiggling sideways so that she could set it back down in her lap. She leaned back to rest her head on his too-many-pillows.

“I’m not looking,” she said. She felt him lower his hands, and turn his head.

He was asleep quickly enough that she was sure it had been days. She wondered if she could ask Ari to ask the Moonlight Monster to leave the Prince alone. She doubted it would work. But she could ask.

“What if you stayed?” Leonas asked, looking out the window.

“I did stay,” she reminded him, yawning.

“Longer,” he said. “Our first plan didn’t work. You didn’t find Karzarul in time. There’s no point running all over trying to find him. You might as well stay.”

She gnawed at her lip. The thought of staying in this tower was suffocating, but she didn’t want to say so. He’d slept for so long that it had gone from day to night to day again. It felt like too much time to be here. But he was always here.

He’d curled into his window seat with a cup of lemon tea, no special herbs in this one to keep him awake. His witchmarks were shining again, if not as bright as she was used to. She’d opted to sit on the floor, so that she could be close without being too close. Personal space.

“I can’t stay,” she said.

Leonas stared at his tea. “I can’t sleep,” he said. He drummed his nails against his teacup. “He knows where I am. He knows he can’t come here, the wards are too strong. He’s figured out how to… how to pull me out of my dreams, into nightmares. Not even the usual nightmares, he doesn’t—he does kill me. But mostly it’s, it’s mindgames. Trying to manipulate me into going out, since he can’t come in. Baiting me.”

“Can you put up more wards?” she asked. “Dream wards?”

He sipped his tea. “It would be safer for you to stay,” he said quietly. “I think he might be watching. Through monsters. You need to be more careful.”

She thought of Ari, and swallowed. Was she okay with that, if the Moonlight Monster was watching her through Ari’s eyes?

Through a friend’s eyes?

“Do you have any books about monsters?” she blurted.

He looked at his library, the tall shelves and wall shelves all full. “Yes,” he said. “So do you, unless you’ve gotten rid of them.”

“I think there’s something wrong with them,” she said.

“… the monsters.”

“I’ve found some things, exploring,” she said. This was not technically a lie. “Have you ever heard of monsters talking?”

He tilted his head. There was a grogginess to the motion. “Did you hear a monster talk?” he asked slowly. “Was this before or after you ate rocks?”

“It was one rock,” she said. “I think…” She wrung her hands. “I think monsters used to be people.”

He froze. “Human?”

“Not human,” she said. “People.” He relaxed. “Like, Brutelings throwing each other birthday parties. Bullizards with houses. Taurils that speak Astia, and wear clothes.”

“How would a Tauril even wear pants.”

“I didn’t say pants!” she huffed. “I said clothes. A nice shirt. You know?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Monsters are soulless. They’re weapons, made to destroy. They kill people.”

“I don’t think that’s right, though,” she said. “I mean, it’s right that they kill people. And all the monsters I’ve fought have seemed pretty soulless. I don’t think that’s normal for monsters, though. Some of the stuff…”

She couldn’t say ‘that Ari has been telling me’. That would be a whole conversation she didn’t want to have right now.

“The stuff I’ve been finding,” she said instead. “What if monsters aren’t supposed to be like this? What would that mean?”

Leonas rubbed at the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve never heard anything like that.”

“I’m not making it up.”

“I know,” he said. “If there was a change, it happened a long time ago. Karzarul could be doing something. Or not doing something. No one knows how his resurrection works, how he rebuilds his body. If he recreates himself using the souls of other monsters, that could explain it. An increase in violence as he demands more resources.”

Minnow chewed at her lip. That didn’t sound right, either. If that were the case, Ari would know what was happening. She couldn’t say so. And this was raising even more questions she hadn’t considered. Killing Karzarul might hurt all the other monsters. That wouldn’t be a problem, except some of the monsters were people. Having to lie to Leonas made everything complicated. Who else could she even ask these kinds of questions? She sighed.

“Asking you to stay was a bad idea,” Leonas said suddenly, setting down his teacup. “I’m sure I can find something to help me ward my dreams, I can take care of it now that I’ve rested.”

“You don’t have to do it alone,” Minnow said. “That wasn’t what I meant.”

“You’re annoying me,” he said, standing. “You breathe weird. Your nails are filthy. I don’t want you touching my things. I can figure this out, I just need to think. I can’t think with you here.”

“I’ll try to be better about picking up the Seeing Stone,” she said as she stood, but he waved her off.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, running his thumbnail under nails as he stared into the middle distance. “Go home, don’t eat any rocks or talk to any monsters.”

There were no monsters left inside the ruins at Magdedyne. Minnow could only assume that Ari had been coming back to make sure it stayed emptied. She’d stopped by her house before returning, to drop off some things and swap out her clothes. She’d taken a nap, though not on purpose. It hadn’t been restful, lying in Leonas’ bed while he twitched in his sleep. Napping wasn’t restful either, having woken in a panic trying to remember where she was supposed to be.

It was late now, closer to morning than to evening. The empty ruin was eerie, and the temptation to stop and look at weeds growing through the bricks was high. But she’d left Ari waiting, and she wanted to see him again. To ask him about old monsters, about Karzarul, about souls and dreams. To see if he knew where to start.

By climbing to the top of the ruins, she could glide across the gap in the bridge. Crickets chirped along the road and small animals rustled as she picked through the woods trying to find Ari’s camp. She wracked her brain trying to remember if he’d given any more details, some better way to orient herself.

She stopped to pick one flower, but only one, and only because she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen it before. She didn’t want to waste time checking. Fortunately, she noticed that the forest had gone quiet in one spot. That felt like a sign of something.

She was sure she’d never seen a Tauril sleep before. Ari had rolled onto both of his backs, his hooves curled in the air and one arm under his head, the other draped over his chest. He’d left his tunic hanging in a tree to keep it clean.

Minnow didn’t always notice when people were naked. She forgot that it was a thing, half the time. But Ari, without his tunic, looked… very naked. If this was how other people felt watching her take her clothes off, it explained a lot.

She crept closer, and tried not to think about Taurils with their underbellies exposed, her sword sliding between ribs. She considered how he might react if she touched him without warning. She crept back.

“Ari,” she said, hoping that would be enough.

He yawned, his mouth opening wide enough to see all his sharp teeth.

“I’m back,” she said, and he hummed something that could have been a greeting. He looked warm and cozy in all the ways Leonas’ bed never did. She thought about sleep, and personal space, and the lack thereof.

“Can I join you?” she asked.

He sleepily murmured an assent, the tip of his tail flicking against the dirt.

She kicked off her boots and socks, but thought she’d better keep the rest of her clothes on. Ari was already naked, and it seemed like they ought to take turns. Tentatively, she knelt down next to his upper half, touching his side to see if he’d protest. When he didn’t, she tilted sideways, nestling dangerously close to his armpit so that she could rest her head on his shoulder.

She felt like she was getting away with something. She didn’t know if cuddling meant anything to monsters. It didn’t mean anything to fairies. It didn’t always mean anything to her.

She wanted. If he were human, she’d know what she wanted, but he was a Tauril and that left her frustrated and confused. The wanting made her jaw hurt which made her think that what she wanted was to bite him. Experience said that wouldn’t end well, even if it was satisfying in the moment. She wanted to know what he tasted like, knowing that the answer was ‘skin’, which never tasted as good as she wanted it to but there was something very good about running her tongue over it all the same. She wanted to bite his fingers and the tips of his ears and scratch her nails through the fur on his chest.

What would that mean to a monster? Anything at all?

She sat upright, and gnawed at the knuckle of her thumb. It didn’t help.

She got up and added a log to the fire, poking at it with the Starsword until it was at a full blaze. Then she sat on the side opposite of Ari.

She was feeling precarious.

After more gnawing and pacing and poking the fire, she gave up. She’d missed him, after all. Monsters and kings and dreams aside, they were friends now, and she’d missed him. She was allowed to have missed him, even if she was being weird about it. He didn’t have to know that she was being weird about it. If he noticed, she could blame it on being a changeling. No one knew what was normal for changelings, least of all changelings.

Determined to be bold this time, she nudged the hand on his chest until she could wiggle underneath it. She straddled his stomach and rested her face under his chin, and tried to hear his heartbeat over her own.

He patted her hair. A small sound escaped her before she could swallow it, pressing her fingers into his skin.

“You okay?” he asked, his voice rolling through his chest.

She walked her hands higher until she could touch his beard, raking her nails along his jaw.


“Sorry,” she said, but she didn’t stop. She pulled herself higher to sit on his chest, wanting to see his face. He still looked half-asleep. She traced the shape of his nose, and the arc of his eyebrows. She ran her thumbs over his cheekbones, then held his face to bend down and kiss his forehead.

His hand was resting at the small of her back when she sat back up. “Did something happen?” he asked.

Wasn’t something always happening? “No,” she said. “You just smell good.”

“Ah.” He brought his hand out from under his head to touch her cheek. She pressed her face against his palm, her whole brain lighting up when his thumb touched her lip.

It was a lot.

“Did you bite me?” he asked.

“A little,” she admitted, contrite. She licked the pad of his thumb like that was better. She took his wrist in both her hands, because she didn’t want him to take it away. “I want…” Her voice hitched as she struggled to identify something actionable. “To be close to you.” She nuzzled at his palm, and resisted the temptation to bite him again. There was a tightness in her belly that made her want to scream, and sitting here like this she could pretend there wasn’t too much of him for her.

She pressed her palm to his palm, laced her fingers through his fingers and tilted her head to kiss his hand. He tried to pull it away, but too late. She glimpsed a shape on the back of his hand, and froze.

“Minnow,” he said.

She brought his hand lower and tilted it, taking her fingers out of his to better see the black curve of a crescent moon.

“Ari?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

She rubbed at it with her thumb, but it didn’t smudge. She held her star next to it.

“Karzarul?” she asked, feeling silly even to say it. “Kari-zari-l.” It couldn’t be right, but it felt right, because hadn’t she thought he was royalty? Hadn’t she already thought he was spying? Hadn’t she decided not to care? Prince Ari, King Karzarul. A white Tauril and a white Howler, not white as snow but as moonlight. It was too big, it was nothing. She was a betrayer or she was betrayed or she was herself. “Are you going to kill me?” she asked.

“I wasn’t planning to,” he said.

She looked at his face, but he was still Ari. They were friends, and he would carry her if she asked. He thought everyone should be nice to her. “That’s wonderful,” she said, and she meant it.


“I don’t have to kill Karzarul,” she said, “because you’re Karzarul. We don’t even have to fight. We can just… play nice. And not tell anyone. No one has to know.”

“I have to figure out what’s happening with the monsters of Astielle,” he said.

“I can help,” she said. “Can’t I? We can help each other.”

“Minona,” he said, and she made a face. “We’re going to kill each other.”

“We don’t have to,” she said.

“We do,” he said. “The chosen three kill each other, and the goddesses keep score. That’s how this works. Trying to fight fate makes it worse, when it happens.”

“I’ll kill you when I’m old, then. After we’re done.” His bad attitude was starting to annoy her, when she felt they should have been celebrating. “As long as I’m still planning to kill you eventually, no goddesses can get mad at me, so I won’t trip over your tail into a volcano.”

“That’s not funny,” he said with a frown, and she worried that maybe in some past life she really had tripped into a volcano. It felt rude to ask.

“Karzarul,” she sighed, and he squeezed her hand. “Stay with me? No war, no fighting. Let the world think you’re asleep a little longer. Until I pick one of every flower and eat every edible thing, take a feather from every kind of bird, map the whole world and catch a thousand fallen stars.”

“Is that all?”

“I could,” she said. “I could do it if I had time.”

“I have time,” he said. “I have nothing but time.”

“Then give me some.”

His edges went funny, like the light was falling differently and changing all his shadows. She was still sitting on his chest, but his chest was smaller.

She’d only ever fought one Impyr. That one had been dark red and black-eyed with small horns and a spear. It had been worse for her than fighting a Tauril, because she wasn’t used to fighting things that were people-shaped, that could parry and lunge and strategize. It had driven home the reality that she depended too much on surprise and overwhelming force. Leonas had lectured her for days.

This was not that. This was Ari, the color of moonlight and with a different face than the one she’d known. A much more human face, for all that it was sharp and monstrous.

“Oh, absolutely not,” she said, scrambling off of Ari’s chest and to her feet. Anything else she might have said had left her, along with any thoughts she may have had.


“No,” she said firmly, turning in one direction and then the other before giving up and heading for the trees. “You can do that? No.” She braced herself against the other side of a tree trunk, wide enough to obscure her vision. She tried to prepare herself this time before looking back around it at him. He’d sat up, dusting off his shoulders.

That was a man. He may have kept a pair of hooves, but without the second set, he was basically a regular human man. Bigger than she was, but who wasn’t? Plenty of human men were bigger than she was.

