Table of Contents
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Once upon a time, an angel and a devil held a wishbone between them.
And its snap split the world in two.
IRL ON THE
Prague, early May. The sky weighed gray over fairy-tale rooftops, and all the world was watching. Satellites had even been tasked to surveil the Charles Bridge, in case the… visitors… returned. Strange things had happened in this city before, but not this strange. At least, not since video existed to prove it. Or to milk it.
“Please tell me you have to pee.”
“What? No. No, I do not. Don’t even ask.”
“Oh, come on. I’d do it myself if I could, but I can’t. I’m a girl.”
“I know. Life is so unfair. I’m still not going to pee on Karou’s ex-boyfriend for you.”
“What? I wasn’t even going to ask you to.” In her most reasonable tone, Zuzana explained, “I just want you to pee in a balloon so I can drop it on him.”
“Oh.” Mik pretended to consider this for approximately one and a half seconds. “No.”
Zuzana exhaled heavily through her mouth. “Fine. But you know he deserves it.”
The target was standing ten feet in front of them with a full international news crew, giving an interview. It was not his first interview. It was not even his tenth. Zuzana had lost count. What made this one especially irksome was that he was conducting it on the front steps of Karou’s apartment building, which had already gotten quite enough attention from various police and security agencies without the address being splashed on the news for all and sundry.
Kaz was busily making a name for himself as the ex-boyfriend of “the Girl on the Bridge,” as Karou was being called in the wake of the extraordinary melee that had fixed the eyes of the world on Prague.
“Angels,” breathed the reporter, who was young and pretty in the usual catalog-model-meets-assassin way of TV reporters. “Did you have any idea?”
Kaz laughed. Predicting it, Zuzana fake-laughed right along with him. “What, you mean that there really are angels, or that my girlfriend is on their bad side?”
“Ex-girlfriend,” hissed Zuzana.
“Both, I guess,” laughed the reporter.
“No, neither,” admitted Kaz. “But there were always mysteries with Karou.”
“Well, she was so secretive you wouldn’t believe it. I mean, I don’t even know her nationality, or her last name, if she even has one.”
“And that didn’t bother you?”
“Nah, it was cool. A beautiful, mysterious girl? She kept a knife in her boot, and she could speak all these languages, and she was always drawing monsters in her—”
Zuzana shouted, “Tell about how she threw you through the window!”
Kaz tried to ignore her, but the reporter had heard. “Is it true? Did she hurt you?”
“Well, it wasn’t my favorite thing that’s ever happened to me.” Cue charming laughter. “But I wasn’t hurt. It was my fault, I guess. I scared her. I didn’t mean to, but she’d been in some kind of fight, and she was jumpy. She was bloody all over, and barefoot in the snow.”
“How awful! Did she tell you what happened?”
Again Zuzana shouted. “No! Because she was too busy throwing him through the window!”
“It was a door, actually,” said Kaz, shooting Zuzana a look. He pointed at the glass door behind him. “That door.”
“This one, right here?” The reporter was delighted. She reached out and touched it like it meant something—like the replacement glass of a door once shattered by the flung body of a bad actor was some kind of important symbol to the world.
“Please?” Zuzana asked Mik. “He’s standing right under the balcony.” She had the keys to Karou’s flat, which had come in handy for spiriting her friend’s sketchbooks from the premises before investigators could get their hands on them. Karou had wanted her to live here, but right now, thanks to Kaz, it was too much of a circus. “Look.” Zuzana pointed up. “It’s a straight drop onto his head. And you did drink all that tea—”
The reporter leaned in close to Kaz. Conspiratorial. “So. Where is she now?”
“Seriously?” Zuzana muttered. “As if he knows. Like he didn’t tell the last twenty-five reporters because he was saving this excellent secret knowledge just for her?”
On the steps, Kaz shrugged. “We all saw it. She flew away.” He shook his head like he couldn’t believe it, and looked right into the camera. He was so much better-looking than he deserved to be. Kaz made Zuzana wish that beauty were something that could be revoked for bad behavior. “She flew away,” he repeated, wide-eyed with fake wonder. He was performing these interviews like a play: the same show again and again, with only minor ad-libs depending on the questions. It was getting really old.
“And you have no idea where she might have gone?”
“No. She was always taking off, disappearing for days. She never said where she went, but she was always exhausted when she came back.”
“Do you think she’ll come back this time?”
“I hope so.” Another soulful gaze into the camera lens. “I miss her, you know?”
Zuzana groaned like she was in pain. “Ohhh, make him shut uuup.”
But Kaz didn’t shut up. Turning back to the reporter, he said, “The only good thing is that I can use it in my work. The longing, the wondering. It brings out a richer performance.” In other words: Enough about Karou, let’s talk about me.
The reporter went with it. “So, you’re an actor,” she cooed, and Zuzana couldn’t take it any longer.
“I’m going up,” she told Mik. “You can hoard your bladder tea. I’ll make do.”
“Zuze, what are you…” Mik started, but she was already striding off. He followed.
And when, three minutes later, a pink balloon plunged from above to land squarely on Kazimir’s head, he owed Mik a debt of gratitude, because it was not “bladder tea” that burst all over him. It was perfume, several bottles’ worth, mixed with baking soda to turn it into a nice clinging paste. It matted his hair and stung his eyes, and the look on his face was priceless. Zuzana knew this because, though the interview wasn’t live, the network chose to air it.
Over and over.
It was a victory, but it was hollow, because when she tried Karou’s phone—for about the 86,400th time—it went straight to voice mail, and Zuzana knew that it was dead. Her best friend had vanished, possibly to another world, and even repeat viewings of a gasping Kaz crowned in perfume-paste and shreds of pink balloon couldn’t make up for that.
Pee totally would have, though.
The sky above Uzbekistan, that night.
The portal was a gash in the air. The wind bled through it in both directions, hissing like breath through teeth, and where the edges shifted, one world’s sky revealed another’s. Akiva watched the interplay of stars along the cut, preparing himself to cross through. From beyond, the Eretz stars glimmered visible-invisible, visible-invisible, and he did the same. There would be guards on the other side, and he didn’t know whether to reveal himself.
What awaited him back in his own world?
If his brother and sister had exposed him for a traitor, the guards would seize him on sight—or try to. Akiva didn’t want to believe that Hazael and Liraz could have given him up, but their last looks were sharp in his memory: Liraz’s fury at his betrayal, Hazael’s quiet revulsion.
He couldn’t risk being taken. He was haunted by another last look, sharper and more recent than theirs.
Two days ago she had left him behind in Morocco with one backward glance so terrible that he’d almost wished she’d killed him instead. Her grief hadn’t even been the worst of it. It was her hope, her defiant, misplaced hope that what he’d told her could not be true, when he knew with an absolute purity of hopelessness that it was.
The chimaera were destroyed. Her family was dead.
Because of him.
Akiva’s wretchedness was a gnawing thing. It was taking him in bites and he felt every one—every moment the tearing of teeth, the chewing gut misery, the impossible waking-nightmare truth of what he had done. At this moment Karou could be standing ankle deep in the ashes of her people, alone in the black ruin of Loramendi—or worse, she could be with that thing, Razgut, who had led her back to Eretz—and what would happen to her?
He should have followed them. Karou didn’t understand. The world she was returning to was not the one from her memories. She would find no help or solace there—only ash and angels. Seraph patrols were thick in the former free holdings, and the only chimaera were in chains, driven north before the lashes of slavers. She would be seen—who could miss her, with her lapis hair and gliding, wingless flight? She would be killed or captured.
Akiva had to find her before someone else did.
Razgut had claimed he knew a portal, and given what he was—one of the Fallen—he probably did. Akiva had tried tracking the pair, without success, and had had no option, ultimately, but to turn and wing his way toward the portal he himself had rediscovered: the one before him now. In the time he had wasted flying over oceans and mountains, anything might have happened.
He settled on invisibility. The tithe was easy. Magic wasn’t free; its cost was pain, which Akiva’s old injury supplied him in abundance. It was nothing to take it and trade it for the measure of magic he needed to erase himself from the air.
Then he went home.
The shift in the landscape was subtle. The mountains here looked much like the mountains there, though in the human world the lights of Samarkand had glimmered in the distance. Here there was no city, but only a watchtower on a peak, a pair of seraph guards pacing back and forth behind the parapet, and in the sky the true telltale of Eretz: two moons, one bright and the other a phantom moon, barely there.
Nitid, the bright sister, was the chimaera’s goddess of nearly everything—except assassins and secret lovers, that is. Those fell to Ellai.
Ellai. Akiva tensed at the sight of her. I know you, angel, she might have whispered, for hadn’t he lived a month in her temple, drunk from her sacred spring, and even bled into it when the White Wolf almost killed him?
The goddess of assassins has tasted my blood, he thought, and he wondered if she liked it, and wanted more.
Help me to see Karou safe, and you can have every drop.
He flew south and west, fear pulling him like a hook, faster as the sun rose and fear became panic that he would arrive too late. Too late and… what? Find her dead? He kept reliving the moment of Madrigal’s execution: the thud of her head falling and the clatter of her horns stopping it from rolling off the scaffold. And it wasn’t Madrigal anymore but Karou in his mind’s eye, the same soul in a different body and no horns now to keep her head from rolling, just the improbable blue silk of her hair. And though her eyes were black now instead of brown, they would go dull in the same way, stare again the stare of the dead, and she would be gone. Again. Again and forever, because there was no Brimstone now to resurrect her. From now on, death meant death.
If he didn’t get there. If he didn’t find her.
And finally it was before him: the waste that had been Loramendi, the fortress city of the chimaera. Toppled towers, crushed battlements, charred bones, all of it a shifting field of ash. Even the iron bars that had once overarched it were rent aside as if by the hands of gods.
Akiva felt like he was choking on his own heart. He flew above the ruins, scanning for a flash of blue in the vastness of gray and black that was his own monstrous victory, but there was nothing.
Karou wasn’t there.
He searched all day and the next, Loramendi and beyond, wondering furiously where she could have gone and trying not to let the question shift to what might have happened to her. But the possibilities grew darker as the hours passed, and his fears warped in nightmare ways that drew inspiration from every terrible thing he had ever seen and done. Images assaulted him. Again and again he pressed his palms to his eyes to blot them out. Not Karou. She had to be alive.
Akiva simply couldn’t face the thought of finding her any other way.
From: Zuzana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Miss Radio Silence
To: Karou <email@example.com>
Well, Miss Radio Silence, I guess you’re gone and have not been getting my VERY IMPORTANT MISSIVES.
Gone to ANOTHER WORLD. I always knew you were a freaky chick, but I never saw this one coming. Where are you, and doing what? You don’t know how this is killing me. What’s it like? Who are you with? (Akiva? Pretty please?) And, most important, do they have chocolate there? I’m guessing they don’t have wireless, or that it’s not an easy jaunt to come back and visit, which I hope is the case because if I find out you’re all gallivanting-girl and still haven’t come to see me, I might get drastic. I might try that one thing, you know, that thing people do when their eyes get all wet and stupid—what’s it called? Crying?
Or NOT. I might PUNCH you instead and trust that you won’t punch me back because of my endearing smallness. It would be like punching a child.
(Or a badger.)
Anyway. All is well here. I perfume-bombed Kaz and it got on TV. I am publishing your sketchbooks under my own name and have sublet your flat to pirates. Pirates with BO. I’ve joined an angel cult and enjoy daily prayer circle and also JOGGING to get in shape for my apocalypse outfit, which of course I carry with me at all times JUST IN CASE.
Let’s see, what else? *strums lip*
For obvious reasons, crowds are worse than ever. My misanthropy knows no bounds. Hate rises off me like cartoon heat waves. The puppet show is good money but I’m getting bored, not to mention going through ballet shoes like there’s no tomorrow—which, hey, if the angel cults are right, there isn’t.
Mik is great. I’ve been a little upset (ahem), and you know what he did to cheer me up? Well, I’d told him that story about when I was little and I spent all my carnival tickets trying to win the cakewalk because I really, really wanted to eat a whole cake all by myself—but I didn’t win and found out later I could actually have bought a cake and still had tickets left over for rides and it was the worst day of my life? Well, he made me my own cakewalk! With numbers on the floor and music and SIX ENTIRE CAKES, and after I won them ALL we took them to the park and fed each other with these extra-long forks for like five hours. It was the best day of my life.
Until the one when you come back.
I love you, and I hope you are safe and happy and that wherever you are, someone (Akiva?) is making you cakewalks, too, or whatever it is that fiery angel boys do for their girls.
“Well. This comes as a bit of a surprise.”
That was Hazael. Liraz was at his side. Akiva had been waiting for them. It was very late, and he was in the training theater behind the barracks at Cape Armasin, the former chimaera garrison to which their regiment had been posted at the end of the war. He was performing a ritual kata, but he lowered his swords now and faced them, and waited to see what they would do.
He hadn’t been challenged on his return. The guards had saluted him with their usual wide-eyed reverence—he was Beast’s Bane to them, the Prince of Bastards, hero, and that hadn’t changed—so it would seem that Hazael and Liraz had not reported him to their commander, or else the knowledge of it had simply not yet worked its way out to the ranks. He might have been more cautious than to just show himself with no idea what reception awaited him, but he was in a haze.
After what he had found in the Kirin caves.
“Should my feelings be hurt that he didn’t come and find us?” Liraz asked Hazael. She was leaning against the wall with her arms crossed.
“Feelings?” Hazael squinted at her. “You?”
“I have some feelings,” she said. “Just not stupid ones, like remorse.” She cut her eyes at Akiva. “Or love.”
The things that were broken in Akiva clenched and ground.
Too late. He had been too late.
“Are you saying you don’t love me?” Hazael asked Liraz. “Because I love you. I think.” He paused in contemplation. “Oh. No. Never mind. That’s fear.”
“I don’t have that one, either,” said Liraz.
Akiva didn’t know if that was true; he doubted it, but maybe Liraz felt fear less than most, and hid it better. Even as a child she had been ferocious, the first to step into the sparring ring no matter who the opponent. He had known her and Hazael as long as he had known himself. Born in the same month in the emperor’s harem, the three of them had been given over together to the Misbegotten—Joram’s bastard legion, bred of his nightly trysts—and raised to be weapons of the realm. And loyal weapons they had been, the three of them fighting side by side through countless battles, until Akiva’s life was changed and theirs were not.
And now it had changed again.
What had happened, and when? Only a few days had passed since Morocco and that backward glance. It wasn’t possible. What had happened?
Akiva was dazed; he felt wrapped in skins of air. Voices seemed to not quite reach him—he could hear them, but as from a distance, and he had the queer sensation of not being entirely present. With the kata he had been trying to center himself, to achieve sirithar, the state of calm in which the godstars work through the swordsman, but it was the wrong exercise. He was calm. Unnaturally so.
Hazael and Liraz were looking at him strangely. They exchanged a glance.
He made himself speak. “I would have sent word that I was back,” he said, “but I knew that you would already know.”
“I did know.” Hazael was vaguely apologetic. He knew everything that went on. With his easy manner and lazy smile, he gave off an air of nonambition that made him unthreatening. People talked to him; he was a natural spy, affable and egoless, with a deep and entirely unrecognized cunning.
Liraz was cunning, too, though the opposite of unthreatening. An icy beauty with a withering stare, she wore her fair hair scraped back in harsh braids, a dozen tight rows that had always looked painful to her brothers; Hazael liked to tease her that she could use them as a tithe. Her fingers, tapping restlessly on her upper arms, were so lined with tattooed kill marks that they read at a distance as pure black.
When, on a lark one night and perhaps a little drunk, some of their regiment had voted on whom they would least like to have for an enemy, the unanimous victor had been Liraz.
Now here they were, Akiva’s closest companions, his family. What was that look they shared? From his strange state of remove, it might have been some other soldier’s fate that hung in the balance. What were they going to do?
He had lied to them, kept secrets for years, vanished without explanation, and then, on the bridge in Prague, he had chosen against them. He would never forget the horror of that moment, standing between them and Karou and having to choose—no matter that it wasn’t a choice, only the illusion of one. He still didn’t see how they could forgive him.
Say something, he urged himself. But what? Why had he even come back here? He didn’t know what else to do. These were his people, these two, even after everything. He said, “I don’t know what to say. How to make you understand—”
Liraz cut him off. “I will never understand what you did.” Her voice was as cold as a stab, and in it Akiva heard or imagined what she did not say, but had before.
It struck a nerve. “No, you couldn’t, could you?” He may once have felt shame for loving Madrigal. Now it was only the shame that shamed him. Loving her was the only pure thing he had done in his life. “Because you don’t feel love?” he asked. “The untouchable Liraz. That’s not even life. It’s just being what he wants us to be. Windup soldiers.”
Her face was incredulous, vivid with fury. “You want to teach me how to feel, Lord Bastard? Thank you, but no. I’ve seen how well it went for you.”
Akiva felt the anger go out of him; it had been a brief vibration of life in the shell that was all that was left of him. It was true what she said. Look what love had done for him. His shoulders dropped, his swords scraped the ground. And when his sister grabbed a poleax from the practice rack and hissed “Nithilam,” he could barely muster surprise.
Hazael drew his great sword and gave Akiva a look that was, as his voice had been, vaguely apologetic.
Then they attacked him.
Nithilam was the opposite of sirithar. It was the mayhem when all is lost. It was the godless thick-of-battle frenzy to kill instead of die. It was formless, crude, and brutal, and it was how Akiva’s brother and sister came at him now.
His swords leapt to block, and wherever he had been, dazed and adrift, he was here now, just like that, and there was nothing muffled about the shriek of steel on steel. He had sparred with Hazael and Liraz a thousand times, but this was different. From first contact he felt the weight of their strikes—full force and no mistake. Surely it wasn’t a true assault. Or was it?
Hazael wielded his own great sword two-handed, so while his blows lacked the speed and agility of Akiva’s, they carried awesome power.
Liraz, whose sword remained sheathed at her hip, could only have chosen the poleax for the thuggish pleasure of its heft, and though she was slender, and grunted getting it moving, the result was a deadly blur of six-foot wooden haft edged in double ax blades with a spear tip half as long as Akiva’s arm.
Right away he had to go airborne to clear it, couch his feet against a bartizan, and shoot back to gain some space, but Hazael was there to meet him, and Akiva blocked a hack that jarred his entire skeleton and shunted him back to the ground. He landed in a crouch and was greeted by poleax. Dove aside as it slammed down and gouged a wedge out of the hardpan where he had been. Had to spin to deflect Hazael’s sword and got it right this time, twisting as he parried so the force of the blow slipped down his own blade and was lost—energy fed to the air.
So it went.
Time was upended in the whirlwind of nithilam and Akiva became an instinct-creature living inside the dice of blades.
Again and again the blows came, and he blocked and dodged but didn’t strike; there was no time or space for it. His brother and sister batted him between them, there was always a weapon coming, and when he did see a space—when a split-second gap in the onslaught was as good as a door swinging open to Hazael’s throat or Liraz’s hamstring—he let it pass.
Whatever they did, he would never hurt them.
Hazael roared in his throat and brought down a blow as heavy as a bull centaur’s that caught Akiva’s right sword and sent it spinning from his grip. The force of it ripped a red bolt of pain from his old shoulder injury, and he leapt back, not quickly enough to dodge as Liraz came in low with her poleax and swiped him off his feet. He landed on his back, wings sprawling open. His second sword skidded after the first and Liraz was over him, weapon raised to deal the deathblow.
She paused. A half second, which seemed an eon coming out of the chaos of nithilam, it was enough time for Akiva to think that she was really going to do it, and then that she wasn’t. And then… she heaved the poleax. It took all the air in her lungs and it was coming and there was no stopping it—the haft was too long; she couldn’t halt its fall if she wanted.
Akiva closed his eyes.
Heard it, felt it: the skirr of air, the shuddering impact. The force of it, but… not the bite. The instant passed and he opened his eyes. The ax blade was embedded in the hardpan next to his cheek and Liraz was already walking away.
He lay there, looking up at the stars and breathing, and as the air passed in and out of him, it settled on him with weight that he was alive.
It wasn’t some fractional surprise, or momentary gratitude for being spared an ax in the face. Well, there was that, too, but this was bigger, heavier. It was the understanding—and burden—that unlike those many dead because of him, he had life, and life wasn’t a default state—I am not dead, hence I must be alive—but a medium. For action, for effort. As long as he had life, who deserved it so little, he would use it, wield it, and do whatever he could in its name, even if it was not, was never, enough.
And even though Karou would never know.
Hazael appeared over him. Sweat beaded his brow. His face was flushed, but his expression remained mild. “Comfortable down there, are you?”
“I could sleep,” Akiva said, and felt the truth of it.
“You may recall, you have a bunk for that.”
“Do I?” He paused. “Still?”
“Once a bastard, always a bastard,” replied Hazael, which was a way of saying there was no way out of the Misbegotten. The emperor bred them for a purpose; they served until they died. Be that as it may, it didn’t mean his brother and sister had to forgive him. Akiva glanced at Liraz. Hazael followed his gaze. He said, “Windup soldier? Really?” He shook his head, and, in his way of delivering insults without rancor, added, “Idiot.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“I know.” So simple. He knew. Never theatrics with Hazael. “If I thought you had, I wouldn’t be standing here.” The haft of the poleax was angled across Akiva’s body. Hazael grasped it, wrenched it free of the ground, and set it upright.
Akiva sat up. “Listen. On the bridge…” he began, but didn’t know what to say. How, exactly, do you apologize for betrayal?
Hazael didn’t make him grope for words. In his easy, lazy voice, he said, “On the bridge you protected a girl.” He shrugged. “Do you want to know something? It’s a relief to finally understand what happened to you.” He was talking about eighteen years ago, when Akiva had disappeared for a month and resurfaced changed. “We used to talk about it.” He gestured to Liraz. She was sorting the weapons in the rack, either not paying attention to them or pretending not to. “We used to wonder, but we stopped a long time ago. This was just who you were now, and I can’t say I liked you better, but you’re my brother. Right, Lir?”
Their sister didn’t reply, but when Hazael tossed her the poleax, she caught it neatly.
Hazael held out his hand to Akiva.
Is that all? Akiva wondered. He was stiff and battered, and when his brother pulled him to his feet, another pain ripped from his shoulder, but it still felt too easy.
“You should have told us about her,” Hazael said. “Years ago.”
“I wanted to.”
Akiva shook his head; he almost could have smiled, if it weren’t for everything else. “You know all, do you?”
“I know you.” Hazael wasn’t smiling, either. “And I know something has happened again. This time, though, you’ll tell us.”
“No more secrets.” This came from Liraz, who still stood at a distance, grave and fierce.
“We didn’t expect you back,” said Hazael. “The last time we saw you, you were… committed.”
If he was vague, Liraz was blunt. “Where’s the girl?” she asked.
Akiva hadn’t said it out loud yet. Telling them would make it real, and the word caught in his throat, but he forced it out. “Dead,” he said. “She’s dead.”
From: Zuzana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: Karou <email@example.com>
HELLO. Hello hello hello hello hello hello.
Damn, now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve made hello go all abstract and weird. It looks like an alien rune now, something an astronaut would find engraved on a moon rock and go, A strange moon word! I must bring this back to Earth as a gift for my deaf son! And which would then—of course—hatch flying space piranhas and wipe out humanity in less than three days, SOMEHOW sparing the astronaut just so he could be in the final shot, weeping on his knees in the ruins of civilization and crying out to the heavens, It was just helloooooooo!
Oh. Huh. It’s totally back to normal now. No more alien doom. Astronaut, I just kept you from destroying Earth.
Lesson: Do not bring presents back from strange places. (Forget that. Do.)
Also: Write back to signify your continuing aliveness or I will give you the hurts.
There was one place besides Loramendi, Akiva told Hazael and Liraz, that he had thought Karou might go. He hadn’t really expected to find her there; he had convinced himself by then that she had fled back through the portal to her life—art and friends and cafes with coffin tables—and left this devastated world behind. Well, he had almost convinced himself, but something pulled him north.
“I think I would always find you,” he had told her just days ago, minutes before they snapped the wishbone. “No matter how you were hidden.”
But he hadn’t meant…
Not like this.
In the Adelphas Mountains, the ice-rimed peaks that had for centuries served as bastion between the Empire and the free holdings, lay the Kirin caves.
It was there that the child Madrigal had lived, and there that she had returned one long-ago afternoon in shafts of diamond light to find that her tribe had been slaughtered and stolen by angels while she was out at play. The sheaf of elemental skins she’d gripped in her small fist had fallen at the threshold and been swept inside by the wind. They would have been turned by time from silk to paper, translucent to blue, and then finally to dust, but other elemental skins littered the floors when Akiva entered. No flash and flitter of the creatures themselves, though, or of any other living thing.
