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Fig slams the tower door shut behind her just in time for the thick stone to catch a gust of dragonbreath from outside. Over the roaring protest of the dragon, she yells: “I’m here to rescue you!”

“Interesting,” says the princess, looking up from her book. “Why?”

The princess has dark skin and a plume of fiery hair jetting up from the top of her head. She doesn’t look like a princess: she’s wearing practical clothes, for one thing, and is holding a book whose title contains so many nonsense syllables that Fig’s brain disconnects before she reaches the third word. There is a satchel with more books slung over her shoulders, and two books in holsters at her hips. On the shelves behind her – shocker – even more books.

“What do you mean, why?” Fig says. “You’re a princess and you’re trapped! In a tower! I’m here to let you out! It’s like the whole – that’s the whole knight thing!”

“Are you a knight?”

“Yeah!” Fig lies.

“So in this scenario, my role is to be the symbol of your status? Is that normal? Do knights typically move trapped people from place to place in order to obtain some form of social clout?”

“Uh—”

Fuck, that’s a lot for Fig to try and focus on at once. She wasn’t expecting the questions. Honestly she was mostly just expecting to pick up this princess like a bag of groceries and get going – instead she’s standing here, getting battered by questions and feeling a single bead of sweat roll down her spine. This suit of armor pinches like a motherfucker. Fuck Gorgug’s reassurances that he could shrink it down to her size. He beefed it.

And this chick is still talking. “—specific to princesses? How many princesses are trapped in towers, and how many have been rescued, in order for this to be a prevalent expectation? Is a knight obligated by some form of contract or oath to res—”

There’s an angry screech of Draconic from outside the tower.

“Hm,” the princess says. “Well. You’ve angered the tower guardian, so your argument has gained considerable weight. If you’ll give me a few weeks to shrink down the tower library—”

“Lady, we definitely don’t have a few weeks.”

“I’m not a lady. Are you referring to me by gender instead of title or name? That’s extremely rude, and the fact that you don’t know my name makes it only partially forgivable.” She pauses, swallows. “Also,” she says. “I’m Ayda. Aguefort. I’m not sure if you knew that already.”

“Fuck, sorry,” Fig says. “I’m really new at this, actually. And I’m Fig?” (She should have lied.) “I’m Fig. Hi. It’s really nice to meet you. Don’t you – don’t you want to get out of here?”

“I don’t know,” Ayda says quietly.

“Do you want to find out?” Fig holds out a hand, sweating in its makeshift gauntlet. “If you don’t like it I can bring you back, probably. Though the dragon out there really is a nasty piece of work so I can’t guarantee I’ll get you back safely—”

“I can take care of myself,” Ayda says. She takes Fig’s hand. They stand there, holding hands.

Ayda’s very pretty. A lot of bony angles. She makes eye contact like a punch to the nose. She’s making eye contact with Fig right now, actually. Very intense eye contact.

“In case that wasn’t clear,” Ayda says, “I was accepting your offer—”

“Hell yeah!” Fig says. “Okay! Let’s do this!” She licks her dry lips and whistles up a Dimension Door; they appear in a flash of magic down the charred hill outside of the tower. She can distantly hear the dragon yelling at the door. It would be cool if Fig spoke Draconic, so she could understand what’s going on, but she doesn’t, so she’ll just assume it’s a lot of different ways to yell fuck.

She tugs at Ayda’s hand (they’re still holding hands) (Fig should let go of her hand) (but it’s practical!) and pulls them down the hill, towards the road to the city with the castle that has the regent who has a hundred thousand gold that’s waiting for Fig to earn it. She can’t forget about the castle regent and his hundred thousand gold. The memory of it keeps stabbing her as she tumbles her way down, armor catching and pulling and scraping at her skin, Ayda’s hand burning a hole in her hand. At the bottom of the hill she stops to heave in deep breaths and – finally – drop Ayda’s hand.

“Okay,” Fig says. “Okay. Okay. Wow. Fuck.”

“Oh,” Ayda says. “We’ve reached the end of our transaction?”

No no no no,” Fig says, leaping forward to grab Ayda’s hand again. (Her hand?) (Like grab her arm, Fig! Come on!) (Don’t grab her hand! Again!) “The transaction is still really super going. I have to take you home! Back to the castle! And make sure you don’t get eaten along the way by, like, a Beholder or something.”

“That wouldn’t happen. Beholders typically know better than to prey on wizards, and I’m a very powerful wizard.” Ayda blinks a few times at Fig. “The transaction continues until you’ve returned me to my father, then?”

“Basically!” Fig says, and tries not to wince at my father.

“I don’t like ‘basically’. ‘Basically’ muddies the waters of what seemed to be a perfectly clear enterprise. The fact that all of this was confirmed verbally, and not with some sort of written contract, does that make our knight-princess agreement non-binding? Is this some sort of—”

“Let’s keep walking!” Fig says, and keeps walking. Ayda obediently trots up to meet her and walk next to her. She looks very distracted by the plants that are poking out of the dragon-scorched earth; Fig takes advantage of this to try and bullshit her way out of hot water.

“Verbal agreement is totally fine,” she says. “You consented to being rescued, I consented to rescuing you, everything is A-okay and aboveboard!”

“Cool,” Ayda says absentmindedly, looking wide-eyed at the sky and the trees and the rough edges of the path starting to sketch themselves out beneath them. “It’s a big relief to hear that. I like being aboveboard, and I appreciate your professionalism.”

“That’s me!” Fig says. “A consummate professional.”

“I can tell. Are you also a wizard?”

“What?” Fig says. “No. What? No! I’m a knight!”

“Is it impossible to be both?”

“I don’t know. Theoretically it may be possible to overlap wizardhood and knighthood, but I wouldn’t know, because I’m not a wizard. I have a little magic, I guess? But it’s like…knight magic. Also totally aboveboard, for knighthood.”

“That makes sense,” Ayda says. She stares openly at a flock of birds as they fly by; as they leave her line of sight, she continues: “I’ve never met another wizard before. There wasn’t any logical reason for that to change simply because I’d left the tower.”

“You’re a wizard?”

“Yes,” Ayda says. “I would in fact argue that I am more of a wizard than a princess. Is that a problem?”

“I mean, you are a princess, right?”

“Yes,” Ayda says – not to Fig, necessarily, but to something six inches to Fig’s left. “By title and by heritage. I don’t know if our binding contract relies on the title of princess or the royal magic that’s inherent in my bloodline, but I do have both, so it’s all cool. The royal magic doesn’t have anything to do with me being a wizard, by the way. I studied for that. For a very long time. That’s why I think of myself as more of a wizard than a princess, because neither the title nor the blood magic have been relevant while I’ve been locked in a tower. It’s not actually very useful blood magic. It just gives you power over the realm, which has never been helpful to me, because I was locked in a – I’m talking too much. I haven’t talked to anyone in a really long time. Gosh, it’s bright out here. Woo. The sun! It’s real and it’s all over.”

“You good?” Fig says.

“Mmmm,” Ayda says, and she promptly sits down in the middle of the path.

“Shit!” Fig says. “You’re not good. What’s wrong? Are you poisoned? Do you—”

Ayda is staring manically at one particular patch of grass in front of her. She sucks in a breath and says, in a rat-a-tat monologue: “It’s just very bright out here and there’s a lot of sound and also a breeze which means there are smells and none of this is familiar to me and it’s the first time I’ve experienced any of it in the last twelve years because the tower didn’t have any windows I could open and it’s just – mmmm.”

Fig sits down next to her. Beads of sweat are springing up on Ayda’s forehead – which is shitty, because it would ruin Fig’s entire plan if Ayda died, but is even more shitty because Ayda is a person, sitting here in front of Fig, very visibly in pain.

“Uh,” Fig says, “uh,” and hums a manic melody – a spiral of deep bass notes that floods the space around the two of them with magical darkness. Fig shuts her eyes instinctively and listens to Ayda’s quick, hiccupping breathing. “Is this better?” she says quietly.

“Yes,” Ayda says, voice strained. “Incredible. I didn’t study the Darkness spell because I didn’t think it would be useful in a tower with no windows. That was a very clever use of it. My head hurts.”

“Is it okay if I touch your back?” Fig says.

“Uh,” Ayda says. “It would. Yes. Sure.”

Fig fumbles to find Ayda in the dark; she finds the bony angle of Ayda’s wrist, the trembling jut of her shoulder. Eventually she manages to splay her palm against Ayda’s back and rub it in circles. It’s been a long time since somebody did this for me, she could say, but she doesn’t say it, because it wouldn’t help anything. I probably shouldn’t do this for you: another truth that would ruin everything if she said it out loud.

I’m not bringing you back to your dad: probably the worst truth of all of them, which means that her urge to tell Ayda this is not just unproductive but also really fucking stupid.

She feels Ayda pulling in breaths – her back rises and falls against Fig’s hand. “This isn’t normal,” Ayda says quietly.

“Fuck normal,” Fig says. “You were in a friggin’ tower for – you said twelve years, right?”

“That is what I said. It’s also the truth. Mostly. The truth is actually twelve years, six months, four days, and approximately thirteen hours – I rounded up the hours, just then, because I wasn’t sure if that would be helpful. Actually, it’s very possible that none of this is helpful and I’m being weird again.”

“It’s not weird,” Fig says. She gnaws at her lip and says: “That’s a really long time.”