She retreated back behind her tree rather than look at him. “This is a lot,” she said. She wanted to run, but she didn’t know where or from what, so she started to climb instead. “This is too much.” She sat on the first branch that could support her weight, and pressed a hand against her sternum like it would slow her heart.

Ari, tall enough again to almost match her, peered around the tree with a familiar vaguely-bovine face.

“Is this better?” he asked.

“No,” she said, pulling up her knees and holding onto the branch so she wouldn’t fall. “Which one is your real face?” she asked.

“They’re all my real face.”

She made a high-pitched whining sound, and regretted it.

“I’m the King of All Monsters, Minnow,” he said. “I’m all monsters. That’s how it works. Defying fate is fine, but turning into a Howler is a bridge too far?”

“No, I—I knew about the Howler. The Howler is fine.”

A white Misthawk perched in a branch across from her. She wanted to pluck one of its feathers.

“You’re a monster,” she tried to explain. “I thought we couldn’t. We wouldn’t fit. So that was why. But if you can be. Then we could. If you wanted. But that’s. I don’t know what to do, with that.”

An Impyr sat in the tree across from her. He had rings in his ears and in his nose, and his face was all sharp angles, and she could see all the muscles in his arms. She was overwhelmed all at once with the kind of attraction that made her want to jump at him so he’d knock her down.

She yelped and pushed herself out of the tree instead, landing with a thud.

He was a Misthawk and then he was a Tauril again, all in quick succession to make his landing more graceful than hers. She glowered at his hooves, which were the size of her head. He reached down to pick her up by the shoulders, setting her back on her feet.

“I’m getting a lot of mixed messages,” he said, and she buried her face in her hands. “How long ago did you leave the Faewild Forest?” he asked delicately.

“I’m not a child, Ari,” she said, dropping her hands in frustration. “I’ve touched a dick before! I’ve touched—a number of dicks.”

“Okay,” he said, holding up his hands in appeasement, which put them far above her cone of vision. “I was just checking. You seemed confused.”

“Not about that,” she said. “I thought…” She gestured at his lower half. “I don’t have to think about this. Nothing is going to happen with this. It can’t. Physically. All I had to think about was this.” She gestured with a swirling motion to her head and torso. “And I did think about it, a lot, and I worked my way all the way up to whatever that was.” She pointed accusatorily back at the spot where he’d been laying by the fire. “Now there’s all of this,” she said, gesturing around her pelvis with the same swirling motion, “and that’s…”

She gestured between him and the spot by the fire and back to him, believing this should speak for itself.

“I liked whatever that was,” he said.

“I bit you.”

“I know.”

“Oh,” she sighed. “Don’t say that.”

He scooped her up into his arms, and she bit back a sound, his one hand at her back and the other under her knees. He bent his head, and caught her mouth with his; immediately she wrapped her arms around his neck and tightened her grip, trying to crush herself against him.

She wondered if he felt the way she felt, but hoped that he didn’t, because if he did he was going to eat her alive.

“This is a lot,” she said, rather than bite him again.

“I know,” he said. “Let’s sleep on it.”

“I guess,” she said, as he set her down on the fur he’d been using as a pillow. He went fuzzy at the edges as he dropped down beside her, a Howler with his snout nudging her cheek. He licked her, tail wagging. “I guess,” she said again, scratching at his ruff. She couldn’t deny that this simplified matters, letting her snuggle close to him without any distractions. He was nothing but a big, fluffy pillow this way.

This was stupid. Men were stupid. Better not to dwell on what that made her. She curled up against him, and tried not to think about it.

Astielle: Chapter Four

Minnow had no memory of a time before Faewild Forest, what must have been eight years or so of normal human life. She couldn’t say how old she was, because she didn’t know how long she’d been there. Later, she would try to estimate a range based on when Elias had died. But while in the Faewild, she never thought to wonder, never considered that she might be different in any way from the other changelings waiting there.

The star on her hand was interesting, but no more than freckles or scars. She liked to climb the highest trees, and find the highest cliffs before jumping into the Lost Lake, but she wasn’t the one and only. They were all changelings, different and the same the way all changelings were, would be forever unless they became fairies. She played in the trees and the rivers and the ferns, her hair growing in green and her teeth turning sharp.

When Prince Leonas came to the Faewild, he seemed impossibly old and strange. They had never seen a witch before, or a prince, and couldn’t remember adults. Fairies looked no older than changelings, after all. The changelings turned it into a game of hide-and-tag, shrieking in delight as the Prince snatched them up and checked their hands before letting them go again.

Minnow had stayed in the trees rather than play after the first, realizing immediately what it was he was looking for. She felt sure the game would end once he’d caught her, and that was no fun. Once she decided it was her turn, she thought it would be fun to bait him into the Maze of Roses. It gave her more opportunities to get almost-caught before dodging through a hidden gap in the briars, giggling wildly and with her heart racing.

When he finally caught her, his grip was painfully tight, and her giggling didn’t stop. He was all blue and copper, the colors of the treeless space above the Lost Lake, his witchmarks the color of sunlight. His copper circlet blended into his curls. The shield on his back gleamed like it was breathing. He was appropriately terrifying, but what was terror to an undying changeling except its own kind of fun?

“Found you,” he said, and she nodded. “I am the Sunlight Heir, Prince Leonas of the Kingdom of Astielle,” he said. All his words had sharp edges. He held up his hand, so that she could see the black shape of a sun on the back of it. She poked at it, and confirmed that it was as much a part of his skin as her own. “You,” he said, “are the Starlight Hero.”

“I’m Minnow,” she said, and he paused.

“Your name cannot be Minnow,” he said.

She tried to remember if she had another name. “Minona?” she said.

“Minona,” he repeated, clearly preferring it. He pulled at the lock of green in her hair, checked the points of her ears and held her chin to see the points of her teeth. “Sun and stars, they really did try to ruin you.” She stomped at his foot, but missed.

“Minnow,” she corrected him.

“You cannot stay here,” he said, and he began to drag her out of the Maze of Roses. “You have an important job.”

“I do?” she said.

“You’re supposed to kill the King of All Monsters,” he said.

She had killed things before, but they were mostly rabbits and fish. The changelings had once banded together to kill a Rootboar that broke into the Faewild, but that was her only experience with monsters.

“Why can’t you do it?” she asked.

“I’ll help,” he said. They were going through the trees, and she began to feel self-conscious about the other changelings watching her. She considered for the first time the possibility that this strange man might take her away.

“We’re not supposed to leave,” she said, trying to pull away from him to no avail. “We can’t.”

They can’t,” he corrected impatiently. “You’ll be fine. You’re not like them.”

“I don’t want to go,” she said, trying to dig her bare heels into the dirt. His grip on her forearm hadn’t moved since he’d caught her.

He stopped, and his eyes were the cold kind of blue. “Here,” he said, reaching into his pocket to hand her something. “Try this.” She took it cautiously in her free hand. It was a little brown ball, semi-translucent and hard as a rock. “Put it in your mouth.”

She did, because it wouldn’t be the first time she’d put a rock in her mouth for very little reason.

It was the sweetest thing she’d ever tasted, a flavor somewhere sideways of spicy. She’d had a taste like it before, having tried to eat everything in the Faewild at least once just to see, but never sweet like this. It was enough for her to start following along again as he lead her.

“That’s candy,” he said, apparently satisfied by her silent contemplation of the taste. “There is lots of candy in Astielle, once you leave the Faewild. Once you have the Starsword, you can have as much as you’d like.”

“What’s that?” she asked around the candy. She wiped her hand on her tunic, ragged bits of rabbit fur and sturdy dry leaves and beetle shells.

“Do you remember a sword?” he asked. “A bright, shining sword, that sings.” She shook her head, then again when he looked back because she hadn’t responded. “It’s fine,” he said. “You’ll remember.”

The woods around them became unfamiliar, the trees and underbrush less dense. Something about the air felt thinner, lighter. She looked back, and tried to find the spot where it had changed. She’d explored every inch of the Faewild Forest, but she didn’t recognize a single tree. A sense of panic filled her, and she wanted to pull away, to look at the ground and the growing things until she found the seam between what she knew and what she didn’t. She didn’t want to miss anything important that might let her retrace her steps. What if she needed something? The hollow where she kept the best rocks and shells and bird feathers was still back at her tree.

It was even more startling when they left the trees entirely, into an open field. She associated a lack of trees with water, not with grass. It felt unnatural to be able to see so far, to see the horizon and mountains and great big buildings.

“Do you recognize this?” he asked, gesturing to the landscape, to the whole wide world that it felt like she could see. She shook her head again, and he frowned. Bending down, he touched a hand to her forehead, moving her hair out of the way so that he could look suspiciously into her eyes. “You’re supposed to remember,” he said. “Usually you remember.” He seemed less sure of himself.

“I don’t,” she said, before biting down on her candy. It stuck in her molars as she tried to chew.

“Fairies,” he snapped. “I can’t imagine what they were thinking. They should have known better. Did they think they were keeping you safe?”

“They did,” she said, feeling defensive of the fairies. After all: here she was. Safe.

“You’re not meant to be safe,” he said, still not letting her go. He lead her to a blue and copper phaeton behind two white horses; that she shouldn’t have been familiar with these things didn’t occur to her. He finally released her, but only long enough to pick her up and set her into the carriage.

“Where are we going?” she asked him.

“Larksedge first,” he said. “We need to get you equipped before you get the Starsword back from the Ruined Temple. There shouldn’t be many monsters in it, yet.” He pulled out a pocketwatch, frowning at it. “We have time,” he said firmly, putting it away. “We ought to have time.”

In the depths of the Ruined Temple was a Rainbow Door. Now that Minnow had the Starsword on her hip, she could use it the way Leonas had told her to. The prospect made her nervous. The space in the doorframe shimmered with multicolored lights, completely opaque.

Her ribs hurt, and her arms hurt, and she’d lost one of her front teeth. She didn’t know if it would grow back, or if it would be sharp when it did. She knew that losing teeth was a thing that happened to children, but didn’t know if she was that kind of child.

She put her hand on the hilt of her sword, touched the light, and told it where to take her.

She opened her eyes past the blinding light into a library, books from floor to ceiling on every wall. Instead of candle lanterns, there were glowing crystals on the walls. Bells were ringing. She only took two steps before Leonas emerged, curls all loose and witchmarks dim, and the bells stopped.

Two months,” he snapped, furious. “It has been. Two months. What were you doing?”

Minnow had not left the Faewild long enough to appreciate the optics of his fury at a small and tattered child. She also did not yet fully grasp the passage of time.

“I got the sword,” she said.

“It does not take two months to traverse the Ruined Temple,” he said, “even for a child. What are you wearing?”

She looked down at herself. “I found better armor,” she said. She stolen it from Bruteling scouts, pieces here and there. None of it fit her right, but at least Brutelings were closer to her height. “I didn’t want to miss anything,” she said by way of explanation. She dropped the bag she’d found onto the floor, where it landed with a thud. Then she sat cross-legged in her too-big boots, and started taking things out to take stock of her haul.

There were shiny stones, bits of broken jewelry, regular stones in shapes that made them seem like they’d be useful. There were lengths of rope, and chain, and old rusty daggers. There were arrows with their heads still red, and the shells of various insects. She’d found a small jar, and filled it with smaller fish. There were scrolls, primarily the ones with pictures of animals in them. She’d used thread to tie together as many lizard tails as she could collect, and an assortment of mushrooms. There were coins from countries that no longer existed, and a few tiny animal skulls that she’d found clean and intact.

“Do you at least remember anything?” Leonas asked as she sorted through her pack.

“About what?” she asked.

“Being the Starlight Hero,” he said. “Unlocking the power of the Starsword. Killing Karzarul.”

She shook her head. He ran both hands through his hair.

“You must remember something,” he said. She shrugged. “Here,” he said, reaching down to pick up a small book she’d added to her stack, “what’s this?”

Beink a Brief Kuide To Trafel Amonkst the Nordern Kindoms,” she read off the cover.

“See?” he said. “There weren’t books in the Faewild. They didn’t teach you to read. This is in Old Astia. How do you know how to do that?”

She pursed her lips, narrowing her eyes at the little book. She hadn’t thought to wonder, when she’d found those few books and journals in the Ruined Temple. But that wasn’t the same as real remembering. “I just do,” she decided, which only seemed to frustrate him.

“You can use a sword, at least,” he said, and she nodded. She had tried to avoid using it, because it was tiring and she wasn’t very good at it. Still, it wasn’t complicated. She hit monsters with the sharp part, and tried to hit them hard and fast enough that they didn’t have time to hit her back. Easy.