He had been to the caves once before, and although it had been years and his recollections were dominated by grief, they seemed to him unchanged. A network of sculpted rooms and paths extending deep into the rock, all smooth and curving, they were half nature, half art, with clever channels carved throughout that acted as wind flutes, filling even the deepest chambers with ethereal music. Lonely relics of the Kirin remained: woven rugs, cloaks on hooks, chairs still lying where they’d scattered in the chaos of the tribe’s last moments.
On a table, in plain sight, he found the vessel.
It was lantern-like, of dark hammered silver, and he knew what it was. He’d seen enough of them in the war: chimaera soldiers carried them on long, curved staffs. Madrigal had been holding one when he first set eyes on her on the battlefield at Bullfinch, though he hadn’t understood then what it was, or what she was doing with it.
Or that it was the enemy’s great secret and the key to their undoing.
It was a thurible—a vessel for the capture of souls of the dead, to preserve them for resurrection—and it didn’t look to have been on the table for long. There was dust under it but none on it. Someone had placed it there recently; who, Akiva couldn’t guess, nor why.
Its existence was a mystery in every aspect but one.
Affixed to it with a twist of silver wire was a small square of paper on which was written a word. It was a chimaera word, and under the circumstances the cruelest taunt Akiva could fathom, because it meant hope, and it was the end of his, since it was also a name.
It was Karou.
From: Zuzana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Please no
To: Karou <email@example.com>
Oh Jesus. You’re dead, aren’t you?
And this was Akiva’s new hell: to have everything change and nothing change.
Here he was, back in Eretz, not dead and not imprisoned, still a soldier of the Misbegotten and hero of the Chimaera War: the celebrated Beast’s Bane. It was absurd that he should find himself back in his old life as if he were the same creature he had been before a blue-haired girl brushed past him in a narrow street in another world.
He wasn’t. He didn’t know what creature he was now. The vengeance that had sustained him all these years was gone, and in its place was an ash pit as vast as Loramendi: grief and shame, that gnawing wretchedness, and, at the edges, an unfixed sense of… imperative. Of purpose.
But what purpose?
He had never thought ahead to these times. “Peace,” it was being feted in the Empire, but Akiva could only think of it as aftermath. In his mind, the end had always been the fall of Loramendi and revenge on the monsters whose savage cheers had played accompaniment to Madrigal’s death. What would come next, he had barely thought of. He supposed he had assumed he would be dead, like so many other soldiers, but now he could see that it would be too easy to die.
Live in the world you’ve made, he thought to himself, rising each morning. You don’t deserve to rest.
Aftermath was ugly. Every day he was forced to bear witness to it: the slave caravans on the move, the burned hulls of temples, squat and defiled, the crushed hamlets and wayside inns, always columns of smoke rising in the distance. Akiva had set this in motion, but if his own vengeance was long spent, the emperor’s wasn’t. The free holdings were crushed—an accomplishment made easier by the pitiful fact that untold thousands of chimaera had fled to Loramendi for safety, only to burn alive in its fall—and the Empire’s expansion was under way.
The populous north of the chimaera lands were but the cusp of a great wild continent, and though the main strength of Joram’s armies had come home, patrols continued on, moving like the shadow of death deeper south and deeper, razing villages, burning fields, making slaves, making corpses. It might have been the emperor’s work, but Akiva had made it possible, and he watched with bleak eyes, wondering how much Karou had seen before she died, and how acute had been her hate by the end.
If she were alive, he thought, he would never be able to look her in the eye.
If she were alive.
Her soul remained, but because of Akiva, the resurrectionist was dead. In one of his darker moments, the irony started him laughing and he couldn’t stop, and the sounds that came from him, before finally tapering into sobs, were so far from mirth they might have been the forced inversion of laughter—like a soul pulled inside out to reveal its rawest meat.
He was in the Kirin caves when that happened, no one to hear him. He went back to retrieve the thurible, which he had hidden there. It was a day’s journey, and he sat with the vessel and tried to believe it was Karou, but, laying his hand on the chill silver, he felt nothing, and such a depth of nothing overwhelmed him that he allowed himself the hope that it was not her soul within—it couldn’t be. He would feel it if it were; he would know. So he made the journey back through the portal to the human world, all the way to Prague, where he peered in her window as he had once before, and beheld… two sleeping figures entwined.
His hope was like an intake of icy air—it hurt—and just as sharp and sudden was his jealousy. In an instant he was hot and cold with it, his hands clenching into fists so tight they burned. A flare of adrenaline coursed through him and left him shaking, and it wasn’t her. It wasn’t her, and for the fleeting flash of an instant, he felt relief. Followed by crushing disappointment and self-loathing for what his reaction had been.
He waited for Karou’s friends to wake. That was who it was: the musician and the small girl whose eyes would give Liraz’s a run for ferocity. He watched them throughout the day, hoping at every turn that Karou would show up, but she never did. She wasn’t here, and there was a long moment when her friend stood stock-still, scanning the crowds on the bridge, the roofline, even the sky—such a searching look that it told Akiva she wasn’t accounted for, either.
There were no whispers or edges of rumor in Eretz that hinted at her; there was nothing but the thurible with its singular, terrible explanation.
For a month Akiva let his life carry him along. He did his duty, patrolling the northwestern corner of the former free holdings with its wild coastlines and low, sprawling mountains. Fortresses studded the cliffs and peaks. Most, like this one, were dug into vertical seams in the rock to protect them from aerial assault, but in the end it hadn’t mattered. Cape Armasin had seen one of the fiercest battles of the war—staggering loss of life on both sides—but it had fallen. Slaves now labored at rebuilding the garrison’s walls, whip-wielding masters never far off, and Akiva would find himself watching them, every muscle in his body as tight as wound wires.
He had done this.
Sometimes it was all he could do to stop the screaming in his head from finding its way out, to mask his despair in the presence of kindred and comrades. Other times he managed to distract himself: with sparring, his secret occupation of magic, and with simple companionship and striving to earn the forgiveness of Hazael and Liraz.
And he might have gone on in that way for some time had not the end of… aftermath… come to the Empire.
It happened overnight, and it drew from the emperor such howling wrath, such bloodcurdling unholy fury as to turn storms back to sea and blast the buds of the sycorax trees so they shed their mothwing blossoms unopened in the gardens of Astrae.
In the great wild heart of the land that day by day fell prey to the halting onslaught of slave caravans and carnage, someone started killing angels.
And whoever it was, they were very, very good at it.
“Hmm?” Zuzana was on the floor with a mirror set up on a chair before her, painting pink dots onto her cheeks, and it was a moment before she could look up. When she did, she saw Mik watching her with that small concern-crease he got between his eyebrows sometimes. Adorable wrinkle. “What’s up?” she asked.
He looked back at the television in front of him. They were at the flat he shared with two other musicians; there was no TV at Karou’s place, where Zuzana mostly lived now—the media circus having finally died down a little—and where they usually spent their nights. Mik was eating a bowl of cereal and catching up on the news while Zuzana got ready for the day’s performance.
Though it was making them a bundle of money, Zuzana was getting restless with the whole thing. The problem with puppet shows is that you have to keep doing them over and over, which requires a temperament she didn’t have. She got bored too easily. Not of Mik, though.
“What is it about you?” she had asked him recently. “I almost never like people, even in tiny doses. But I never get tired of being with you.”
“It’s my superpower,” he had said. “Extreme be-with-able-ness.”
Now he looked back from the TV screen, his concern-crease deepening. “Karou used to collect teeth, right?”
“Um, yeah,” Zuzana said, distracted. She rooted around for her false eyelashes. “For Brimstone.”
“What kind of teeth?”
“All kinds. Why?”
Huh? Mik turned back to the TV, and Zuzana was suddenly very alert. “Why?” she asked again, rising from the floor.
Pointing the remote to click up the volume, Mik said, “You need to see this.”
“They knew we were coming.”
Eight seraphim stood in an empty village. Evidence of sudden departure was everywhere: doors standing open, chimney smoke, a sack lying where it had tumbled off the back of some wagon and spilled out grain. The angel Bethena found herself turning again to the cradle that lay by the stile. It was carved and polished, so smooth, and she could see finger-divots worn into its sides from generations of rocking. And singing, she thought, as if she could see that, too, and she felt, just for an instant, the agonized pause of the beast mother who had admitted to herself, in that precise spot, that it was too heavy to take as they fled their home.
“Of course they knew,” said another soldier. “We’re coming for them all.” He pronounced it like justice, like the edges of his words might catch the sunlight and glint.
Bethena cast him a glance, weary, weary. How could he muster vehemence for this? War was one thing, but this… These chimaera were simple creatures who grew food and ate it, rocked their children in polished cradles, and probably never spilled a single drop of blood. They were nothing like the revenant soldiers the angels had fought all their lives—all their history—the bruising, brutal monsters that could cut them in half with a blow, send them reeling with the force of their inked devils’ eyes, tear out their throats with their teeth. This was different. The war had never penetrated here; the Warlord had kept it locked at the land’s edges. Half the time, these scattered farm hamlets didn’t even have militias, and when they did, their resistance was pathetic.
The chimaera were broken—Loramendi marked the end. The Warlord was dead, and the resurrectionist, too. The revenants were no more.
“What if we just let them get away?” Bethena said, looking out over the sweet green land, its hazy hills as soft as brush-strokes. Several of her comrades laughed as if she’d made a joke. She let them think she had, though her effort at smiling was not a success. Her face felt wooden, her blood sluggish in her veins. Of course they couldn’t let them go. It was the emperor’s edict that the land be cleared of beasts. Hives, he called their villages. Infestations.
A poor sort of hive, she thought. Village after farm and the conquerors had not once been stung. It was easy, this work. So terribly easy.
“Then let’s get it over with,” she said. Wooden face, wooden heart. “They can’t have gone far.”
The villagers were easy to trace, their livestock having dropped fresh dung along the south road. Of course they would be fleeing for the Hintermost, but they hadn’t gotten far. Not three miles down, the path cut under the arch of an aqueduct. It was a triple-tiered structure, monumental and partially collapsed, so that fallen stones obscured the underpassage. From the sky, the road beyond looked clear, twisting away down a narrow valley that was like a part in green hair, the forest dense on either side. The beasts’ trail—dung and dust and footprints—did not continue.
“They’re hiding under the aqueduct,” said Hallam, he of the vehemence, drawing his sword.
“Wait.” Bethena felt the word form on her lips, and it was spoken. Her fellow soldiers looked to her. They were eight. The slave caravan moved at the lumbering overland pace of their quarry and was a day behind them. Eight seraph soldiers were more than enough to stamp out a village like this. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said, and motioned them down.
It feels like a trap. That had been her thought, but it was a flashback to the war, and the war was over.
The seraphim came down on both sides of the underpassage, trapping the beasts in the middle. Against the possibility of archers—there was no greater equalizer than arrows—they kept close to the stone, out of range. The day was bright, the shadows deepest black. The chimaera’s eyes, thought Bethena, would be accustomed to the dark; light would dazzle them. Get it over with, she thought, and gave her signal. She leapt in, fiery wings blinding, sword low and ready. She expected livestock, cowering villagers, the sound that had become familiar: the moan of cornered animals.
She saw livestock, cowering villagers. The fire of her wings painted them ghastly. Their eyes shone mercury-bright, like things that live for night.
They weren’t moaning.
A laugh; it sounded like a match strike: dry, dark. All wrong. And when the angel Bethena saw what else was waiting under the aqueduct, she knew that she’d been wrong. The war was not over.
Though for her and her comrades, abruptly, it was.
A phantom, the news anchor said.
At first, the evidence of trespass had been too scant to be taken seriously, and of course there was the matter of it being impossible. No one could penetrate the high-tech security of the world’s elite museums and leave no trace. There was only the prickle of unease along the curators’ spines, the chilling and unassailable sense that someone had been there.
But nothing was stolen. Nothing was ever missing.
That they could tell.
It was the Field Museum in Chicago that captured proof of the intruder. First, just a wisp on their surveillance footage: a tantalizing bleed of shadow at the edge of sight, and then for an instant—one gliding misstep that brought her clearly into frame—a girl.
The phantom was a girl.
Her face was turned away. There was a hint of high cheekbone; her neck was long, her hair hidden in a cap. One step and she was gone again, but it was enough. She was real. She had been there—in the African wing, to be precise—and so they went over it inch by inch, and they discovered that something was missing.
And it wasn’t just the Field Museum. Now that they knew what to look for, other natural history museums checked their own exhibits, and many discovered similar losses, previously undetected. The girl had been careful. None of the thefts were easily visible; you had to know where to look.
She’d hit at least a dozen museums across three continents. Impossible or not, she hadn’t left so much as a fingerprint, or tripped a single alarm. As to what she had stolen… the how was quickly drowned out by the unfathomable why.
To what possible end?
From Chicago to New York, London to Beijing, from the museums’ wildlife dioramas, from the frozen, snarling mouths of lions and wild dogs, the jaws of Komodo dragon specimens and ball pythons and stuffed Arctic wolves, the girl, the phantom… she was stealing teeth.
From: Karou <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Not dead yet
To: Zuzana <email@example.com>
Not dead yet. (“Don’t want to go on the cart!”)
Where am I and doing what?
You might well ask.
Freaky chick, you say?
You can’t imagine.
I am priestess of a sandcastle
in a land of dust and starlight.
Try not to worry.
I miss you more than I could ever say.
Love to Mik.
(P.S. “I feel happy…. I feel happy….”)
Light through lashes.
Karou is only pretending to be asleep. Akiva’s fingertips trace her eyelids, slip softly over the curve of her cheek. She can feel his gaze on her like a glow. Being looked at by Akiva is like standing in the sun.
“I know you’re awake,” he murmurs, close to her ear. “Do you think I can’t tell?”
She keeps her eyes closed but smiles, giving herself away. “Shush, I’m having a dream.”
“It’s not a dream. It’s all real.”
“How would you know? You’re not even in it.” She feels playful, heavy with happiness. With rightness.
“I’m in all of them,” he says. “It’s where I live now.”
She stops smiling. For a moment she can’t remember who she is, or when. Is she Karou? Madrigal?
“Open your eyes,” Akiva whispers. His fingertips return to her eyelids. “I want to show you something.”
All at once she remembers, and she knows what he wants her to see. “No!” She tries to turn away, but he’s got her. He’s prying her eyes open. His fingers press and gouge, but his voice loses none of its softness.
“Look,” he coaxes. Pressing, gouging. “Look.”
And she does.
Karou gasped. It was one of those dreams that invade the space between seconds, proving sleep has its own physics—where time shrinks and swells, lifetimes unspool in a blink, and cities burn to ash in a mere flutter of lashes. Sitting upright, awake—or so she’d thought—she gave a start and dropped the tiger molar she was holding. Her hands flew to her eyes. She could still feel the pressure of Akiva’s fingers on them.
A dream, just a dream. Damn it. How had it gotten in? Lurking vulture dreams, circling, just waiting for her to nod off. She lowered her hands, trying to calm the fierce rush of her heartbeat. There was nothing left to be afraid of. She had already seen the very worst.
The fear was easy to banish. The anger was something else. To have that surge of perfect rightness overcome her, after everything… It was a filthy lie. There was nothing right about Akiva. That feeling had slipped in from another life, when she had been Madrigal of the Kirin, who loved an angel and died for it. But she wasn’t Madrigal anymore, or chimaera. She was Karou. Human.
And she had no time for dreams.
On the table before her, dull in the light of a pair of candles, lay a necklace. It consisted of alternating human and stag teeth, carnelian beads, eight-sided iron filings, long tubes of bat bone, and, making it sag with asymmetry, a lone tiger molar—its mate having skittered under the table when she dropped it.
Asymmetry, when it came to revenant necklaces, was not a good thing. Each element—tooth, bead, and bone—was critical to the resulting body, and the smallest flaw could be crippling.
Karou scraped back her chair and dropped to her knees to grope in the darkness under her worktable. In the cracks of the cold dirt floor her fingers encountered mouse droppings, snipped ends of twine, and something moist she hoped was just a grape rolled off to rot—Let it remain a mystery, she thought, leaving it be—but no tooth.
Where are you, tooth?
It wasn’t like she had a spare. She’d gotten this one in Prague a few days earlier, half of a matched set. Sorry about the missing leg, Amzallag, she imagined herself saying. I lost a tooth.
It started her laughing, a slappy, exhausted sound. She could just imagine how that would go over. Well, Amzallag probably wouldn’t complain. The humorless chimaera soldier had been resurrected in so many bodies that she thought he’d just take it in stride—no pun intended—and learn to do without the leg. Not all of the soldiers were stoic about her learning curve, however. Last week when she had made the griffon Minas’s wings too small to carry his weight, he had not been forbearing.
“Brimstone would never make such a ridiculous mistake,” he’d seethed.
Well, Karou had wanted to retort, with all the gravity and maturity she could muster. Duh.
This wasn’t an exact science to begin with, and wing-to-weight ratios—well. If Karou had known what she would be when she grew up, she might have taken different classes in school. She was an artist, not an engineer.
I am a resurrectionist.
The thought rose up, flat and strange as always.
She crawled farther under the table. The tooth couldn’t have just vanished. Then, through a crack in the stone, a breeze fluted over her knuckles. There was an opening. The tooth must have fallen through the floor.
She sat back. An icy stillness filled her. She knew what she would have to do now. She would have to go downstairs and ask the occupant of the chamber beneath if she could search for it. A deep reluctance pinned her to the floor. Anything but that.
Anything but him.
Was he there now? She thought so; she sometimes imagined she could feel his presence radiating up through the floor. He was probably asleep—it was the middle of the night.
Nothing would make her go to him in the middle of the night. The necklace could just wait until morning.
At least that was the plan.
Then, at her door: a knock. She knew at once who it was. He had no compunction about coming to her in the night. It was a soft knock, and the softness disturbed her most of all—it felt intimate, secret. She wanted no secrets with him.
“Karou?” His voice was gentle. Her whole body tensed. She knew better than anyone what a ruse that gentleness was. She wouldn’t answer. The door was barred. Let him think she was asleep.
“I have your tooth,” he called. “It just landed on my head.”
Well, hell. She couldn’t very well pretend to be asleep if she had just dropped a tooth on his head. And she didn’t want him to think she was hiding from him, either. Damn it, why did he still affect her this way? Severe and straight-backed, her braid swinging in a blue arc behind her, Karou went to the door, drew back the ancient crossbar—which was primarily a defense against him—and opened it. She held out her hand for the tooth. All he had to do was drop it on her palm and walk away, but she knew—of course she knew—it would not be that simple.
With the White Wolf, it never was.
The White Wolf.
The Warlord’s firstborn, hero of the united tribes and general of the chimaera forces. What remained of them.
He stood in the corridor, elegant and cool in one of his creaseless white tunics, his silken white hair gathered loosely back and tied with a twist of leather. The white hair belied his youth—the youth of his body, at least. His soul was hundreds of years old and had endured endless war and deaths beyond counting, many of them his own. But his body was in its prime, powerful and beautiful to the full extent of Brimstone’s artistry.
It was high-human in aspect and had been made to his own specifications: human at a glance but beast in the details. A carnal human smile revealed sharp cuspids, his strong hands were tipped in black claws, and his legs transitioned at mid-thigh from human to wolf. He was very handsome—somehow both rugged and refined, with an undertone of the wild that Karou felt as a lashing danger whenever he was near.
And no wonder, considering their history.
He had scars now that he hadn’t when she knew him before, when she was Madrigal. A healed slash cleaved one of his eyebrows and spidered up into his hairline; another interrupted the edge of his jaw and jagged down his neck, drawing the eye along his trapezius to the smooth form of his shoulders, straight and full and strong.
He had not come unscathed through the last brutal battles of the war, but he had come through alive and, if possible, even more beautiful for the scars that made him seem more real. In Karou’s doorway now, he was all too real, and too near, too elegant, too there. Always, the White Wolf had been larger than life.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked. The tooth was cupped in his palm; he didn’t offer it up.
“Sleep,” said Karou. “How cute. Do people still do that?”
“They do,” he said. “If they can.” There was pity in his look—pity!—as he added softly, “I have them, too, you know.”
Karou had no idea what he was talking about, but she bristled at his softness.
“Nightmares,” he said.
Oh. Those. “I don’t have nightmares,” she lied.
Thiago was not deceived. “You need to care for yourself, Karou. Or”—he glanced past her into her room—“let others care for you.”
She tried to fill her doorway so that no slice of space might be construed as an invitation to enter. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m good.”
He moved forward anyway, so that she had to either back away or tolerate his nearness. She stood her ground. He was clean-shaven and smelled faintly, pleasingly, of musk. How he managed to be always pristine in this palace made of dirt, Karou did not know.
Scratch that. She did know. There was no chimaera who would not stoop gladly to see to the White Wolf’s needs. She even suspected his attendant, Ten, of brushing his hair for him. He scarcely had to speak his will; it was anticipated, it was already done.
Right now his will was to enter her room. Anyone else would have subsided at his first hint of approach. Karou did not, though her heartbeat hammered a small-animal panic to be so near him.
Thiago didn’t press. He paused and studied her. Karou knew how she looked: pale and grim and waning thin. Her collarbones were oversharp, her braid was a mess, and her black eyes were glossed with weariness. Thiago was gazing into them.
“Good?” he repeated, skeptical. “Even here?” He brushed her biceps with his fingers and she shrugged away, wishing she were wearing sleeves. She didn’t like anyone to see her bruises, and him least of all; it made her feel vulnerable.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“You would ask for help, wouldn’t you, if you needed it? At the very least, you should have an assistant.”
“I don’t need an—”
“There’s no weakness in asking for help.” He paused, then added, “Even Brimstone had help.”
He might as well have reached into her chest and seized her heart.
Brimstone. Yes, he’d had help, including, ostensibly, herself. And yet, where had she been while he was tortured, butchered, burned? What was she doing as his angel murderers stood guard over his scorched remains and ensured his evanescence?
Issa, Yasri, Twiga, every soul in Loramendi. Where was she when their souls drifted off like cut kites and ceased to be?
“They’re dead, Karou. It’s too late. They’re all dead.”
Those were the words that had destroyed Karou’s happiness one month ago in Marrakesh. Just minutes before, she and Akiva had held her wishbone between them and snapped it, and her life as Madrigal—all the memories that Brimstone had taken away for safekeeping—had come rushing back. She could feel the heat of the block she’d laid her head on as the executioner raised his blade, and she could hear Akiva’s scream—a thing ripped from his soul—as if its echo had been trapped in the wishbone, too.
Eighteen years ago, she had died. Brimstone had resurrected her in secret, and she had lived this human life with no knowledge of the one that came before it. But in Marrakesh it had all come back to her, and she had… awakened—joined her life already in progress—to find herself with the fractured wishbone in her hand and Akiva miraculously before her.
That was the most astonishing thing—that they had found each other, even across worlds and lifetimes. For a pure and shining moment, Karou had known joy.
Which Akiva had ended with those words, spoken in deepest shame, most wretched sorrow.
“They’re all dead.”
She hadn’t believed it. Her mind simply would not approach the possibility.
Following the maimed angel Razgut from the skies of Earth into those of Eretz, she had clung to the hope that it would not be—could not be—as Akiva had said. But then she had found the city, and… there was no city. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around the devastation. She had lived there once. A million chimaera had lived there. And now? Razgut, foul thing, had laughed at the sight; that was the last she remembered of him. From that moment, she’d been in a daze, and couldn’t remember how they’d parted, or where.
All she’d known in the moment was the ruin of Loramendi. Over that blackened landscape hung something Karou had never felt before: an emptiness so profound that the very atmosphere felt thin, it felt scraped, like an animal hide stretched on a rack and hacked at and hacked at until it was clean.
What she was feeling was the utter absence of souls.
“It’s too late.”
How long she had wandered in the ruins, she could not afterward have said. She was in shock. Memories were at work in her. Her life as Madrigal was twining itself into her self as Karou, and it was fraught with death, with loss, and at the core of her stunned grief was the knowledge that she had enabled it. She had loved the enemy and saved him. She had set him free.
And he had done this.
Bitter, bitter, this desolation of angels.
When a voice splintered the silence, she had spun around, her crescent-moon blades leaping in her hands with the will to make angels bleed. If it had been Akiva there in the ruins, she could not have spared his life again. But it was not him, or any other seraph.
It was Thiago.
“You,” he had said, with something like wonder. “Is it really you?”
Karou couldn’t even speak. The White Wolf looked her over from head to toe, and she shrank away. Her memories burned. Revulsion roiled like snakes in the pit of her belly, and from within the deadness of her shock she was lit with fury—at the universe, for this newest cruelty. At him, for being the one left alive.
Of all possible souls to survive the slaughter: her own murderer.
She should have known that night, long ago in another life, another flesh, that she was followed, but joy had dulled her caution.
She was Madrigal of the Kirin. She was in love. She was in the grip of a huge, bold dream. For a month of secret nights, she had flown in darkness to the temple of Ellai, where Akiva waited, restless with new love and on fire as she was to remake their world. She always savored the moment of arrival—her first glimpse of his upturned face as she slipped down through the canopy of the requiem trees, and how he would see her and light up with a joy to answer her own. It was the image she would keep with her in the days that followed—Akiva’s lifted face, so perfect and golden, bright with such amazement and delight. He reached up to draw her down. His hands skimmed up her legs as she descended, took her hips and gathered her right out of the air so that their lips met before her hooves ever touched ground.