“It doesn’t take that long to get used to it,” Ayda says. Her breathing shudders back into something resembling normal. Fig sits and listens to the rhythm of it – 12/8, 6/8, 3/4, slow.

“I think the Darkness spell is going to quit soon,” she says eventually. “Are you okay to keep going?”

“Absolutely,” Ayda says immediately, and then: “I’m sorry.”

“Dude, don’t be sorry. Seriously. We totally went zero to sixty with all the colors and smells and stuff, and that’s my bad. Just, like – let me know if you need to stop again, okay? I actually can only do this Darkness thing once per day but I can like cover your eyes or something.”

“Okay,” Ayda says. Slowly, the darkness bleeds out of the world – revealing the sky first, then the tops of the trees, then the world around them, and then Ayda. She has hunched herself over into something four times smaller. Fig’s hand is still on her back.

Ayda squints at the blue sky, ebbing towards sunset. She blinks at the grass on the side of the road. She glares at the trees. “I’m going to process this,” she says. The stubborn set of her jaw makes Fig feel like cheering; she wishes that it didn’t.

She pulls her hand off of Ayda’s back and, not knowing what to do with it, fidgets with the end of her braid. “Well,” she says, “you do that. Totally unrelated but I’m tired and I think I’m gonna set up camp here. Is that cool?”

“You’re tired.” The laser of Ayda’s attention is once again focused on Fig. “I’m so sorry. You had to get past the tower guardian to reach me. You’ve been through intense combat and then burned two spell slots to help me get out of the tower. I’m a fool. You should absolutely rest. Shall I devote all of my magical energy to slowing the passage of time, ensuring that you can sleep for both a thousand years and only a moment?”

“Whoa. You can do that?”

“No. I was just going to try really hard. My father could do it” (don’t wince!) “because he is an extremely talented wizard in addition to being the king of the realm.” (Be cool!) “I haven’t yet reached his skill level. Someday I will surpass him, break free of my bonds, and duel him in a fated battle between our two generations, but I couldn’t really do that now, mostly because he could just Counterspell all of my magical attacks and then I would look super dumb.”

“He sounds cool,” Fig says cautiously.

“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him since he locked me in a tower.” Ayda twists the strap of her satchel back and forth and says: “Are we camping here, then? I can magically fortify the space. This space. If this is the space we’re camping in.”

“Dope,” Fig says. “I mean – this place looks pretty good, right? Easy to make a fire and stuff.” She dumps her heavy-ass rucksack to the ground, pulls out her bedroll. “Oh,” she says, “I only have one of these. Shit. Sorry! You can sleep on that, I’m gonna pile up some leaves or something.”

“That won’t be comfortable.”

“Nah, it’ll be fine. I’m fucking rugged. Do you need water? You probably need water. Here’s my canteen. Lemme know if you need food, but all I’ve got is dried meat and bread.”

Ayda takes the canteen very carefully in both hands. “Why is the meat dry.”

“I don’t actually know. Salt?”

It’s been a while since Fig’s really talked to someone for an extended length of time. Like, it hasn’t been twelve years, but besides Gorgug she doesn’t spend a lot of time really sitting and talking to people. Especially not about dried meat. But she’s setting up the campfire and Ayda is stringing up silver thread around the campfire and they just keep talking about salt, and where salt comes from, and who even came up with curing meat with it, and then the fire’s set up and they’re splitting a handful of bread and gross dried meat and Ayda is describing her tower library (apparently it’s awesome) and Fig has peeled her armor off and is talking about Adaine and Adaine’s familiar and Ayda is talking about the process of learning new spells and then they’re both talking about spells they’ve heard of and spells they don’t understand and spells they wish they knew and it’s late and they’re lying on the ground, curled in towards each other like parentheses, and Fig is lowering her voice to tell Ayda what she wants. Like, what she really wants. The road and the taverns and the calluses on her hands from her bass strings and the steady thrumming heartbeat of Gorgug’s drums and the world and the magic of it and all of these things she should not be telling Ayda, who is a person, who should not be a person, who should just be one hundred thousand gold in the shape of a girl. A vessel filled to the top with magical blood. A sack of groceries.

Unfortunately, she isn’t. Fig is facing away from the fire, and Ayda is facing towards it, and the fire lights up her eyes until they sear themselves into the back of Fig’s eyelids and are terribly, stupidly, awfully real.

God, Fig is so close. She’s never been closer to it. She just needs

(one hundred thousand gold)

a little bit of a push, and then she’s there.

“Describe your music to me,” Ayda says, and Fig jolts back. The fire in Ayda’s eyes is curling in on itself and purring into embers. Her eyes are still very solidly on Fig’s eyes.

“Um,” Fig says. “It’s like modern…sort of, like, combative…like, really sort of raising a middle finger to the concept of society as a whole, you know?”

“Fascinating. Fascinating. I actually meant what it sounds like. Do you have an instrument?”

“Yeah!” Fig says, sitting bolt upright. “I have my—” and her hand finds the hilt of the fucking sword she’d grabbed. “Ah, shit. No. Sorry.”

A braver, softer, better Fig whispers: you should tell her. Tell her you don’t even know how to hold that thing. Tell her you’re not a knight, or a hero, or anything except a liar. Tell her about the money. Tell her what happened to her dad. Tell her—

Instead of all that, she says “Whoops!” in what is probably the shrillest and least sincere voice of all time. “I think I’m gonna go to sleep now, actually, because I’m super tired.”

Ayda’s brow furrows. “I’ve misspoken.”

“No! No, you’re fine. I really am just tired.” That’s a lie! She’s lying! It should be a thrill; it should also be a relief. While she’s waiting for it to be either of those things, she says: “Thanks for listening to all that stuff about music. I know it’s sort of hard to translate from, like, reality to explanation.”

“It wasn’t hard,” Ayda says. “In fact, you made it all very easy for me to understand. Thank you for – well. Thank you.”

“For sure,” Fig says, the words tumbling out of her mouth and wobbling off in Ayda’s direction. “Good night!”

“Good night, Fig,” Ayda says, and she closes her eyes and appears to go immediately unconscious. God, Fig wishes she had that skill – but she doesn’t, so she just has to lie there and feel guilty and hear Ayda saying thank you on loop in the back of her brain. When she closes her eyes, the notes of it haunt her; the singsong rhythm of those two words grows arms and hands and grabs at other parts of her mind, tries its absolute hardest to grow into a song. No, Fig tells it, we don’t make songs about people, we especially don’t make songs about temporary people, are you crazy? Are you insane? but the song doesn’t answer her. Its tempo pulses against her skull.

She hasn’t even fallen asleep yet when she opens her eyes and realizes she’s awake. There’s drool crusted down her chin, and the sun is rising, and she was asleep – somehow. She doesn’t remember being asleep. She doesn’t remember what she dreamed about. Ayda’s still asleep; she’s curled up into a little ball, frowning intently as she dreams. It’s a little adorable and a little heartbreaking. Not that Fig is thinking about it.

She stands up and starts to scuff out the fire; as soon as the first clump of dirt hits, Ayda sits bolt upright and stares right at Fig.

“Hi!” Fig says. “Good morning. It’s just me, Fig. I’m Fig. Hi!”

“You’re Fig,” Ayda says, and then immediately starts crying.

“Oh, shit.”

“I’m fine,” Ayda says, as tears continue to pour down her face. “I’m good. Oh god. Aaaaagh. You’re real. I thought I had finally mastered lucid dreaming, or had made a mistake on a spell and transported myself to another dimension where I had friends. Wait. Are we friends? Oh no. Oh god. Once again, I have completely beefed the boundaries of our social contract. I have to leave.” And she’s immediately on her feet. Still crying.

“Don’t go!” Fig says.

The tears increase.

“We’re friends!” Fig says desperately. (Oh, fuck, she’s not lying.) (She should have lied!) “We’re totally friends. I suppose this could all be a figment of your sleeping mind, but I definitely feel real. Does that help? Oh geez. Ayda, you’re gonna get dehydrated. It’s okay! Please stop crying.”

“Guh,” Ayda says. “Haa. Okay. Normal. This is all very normal. We’re friends. Wow. I can’t believe it. I was completely alone as of yesterday morning, and within the last twenty-four hours I have met an extremely cool person, interacted with them many times, and have become their friend through an aboveboard verbal agreement. My riches are uncountable.”

She seems so completely and genuinely excited. Fig’s head is a clamor of voices, all of them yelling at each other: tell her, don’t tell her, hug her, hold her, leave her. Be rich! Be famous! Be loved! Be better! Be true! Be tricky! Be smarter than this! and the sound of all of it, always, ripping at the edges of her mind. She steps forward through all the din and raises a hand to wipe the tears off of Ayda’s cheek.

Ayda stares at her. Fig’s hand stops and trembles in mid-air. All the Figs inside of Fig stop yelling at each other for a second to stare back at Ayda through her eyes.

“Cool,” Fig says roughly. (Cool?) (Cool?!) She takes a hurried step back. “I – we’re cool, right? Was that not cool?”

“We’re cool,” Ayda says. “Extremely cool.” She swallows. “You’re a very kind person, Fig. I feel very lucky to be here with you.”

“Well,” Fig says. “I mean, you’re also extremely kind! So really, when you think about it, I’m the lucky one.”

Ayda starts crying again.

“I do this a lot,” she says through the thick veil of her tears. “It’s fine. I’m fine. We can keep – guh – traveling. Walking. Walking towards, towards the castle, which is the direction we’re walking. Together. As friends. God.”