“Come here,” he said, picking her up by the back of her armor to pull her to her feet. She set down the rocks she’d been sorting as he dragged her to a desk. “Sit.” She sat. He looked at her eyes, and pulled at her hair, as if he’d been hoping the Starsword would knock the changeling out of her. She remembered this from before the Ruined Temple, the way he’d prodded at her and taken notes in his little book. He found the bruises on her jaw and on her arms, her torn fingernails and her missing tooth, the wounds still healing on her ribs. He poked at all the parts that hurt with his pencil, watching her wince when he did it. She swung her feet in the air while he took his notes, and then he wandered away, muttering.

When he came back, it was with a glass vial of something green that seemed to move. “Drink this,” he said. She did. Then she coughed and sputtered, wishing she hadn’t. It tasted like rotten leaves and dirt. She clapped both hands over her mouth, because she could feel a tooth pushing through her gums, knocking the shards of the old root out onto her tongue. She spit blood as Leonas found a handkerchief, using it to hold her chin without getting his hands dirty so that he could look at her teeth.

“Still sharp,” he sighed. “Ah, well.” He prodded her ribs, and this time she didn’t wince. “All better,” he said, although her bones felt fuzzy. “Most of that is trash,” he said of her treasure hoard, “but I might be able to use the lizard tails.”

“They’re mine,” she said. “You said I could have candy.”

“Would you like to trade?” he asked.

“Maybe,” she said, although she didn’t think she should have to give up her lizard tails for the candy she’d already been promised.

“Give yourself a bath the way they did in Larksedge,” he said, “and then we can talk about candy.” Minnow made a face. She hadn’t cared for Larksedge, or the old ladies who’d scrubbed her skin raw and nearly ripped her hair all out with water that felt almost boiling. “I wouldn’t let a dog in here as dirty as you are,” he added. “You can stay in the courtyard with them, if you’d rather.”

“I should,” she sulked.

He waved toward a door. “The bathing chambers are over there,” he said. “Either use them or leave.” With that he went back to his notes, ignoring her.

When Minnow reactivated a lost Rainbow Door deep beneath the Sunflower Hall, she used it to return to Leonas’ Library at Castle Astielle. He’d given her a Seeing Stone, but she started to ignore it after the first month; her progress never seemed to be fast enough for him. The world was much too big for her to ever know it as well as she had known the Faewild, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t try.

Leonas hadn’t told her she should come here, or even that she could, but her bag was too full to keep carrying. She didn’t have anywhere else to keep things, no tree to call her own or hollows for her treasures. Sometimes she would find a chest, and leave her things in it temporarily with the Starsword resting on top. Ordinary mortals couldn’t lift it, after all.

She’d been eating a lot of lizards, and sunflower seeds.

It was dark, and quiet except for the bells that announced her arrival. Leonas did not appear. She walked through his shelves, sneaking as if this were a dungeon.

She found the prince sleeping at a desk. It was covered in vials and gears and copper wire, pens and ink-splattered pages all over. There were crystals growing in some of the glass, pulsing with faint light. She huffed as she abandoned him there, letting him sleep.

She thought she might be able to use his bed, since he wasn’t in it, but climbing the winding stairs to his loft found a woman there. Her hair was long and blonde, and she had also not woken to the sound of the bells. Minnow had learned better than to crawl into bed with people outside the Faewild. It upset humans more than seemed proportionate. She couldn’t remember ever sleeping alone, but it had felt familiar as soon as it had become necessary.

Trudging back down the stairs, she set her bag down next to a wall of shelves. She was sure that she could find a chair to sleep in, if she looked. The floor was fine, but felt wasteful when Leonas had so many soft things.

The door to the library opened, and she froze.

She had not yet met King Leland, in the months she’d been out of the Faewilds. Leonas had mentioned him, but she had spent most of her time in various ruins and secret places.

She had thought Leonas was thin, but this man was thinner, far thinner than she expected for any living thing. She had thought Leonas was old, but this man was older, with skin like garlic-paper and a heavy beard all white.

“So this is our Hero,” he said, his voice younger than his face. She nodded. “You’re very young, for a Hero.”

That was a thing people said, when they saw her with a sword. She had no frame of reference.

“I thought I ought to meet you,” he said, gloved hand patting her shoulder. It was a forceful sort of pat. “Since you’re the girl who’s going to save the world.”

It was a strange and abstract thought, saving a world. It was too big to think about. It was easier the way Leonas said it. Find Karzarul, and kill him. She knew how to find things. She knew how to kill things. That was a thing she could do. The world was too big, and there were too many things in it.

“It’s a terrible thing we’re asking of you,” Leland said, “and you only a child. A terrible, cruel thing. Terrible enough for Leonas, but you even younger…”

Minnow shifted, and wished he’d let go of her shoulder.

“I would save both you children from this fate, if it were in my power,” he said. “I hope you know that. If the situation weren’t so dire—if monsters were not rising even now—we would never ask it of a Hero so young. We’re only lucky that Leonas managed to find you. My clever boy.”

Minnow wasn’t sure if she should nod.

“Father?” Leonas asked. Minnow and the King turned to where he stood, his clothes rumpled. “Why are you here?” Leonas spotted Minnow. “Why are you here?” he asked.

“I saw that she’d used the Door,” Leland explained. “I thought I should say hello, since I assumed you’d be occupied.”

Leonas flushed, his witchmarks shining. “That wasn’t necessary,” he said. “I appreciate your concern.” He pressed his palms together, and Leland inclined his head. Leonas’ gaze slid back to Minnow. “Did you lose more teeth?” he asked, approaching suddenly and taking her by the chin again.

“Uh-huh,” she said, opening her mouth so he could see.

“Did you keep them?” he asked, and she shook her head. “You need to keep them next time,” he scolded. “Those shards from before were very useful, don’t lose them next time.”

“Leonas,” the King warned.

“I’m helping,” Leonas said defensively, retreating back to his desk. “This is helping her, she needs help.”

Leland squeezed her shoulder. She couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be affectionate.

“Drink this,” Leonas said when he returned, shoving a vial into her hands. It was the same one as before. She shook her head. “Drink it,” he insisted, “or you’re going to lose all your teeth and eat nothing but paste.”

She gave in and drank it.

“Spit into this,” Leonas urged, giving her a handkerchief. “If there are any bits of tooth left, I can use them.”

“You can’t go around asking children for their teeth,” Leland said.

“I’m not,” Leonas said. “I’m only asking her. It’s for magical research purposes, it’s not weird.”

Minnow gave Leonas the bloody handkerchief, which he seemed to regret. He held it at arm’s length as he took it back to his desk again.

“Why don’t I see about finding you a room?” Leland suggested. “We have so many, after all. Would you like your own room?”

Leonas came rushing back before she could answer. “Don’t spoil her, Father.” He gripped her wrist too-tight, yanking her away from Leland’s hand for the first time since he’d arrived. “You’re too soft,” he said, but Leonas wasn’t looking at either of them as he pulled her along. “I have research that’s been waiting for her to get back, there’s no time to waste.”

“You never were patient,” Leland sighed. “There’s a room waiting for you whenever you want it, child,” Leland called.

Though Leonas pulled her to his desk, he didn’t let her go once they were there. He rearranged things on his desk with his free hand, as if preparing. He paused as the door opened, and didn’t move again until long after it had closed.

“Here,” he said, herding her to a window among his shelves. It had a cushioned seat covered in pillows. “You can sleep here,” he said. “Don’t leave this room. You understand?”

She nodded as she sat down.

“Keep the sword with you,” he said. He looked out at the night sky. “Guard the window.”

“I thought I was sleeping,” she said.

“You are,” he said. “You’re sleeping by the window with your sword, so if anything comes in you can wake up and kill it. Okay?” She nodded. “If you leave the room, or let your sword go, I won’t help you anymore. Understood?” She nodded again.

He started to reach toward her, but stopped himself, turning to walk away. “Try to stay quiet,” he muttered.

Minnow managed to avoid Castle Astielle for seven months before Leonas asked her to come back. “There’s a specific kind of frog,” he said through his stone. “It has blue rings on its back, you can find it under Orchid Mountain in cold streams when it’s raining. There can’t be lightning or it won’t be right.”

“Can’t someone else get it for you?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Ordinary people can’t go to Orchid Mountain.”

“Can’t you go get it?” she asked.

“If I leave the castle, I’ll die.”


“Not instantly,” he clarified, impatient. “There’s a ward around Fort Astielle but it’s strongest at the castle. Karzarul and his monsters can’t get to me here, until Karzarul is dead it’s the only place I’m safe.”

She thought about this. “You left before,” she said. “When you came to Faewild Forest.”

“That was before, the monsters weren’t as bad then. Stop dwelling on the past.”

“How far can you still go?” she asked.

“Not to Orchid Mountain!” he snapped. “Can you get me a frog, or can’t you?”

“I can try, I guess.”

It had been chiming for fifteen minutes when Minnow finally answered the Seeing Stone.

“You need to pick up your fucking stone,” Leonas said as soon as she touched it.

“I did,” she said.

“How soon can you get here?” he asked.

There was a Rainbow Door in the hill behind her house. She had a house, now. It had been built for someone she’d been before, and they’d kept it. No one in Lilock Village saw any problem with an eleven-year-old property owner. One of her neighbors kept complaining about the state of Minnow’s garden. Maybe she thought Minnow remembered being a middle-aged man, and felt she ought to landscape accordingly.

“Pretty soon,” she said.

“Hurry,” he said, severing the connection.

As soon as she’d come through the Door, he was pushing a heavy trunk at her, sliding it across the floor. “You need to take these,” she said. “All of these, as many as you can.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“I’m cleaning,” he said. “I’m getting rid of my books.”

She looked around, and noticed his empty shelves, books shoved into open and overflowing trunks, stacked into crates.

“Why?” she asked.

“I don’t need these,” he said, fixing his curls around his circlet to look less harried. “These are books about the world. Worldly things. I don’t need that. That’s what advisors are for. I need to make room for books about… magic. Magic things. Alchemy and enchanting. Important things.”

She cocked her head sideways, wrinkling her nose. “You’re a witch,” she said.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“Witches don’t need books,” she said. “Only enchanters need books.”

He paused. “Who told you that?”

She shrugged. “Everyone knows that.”

“You’re sure you don’t remember anything?”

“I never remember anything.”

“It’s not as if they’re mutually exclusive,” he said, fixing his cravat. “Witchcraft is messy. A witch’s magic only lasts as long as its user. Enchanting is precise and lasts for generations. Rainbow doors are enchanted, they’ve lasted for eons.”

She opened a book at random, its pages filled with watercolors of different locations on the continent. “You really can’t use these?” she asked.

“They’re trash,” he said.

“Can I keep them?” she asked.

He nodded, small and fast and brief, before pretending he hadn’t and pushing the trunk closer to the door. “I don’t care what you do with them,” he said.

She felt fairly certain that this meant they were not trash, and he wanted her to keep them. It didn’t feel safe to ask. She couldn’t explain why; just a feeling.

Her house had plenty of room. Designed for an adult with an adult life, not a child who wandered through caves. It wasn’t any trouble to keep them all, and anyway, she liked books. He had some books about birds that she’d always thought about stealing.

“I’ll take care of it,” she said. He watched her disappear back through the Door, dragging the first trunk of books. She only moved it enough on her side to make way for more; every time she came back, he had pushed another crate or trunk to where she could reach it. The bells in his room were going off non-stop from all the back-and-forth, but she barely noticed those anymore.

Until she came through, and saw the King. She stopped in her tracks.

“Hello,” he said, smiling at her.

“Hi,” she said, staying where she was.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” he said. “I thought I’d come see what all the fuss was about.”

“Apologies, Father,” Leonas said, pressing his palms together. “She’s helping me to make room, that’s all.”

“You can ask for help, you know,” the King said. “We have servants for a reason. I’m sure the Starlight Hero has more important things she could be doing than helping you clean your room.”

Leonas swallowed, looking at the floor. “Of course,” he said.

“I’m not angry,” the King said. “I worry, that’s all.”

“I know,” Leonas said.

“I’m very proud of you,” the King said. “It’s not easy to focus on your future. On your Kingdom’s future. To work hard toward making a meaningful contribution, instead of counting on witchcraft and destiny.”

“Thank you,” Leonas said.

Minnow inched toward the Door.

“You can visit whenever you’d like, you know,” the King said, turning to her before she could escape. “I’d love the opportunity to welcome you properly. We’re usually quite generous with guests.”

“She’s busy,” Leonas said. The King looked back at him, then at the box of books Leonas had been moving before he’d arrived. Leland picked up a book, and flipped through it, dust marring the fingertips of white gloves. Leonas rubbed at his fingernails.

“I’m sure it’s hard,” Leland said. “Giving these up.”

“Not really,” Leonas said, running his thumbnail underneath his other nails. “I’ll get new ones. They’re just heavy.”

The King set the book back down, and reached out to squeeze Leonas’ shoulder. “You’re making the right choice,” he said. “I’ll send someone up to help with the rest of these.”