She laughed against his mouth, her wings still open behind her like great dark fans, and he sank down, reclining on the moss right there with her astride him. They were giddy and hungry, and made love in the middle of the grove in plain sight of the bright-eyed evangelines whose night symphony was their music.
In plain sight of those who had followed Madrigal from the city.
Later, it made her sick to realize that they had watched. They had waited and watched, not content with the treason of mere kissing, but needing a more outrageous raft of crimes—to see it all, and to hear what they would talk of afterward.
And what had they been rewarded with?
The lovers moved languidly into the small temple, where they sipped from the sacred spring and ate bread and fruit that Madrigal had brought. They worked at magic. Akiva was teaching Madrigal his invisibility glamour. She could manage it for a moment, but it required a heavier pain tithe than she could sustain on her own to hold it in place. In the temple, she flickered in and out: there, not there.
“What shall I do,” she mused, “for pain?”
“Nothing. No pain for you. Only pleasure.” He nuzzled her, and she pushed him off, smiling.
“Pleasure won’t help me stay invisible long enough for it to count.”
They couldn’t hide forever, and would need to be able to come and go in both their lands, among chimaera and seraphim, unseen as needed. They were working out whom to recruit to their cause; they were poised to begin. It would be a critical moment, giving themselves away to their first few chosen fellows, and they talked them over in turn.
They also discussed whom to kill.
“The Wolf,” Akiva said. “As long as he is alive, there is no hope for peace.”
Madrigal sat silent. Thiago, die? She knew Akiva was right. Thiago would never accept less than the total demise of the enemy, and certainly she had no personal love lost for him, but to kill him? She toyed with the wishbone hanging around her neck, conflicted. He was the soul of the army and a unifying hero of her people. The chimaera would follow him anywhere. “That’s a problem,” she told Akiva.
“You know it as well as I do. Joram, too,” said Akiva.
If possible, the emperor was even more bloody-minded than Thiago was. He also happened to be Akiva’s father. “Do you… do you think you can do it?” asked Madrigal.
“Kill him? What am I for but killing?” His tone was bitter. “I am the monster he created.”
“You’re not a monster,” she said, drawing him to her, stroking his brow, which was always hot as fever, and kissing the ink lines on his knuckles as if she could forgive him the lives they represented. They let talk of killing fall away and wished in silence that they could have the world they wanted without having to kill for it.
Or, as it turned out instead, die for it.
Outside, Thiago decided that he had heard enough, and he set fire to the temple.
Even before they smelled smoke or saw the lick of fire, Madrigal and Akiva were jolted by the screams of the evangelines. They’d never even known that the creatures could scream. They leapt apart, spun instinctively for weapons that weren’t there. They’d left them on the moss outside, along with their shed clothes.
“So careless” was the first thing Thiago said when they were drawn up short, rushing from the burning temple to find a company of soldiers waiting. The White Wolf, front and center, had Madrigal’s crescent-moon knives, one in each hand. He let them swing back and forth, hooked from his fingertips. Behind him, one of his wolf retinue held Akiva’s swords. He chinged the blades together in a taunt.
One beat followed the sound, a single beat of stillness, and then chaos leapt in.
Akiva raised his arms, summoning magic. What he intended to do, Madrigal never knew, because Thiago was ready for him, and four revenant soldiers had already thrown up their palms, hamsas outfaced to the angel. A fury of sickness hit him. He staggered, dropped to his knees, and they were on him with the butts of their swords, their heavy gloved fists and booted feet, and one whipping reptilian tail wrapped in chains.
Madrigal tried to run to him but was caught by Thiago’s fist slamming into her belly so hard it lifted her off her feet. For a weightless, airless moment she didn’t know up from down, and then she hit the ground. Bones jarred. Blood rose up her throat, filled her mouth and nose.
Choking, gasping, sick. Pain. Pain and blood. She coughed for breath. Naked, she curled around the pain. Overhead: smoke, trees catching fire, and then Thiago. He stared down at her, his lip curled in a snarl.
“Foul thing,” he growled in a tone of deepest revulsion. “Traitor.” And then, the vilest thing of all: “Angel-lover.”
She saw murder in his eyes and thought she would die right there on the moss. In some deep place, Thiago was fractured. He was sometimes called the Berserker for his savage killing sprees in battle; his trademark was tearing out throats with his teeth. It was a very dangerous thing to make him angry, and Madrigal flinched from a blow that never came.
Thiago turned away.
Maybe he wanted her to have to watch. And maybe it was just base instinct—an alpha urge to destroy a challenger. To destroy Akiva.
There was so much blood.
The memory was lurid, mixed with choking smoke and the shrieks of serpent-birds roasting alive, and though it wasn’t Karou’s proper memory but Madrigal’s, it was still her own, arising from her deeper self. It was all her, and she remembered everything: Akiva on the ground, his blood running into the sacred stream, and Thiago, wild-eyed but eerily composed and utterly silent, laying into the angel’s body with blow after blow, his own face, his white hair shining with fine bloodspray.
He would have killed Akiva then, but one of his more levelheaded followers stepped in and pulled him off, and so it hadn’t ended there. Madrigal had heard the awful, echoing screams of her lover for days afterward as he was tortured in the prison of Loramendi, where she awaited her own execution.
That was the Thiago whom Karou saw—killer, torturer, savage—when he appeared before her a lifetime later in the ruins of Loramendi.
But… it all looked different now, didn’t it? How, after all, in the light of what had come to pass, could she argue that he had been wrong?
Akiva should have died that day, and so should she. It had been treason, their love, their plans, and worst of all: her fool mercy, to save the angel’s life not once but twice, so that he might live to become what he was now. The Prince of Bastards, they called him, among other names. Thiago had made certain she heard them all—Lord of the Misbegotten, Beast’s Bane, the Angel of Annihilation—and behind each name lurked the accusation: Because of you, because of you.
If it weren’t for her, the chimaera would still live. Loramendi would still stand. Brimstone would be stringing teeth, and Issa, sweet Issa, would be fretting over his health and winding serpents around human necks in the antechamber of the shop. The children of the city would still run riot on the Serpentine in all their many shapes, and they would grow up to be soldiers, as she had, and be cycled through body after body as the war went on. And on.
Looking back now, Karou could scarcely believe her own naiveté, that she had believed the world could be some other way, and that she could be the one to make it so.
In her doorway, Karou thrust out her hand and said, “Thiago, just give me the tooth.”
He stepped closer, so that his chest butted at her fingertips and she had to pull them back. Her pulse stuttered. He was so near; she really wanted to move away, but to do so would give him space to enter, and she must not do that. Since joining with him, she had tried hard never to be alone with him. His nearness made her feel small, so weak by contrast, and so… human.
With a magician’s flourish, he opened his hand, revealing the molar as if he were daring her to take it. What would he do if she did—grab her hand?
She hesitated, wary.
“Is it for Amzallag?” Thiago asked.
She nodded. He had asked her for a body for Amzallag, and that’s what he was getting. Aren’t I the compliant little helper, she thought.
“Good. I’ve brought him.” He raised his other hand, which held a thurible.
Karou’s belly flipped. So it was already done. She didn’t know why this part of the process unsettled her so much; she supposed it was the image of two creatures going off into the scree and only one coming back. She hadn’t seen the pit, and she hoped she never would, but some days she could smell it: a fug of decay that gave reality to what was usually remote. Thuribles were clean and simple; the new bodies she made were as pristine as Thiago’s clothes. It was the other bodies that bothered her—the discarded ones.
But in that way, as in pretty much every way, she was alone. Thiago was unfazed. He swung Amzallag’s thurible as if he had not just murdered a comrade and pushed his body into a pit of rotting corpses. The comrade had been willing, after all; anything for the cause, and the old bodies just didn’t serve the new purpose, so Karou was replacing them, one by one.
The Wolf fixed her with his pale stare, so intense it made her want to back up a step. “It has begun, Karou. What we’ve been working for.”
She nodded. A chill ran through her. Rebellion. Revenge. “Has there been news?” she asked.
“No. But it’s early yet.”
Several days ago Thiago had dispatched five patrols of six soldiers each. What exactly their missions were, Karou didn’t know. She had asked, but she hadn’t exactly argued when Thiago told her, “Don’t worry about that, Karou. Save your strength for resurrection.”
Wasn’t that what Brimstone had done? He had left the war to the Warlord, and she was leaving the rebellion to the Wolf.
“I admit I’ve been pacing.” Thiago tossed the tooth up and caught it. “I was glad to have a reason to come up. Won’t you let me help you, Karou?”
“I don’t need help.”
“It will help me, to have something to do.” With that, he moved forward so that she had to step aside or risk something like an embrace, and then he was past her. He was in her chamber, and it seemed to grow smaller around him.
It was a beautiful room, or had been once. The high ceiling glinted with mosaics, and faded silk panels lined the walls. A pair of windows with carved shutters stood open to the night, their ledges three feet deep, revealing the fortress thickness of the walls. It wasn’t very big; there were other rooms that would be more suitable to Karou’s work, but she had claimed this one because of the crossbar at the door and the feeling of safety it gave her—though a fat lot of good that did her now that Thiago was on the wrong side of it.
Stupid, she thought. Hanging back at the open door, she told him, “I’d rather work alone.”
He approached her worktable. Setting the tiger molar down with a click, he looked at her. “But you are not alone. We are in this together.” His intensity—his seeming sincerity—was piercing. “We are the inheritors, Karou. What my father and Brimstone were to our people, you and I are to those who remain.”
And what a heavy inheritance it was: no less than the fate of the chimaera races and all their hopes for survival.
The chimaera were barely clinging to the world. Thiago’s band of soldiers was all that remained of the chimaera army, and only through Karou’s collaboration did they have any hope of mounting a real opposition.
When she’d joined them they were hardly more than sixty: a handful of wounded survivors of the defense of Cape Armasin, who had escaped through the mine tunnels, along with others they had met as they moved across the ravaged land. They were mostly soldiers, with a few useful civilians such as the smith Aegir and a pair of farmwives to see to the cooking. And though sixty was a paltry number for a rebel force, they did have more hope than that.
They had thuribles. They had souls.
Karou’s best guess: Several hundred slain soldiers waited in stasis in the silver vessels, and it was up to her to bring them back to the fight.
“We are in this together,” Thiago had said. She looked at him hard and waited for the usual revulsion to rise, but it didn’t. Perhaps she was just too tired.
Or… perhaps Fate laid out your life for you like a dress on a bed, and you could either wear it or go naked.
Across the room, he had found her case of tools. It was a pretty thing, embossed leather the color of saffron, and looked like it might be a cosmetics case.
It was not.
He spilled its contents onto the table. There were some everyday objects—straight pins, a small blade, a hammer, pliers, of course—but mostly there were vises. They weren’t flashy: just plain brass screw clamps like the ones Brimstone had used. It was amazing the pain you could cause with such simple objects, if you knew what you were doing. Karou had had them handmade to order by a smith in the medina of Marrakesh who hadn’t asked questions but had guessed their purpose and smirked at her with a knowingness that had made her feel dirty. As if she enjoyed this.
“I’ll tithe,” said the Wolf, and Karou felt, in the void of her curiously absent revulsion, relief rush in.
“Of course. I would have before, if you had ever let me come in. Do you think I like knowing that you’re locked in here alone, suffering?”
Yes, she thought, but at the same moment she experienced a twinge of doubt for all her suspicion, and all the nights of barred doors. Thiago would give his pain to her magic so that she didn’t have to. How could she say no to that? Already he was stripping off his impeccable white shirt. “Come.” He smiled, and she saw in him a fatigue to mirror her own. “Let’s do it and be done.”
Karou gave in. She pushed the door closed with her foot and went to him.
There is intimacy in pain. Anyone who has comforted a sufferer knows it—the helpless tenderness, the embrace and murmur and slow rocking together as two become one against the enemy, pain.
Karou did not comfort Thiago. She didn’t touch him more than she had to as the pain invaded his body. But she was alone with him in the candlelight, and he was half-clad and subdued, his handsome face grave with endurance, and while she certainly felt what she expected—a grim pleasure to give back some small measure of the anguish he had once caused her—it wasn’t all she felt.
There was gratitude, too. A new body lay on the floor behind them, freshly conjured from teeth and pain, and for a change, the pain had not been her own. “Thanks,” she said grudgingly.
“My pleasure,” replied Thiago.
“I hope not. That would be sick.”
He gave a tired laugh. “The pleasure is not in the pain. It’s in sparing you the pain.”
“How noble.” Karou was removing the vises and his arm was heavy in her hand, his muscle so dense that she’d had trouble fitting the clamps, and was having trouble again, wrenching them off. She cringed as she torqued his triceps out of shape, leaving an angry welt. He winced, and an apology slipped automatically from her lips. “Sorry,” she said, and wanted to bite it back. He had you beheaded, she reminded herself. “Actually, I’m not. You had that coming.”
“I suppose I did,” he agreed, rubbing his arm. With a hint of a smile, he added, “Now we’re even.”
A small bark of a laugh, almost but not entirely without mirth, burst from Karou. “You wish.”
“I do, Karou. Karou.”
The laugh died quickly; Thiago said her name too much. It was like he was claiming it. She started to draw away, her hands full of vises, but his voice stopped her. “I’ve had this thought that if I could tithe for you, I could… atone… for what I did to you.”
Karou stared at him. The Wolf, atone?
He looked down. “I know. There’s no atoning for it.”
I can think of a way, thought Karou. “I’m… I’m surprised that you think you have anything to atone for.”
“Well.” He spoke softly. “Not for everything. You gave me no choice, Karou, you know that, but I might have done things differently, and I know that. The evanescence… it was beyond the pale.” He looked at her, beseeching. “I wasn’t myself, Karou. I was in love with you. And to see you with… him, like that. You drove me a little mad.”
Karou flushed and felt laid bare all over again. At least, she thought, struggling to maintain her composure, this human flesh had never been exposed to him the way her natural body had. Still, the way he was looking at her, she gathered that he’d forgotten nothing of that night in the requiem grove.
She fumbled with the vises, returning them to their case.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you, but I didn’t think you were ready to hear it.” A drop in his voice alarmed her. He sounded… confessional.
“I really should finish—” she tried to say, but he cut her off.
“It’s about Brimstone.”
The mention of Brimstone gripped Karou as it always did: like hands at her throat; a throttling, breathless assault of grief.
“He and I had our differences,” Thiago admitted. “That’s no secret. But when I found out that he had saved you, that your soul wasn’t lost… Perhaps you think I was furious that he had defied me, but nothing could be further from the truth. And now… Believe me when I say that every day I wake filled with gratitude for his mercy.” He paused. “Every time I look at you, I bless him.”
Look who’s become a fan of mercy, Karou thought. “Yes, well. It was good luck for you that a spare resurrectionist happened along.”
“I won’t lie. When I saw you in the ruins, I almost fell to my knees. But luck is too small a word for it, Karou. It was salvation. I had been praying to Nitid for hope, and when I opened my eyes and saw you there—you—like a beautiful hallucination, I thought she had answered me, and delivered to me the only person Brimstone ever trained.”
Karou wouldn’t have said Brimstone had trained her; that made it sound like he had intended for her to succeed him, and she knew that he would have carried his burden alone to the end of time sooner than pass it to her. Brimstone, Brimstone. Most of the time she accepted that he was gone—she knew he was—but there were moments when a certainty besieged her out of nowhere: that his soul was in stasis, hidden, waiting for her to find it.
Those moments were shining points of hope, brief and followed by crushing guilt, when she would admit to herself just how badly she wanted to hand Brimstone back this burden. Selfish.
In her deepest heart, she was glad he was free of it, finally at rest. Let someone else bear this weight. It was her turn—and who deserved it more than she did? The ugliness and misery, the wind-borne stench of the pit, the isolation and fatigue, the pain. And if Brimstone hadn’t exactly trained her, he had taught her enough to manage, if only just. She was getting better, faster—thinner, wearier—and with no help from gods or moons or anything else, thank you very much. She told Thiago, with a rough edge to her voice, “Nitid had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I’m just trying to say thank you.” There was a tremulous pathos in his ice-blue eyes. Keenly the intimacy of the moment struck Karou—their aloneness in the flickering light, his bare skin—and her revulsion came flooding back, nasty as bile.
“You’re welcome,” she said. She pulled his shirt off the chair back and threw it at him. “Get dressed, would you?”
She turned away again, trying to mask her disquiet. The only sound was the ring of the thurible’s chain as she took it from the table and suspended it from a hook over Amzallag’s new body.
It lay before her, huge and inert. Monstrous. She couldn’t believe that Brimstone would be proud of her now, but, as Thiago had persuaded her, these were monstrous times, and the rebels needed to maximize the impact of their small force.
It at least bore a resemblance to Amzallag’s accustomed bodies, being stag and tiger with the torso of a man, but it was much bigger—the iron filings were for size and heft, and fittingly were scavenged from the cage of Loramendi. It was a hulking thing; no armor would fit it. Every muscle was bunched and pronounced, and the flesh had a grayish cast: The excess of iron did that. Its head was tiger, the fangs as long as kitchen knives. And then there were the wings.
Ah, the wings.
The wings were the reason that living soldiers needed new bodies at all. It was Karou’s own fault. It had been her idea to come… here. She glanced at the window and the singular moon that was framed in it. Was she crazy? Stupid? Maybe. It had just been too much, keeping always on the move in Eretz, hiding in ruins and mine tunnels and scanning the sky for seraph patrols. She’d have lost her mind and her nerve keeping on like that, and the chances were that if they’d stayed they’d have been discovered by now, but still, she had to admit she hadn’t thought out all the ramifications of the move.
The pit, chiefly.
The soldiers needed to be able to come and go through the portal in the sky. They needed wings. For the journey here, those who could fly had carried those who could not—multiple trips back and forth, and those too large to be lifted had been slain and gleaned and carried that way. That was a day Karou would never forget, and now that they were here, the wingless were relegated to guard duty until she was able to remake them, at which time they could join the incursions into Eretz.
It was that simple. Simple, ha. Karou shuddered just to look at the fearsome thing on her floor and know that Amzallag’s previous body—the last one of many that Brimstone had made for him—had been thrown away like an old suit of clothes, so that Amzallag could become this. For a moment, she could only see it as its prey would see it, the horror and the hopelessness of escape, those wings, which, unfolded, would quite blot out the sky. Her hands grew clammy. What am I doing?
What am I making?
And… What have I brought into the human world?
It was like surfacing from a dream to glimpse cold reality for just an instant before sleep dragged her back down. Karou’s horror subsided. She was arming soldiers, that’s what she was doing. If she didn’t, who would make the seraphim pay for what they’d done?
As for bringing them into the human world, this place was remote and forgotten; the chance of encountering people was slim to none. And if a small voice in her head liked to whisper, That’s not good enough, Karou, she was getting used to tuning it out.
She took a deep breath. All that remained now was to guide Amzallag’s soul into his new skin, and that was a simple matter for incense. She reached for a cone and turned back to Thiago. He had put his shirt back on, she was glad to see. He looked very tired, his eyes heavy-lidded, but he mustered a smile.
“All ready?” he asked her.
She nodded and lit the incense.
She bristled at the words and the caressing tone in which he spoke them. Am I? she wondered as she sank to her knees to raise the dead.
Coming up on the silent village, the slave caravan thought nothing of a sky winged by blood daubs. The anomaly would have been an absence of blood daubs; in this work, carrion birds were a given. Usually, however, the carrion was of the beast variety.
Not so now.
The dead were strung up on the aqueduct: eight seraphim with their wings fanned wide. From a distance, they seemed to be smiling. Up close, it was an ugliness to shock even a slaver. Their faces…
“What did this?” someone choked out, though the answer was writ plain before them. In sweeping letters, in blood, a message was painted on a keystone of the aqueduct.
From the ashes, it read, we are arisen.
They panicked and dispatched messengers for Astrae. Being ill-defended, they didn’t delay to cut down their soldiers but hurried on, driving their chimaera chattel with whips. A marked change had come over the captives at the sight of the dead—a brightness, a keen and shifting eagerness. The blood scrawl was not the only message; the smiles were a message, too.
The corners of the dead angels’ mouths had been carefully slit, widened into rictus grins. The slavers knew exactly what it meant and so did the slaves, and all eyes grew sharp—some with fear; others, anticipation.
Night came and the caravan made camp, posted guards. The dark was pocked by small sounds: a scurry, a snap. The guards’ hands were hot on their hilts; their blood jumped, eyes darted.
And then the slaves began to sing.
This had not happened on any previous night. The slavers were accustomed to whimpers from the huddle of captives, not song, and they didn’t like it. The beasts’ voices were raw as wounds, forceful and primal and unafraid. When the seraphim tried to silence them, a tail lashed forth from the huddle and knocked a guard off his feet.
And then, between one leap of the campfire’s flame and the next, they came. Nightmares. Saviors. They came from above, and the slavers’ first confused thought was that reinforcements had arrived, but these were no seraphim. Wings and screaming, spike horns, antlers, lashing tails and hunched ursine shoulders. Bristles, claws.
Swords and teeth.
No angel survived.
Freed slaves melted away into the landscape, dragging the swords and axes—and yes, the whips—of their captors. They would be less easily subdued in the future.
All fell still. Here, too, a message was scribed in the blood of slaughter—the same words as would be found at many such scenes in the days to come.
We are arisen, it read. It is your turn to die.
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a new way of living—one without massacres and torn throats and bonfires of the fallen, without revenants or bastard armies or children ripped from their mothers’ arms to take their turn in the killing and dying.
Once, the lovers lay entwined in the moon’s secret temple and dreamed of a world that was like a jewel box without a jewel—a paradise waiting for them to find it and fill it with their happiness.
This was not that world.
Akiva, Hazael, and Liraz walked among the dead angels. They didn’t speak, only looked, and their silence was brittle with anger. These corpses, they were torn, as mice by cats. Akiva couldn’t tell if he had known them—the blood daubs had done their work—but on several of the faces there remained enough flesh to make out the mutilation. The obscene smiles had not been seen for generations, but all seraphim and chimaera knew them from graven memory. This was the Warlord’s signature.
It was what he had done to his seraph masters when he rose up from slavery a thousand years ago and changed the world. It was a powerful and unmistakable symbol of rebellion.
“Harmony with the beasts,” said Liraz under her breath, and Akiva tensed. His words, thrown back at him, and what could he say in response? That these same soldiers had left a string of burned villages in their wake and were no one’s idea of innocent? It would sound as though he thought they deserved this. He didn’t, but he couldn’t feel outrage, either, only sinking sadness. These soldiers had done what they had done, and been done unto in return. This was how it went.
In the cycle of slaughter, reprisal begat reprisal, forever. Now was not the time to philosophize, though, not with blood daubs circling overhead, skawing at them to be gone and leave them to their feasts. He kept his thoughts to himself.
The sun was rising. It touched the stalks of jess with a fairy glimmer, and the tassels fanned like wings in the breeze. Green-gold, gold-green, not yet ripe and never now to ripen. Soldiers were touching fire to the field’s edge, and the flames would spread fast in this tinder heat. Before the sun was fully up, the jess would be crackling, and so would the slain. Fire take the dead. There were no funerals for soldiers.
A shout from above. “You there! What are you doing?”
Akiva tilted back his head. The rays of the early sun lit his amber eyes, and the seraph in the air saw who he was and blanched. “Forgive me, sir. I… I wasn’t informed that you were here.”
Akiva launched into the air to meet him, his brother and sister coming up behind him. “We’ve come with the reinforcements from Cape Armasin,” he said.
The largest garrison in the former free holdings, Cape Armasin had sent soldiers to bolster the small southern contingent in response to these attacks.
The young patrol leader, whose name was Noam, looked slightly dazed to find himself face-to-face with Beast’s Bane. “It’s good to have you, sir,” he said.
For the second time: sir. Liraz made a noise in her throat. Akiva was no sir. Though fame afforded him a certain esteem, he was Misbegotten, and his rank was as it had ever been, and would ever be: low. “What have you learned?” he asked.
The soldier was wide-eyed. “The fight was under the aqueduct, sir.” It stood just behind them, a massive, ancient span, trees enough sprouting from the cracks in its stones to make it a kind of aerial forest. It would have been built by seraphim, Akiva knew, in the early days of the Empire’s first expansion, many centuries gone by, when the angels had come to this wild land of primitive, hostile beast tribes and civilized it. Subdued it.
Subdued. What a gentle word for the slave-making and spirit-crushing that had brought the chimaera under the Empire’s fist. The Warlord had destroyed that fist, but it was back, and now Akiva was a part of it.
“An ambush,” Noam added. “They were killed in the underpassage, and strung up there.” He indicated the red message painted on the aqueduct’s soaring upper story.