Fig silently hands Ayda her canteen again and goes to roll up the bedroll. “Hey,” she says. “Did you use this at all?”

“No.”

“Dude! Doesn’t your back hurt?!”

Ayda drinks some more from the canteen and awkwardly shuffles from foot to foot. She says: “You were – I didn’t want to move. Away from you. Is that very strange? That’s a normal thing, for a person to want to be close to their friends?”

Fig packs up the bedroll and hoists her rucksack back over her shoulders. The guilt adds an extra six hundred pounds to its already shitty weight. “Well, stick close to me today, got it? For friendship reasons and for safety reasons.”

“Beholders.”

“Yeah! Beholders.”

“If one dares approach I will banish it to a plane beyond time and memory.”

“Honestly, every time you talk about your magic it just sounds cooler.”

“Thank you,” Ayda says, joining Fig as they meander down the path. She’s got her satchel slung over her shoulder and is shifting its weight back and forth while she walks. “I really like talking about it,” she says. “Wizardry, that is. The particular and complicated work of learning and using a new spell is one of my very favorite things. Is it – that’s not how it is for you, is it?”

Fig shrugs, kicks a pebble and sends it skittering forward along the path. “I think my process of spellwork is a lot more, um, organic than that. Spells just come to me! Not through studying, per say, more…growing. They grow.”

“Fascinating,” Ayda says. She looks genuinely thrilled – so what else can Fig do besides try her fumbling best to explain her magic? How she’d started out small and then gotten bigger and gotten her hands on her bass guitar and it worked, finally, all of it clicked into place, something finally made sense and was right and was good

“Exactly,” Ayda says, “yes, things – things rarely feel right for me, but magic—”

“Yeah! Yeah! It’s like, like having another limb, sort of, or finally being able to say what you mean—”

“—affecting the world through a clear and precise language—”

“Like this!” Fig says, and she grabs Ayda’s hand, and she flicks her fingers over the invisible chords of thank you, and a Dimension Door whirls them into nothing and back again. If she had her bass, it’d be farther; as it is they appear in a flash of scarlet a hundred or so feet down the path.

“Sorry,” Fig says, laughter catching at the edge of her voice. “Sorry, I totally should have warned you first, that was – I mean, you already knew I could do that, but like – you get it, right? Like, it’s just – space is like this overlapping series of – ow! Are you okay? You’re squeezing my hand, like, a lot.”

“You were talking,” Ayda says, “and what you were saying was very precise and very poetic, and I didn’t want to interrupt it, but I did want to show my support for what you were saying, so I thought that would work, but it didn’t. I’m sorry if I hurt you. You are truly skilled at taking your lived experience and translating it in a way that is not only comprehensible, but also incredibly beautiful.”

“Thanks,” Fig says quietly. She squeezes Ayda’s hand back. “So? Show me what you got, girl!”

A smile flicks fingers at the corners of Ayda’s mouth and she pulls a book out of its holster with her one free hand. “I’ve only cast this on myself,” she says, paging frantically through what’s probably her spellbook, “but I have cast it on myself many times, because walking up stairs is difficult when I’m trying to read, and – I’m explaining too much. Anyways, this is the Fly spell.” She flicks her hands in a precise series of movements, and she and Fig both bob up a foot into the air. Fig shrieks a little as they rise, just from the sheer cool factor.

“You could fly this whole time?

“For ten minutes.”

“You could fly for ten minutes this whole ti—okay, wait, I can’t waste any of this. I will not waste a fricking second of this. Come on!”

It is a very good ten minutes. They don’t go too high, in part because Fig thinks to herself: this is a girl who has not seen the sky for years and years. Ayda will fall up and keep falling and Fig will not be able to get her back; that’s terrible, because

of

one hundred thousand gold, fuck. She can’t let Ayda get too far because she needs to bring Ayda to the castle and then to the regent and then get the one hundred thousand gold and then blow this joint for other joints where things are better and people will finally get her. And her music. And how she feels about her music, fuck. Fuck.

So anyways there’s a really good ten minutes and yeah, fine, there’s a good period after that where they just fuck around with Prestidigitation and Fig actually makes Ayda laugh – it sounds like a scream when she laughs, which shouldn’t be cute – and they hang out and eat more bread and dried meat and Fig makes a grass whistle and Ayda tries and fails to make a grass whistle and Fig shows off how cool her spells can be even when she only has a grass whistle and not her actual bass. They walk some more, they fly some more. The shape of the city begins to loom in the distance; every second that passes makes it grow just a little bit bigger, a little bit more real.

Fig makes camp when the sun goes down, and Ayda strings up her wire in a circle around the fire.

“Man,” Fig says when Ayda sits down, “it’s gonna be so good to eat something besides dried meat.”

“I haven’t eaten anything besides conjured food for most of my life,” Ayda says. “This is a thrilling change. Bread is normal. I understand bread. Dried meat is a sphinx’s riddle, guarding a treasure hoard of protein. Truly fascinating.”

“It’s actually really cool that you see this as a learning opportunity,” Fig says. “I kinda want to start looking at things like that.”

“I like the way you look at things,” Ayda says. Fig risks a look at her sideways – Ayda, alive in the firelight, saying earthshaking things like they’re nothing. Gnawing on a piece of dried meat like the world’s most stubborn hamster. Fig shouldn’t like her. Fig has to stop liking her. Ayda is—

Ayda is just—

She’s really—

Ayda is all sorts of things. Fig should not list them, and she absolutely should not think about them.

“Hey,” she says, stomach full of the giddy butterflies she only gets when she’s about to break something. She swallows. She says: “Did anyone tell you about your dad?”

Ayda’s head practically breaks her neck with how quickly it turns to Fig. “What?” she says. “What happened to him.”

“You didn’t get a—”

“Fig,” Ayda says. “Fig. Please tell me what happened.”

Ruin it! yells a Fig in the back of Fig’s mind. Another one screams: don’t hurt her! and a third yells don’t let her hurt you! and one yells too close! and another yells not close enough! and Fig says fine, fine, fine, fine, and shoves the words out of her mouth so they fall between her and Ayda like a mouthful of razors.

“He’s in another plane,” she says. “That’s why I came to get you. You’re the only one who has that magic royal blood going on, it’s just – there’s only you.”

“Another plane?” Ayda says. Tears are already starting to stream from her eyes. “Which plane.”

“I don’t know.”

“You didn’t tell me.”

“I didn’t want to hurt you.” (She should have lied!)

“We should be – I should be—” Ayda stands up and starts pacing jerkily around the little sphere of silver thread. “I’ve used all my spell slots. Foolish. I don’t even know which plane to shift to. If I were to – but no. That wouldn’t help. That wouldn’t help. I can’t do anything to help. Why am I running to help him in the first place? He never came to help me. Not once. Didn’t answer my Sending spells. Didn’t tell me why he – I don’t owe him—” She looks at Fig again, eyes blown wide-open and desperate. “Who sent you here?”

“Your dad’s regent? Golden – uh – the Goldenguy. That guy. He needs – you’ve got the royalty magic, I guess?”

“I don’t know him!”

“Me either, honestly.”

“Is he a talented regent?”

“I don’t really know what metric we use to judge regents, if I’m being perfectly honest.”

Ayda sits back down on the ground. “What does he – what can I do? I’ve never studied royal etiquette. I have no experience. I’m not a princess. I’m a wizard.” She stands back up. “I’m a wizard.” She sits down again. “I have to—” and then she stands up and freezes there. Fig is biting the inside of her lip as hard as she possibly can to keep herself from standing up, hugging Ayda, and telling her that it’s going to be okay. Ruin it, says a Fig, quietly; hurt her. Fig says: well, I hurt her. Now what?

Ayda sits back down on the ground in a motion that is less of a lowering and more of a sudden drop. “Fig,” she says. “Will you help me find him.”

“What?” Fig says.

“You’re my best friend,” Ayda says desperately. “You’re magically proficient. You’re a knight. Do you know Plane Shift?”

“What? No. What? No, I – Ayda, I—”

“I’ve escalated too quickly. I’m becoming overly emotional, I shouldn’t have called you my best friend. That’s technically true but not helpful to this conversation. I’m so sorry. I take it back. I take it all back.” She looks fucking miserable. Fig – in the least helpful thing she has ever done in the entire history of her small and stupid life – starts crying.

“No,” she says, “we are – we are best friends. Fuck. Yeah, Ayda, of course I’ll help you find your dad. I have absolutely no clue where he is, besides not at the castle, but I’ll get you to the castle and you can help find the king – your dad – the dad-king. With some dope wizard magic. It’ll be totally awesome.”

“Thank you,” Ayda says, her voice completely wrecked by tears. She buries her head against Fig’s shoulder, which gives Fig plenty of time and space to really just feel like a piece of shit. She puts her arm around Ayda. It’s like holding an armful of fireplace pokers.

“I really don’t want anything bad to happen to you,” she says. Another Fig says: oh, no, you’ve really fucked up this one. You can’t even get someone to hate you right.

Ayda snuffles against Fig’s shoulder. “That…is…that is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

“It shouldn’t be. People should tell you nice stuff all the time. You’re super smart and analytical and thoughtful and so genuinely interested in everything around you! In a way that makes me want to take more interest in the world! And you’re an incredible wizard! I bet people will tell you that all the time when—”

Fuck.