“Thank you, Father,” Leonas said.

“I can get it,” Minnow said.

Leland smiled at her. “That’s very sweet of you, Hero Minona.”

She still couldn’t place what it was about Leland. She thought it might be that he smiled at her. It could have been politeness. But most people didn’t smile when they saw a child with a sword.

Astielle: Chapter Three

Minnow answered her Seeing Stone, but only because Leonas was being persistent. When he only wanted to pester, he gave up much sooner.

“It’s an emergency,” he said before she could speak. “What are you wearing.” He looked a terrible sight even through the poor vision of the stone. There were deep hollows under his eyes, and she could barely see his witchmarks.

“I bought a new dress,” she said.

“Buy a better one next time,” he said.

“What’s the emergency?” she said.

“The Old Man’s Tea, I’m almost out of it.”

On the very top of Old Man’s Mountain to the north, there lived an old man whose only name was Old Man. It was unclear if he’d been the same Old Man for long enough to have a mountain named after him, or if he appointed new Old Men when the time came. He made a special tea from the herbs on his mountain, impossible to find anywhere else. It was also practically impossible to get to, except that Minnow had reactivated a Rainbow Door hidden in a nearby crystal cave.

Since none of Castle Astielle’s servants could use a Rainbow Door, that made Minnow his only source.

“It’ll have to wait,” she said. “I’m at the ruins at Magdedyne, I need to check it for monsters and see if there are any clues about Karzarul.”

This had been her standard excuse for what was almost decades now. She had stopped expecting to find Karzarul after the first few years. She’d started to wonder if he’d ever come back, if he would wait until she was old and tired.

Ari said he was back now, but she still doubted she’d find any sign of him here.

“Oh, him—he’s awake. Alive. I don’t know that he’s awake, he was dreaming when I saw him.”

“You saw him?” she asked, startled. “What did he look like?”

“Ugly,” he said. Riding ahead of her, Ari huffed. “Awful to look at. Angry. Definitely wants me dead. You should kill him soon, but I know you won’t listen. You already took too long to find his lair. It could be that he’s been alive this whole time, getting stronger. I’ve said this would happen for years, but you just kept picking flowers, or whatever it is you do.”

She stuck her tongue out at the stone.

“Don’t start,” he warned. “Try not to take too long, I don’t think this tea is going to last more than a week. Pick up the stone next time it chimes, if Karzarul tries to murder me you’ll be the first to know. Unless you ignore me again, and six months from now you show up all surprised that the King of All Monsters has turned Astielle into his new Moonlight Kingdom. I’ll be strung up on a parapet so passing monsters can hit me with sticks. It will be nice to get out of the castle, at least, I have that to look forward to.”

“I’ll see if I can find a lost Rainbow Door in these ruins,” she said. They looked like those kinds of ruins. “If there is then I’ll try to bring you some tea and come back.”

Thank you,” he said, and the connection snapped, no image on her stone or sound passing through it.

“He seems to have his priorities in order,” Ari said.

“Did you know?” she asked.

“Know what?”

“That your king had visited the Heir,” she said. “He’s your king, right?”

“I suppose,” he said. He wasn’t looking at her. She didn’t care for that at all. What was he doing, that he thought he was doing wrong? That was usually why men didn’t want to look at her when they spoke.

“Have you been keeping in touch with him?” she pressed.

“When would I do that?” he asked rather than answer.

“I always fall asleep before you do,” she said. “And when I wake up, you’re awake. I don’t know what you do at night.”

“I sleep,” he said.

“Leonas said that Karzarul was dreaming,” he said. “Can he talk to you in dreams?”

“If you don’t trust me,” he said, “we can part ways.”

“It isn’t that,” she said. “I understand if you’re loyal. I can be loyal, too.”

He is not your prince,” Ari said. “Astielle is not your kingdom. The Hero need be loyal to no one.”

She wasn’t sure why he felt so strongly about it. Unless he was hoping her loyalties would change.

“I’m not just the Starlight Hero,” she said. It sounded more petulant out loud. “I’m Minnow. I like him. And I like you. If he gets hurt because you know about him, when he doesn’t know about you, that isn’t fair.”

Ari said nothing.

“I’m still not going to tell him,” she said. “If you’re worried.”

“I’m not,” he said.

Magdedyne had been a great trading center, once. Nothing in particular had come along to destroy it, only alternate routes and a lack of demand. There were still small villages and farms, stables and shops. There had been a fort, and then a port, and then… nothing. Everyone had left the great stone structure, moved away as it became too expensive to maintain for no good reason. No great event or fall, only a slow inevitable decline.

Now the ruin rose out of the ocean, a single bridge leading from the coastal cliffs to the collapsing structure. Great stone bricks had fallen away, leaving holes in the bridge, the columns crumbling. Someday the whole thing would sink into the ocean. For now, monsters had claimed it for their own, gathered in what were once markets and plazas.

Minnow considered her plan of attack. Ordinarily, she would set up a camp nearby, ducking in and out of the ruin and exploring as much as she could without alerting any monsters. This also gave her a place to leave Piggy, along with any treasures she found. However, that wouldn’t work with Ari, or with her need to figure out if there was a Rainbow Door. She could send Piggy down the road to find a stable, but that would be inconvenient if she did find treasure. Leaving things to retrieve later had a high risk of forgetting where she left it, or that she’d found it at all.

She could also barrel through and kill everything she saw, allowing her to take her time exploring in the aftermath. She’d done it before. But she’d also almost died. Several times. And what if those monsters were people, like Ari?

She pulled Piggy up short near the beginning of the bridge. “I, um. Did you want to come in?”

“If you don’t mind,” Ari said.

“I might have to fight monsters,” she said.

“I assumed as much,” he said.

“If you’re coming in then maybe I could—I don’t think this is safe for Piggy.”

“It’s not.”

“Sending her to a stable means I won’t have my things,” she said.

“Would you like me to carry them?” he asked, and she felt inconsiderate for implying he was a beast of burden.

“You don’t have to,” she said. “I can carry my pack, it’s just. If there’s more. Maybe. I might need help. Only until I can—if there’s a Rainbow Door, I can take it home.”

“I don’t mind,” he said.

She dismounted from Piggy, and pulled her dress off over her head. As tempting as it was to wear it to spite Leonas, it wouldn’t be practical for fighting. She changed into a tunic and leggings she had on hand, shoving the dress into the space where they’d been. Then she reconfigured her primary saddlebag so that she could wear it like a backpack. With all that done, she gave Piggy a smack on the back to set her trotting down the road.

“You’re sure you want to walk?” he asked her. She looked up at his back, and a blush crept over her. The concept of riding a person had not become less problematic.

“I’m sure,” she said, giving a wide berth to a hole in the bridge, braiding her hair behind her while she walked.

“You might not have a choice,” he said, gesturing ahead. She shaded her eyes, but without his height, she couldn’t see as far. She rose up on her toes, but it didn’t help. She bit her lip, and wondered if she ought to ask. Instead she waited, and once they’d walked further, the problem became obvious.

There was a gap in the bridge far too long for her to jump. She chewed at her thumbnail, considering the terrain. There were no mountains or cliffs close enough to glide over it, nothing on their side of the bridge built taller than the other. She stepped closer and then back as a brick came loose and fell to the water below.

“If you throw me upward, I could glide?” she suggested.

“C’mon,” he said, offering his hand down toward her. “Hop up, I’ll take you.”

She sputtered. “I’m—no.”

“You’re making things difficult for no reason,” he said.

“You’re not a horse,” she said. “I ride horses, not…” She trailed off, red-faced, and gestured vaguely to nothing.

“Then I can carry you,” he said.

“Being carried is weird,” she said, kicking a stone down into the water. “How would you feel, if someone carried you?”


She stuck her fingers in her hair and scratched at her scalp in frustration, pulling hair loose from her braid. It was hard to explain that she liked it, that it was bad that she liked it. Boundaries were something she struggled with, and she spent too much time away from people to have practice. After all this time she knew just enough to know that it was a problem. She could usually manage, if she could remember about personal space. As soon as anyone came too close, it all flew out the window.

“Personal space,” she said, hoping that would mean something.

He stared at her. “Personal space,” he repeated.

“Right,” she said.

He looked like he was going to say something, but stopped himself. He rubbed at his beard. “Do fairies have personal space?” he asked finally.

She scuffed the ground with her heel. “I’m not a fairy,” she said.

He nodded. “Monsters don’t have personal space,” he said.

“Do they not? They always seem to want a lot of space. Without me in it.”

“Friends are different,” he said. “With friends, we don’t have personal space.”

“Oh.” She wrung her hands together.

Was that the problem? Were humans the same way? What did a regular human person consider a friend? She must have had friends, before. This must have been something she’d known. The rules could have changed since then. Or else the Starlight Hero was always like this. Wandering around stabbing and biting people until they stabbed Karzarul and made all the trouble for everyone worth it.

No one ever mentioned Elias biting people.

“Are we friends?” Ari asked.

“I think so,” she said, shuffling a little closer. It was enough that he could pick her up, holding her against him the way he’d done before. She pressed her ear to his chest again, holding her limbs close to herself so they wouldn’t wander.

Boundaries. No grabbing, or scratching, or biting. Be carried the way a civilized person would be carried. She watched the landscape as he trotted further down the bridge to get a running start, then looked up at him. She wound up looking at his neck, so she thought she’d better not look.


He started to run, holding her closer, and she gripped his tunic to have something to do. He pushed himself off with his back legs, launching himself into the air, and she couldn’t help looking down into the chasm beneath them. It was a long, long drop into the water.

She squealed, and tried not to kick her feet with glee.

He landed hard, continuing his gallop before slowing to a trot and then stopping.

“Fun?” he asked.

“Yes, very much,” she said.

There was a Sun Shrine at the far end of the ruins, and in it, a lost Rainbow Door.

There was also a Tauril.

It wasn’t as big as Ari. It was a shade of dark blue like the nighttime, also less impressive than Ari’s pure white. It wore battered metal armor over its shoulders, but its chest was bare.

Minnow felt a bit awkward about it, watching it from high above on the Sun Shrine’s roof.

Ari was standing right beside her. She hadn’t thought he’d be able to get up high like this, since no Tauril had ever chased her off the ground. But he’d managed it, enormous hooves surprisingly nimble. Like a goat. A large goat, which was also a cow. And a man. And some kind of cat? The fangs and ears and claws seemed like some kind of cat. She didn’t know any cats with little ear tufts like Ari’s. Then again, it felt offensive to treat a Tauril as a collection of other animal parts, rather than a whole monster with all his own parts. Maybe cows had Tauril horns, actually.

“What?” Ari asked, because she was staring at him.

“I was thinking,” she said. She didn’t mention what. “Do you think he’s like you?” she asked.

He shook his head.

None of the monsters had been what Ari called ‘old monsters’. He would step on a Bruteling, and they would dissolve into dust. She wasn’t sure how he did it. She was glad not to have to deal with the gore. Nothing ever turned into dust when she stabbed it. Just bled, and stank.

“Should I kill it?” she asked.


She considered what it would be like for him to watch her kill a Tauril. “Right.”

To her surprise, he took his longbow off his back. She’d never seen him use it. She’d seen other Taurils use theirs, but never him. There hadn’t been much opportunity. It wasn’t much use for catching crabs, or fishing.

He took an arrow out of his quiver, and she inched away. Being anywhere near that bow being drawn was uncomfortable. It felt like it could snap and bring the building down. It also seemed, glinting in the light that filtered through the broken roof, like it glowed.

He released it, and the Tauril beneath them was gone.

She blinked. She scooted closer to the hole in the roof, half hanging through it.

It was gone.

She sat up, and inched further away from Ari.

“It only does that for monsters,” he said.

“Okay,” she said, not at all reassured. “Can other Taurils do that?”

“… I’m old.”

A lost Rainbow Door looked like an ornate doorway into nothing, inlaid all around in copper and silver and gold in the intricate patterns of spellwork. Passerby sometimes tried to scratch away the metals, but it never worked. A Rainbow Door, even a lost one, could never break. Sometimes she found them in fields, nothing but a wall and a doorway standing out in the open with nothing around it.

It had a spot like a keyhole beside it, another solid piece of stone. There wasn’t a hole in it, but when she lined up the Starsword just-so with the pattern, she could push it inside until the blade disappeared. She had to lean hard to get the leverage to turn it, and when it clicked there was a bright flash of light and a sound like thunder.

When she pulled the Starsword away, the wall was an opaque ripple of light in all colors.

“Shit,” she said, sheathing the sword.

“Was it not supposed to do that?”

“It was,” she said. “But I hadn’t thought this part through. We’ll have to split up, but you can’t just wait here for when I get back. If you leave I don’t know where we’ll meet back up again. Or when.”