Akiva stared at the words. Who?
Liraz spoke. “Could the villagers have done this?”
Noam glanced at the dead. “It’s a Caprine village,” he stated simply, which Akiva understood to mean that the placid sheep-aspect beasts could never have committed such an act, let alone wrestled the corpses up the aqueduct.
“Are there enemy dead?” he asked.
“No, sir. Only our own, and no blood on their weapons.”
So they hadn’t managed a single stroke in self-defense? And these had been seasoned soldiers who had survived the war itself.
“And down there, sir.” Noam indicated the line of the road wending south through the hills. “The slave caravan was hit, too.”
Akiva looked. The scene was pastoral: a softness of valleys, hills shading one behind the next like the shadows of shadows, all of it as tranquil as birdsong. And there, lingering just above the horizon, was Ellai. A ghost moon all but vanished by the dawn. I saw what happened here, she might have taunted. And I laughed.
“The slaves?” he asked Noam.
“Gone, sir. Into the woods. The slavers were… fed chain.”
“Fed chain?” repeated Hazael.
Noam nodded. “The slaves’ shackles.”
Akiva watched his brother and sister for a reaction, but they gave away nothing. What would you do, he wished he could ask them, if someone put our people in chains?
Slaves were held to be a necessary evil in the affairs of empire, but Akiva did not share that belief, and didn’t mourn the loss of slavers. Soldiers, though, were another matter, and here were eight more. The death toll was sharp and rising. There had been five attacks in all. In one furious night, at Duncrake, Spirit Veil, the Whispers, the Iximi Moors, and here, in the Marazel Hills, seraph “cleansing” patrols had been taken by surprise, killed, mutilated, and left as gruesome messages for the Empire.
It was worse than war, he thought, to bleed out your life while your faraway folk danced hallelujah and raised their cups to the peace.
Akiva looked down. The flames were halfway across the field by now, the first soldiers already swallowed up. Squalls swam in the rising heat, dropping down almost lazily to pick off the smoke-stunned grassjacks that fled in clouds ahead of the blaze.
“Sir?” asked Noam. “Can you tell what did this?”
Revenants, Akiva thought at once. He had seen enough dead-strewn battlefields to know that only the biggest, most monstrous and unnatural chimaera could have caused such rending of flesh. But the revenants were gone. “Probably some survivors of the war,” he said.
“There’s talk,” said Noam, hesitating. “That the old monsters aren’t really dead.”
The Warlord and Brimstone, he meant. “Believe me.” Akiva was besieged by memories of their last moments. “They’re dead and more than dead.”
And what would this wide-eyed young soldier say if he knew how fervently the hero Beast’s Bane wished they weren’t?
“But the message. We are arisen. What else could it mean but resurrection?”
“It’s a rallying cry. That’s all.” The Warlord and Brimstone had gone beyond all retrieval. He had watched them die.
But… he had watched Madrigal die, too.
A sliver of doubt slid under his certainty. Was it possible? Akiva’s pulse gave a short, sharp spike. He thought of the thurible he had found, its small message scrawled in a bold hand: Karou. If there was another resurrectionist, maybe the word was not such a terrible taunt as he had believed.
No. He couldn’t let himself hope. “There was only ever Brimstone,” he said, more harshly than he’d intended.
Liraz was watching him, her eyes drawn ever so slightly narrow. Did she know what he was thinking? She knew about the thurible, of course. “No more secrets,” she had said, and there weren’t. Did a brief flare of hope count as a secret? If it did, it was one he felt justified in keeping.
Noam nodded, accepting his word. With a light tone, as if he were repeating foolishness he himself did not believe, he said, “Others are saying it’s the ghosts.” His eyes, though, betrayed a real fear, and Akiva couldn’t blame him. Brimstone’s last words chilled him, too.
He remembered how Joram’s voice had reverberated through the agora of Loramendi in the silence after all resistance was crushed. The Warlord and Brimstone had been on their knees; they had been kept alive to witness the deaths of everyone else.
“You doomed them,” Joram had hissed in the Warlord’s ear. “You were never going to win. You are animals. Did you really think you could rule the world?”
“That was not our dream,” the Warlord had said with quiet dignity.
“Dream? Spare me your beast dreams. Do you know what my dream has been?” asked Joram, as if there were any who didn’t know he sought to dominate all Eretz.
The Warlord’s stag antlers were broken, ragged. He had been beaten, and it seemed to cost him great effort to hold up his head. At his side, Brimstone wasn’t managing even that. He was hunched forward, his weight on one splayed hand, the other arm wrapped across his middle where he bled from a gash, and his great shoulders heaved as he tried to draw breath. He wasn’t long for life, but still he managed to raise his head and answer.
That voice. It was the only time Akiva ever heard it, and the sound of it—the feel of it—would never leave him. Deep as the beat of a stormhunter’s wings, it had seemed to lodge in the base of his skull and live there.
“Dead souls dream only of death,” the resurrectionist told the emperor. “Small dreams for small men. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master, or death is. Look at you. You are a lord of ashes, a lord of char. You are filthy with your victory. Enjoy it, Joram, for you will never know another. You are lord of a country of ghosts, and that is all that you will ever be.”
It sounded like a curse, Akiva had thought, and it had pitched Joram into a fervor. “It shall be a country of ghosts, I promise you that. A country of corpses. No beast shall crawl but that it drags a weight of shackles and is so scored by the lash that it can hardly raise its head!”
Anger was the emperor’s resting state. Seraphim were beings of fire, but it was said that Joram burned hot, like the core of a star. It gave him enormous appetites—such an inferno to feed—and when it snapped into rage it was terrible, beyond all reach of reason or control.
He killed Brimstone on the spot. One slash; surely he meant to sever his head, but Brimstone’s neck was thick and he failed, and as Brimstone collapsed in a torrent of blood, Joram wrenched up his sword and raised it for another try. With a bellow of rage, the Warlord, ancient creature, lowered that rack of broken antlers and launched himself at the emperor. It took two soldiers leaping in to put him down, but not before he speared Joram on one jagged prong and felled him, not killing him, not even seriously wounding him, but stealing his dignity on his day of triumph.
And ever since, Joram had been delivering on the promise he had made: a country of ghosts, indeed.
“If ghosts could pick up killing where the living left off,” Akiva told Noam, “we’d have wiped each other out long ago.”
Again Noam nodded, accepting his words as wisdom. “Sir?” he asked. “Are there new orders?”
Liraz finally couldn’t take it anymore. “You don’t have to call him sir,” she said. “You know what we are.” Misbegotten. Bastards. Nothing.
“I…” Noam stammered. “But he’s—”
“Never mind,” said Akiva. “No. No new orders. What are the standing orders?” They had just arrived; he didn’t know. “Are we to track the rebels?”
But Noam shook his head. “There’s nothing to track. They just vanished. We’re… we’re to answer them.”
“The messages, the smiles. The emperor…” He swallowed audibly; he was being careful, weighing his words for Akiva’s benefit, but they lacked conviction. “The emperor can send a message, too.”
Akiva was silent, taking this in. At Cape Armasin he had been lucky: in the north, there had been no one left to kill. Here it was another story. Fleeing villagers, freed slaves, chimaera trying to make their way to the Hintermost, where they believed they might find sanctuary, a way through the mountains to a new life. And now he was supposed to hunt them down? Make a message out of them?
Beast’s Bane. He should be good at it.
A mixture of desperation, fatigue, and helplessness overcame Akiva. He wanted no part of Joram’s message.
Corpse smoke gusted up from the field, and the angels beat their wings and backed away from it to come to rest atop the aqueduct. Noam noticed gore and broken feathers where the soldiers had been strung up, and emotion broke through his martial stolidness. “What is it all for?” he asked wildly—of the sky, of no one. “I can’t remember. I… I don’t think I ever knew.” He fixed abruptly on Akiva. “Sir,” he implored, Liraz’s scold forgotten. “When will it end?”
It won’t, thought Akiva. He looked into the eyes of this young soldier and knew that soon enough, whatever was in him that made him ask why would be dead, of necessity—another soul ripped out to make way for a monster. Armies need monsters, as the old hunchback had told him in Morocco, to do their terrible work. Who knew that better than Akiva? He looked at Hazael, Liraz. Was it too late for them? For himself?
Desperate and tired, helpless and besieged by the meat scent of burning comrades, he did something he had not done in a very long time, not since Madrigal was ripped naked from his arms at the temple of Ellai.
He imagined two futures for Eretz: One as Joram would have it, the other as it might be.
A different sort of life.
Sveva woke with the thunderclap jolt and sick, scrambling lurch to consciousness of one who has fallen asleep on watch. Every particle of her body and mind slammed from dream to dread in the space of a twig’s snap and she was awake, looking, listening.
Blinking. It was dawn. Through the fringe of the trees, the sky was soft and pale. How long had she slept? And the twig snap—had she heard it or dreamt it?
She sat very still listening. All was quiet. After a few minutes, she relaxed. They were safe. Sarazal still slept; she didn’t need to know Sveva had fallen asleep; she scolded her enough as it was. With a sigh, Sveva uncurled her forelegs from beneath her. They were slim as a fawn’s, the fur still lightly speckled; she was the smaller of the two girls, the younger. She was the one used to getting away with things, not doing her share.
But that was before.
When they got back home, she would be perfect. No more dreaming days, or hiding from their mother’s call. Their mother. How worried she must be now, and the whole tribe; did they know it had been slavers who got them? They’d just gone out to run, the two of them, needing the wind in their hair after a day at their looms. It was Sveva, the fastest, who had kept them going, too far, too far. She’d given her sister no choice but to chase her. She couldn’t leave her—older sisters didn’t do things like that. This was Sveva’s fault.
Did the tribe think they were dead? It made her sick to imagine their grief. We’re okay, she thought; she thought it hard, willing the message to fly across the land and reach her mother’s mind. Mothers could sense things, couldn’t they?
We’re okay, Mama. We’re free. We were freed!
She couldn’t wait to tell how it had been, the revenants come from the skies like vengeance made flesh. And what flesh! So huge, so terrible. Well, one of them had not been terrible: a tall one with long, spike horns had taken a knife off a dead angel and put it in her hand; he had been handsome.
Oh, who had ever had such a story to tell? She would tell it fast, before Sarazal could butt in. She was better at stories anyway; she remembered the good details, like how all the slaves had stood together singing. They were from all different tribes, but every one of them knew the words of the Warlord’s ballad. The sound of their mingled voices, Sveva thought, had been like the sound of the world itself: earth and air, leaf and stream, and tooth and claw, too. And snarl, and scream. Some of the other slaves had frightened her almost as much as the slavers, but they’d all gone their separate ways once their shackles were off. Most had fanned south, carrying whips and swords, going to warn anyone they could find. Sveva herself clutched her knife—it was in her fist now, too big for her small hand to grip properly—but they were headed north and west.
Home. We’re coming come.
Once Sarazal was better, anyway.
Sveva was chewing her cheek, worrying about her sister’s leg—she could smell the wound, even through the herb fragrance of her poultice—when she heard another snap. Her skin flashed cold and she stared into the thickness of the forest where night still clung in the shadows of the dense damsel trees.
It was probably just a skote, she told herself, or a tree creeper.
Her heart was pounding; she wished Sarazal would wake. Older sisters could be tiresome when you just wanted to dither away a day, but they were a comfort when you found yourself fugitive in a strange forest, prey to sounds and shadows and in need of someone to tell you it would be all right.
Silently, Sveva gathered herself upright, her deer legs extended before her, her sylph-slender human torso rising slowly. The Dama were the smallest of the centaurid tribes, slight, lithe deer centaurs known for their speed. Ah, their speed; they were the fastest of all the chimaera, and since Sveva was the fastest of the Dama, she liked to boast that she was the fastest creature in all the world. Sarazal said not necessarily, but true or not, Sveva loved to run, and longed to. They could have been halfway home by now, to the spiking ezerin forests and high moss plains of Aranzu where the Dama ranged, unfixed and wild.
They would have been halfway by now, if not for Sarazal’s leg.
Sarazal still hadn’t stirred. She lay curled in the fur-soft bracken, eyes closed, face relaxed and tranquil, and as much as Sveva wished she would wake, she couldn’t bring herself to rouse her. For days, Sarazal had had a hard time sleeping with the pain. All because of the shackle. Now that their ordeal was over, it was this that Sveva fixed her hatred on. It was interesting the way a small hate could grow inside a big hate and take it over. When she thought of the slavers now—dead though they were, she would hate them forever—it was Sarazal’s shackle more than anything else that made her chest and face feel tight with swallowed fury.
With chimaera being so many different shapes and sizes, the slavers carried all manner of shackles and used whatever fit—all sizes of iron bands and steel chains, on legs, waists, necks. Never arms, though. It was Rath, another slave—a fearsome Dashnag boy whose long white fangs made Sveva shrink up like a wilting flower—who had told them why.
“An arm you could cut off and get away,” he’d said. “An arm you could do without.”
“I couldn’t,” Sveva had replied with some superiority. Savages, she remembered thinking, as if perhaps it was a lack of finer feelings that made Dashnag so casual about their limbs.
“That’s because you don’t know what’s waiting for you.”
“And you do?” she’d snapped. She shouldn’t have. Rath could have eaten her face with a bite, but she couldn’t help it. Was he trying to scare her? As if she wasn’t scared enough.
Maybe, she thought, she hadn’t been scared enough. She was now, though. The sweet stink of infection was coming off her sister, and she knew that when she reached out to touch her, she would be hot with fever. The herbs weren’t working.
Sveva had found them—feversbane even. At least, she was almost sure it was feversbane. Half-sure at least. But she could see the wound, Sarazal’s leg lying delicate on its bracken pillow, and it didn’t look any better. She traced her own painful chafe marks with her fingertips and felt the guilty weight of luck she didn’t deserve.
The slavers had bound Sveva around her small waist with an iron manacle probably meant for some giant bull centaur’s legs, but when they’d gotten to Sarazal—she was last; it was only luck, bad luck—they’d found nothing to fit her, and made do with a scrap of iron tightened just above her left fore fetlock. The metal had cut, the cut had swollen, and then the makeshift shackle had done its real damage, slicing further into the swelling, biting deeper with every step. Sarazal’s limping had gotten so bad that the slavers would have had to leave her behind if the revenants hadn’t come. Rath said they would have sooner but that Dama were valuable, and Sveva didn’t need him to tell her that if they did leave Sarazal, or any of them, it wouldn’t be alive.
But the revenants had come—from where, the moons only knew, on wings such as she had never seen, more terrifying than anything out of a nightmare—and just in time. Sarazal could barely walk now, and they hadn’t gotten far, with Sveva too small to be much help supporting her.
She sighed. No more sounds from the shadows, that was good, but the shadows were fading away. It was day. It was time to wake Sarazal. Reluctantly, Sveva touched her shoulder. Her skin was hot, and when she fluttered her eyes open they weren’t right—they had that shine and blear of sickness. Sveva’s guilt churned in her stomach like a live thing. She wanted to pull her sister’s head into her lap, comb out her tangled cinnamon-stick hair with her fingers, and sing to her, not the Warlord’s ballad but something sweet, with no one dying in it. But all she did was murmur, “It’s morning, Sara, time to get up.”
A whimper. “I can’t.”
“You can.” Sveva tried to sound cheerful, but a desperate panic was building in her. Sarazal was really sick. What if she… No. Sveva slammed the thought shut. That couldn’t happen. “Of course you can. Mama will be watching for us.”
But Sarazal only whimpered again and tried to nestle deeper into the bracken, and Sveva didn’t know what to do. Her sister was always the one bossing and planning and coaxing. Maybe she should let her sleep a little longer, she thought, let the feversbane work.
If it was feversbane. What if it wasn’t? What if it was doing more harm than good?
That’s what Sveva was worrying over when the voice came from behind her. No snapping twigs gave warning—it was just there, almost in her ear, stabbing icy jolts of fright all through her. “You have to go.”
Sveva whirled around, brandishing her too-big knife, and there was Rath. The Dashnag boy with his long white fangs, he was half in the shadow and half out, and for all that he was still a boy, he was just so big. Sveva’s gasp was long and unsteady, a reeling drag of terror. Rath gave her a long look, and Sveva could read no expression on his beast face. He had a tiger’s head and cat eyes that caught the light and silvered. He was a hunter, a stalker, an eater of flesh. She could outrun him easily, she knew that… except that she couldn’t, because if she were running, it would mean she had left Sarazal behind.
“What are you doing here?” she cried. “Were you following us?”
Rath’s voice came from low in his throat. “I was looking for the revenants,” he said. “But they’re gone, and I wouldn’t count on them saving you twice.”
Was that a threat? “You leave us alone,” she said, putting herself in front of Sarazal.
Rath made an impatient sound. “Not from me,” he said. “If you were watching the sky, you’d know.”
“What?” Sveva’s heart drummed. “What do you mean?”
“Angels are coming. Soldiers, not slavers. If you want to live, it’s time to go.”
Angels. Sveva’s hatred kindled. “We’re hidden here,” she said. The leaf cover of the damsel canopy would be unbroken green from above, leagues and leagues of it. Two Dama girls were like two acorns. “They’ll never see us.”
“They don’t need to see you to kill you,” said Rath. “Look for yourself.” He indicated an opening in the brush that Sveva knew gave way to a little rise and a ridge, with a view out onto the sweep of the hills. She glanced at Sarazal, who was sleeping again, her lips moving and eyelids fluttering with unhappy dreams. Rath made another impatient sound, and Sveva went. She moved sideways, her cloven hooves dancing and anxious, and when she was past him she burst into speed and leapt up the rise.
She saw smoke.
Across the valley, between themselves and their way home, some half-dozen plumes of ink-black smoke rose from the forest at intervals. Licks of vivid fire were discernible below, and above, shimmering in the air like heat mirages: seraphim.
They were going to burn them out. Burn this land. Burn the world.
Stunned, she came back to Rath. “Did you see?” he asked.
“Yes,” she spat, angry. Angry with him, as if it were his fault. Anger was better than the panic that pulsed just beneath it. She stooped to gather her sister to her feet, but Sarazal resisted.
“No,” she said, her voice small as a child’s. “I can’t, I can’t.”
Sveva had never seen her sister like this. She tried to draw her upright. “Come on,” she said. “Sarazal. You can. You have to.”
But Sarazal shook her head. “Svee, please.” Her face crumpled; her eyes squeezed tight. “It hurts.” It was the first time she had admitted the pain, and her voice was a whisper from a deep place, long and pleading. “Go,” she said. “You know I can’t. I won’t blame you. No one will. Svee, Svee, maybe you are the fastest in the world.” She tried to smile. Svee was Sveva’s baby name; it cut her to the heart to hear it. “So run!” Sarazal cried.
And Sveva shook her. “I’ll lie down and die with you, do you hear me? Is that what you want? Mama will be so mad at you!” Her voice sounded shrill, cruel. She just had to get her sister moving. “And don’t even try to say you would leave me. I know you wouldn’t, and I won’t, either!”
And Sarazal did try to rise, but she cried out as soon as she put weight on her swollen leg, and sank back down. “I can’t,” she whispered. Her fevered eyes were wide with terror.
Then Rath sprang. Sveva had half forgotten him. She didn’t see the start of the leap, only its finish, when he came down on the bracken before them, impossibly light for his bulk, and grabbed Sarazal up, one big arm hooked under her sleek deer belly, her human torso pulled tight to his shoulder. Sarazal gasped, going rigid with pain and fear, and Rath said nothing. Another leap and he was moving again, away from the oncoming fire and the shimmer of angels without even a backward glance at Sveva.
After one numb pulse of surprise, she followed him.
“But why teeth?” Mik asked Zuzana. “I don’t get it.”
Zuzana, marching up the sidewalk ahead of him, stopped dead and whirled to face him. He was pulling her giant marionette on its wheeled cart and had to lurch to a halt to avoid running her over. She stood there tiny and imperious, a pout and a scowl vying for dominance of her expression. She said, “I don’t know why. That’s not the point. The point is that she was here. In Prague.”
She left the rest unsaid, the pout winning out so that for a moment she looked unguardedly wounded. Karou—the “Tooth Phantom,” as they were calling her, little guessing that she and “the Girl on the Bridge” were one and the same—had apparently, at some point in her string of crimes, hit the National Museum. The local news had featured a curator shining a penlight into the jaws of a slightly moth-eaten Siberian tiger.
“As you see, she didn’t take the fangs—only the molars,” the man had said, defensive. “That’s why we didn’t notice. We have no reason to look inside specimens’ mouths.”
Clearly, the Phantom was Karou. Even if the glimpse of footage wasn’t enough to positively identify her, Zuzana had a resource that the various police forces of the world did not: her friend’s sketchbooks. They were piled in a corner of Mik’s room, all ninety of them. From the time Karou was old enough to hold a pencil, she had been drawing this story of monsters and mystical doorways and teeth. Always teeth.
Mik’s question was a good one: Why? Well, Zuzana had no idea. Right now, however, that was not her primary concern.
“How could she be here and not come see us?” she demanded. One eyebrow was up, cool and furious, and her scowl muscled her pout into submission. In her platform boots and vintage tutu, with her face upturned and fierce, in doll makeup with pink-dot cheeks and fluttery foil lashes, she looked every inch the “rabid fairy” that Karou had dubbed her.
Mik reached out to cup her shoulders. “We don’t know what’s going on with her. Maybe she was in a hurry. Or she was being followed. I mean, it could be anything, right?”
“That’s what pisses me off the most,” Zuzana said. “That it could be anything, and I know nothing. I’m her best friend. Why won’t she let me know what she’s doing?”
“I don’t know, Zuze,” said Mik, his voice soft. “She said she feels happy. That’s good, right?”
They were poised at the verge of the Charles Bridge on their way to stake out their spot for the day’s performances. They’d gotten a late start this morning and the medieval bridge was fast filling with artists and musicians, not to mention more than a fair share of the world’s apocalyptic weirdos. Anxiously, Mik watched an old-man jazz band trundle by carrying battered instrument cases.
Zuzana was oblivious. “Ugh! Don’t get me started on that e-mail. I want to kill her a little bit. Was it a riddle? Monty Python references? Sandcastles? What the hell? And she didn’t even mention Akiva. What does that mean?”
“It’s not promising,” Mik acknowledged.
“I know. I mean, are they together? She would mention him, right?”
“Well, yeah. Like you write her all about me, telling her all the funny things I say, and how every day I get more handsome and clever. And you use smileys—”
Zuzana snorted. “Of course. And I sign everything Mrs. Mikolas Vavra, with a heart dotting the i.”
Mik said, “Huh. I like the sound of that.”
She punched his shoulder. “Please. If you ever did ask me to marry you, don’t even think I would identify myself as some addendum of you, like an old lady signing her rent check with perfect penmanship as Mrs. Husband Name—”
“But you’d say yes, is that what you’re saying?” Mik’s blue eyes twinkled.
“That sounded like the only quibble is what you’d call yourself, not whether or not you’d say yes.”
Zuzana blushed. “I didn’t say that.”
“So you wouldn’t marry me?”
“Ridiculous question. I’m eighteen!”
“Oh, it’s an age thing?” He frowned. “You don’t mean wild oats, do you? We’re not going to have to take some stupid break so you can experience other—”
Zuzana put a hand over his mouth. “Gross. Don’t even say it.”
Mollified, Mik kissed her palm. “Good.”
She spun on her heel and walked on. Mik gave the huge puppet a tug to get it rolling again, and followed. “So,” he called to her back, “just out of curiosity, you know, purely conversation and all, at what age will you be entertaining offers of marriage?”
“You think it’ll be so easy?” she called back over her shoulder. “No way. There will be tasks. Like in a fairy tale.”
“That sounds dangerous.”
“Very. So think twice.”
“No need,” he said. “You’re worth it.” And Zuzana’s face warmed with pleasure.
They managed to find a wedge of unclaimed space on the Old Town end of the bridge, where they parked the marionette. It towered there in its black trench coat like some sinister bridge guardian, a dark counterpoint to the clutch of white-robed figures beyond. Angel-cult rabble. They were loitering, lighting their vigil candles and chanting—at least until the next police sweep, which would temporarily scatter them. How unflagging they were in their belief that the angels would return here to the scene of their most dramatic sighting.
You know nothing, Zuzana thought with scorn, but her superiority was wearing thin. So she had met one of the angels. So what? She was just as ignorant now as everyone else.
Karou, Karou. What could it mean that she had been here and not even said hello? And that e-mail! Yes, it was absurd, mysterious to the point of clubbing her on the head, but… there was just something so off about it.
It struck Zuzana then: a lightning flash of memory.
I feel happy…. I feel happy….
Karou did not feel happy. Zuzana was suddenly sick. She pulled out her phone to make sure she was right. The clip was easy to find online; it was a classic. “Don’t want to go on the cart!” That was the clue. Monty Python and the Holy Grail: She and Karou had gone through a phase when they were fifteen, they must have watched it twenty times. And there it was, at the end of the “Bring out your dead” scene.