“Well, anyways, I’m sorry I just dropped that on you. About your dad. I thought – I don’t know.”

“I’m glad to know,” Ayda says. “I didn’t know what I was going to say to him. When I saw him. Now I have more time to think about it.” Her elbow is digging into a soft spot where Fig’s shitty armor does not quite connect. Fig doesn’t move.

“Well,” Fig says, “if you’re trying to figure out what to say to him, you can practice on me! If you want.”

“Why would I do that? You’re not my dad. Are you my dad? You’re not my dad. You’re Fig.”

“I’m Fig. And I’m definitely not your dad.”

“Okay. Cool. Not that I thought you were my dad. Wow, that was a confusing few seconds. Cool. Cool. Great. I’m – ha! Ha ha.”

“Maybe you should go to bed,” Fig says.

“I’m not tired,” Ayda says immediately, sitting bolt upright and blinking at Fig. “You take the bedroll.”

“Ayda—”

“Your back hurts. I don’t want your back to hurt. I’m not going to sleep anyways, there’s something – I need – there’s something important that I need to research.” She pulls off her satchel and rummages around in it, pulls out a few books – like she’s saying look, see? I have tons of research to do.

“I mean, okay, but – are you sure you’re good? I can stay up with you if you want.”

Ayda blinks at her again. “Go to sleep, Fig,” she says. Her voice is very soft, and even the consonants of Fig’s name are somehow kind.

“Okay,” Fig says. “But wake me up if there’s any monsters—” (cool, fine) “—or if you get lonely or want to talk or anything.” (Fuck.)

Ayda nods absentmindedly; she’s already paging through her spellbook, eyebrows knotted together in consternation.

“Cool,” Fig says. “Good night.” She lies down on her bedroll and watches Ayda’s hunched back as she reads and writes and flickers with the last embers of the firelight. Fig’s heart is all swollen up with guilt and tenderness. You didn’t work hard enough to make her hate you and you didn’t work hard enough to make her love you and maybe it’s good that she likes you so much, it’ll make it easier when she dies. She can’t hold on to the last thought for too long, it burns her hands, she can’t hold it. She narrows her eyes and watches the occasional twitch of Ayda’s shoulderblades, even as her vision blurs with water. She keeps on watching Ayda until all of the thoughts in her head have gone.

When Fig closes her eyes, finally, she can still hear the sound of Ayda flipping back and forth in her books. The rapid turning of pages sounds like wings; she slips easily into a dream, and the sound follows her down. She dreams that she’s awake, and Ayda is sitting right there, but when Fig reaches out a hand to her Ayda turns into a flock of birds – all of their wings flapping with that quick sharp sound of turning pages. Fig opens her mouth to say wait, but by the time she’s pulled in a breath they’re already flying away from her. Ayda is already flying away from her, being swallowed up by the sky until she’s gone.

When Fig blearily comes to consciousness the next morning, Ayda is still there and still awake; her eyes are dry and red and she’s scribbling something in yet another book. “Hi,” Fig croaks, and Ayda lets out a noise like a teakettle and drops the book.

“Fig,” she says. “Fig. You’re still Fig. And you’re awake. Hello.”

Fig sits up, yawning; she rubs at the gunk in the corner of her eyes. “Did you sleep at all?” she says.

Ayda considers this for a moment, eyes narrowed. “No.”

Ayda.”

“I was busy,” Ayda says decisively. “Did you sleep? Was it pleasant? Are you sufficiently recovered from the trials and tribulations of your waking life to embark on them once again, continuing the inherently Sisyphean struggle of existence?”

Fig blinks at her. “I miss coffee,” she says.

“What is coffee.”

“It’s…it’s like, this incredibly caffeinated bean juice that triggers certain functions in your brain in order to make you feel more awake than you are. After a certain amount of time, your brain begins to depend on caffeine to wake up, so when you don’t have coffee you—” she has to stop to let out a yawn that cracks her jaw open. “It’s just – better than meat and bread. Totally unrelated but do you want some meat and bread? That’s breakfast.”

Ayda blinks a few times. “Yes,” she says. “I would like that very much. Hm. I forgot to eat again. Unfortunate.”

Fig rummages around in her bag and hands some meat and bread to Ayda; Ayda shoves the food into her mouth with the ruthless efficiency of someone shoveling coal into a furnace. She swallows it in one bite. Says: “We’re still walking today, correct?”

“Yup,” Fig says. All of her bones crack when she stands up, and she groans despite herself as she kicks dirt onto the fire, packs up her bedroll and rucksack. “So, um – we’re like, maybe two days’ journey away from the capital, just walking, unless you want to like team up and Dimension Door ‘n Fly to get there faster?”

“I would like that,” Ayda says, “very much, but – hm. Hm.” She taps each of her fingers together one by one.

“What’s up?”

Ayda sucks in a breath. “I’ve constructed a difficult puzzle for myself,” she says quickly. “Sleep is essential. My research is – not essential, but potentially very promising. Sacrificing one for the other leaves a forfeit of something important. Theoretically the best use of my time would be continuing my studies now, while we’re walking, but that would mean less time engaging in pleasant conversation about arbitrary topics with you, which also feels essential and promising. To add an additional complication, I would very much like to magically collaborate with you. I can’t pick all of these things, so no matter which way you slice it I lose. Do people make these sorts of incredibly difficult decisions a lot, when it comes to the conflict of their biological needs, their academic pursuits, and nurturing potential relationships with the people they care about?”

“Yeah,” Fig says. “Pretty much all the time. With money too. Like – you may want something, or not want to do something with your life, necessarily, but you need the money from it, so you have to sacrifice your relationships and dreams and stuff to make sure you can afford food and a roof over your head and some drinks with friends sometimes.”

“A truly maddening amount of needs and variables.”

“Maddening’s a good word for it. It makes me mad. I – I guess what I’m trying to say here is that you can totally study today and we can just keep walking! I’ll make sure you don’t walk into any tree branches or anything.”

“And that wouldn’t be weird of me to do?”

“No, not at all. Get your wizard on, dude.”

Ayda immediately goes scrabbling into her satchel (of Holding?) and pulls out two more books. With a flick of her wrist, an arcane hand grabs one of the books and holds it out in front of Ayda; she starts walking forward, taking the hand with her, scribbling notes from one book into the other. Fig walks along behind her.

Then beside her.

Again, the sound of a million wings.

Fig can hear so many Figs hissing between the pages of Ayda’s books; each Fig hates Fig for one reason or another. She’s being too kind, she’s not being kind enough. She’s being too cruel, she’s not being cruel enough. She’s indecisive, she’s evil, she’s not a good enough liar. She knows all of this already – she understands that all of these things are true at the same time, and each and every one of them is entirely her fault. She gets it.

On paper, this was all so fucking easy. Get the princess and her magic blood. Bring her to the castle. Get the money. Forget about the princess forever, buy a solid gold bass guitar, be happy, try to be happy, whatever. In practice, the sky is blue and the path is made of dirt and Ayda is walking next to Fig, muttering to herself in a whistling singsong language that might be Celestial, her hand every now and then reaching up to ruffle through her flame-bright hair.

It honestly should not be a contest.

People have walked away from Fig her entire life – they’ve walked away from her music, and they’ve walked away from her ideas, and they’ve walked away to avoid seeing her or hearing her or knowing her in any way whatsoever. It should be easy, just this one time, for Fig to walk away. She should be able to hand Ayda over to Goldenhoard—

—yeah, she knows his fucking name—

—and let him do his creepy blood magic to take over the realm or whatever the fuck. It was supposed to be easy. She’d told Gorgug it would be easy, and Gorgug had stopped and stared at her—

—because that dumb motherfucker had absolutely known that she would not be able to handle it. Goddamnit.

You have to tell her, says Gorgug – except it isn’t Gorgug, it’s just another fucking Fig. Fig, walking next to Fig, eyes as bright and sharp and cold as icicles. You have to tell her you’re a liar, and you didn’t jailbreak her to help her get her dad back.

She’ll hate me, Fig says. I’d hate me! I hate me! I don’t want—

Like it matters what you want, says Fig. She smiles. You like her too much, so you’ll tell her that she’s just meat and magic to you. And then she’ll leave you. And then you won’t get jack shit, and that’s what you deserve.

Fig looks at Ayda, and also Fig looks at Ayda. Ayda is mouthing something to herself and is not at all looking where she’s walking – because she trusts Fig, because Fig told her that she wouldn’t let her walk into anything. I really don’t want anything bad to happen to you. Fig watches a sharp rock come towards them in the middle of the path; she watches herself put her hand in the small of Ayda’s back and steer her away from the rock, so she doesn’t get hurt. Hours pass like this and Fig does not let Ayda step on a single rock. She passes the time. She looks into the sun, even though it hurts; she looks at the space where another Fig was walking next to her, even though she knows there won’t be anything there. Ayda does not look up from her book even one time – Fig pushes her gently around tree branches and rocks and Ayda follows, pliant, easy, utterly trusting.

And then the sun sets, and it’s time to make camp.

Fig finds logs and sticks and kindling, and Ayda sits herself down on the ground – without looking up, still scribbling away at notes. Then she stands up, because Fig pulls her to standing, and she keeps taking notes. Then she sits down on the bedroll Fig has put underneath her and she keeps taking notes. Fig builds a fire; Ayda keeps taking notes. Fig puts some dried meat in Ayda’s hand, and Ayda bites into it, and then she blinks and looks up from her book and stops taking notes.