“I can entertain myself,” he said. “There’s a forest between here and the stable where you sent Piggy. I can camp there.”

She fidgeted. “If you’re sure,” she said “If you leave, I’ll understand. Leave a note, if something happens.”

“I will,” he said. Then he leaned down, and patted the top of her head.

She rose up onto her toes, and then pretended she hadn’t.

Minnow had forgotten to dress for a mountaintop blizzard. She usually did. That was the biggest problem with Rainbow Doors. Fortunately there were still Flutterfires at the bottom of her bag, dried out wings crushed from poor handling. She shoved them into her mouth and managed not to gag, choking them down with a handful of snow. Warmth spread from her throat to her fingertips and down to her toes, and her skin turned numb.

The Old Man’s cabin was at the very top of The Old Man’s Mountain. There was always a blizzard, regardless of the time of year. There was always smoke in his chimney and lights through his window, regardless of the time of night. When she opened the door, which was never locked, he was always sitting by the fire with a cup of tea.

“Hello,” she said, pressing her palms together in front of her.

“Forgot to dress for the weather again?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, rubbing snow off her boots on his welcome mat. “May I buy a jar of your special tea?” she asked. “I have…” She tried to remember what in her bag might have objective value. “A necklace?”

“I can’t take that,” he said, without malice. “You’re going to need it.”


“It’s not so long ago that you were here before,” he said. “Gone through all that already?”

“The Prince likes it a lot,” she said.

“The Prince should get some sleep,” the Old Man said. “You can tell him I said so. Those herbs will only work so long. A body needs sleep, eventually.”

“Oh,” she sighed, sagging a little.

“I’ll still sell you a jar,” he said.

“Oh!” she said, perking up. “Good, that’s good.”

“I’ll take a seashell,” he said. “The kind with a spiral on it.”

She had to set her bag down on his floor to dig through it, slowly emptying the things she’d collected onto the hardwood. He never seemed to mind. Just rocked in his chair, and sipped his tea, listening to the crackling fire. When she found a seashell with a spiral, like he’d asked, she held it up in triumph.

“Bring it here, now,” he said, and she left all her things on the floor to bring it to him. “Very nice,” he said, holding it up to admire it. It glinted green in the firelight. He set it on his tongue, and swallowed it whole.

“Good?” she asked.

“Exactly what I wanted,” he said, nodding his head. “You get yourself a jar out of the kitchen, little fish.”

He kept the jars in rows and rows, a whole wall of nothing but jars. The ceiling was covered in curing herbs, hanging down to dry. The jars weren’t quite identical, so she always took her time to pick out the one she thought would be best. She decided on one with a slim band of green around the rim, and a single purple flower petal visible against the glass.

“Friend of yours?” the Old Man asked, as she tried to arrange the jar into her bag. When she looked up, he tilted his head toward the window. She tried to make out what he was seeing in the blizzard. Unable to see anything, she got back up and went right up to the window.

She could only barely make it out, but there was a Howler out there in the distance, white as snow. She didn’t know there were Howlers out this far, or that their colors changed for the climate. She’d never seen one alone, without a pack. She looked back at the Old Man.

“The. The Howler?” He nodded. “I don’t, uh. Know him?” She’d thought Howlers were ‘its’, but they could be hims.

“Suit yourself,” the Old Man said. When Minnow looked back out the window, she couldn’t see it anymore.

She thought, thinking about it, that there was something familiar about a white Howler. Or else that was before, when she’d been someone else.

Karzarul dreamt of a man with copper curls.

This time, Leonas sat in the nothingness, and shut his eyes without speaking.

“Are you ignoring me?” Karzarul asked, settling into a Shadestalker again.

“Release me,” Leonas said, his eyes still shut.

“I did not bring you here,” Karzarul said, circling the prince, “and I am not keeping you.”

Though he had to admit this was strange. This had never happened by accident before, not with an enemy. He had assumed the witch prince had sought him out deliberately, but now he wondered.

He supposed he had been thinking of the Heir that first time, in an abstract way. Only because he’d been angry, thinking of Minnow as someone else’s experiment. And he supposed he had been thinking of the Heir this time, in a more concrete way. Only because he was angry, thinking of Minnow’s loyalty, running errands like a servant.

Karzarul was the Moonlight Monster, and Leonas was the Sunlight Heir. If the Monster wanted to fall asleep thinking about how the Heir should die, that was his perogative.

But they wouldn’t be here unless the Heir was thinking of him, too. Intently, at that, while his dreamself was out in the world. He must have been trying to find him.

“How do I leave?” Leonas asked.

“I could kill you,” Karzarul suggested, and Leonas fell silent. Karzarul walked away, leaving him where he sat, stretching out his paws and lying down in the nothing. He thought of sand, and spread it outward into a beach. Clear skies and clear waters, but he set a memory of the moon high and bright in the sky.

Who needed the sun, anyway.

He drew another memory out, and he set her in the water. It wasn’t exactly correct; it had been daylight, and her dress hadn’t been that small. Memory was an imperfect thing. It was close enough, the green streak in her hair and the water on her thighs. He watched her splash and hunt for seashells, and remembered, and felt pleased with the dream he’d made.

He glanced over, and saw the Heir had opened his eyes.

“Have you been watching her?” Leonas asked.

“I watch many things,” Karzarul said. The dream-construct of Minnow didn’t notice them at all. Karzarul wanted to remember her giggling, so she giggled, rubbing a seashell with her thumbs.

“This isn’t real,” Leonas said. “You think this is going to upset me. It won’t work.” But he was still watching her, Karzarul’s memory of a girl.

“Has she taken you to the beach?” Karzarul asked.

Leonas said nothing. Karzarul watched his memory, and was careful not to imagine more. What she had been was enough. It wouldn’t be fair to her to ask more. Not on purpose. Not with an audience.

“You can’t have her,” Leonas said abruptly.

“I don’t see why not,” Karzarul lied.

“I’ve invested too much in her,” Leonas said, straightening his back and raising his chin. Defiance, of a type. “She should be mine, if she’s anyone’s.”

“You’re not the first Heir to think so,” Karzarul said.

“And how many of them were right?” Leonas asked. “They killed you, didn’t they? Is this your new strategy? Pretending you’ll steal her with make-believe dreams? It won’t work. I haven’t lied to her. She knows what she is.”

Karzarul stood, and the memory of Minnow disappeared from the water. He stalked closer to the Heir, but to his surprise, he vanished before he could kill him.

He could leave on his own, after all.

Karzarul settled back into the sand, and the dream-construct settled down beside him, pointing out the constellations in his memory of the sky.

Astielle: Chapter Two

“Do you want to come with me?” Minnow asked, back astride Piggy. Walking alongside a Tauril went against every one of the horse’s instincts, but Minnow kept her under control.

“Where?” Karzarul asked.

She’d bought herself new clothes, a wraparound tunic and leggings in blue, the embroidery in white. Her new boots were black leather. She’d tied her hair back with a leather strap, but it was already starting to escape.

It was cute. He was trying not to think of her naked. And wet. He wanted to pick her up and put her onto his back again.

She pulled a map out of her bag, unfolding it in front of her. She’d drawn a grid over it, marking various areas with different colors. “I haven’t mapped this area to the east here,” she said, pointing to a square. “There’s supposed to be some ruins there that I want to see. And one of the villages on the way has a special curry that you can’t get anywhere else, so I want to try that.” She paused. “And maybe Karzarul will be there.”

“Do you think so?” he asked.

“He could be,” she said. “Do you know where he is?”

“I can’t tell you that,” he said.

“Oh,” she sighed. “I don’t like that. I hope you don’t know. Don’t tell me if you know, okay?”

“I won’t,” he said.

“If he’s there, would you have to fight me?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Okay.” She sighed again, pouting. “You better not be lying,” she said. “I don’t want to have to kill you.”

“Thanks,” he said.

“Do you want to come with me?” she asked again.

“I can’t visit the village,” he said.

“If you were smaller I could hide you in a cart,” she said. “But if I buy the special curry powder, I can make you some. There are supposed to be crabs there as big as I am. Maybe you can catch some while I go shopping, and then we can have crab curry. You’re not supposed to kill them until you’re ready to cook them.” She folded up her little map, putting it away to get a small pamphlet instead. “There’s a recipe in here, so I should be able to make it as long as we can find a pot big enough for the both of us. I might buy some first to make sure I know how it’s supposed to taste. Sometimes I make a new recipe and I think I did it right but it turns out I used the wrong flour so the real kind tastes different.”

“You’re very talkative, for a Hero,” he said.

“Oh.” She tucked her pamphlet back away. “Sorry.”

“I wasn’t complaining,” he said. “Just surprised.”

“I’m usually not,” she said.

He regretted the observation. He hadn’t meant to shut her down. She had no way of knowing what he knew, how many Starlight Heroes he’d known, how many had killed him and how many hadn’t. He couldn’t explain it to her, the contrasts in the way she moved and the shape of her mouth and the curve of her hips. He couldn’t explain how he kept expecting, hoping, to see Laurela’s smile or Jonys’ hair. Something, anything, some sign that they could be friends again, that she wasn’t Elias or Needle or so many others.

They were all supposed to be the same. The same soul, bound to the same sword. But they were never really the same. And he’d never seen one like this.

“I only mean,” he said, “I’m surprised you don’t have more traveling companions, when you’re so friendly.”

“Oh,” she said. “I’m not. And most people would die.”

He couldn’t argue with that.

“And I imagine we’ll have to meet near the village, or the ruins, instead of traveling the whole way,” she mused. “I don’t usually—one second.” She dismounted from Piggy, plunging into the woods and crouching in the underbrush. She emerged with another flower in her fingers, pulling out her book to press it between the pages.

“I take a lot of detours,” she continued, climbing back into her saddle. “I can’t even bring Piggy, half the time. I don’t expect you to come along spelunking, so it would make sense to split up. Escorting me the whole way would get tedious. But if we were going in the same direction, we could go together some of the way. And when you have places to be, you can leave.”

“Hm,” he said, noncommittal.

“You don’t have to,” she said. “It was just a thought.”

“We can go a way,” he said. He was used to traveling alone since the Moonlight Kingdom had fallen in earnest, hiding himself among monsters as he roamed. It had been a while since he’d bothered being proactive. It all felt so pointless. He could try to reclaim his kingdom, and he’d die; or he’d try to protect the monsters, and he’d die; or he’d try to protect the Hero, and he’d die.

He was bored of it all. He’d rather mind his own business.

Tagging along with the Starlight Hero on her curry quest was not minding his own business.

He couldn’t help it. It seemed interesting. And it felt creepy, to decline and then follow after her in secret. Which was, he already knew, exactly what he would end up doing.

“We can split up there,” she said, pointing ahead to where the road passed alongside a cliff jutting up through the forest. “Piggy knows to follow the road on her own until she gets to the next stable, so if I climb that then I ought to get a good view to work on my map. Then I can glide down and meet up with her further down the road. And you, if you want.”

“Why not go around?” he suggested, pointing to where the earth sloped up before it dropped off. It was steep, but not as steep as the flat face of the cliff.

“No,” she said. “Piggy has trouble going through the woods anyway, and it would take longer. I’d end up finding more things, and maybe there’d be monsters, or some caves, or a dungeon. Which—I’ll look there eventually. On my way back. But I don’t want distractions right now. It’ll be better to climb.”

A loud chiming noise came from one of her bags, and she made a sound of disgust. “Ignore that,” she said. “It’s a Seeing Stone, it’s not important.”

It continued to chime.

“You’re sure?” he asked.

“It’s never important when it goes off like this,” she said over the sound. “He’s trying to check in and stop me from wasting time. I should have wrapped it in something but I didn’t think, now I can’t touch it without answering. So ignore it.”

“As you like,” he said, tempted to cover his ears. The sound was obnoxiously high-pitched.

“I’ll check in later,” she said, “and pretend I was hiding somewhere and got into a big fight because he can’t leave me alone. Which has happened before so it’s barely even a lie and he deserves to feel bad about it.”

They met again at the coast, Karzarul catching crabs at the beach while Minnow visited the town. She bought a small green dress suited to the climate, which he tried not to stare at. It matched her hair. The skin on her thighs and around her collarbones darkened to match the rest of her.

It took three tries before she had made the curry to her satisfaction, a wok balanced precariously above the campfire. Karzarul thought the first curry was fine. She ate with gusto, burying her toes in the sand.

He was finding himself distracted by her legs.

“Tomorrow,” she was saying, making a note in her recipe pamphlet, “we can start heading down to find those ruins. If you want to join me. Not that you have to. I travel slow.”

“I can go slow,” he said. The large bowl she’d given him fit in the palm of his hand, and had been finished long ago.

“Can you swim?” she asked.

He’d never tried it in this form. “I can,” he said, despite the uncertainty.

“Did you want to go swimming with me?” she asked. The sun was bright, and the water was clear for miles.