“I feel happy…. I feel happy….”
Desperate singsong. It was what the old man said to convince them he was all right just before they clubbed him on the head and threw his body on the plague cart. Jesus. Leave it to Karou to communicate in Holy Grail. Was she trying to say that she was in danger? But what could Zuzana possibly do about it? Her heart was beating fast now.
“Mik,” she called. He was tuning his violin. “Mik!”
Priestess of a sandcastle? In a land of dust and starlight?
Was that a clue, too?
Did Karou want to be found?
RIESTESS OF A
The kasbah was a castle built of earth, one of the hundreds that studded these southern reaches of Morocco, where they had baked in the sun for centuries. Once, they had been home to warrior clans and all their retinue. They were primeval fortresses, proud and red and tall, with crenellations like the hooked teeth of vipers, and arcane Berber patterns etched on the high, smooth walls.
In many of the kasbahs, small clutches of warriors’ descendants still eked out lives while time worked its ruin around them. But this place, when Karou found it, had been left to the storks and scorpions.
A few weeks ago, when she came back into this world to collect teeth, she had been, well, reluctant to return to Eretz. Not that she doubted for a second that she would; it was just that returning to that place was so hard. To that world in general with its waft of death, and the mine tunnel in particular. The echoes and the eerie, fluting cries of cherub bats, the dirt, the darkness, the pale tuber roots that pulsed like veins, no privacy, gruff “comrades,” always eyes on her, and… no doors. That was the worst part, not being able to close a door and feel safe, ever, especially while she was working—because in magic she went to a place inside of herself and was entirely vulnerable. And forget about sleep. She’d had to find an alternative.
It was no small matter secreting a growing army of chimaera in the human world. They needed a place that was big, isolated, and within range of the Atlas portal Razgut had shown her, so that they could come and go between worlds. Electricity and running water would have been nice, too, but she hadn’t expected to find a place that fit even the critical needs.
The kasbah did, perfectly.
It looked for all the world as Karou had described it in her one brief e-mail to Zuzana: like a sandcastle, a very big sandcastle. It was monumental: an entire town, really—lanes and plazas, neighborhoods, a caravansary, granary, and palace—all of it echoing empty. Its creators had dreamed on a legendary scale, and to stand in its flagstone court, mud walls and peaked roofs jutting overhead, was to feel shrunk to the size of a songbird.
It was gorgeous: embellished with scrollwork iron window grilles and carved wood, jewel mosaics and soaring Moorish arches, jade-green roof tiles, and the white plaster lacework of long-dead craftsmen.
And it was collapsing into ruin. In some quarters the roofs had fallen in entirely, and several towers were reduced to a single standing corner with the rest melted clean away. Staircases led nowhere; doors opened onto four-story plunges; towering arches loomed precarious, riven with cracks.
Above and behind it, slopes scraped north, where the teeth of the Atlas Mountains bit off the sky. Before and below, the earth rolled down a slope of scree and scrub toward the distant Sahara. It was a bleak vista, so still that it seemed the twitch of a scorpion’s tail for miles around should draw the eye.
All this Karou could see from her room at the highest point in the palace. A wide, walled court lay below. Several chimaera stood in the arcaded gallery that faced the main gate, and they fell silent when she drifted down before them. She had gone out her window—the lanes were in terrible repair and walking was treacherous, on top of which: Why walk when you can fly?—and her silent flight, no stirring of wings, always unsettled them. They stared at her now with the colored eyes of raptors and oxen and lizards, and made no greeting as she passed.
The heat of the day was as powerful as a hand pressing on her head, but still she had put on a sleeved tunic to cover her bruised arms, and she’d slung her knife belt on over that. Her crescent-moon blades hung at her hips, a reassurance that she wished she didn’t need. All the chimaera were armed at all times, so she didn’t stand out; her “comrades” didn’t need to know it was them that she feared.
Almost as soon as she entered the great hall, someone whispered, “Traitor.”
It came behind her back, a hiss too toneless to place. It pierced her, though she gave no outward sign, continuing on and hearing holes gape open in conversations. It might have come from Hvitha, who was serving himself food, or Lisseth or Nisk, who were already at the table. But Karou’s money was on Ten, for no better reason than that Ten, a wolf-aspect female and the lone surviving member of Thiago’s retinue, was friendlier to her face than most. Which of course made her totally suspect.
I love my life, thought Karou.
If it had been Ten, though, the she-wolf was all innocence as she hailed Karou and offered her a plate. “I was just going to bring it up to you,” she said.
Karou gave her a suspicious look that took in the plate, as well.
Ten didn’t miss it. “You think I’d poison you? Well. Wouldn’t I be sorry next time I died?” She laughed, a husky sound from her wolf jaws. “Thiago asked me to,” she explained. “He’s meeting with his captains or I’m sure he would have done it himself.”
Karou took the plate of couscous and vegetables. That was another benefit of being here: In Eretz food had been hard to come by; they had subsisted mainly on boiled jess, which had the mouthfeel of modeling clay and not much more flavor. Here, a battered truck served Karou for occasional trips to buy bulk bags of grain, dates, and vegetables in the nearest towns, and behind the great hall a dynasty of stringy chickens now ruled over a small courtyard.
“Thanks,” Karou said. Thiago had brought her dinner several nights now so that her work would not be interrupted, and she had to admit it was easier than coming down to the dubious reception of her comrades—on top of which, the Wolf had tithed. His arms were almost as bruised as her own now, covered in blotches and blooms from the palest yellow to the deepest purple, overlapping and ever-changing.
“An art form all its own,” he had called them, and paid her the strangest—and ickiest—compliment of her life: “You make beautiful bruises.”
This evening, however, he had not come, and it was when she realized that she was waiting for him—waiting for the Wolf—that Karou had slammed to her feet and gone straight out the window.
She let Ten guide her to the table. The hall wasn’t crowded at this hour. A quick scan and she gauged that half the soldiers here were her own handiwork. It was easy to tell: wings, sheer size. There was Amzallag: hers; Oora: not. Nisk and Lisseth, both hers; Hvitha and Bast: not. Not yet, anyway. But there was a reason the hissed traitor had come behind Karou’s back: they all knew that in the days, weeks, possibly even hours to come, their souls would pass through her hands. One of them might even be walking to the pit with Thiago tonight; who knew? What they did know was that they were going to die; they were used to it.
They were not used to trusting a traitor with their resurrection.
“Nectar?” said Ten. A joke. She gestured to the big drum that held river water, and scooped Karou up a cup. After they were settled in their places, she said, “I saw Razor earlier.”
“Oh?” Karou was instantly wary. Razor was a Heth bone priest she had brought back that morning from the stash of thuribles. It had been a tricky resurrection, one of Thiago’s special requests.
Ten nodded. “He was perplexed by his head.”
“He’ll get used to it.”
“But a lion’s head, Karou? On a Heth?”
As if Karou didn’t know what kind of heads Heth had. They were fairly horrific, actually, with great compound eyes and scissoring ant mandibles that resembled crab claws. How had Brimstone handled that? Karou had no insect teeth in her supply, and she had never known him to have any, either. “Thiago wanted him. Lion was the best I could do on short notice.” And better than he deserves, she thought. Razor was a stranger to her, but she had sensed a dark character while she worked. Every soul made a unique impression on her mind, and his was… sticky. Why Thiago had made him a priority she didn’t know, and hadn’t asked, as she hadn’t asked about the others. She did her work and the Wolf did his.
“Well,” allowed Ten, “I suppose he is much prettier now.”
“Right?” said Karou. “I’m expecting his thank-you any day.”
“Yes, well, don’t sheathe your claws,” said Ten. It was a chimaera expression, roughly equivalent to don’t hold your breath, though more menacing, with the implied necessity of self-defense. Good advice, thought Karou.
Her mouth was full when Ten said, casually, “Thiago suggested that I help you.”
The couscous felt like Play-Doh on Karou’s tongue. She couldn’t answer, and struggled to swallow.
“Well,” said Ten. “It’s an enormous undertaking for one person, isn’t it?”
Karou finally swallowed her Play-Doh. Brimstone was one person, she thought, but she didn’t say it. She knew she didn’t fare well in that comparison. Besides, Brimstone had not been alone, had he?
“I would be your assistant,” Ten went on. “Like the Naja woman, what was her name?” At this blithe mention of Issa, Karou stiffened. Ten didn’t notice, and didn’t wait for a response. “I could take care of the menial things to leave you free for the part only you can do.”
“No,” said Karou, sharp as a bite. You’re not Issa. “Tell Thiago thank you, but—”
“Oh. I believe he meant for you to accept.”
Well, of course Thiago meant for her to accept; he meant for everyone to accept his will and enact it at once. And she did need help. But Ten? Karou couldn’t stand the thought of the she-wolf always at her elbow, watching her.
There was something savage about Ten, about most of the company, in fact, that Karou was having a hard time reconciling with her memories of her chimaera kindred—had they always been like this and she just couldn’t see it? There had been, for instance, the matter of the sweet arza tree, not long after she’d joined with them. Nothing sweet about it anymore, the tree was burned like everything else around Loramendi, huge and skeletal as a great bone hand clawing up from the earth. There had been charred orbs swaying in its boughs, and Karou hadn’t understood what they were until she’d heard some soldiers talking of using “the arza fruit” for archery practice.
She hadn’t even thought—stupid, stupid—before saying, “Oh, that’s fruit? It’s big.”
The way they’d looked at her. She couldn’t recall it without a scald of shame. It was Ten who had said, “They’re heads.”
Karou had blanched. “You’re shooting at heads?” All she could think was: But they’re ours. They must have been chimaera, and Ten had asked, “What else would we do with them?”
A beat passed in incredulity before Karou said, “We could bury them.”
To which Ten had replied, with vicious zeal, “I’d rather avenge them.”
It was a fearsome thing to say, and Karou had gotten a chill—and a small spark of admiration, she had to admit—but it kept coming back to her later, and her admiration didn’t last. Why not both? Bury the dead and avenge them. It was barbaric to leave corpses lying about, and she knew this wasn’t simply her human feeling.
She experienced a queer collision of reactions these days. Karou’s were foremost, and most immediate, but Madrigal’s were hers, too: her two selves, coming together with a strange kind of vibration. It wasn’t disharmony, exactly. Karou was Madrigal, but her reactions were informed by her human life and all the luxuries of peace, and things that might have been commonplace to Madrigal could still jar her at first. Burnt heads strung from a sweet arza tree? If Madrigal hadn’t seen exactly that, she had witnessed enough horror that it had no power to shock her.
But in Madrigal’s lifetime the chimaera had buried their dead, if they could. It wasn’t always possible; countless times they’d gleaned souls and left the bodies on the battlefield, but that was of necessity. This was… brutish. To take target practice at the dead? It wasn’t only Karou’s human self that shrank from that. What had the past eighteen years been like that the chimaera had given up such a basic hallmark of civilization as burial?
Now, leaning forward, Ten told Karou, “Thiago needs more soldiers, and faster. It is critical.”
“It would slow things down more to try to teach you what to do.”
“Surely there’s something.”
Surely there was. Plenty of things. She could make and mold the incense, clean the teeth, tithe. But something in Karou clenched at the thought. Not Ten. For years Ten had been attached to the White Wolf—his personal guard, one of a pack that moved always in his shadow, in battle and out of it.
She had been in the requiem grove.
“A smith would be more helpful,” said Karou. “To band the teeth in silver for stringing.”
“Aegir is busy. Forging weapons.” Ten’s tone suggested that banding teeth was beneath the smith’s dignity.
“And what am I forging, jewelry?” Karou matched her tone. She met Ten’s eyes, which were golden-brown like a true wolf’s, unlike Thiago’s pale blue, a color never seen on the animal. He should be called the White Siberian Husky, Karou thought pettishly.
“Aegir can’t be spared.” Ten’s voice was getting tight.
“I’m surprised Thiago can spare you.” Who will brush his hair for him?
“He considers this very important.”
Ten’s words were hard and clipped now, and it began to dawn on Karou that she might not win this, and also that her arguments against Ten’s help weren’t sound. She could see Thiago’s point; she was no Brimstone, that was sure. The Wolf was trying to mount a rebellion, and there were still a score of flightless soldiers awaiting their walk to the pit, not to mention the landslide of thuribles in her room that had barely begun to diminish.
And the patrols had not yet returned from the first wave of the rebellion.
If anything had happened to them… Just the thought made Karou want to sag down and weep. Of those thirty soldiers, half were newly wrought—hard-earned flesh-and-blood bodies, her arms still blooming with bruises to show for them.
Of the rest, one was Ziri, the only chimaera in the company who, Karou was reasonably sure, had not cheered at her execution.
As Thiago said, it was early yet. Karou sighed and rubbed her temples, which Ten took as assent, her jaws doing their wolf version of a smile.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll start after dinner.”
What? No. Karou was trying to decide whether to retrieve the threads of the argument when, peripherally, she saw a large figure enter the room and stop hard. She knew that shape, even at the edge of sight. She should; she’d just made it.
It was Razor.
All talk in the hall ceased. Heads swung to look at Razor, poised on the threshold and staring straight at Karou.
Her gut twisted. This was the worst part, always. There were the ones like Amzallag who walked to the pit and woke knowing where they were, with whom, and all that had happened in Eretz. And then there were the souls from the thuribles: the soldiers who had died at Cape Armasin and didn’t even know that Loramendi had fallen, let alone that they were in another world.
Without exception they blinked at Karou dully, not recognizing her. How could they? A blue-haired girl without wings or horns? She was a stranger.
And, of course, she never heard what was said later, when they were told the truth. She liked to imagine someone speaking on her behalf—She’s one of us; she’s the resurrectionist; she brought you back, she brought us here, and look: food!—but thought it was more likely something along the lines of: We have no choice; we need her. Or even, in her darker moments: Much as we’d all love to, we can’t kill her. Yet.
Though, by the look of things, no one had given Razor that message.
“You,” he snarled.
Fast—faster than Ten, who stumbled—Karou was on her feet and clear of the table. Razor landed on it just where she’d been sitting. It gave way under his weight with a powerful crack, its two ends shooting up in the air as it collapsed in a V beneath him. The water drum tipped, spilled, hit the ground with the warp clamor of a gong, and bodies were in motion, everyone a blur but the Heth, who was poised, focused. Vicious.
“Angel-lover,” he spat, and shame lit Karou like a flare.
It was a term of utter degradation; in all Karou’s human languages, there was no insult so loaded with disgust and contempt, no single word that cast such a pall of filth. It was that bad even when it was figurative, a slur.
Never, before her, had it been literal.
A flick of his tail, and Razor spilled forward. That was what the motion looked like. His body was reptilian—Komodo dragon and cobra—and even big as he was, he moved like the wind over grass.
Karou had done that. She had given him that grace, that speed. Note to self, she thought, and leapt clear. She was graceful, too, and fast. She danced backward. Her crescent-moon blades were in her hands. She hadn’t been conscious of drawing them. In front of her, the lion face that had been so beautiful in its resting state on her floor was made grotesque by Razor’s hatred. He opened his jaws, and the voice that came out was scraping, bitter, an anguished roar.
“Do you know what I have lost because of you?”
She did not know, and didn’t want to. Because of you, because of you. She wanted to cover her ears, but her hands were occupied holding blades. “I’m sorry,” she said, and her voice sounded so slight after his, and unconvincing even to her own ears.
Ten was there, saying something low and urgent to him; whatever it was, it had no effect. Razor lunged past her. And past Bast, who made no move to intervene. Granted, she was half his size, but Amzallag could easily have stopped him, and he seemed uncertain, looking back and forth between the two. Karou danced away again. The others just stood there, and in her breast a spark of anger leapt and caught. Ungrateful assholes, she thought, which struck an unexpected nerve of humor. She and Zuzana used to call everything assholes—kids, pigeons, fragile old ladies who scowled at Karou’s hair—and it had never stopped being funny. Assholes, crannies, orifii. Now, in the path of this lion-dragon, sticky-souled thing, Karou felt her face crimped by the unlikeliest of expressions: a smile.
It was as sharp as her crescent-moon blades. And with-Razor’s next move, she held her ground and held her knives. Gritting her teeth, she dragged one curved edge hard across the other in a shriek of steel that got his attention for an instant—a pause just long enough for Karou to consider What now? Will I have to kill him? Can I?
And then: a flash of white and it was over. Thiago was between them, his back to Karou as he ordered Razor to stand down, and she didn’t have to kill anyone. The Heth obeyed, his restless tail upending chairs at every pace.
Lisseth and Nisk intercepted him and Karou stood there, poised between breaths, blades in her hands and blood thrumming up and down her arms, and for an instant she felt like Madrigal again—not the traitor but the soldier.
Just for an instant.
“Take her back to her room.”
That was Thiago to Ten, as if Karou were an escaped mental patient or something. Her smile vanished. “I’m not done eating,” she said.
“It looks like you are.” He glanced ruefully at the broken table and spilled food. “I’ll bring something up to you. You shouldn’t have to endure this.” His voice was kind, cloyingly so, and when he drew close to ask softly, “Are you all right?” Karou kind of wanted to scratch his face off.
“I’m fine. What do you think I am?”
“I think that you are our most valuable asset. And I think that you need to let me protect you.” He reached for her arm; she jerked it away, and he raised his hands in a gesture of surrender.
“I can protect myself,” she said, trying to recapture the brief vibration of power that had possessed her. I am Madrigal, she told herself, but faced with the White Wolf, all she could think was that Madrigal had been a victim, and she couldn’t hold on to the sensation of power. “Whatever you might think,” she said, “I’m not helpless.” But she sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as him, and without even thinking about it, she wrapped her arms around her middle in a childish gesture of self-protection. She unwrapped them instantly, but that just made her look fidgety.
Thiago’s voice was soft. “I never said you were helpless. But Karou, if anything happened to you we’d be finished. I need you safe. It’s that simple.”
Safe. Not from the enemy but from her own kind—into whom she poured all her care, her health, her pain, day after night after day. Karou gave a hard laugh.
“They need time,” Thiago said. “That’s all. They’ll come to trust you. As I do.”
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
“Of course I do, Karou. Karou.” He looked sad. “I thought we were moving past all of that. There’s no room for petty grudges in these times. We need all of our focus, all of our energy, on the cause.”
Karou might have argued that her execution wasn’t exactly a petty grudge, but she didn’t, because she knew he was right. They did need all their energy on the cause, and she hated that he had had to remind her of it like she was some schoolgirl acting up, and even more, she hated the shaky feeling that was hitting her now that her adrenaline rush was drying up. As much as she resented being packed off to her room at Thiago’s command, it was her room that she wanted, its solitude and safety, so she put her crescent-moon blades back in their sheaths and, trying to act like it was her own idea, she turned and went. She held her head high, but she knew, every step of the way, that she wasn’t fooling anyone.
Ten escorted Karou to her room, and she must have taken Karou’s quiet for complaisance, because she chatted away, offering unwelcome critique on recent resurrections, and was caught completely off guard at the top of the stairs when Karou shut the door in her face and slammed down the crossbar.
A moment of stunned silence, and then the thumping began. “Karou! I’m supposed to help you. Let me in. Karou.”
“I love you, crossbar,” whispered Karou, and petted it.
Ten’s voice rose steadily, scolding, huffing. Unbuckling her knife belt, Karou ignored her. On her table lay a half-strung necklace, but she didn’t want to pick it up, and she didn’t want company—or babysitting. She wanted a pencil and a page, and to render the exact look on Razor’s face as he came at her, the V of the broken table and the blur of figures at the periphery who’d done nothing to help her. Drawing had always been how she processed things. Once they were on paper they were hers, and she could decide what power they would hold over her.
She took up her sketchbook and smoothed it open. In the margin she saw the ragged remnants of a torn-out page and recalled, as vividly as if she were looking at it, the sketch of Akiva that had been there. He’d been asleep in her flat. She had destroyed that sketch, of course. She had destroyed them all.
If only she could do the same with her memories.
Even the thought of the word brought on shame. How could she have done it: loved Akiva—or rather, thought she had? Because now, whatever there had been between them wore that pall of filth—angel-lover—and looked nothing like love. Lust, maybe. Youth, rebellion, self-destructiveness, perversity. She’d barely known him; how could she have thought it was love? But whatever it had been… could it ever be forgiven?
How many chimaera would Karou have to resurrect before they accepted her?
All of them. That was how many. Every last one who had died because of her. Hundreds of thousands. More.
Which was, of course, impossible. Those souls had evanesced, including the ones dearest to her. They were lost. Was that it, then? No possibility of redemption?
This was her life, and it was her nightmare, too, and sometimes the only way she could bear it was by telling herself it would end. If it was a nightmare, she would wake up and Brimstone would be alive; everyone would be alive. And if it wasn’t a nightmare? Well then, it would end in one of the very many ways that lives end. Sooner or later.
She drew, and captured Razor’s snarl with awful vitality.
You really want to know what I’m up to, Zuzana? Here it is. I’m trapped in a sandcastle with dead monsters, forced to resurrect them one after the next, all while trying to avoid getting eaten.
It sounded like a pitch for a Japanese game show, and Karou couldn’t help laughing again, though only for a second, because Ten heard from the other side of the door and let out a soft snarl. Great. The she-wolf probably thought she was laughing at her.
Enemy queue forms here, wrote Karou below her sketch.
She cast an eye over her tooth trays and damned them for being so full. She’d been too efficient on her collecting trip; it would be some time before she could plead the necessity of going out again. The faster she worked, though, the faster the time would come, and when it did, she would do more than e-mail Zuzana. She would find her. She would slouch down for tea and goulash with her and Mik at Poison Kitchen and tell them everything, then bask in their outrage on her behalf.
They would agree with her that ungrateful Heth bone priests did not deserve regal lion heads but perhaps hamster next time, or maybe Pekingese.
Or better yet, she imagined Zuzana saying in her sharp way, to hell with them all.
I’m not doing it for them, Karou would reply. It was a practiced thought, one she clung to. It’s for Brimstone. And for all the chimaera the angels haven’t yet managed to murder. She had only to remember Loramendi to feel the desperation of her duty. There was no one else to do this work but her.
From somewhere outside came the sentry’s call, a single short high whistle. Karou jumped up and was at the window in a stride. A patrol was returning, the first of the five. Unblinking, she leaned out her window and scanned the sky. There: from the direction of the mountains where the portal hung high and unseen in the thin air. They were still too distant to make out silhouettes and know which team it was, but, squinting, she could see that they were six. That was a reason to be glad; one team at least was intact.
Nearer, nearer, and then she saw him: tall and straight, his horns like a pair of pikes. Ziri. A knot loosened in her chest that she hadn’t known was there. Ziri was okay. She could make out the others now, and soon enough they were circling over the kasbah and dropping into the court, half on wings of her creation, no two the same in size or form but all alike in menace: armed to kill, leathers black with blood and ash. She was glad to see Balieros, too, but her relief was really for Ziri.
Ziri was Kirin; he was kin.
When Karou looked at him, her Madrigal memories grew bright, and she remembered the men of her tribe as she hadn’t seen them in so long. She had been only seven years old when she was orphaned by angels. She was away from home that day, a free child in a wild world, and had returned to the aftermath of the slave raid and the end of life as she knew it. Death and silence, blood and absence, and, deep in the caves, huddled together: a handful of elders who had managed to save the very smallest of the babies.
Ziri had been one of those babies, tiny and new as a kit with its eyes still shut. Karou had some small memories of him in Loramendi later: he used to follow her around blushing—her foster sister, Chiro, teased her that he had a crush on her. “Your little Kirin shadow,” she had called him.
“It’s not a crush,” Madrigal had argued. “It’s kinship. It’s longing for what he never had.”
She’d felt deeply for him, an orphan like her but with no memories of their home or their people to hold on to. There had been some elder Kirin left, and a few other orphans his age, but Madrigal was the only Kirin in her prime whom he had ever seen.
Funny, now the tables were turned, and it was her looking to him and seeing what she had lost. He was grown now, and tall even before the antelope horns that added several more feet. His legs were human tapering to antelope, as her own had once been, and, coupled with his vast bat wings, gave him the same buoyant gait all the Kirin had possessed—a lightness as if the earth underfoot were incidental and he might at any instant go airborne and rise leagues above it all.
Only there was no lightness in him now. His tread was heavy and his face grim, and as the patrol assembled in formation to await their general, he was the only one to give a glance up at Karou’s window. She half raised her hand to him, her bruised arm screaming at the simple gesture, which… he did not return. He lowered his head again as if she weren’t even there.
Stung, Karou let her hand fall.
Where were they coming from? What had they seen? What had they done?
Go down and find out, came a whisper in the back of her mind, but she didn’t heed it. Whatever went on in the ashfall landscape and blood-crusted world of war where her creations went forth to do violence, it wasn’t her concern. She conjured the bodies; that was all.
What more could she possibly do?