“It’s dark,” Ayda says.

“It’s nighttime.”

Ayda frowns and blinks at Fig, and the sky, and the fire. Finally, she says: “You were crying.” The frown returns to Fig. “Why were you crying? Were you upset? What upset you?”

“Oh,” Fig says. “I didn’t – was I crying?”

“Yes,” Ayda says. “Earlier. Hours ago. I was very deeply involved in my research, so I was taking in outside sensory input without processing it, which is to say – I didn’t notice – I wish I – I’m working through everything I saw today but didn’t see, exactly, and this is by far the most important thing. Are you alright?”

“Yeah,” Fig says. “Yeah! Just…”

“Your voice pitched up, and you’ve trailed off without finishing your sentence. Something has happened, but you don’t want to tell me about it. Would you like me to change the subject?”

“I actually would really like that, Ayda.”

“Okay. Well. I’ve finished my research. I was attempting to transcribe a spell, because I thought it would be helpful, and I’m done with it.” She rolls her wrists, flexes her fingers. “I’m going to cast it now.”

She’s already started – the geometric and precise stuttering of finger and wrist – before Fig has time to think wait, or what is this for—

A series of red runes appear, winking in like stray embers, and lines etch themselves in the cool dusk air. The lines meet, and create a door; the door swings open. Inside of the door is the tower.

“It worked!” Ayda says.

“Wait,” Fig says. “Wait wait wait. You’re going back?”

“What?” Ayda says. “No. Do you want me to – no. No. This is a magical simulacrum, it’s – it’s a spell called Magnificent Mansion, because you didn’t like eating dried meat and bread and sleeping on the ground. You were in pain and also just really not into dried meat. This way I could magically conjure up better food and beds. I just, I didn’t have anything to base it off of except for the tower. It’s been a long time since I went anywhere else. Was this a mistake, should I not have—”

Fig is hugging her! She didn’t mean to. She didn’t mean to cry either but she is crying, a little bit, just because all of this is slightly unbearable. She feels seasick. Ayda is already hugging her back.

“Was that good?” Ayda says into Fig’s shoulder.

“That was the coolest thing anyone has ever done,” Fig says.

Ayda lets out this small sharp breath and doesn’t say anything. The hug goes on – past the point it should go on, but not as long as Fig wants it to go. She lets go eventually. “Show me around!” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of time to look around since, uh, there was a dragon.”

“It was very impressive that you got past him in the first place,” Ayda says, standing up and tugging the cuffs of her pants until they’re even. “His combat skills are formidable. I cast Message to speak to him through the door once. He assured me he couldn’t be matched in a fight.”

“Yeaaah,” Fig says. “Okay don’t tell anyone but I did actually use illusion magic to turn into your dad and try to run past him.”

Ayda lets out a loud, shrieking laugh. HA! “Dragons are notoriously perceptive,” she says.

“Well, fuck. That’s why it didn’t work for very long!”

“Absolutely incredible.”

Fig follows Ayda through the door and into the tower. Shelves of books stretch up to reach the ceiling; there’s a spiral staircase, a variety of squishy armchairs. Ayda is twisting her hands together, eyes darting around to take in all of the books that she surely must have memorized by heart. Fig watches Ayda watch the books. Fig looks at Ayda’s hands. Fig looks at her own hands. She opens her mouth; she closes it again.

“Would you…could I show you something?” Ayda says.

“Yes,” Fig says. Ayda gives a sharp nod and lunges for the stairs, running up the spiral until she’s no longer visible. Fig follows – up past another room of more bookshelves, another room with more bookshelves (no windows), a room with beds and a table, up and up and up. At last she wheezes her way to the top of the stairs, where she finds Ayda vibrating in a room with a transparent ceiling. Above them, the night sky burns with a thousand cold stars.

“Holy shit,” Fig says. “Whoa. Whoa! Is this glass?”

“Magically reinforced,” Ayda says. “My father wanted me to the see the sky. I assume. He never said anything about it. I’ve found it’s uncomfortable during the day but at night it’s very useful for charting the motion of the stars – obviously this sky is a conjured facsimile, this is all a magical pocket dimension, but I’ve never gotten to show anyone before and I thought you might like it. Or possibly you don’t like it at all, in which case we can go back down the stairs and you can sleep in a bed. I made you your own. That was my only edit. Convincing myself that there were two beds in the tower was—”

Fig bursts into tears again. Useless. She sits down on the ground – there are pillows scattered all over the floor, and astronomy books and magic books and blankets and a pile of books made into a makeshift table, and on the table there’s a plate of magic-looking pastries, and two mugs, and inside of the mugs there’s just wet beans and Fig starts crying so hard that she can’t even breathe through it.

“I’m sorry!” Ayda says. She crouches down next to Fig, looking panicked.

No,” Fig says. “Don’t—” and she loses herself to full-on ugly crying. She buries her face in her hands. You are a bad person, says Fig. You are too soft, says Fig. You failed, you failed, you failed.

Ayda’s hand flutters gently to Fig’s spine, and begins to rub her back in circles. Ayda doesn’t say anything. Her hand is so warm; it’s been such a long time. Fig can’t help herself: she leans into it.

“I’m sorry,” she says, except it comes out more like i’b suh, huh, huh through all of the tears and snot.

“You don’t have anything to apologize fo—”

“I’m not a knight!” she yells – or means to yell, but the words come out boneless and terrified. Fig sucks in a breath that cuts at the inside of her throat and then she’s just going: “I’m not – this isn’t some big rescue mission, your dad’s regent put out this call for knights to come get you so he could use your magic blood to – I don’t know, I think he was gonna kill you! I was trying not to think about it! He was gonna give me so much money! All I had to do was pretend to be a knight, and then bring you back, and – and there was literally no reason not to except for the fact that I like you too friggin’ much, and now that doesn’t even matter because I fucked everything up and now – and this whole time I knew that you were gonna die at the end, Ayda, I knew, and I – you’re just so good! You’re so smart, and kind, and – and you tried to make coffee? I think? Is what those beans are? And you’re so amazing, and your magic kicks ass, and you’re really cool. You’re so fucking cool and I can’t – I really liked it, when I got to be your friend and do fantastic magic with you, but I can’t keep lying. I’m really sorry.”

She tries frantically to wipe some of the snot off her face, but it doesn’t work. So that’s cool – she gets to be snotty and red-faced and puffy-eyed as she stands up, shakes off Ayda’s hand, and starts running back down the stairs of the tower.

“Fig—” but she isn’t listening. She isn’t listening.

Fig.” A hand grabbing her hand.

Fig stops in the stairwell and turns around to see Ayda hovering in midair, wide-eyed, holding Fig’s hand. “Fig,” Ayda says again.

“Aw, man, please don’t kill me,” Fig says, voice weak and wavering.

“I’m not going to – I am trying,” Ayda says, “I am trying to understand. Someone paid you to come here and get me so they could harvest me—”

“Don’t—”

“—for my magical properties, and in exchange they would give you everything you needed to start the life you want more than anything in the world. You’ve decided to reject the terms of this deal because you like me and don’t want any harm to come to me. Am I – is that right?”

Fig nods and lets her gaze move to one of the stone blocks that makes up the wall.

“Why would I be upset about that?” Ayda says softly.

“I was using you,” Fig says. “I wasn’t – I was just lying and trying to get you to trus—”

“Was it a lie? What you told me about your friend, Gorgug, and your ambitions, and how you wanted to travel? Were you lying?”

“Okay, not that time, but—”

“Your music, was that made up?”

“No, no, I get it, actually I’m a shitty liar.” Fig laughs wetly. “I’m just – I’m sorry about all of it, okay? You should have had someone spectacular come and rescue you from your tower and instead it’s me, with my shitty reasons and my, like – my inability to even stick to those reasons, shitty as they may be, and – god. I don’t know! I’m just sorry.”

“I’m glad it was you,” Ayda says. “I like you. Being around you makes me happy.”

“Me too,” Fig mumbles.

“So actually that’s very cool. One hundred percent success on the happiness levels.”

Fig sniffles. “Are you sure you aren’t mad?”

“Yes. Well – no. I’m very mad at my father’s regent, for paying someone to come and fight a dragon and then rescue me and take me to my house to be murdered. I really don’t like that. I am going to exact terrible vengeance upon him, possibly by transforming him into a cricket. Or banishing him to a plane where he’ll fall infinitely until I decide he can hit the ground. Either/or, haven’t decided.”

“The second one’s a lot more badass.”

“I thought so too. Thank you for your feedback.” Ayda squeezes Fig’s hand, very very gently. “I’m not – I’m not mad at you. I feel very fortunate to have met you, and I hope…that you still want to be my friend.”

Fig squeezes Ayda’s hand back and sucks some snot back into her nose. “Guh,” she says. “Honestly, keeping this from you has been killing me, like, since I got to that tower.”

“And now?”

“I don’t know. I guess I feel better.”

“Good,” Ayda says. “Truly incredible.” She’s smiling – not smiling, really, but the corners of her eyes have crinkled up – and then that small smile drops, and she is sharp and solemn. “Now will you come with me and tell me how I messed up the coffee. I thought I got it right based on how you described it, but the fact that you couldn’t necessarily recognize that it was coffee is bad and I am ready and willing to improve it.”

“I mean,” Fig says, “it was my bad, mostly. I said bean juice, you gave me bean juice. I should have been more clear.”