“Not today,” he said. He wanted to watch her swim from a safe distance, instead.

“Oh,” she sighed, leaning forward to rest her chin on her knees. She seemed disappointed. “I’ve never seen a Tauril swim.”

“You were teasing me,” he accused.

“A little,” she said. She looked like she might say more, but she stopped, looking somewhere past him to where coconut palms dotted the beach. She inched sideways, reaching out until she could retrieve the pack that was usually strapped to her thigh. Pulling out a telescoping eyeglass, she lifted it to look into the trees.

He turned his head to try and follow her gaze.

“It’s a prism falcon,” she breathed. “I don’t have a prism falcon feather.”

How could she possibly have room in her saddlebags for all these collections?

“Sorry,” she said in a low whisper, putting her eyeglass away. “This hasn’t come up because I actually have a lot of feathers already.” Instead of walking around him, she used him as cover, peering over his back at the trees.

He tried to also keep his voice low. “Would you like me to shoot it?”

She looked at the longbow he wore, with its arrows like spears. “No, that’s… it’s okay. Sometimes they drop feathers on their own, if you follow them and find a nest. Or I could set up a trap.” Her entire body was pressed against his ribcage while she stared at the bird over his back. Then she started climbing over him, which was no less distracting. “Wait here, okay? I’m going to be right back.”

He watched her wander down the coast, going further when the bird took flight with a flutter of brilliant wings. He considered whether he could get away with catching the falcon as a Misthawk and dropping a feather for her. He ate six more bowls of curry since she wasn’t looking.

In an hour she returned, still barefoot and with her hair askew. One of her knees was scraped. “I got it!” she called from afar, waving a feather in the air. “There was a nest!”

She still seemed to be catching her breath as she approached her bags, sitting alongside Piggy so the horse could rest. She found another book, this one bigger than the one she used to press flowers. She thumbed through the pages, each of them decorated with images of different birds and their names. When she found the page for the prism falcon, she tucked the feather in like a bookmark.

“I don’t know if I have any other feathers in here, since the last time I went home,” she said, trying to rearrange her saddlebag to keep the book secure.

“I’ve never seen a book like that,” he said.

“I got it from Leonas,” she said with a shrug. “He has a lot of books like this. Or, he used to. He gave me a bunch of them when he decided to focus on magic. I got some of my old maps from him, too. Most of them were terrible. One time I climbed a mountain and when I got to the top there was a road on the other side.”

Karzarul had been trying not to think about the Heir. The Heir wasn’t always a rat-fink bastard, but more often than not they were worse than the Hero. Something about the Sunshield made them into manipulative little shits, weaponizing other people rather than stay on the defense. He would have thought getting a shield instead of a sword would seem like a sign, in that regard. Try being less aggressive, for once.

Karzarul liked the Hero, this time. Experience said the Heir would be three times as shitty to compensate. Maintain balance in the universe, or something.

“You’ve spent a lot of time with him?” he asked, trying to be casual about it. “Prince Leonas?”

“Some,” she said, sitting down with her legs stretched out in the sand. “He has a Rainbow Door in his tower, but he’s not allowed to use it. I can visit sometimes, but if it’s too much the King gets weird about it. It’s usually easier to use the Door to the watchtower and then sneak in his window. And he gave me my Seeing Stone but he mostly uses that to yell at me.”

“Ah,” he said.

“I haven’t told him about you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Minnow said. “He might have useful information in his library—you know, how you said the monsters are different? But I’d want to feel things out first, and I’d have to do it in person to be sure it was safe. Right? You haven’t said that you’re trying to be sneaky but it seems like you’re being sneaky. I haven’t seen you talk to anyone but me.”

“I am avoiding drawing unnecessary attention to myself,” he said.

“I thought so,” she said, satisfied. “I’m sure if Leonas knew he’d think you were a spy for Karzarul and give me a lecture about it. Would you tell me if you were a spy?”


“Oh,” she sighed. “I won’t tell, anyway.”

“I know little of this prince,” he said. “Is he wise?”

Minnow snorted. “He thinks so,” she said. “I used to think he was old, but he might not be much older than me. I think I was supposed to be the older one, but then I was a changeling. His mother was the Pirate Queen Cyrnae, the sea witch, so that’s why his witchmarks can look like waves instead of sunbeams.” She drew little shapes under her eyes with her fingertips to signify, though it didn’t quite get the idea across.

“I had not heard that the Queen of Astielle is a pirate.”

“She isn’t,” Minnow said, arching her back in a stretch that felt like a danger to her dress. “They say she left Leonas at the doors of the castle, before sailing to the edge of the world.”

“An interesting thing for them to say,” he said.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “I think Leland killed her. It seems like something he’d do. I don’t know if Leonas always does as he’s told because he knows or because he doesn’t. We don’t talk about his mother.”

Karzarul considered these revelations. He considered another bowl of curry. “What do you talk about?”

“How I need to kill Karzarul, mostly,” she said. “And his magical experiments. He does a lot of magical experiments. He says he doesn’t like that I waste time, but secretly he likes getting rare supplies.”

Experiments. He had known Heirs, and he had known their experiments. Aimon and Malgath, they had been the experimenting type. Cold comfort that he had killed Malgath in the end, those centuries ago.

“Hm.” Karzarul looked out at the ocean. “Is he nice to you?”

“Not if he can help it.”

“I don’t like him,” he decided.

Minnow giggle-snorted. “He’s not likeable.”

“Do you like him?”



She shrugged. “He’s fun.”

He wanted to throw her Seeing Stone into the ocean, to keep her far away from the witch prince and whatever his experiments entailed.

“Do you know Karzarul?” she asked.

“Some,” Karzarul said.

“What does he look like?” She was watching him intently.

“It changes,” he said, watching her right back.

“Do you like him?”

“Not usually.”

“Why not?”

“He’s an idiot,” he said. “He’s done a lot of dumb shit.”

Minnow laughed. “Is he nice to you?”

“Not if he can help it.”

She laughed again. “Then I don’t like him. He should be nice to you.” She rubbed at her throat. “I should stop talking,” she said. “I don’t usually, it hurts now.”

He hadn’t thought they’d been talking long at all, and wondered if she was making excuses. She pulled herself up out of the sand, brushing it from her legs before walking to the water. In a few steps she was up to her knees, and she turned back to look at him. She didn’t ask, but he shook his head. She pouted, but turned around to wade deeper until she was far enough to swim.

Karzarul dreamt of a man with copper curls. Or a man with copper curls dreamt of him. It was hard to say.

He could see what Minnow had meant about the witchmarks, now. His skin was dark, for Astielle, though not much darker than the Hero. He had the sky-blue eyes of all Heirs, and which Karzarul could not help but find hateful.

In the dreamscape, Karzarul was formless, or formfull. He was all things, he was nothing, he was moonlight.

“What is this?” Prince Leonas asked. His voice was higher-pitched than Karzarul had expected.

“What am I, you mean,” Karzarul said. “You know very well, witch prince.”

Leonas frowned without alarm. “This isn’t what he looks like,” he said, reaching out and nearly touching the edges of the moonlight. Karzarul pulled away, and settled into the form of a Shadestalker. In the nothing of the dreamscape, he created a floor to stand on, pushed it outward into a room.

His old throne room, from once upon a time, all white marble and silver.

“Do you dream of me?” Karzarul asked despite the mouth of a giant cat, prowling toward his throne. Leonas shut his eyes, and seemed surprised to open them again to the same scene. “This is my dream,” Karzarul said. “You, interloper, may change nothing.”

Karzarul sat in the throne, draping his paws over the arm of it, the snake of his tail lashing.

“Karzarul?” Leonas asked warily.

“What did you imagine I looked like, I wonder,” Karzarul said, “that you do not recognize me now.”

He could feel the prince reaching for magic he did not have here, trying to alter a reality that was not his own.

“You’re awake,” Leonas said.

“I am dreaming,” Karzarul corrected.

“You aren’t dead,” Leonas said.

“Only sometimes.”

“Why did you bring me here?” Leonas asked.

“I didn’t,” Karzarul said.

“You lie,” Leonas said. “You took me where the Hero could not follow.”

At this, Karzarul took the form most his own—an Impyr, the closest thing he had to human. His old rings, his old tunic, his old crown. “Do you think she is your bodyguard?” he asked. “That her fate is to serve you?” He stood with the sound of silver horseshoes hitting marble.

Leonas tried to retreat, but dream-logic kept him in place, unable to maintain the space between them. Karzarul caught him by the throat, resisting the temptation to crush it.

“Do you think she is a toy for you to play with until she isn’t needed?” he asked, and Leonas blanched. “You are not the first Heir of your kind I have seen, but I wish you would be the last.” He brought his face close to the prince’s. “How much do you remember?” he asked. “Do you remember watching me die? Do you remember dying? Shall I remind you?”

Did he remember what he’d done to Jonys? This new Aimon, this witchmarked Heir.

The prince’s slender fingers pried at his hand. “She’ll kill you,” Leonas said.

“Maybe,” Karzarul said. “Stay away from her, witch prince, or I’ll be sure to kill you first.” He closed his fist, and again he was alone.

Minnow was more pleased than she would admit when Ari agreed to join her. They’d stopped twice already for fallen stars, and more times than she wanted to count for new flowers. He had more patience than any human she had met. She wondered, often, if she had ever traveled with someone like this. Not now, but before. It must have been before, if it had been at all.

She had déjà vu. Not occasionally, not sometimes, but most of the time. She always felt like she’d forgotten something important, or was on the brink of remembering. There was always a word on the tip of her tongue that she couldn’t quite seem to recall. Everything was familiar and she never knew why. She knew things she’d never learned and had skills she was never taught, and there were some she might never know, if no one asked.

It was frustrating. She still forgot things in the normal way, after all. She could never remember whether she’d actually forgotten something, or if she’d never known it. Everything was new but everything was familiar and nowhere felt like home. She felt foreign, or like everyone else was foreign, a whole world full of interlopers. She didn’t know how much of that was the Hero thing, and how much was the changeling thing. There wasn’t anyone she could ask.

Leonas had seemed to think that she ought to remember how to wield a sword. She did, a little. But she couldn’t explain how it always went wrong, how she would stumble or err because some part of her expected her limbs to be longer. It was a little like being a teenager after a growth spurt, but in reverse. Ducking to avoid hitting things a foot over her head. She was better about it, now. She had practice being herself. It was still difficult.

Collecting made things easier for her. Anything that wasn’t in her collection didn’t count, no matter how sure she was that she’d seen a chickatoo before. If a flower or feather or stone was in her collection, she knew she’d seen it. If a recipe pamphlet was on her shelves, she knew she’d made it. If she didn’t remember harvesting the quartz in her display case, that meant she’d forgotten it the way everyone forgets things.

Emotionally, it was easier. Harder in every other way, but she didn’t mind that so much. It was always going to be hard. She’d rather things be hard in the way she chose. She accepted that this made her a problem. There were things to be done, and she was not doing them. Children were born when she had begun to not do them, and those children were men now, with her work still not done.

She had never quite gotten the hang of the passage of time. She didn’t know how much of that was the Hero thing, and how much was the changeling thing. Perhaps when she fought Karzarul, she could ask him. Would there be time for questions before they fought? She hoped so. She had questions.

She pulled Piggy up short. “There,” she said, pointing.

“The ruins?” Ari asked.

“No,” she said. “That arch.” They’d been travelling the roads along the coast, and intermittently the beaches would end, cut off by cliffs jutting out high above the water. This one had formed into an arch, a column of stone rising up to meet the highest point. “I want to go up there.”

Minnow liked high places. They let her see where she’d been, and where she was going. She could work on her maps, and see if any monsters were coming. They made for good launchpoints for her glider. She hadn’t been gliding much since Ari had joined her. She hadn’t seen many monsters. She didn’t mind.

They travelled up the narrow path that broke away from the road, Ari behind her. The area at the top of the arch was a small field of wildflowers, and Minnow dismounted to start picking the ones she didn’t recognize.

“Should we have lunch here?” she asked. There were still seaweed wraps in one of her bags, left from the night before. Piggy nibbled at the grass.

“If you’d like.”

She looked down from the cliff, where the ocean turned to beach turned to grass and then road. She pressed her flowers into her book—she might need an extra book, soon—and started to pull off her boots. They’d sold matching sandals when she’d found this dress, but she hadn’t bought them. She was sure she’d lose them fighting a Bruteling or falling off a mountain; better to wear mismatched boots.

“I’m going to be right back, okay?” she said, unbuckling her belt and letting the Starsword fall in the grass. Then she ran up the hill to the highest point of the arch, overlooking the ocean, and launched herself off of it.

She didn’t know when she had learned to dive, to spin and arc her body and point it all in a line toward the water. She might never have learned it. Even in the Faewild Forest, she’d loved to dive from the waterfalls. At the time, she never wondered. Now she wondered about a Hero who hadn’t been born knowing how to dive.