The Wolf was in the window right below Karou’s. As soon as Ziri lifted his eyes to look for her, he saw white and dropped his head again. It was barely enough time to register the look of half hope on her face as she raised her hand to him, tentative. Lonely.
And then he shunned her.
The Wolf had told him he must have no contact with her. He had told them all, but Ziri thought those pale eyes had lingered on him when he said it, and that he was the one Thiago watched most closely. Because he was Kirin? Did he think that fact alone would bond them, or did he remember Ziri as a child? At the Warlord’s ball?
At the execution.
He had tried to save her. It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic—how he had crouched in the crawl space under the tourney stands, getting up his courage, gripping his edgeless training swords as though they might deliver her. The stands had been erected in the agora so the folk could better watch her die; it was a spectacle. Madrigal, so still and straight, so beautiful, had made the stamping masses seem like animals, and he, a skinny boy of twelve, had thought he could storm the scaffold and… what? Cut her pinion, her manacles? The city itself was a cage; she would have had nowhere to go.
It hadn’t mattered. He’d been laid out by the hilt of a soldier’s sword before his feet ever touched the platform. Madrigal never even saw his fool heroics. Her eyes had never left her lover.
That was another lifetime. Ziri hadn’t understood her treason then, or where it could lead. Where it had led. But he wasn’t a lovestruck little boy anymore, and Karou was nothing to him.
So why were his eyes drawn to her window? To her, on the rare occasions she came down?
Was it pity? A glance was all it took to see how alone she was. In the first days, in Eretz, she had been pale, trembling, mute—clearly in shock. It had been harder then, not to go to her or speak even a word. She must have seen it—how something in him leapt to answer her grief, her loneliness, and now she sought him out with that look of half-hope whenever she saw him, as if he might be a friend.
And he turned away from her. Thiago had been clear: The rebels needed her but couldn’t make the mistake of trusting her. She was treacherous and must be managed carefully—by him.
And here he was now, come down to greet the patrol.
“Well met,” said Thiago, striding out like the lord of the manor. Lord of the ruins, rather, but if this mud castle was a comedown for the great White Wolf, he claimed it as he had ever claimed anything—or everything: as his to do with as he wished until he seized the next and better thing. He would have the throne in Astrae before he was through, he claimed, and seraphim for slaves, and as ludicrous a claim as it seemed in light of their circumstances, Ziri would never underestimate the Wolf.
Thiago was a soldier’s soldier. His troops worshipped him, and would do anything for him. He ate, drank, and breathed battle, never more at home than in a campaign tent strewn with maps, hashing strategy with his captains or, better yet, hurling himself at angels with his teeth bared and bloody.
“Reckless,” the Warlord had fumed once, furious when his son had been killed and come back in a new body. “A general need not die at the front!” But Thiago had never been one to hang back in safety and send others forth to die. He led, and Ziri knew firsthand how his fearlessness spread like wildfire in the fray. It was what made him great.
Now, though, with the chimaera hanging on to the frayed end of their existence, it seemed his father’s words had gotten through. When the patrols had gone out to Eretz, he’d stayed behind—with clear reluctance and even bad grace that put Ziri in mind of guardsmen who drew duty during the festival times. It was a heavy thing, to miss out. He had paced, wolf-restless, hungry, envious, and he came alive now at his soldiers’ return.
He clasped them by the arm one by one before coming to a halt before Balieros.
“I hope,” he said, with a grim smile to indicate he doubted it not, “that you have done grievous harm.”
The evidence of it painted them, splash and spatter. Blood: dried to a dull dark brown, black where it gathered in the creases of gauntlets and boot heels and hooves. Every edge and angle of Ziri’s crescent-moon blades was grimed with it; he couldn’t wait to clean them. Mutilating the dead. Perhaps it was a proud thing, these cut smiles that had been the Warlord’s message long ago. Ziri only knew that he felt foul, and wanted to go to the river and bathe. Even his horns were crusted with blood where they had impaled an angel who flew at him while he was grappling with another. The patrol had done grievous harm indeed.
It had also protected Caprine farmfolk from an enemy sweep, freed a caravan of slaves, armed them, and sent them wide to spread word of what was coming. But Thiago didn’t ask about that. To hear him, he might have forgotten there were folk in the world who weren’t soldiers—enemy or own—or any cause left but killing.
“Tell me,” he said, avid. “I want to know the looks on their faces. I want to hear how they screamed.”
Some time around midday, the Dashnag boy, Rath, still carrying Sarazal, led Sveva down a steep wooded slope into a ravine. It was narrow enough that the forest canopy was unbroken overhead, and Sveva thought that the pale damsel boughs arching upward to meet in the middle looked like the arms of maidens joined in dance. Sunlight reached through them, sometimes in bright spears and sometimes dappled lacework, green and gold and ever shifting. Small winged things drifted and hummed from the depths to the heights of this little ravine that was their entire world, and, down below, a creek could be heard, spry as music.
All this will burn, thought Sveva, leaping a drift of vines and shying sideways down the slope behind Rath.
The fires were still behind them, and with the wind from the south carrying the smoke away, they couldn’t even smell it, but they had come several times to hillocks and glimpsed the sky roiling black behind them.
How could the angels do it? Was it so important to catch or kill a few chimaera that they would destroy the whole land? Why did they even want it, just to ravage it?
Why can’t they just leave us alone? she wanted to scream, but she didn’t. She knew it was a childish thought, that the wars and hates of the world were too big for her to understand, and that she was no more important in the scheme of things than these moths and adderflies drifting in their shafts of light.
I am important, though, she insisted to herself. And so was Sarazal, and so were the moths and the adderflies, and the slinking skotes, and the star tenzing blooms so small and perfect, and even the tiny biting skinwights, who, after all, were just trying to live.
And Rath was important, too, even if his breath smelled like a lifetime of blood meals and bitten bones.
He was helping them. When he had grabbed up Sarazal, Sveva hadn’t really believed he meant to drag her away and make a meal of her, but it was hard not to be afraid when her heartbeat skittered sideways at the mere sight of him. Dashnag ate flesh. It was what they were, same as skinwights were skinwights, but that didn’t mean she had to like them. Or him.
“We don’t eat Dama,” he’d said without looking at her, after she’d caught up to him—which was easy, she was so much faster than he was, and he was encumbered by carrying Sarazal. “Or any other higher beasts. As I’m sure you know.”
Sveva knew that this was supposedly the case, but it was a hard thing to take on faith. “Not even if you’re really hungry?” she had asked, skeptical and in some strange way wanting to believe the worst of him.
“I am really hungry, and you’re still alive,” he’d replied. That was all. He kept going, and Sveva had a hard time staying afraid, because Sarazal was asleep with her head on his shoulder and he stayed upright, holding her, when it would have been easier for him to leave her and throw himself forward into the long, loping run the Dashnag used to take down prey. He hadn’t, though.
He’d led them here, and now that they were well down in the ravine, Sveva could hear and smell what he had heard and smelled several miles back with his sharp predator’s senses: Caprine.
Caprine? This was why he had cut east, to catch the trail of these slow, bobbing herdfolk, who, to judge from the smell, still had all their livestock with them?
Rath stopped at the bottom of the slope, and when Sveva drew even with him, he said, “From the village, I think, the one by the aqueduct. You remember.”
As if she could forget the place where the seraph soldiers were strung up with their red Warlord smiles. She would never forget it as long as she lived, the horror mingled with the hope of salvation. The village had been empty; she had supposed its occupants must be dead, and was glad now to know they weren’t, but she didn’t know why Rath was following them.
“Caprine are slow,” she said.
“So they’ll need help,” Rath replied, and Sveva felt a flush of shame. She’d been thinking only of their own escape.
“They might have a healer, too,” Rath added, looking down at Sarazal, who rested against his chest, her eyes still closed, wounded leg curled gingerly in the crook of his arm. It was such an incongruous sight, the predator cradling the prey, that Sveva could only blink and feel that she’d hit the stony bottom of her own shallow depths.
Did she know anything at all?
This land was immense. It seemed to Akiva as though he could rise higher and higher into the air and it would keep unrolling in every direction, endless and green, forever. He knew that wasn’t the case. In the east the earth rose and stepped up a long, low crust of hills to become high desert for days, days into weeks of red clay and barbed plants, where venomous beetles as large as shields burrowed down and lay in wait for months, years, for prey to pass within reach. Some nomads were rumored to live around the sky islands, such as the jackal-headed Sab, but seraph patrols that went that way either reported no signs of life or vanished into the depths and never returned to report at all.
To the west lay the Coast Range, and beyond that the Secret Coast, home to tidal villages and folk who could live in the water or out of it, and who slipped away fish-fast at the sight of the enemy, retreating to deepwater refuges until the danger had passed.
And to the south: the formidable Hintermost, the highest mountains in Eretz as well as the broadest by triple the scope of any other mountain range in the world. They made an epic wall of gray ramparts and natural crenels, gorges riddled through with rivers that cut into the heart of the rock and out again, and slopes glinting with waterfalls by the thousands. There were said to be passes—mazy ravines and tunnels—leading to green lands on the far side, impassable but with the guidance of the frog-fleshed native tribes who dwelt mostly in darkness. And in the highest reaches, ice formations looked like crystal cities from a distance, but proved desolate wind mazes up close, unnavigable but by the stormhunters who nested there, sitting their huge eggs and riding gales that would dash anything else to death in half a wingbeat.
Such were the natural boundaries of this southern continent that the seraphim had long ago sought to tame, and the green earth that lay below Akiva now was its great wild heart, too huge to hold, even if every soldier in the Empire’s array of armies was sent to try. They could—and would—burn villages and fields, but more chimaera here were nomads than farmers, fleet and elusive, and the seraphim couldn’t burn it all, even if they were to try, which—contrary to these billows of black smoke—they were not.
The fires were only to corral the fugitives south and east, to where the forests thinned and creeks filtered down to join the great Kir River, and they might be able to flush them out. And if they succeeded?
Akiva hoped they wouldn’t. In truth he did more than hope: He put all his skills as a tracker to work at untracking. Wherever he gauged chimaera might be—where a crease in the canopy hinted at a creek, for example—he made efforts to lead the team a different way, and because he was Beast’s Bane, no one questioned him. Except maybe Hazael, and then only with his eyes.
Liraz wasn’t with them; their team was a dozen strong, and she’d been assigned to another. Akiva couldn’t help wondering, over the course of the day, with what zeal his sister was pursuing her orders.
“So what do you really think?” Hazael asked him out of the blue. It was getting on into evening, and they had yet turned up no fleeing slaves or villagers.
“About who’s behind these attacks.”
What did he think? He didn’t know. All day Akiva had been at war with hope—trying not to let himself hope, partly because it was so wrong a feeling to take away from a site of massacre, and partly out of simple fear that it might prove fruitless. Was there another resurrectionist? Was there not?
“Not ghosts, anyway,” he gave as a safe answer.
“No, probably not ghosts,” Hazael agreed. “It is curious, though. No blood on our soldiers’ blades, no tracks leading away save the fleeing folk, and five attacks in one night—so how many attackers in all? They have to be strong to do what they did, and probably winged, to come and vanish without tracks, and I’d guess they had hamsas, else our soldiers must have gotten in some strikes. This was just an opening act.” It was a studied assessment; Akiva had thought of all these things himself. Hazael gave him a long look. “What are we dealing with here, Akiva?”
He finally had to say it. “Revenants. It has to be.”
Akiva hesitated. “Maybe.” Did Hazael understand what it meant to him if there was another resurrectionist? Could he guess his hope—that Karou might live again? And what sympathy could he have for his hopes? Suppose his forgiveness hinged on Karou being dead, as if Akiva’s madness might be in the past, something to be gotten over so they could keep on as usual.
There could be no more “as usual” for Akiva. What could there be?
“There!” called the patrol leader, jarring him out of his thoughts. Kala was a lieutenant of the Second Legion, the largest by far of the Empire’s forces, sometimes called the common army. She was pointing down into a gully where the fringe of trees didn’t quite come together, and where, as Akiva watched, one flicker of movement begat another, and another, and then a rush of bodies. Herd movement. The Caprine. His gut seized, and his first impulse was anger: What fools, in all this great wild land, to let themselves be seen.
It was too late to divert attention from them; there was nothing he could do but follow as Kala led the team down toward the trees. She was alert for ambush, and motioned Akiva and Hazael to sweep wide to the gully’s far side, which they did, staring hard into the broken space between treetops, hoping for a clear view, which they did not get—only glimpses of fleece and ambling motion.
Akiva held his swords bitterly. His training was very clear. Take up a weapon and you become an instrument with as pure a purpose as the weapon itself: to find arteries and open them, limbs and sever them; to take what is alive and deliver it unto death. There was no other reason to hold a weapon, no other reason to be one.
He didn’t want to be that weapon anymore. Oh, he could desert, he could vanish right now. He didn’t have to be party to this. But it wasn’t enough that he cease to kill chimaera. He had dreamed so much bigger than that once.
The trees were a whisper of green as he and Hazael descended with the others, and the voice that filled his head was one he had heard only once. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master or death is. When Brimstone had spoken those words, they’d meant nothing to Akiva. Now he understood. But how could a soldier change masters?
How, with swords clenched in both hands, could one hope to keep blood from spilling?
So many different kinds of silence, Sveva thought, pressing her face into Rath’s shoulder and trying not to breathe. This was the worst kind. This was make-a-sound-and-die silence, which, though she had never experienced it before, she understood instinctively grew more fraught the more souls you shared it with. One might trust oneself to be quiet, but thirty-odd strangers?
They were huddled under a lip of earth carved out by the creek in fuller seasons; the water passed before them, flicking at their hooves—and Rath’s huge clawed paws—and its burble might at least cover some small sounds—whimpers or sniffs. Of which, Sveva noted, she heard none and nothing. With her eyes closed, she might have been alone, but for the heat of Rath on one side and Nur on the other. The Caprine mother held her baby tucked against her, and Sveva kept expecting Lell to cry, but she didn’t. This silence, she thought, was remarkable: a perfect, shimmering thing, and fragile. Like glass, if it shattered, it would never come back together again.
If Lell cried, or if someone’s hoof lost purchase and skidded on the bank, or if any sound rose over the innocent burble of the creek, they would all die.
And if the innermost frightened-child part of her wanted to blame Rath for them being here at all, she couldn’t. Oh, not for lacking of trying. It was good to have someone to blame, but the problem with Sveva and blame was that if she kept tracing it back, there was only her, racing down the valley ahead of Sarazal, wind in her hair and not heeding her sister’s call to turn back. This wasn’t Rath’s fault, and what’s more, she and her sister would probably be dead already if not for him. And the Caprine, well, they would be dying right now. Right this very moment.
What an odd and terrible thing to know.
If Rath hadn’t scented the Caprine and followed them, caught up to them, and joined them, then this fraught silence would not exist at all; this same air would be pierced with bleating screams, and Lell would be crying, sweet small bundle, and all the others, too, instead of the aries.
“Aries!” said Hazael, laughing—laughing with relief, it seemed to Akiva—and he saw that in the gully were only aries: shaggy, curling-horned livestock, and no Caprine sheepfolk, no chimaera at all.
“You and you.” Kala pointed out two soldiers. “Kill them. The rest of you…” She turned in a half circle, surveying her team; she hung in the air, wings sweeping wide enough to brush the leaning trees at the gully’s edges and shed sparks. “Find their owners.”
Sveva heard the screams of the aries and pressed her face harder into Rath’s shoulder. Rath had persuaded the sheepfolk to drive off their flock and double back along the creek bed, climb out of that ravine and into another—this one—and take shelter. They were too many, all together, and the aries were too loud, too unruly to trust with their lives; they’d be seen, he’d said, and he’d been right.
Now the aries were dying.
Sveva clutched her sister’s hand; it was limp. The screams of the aries were terrible, even at a distance, but they didn’t last long, and when they finally trailed away she imagined she could feel the angels wheeling in the sky overhead. Angels, hunting. Hunting them. She clutched the hilt of her own stolen knife and it made her feel her smallness all the more, made as it was for an angel’s big brute fist.
Maybe she would stab one with it. What would that feel like? Oh, her hate was hot; she almost hoped she got the chance. She’d always hated angels, of course, but in a faraway, vague kind of way. They’d been monsters from bedtime tales. She’d never even seen one before she was captured. For centuries this land had been safe—the Warlord’s armies had kept it so. What ill luck, then, to live in the time of failed safety! Now, suddenly, seraphim were real: leering tormentors, beautiful in a way that made beauty hideous.
And then there was Rath, dreadful in a way that made dreadful… well, if not beautiful, then regal, at least. Proud. How curious, to take comfort in the bulk of a flesh-eater at her side, but she did. Again, Sveva felt herself scraping at her own shallows; since she was taken slave, her world had fallen open. She had beheld seraphim and revenants; she had seen death and smelled it, and today, just today, she had learned more of folk than in all her fourteen years together. First Rath, then the Caprine: sheepfolk she had called herdbeasts, and would have left to fend for themselves. Nur had made a poultice for Sarazal and given her some spice in water, hoping to break her fever. They had shared their food, and Lell, who smelled of grass, had taken to Sveva and ridden astride her back for a time, her little arms wrapped around Sveva’s waist where just days ago a great black shackle had been.
Sveva’s eyes were closed. Her face was against Rath’s shoulder, and her hip hard against Nur’s, and the silence held them together. It was the worst kind of silence, but a good kind of closeness. These weren’t her folk, but… they were, and maybe that meant that anyone could be anyone’s, which was a sort of nice thing to think, with the world falling apart. Sveva wondered if she would ever get home to her mother and father so she could tell them that.
She tried to pray, but she had only ever prayed at night, and it seemed to her that the moons made poor protectors when angels chose to hunt by day.
In the end, it wasn’t Lell who gave them away, but Sarazal.
She jolted awake, her limp hand suddenly clenching and pulling free of Sveva’s. The fever had come down; Nur’s spice and poultice had worked, and Sarazal’s big dark eyes, when they fluttered open, were much clearer than when Sveva had looked at them last. Only… they fluttered open to see Rath’s fearsome face mere inches from her own.
And Sarazal opened her mouth, and screamed.
HERE IN THE
“Listen to this one,” said Zuzana. “She-devil sighting in southern Italy—”
“Blue hair?” asked Mik. It came out muffled. He had a pillow over his face and had been trying to sleep.
“Pink, actually. I guess the legions of Satan are exploring their color options.” She was sitting up in bed, reading off her laptop. “So, she scaled the side of this cathedral and hissed, at which point the witness was able to ascertain, at a distance of some hundred feet, that her tongue was forked.”
“Yeah.” She puffed out her cheeks and backpaged to her Google search screen. “What a bunch of morons.”
Mik peered out from beneath the pillow. “It’s bright out there,” he said. “Come into my lair.”
“Lair. That’s some fancy lair you’ve got, mister.”
“It’s exactly the right size for my head.”
“Uh-huh,” Zuzana said vaguely. “Here’s one from yesterday, um, Bakersfield, California. Blue hair, cool coat, floating. Hurray! We’ve found Karou! What she’s doing in Bakersfield, California, stalking schoolchildren is unclear.” She gave a derisive snort and returned to the Google screen.
The world, it would seem, was overrun with blue-haired devils. The same message boards that reported angels among us were keeping abreast of the devil situation, too, and in a quirk of coincidence—ahem—ever since the widely televised showdown on the Charles Bridge, devils tended to have blue hair, black trench coats, and tattoos of eyes on the palms of their hands.
Karou was the face of the Apocalypse, which Zuzana happened to think was a pretty kick-ass brand of infamy. She had even made the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Is This What a Demon Looks Like?” There was this gorgeous picture someone had taken that day as she faced the angels, her hair wild, hamsas outthrust before her, a look on her face of fierce concentration with a hint of… wild delight. Zuzana remembered the wild delight. It had been a little freaky. Time had tried to interview her for the piece, and strangely enough had failed to print her expletive-riddled response. Kaz, of course, had not disappointed them.
“Come sleep,” Mik tried again. “The devils will still be there in the morning.”
“In a minute,” Zuzana said, but it wasn’t a minute. An hour later she had made a cup of tea and moved to the armchair beside the bed. The message boards weren’t getting her anywhere; that was where the crazies went to play. She narrowed her search. She’d already traced the IP address of Karou’s single e-mail to Morocco, which wasn’t a surprise. The last she’d heard from her friend she’d been in Morocco. This wasn’t Marrakesh, though, but a city called Ouarzazate—pronounced War-za-zat—in a region of palm oases, camels, and kasbahs at the fringes of the Sahara desert.
Dust and starlight? Why, yes. One would imagine.
Priestess of a sandcastle? Kasbahs did look extraordinarily like sandcastles. Too bad there were, like, fifty million of them scattered over hundreds of miles. Still, Zuzana was excited. This had to be right. She got that dorky song “Rock the Casbah” stuck in her head and hummed it as she drank tea and paged through dozens of sites that mostly came up as trek outfitters or “authentic nomad experience” kasbah hotels, all of them with these sparkling swimming pools that didn’t look terribly nomad-y to her.
And then she came across a travel blog a French guy had written about his trek in the Atlas Mountains. It was only a couple of days old and mostly it was just landscape pictures and camel shadows and dusty children selling jewelry at the roadside, but then there was this one shot that caused Zuzana to set her teacup aside and sit up. She zoomed in and leaned close. It was the night sky with a perfect half pie of a moon, and—obscure enough that she wouldn’t have noticed them if she weren’t looking—shapes. Six of them, with wings, they were visible mostly for the way they blotted out the stars. Hard to determine scale in a sky photo, it was the subtitle that got her.
Don’t tell the angel chasers, but they have some seriously big night birds down here.
Karou went to the river to bathe—feeling almost absurdly indulgent about shampooing her hair, and more so about the wastrel fifteen minutes she took to let it dry fanned out on a hot rock—and when she got back to the fortress, the crossbar was missing from her door.
“Where is it?” she demanded of Ten.
“How would I know? I was with you.”
Yes, she had been, never mind that Karou hadn’t wanted her. It wasn’t safe for her to go off alone, Thiago had said, even to the shallows of the river that spilled out of the mountains and passed just downhill of the kasbah, in plain sight of the sentry tower—with some large rocks that she valued for the hiding of nudity from keen eyes. The chimaera were as intrigued by her humanity as Issa and Yasri had always been, but were less kind about it.
“What a queer plain thing you are,” Ten had observed today, with an up-and-down look that took in Karou’s tailless, clawless, hoofless, and otherwise less self.
“Thanks,” Karou had said, sinking into the river. “I try.”
She’d had a fleeting impulse to let the current carry her away under the water, just downstream a ways where she could be free of the she-wolf’s presence for, oh, a half hour? Ten had been quite the fixture over the past several days: her assistant and chaperone, overseer and shadow.
“What will you do when I have to go back out for teeth?” Karou had asked Thiago that morning. “Send her with me?”
“Ten? No. Not Ten,” he’d replied, in such a way that Karou had instantly taken his meaning.
“What, you? You’re going to come with me?”
“I admit, I’m curious to see this world. There must be more to it than this desert. You can show me.”
He was serious. Karou’s stomach had seized. She’d been joking about Ten, but him? “You couldn’t. You’re not human—you’d be seen. And you can’t fly.” And you’re vile, and I don’t want you.
“We’ll think of something.”
Will we, Karou had thought, imagining Thiago in Poison Kitchen with his wolf feet kicked up on a coffin, spooning goulash into his cruel, sensual mouth. She wondered if Zuzana would swoon over his beauty as she had Akiva’s, and immediately thought: No. Zuze would see right through him.
But there was a flaw in that. Zuzana hadn’t seen through Akiva, had she? And neither had she. Apparently Karou was a poor judge of monsters, which was most unfortunate considering her current situation.
“Who took it?” she demanded. Her heartbeat was out of whack, coming in little staccato bursts.
“What are you carrying on about? It’s only a piece of wood.”
“It’s only my safety.”
This was to be the cost of clean hair? How was she supposed to sleep when anyone could waltz right in? She slept poorly enough as it was. It struck her then, a swift little thought like the jab of a needle, that she had slept just fine with Akiva only a few feet away, that night in her flat in Prague. What was wrong with her sensors that she had felt safe with him? “This was your idea, wasn’t it? Because I locked you out the other day?” Even the wall brackets had been pried away, so she couldn’t just find another beam and slot it in place. “Do you want someone to kill me in my sleep?’
“Calm down, Karou,” said Ten. “No one wants to kill—”
“Oh, really. No one wants to, or no one will?”
Did she expect Ten to sugarcoat it? “Fine. No one will,” said the she-wolf. “You are under the White Wolf’s protection. That’s better than any piece of wood. Now, come. Let’s get back to work. There’s Emylion to finish, and Hvitha goes to the pit tonight.”
And that was that? She was just supposed to sidle meekly into her room and get back to work on the Wolf’s resurrection wish list? Like hell. Karou turned back toward the stairs, but Ten stood in her way, so she crossed the room to where the window stood open. If Thiago wanted her watched, she thought, he’d do better to assign a shadow who could fly.