“We’ll meet in the middle,” Ayda says.

It turns out that Ayda can create whatever food she wants as long as the spell lasts – “twenty-four hours, which means there’s still, uh, twenty-two hours, eleven minutes, twelve – eleven—” – so they put their heads together to try and make a better version of coffee. And then they’re both hyped up on magic placebo caffeine, so there’s a very long and manic conversation about the approximate history of coffee, and then other plants that might have weird energy juices in them, and how you’d get those juices, and would any of them taste better than coffee, and how did people even think of coffee, and if you were left alone on a deserted island that just had beans on it how long would it take you to make juice from them? And if you were on that island alone, what would you do to stop being lonely? Were you lonely? I feel like in some ways I’ve always been lonely. Do you know what I mean? Yes, I know what you mean.

The light from the distant imaginary stars touches Ayda’s cheekbones, lights up her eyes. Fake magical caffeine zips through Fig’s veins, and she thinks a million impossible stupid things; she lets them go, she lets them go. It’s just Fig and Ayda, talking about nothing, talking about everything. Finally making everything make sense.

Eventually, the caffeine wears off; they’re lying on the ground, on the pillows, and Ayda is holding her hands up above her to adjust the stars by fussy degrees. Her head is next to Fig’s head, but her feet are pointing the opposite way from Fig’s feet – like two points in a compass. It’s quiet.

So of course Fig ends up breaking the silence. “Do you want to kill him?”

“Hm,” Ayda says. One star wobbles slightly in the sky. “I want…I want to free my father from another plane, even though that’s theoretically a fair punishment for him trapping me in a tower for many years. I don’t think he’d do the same for me. Rescuing me, I mean. I don’t even know if he’s a good father. Or a good king. I still – I don’t want him to suffer. I don’t. If that means killing my father’s rege—what was his name? Goldenguy? You said Goldenguy. That sounds like a fake name that you made up.”

“Yeah, I think it was Goldenfuck.”

Another screech of laughter from Ayda. “That was a joke,” she says. “I can tell. Your voice sounds different when you’re smiling.”

(Fig is smiling.)

“One hundred percent serious,” she says. “Just kidding! It’s Goldenhoard. But, like, who cares what his name is, right? Goldendouche.”

“I understand this game,” Ayda says. “You say the prefix ‘Golden’, and then a noun that could be construed as rude. Golden…mediocrity.”

“Goldenbarf.”

“Goldenbarf! That’s very good. Golden…hm. Golden, the crushing feeling of isolation and ennui that comes with realizing that you are inherently alone in the universe.”

“You win,” Fig says.

“Do I? Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. I’ve finally won a game. Thrilling.” She tilts her head to the side to study Fig. “Do you want to hurt him?”

“Honestly, I don’t think that matters as much.”

“I wasn’t asking if it mattered. Besides, meaning is something that we offer as a gift to the things we care about. It isn’t objective. It matters to you because it matters to you.”

Fig considers this. “I want to kick his ass.”

“Cool. Very cool. Because I’d like it if you were there with me. I don’t really want to do it alone.”

“Hell yeah, girl,” Fig says quietly. “I’m with you.”

Ayda immediately starts crying again. Fig shifts over a little bit, so that part of her skull touches Ayda’s skull, and they both lie there and cry a little bit and watch the stars tick by in precise degrees like an infinitely complicated clock. Fig might be crying because the stars are ticking – because when Ayda makes a magical simulacrum of stars, she makes them rotate sensible degrees at sensible times. Fig doesn’t know why that makes her cry, but Ayda doesn’t call her out on it. So she doesn’t have to confess to anything.

They fall asleep on the floor, even though there are definitely beds downstairs. When Fig wakes up, the sky above her is still dark and full of stars; when she tilts her head to the side she sees Ayda, awake, sitting up and curled up into a little ball, frowning upward at the glass. It’s easy to imagine her like this – sitting here alone. Probably she did this a lot. Above them, one star shoots diagonally through the manufactured sky; Fig wishes on it even though she knows it isn’t real. Please let her be okay. I mean, me too, if you have the energy, but mostly her. Thanks.

The star is now at the other end of the ceiling. It doesn’t say anything.

Fig makes a big deal out of shifting and yawning and slowly waking up, giving Ayda time to figure herself out a little bit. “G’morning,” Fig says. “Y’ready fr’more walking?”

“Absolutely,” Ayda says. “How far away are we?”

“Last day,” Fig murmurs.

“Boy.”

Fig sits up, rumples at her hair a little bit. “We’re gonna kick his ass,” she says, and yawns. Ayda concentrates; a mug full of placebo magic bean juice appears in her hands.

“Here,” she says, and Fig takes it, and their hands touch, and Ayda’s hands are warm. Like the bean juice, which is very interesting but still honestly gross.

“Let’s boogie,” Fig says.

They don’t stick to the road that day; they stay adjacent to it. They’re getting close enough to the city that there are other travelers, carts, caravans – Ayda has a recognizable jawline and still has a wide-eyed look that says yes I am royalty, yes I was locked in a tower for most of my life. Wow! This is a lot! so Fig tries to keep her mostly to the trees. They talk about trees. They talk about the king; separately, they talk about Ayda’s dad. Fig talks about her mom, who loves her, and her dad, who she hasn’t yet found, and she talks about Gorgug and Adaine and Kristen and Riz and Fabian and Tracker and Zelda and – “don’t worry, you definitely don’t have to meet all of them! I do have to swing by Gorgug’s, though, I sort of left my bass there and I need that for my cooler spells.”

“Will Gorgug be upset that you’re with me in a non-transactional capacity?”

“No, he’s honestly the sweetest guy in the world. He’ll probably be relieved, actually. Like, he wants really good stuff for all his friends, so he was down to do this with me, but like – princess-napping isn’t really his thing. So.”

Ayda considers this. “I like him,” he says. “If you’re friends with him, and I’m friends with you, does that mean Gorgug is now my friend.”

“Yeah, but that really has less to do with, like, friendship by proxy and more to do with him just being a cool dude.”

Ayda’s gaze is somewhere over the trees. After a moment, she says: “I’m glad we’re friends.”

“Me too,” Fig says. “Even if it was under somewhat suspicious circumstances.”

“My entire life has been founded on suspicious circumstances,” Ayda says. “You’re my favorite of all of them.”

A drum-kick of tenderness whacks Fig’s heart. She tries to cover it. “I mean, the other options are, like, a tower. I hope I outrank the tower.”

“Hm,” Ayda says. “Interesting. You don’t have books.”

Fig gasps. Ayda looks over at her and smiles – twitchily, like fingers are pulling up the corner of her mouth. “That was a joke,” she says. “You’re obviously superior to the tower. You’re very enjoyable to talk to, and you talk back, and you’re – well. You’re wonderful. You knew that. Maybe you didn’t, your mouth is still open. Did the joke not work? I’ve failed. I have to leave forever. Is that what your face is saying?”

Fig can’t hold the face any longer: she bursts out laughing. “No, you’re good,” she says. “Perfect joke. You’re a really fast learner!”

“I am,” Ayda says, and stops walking. The wall of the city looms over them – jutting up over it are arcane crystals, watcher-eyes. The guards are everywhere. People aren’t looking too closely at them, standing here at the edge of the woods, but that’s going to change very soon.

“God I really hope this is okay,” Fig murmurs quickly, and she hums a few bars of a song about phoenixes – and changing – and flying – and reaches out to take Ayda’s face in her hands—

—and casts Seeming. The shape of Ayda shifts and shimmers into the form of a half-elf Fig’s flirted with a few times. (She does not overthink it.) Ayda blinks at her through another person’s eyes.

“You’re touching my face,” she says, and then: “You cast a spell on me. An abjurative spell? It wasn’t Protection from Good and Evil. It was a spell I’ve never cast before. Remarkable. You’re still touching my face. Is this touch-based magic?”

Fig’s hands definitely are still on Ayda’s face.  “Sorry,” she says, and shoves them back to awkwardly plant them on her hips. “It was Seeming. Is that cool? It’s just while we’re going through the city, I don’t want – like, your cheekbones?”

Ayda blinks at her, and then looks at her new hands, and frowns at them, and looks at Fig. “My cheekbones,” she says slowly. Her eyes narrow as she attempts to decipher the puzzle that Fig’s accidentally laid out in front of her.

“They’re recognizable,” Fig says. “Not, like, in a bad way, like you actually have really good bone structure, just – it looks like your dad’s? Not that I think your dad has good bone structure or anything, I’ve never met your dad. It just looks good on you. But it makes it hard to go incognito. Do you want me to turn you back?”

“I’m going to say no,” Ayda says, “and I want you to know that it has nothing to do with whether or not it’s cool for you to touch my face, because it is cool, and you can do it whenever, whether you are or aren’t using physical touch for magical purposes. Now I’m going to say no. No, I don’t need you to turn me back. This was a very clever and prudent use of illusion magic and I am comfortable with it so there’s no need for you to burn a spell slot. I’m still talking! Ha ha! Let’s go into the city now.”

“Let’s…do that!”

They do that. The crowds swallow them up, moving and talking and singing and sighing and grumbling and stealing and trying to steal from Fig but fucking failing because she is way too cool to get got. Fig can feel Ayda next to her winding up tighter and tighter the deeper they get into the city, so she reaches out and takes Ayda’s hand. Squeezes it, once: I know there are a lot of people here. Twice: I’m sure it’s scary. Three times: If anyone tries to fuck with you I will kick their ass straight into another dimension, which is hard to convey through hand squeezes. So Fig leans into Ayda and says: “Hey. I know there are a lot of people here but if anyone tries to fuck with you I will kick their ass straight into another dimension, okay?”