She liked the falling, the way she felt it in the pit of her stomach as the water came closer. The falling was the best part. For that she could love the cold shock of the water, the moment of gasping for air when she found the sky again.

Something glinted amidst the rocks far underneath her feet. She spun to dive back under, forcing her eyes to stay open as she swam deeper, holding her breath until her fingers found a length of chain. Then she pushed upward from a rock, burst out of the water with another gasp for air.

She probably wouldn’t need a strange, lost necklace. But maybe she would. She wrapped it around her wrist and tried to move the mop of wet hair from her face, rubbing at her eyes. She wondered, as she swam back to shore, if she could dive again without testing Ari’s patience.

Ari was standing in the sand.

“What happened?” she called ahead from the water.

“I came to get you,” he said.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she said. “You were supposed to be eating.” She trudged out of the water and into the wet sand, trying to wring out her hair.

“You shouldn’t walk all that way with bare feet,” he said.

“It’s fine,” she began, yelping as he scooped her up. Her heart raced, and she reached for a sword she didn’t have before remembering that he was Ari. “Ari,” she scolded, hesitating as she grasped for a reason for why this was unacceptable. “Your clothes will get wet.”

“You don’t like riding on my back,” he reminded her as he started to walk. “This is easier.”

Something about his voice rumbled when she was this close to him. She wiggled in his arms until she could press her ear against his chest. She could hear his heart, slow and loud like a drum. “Say something,” she said.

“Something,” he said, all amplified by his own ribcage, and she giggled.

“What does it sound like,” she wondered, “when you roar?”

It started with a groan like a bridge about to collapse, then turned into an avalanche of stones falling through the mountain of him, a growl that became a bellowing earthquake so loud it hurt her ears. It could carry for miles, a sound like that, shaking foundations as well as her bones. She dug her fingers into his tunic with a small shriek of delight.

Somewhere further down the road, they heard a scream.

“Oops,” she said.

“Should we leave?” he asked.


“Will they not report that there is a monster in need of slaying?”

She laughed. “No one fights Taurils,” she said. “They’d die.”

“You fight Taurils,” he reminded her.

“I’m the Starlight Hero,” she said. Her knees were draped over his arm, and she curled legs tighter, pressing his forearm against the backs of her thighs. The embroidery on his sleeves dug into her skin, and she couldn’t feel his claws through his gloves. “I’m not going to fight you,” she said, in case he was worried. “Unless you’re evil. You have to tell me if you’re evil.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Would you?”


“Oh,” she sighed. “I might fight you. But not before lunch.”

Astielle: Chapter One

Taurils were the most feared monster in all of Astielle. The torso of a giant on the body of a bull, they were faster than most horses and could rip a man in two. Their horns were prized for use in weapons and tools for the sheer impossible hardness of them, requiring magic to carve. An arrow from one of their bows could drive straight through the trunk of a tree.

It was sensible, then, that whatever pilgrim was visiting Elias’ grave mounted their horse to flee as soon as Karzarul was visible on the forest path.

Karzarul had been dead. It was, as usual, a temporary condition. In his absence, his murderer had died, and the Kingdom of Astielle had risen. This, he was used to. It was the monsters that had gone funny. When last he’d breathed, it would be no unusual thing to see a Tauril in a fine embroidered tunic, strolling down a forest path.

Yet these monsters he’d seen since waking were halfway to animals, twitchy and violent, their minds closed off to him. He didn’t know what to make of it.

For now, he’d check Elias’ grave, and make sure the fucker was dead.

It was a nondescript monument, as these things went. He took small comfort in that, looking down at the marble stone in the clearing, the little flowers and trinkets left there. Sometimes the Starlight Hero was beloved enough to get statues and plazas and temples and all manner of things. Sometimes they deserved it. But he hadn’t much cared for Elias.

It wasn’t the murder—though he was mad about the murder. It was that he’d been an asshole about it. Plenty of Heroes managed to murder him without being assholes about it. He rubbed at the back of his glove, contemplating the little star on the grave.

Someone else was here. He could hear their boots in the underbrush, quiet as they were. His ears flicked. The fleeing pilgrim, back again? He turned his head at just the right moment to catch her eyes.

Mostly hidden behind a tree in the shadows of the leaves, she looked like one of the abandoned changelings of the Faewild Forest. She had all the tells of a child once touched but not claimed, reflective pupils and pointed ears and streaks of grass-green in her hair. For those who turned, the final effect was ethereal. Half-done, they looked like dolls abandoned in the dirt, broken and mossy.

This one was grown, though. As grown as any human ever was. What had made her leave the forest, where she could have lived on ageless and waiting?

“Hello,” he said, and her eyes widened.

“You speak Astia?” she asked. Her voice was small and coarse.

“Most Taurils do,” he said.

Her thick brows furrowed. “No they don’t.”

“I think I’d know better than you do,” he said, and she pressed her lips together. “Have you met many Taurils?”

“They keep trying to kill me,” she said. “I’ve never heard one talk.” Her eyes drifted lower, still high above her head. “Or wear clothes,” she said. “Armor, but not clothes.”

“I’m old,” he said, and her eyes narrowed as she tried to connect the two statements. “Your horse must be very fast,” he added, since few Taurils ‘tried’ to kill rather than simply succeeding.

She grinned, pearl-white teeth glinting like knives. “My sword is very sharp,” she corrected.

“Is it,” he said, his hooves shifting in the dirt, and her grin disappeared as she grew wary again. Her grip adjusted against the tree bark, and his eye was drawn to the back of her hand. A dark splotch on her skin, its edges too sharp to be an accident. An eight-pointed star. She saw him see it.

“Ah,” he said. She said nothing. “That would explain it.” He looked down at the gravestone, the star in the stone. “Visiting your own grave?” he asked.

“So they say,” she said.

He thought of a blade through his back, through his neck, through his ribs. The same blade, and always different hands. “You don’t remember?” he asked.

She shrugged.

He envied her that. Sometimes they remembered. Maybe it was better that she didn’t. Elias had killed him, just like Tomas had killed him after Gwenviel had killed Laurela, and before that it had been Kelruil—

So many Starlight Heroes, and so many Sunlight Heirs. Always the same Moonlight Monster, always the same Starsword.

“Do you know,” she asked, “if he’s awake?”

“Who?” he asked.

“The King of All Monsters,” she said. “Karzarul.”

His hooves scuffed the dirt. “He is,” he said, since he saw no point in lying. She drooped a little, and she looked very small, this lost little Hero only mostly human.

“Oh,” she sighed. “But you’re not trying to kill me.”

“I’m old,” he said again, as she leaned against her tree.

“Can you lie?” she asked.

“Anyone can lie.”

“Oh,” she sighed again. “It would be very convenient if you couldn’t.”

“For you, maybe.”

“It’s only that,” she said, “if Karzarul has risen, it means I should probably start questing. So I was going to ask, um. How much time you think I have, before he’s too strong for me to fight. But I don’t think you have any reason to be honest with me about that.”

“You don’t have to fight him,” he said.

“Astielle will not fall to monsters,” she said. “I only wish I had more time, is all.”

“Monsters aren’t so bad,” he said.

“You’re not,” she said. “Or, you don’t seem so bad. If they were all like you, I think… it would be different.” She pushed away from her tree, and he got a better look at her. Her tunic and leggings were both torn, much of her brown hair pulled loose from her braid. The shape of her arms was familiar, the same muscles on a different body. But her shoulders were broad and her legs were thick, leather boots all scuffed. Short and wide. Sturdy, was what she looked like. He wouldn’t have guessed her for the Hero, if not for the blade at her waist and its ominous shimmer. “You should stay away from people,” she warned. “I think it’s okay, if you do.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, watching as she disappeared into the trees.

He should have asked her name, he realized. He’d know soon enough.

He watched her from afar. He wasn’t always a Tauril. Sometimes he was a Misthawk, or a Howler, or an Entboar, or a Bruteling.

She probably could have killed him at her grave. He realized this the first time he watched her kill an Ursbat. She was pure brute strength with no caution to temper it, willing to crawl up behind a beast just for the chance that her blade would strike true the first time. He watched her climb onto its back as it roused, expecting her to fall and her neck to break. Instead she rode it, driving her sword into its back until it fell.

She could have done the same to him. It wouldn’t have been much more difficult. He wasn’t back to his full strength just yet.

He watched as she avoided monsters more than she fought them, taking odd paths and climbing unnecessary cliffs. He watched her draw maps, sitting in trees and on mountains. He watched her harvest berries until her fingers turned purple, catch fish with her bare hands and eat them still hot out of the fire.

She was a wild thing, this fairy-touched girl.

He only lost track of her when she went into human towns, which was a risk he couldn’t take. The monsters still puzzled him. He’d approached a camp of Brutelings to ask where their village was, but they hadn’t answered him. They’d hissed and grunted and offered him meat, and it was all making Karzarul start to wonder if he’d gone insane. He knew they hadn’t been like this, before. Dying sometimes made memories go fuzzy, but not like this. Something was very wrong.

He stayed in the form of a Bruteling, small enough to stay hidden as he lurked outside the town. He watched the comings and goings of travelers and merchants, children running in the streets. Soldiers stood watch, skinny young men he could kill even in this form. No warriors, these.

She rode out of town on her horse, a fat black mare with flowers braided in her mane. It was weighed down with full saddlebags and a sleep roll, but the Hero looked no better for her time spent in town. The same clothes, dirty and torn, the same patched leather boots.

It felt indiscreet to walk through the open plain, so he took the form of a Misthawk, opening his arms as they stretched into wings before taking flight. He went in wide circles to gain height before he followed her, wanting to look plausibly like a bird from the ground. There wasn’t much to see from such a distance, even with a Misthawk’s many eyes. He had to circle occasionally to keep from overtaking her, slow as she traveled. It was no wonder she spoke of wanting more time.

He watched her dismount, though he couldn’t tell why, on her hands and knees in the tall grass beside the road. He saw before she did the pack of Howlers creeping closer, and he circled lower to get a better look. There was no reason for them to attack her—she wasn’t in marked territory, and she was hardly an appetizing meal. Yet they stalked toward her like they were hunting, so he was curious to see how she handled them. Would she dispatch them, or simply leave?

To his surprise, she did neither, absorbed so deeply in her mysterious task that a Howler was able to pounce on her. She screamed in alarm as its teeth sank into her skin, and her horse bolted, fleeing down the road to safety. They were on her all at once then, five of them barking with gnashing teeth and tearing claws and her on the ground with her sword.

He dove toward the ground, holding his wings close to his body and pointing his beak toward his target. He landed with the paws of a Howler, and he tackled one of the others, ripping at its neck with his teeth. It yowled and retreated, and he growled with a flare of his ruff, taking stock of the situation.

The Hero had managed to run one of them through, its corpse now bleeding out in the grass. But her legs were both bleeding, one of her arms, and the side of her neck looked torn open. Her gaze was unfocused, her breathing heavy.

They were the sort of wounds only a Hero could survive, and only barely that.

He risked returning to Tauril form, stomping his hooves at the remaining Howlers. He grabbed at one of them, and tried to draw its essence into himself. To his horror, it fell to dust and smoke in his hands.

Monsters were supposed to be made of moonlight. Flesh and blood all built on a framework of power, the same power that animated him. These new, strange monsters—these were nothing.

The Hero collapsed to the ground.

He would worry about the monsters later. For now, he had to awkwardly splay his front legs out enough that he could reach the ground with his arms, lifting the Hero up to carry her. The Starsword sang in objection to his closeness, but he ignored it. She was surprisingly heavy for her size, but a Tauril could toss her around like a ragdoll.

He wondered if he ought to kill her.

They didn’t always try to kill him, Starlight Heroes. Only most of the time.

He galloped toward the mountains, the closest place he knew that had sacred springs.

She woke up feeling better than she had in months, if slightly damp. She felt… cozy. All wrapped up in furs. She opened her eyes, squinting at the fire and trying to remember where she’d fallen asleep.

There was a Tauril sitting on the other side of the flames.

She sat up.

“Hello,” he said.

“Oh.” Her heart was still racing, but she tried to calm it down. “I met you,” she said.


He was the only Tauril she’d ever seen who looked like that, as white as snow from his head to his tail. The longbow on his back looked solid silver, same as the embroidery on his fine clothes. She wondered if Taurils had princes.

“Where are we?” she wondered.

“I brought you to a sacred spring,” he said. He tilted one of his horns toward the water. “This one’s full of starlight.”

“Oh,” she said, pulling furs tighter around herself. That explained the damp. “You saved me.”

“A bit,” he agreed.