Ten realized what she was about to do and said, “Karou…” just as she stepped into the air and, after floating there just long enough to throw a defiant glare Ten’s way, let herself fall. Fast. A great whoosh of air, and she pulled up short at the last second to land in a crouch four stories down.
Ow. Pulled up a little too short. The soles of her feet smarted, but it had surely looked dramatic. Ten’s head was out the window, and Karou fought the impulse to flip her off—the British V version, which was so much cooler than the American single-finger—but it was ridiculous either way. Don’t be such a human, she told herself, and went looking for the Wolf.
He was probably in the guardhouse, the half-razed structure where he held court with his captains, drawing maps in the dirt and then scuffing them away, pacing, ranting, planning. Karou started in that direction and passed Hvitha, who gave her a sharp nod and didn’t slow his steps. I guess I’ll see you later, thought Karou with a twist of pity. Hvitha hadn’t exactly been kind to her, but he hadn’t been unkind, either—he hadn’t been anything—and it couldn’t be very nice walking around knowing he was scheduled to have his throat slit in a few hours. Such a waste, it seemed, of Brimstone’s craftsmanship.
Not my call.
Karou passed clothes draped over a wall to dry in the sun, and it came to her that this place was beginning to feel downright inhabited—thanks to herself. Nine more soldiers in the past few days—her pace was improving with Ten’s help, but holy hell, her arms were a mess—and life seemed everywhere amplified. She could hear Aegir’s hammer and see smoke rising from the forge, smell the almost-but-not-quite-nothing smell of boiling couscous, and also the not-nearly-nothing-enough waft of rankness from the buttress that had become the default piss wall of soldiers who couldn’t bother to walk out of the kasbah—or, hello, fly.
You’re welcome for the wings, now use them to pee farther away please thank you!
An argument, a hoot of laughter, and from the court: the ching of newly wrought blades heaved in newly wrought hands as her most recent revenants got the feel of their bodies, wings and all. She paused under an arch to watch and caught sight of Ziri at once. He was with Ixander, her greatest monstrosity to date, and was positively dwarfed by him.
Ixander had always been big—he was Akko, one of the larger tribes and a mainstay of the army—but now he stood grizzly height, maybe ten feet, thickset and tusked to Thiago’s specifications. His wings were almost as big as a stormhunter’s, and the muscle required to anchor them made his hunched bear back enormous. The body was inelegant, and Karou was sorry about it. Her brief contact with his soul had surprised her with its… meadowiness.
The impression of souls was synesthetic: sound or color, flashes of image or feeling, and Ixander’s had been meadowy. Dappled light and newbloom and quiet—the opposite of the colossal beast body that he seemed now, with Ziri’s help, to be mastering.
Ziri cast himself to the sky, graceful and silent, and beckoned Ixander to follow, which he did with neither grace nor silence. His wingbeats gave the air a sonic thrashing and kicked up flurries of dust that reached Karou even across the court. In the air, the pair began to drill fighting stances, and Karou found her focus not on Ixander but on Ziri, as she forgot her outrage and her errand and was sucked back across years by the sight of a Kirin in flight.
Every time, it was like falling backward into Madrigal. She never felt more chimaera than in the first instant of catching sight of Ziri—and never more human than in the next, when it caught up to her what she was now. It wasn’t disappointing. She was who she was. It was just the slightest bit disorienting, a brief vibration between two selves that would always be separate, like two yolks in one shell.
“You could be Kirin again, you know,” Ten had told her at the river.
“What?” Karou, rinsing her hair, had thought she must have misheard.
“You could be chimaera. It might be easier for the others to accept you.” Again she’d given Karou that up-and-down look and chuffed at her unfortunate humanness. “I could help you.”
“Help me?” She had to be joking. “What, you mean kill me? Thank you sooo much!”
But Ten was not joking. “Oh, no. Thiago would do that, of course. But I would resurrect you. You’d just need to show me how.”
Oh, is that all? “Tell you what,” Karou had said with a big mock-cheerful smile. “Let’s do you instead. I have all kinds of ideas for your next body.” Ten hadn’t particularly liked that, but Karou did not care much what Ten liked. She was still annoyed. Was this something Ten and Thiago had discussed? Maybe it would be easier to blend in if she looked like a chimaera, but it didn’t make sense to even think about it now. Karou needed to be human to get the rebels’ food for them, as well as cloth for clothes, and material for Aegir’s forge, not to mention teeth. But would they expect it of her, eventually?
Well, they could expect all they wanted. She looked at the hamsas on her palms; they almost seemed like a signature. Brimstone had made her this body, and she was keeping it.
Laughter called her back to the moment. Ziri and Ixander were sparring, and Ixander had lost his balance and begun to spiral groundward. Trying to right himself, he thrust back on awkward wingbeats to crash into the crumbled parapet that edged the court, where he set off a cascade of dirt and ended up hanging by one hand from the wall. Laughing. And Ziri was laughing, and others, and the sound was so alien, so light. It made Karou realize she was spying, because they never laughed when she was around and would surely stop if they saw her. She drew back, not wanting that to happen.
Ziri darted forward in the air and smacked Ixander’s hand with the flat of his blade, making him lose his grip on the parapet and drop to the ground with a roar. He landed with concussive force and tried to swat at Ziri, who was taunting him from above, still laughing as he darted just near enough to whack Ixander on the helmet before pulling clear. Some of the others gathered around taunting—in unmistakable good humor—and when Ixander leapt airborne in pursuit, they cheered.
All five patrols had returned from Eretz, not a single casualty, barely even a wound. Thiago had been in a fine mood, and the atmosphere in the kasbah was one of glory, though what glory, or what their mission had been, Karou still didn’t know. One of the farmwives who cooked the food had made Thiago a new gonfalon to replace the one that had burned with Loramendi; it was more modest, made of canvas, not silk, but it bore a white wolf and the words Victory and vengeance that were his motto. And now, apparently, all of theirs.
Privately, Karou preferred the Warlord’s heraldry: antlers sprouting leaves to signify new growth, but she was far from immune to the desire for vengeance—it was huge and ugly in her: a primal drumbeat, a baring of teeth—and she had to admit Thiago’s motto made a better rallying cry for a rebellion.
The banner hung from the gallery at the head of the court, seeming to declare the Wolf’s eminence. Where’s mine? Karou thought, with an inward surge of hilarity. Why not? We’re in this together, Thiago had told her. So what would he do if she made her own gonfalon to string up beside his? And what would be on it? A string of teeth? A pair of pliers? No. A vise, and her motto could be Ouch.
She smiled to herself. It was funny, she thought, but her smile turned wistful because she had nobody to tell. In the court, the soldiers were still laughing, and she was in the shadows and no part of it.
Ixander was moving with much more ease now, and it took her a moment to understand why—it was because he wasn’t trying so hard. He was moving as bodies are meant to move, without thought. She experienced a surge of pride, seeing the bear heft of him snap to a smooth glide. Ziri’s taunting had provoked him to forget his self-consciousness—which Karou guessed was Ziri’s plan—and Ziri paid the price for it now as Ixander caught him around the neck and fake-throttled him before tossing him right out of the air. Ziri hit the ground at a reeling run and skidded to a halt on his cloven hooves practically nose-to-nose with Balieros, the big bull centaur who was his patrol leader.
Balieros shook his head, his shoulders shaking with laughter, and, putting an arm around Ziri’s shoulder, walked back with him to watch Ixander fly.
Karou got a lump in her throat. How easy they all were with each other, and quick to laugh. Once she had been part of their soldiers’ closeness, sharing barracks and battle camps, meals and songs. She had saved lives and gleaned souls; she had been one of them.
But she’d made her choices, and now she had to live with them.
When the laughter abruptly ceased, Karou gave a start, thinking the soldiers had seen her spying, but they weren’t looking in her direction. A beat later, Thiago strode into view. Karou recalled that she had been going to demand her crossbar back, but now her outrage-courage left her. It wasn’t just him, though the Wolf certainly had an effect on her courage. It was whom he was with.
The Shadows That Live.
They were beautiful in their way, and sinuous in their stride. Tangris and Bashees were identical: sphinxlike panther creatures of dusky black, fine-boned and softly furred, with the heads of women and wings of dark owl feathers that were perfectly silent in flight. They weren’t large, or terrible, but Thiago treated them with a deference he showed no other soldiers, and it was no wonder. No one else could do what they did. Karou’s hands turned clammy. Was he sending them on a mission?
This time she couldn’t wonder dumbly what nature of mission, or pretend not to understand. The Shadows That Live were legend, and they were… special… and so their mission must be special, too.
They lifted away and flew, leaving silence behind them. No one called good-bye or wished them luck. They didn’t need luck. Somewhere in Eretz, some angels needed it badly, but they wouldn’t get it. Whoever they were, they were as good as dead already.
Akiva could have done without fire that night at camp. He’d had enough fire for one day: the sky was still curdled with smoke from the blazes they’d set to herd fugitive chimaera out of the safety of the forest. When he looked up, he couldn’t see a single star. But fire was a camp fixture and focal point. Soldiers were gathered around it to clean their blades and eat and drink, and though he had no appetite, he did have a thirst. He was on his third flagon of water, sunk in thoughts as murky as the sky, when a voice caught his attention.
“What are you doing?”
It was a sharp demand, and it came from Liraz. Akiva looked up. His sister was on the far side of the fire, lit lurid by its glow.
“What does it look like?” This from a Second Legion soldier Akiva didn’t know. He was sitting with two others, and when Akiva saw what it was they held—what they were about to do—his fists clenched.
Tattoo tools, such as they were. A knife and ink stick were all it took to record kills on flesh.
“It looks like you’re about to add to your tally,” said Liraz, “but that can’t be, can it, because no self-respecting soldier would ink today onto their hands.”
Today. Today. What had Liraz’s patrol done today? Akiva didn’t know. Her look, when he and Hazael had found her after their own bleak day, had seemed to dare him to ask her, but he didn’t want to know. Injuries had been sustained by some in her group—whiplashes, some bite wounds. None serious, but telling enough. Akiva hadn’t offered up what he had done, either, hours earlier in that gully to the south and east. He and Hazael hadn’t even talked about it, had barely exchanged a glance to acknowledge that it had happened at all.
The point was that the tally was for battle kills, for soldiers slain. Not fleeing folk.
“They were armed,” the soldier said with a shrug.
“Oh, is that all it takes in the common army?” asked Liraz. “Give a slave a knife and it becomes a worthy opponent?” She gestured to his hands, to all the black marks already ticked onto his fingers. “How many of those fought back? Any of them?”
The soldier rose suddenly to his feet. He was a foot taller than Liraz, though if he imagined that gave him an advantage, he would learn his mistake. Akiva rose, too—not because he thought his sister was going to need his help, but more out of surprise at the nature of her anger.
“I earned my marks,” said the soldier, looming over her.
Liraz didn’t back down. Through clenched teeth, and with acid contempt, she said, “Not today you didn’t.”
“And who are you to decide?”
Her lips drew up over her clamped teeth in a vicious smile. “Ask around.”
Maybe it was the smile, or something he saw in her eyes, but the soldier wavered in his looming swagger. “Is that supposed to scare me?”
“Well, it gave me chills.” Hazael had appeared. “I’d be happy to tell you stories, if you really want to know. I’ve known her all my life.”
“Lucky you,” said one of the others, which kicked off some stupid laughter.
“Oh, I know.” Hazael was earnest. “It’s good to have someone around to save your life. How many times has it been, Lir? Four?” he asked her.
She didn’t reply. Akiva stepped up beside them. “Making friends, Lir?”
“Everywhere I go.”
Akiva nodded to the other soldiers. “You know she’s right,” he said. “You shame yourself taking pride in today’s work.”
“Just following orders,” said the soldier, who had grown uneasy in Akiva’s presence.
“And were you ordered to enjoy it?”
“Come on,” said one of the others, pulling at his friend’s elbow, and as they retreated, mutterings of “Misbegotten” could be heard in low tones.
Liraz called to their backs, “If I see fresh ink on any of you tomorrow, I’m taking fingers.”
The looming one let out an incredulous laugh and looked back.
“Try me,” she said.
“Don’t try her,” said Hazael. “Please? I think she’d enjoy having a finger collection a little too much.”
Once they were gone, Liraz sat down. She gave Akiva a sideward glance. “I don’t need Beast’s Bane settling my arguments.”
Hazael was offended. “What about me? I’m pretty sure it was me they were afraid of.”
“Yes, because nothing instills fear quite like bragging how many times your sister has saved your life.”
“Well, I left out how many times I’ve saved your life,” he said. “I believe we’re currently even?”
“I wasn’t settling anything,” Akiva broke in. “Just agreeing with you.” He hesitated. “Liraz, what happened today?”
“What do you think?” was her only reply. What he thought was that they had come across some of the other escaped slaves from the caravan, and, as the soldier had said, followed their orders. By the way Liraz was staring into the fire, he judged that she had taken no pleasure in it, but he wouldn’t have expected her to. She might glory in a well-fought battle, but never in a slaughter. The question was, how committed was she to following orders? And… might she surprise him, as Hazael had?
Akiva looked at his brother now and found Hazael looking back. The gaze held, over their sister’s head, and it amounted to their first acknowledgment of what they had done that day in the gully.
Or, more to the point, what they had not done.
When Akiva had heard the scream—brief, bitten off, but unmistakable—Hazael had been nearer to its source than he. Only by a few wingspans, but still it was Hazael who responded first, suddenly folding his wings and plunging down to land in the rocky creek bed, crouched in a ready stance in case he needed to burst skyward again. A half a heartbeat and Akiva was beside him, and saw what he saw, huddled in a concavity in the ravine: a quivering mass of terrified sheepfolk.
The Caprine were one of the mildest of the chimaera tribes, so ill-suited to fighting that they were exempt from the army. The fact was that many chimaera tribes made poor soldiers: they were too small, or configured ill for holding weapons, or they were aquatic, or they were timid, or they were large but lumbering and slow. There were as many reasons as there were tribes, and it was why Brimstone had had to do what he had done for so long: too many of his people were simply not made for fighting at all, and certainly not for fighting seraphim.
The main might of the chimaera army had always been drawn from some dozen of the fiercer tribes, and it was with surprise that Akiva recognized one such in the center of this huddle. A Dashnag, among Caprine. A small one, not yet grown, but even a small Dashnag is a brutish thing, though this one was holding a slender deer centaur girl in his thick arms—her hand was clamped over her own mouth; it was she who had screamed, and her limpid deer eyes were impossibly huge in her sweet small face. Another deer girl was shrunk in fright against the boy’s side, and though Akiva couldn’t know precisely what had brought these folk together in this moment, the tableau was simple, and it painted in miniature what the angels had done to Eretz: Through terror, they had united it against them.
All this in an instant, and the Dashnag boy was setting the centaur girl aside, gently, and there was fear in his eyes, but he would defend these folk. Akiva’s swords were in his hands, but he didn’t want them.
This isn’t who we have to be, he thought. “Haz—” he started to say.
His brother turned to him. He looked puzzled, a squint drawing at his eyes. “That’s strange,” he said, cutting Akiva off. “I could have sworn I heard something down here.”
It took Akiva a beat to understand, and then a rush of relief—and reprieve, and gratitude—flooded through him. “Me, too,” he said, cautious, hoping he was reading his brother right. The Dashnag boy was watching them intently, every muscle poised to spring. All the Caprine and the two Dama girls were staring unblinking. A baby started to murmur—a baby—and its mother clutched it tighter. “Must have been a bird,” Akiva ventured.
“A bird,” Hazael agreed. And… he turned away from the fugitives. He took a few splashing steps in the creek, casual, even a little comical, and bent to pick one of the blooms that grew on reedy stalks at the water’s edge, tucking it into a notch in his mail. It was still there.
He took it out now, and presented it to Liraz. Akiva tensed, wondering if he was going to tell her that they had spared a whole village worth of chimaera today, and even a Dashnag who, though a boy, would certainly grow into a soldier. What would she think of that? But Hazael only said, “I brought you a present.”
Liraz took the flower, looked at it, and then at Hazael, expressionless. And then she ate it. She chewed the flower and swallowed it.
“Hmm,” said Hazael. “Not the usual response.”
“Oh, do you give flowers often?”
“Yes,” he said. He probably did. Hazael had a way of enjoying life in spite of the many restrictions they lived under, being soldiers, and worse, being Misbegotten. “I hope it wasn’t poisonous,” he said lightly.
Liraz just shrugged. “There are worse ways to die.”
“There you are,” said Ten, exasperated, catching up to Karou in her spying place.
“Here I am,” agreed Karou, eyeing the she-wolf. “Where are they going?”
“The sphinxes. Where did he send them? To do what?”
“I don’t know, Karou. To Eretz, to do what they do. Can we get back to work?”
Karou turned back to the court. The soldiers had gathered around Thiago in a knot, all watching the sky where the Shadows That Live had vanished. Go, she willed herself. Go ask. But she just couldn’t find it in herself to stroll over and feel all those eyes settle on her in that flat way they had, or to put forth her voice and breach their silent, watchful intensity.
So when Ten put a hand on her arm and said, “Come. Emylion, then Hvitha. We have an army to build,” Karou was almost relieved. Coward.
She let herself be led.
After two days of Nur’s ministrations, Sarazal could put weight on her leg again, though Rath mostly still carried her—now in a sling that they’d fashioned for his back—and Sveva felt the burden of her sister’s life lift from her own shoulders. Sarazal would be fine, and they’d find their tribe again, just… not right away. It was a hard thing, going in the wrong direction, but it was far too great a risk to go north. Too many seraphim lay between them and home.
We’re okay, Mama. We’re alive. Sveva kept sending her thoughts out over the land, imagining them to be squalls bearing notes that her mother could just unroll and read. She almost convinced herself of it; it was too hard to admit the truth: that their people must believe them lost. Angels spared us, she thought to her mother, still reeling from the miracle of it. Her life felt new: lost and found, both lighter and heavier at the same time.
If you meet an angel with eyes like fire, and another with a bog lily tucked in his armor, she thought to her mother, don’t kill them.
The herd moved south toward the mountains, with their rumors of safe haven. They met others along the way and urged them to get moving. A pair of Hartkind joined them, but they were careful not to let their convoy grow. It wasn’t safe to travel in large groups. Well, nothing was safe, but you did what you could. Unless they had dense tree cover, they moved only by night, when seraphim were easy to spot, their fiery wings painting light onto the darkness.
Lell rode on Sveva’s back, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world now to hoist her up there whenever they got moving, and fall into step behind Rath, where she could keep a good eye on Sarazal.
“I can’t wait to run again,” said her sister under her breath one morning as they plodded up a hillside at Caprine pace.
“I know,” Sveva said. And then, at the top of the hill, they got their first glimpse of the Hintermost: hazed by distance and impossibly huge, their snowy peaks merging with the clouds like some white country of the air. “But it’s good to be alive.”
The seraph patrols were having poor hunting. The land was too big and wild, its inhabitants scarce and getting scarcer.
“Someone is warning them,” said Kala one morning, when they had come upon another abandoned village. Villages were rare; more common were simple farms where small clans lived off the land, but these, too, they’d been finding deserted. In the evenings, around the fire, soldiers still cleaned their swords, but it was more of habit than necessity. The country seemed to empty ahead of them; they’d scarcely drawn blood in days. Whispers about ghosts persisted. Some blamed the slaves, though they all knew it would have been a remarkable feat—of both courage and logistics—for those few freed creatures to warn this whole vast land of the coming scourge.
The only logical conclusion, though there was no evidence to support it, was that it was the rebels.
“Why won’t they show themselves?” stormed a soldier of the Second Legion. “Cowards!”
Akiva wondered the same thing. Where were the rebels? He happened to know that it wasn’t rebels warning the folk.
It was him.
At night, while the camp slept, he cloaked himself in glamour and slipped from his tent. Wherever the next day’s sweep was to lead them, he went ahead, and when he found a village or farm or nomad’s camp, he let himself be seen, frightening off the folk and hoping they would have the good sense to stay gone.
It was something. It wasn’t enough, and his exhaustion was not sustainable, but he didn’t know what else to do. What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it? It might have bought some of these southern folk time to reach the Hintermost, though. It should have.
But it didn’t.
Because overnight, on dark, silent wings, while Akiva was struggling to save the enemy one family at a time, the rebels were sending the Empire such a message that Joram’s response must blow away any hope he had of allaying the killing.
“Life is your master, or death is,” Brimstone had said, but in these days of blood, there was no luxury of choice.
Death ruled them all.
Once upon a time, the sky knew the weight of angel armies on the move,
and the wind blew infernal with the fire of their wings.
At the seraph garrison at Thisalene—not on some far shore or lonely sweep of beast-ranged wilderness, but hooked to the cliffs of the curved Mirea Coast in the heart of the Empire itself—a sentry watched from his tower as the sun rose over the sea and his comrades failed to stir. Not a rustle from the hundred soldiers trained to rise at first light, no sound at all. The barracks lay quiet in the dawn, and the silence was surreal and deeply wrong. Quiet was for night. There should have been clamor, cooksmoke, the early, desultory chime of blades on the practice ground.
He knew he should have been relieved of duty by now, but he couldn’t make himself leave his post. Terror held him where he was. Nothing moved but the sea, the sun. It was as if all living things in the world had frozen except for him. When the first blood daub circled, he finally unfroze, leapt from his tower, and flew down to discover bunk after bunk of sleeping comrades who would never wake.
A hundred throats opened neat as letters. A hundred red smiles, and on the wall, also in red, a new message:
THE ANGELS MUST DIE.
It was an echo of the emperor’s own infamous words, so long thundered from the heights of the Tower of Conquest and drummed from infancy into every seraph’s consciousness, citizen or soldier: The beasts must die.
He should have deserted, that soldier. He must have known he would hang for his failure; it was unpardonable, even if it was true what he reported, stricken and babbling, when he reached the city, just north along the coast. Thisalene was the Empire’s main slave port, a mere half day’s journey overland from the capital—an hour at most on wing—and was heavily armed and fortified. Soldiers from his own regiment rotated in to patrol the seawalls, and he feared to find them dead, too, and gasped out, “Thank the godstars! You must triple the watches. They’re alive. They’re back and we are all killed!”
The commander was sent for, and by the time he arrived, the soldier’s shock had worn off. The first thing he said was, “I never fell asleep, sir, I swear it.”
“Who says you did? What happened, soldier? You’re covered in blood.”
“You have to believe me. I would never sleep at my post. They’re alive. I would have seen any natural thing—”
“Speak sense. Who’s killed? Who’s alive?”
“We are killed. Sir. I never closed my eyes! It was the Shadows That Live. It had to be. They’re back.”
Karou was good at a lot of things, but driving wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t actually old enough for a license, which struck her now as funny. She didn’t know about Morocco, but in Europe you had to be eighteen, which she wouldn’t be for another month—that is, unless you counted her two lives together. Should’ve asked for credit for that, she thought as she bounced and skidded off-road in the old blue truck she used for getting supplies to the kasbah.
A big bump kicked the truck up onto two tires, where it hung in suspension for a long moment before slamming back down with an impact that bounced Karou at least a foot off the driver’s seat. Oof. “Sorry!” she sang over her shoulder, sweetly, insincerely. Ten was in the back, hidden from view.
Karou aimed for another bump.
“If I didn’t want to be here, you know, I’d have left already,” she’d said to Thiago before setting out, she-wolf in tow, against her protestations. “I don’t need a prison guard.”
“She’s not a guard,” he’d replied. “Karou. Karou.” The intensity of his eyes was as unnerving as ever. “I just can’t stand to watch you go off alone. Humor me? If something were to happen to you, I’d be lost.” Not we would be lost. I would.
It could be worse, of course. Thiago could have come himself, and there had been a tense moment when she’d feared he might. But with the Shadows That Live due back from their mission, he’d chosen to wait at the kasbah.
“Get something for a celebration,” he’d told her. “If you can.”
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up at that. “What are we celebrating?”
In answer, Thiago only pointed up at his gonfalon and smiled. Victory and vengeance.
So, Karou wondered, what does one bring to a celebration of victory and vengeance? Booze? Hard to find in Morocco, and it was just as well. Booze was the last thing she needed to be giving the soldiers.
Well, okay, maybe not the last thing.
When she reached Agdz, with its long, dusty main street that looked more Wild West than Arabian Nights, she avoided the shop on the north end, the one she remembered had rifles in the window. She didn’t want to risk Ten seeing them from her hiding place and asking what they were.
Wouldn’t that make a nice treat for the celebration? No doubt about it.
Looming large in Karou’s mind, always, was the issue of guns. At the thought of them, her hand went to her stomach, where three small, shiny scars remembered the bullets that had torn through her once, in the hold of a ship in St. Petersburg where all around her girls and women had bled from toothless mouths and cried, and run.