“Okay,” Ayda says. Her voice is very small; when Fig looks at her, she sees that Ayda’s eyes are squeezed tight shut. Fig’s heart thrums another low chord. She squeezes Ayda’s hand and Ayda immediately squeezes back: I trust you. For the very first time, Fig feels like a knight – valiant, protective. Her armor is all tucked away, but she can feel her heart warming up like metal touched by the sun.

“Are you okay?” she says quietly.

“Mm,” Ayda says. Her eyes dart around behind her closed eyelids. She says: “Please don’t let go of my hand.”

“I won’t. I promise. We’re almost there anyways! This way,” and she pulls Ayda down an alley – and then through another alley, and a road that leads to a corner that leads to a shabby little square and then another alley and then the filthy canal where Gorgug’s houseboat is parked. It is so reassuring to see that little pea-green houseboat that Fig almost starts crying.

“Okay,” she says. “You can open your eyes.” Ayda’s eyes immediately snap open and she takes in the water, the cobblestones, the boat. She looks at Fig again. She looks back to the boat.

“This is where Gorgug is?” she says.

“Yeah,” Fig says, “watch this.

“Gorgug!” she yells. “Where’s my friggin’ bass?!

There’s several loud crashing sounds and then Gorgug’s truly enormous head pops through a window. “Oh, hi Fig. And hi, other person. Wait, do I know you? Don’t you work at that—”

“You don’t know me,” Ayda says. “We’ve never met. I’m Ayda Aguefort, and I’ve been disguised by cunning magic. Should I not have told you that? I’m not good at lying. Fig is much better at it. Thinking about it, I should have followed her lead.”

Gorgug looks at Ayda. He looks at Fig. He looks at Ayda’s hand, which Fig is still holding. A question mark visibly appears in the air over his head.

“Okay,” Fig says, “long story, she’s my friend now and I promised I’d help her rescue her dad from, like, hell? Or wherever he is? Oh! And! We’re gonna try and kill the regent, or Ayda’s gonna banish him to a dimension where he has to fall forever.”

“Whoa,” Gorgug says. “Cool.”

“Thank you,” Ayda says. “You’re also very cool. I’ve heard that you’re excellent at playing the drums, and are just incredibly nice and good to be around. Unrelated to your other qualities, you are the second humanoid I’ve had a conversation with in several years, so I’m super nervous. Just sweating a whole lot. Sorry about that.”

“I’d probably be way more nervous!” Gorgug says agreeably. “So I think you’re doing a great job. Fig, I left your bass under a pile of – uh – something, I don’t really remember – can you help me look for it?”

Fig mouths: SUBTLE. Gorgug seems to be honestly perplexed by this. “Yeah,” she says, “but I swear to god if you damaged my baby I’m gonna kick your ass.”

“Into another dimension,” Ayda says helpfully.

“Yeah! Thank you Ayda. I’ll be right back.” She (without thinking too much about it!) lets go of Ayda’s hand, says “Do you mind just hanging out he—”

Ayda has already crouched down to examine the weird barnacles growing on the sides of Gorgug’s houseboat; Fig has lost her. “Cool,” she mumbles, and tromps up the ramp and into the boat.

Gorgug aimlessly hums to himself as he lopes around the boat, picking things up – coats, blankets, tables – and putting them down again when Fig’s bass isn’t immediately underneath them.

“Oh my god, what,” Fig says.

“What?” Gorgug says.

“You’re being – weird!”

“I don’t actually think I’m being—”

“Like, yeah! I like her a lot! She’s really cool! Whatever! Shut up about it!”

Gorgug’s eyebrows raise up to his hairline. “You like her?”

“What? No! What? Shut up! No!” Fig skitters across the room, but since the houseboat is about two feet wide she doesn’t get very far.

“I mean, I think it’s cool,” Gorgug says. “You don’t really like most people. Not, like, in a mean way, in sort of a…Fig way.”

Fig shifts a pile of old lyrics out of the way, even though she knows her bass won’t be under it. She groans anyways when it isn’t there.

“I—” she tries, and then “She just—” and then she gives up, and sits on the floor. Gorgug walks over and sits down next to her. He bumps his shoulder companionably against hers.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hi,” Fig says. “Fuck. I really like her.”

“Yeah, sort of figured.”

“No but like – I really – like fuck, dude. Don’t make me say it. You know I’m not good at talking about my feelings.”

Gorgug is silent for a moment before finally saying: “Uh huh.”

“Shut up, I didn’t ask you.”

“I didn’t even say anything!”

Fig bumps her shoulder against Gorgug’s, and he returns the bump. It’s a very gentle bump, coming from Gorgug, which means it only mostly knocks her over. She manages to get herself back up onto her feet; she holds a hand out for Gorgug to take, so she can pretend she’s helping him stand.

“You are seriously so strong, my dude. You want to come murder Goldendick with us?”

“Do you want me there?” Fig is only quiet for a second, but apparently that’s enough because fucking Gorgug is fucking perceptive as shit. He smiles a little bit and says: “Yeah, thought so.”

“You are literally the worst,” Fig says. “Now get out of my way, I’m getting my bass.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot we were looking for that.”

Fig stomps past him and to the corner of the houseboat that is marked as hers – marked off by a sheet, full of the familiar and beloved stink of clove cigarettes. Her bass is leaning up against the wall. When she grabs it and slings it over her back, she feels the echo of one thousand other Figs slinging the same guitar over the same back. She is Fig four months ago—

She is Fig eight years ago—

She is Fig two weeks ago, leaning her bass gently up against the wall, the seed of guilt and terror and excitement already growing in her stomach. Kidnap a princess – easy enough, it should be easy—

And that Fig dissipates, so all that’s left is Fig and her relief.

“Okay bye!” she yells over her shoulder, running out of the boat and back down the ramp.

“Don’t die!” Gorgug yells after her. “Kristen isn’t even in town!”

Fig fires off a salute in his direction; when she makes it to the bottom of the ramp, Ayda is there waiting for her. Well, physically she’s waiting. Mentally and emotionally she seems to be sort of wrapped up in the barnacles.

“Hi,” says Fig.

“Hello,” Ayda says. The half-elf’s eyes return to Fig, and – hm! – she probably should have had, like, a few thoughts before she disguised Ayda as – hm! Whatever!

“Got my bass,” Fig says. “You ready to rock?” She sees Ayda take in a breath, so she says: “‘Ready to rock’ means you’re, like, ready to put on a big performance, it’s just – it’s a sort of verbal shorthand for ‘are you ready to go start some shit’.”

“Oh,” Ayda says. “Oh! Yes. I am ready to rock.” She reaches out for Fig’s hand, and Fig grabs onto it. She feels the most like a knight she has ever felt – she’s more of a knight here, holding on to Ayda’s hand, than she was with the suit of armor she couldn’t wear and the sword she couldn’t ever use. She squeezes Ayda’s hand: I’ve got you.

Ayda does a series of short and long hand-squeezes that Fig immediately loses track of. “What?” she says.

“I – I didn’t know whether or not we were using Morse code this time,” Ayda says. “It seemed like it would be sensible to – anyways, I said I love you too.”

“Yeah,” Fig says, “you got what I meant.” She smiles; Ayda smiles back; they head back into the heart of the city and then they’re running – Fig is holding on to Ayda and they’re running, avenues, alleyways, Fig’s excitement and anger and relief all mingling together to make a pulsing savage feeling that carries her forward like a wind.

That momentum carries her all the way up to the castle and up to the first person she sees at the castle and the momentum opens her mouth and says: “Hi, I’m Fig. I’ve got something for Goldenhoard. He knows me, we’re cool.”

Ayda’s grip on her hand is like a metal pincer. Fig makes her smile even wider, so the elven person she’s talking to looks right at Fig’s teeth instead of at the half-elf sweating behind her. She’s thisclose to casting Friends and trying again when the elf nods, murmurs something about being just a moment, and takes off. The sound of their footsteps clatters against the enormous white marble walls of this – antechamber? Whatever the fuck. Enormous ceilings, light plunging in through all of the windows. Plush carpets. This place is pretty much sweating gold.

Fig looks over at Ayda – Ayda’s eyes are open now, and she’s taking in the high arched ceilings and the dramatic staircase and the marble planters with literal streams of tears pouring from her eyes. She looks soft and savage with desperation.

“I’m sorry,” Fig whispers, even though there is too much of it to even apologize for – sorry about your dad, sorry about your dad, sorry about your house, sorry about your tower. Sorry if you remember this place. Sorry if you’ve forgotten it.

“It’s fine,” Ayda says. “It’s fine. He didn’t—

“He took it away from me,” she says. “Why did he take it all away from me?”

“The High Regent Goldenhoard will see you now,” says a voice, and Fig feels her eyes going wide at the same time Ayda’s do. They stare at each other, wide-eyed, and the elf from before clears their throat and retreats deeper into the castle.

“Should I drop it?” Fig says. “The illusion?”