She wasn’t used to thinking of Taurils as people. She’d been working on it, since she met him, but it was hard. Usually they just tried to shoot her, or roared a lot while trying to cut her head off with an axe. She was trying not to dwell on the idea that every Tauril she’d ever killed had been a person, like he was. She thought if that idea caught up to her, it might cause problems.

“I never asked your name,” she said.

“Ari,” he said, after a moment of hesitation. She thought that maybe it was normally something like ‘Prince Ari’, and that was why he hesitated. The idea that he was unique because he was secret Tauril royalty was taking firm hold in her mind despite or because of the total lack of any evidence.

“I’m Minnow,” she said.

“Minnow,” he repeated.

She shifted under the furs. “Minona,” she said. “I use Minnow.” She looked around the little area by the fire, until she spotted her sword and one of her packs. The others were on Piggy, and who knew where that horse had gotten to by now. Hopefully a stable. She reached out until her fingers caught the strap of her bag, which she dragged closer. “Do you want anything?” she asked. She unbuckled the top flap to look inside. “I have some berries, and an apple. There’s some honeycomb, too.”

“No, thank you.”

“My teapot and cooking stuff is all with Piggy,” she said, “so I can’t offer you any of that. If you have a pot I can make you some soup? You seem like you probably need a lot of food. Soup is good for that. Oh, and I have—not fireflies, those are a different thing. Flutterfires? I have some of those, they’re good in soup. I have some fancy soap, too, a lady gave it to me in the last town. I think she wanted me to advertise? It’s good soap. It’s got milk in it.”

“You don’t need to give me your soap,” he said. “Or your soup.”

“Okay,” she said. “In stories, sometimes, the Hero will give people a whistle to call for them if they need help. But I don’t have one of those. If you whistled I don’t think I’d hear it, unless I was already kinda close.”

“You don’t need to give me anything,” he assured her.

“Okay,” she said. She should have believed him, since she saved people’s lives regularly and never wanted anything. She’d never been the one getting rescued before. “Do you think it would be sacrilegious to take a bath in a sacred spring?” she asked. “I know you already dunked me but I think I might be gross.”

Because you look really nice, she did not say, because that would be an insane thing to say to a monster.

“You’re the Starlight Hero,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with your sacred spring.”

“I guess,” she said. “But I think at least one goddess would probably descend to yell at me if I pissed in it.” She wiggled out from under the furs, regretting it immediately. Shivering, she peeled off her tunic and took a closer look at it.

She should wash her clothes, too. She wasn’t thrilled that a monster had not only saved her life, but thought she was stinky while doing it.

Once she’d stripped, she balled up her clothes and grabbed her fancy milk soap. The shimmering of the spring made her nervous, so she stuck a toe in first.

It was warm.

She practically jumped the rest of the way in, letting her clothes float as she sank down to her shoulders. She hadn’t realized she’d still been sore until she’d gotten into the water. She poked at the pink bitemark on her thigh, but found it was tender. Bruises had bloomed around it, the skin closed before the bleeding had stopped.

“This feels really nice,” she said, scrubbing at the dirt and dried blood on her legs.

“Good,” Ari said. He was watching her.

“You could fit, if you wanna try,” she suggested.

“I can’t touch the water,” he said. She frowned as she looked at it, dirt and bubbles of soap floating briefly before disappearing in shimmers of starlight.

“Oh,” she said. “Because you’re a monster.” He nodded. “How did you dip me, earlier?”


She ran soapy fingers through her hair, trying to untangle it, watching him watch her. His eyes were big and silver, with thick eyelashes, and his nose fell wide and straight from his forehead. He had a ring in it, and rings in his big fuzzy ears, and rings on the horns that swept forward from his temples before rising straight upward. She wanted to steal them. There were tufts of fur at the tips of his ears, big silver tunnels near the base of them, his hair in a braid down his back. It was much tidier than hers.

“You have a good face,” she decided.

“Thank you,” he said.

“It’s different,” she said, “when you’re not roaring at me.”

His lip curled, and he bared his teeth before letting out a roar that rattled the trees.

“Oh,” she sighed, sinking lower into the water, her heart thudding against her ribcage. If she’d really thought he’d hurt her, she’d have her sword by now. Instead it was just empty fear, like sledding down a mountain or jumping off a cliff. She rubbed her knees together and thought about sacrilege.

“Why did you save me?” she asked, scrubbing soap into her tunic.

“It seemed the thing to do.”

“Shouldn’t you try to kill me?”

“You haven’t tried to kill me yet,” he said.

“I only kill things that try to kill me first,” she said. “And things I want to eat.”

“Exactly,” he said.

She frowned at the grass stains in her leggings. “The other monsters try to kill me as soon as they see me.”

“Those are new monsters,” he said. “There’s something wrong with them. I don’t know what.”

“Is that why you keep saying you’re old?”


“King Leland says it’s because of Karzarul,” she said. “He wants to destroy Astielle and kill every human, so monsters can rule in eternal darkness.”

“That’s stupid,” Ari said.

“Maybe,” she agreed. It certainly felt stupid, when she could sit and talk to a Tauril. “But monsters are attacking people, and burning villages.”

“The King of All Monsters isn’t behind every Ursbat attack,” he said, “any more than King Leland is responsible for every bandit. Do you trust your King?”

“No,” she said. He gave her the creeps, actually. “After I kill Karzarul, I think he’s going to try and kill me to keep me from killing Prince Leonas.”

“Were you planning to kill Prince Leonas?”

“No,” she said. “The King is just paranoid. He keeps the Prince locked in a tower. It’s a whole thing.” She gave up on trying to scrub all the blood out of her underwear. Even sacred starlight water could only do so much. “Do you think you could hang these in a tree for me?” she asked, holding up her wet clothes. “I tried to wring them out,” she apologized.

He pulled himself up onto his hooves, towering as he stepped closer. He had to bend at the waist to reach her outstretched hands, taking her clothes gingerly between gloved fingers. Then he hooked them onto tree branches high above where she could reach without climbing, safe from the fire but not from the smoke. She didn’t mind. Her clothes were usually smokey. She looked at one of his enormous cloven hooves, now at eye-level, and imagined it trying to crush her skull.

“You said you wanted more time,” he said. His voice was strange coming from so far above her. “Because King Leland will kill you?”

She shrugged, though she couldn’t tell if he could see if from up there. “They only let me do this because I need to find Karzarul and kill him,” she said. “Once I find him, it’s over either way. He kills me, or they make me go back to Castle Astielle. I don’t get to keep exploring.” She sank into the water until her chin was submerged. “If I explore too long, he’ll get too strong and find me instead. I just wanted to make it last before then.” She raked her fingers through her hair again, with no greater success. “Do you have something I can dry with?” she asked. “I don’t want to get your nice furs all wet.”

She watched him turn to pick up one of his packs off the ground, looking ungainly as he did so. She thought about how easy it would be to slice through one of his joints with the Starsword, in that position.

“Here,” he said, having to turn and bend again to offer her what looked suspiciously like a saddle blanket. She pulled herself out of the spring and into the cold night air, taking the blanket to help wring out her hair first. She stood close to the fire while she rubbed water off her limbs.

“Can I sleep here?” she asked. “I’m still tired, but I can wait if you need to go.”

“I can wait,” he said.

“Are you going to sleep?” she asked.

“I might,” he said.

“Can we sleep on the same side of the fire, then? I think that’s warmer.”

“If you’d like,” he said. It made her nervous as he navigated around her, legs as tall as she was. When he dropped back down to the ground it sounded like a felled tree, kicking up dust around him and disturbing the fire.

She moved the pile of furs closer to him without asking first, then crawled back inside, shivering against the cold. At least she felt clean, now. She hadn’t felt clean in a while.

“You should take that honeycomb,” she said, yawning. “It’s really good.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Minnow woke up to the sun in her face and a smoldering fire. The sight of Ari startled her still, until she could acclimate to him as Ari instead of a monster. She yawned, pushing the piles of furs aside and raking her fingers through her hair again. It had dried fluffy, going in every direction and with a halo of split ends.

“Good morning,” Ari said. “Would you like your clothes?” He dragged a hoof over the remains of the fire, mixing it with the dirt to put it out. It felt wrong that something that large could move.

“Yes, please,” she said, smacking her lips and trying to air out her mouth. He dropped them onto her head without ceremony, and she harrumphed as she tried to sort them out. She found a small twig stuck in her chest wrap, and stuck it in her mouth to chew on as she got dressed. Her toe went through a hole in her sock, and she wiggled it thoughtfully.

“You should buy new clothes,” he said.

“Yeah,” she agreed, standing up to roll up his furs and hand them to him. He took them and re-rolled them before putting them into one of his packs. He’d strapped them onto his harness, similar to the saddlebags she used with Piggy but without a central saddle. She wished she’d been awake to see him fastening the straps onto his lower body. She put on her own belt, her sheath and glider and the pack that strapped onto her thigh.

“I can take you to an area of the forest by the closest stable,” he said. “From there, you should be able to find your horse.”

She considered the prospect of mounting him. “It’s fine,” she said. “I still have my glider, if I climb this mountain I can just jump.”

He dropped to his knees, arms crossed, waiting. She felt silly arguing, so she touched her hands to his back, her boot to his harness. She was still worried it would hurt him to pull herself up. “This feels rude,” she protested.

“It’s not,” he said.

She scrambled up onto his back with as much speed and as little grace as she could manage, wanting to get it over with. Trying to find a comfortable seat presented new problems.

“You’re too big,” she complained.

“Try sidesaddle,” he suggested.

“Gross,” she said automatically. But her legs were uncomfortably far apart, and every time she tried to move her pelvis sort of…

Rude. More than rude.

The thing was, none of this would be a problem if she were killing him. She’d ridden Taurils before, climbed onto their backs while they bucked to drive a sword through them. That was easy. But having to worry about his discomfort, about being rude, that made this all very difficult.

She huffed and grumbled, sticking her fingers through some of the metal rings on the leather strap in front of her as he stood. Her grip tightened as he started to trot.

This bouncing was not going to work.

She shut her eyes and pretended she was riding a horse. Or a different Tauril, that she was trying to kill.

She was going to end up absolutely numb between her legs, which was probably for the best but which she still resented.

The transition into a gallop smoothed out the ride, but she still found herself leaning far forward, nearly laying out on Ari’s back. That made it a little easier, resting her cheek against his fur and hooking her boots into the harness strap behind her. She watched the landscape pass them at high speed, saw small gatherings of wayward monsters unable to react to their passing in time.

In some ways, this was very convenient.

A bell echoed in her head.

“Wait,” she said, pulling on his harness as if it were reins. “Can we go back, please?” she said, sitting upright again. “I need to get down, I think we passed something.”

Ari slowed, then turned, retracing his steps at a slow clip until she heard the bell again.

“There,” she said, sliding off his back without waiting for him to stop, stumbling as soon as she hit the ground. She walked in slow and irregular circles, trying to identify where the ringing was loudest. When she found the spot she dropped to her knees, pulling the Starsword out of its sheath and using it to dig into the ground.

It was perhaps not the most respectful use of a magical blade, but it could never break or lose its edge, so she refused to feel bad about it.

She sheathed the sword to start digging with her fingers, until finally they struck what she’d been looking for. A stone, rainbows of light emanating from its center like a prism, its shape irregular and crude.

“A fallen star,” Ari said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Sorry. When I hear one I have to get it right away, otherwise I’ll never find it again.” She opened her pack and tucked it away amidst her berries, wiping dirt off on her thighs.

“Why do you need them?” he asked.

“When the first Starlight Hero and Sunlight Heir and Moonlight Monster were made,” she said, “they went to the Fairy King and asked him to forge them weapons. So he asked for three fallen stars, three crystal sunbeams, and three perfect moonstones. That was how he made the Starsword, the Sunshield, and the Moonbow. But then the Starlight Hero asked if the Fairy King could make him anything else, and the Fairy King told him that if he brought him a thousand fallen stars, he could have whatever he wished.”

“Right,” Ari said. “That was a metaphor. It was an example of an impossible task, to explain how difficult it had been just to make those three legendary weapons.”

She frowned as she stood, displeased to learn that he’d already known the story. It seemed like everyone knew every story before she did, which took all the fun out of telling all the new stories she’d collected.

“Yeah,” she said, walking back towards him. She stopped, bending down to look at a wildflower. “I don’t think I have one of these,” she said, digging into her bag to find her flower book. Then she stood, pulling herself up onto his back with less fuss this time. “People keep telling me that, but it seems like it’s mostly people who know more about books than fairies. Fairies are very literal. It’s actually super annoying.”

“Maybe,” Ari said. “That doesn’t make it any more likely that you can collect a thousand fallen stars.”

“This is my four-hundred thirty-eighth,” she said.

“Bullshit,” he said.

“I keep most of them at home,” she said. “If I had more time, I think I could find a thousand.”

“You have time,” he said.

“Not if Karzarul finds me.”