“Not yet,” Ayda says. She pulls in a deep breath, and then another – and then briefly she is hyperventilating before she catches her rhythm again. She lets go of Fig’s hand. She raises her chin. She walks on into the castle that could be her home – down a hallway, down another hallway, through a huge set of double doors into a truly enormous throne room. A red carpet spills like a stretching tongue down a dais and a staircase and across the marble-tiled floor. Ayda takes her first step onto that carpet and Fig thinks don’t! but it’s too late, and Ayda is there, and lounging on the throne on the top of the stairs is High Regent Goldenhoard.

He looks just the same as he did the last time Fig was here, which is to say he looks like a red dragonborn and which is also to say he looks like a piece of shit. His eyes find hers across the room.

“Fig,” he says. “I remember you. I’d sent you on a journey to retrieve—”

He stops and looks at Ayda. His eyes widen. He leans towards her; Ayda’s neck twitches slightly, an aborted movement towards Fig, and Fig pulls in a breath and lets the illusion go. The half-elf unravels and the princess Ayda Aguefort stands there, haloed by the throne room’s golden light.

She says: “I refuse to die.”

Goldenhoard blinks and then, slowly, starts laughing. He laughs in a series of incredibly villainous ho ho ho hos, which is dumb as hell and also completely terrifying. Fig drums her fingertips nervously against the strings of her bass guitar.

“The little princess,” he says. “What a noble line! Very brave. Unfortunately, it’s not up to you whether or not you die! Needs must, and my dominion over the Aguefort kingdom will never be complete without—”

“Dude,” Fig says. “Stop monologuing.”

“Where is my father,” Ayda says.

Goldenhoard actually tips his head back to laugh this time. This dude is so far up his own ass that it would be funny – if Ayda’s spine wasn’t rigid, if Fig’s fingers weren’t being bitten open by her own bass strings. As it is just makes Fig scared—

—then angry for being scared—

—and then fucking furious.

“Your father,” Goldenhoard says, “doesn’t give a shit about you, bookworm. You think bringing him back from the Nine Hells will make him pay attention—

“Don’t talk about her like that!” Fig yells, and Goldenhoard whips his head around to stare at her and hiss “You stupid little girl—”

And then there’s a faint pop! and he’s gone.

Just flat-out fucking gone.

The space where he was is all air and silence, and everything is quiet except for the sound of Ayda letting out a long, shaky breath. She’s still standing in the middle of the throne room – she has one hand out in front of her, and she is shaking all the way down to her fingertips. She whirls around and looks, wide-eyed, at Fig. There are still tears on her face.

“He can’t talk about you like that either,” she says. “He can’t – I won’t let him.” Slowly, she lowers her hand. “I won’t let him.”

Fig swallows down a lump in her throat – or tries to, but then she’s crying. And then she’s laughing. And then she’s just completely fucking overwhelmed by it: that she is here, and Ayda is here, and Goldenhoard is gone, and Ayda is here, and Fig is here with her—

—and she’s running up to Ayda, still laughing, and she can see that same realization sparking up Ayda’s eyes—

—and it all feels inevitable when Fig grabs Ayda’s face and kisses her.

Ayda makes a faint shriek in the back of her throat and scrabbles for Fig’s upper arms – she grabs them, tightly, and kisses Fig back. Everything tastes vaguely like salt water. Fig can feel Ayda smiling against the kiss, this huge delighted smile—

Pop!

“—who do you think you are,” Goldenhoard roars, and Ayda jumps back from the kiss.

“Fig,” she says breathlessly, “Fig. That was – you’re so – wow! I’ve lost concentration on the Banishment spell!”

“Oh, shit,” Fig says.

When she thinks about it later, she won’t know who moved first – was Goldenhoard halfway down the stairs by the time Fig took her hands off of Ayda’s face? Was it Ayda or Fig who launched the first spell? Was there time to – no, there wasn’t time for any of it, there was only that single endless second of Fig and Ayda looking at each other, surprised and tender and terrified.

Then Goldenhoard is swinging his enormous fucking claymore towards Fig’s head, and it is on.

It’s a hell of a fight, and it takes everything Fig has to stay on it – Shatter, Counterspell, Healing Word, Bane Thunderwave Counterspell Blindness. Her bass snarls and howls out notes like it’s furious, terrified, like it’s an animal that’s ready and willing to rip the world apart. Fig keeps having to duck behind her bass to block the swings of Goldenhoard’s claymore – jarring the bones of her arms – duck dodge weave another chord, the weight of Ayda at her back (Counterspell), Goldenhoard frothing at the mouth and clawing towards her; she can hear one of her ribs break but that’s just percussion, baby, that’s a snare hit from Gorgug, she slams her pick across the strings, she plays a song about being birthed from fire. She plays a song for Ayda.

Ayda is sketching out geometric shapes in the air, so quickly that her hands are a ceaseless blur; her brow is furrowed, she’s furious, she’s beautiful. She’s beautiful! She kissed Fig back! Wait, fuck, Counterspell – Healing Word – get out of the way, Fig – and she snarls for it, howls for it, sings and screams and fights for it, you tried to hurt my girl? I won’t let you.

When Goldenhoard falls, it’s honestly sort of anticlimactic – a spell slams into his chest and he ricochets against the wall and crumples to the ground. Thud. Without his monologuing, the room is very quiet; Fig can hear her heartbeat, the rhythm of her breath. Instinctively, she looks at Ayda. Ayda is already looking at her.

“Hi,” Fig says. She can hear it in her own voice: she’s smiling.

“Hi,” Ayda says. “You kissed me! Wait. Sorry. Let me preface that by saying that your performance in the battle was extraordinary, you’re very beautiful, you kissed me. Was that—”

“I’m sorry, I should have asked first, I didn’t know if—”

“I gave you explicit permission to touch my face, and my lips are on my face, and I—”

“Did I seriously make you break concentration? That was totally—”

“I’m not concentrating on anything now,” Ayda says. “Spell-wise. I mean. Mentally I am concentrating on – well, that’s not – can I kiss you again? Fig?”

“Hell fucking yes,” Fig says, and Ayda lets out a thrilled laugh and kisses her again. It’s a really good kiss. Ayda isn’t kissing in Morse code (actually, she might be) (dork) but she’s still saying everything without speaking any of it out loud. They’re both smiling into the kiss; their teeth clack together a few times, and it’s stupid and awkward and lovely. She keeps laughing for no reason. She can feel Ayda touching her shoulders, her arms, tenderly brushing her fingers against Fig’s hair; she can feel Ayda’s skin against her skin. There is so much happiness inside of Fig that it drowns everything else out. For once, the world is so beautifully quiet.

Then a voice says: “Gods, the regent – he’s – Princess? What is – Princess Ayda?” and they have to stop kissing again. There’s a crowd at the doors of the throne room, and everyone is looking at the two of them – Fig’s arms around Ayda, Ayda’s hands in Fig’s hair, Goldenhoard’s corpse on the ground in the back of the room.

“Hi,” Fig says. “Yeah, that’s the princess, it’s – long story, can you just give us a second? Maybe two seconds?”

Everybody keeps staring.

Ayda clears her throat. “I’m really going to have to insist on the seconds,” she says, and she holds out a hand – there’s a surge of golden light, and a royal scepter appears in her hand. The room is so quiet that Fig can hear Ayda’s heart beating.

Then everyone fucking dogpiles out of the room and closes the door behind them.

“Polite!” Fig says. Ayda is studying the scepter, wide-eyed.

“I’ve never—” she says. “The magic never worked, because my father was always – wooooo. Woo. This is all a lot to process.”

“Do you want me to cast Darkness again?”

“No,” Ayda says. “No, I’m – alright. I’m going to process this. Priorities. He said – he said the Nine Hells, that’s a direct quote, he said ‘bringing him back from the Nine Hells’, so that’s where I’ll start. I’m going to go to the Nine Hells and I’m going to get my father back. And then he’ll – I’ll – I don’t want to overthink that one, that’s just going to be number one on the list. Number one: retrieving my father. Number two on the list is making sure that the realm runs itself for a little while. There must be at least one trustworthy individual in this castle, right, I can just put them on – right. That’s number two. Number three is establishing some sort of democracy – this entire system of royal bloodline magic seems antiquated and arbitrary to a truly frustrating degree, why are we trusting blood magic instead of the will of the people? Number four – hm, actually. A higher priority, number zero point five. Possibly starred. A very high priority, my first priority, is kissing you some more. If that’s – if that’s okay with you. Is that okay with you?”

“More than okay,” Fig says, and then for a few seconds she doesn’t say anything at all. Ayda kisses her softly, shyly, and Fig traces one thumb around the shell of Ayda’s ear. She can feel her heart beating in her fingertips. She breaks the kiss, rests her forehead against Ayda’s.

She says: “So what I’m hearing is that we’re going on tour in the Nine Hells?”

Ayda’s face flickers through a lot of enormous feelings. “If you want to come with me,” she says softly.

“Can’t get rid of me that easy,” Fig says. “I told you. I’m with you, Ayda. Even though establishing democracy sounds insanely fucking complicated – I don’t know if I’ll be a ton of help there, but I will definitely help you yell at your dad in hell if you want.”

Ayda is crying again. Fig feels herself making a soft sound; she pulls Ayda back in and kisses her again, once, for good luck.

“You ready?” Fig says.

“No,” Ayda says. “Not really. But I’m ready to try it with you.” Her hand reaches out and grabs Fig’s hand, squeezes.

“Me too,” Fig says, and squeezes back. Ayda nods at her decisively and squares her shoulders. She takes one step forward, and then another, and then she opens the door to let them both into the world.