Karou hated guns, but she knew what they could mean for the rebellion. A dozen times she’d considered telling Thiago about human killing technology, and a dozen times she’d stopped herself. She had a lot of reasons, starting with her personal feelings and the people she would have to deal with to procure arms—weren’t things bad enough without adding arms dealers to the mix? But she could have dealt with that if it weren’t for the bigger reason, the thing she always came back to.
Brimstone had never brought guns into Eretz.
She could only guess why not, but her guess was simple: because it would start an arms race, and accelerate the pace of killing beyond reckoning, and that was the last thing he would have wanted. He had told her—Madrigal-her—in the last moments before her execution, that for all these centuries he had only been holding back a tide, trying to keep his people alive until some other way could be found, some truer way. A path to life, and peace.
Life and peace. Victory and vengeance.
And never the twain shall meet.
In town, Karou bought apricots, onions, courgettes by the crateful. She wore a cotton hijab over her blue hair, and jeans with a long-sleeved jellaba to blend in. They wouldn’t mistake her for Moroccan, but with her black eyes and perfect Arabic, they wouldn’t take her for a Westerner, either. She took care not to let her hamsas be seen, and bought cloth and leather, tea and honey. Almonds and olives and dried dates. Feed for the chickens and discs of flat bread. Red slabs of marbled meat—not a lot; that wouldn’t keep. Couscous, tons of it—sacks so big she could barely heave them but still had to wave away help on account of having a wolf-headed monster stowed away in the back of her truck. Thanks, Ten.
She told an inquisitive woman that she worked for a tour provider. “Hungry tourists” was the response. Indeed. It occurred to Karou that she had literally bought enough food for a small army, and she couldn’t even laugh about it.
She kept thinking of the sphinxes, and what they must be doing.
Which pretty much killed her will to come up with some celebration for the soldiers. She tossed Ten a bottle of water and closed up the back of the truck. But on the way out of town she spotted a shop that made her reconsider. Drums. Berber tribal drums. Sometimes on campaign there had been drumming in camp. Singing, too. There had been no singing at the kasbah, but she thought of Ziri and Ixander clowning in the court, the laughter that she’d had no part in, and she bought ten drums, and drove the long way back as day slid into dark.
She was overseeing the unloading when the Shadows That Live returned.
“I thought the Shadows That Live were the Shadows That Died,” said Liraz.
Word had come from Thisalene, and Akiva was reeling. The horror, the body count, the bold stroke. The fool stroke. To attack so near Astrae was to pierce the perceived sanctity of the Empire itself. Did these rebels even know what they had begun?
Hazael sighed, blowing out a long, weary breath. “Is it just me, or have you noticed that chimaera prefer not to be dead?”
“Well then,” said Liraz. “We have that in common at least.”
“We have more in common than that,” said Akiva.
Liraz turned her eyes on him. “You more than most,” she said, and he thought she meant something biting about “harmony” with the beasts, but she dropped her voice and said, “Slipping about invisible, for example?” and Akiva went cold.
Did she know what he had been doing these past nights, or did she just mean his glamour in general? Her gaze lingered, and there seemed a keen specificity to it, but when she continued, it was only to say, “If Father knew you could do that…” and trail away with a whistle. “He could have his own personal Shadow That Lives.”
Akiva looked around. He didn’t like to talk about it in camp—his magic, his secrets. Even calling the emperor “Father” was punishable, first because use of his honorific was law, and second because the Misbegotten had no claim to paternity. They were weapons, and weapons had no fathers, or mothers, either, and if a sword could claim a maker, it was the blacksmith, not the vein of ore whence came its metal. Of course, that didn’t stop Joram boasting how many “weapons” came from his own “vein of ore.” The stewards kept lists. There had been more than three thousand bastard soldiers born in the harem.
Of which barely three hundred remained, and too many of those were deaths recent.
Akiva saw that there was no one within earshot. “You could do it, too,” he reminded Liraz. He had taught his brother and sister the glamour so they could pass in the human world, helping him to burn the black handprints onto Brimstone’s doors. They managed it, though not with ease, and not for long.
She made a sound of disgust. “I think not. I prefer my victims to know who killed them.”
“So they can dream of your lovely face for all their eternal slumber,” said Hazael.
“It’s a blessing to die at the hand of someone beautiful,” answered Liraz.
“So, not at Jael’s hand, then,” remarked Hazael.
Jael. Akiva glanced at the sky. The name was a sharp reminder.
“No. Godstars.” Liraz shuddered. “There is no blessing that will help his victims. Do you know, there are two reasons I am glad I am Misbegotten, and both of them are Jael.”
“What reasons?” Akiva couldn’t imagine why anyone, especially his sister, would be glad to be the emperor’s bastard.
The Misbegotten were the most effective and least rewarded of all of the Empire’s forces. They could never command, lest they strive above their station, but were only fodder for the ranks, given out on loan to regiments of the Second Legion to do the dirty work. They had no pensions, being expected to serve until their deaths, and were not permitted to marry, to bear or father children, to own land, or even to live elsewhere than their barracks. It was a sort of slavery, really. They weren’t even given burial but only cremation in common urns, and since their names were borrowed more than owned, it was deemed meaningless to engrave them on a stone or placard. The only record of life a Misbegotten left behind was his or her name stricken from the stewards’ list so that it could be given over to some new mewling babe soon enough to be ripped from its mother’s arms.
Live obscure, kill who you’re told, and die unsung. That could have been the Misbegotten’s creed, but it wasn’t. It was Blood is strength.
“Being Misbegotten,” said Liraz, counting the first reason on her finger, “I will never serve under Jael.”
“A good reason,” Akiva agreed. Jael was the emperor’s younger brother, and the commander of the Dominion, the Empire’s elite legion and a source of endless bitterness to the bastards. Any Misbegotten would best any Dominion soldier in sparring or—if it ever came to it—combat, yet the Dominion were held supreme in every way. They were richly attired and provisioned from the coffers of the Empire’s first families—who filled their ranks with second and third sons and daughters—and they had been richly rewarded at war’s end, too, gifted with castles and lands in the carve-up of the free holdings.
An elder bastard half sister named Melliel had dared to ask Joram if the Misbegotten would be given their due, and their father’s answer had been, in his sly way making even the refusal a boast of his virility, “There aren’t castles enough in Eretz for all the bastards I’ve sired.”
Still, for all the benefits the Dominion enjoyed, they served at Jael’s pleasure, and Jael’s pleasure was, by all accounts, a gruesome thing.
“Go on,” said Hazael. “What else?”
Liraz counted off another finger. “Second, being Misbegotten, I will never lie under Jael.”
Akiva could only stare at her, aghast. It was the first time he had ever heard his sister make reference to her own sexuality, even in such an oblique way. She wore her ferocity like armor, and it was purely asexual armor. Liraz was untouchable and untouched. The image of her… beneath Jael… was one to reject immediately, abhorrently.
Hazael looked aghast, too. “I should hope not,” he said, sounding weak with disgust.
Liraz rolled her eyes. “Look at the pair of you. You know our uncle’s reputation. I’m only saying I’m safe, because I’m blood, and thank the godstars for that if nothing else.”
“Damn the godstars,” said Hazael, indignant. “You’re safe because you would gut him with your bare hands if he ever tried to touch you. I’d say that I would do it, but I know that by the time anyone else got there our uncle would already be pulled inside out, and less ugly for it, too.”
“Yes, I suppose.” Liraz sounded weary, looked it. “And what of all the other girls? Do you think they don’t want to pull him inside out, too? And what then? The gibbet? It comes down to life, doesn’t it, and whether it’s worth keeping on with, whatever happens. So… is it?” She looked to Akiva. Was she asking him?
“Is life worth keeping on with, whatever happens?”
Was she talking about living broken, living with loss? Did she count his loss a real one, and did she really want to know, or was there a barb in this somewhere? Sometimes Akiva felt like he didn’t know his sister at all. “Yes,” he said, wary, thinking of the thurible, and Karou. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always a chance things will get better.”
“Or worse,” said Liraz.
“Yes,” he conceded. “Usually worse.”
Hazael cut in. “My sister, Sunshine, and my brother, Light. You two should rally the ranks. You’ll have us all killing ourselves by morning.”
Morning. They all knew what would happen in the morning.
Liraz rose to her feet. “I’m going to sleep while I can, and you two should, too. Once they get here, I think there will be very little rest for anyone.”
She walked off. Hazael followed. “Coming?” he asked Akiva.
“In a minute.”
Or not. Akiva looked to the sky. It was still dark for as far as he could see, but he imagined he felt a change in the air: a pull from the draft of many, many wings. It was illusion, or prophecy, or just dread.
He had a long way to go tonight, territory to cover, chimaera to save. No rest for him. The Dominion were coming.
The sphinxes stretched out delicate cat feet to land, small tufts of dust eddying around them. The rest of the chimaera host were emerging from doors and windows to gather in the court and hear their report, and there was Thiago, striding from the guardhouse. Karou’s mind was sharp with wondering. What had they done? Not just the sphinxes, but all the patrols. It was with a sense of unreality that she found her feet carrying her toward all the others.
“Karou,” Ten called after her, but she kept walking.
Thiago caught sight of her and paused, watching her approach. The soldiers followed his gaze, the sphinxes, too. All regarded her with identical nonexpressions, but Thiago smiled. “Karou,” he said. “Did everything go all right in town?”
“Oh. Fine.” Her hands were clammy. “You don’t have to stop. I was just going to listen.”
The Wolf cocked his head slightly, looking perplexed. “Listen?”
“To the report.” Karou felt herself shrinking, faltering. “I just want to know what we’re doing.”
She didn’t know what she expected Thiago to say, but not this: “Is there someone in particular that you’re worried about?”
Karou’s face went hot. Insidious implication. “No,” she said, affronted. She was also rattled, realizing that anything she said now would come across as concern for seraphim. For Akiva.
“Well then, don’t worry.” Another smile from the Wolf. “You have enough to think about. You’ve lost the whole day today, and I need to have another team ready by tomorrow. Do you think you can do that?”
“Of course,” Ten answered for her, and she took Karou by the arm as she had the day before. “We’re just going.”
“Good,” said Thiago. “Thank you.” And he waited for them to be gone before resuming speaking.
Karou felt pinched awake from some stupor. It wasn’t that Thiago didn’t want her bothered with details, it was that he flat-out didn’t want her to know what he was doing. As Ten drew her away, she locked eyes—briefly—with Ziri. He looked so guarded. Thiago’s remark… Did they all think she still loved Akiva? And they didn’t even know about Marrakesh and Prague, or that she’d met him again so recently. Met him and… No. Nothing. She’d left him behind. That was what mattered. This time, she had made the right choice.
When they were out of the court, Karou pulled her arm from Ten’s grip, wincing as it dragged at her bruises. “What the hell?” she said. “I think I have a right to know what my pain is paying for.”
“Don’t be a child. We all have our roles to play.”
“Oh. And yours is what, babysitter? I’m sorry, I mean traitor-sitter?”
Ten’s eyes flashed with defiance. “If Thiago asks it, yes.”
“And you’ll do whatever he asks.”
For a second Ten only stared at her as if she were dim-witted. “Of course” was her answer. “And so will you. Especially you. For the good of our people, and the memory of all we’ve lost, and the very great debt you owe.”
Karou’s shame response was instant, but it was followed this time by a surge of anger. They would never let her forget what she had done. She was here willingly, when she, unlike they, had a choice in the matter. She had a whole other life, and right now she really just wanted to fly back to it, back to Prague and her friends and art and tea and worrying about nothing more dire than butterflies in her belly—Papilio stomachus, she recalled with an ache. How quaint and small that life seemed now, like something you could fit inside a snow globe.
She wouldn’t go. Ten was right: She did owe a debt. But she was sick to death of the cowering thing she’d become. She thought Brimstone would scarcely recognize this compliant little shame-creature; she had certainly never followed his orders so meekly.
When they had climbed the stairs back to her room, she picked up the necklace she had begun earlier, while Ten, impatient, spilled her case out on the table. Brass clamps clattered in all directions. Karou picked one up but didn’t put it on. She was in no state to conjure a body now.
What wasn’t she allowed to know?
“Do you want me to tithe?” Ten asked. Karou looked up at her. The she-wolf didn’t offer up her pain very often, and Karou surprised herself by saying, “No. Thanks.” It was only when she heard her own reply that she realized she was going to do something.
What am I going to do?
She toyed with the vise, twisting the screw tighter, looser. Did she even remember how? It was a long time ago.
What shall I do for pain?
Nothing. No pain for you. Only pleasure.
Still fidgeting with the vise, she said to Ten, “I don’t suppose you know the story of Bluebeard.”
“Bluebeard?” Ten eyed Karou’s hair. “A relative of yours?”
Karou shot her a wry smile. “I have no relatives, remember?”
“No one does anymore,” Ten said simply, and Karou realized it was true. Everyone here had lost… everyone. They were a people with nothing more to lose.
“Well,” she said, calmly fitting the vise over the web of flesh and muscle that connected her thumb and palm. It was a tender spot. “Bluebeard was this lord, and when he brought his new bride home to his castle, he gave her the keys to every door and told her she could go anywhere she wanted except this one little door down in the cellar. And there she must never go.” She tightened the screw, and her pain began to open like a flower.
“And I suppose that was the first place she went,” said Ten.
“The minute his back was turned.”
Ten had just turned to reach for the teapot. At Karou’s words, she spun back around, and cursed.
Karou knew by her reaction that it had worked; she had remembered Akiva’s invisibility manipulation after all. Funny, the pain had seemed like a big deal back then. Not anymore. It throbbed to the tune of her heartbeat and felt nearly as natural.
It didn’t occur to Ten that Karou might not have moved from her seat. She just thought she was out the window again, and so when she unfroze, she lunged toward it, and Karou slipped out the door. Ironically, the absence of the bar made it easier for her to get away. Holding the glamour in place, she whipped down the stairs and out to the court to hear whatever she could before Ten bolted down with the news of her vanishing.
It wasn’t much.
It wasn’t her shadow that gave her away. The glamour didn’t conceal shadows, so she kept to the shade and she didn’t make a sound. She was certain of that. She wasn’t even touching the ground. Still, she had been in the court only a couple of minutes, just long enough to learn the sickening nature of the “message” that the rebels had been sending to the seraphim, and… the emperor’s response—dear god, the sky dark and bright with Dominion, a merciless display of might, hopeless, hopeless—before Thiago cut off midsentence, pivoted on the pads of his wolf feet, and, lifting his head just slightly, nostrils flaring delicately, scented the air.
And looked at her.
She froze. She was already still, and she was yards away, but she stopped breathing and watched those colorless eyes with dread. They couldn’t quite fix on her, but they narrowed. Again he sniffed. He couldn’t see her, she knew that, and neither could the rest of the company, who followed his gaze. Still—stupid, stupid—they knew she was near the same way Thiago did.
They were creatures. They could smell her.
She took the vise off at the river, let go of the magic, and watched herself flush visible again. Her hand was blue where the clamp had bitten. A bruise. Had anything ever been more insignificant than a bruise?
Would Thiago guess about the glamour? That had been stupid of her. If he suspected she could do that, he and his spy would never take their eyes off her again. Not to mention, if he suspected she could do that, he would want to know how. He would want all his soldiers to know how, and shouldn’t Karou want that, too, if it could help them?
Help them kill more angels in their sleep?
That was what Tangris and Bashees did. No one knew exactly how; they had a way of pulling the shadows around themselves to stalk unseen among the enemy, but glamour alone couldn’t account for the mass killings conducted in perfect silence. Who slept so deeply that they wouldn’t wake to gasp as their throat was cut? Yet these victims slept on as throat by throat they died and all breath was subtracted from the room until only the killers’ remained.
Karou didn’t know why it bothered her so much. It was painless. And how many chimaera had those soldiers killed, and surely with less kindness.
Kindness? What an appalling thought.
Karou sat arguing with herself, wishing more desperately than ever for someone to talk to. There were conflicts in herself she just couldn’t settle. This brutality that she was a part of, she had been half pretending it was all a bad dream in an effort to get through her days, because she just couldn’t come to terms with it.
Her life as Karou had in no way prepared her for this. War was something from the news, and she didn’t even watch the news, it was too terrible. And if she’d thought that Madrigal could help her, as if her deeper self might enable her to accept this ugly reality, she was mistaken there, too. Why had Madrigal done what she’d done, conspiring with Akiva for peace? Because she’d had no stomach for war even when it was her life. She had always been a dreamer.
And what was happening in Eretz… The rebels had made it worse, so much worse. They had knocked down a hornet’s nest. The cut smiles, the cut throats, the blood scrawl. What had Thiago been thinking, taunting the Empire like that? And the emperor’s answer was swift and enormous. For the chimaera it would be cataclysmic. The full might of the Dominion, sent to crush civilians?
What had Thiago thought would happen? What had she thought?
She hadn’t thought; she hadn’t wanted to know, and now look.
I feel happy…. I feel happy….
Karou took off her shoes and put her feet in the cool water. Back at the kasbah they would be searching for her, and they should find her easily enough. She waited in plain sight, and at length she heard wings, and then a shadow fell over her. It was horned, and for an instant it aligned with her own shadow so the horns seemed hers.
Ziri had been the one on his patrol to do the cutting. His curved blades—just like her own—were suited to it; he had only to hook the corners of a corpse’s mouth and with a flick of his wrist it was done: smile rendered. And this is what has become of my little Kirin shadow. She turned to look up at him. The sun was behind him; she had to shade her eyes. Now that he’d found her, he didn’t seem to know what to do. She saw his gaze trail down her arms—bruises and tattoos intermingling—before returning to her face. “Are you… all right?” he asked, hesitant.
These were the first words he had spoken to her. If they had come earlier she would have been so glad. From her first frightened days with the rebels, she had hoped he might be a friend, an ally; she’d thought she recognized something in him—compassion? The sweetness of his younger self? Even now, she could see that boy in him, those round brown eyes, his gravity and bashfulness. But he had stayed away from her all these weeks, and now when he finally chose to speak to her, it didn’t matter at all.
“You seem…” He faltered, discomfited. “You don’t seem well.”
“No?” Karou could have laughed. “Imagine that.” She stood, brushed off her jeans, and picked up her shoes. She looked up at Ziri. He had grown so tall, she had to tilt her head back. On one of his horns there was a hack mark, several ridges shaved away, and you had only to look to see that the horn had saved his head from a killing blow. He was lucky. She’d heard the other chimaera say so. Lucky Ziri.
“Don’t worry about me,” Karou told him. “Next time I feel like smiling, I guess I know who to ask.”
He flinched like he’d been slapped, and she stepped around him, went up the dusty riverbank and toward the kasbah. She didn’t fly, but walked. She was in no hurry to get back.
The emperor’s brother looked cut in half. A scar ran from the top of his head right down the center of his face, hooking under his chin and stopping—unfortunately—just shy of his throat. And it was no thin tracery either, but a puckered, livid keloid that overcame what remained of his nose and split his lips aside to reveal broken teeth. No one knew how he’d gotten it. He claimed it was a battle scar, but whispers contradicted him—though so many and so varied that it was impossible to guess which, if any, might be true. Even Hazael, with his way of finding things out, had no idea.
Whatever its cause, the scar’s result was to make it almost unendurable to hear Jael eat, which he was doing now with sounds very like the gluckings of a dog licking its tenders.
Akiva kept his face impassive, as ever, though truly it felt like a feat. No one could tempt a lip curl quite like the Captain of the Dominion.
“Think of it as a hunting party,” Jael said casually when he had downed half a cold smoked songbird with a gulp of ale, not bothering to wipe at the dribble that spilled from his ruined mouth. “A very large hunting party. Do you hunt?” he inquired of Akiva.
“Of course not. Soldiers have no luxury for sport. Until the enemy becomes the quarry. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
Not likely, thought Akiva.
The full weight of the Dominion hung poised to fall on the fleeing folk of the southern continent, several thousand troops now staging to cut off their escape to the Hintermost and then move steadily northward, killing every living thing in their path.
“I said it was too soon to withdraw our main strength,” said Jael. “But my brother didn’t believe the south was a threat.”
“It wasn’t,” said Ormerod, the Second Legion commander who had, until now, been overseeing this sweep and who was, Akiva thought, unhappy at being displaced. They were at table in his pavilion—not Akiva’s usual place. Far from it. Bastards did not sit at high table or dine with their superiors. He was here, to his surprise and not delight, at the request of Jael.
“The Prince of Bastards,” the captain had cried, catching sight of him on his arrival. Akiva had had to work with him in the past, and even when their passions had aligned—the destruction of Loramendi, for example—he’d despised him, and had sensed the feeling was mutual. And yet: “What an honor,” Jael had said that morning. “I hadn’t thought to look for you here. You must join us for breakfast. I’m sure you have thoughts on our situation.”
Oh, Akiva did, but not such as he could share at this table.
“The south wasn’t a threat before and it isn’t now,” Ormerod continued, and Akiva admired his forthrightness.
He could go so far as to agree with that. “Whoever is striking at seraphim, it isn’t these common folk.”
“Yes, well. The rebels are hiding somewhere, aren’t they?” Jael sighed. “Rebels. My brother is put out. He just wants to plan his new war. Is that so much to ask? And here comes the old one, back from the dead.” He laughed at his own witticism, but Akiva wasn’t laughing.
New war? So soon? He wouldn’t ask. Curiosity was weakness, and both Joram and Jael enjoyed drawing it out and letting it fester unrewarded.
Ormerod apparently hadn’t learned that lesson. “What new war?”
Jael kept his eyes on Akiva, and his look was direct, amused, and personal. “It’s a surprise,” he said, smiling—if you could call it a smile, the way his mouth skewed wide, pulling his scarred lips white.
There is a smile a chimaera could improve upon, thought Akiva. But if Jael was trying to taunt him, he would have to do better than this. There was no surprise. Who else could Joram’s next target be but the renegade seraphim whose freedom and mystique had riled him for years?
To Akiva, his mother’s people were more phantoms than these rebels arisen from nowhere. He gave Jael no satisfaction. At the moment, his concern was the battle at hand, and these southern lands where seraph fire had yet to touch death to every green and growing thing, every flesh and breathing thing. And now? Despair moved through him, restless, refusing to settle. He thought of the folk he had spared and warned. They would be cut off, trapped, captured, killed. What could he do? Several thousand Dominion. There was nothing to do.
“To Joram it may be a bother, but to me it’s a boon, this rebellion,” Jael was saying. “We must have something to do. I believe that an idle soldier is an affront to nature. Don’t you agree, Prince?”
Prince. “I don’t imagine nature spares us a thought except to weep when she sees us coming.”
Jael smiled. “Quite right. The land burns, the beasts die, and the moons weep in the heavens to see it.”
“Be careful,” warned Akiva, finding a thin smile of his own. “The moon’s tears are what created chimaera in the first place.”
Jael gave him a cool and considering look. “Beast’s Bane, spouting beast myths. Do you talk to the monsters before you kill them?”
“One should know one’s enemy.”
“Yes. One should.” Again, that look: direct, amused, and personal. What did it mean? Akiva was nothing to Jael but one of his brother’s legion of bastards.
But when at last the meal came to an end, he had to wonder what more there was to it.
Jael pushed back his chair and stood. “Thank you for your hospitality, Commander,” he said to Ormerod. “We fly in an hour.” He turned to Akiva. “Nephew. Always charming to see you.” He turned to go, stopped, turned back. “You know, I probably shouldn’t admit it now that you’re a hero, but I argued for killing you. Back then. No hard feelings, I hope.”
Back when? Akiva regarded Jael evenly. When had his life been up for discussion?
Ormerod shifted uneasily and sputtered a few words, but neither Akiva nor Jael paid him any mind.
“The pollution of your blood, you know,” said Jael, as if it ought to be obvious. So. His mother, again. Akiva rewarded the quip with no more interest than he had shown earlier for the taunt about the new war. Of his mother he had only snatches of memory and the emperor’s cryptic taunt: Terrible what happened to her. What was Jael’s interest? “My brother had faith his blood would prove the stronger—blood is strength and all that—and now he says he was right. You were a test, and you passed, gloriously, and I suppose there’s no argument to be made against you now. Pity. One does so hate to be wrong about these things.”
With that, Jael of the Dominion, second-most powerful seraph in the Empire, turned to go, pausing just long enough to toss a command back at Ormerod—“Have a woman sent to my tent, would you?”—and kept walking.
Ormerod blanched. His mouth opened but no sound came out. It was Akiva who rose to his feet. Liraz’s words came back to him, and “all the other girls” she’d spoken of. It occurred to him only now that his sister had given voice to a fear. Not directly; she wouldn’t, but now he felt the fear for her, and for “all the other girls,” too. And not only fear. Fury. “We have no women here,” he said. “Only soldiers.”
Jael stopped. Sighed. “Well, one can hardly be choosy in a battle camp. One of them will have to do.”
A world away, the White Wolf readied his troops. He gathered them in the court at darkfall and sent them off in teams, every last one with wings. Nine teams of six, plus the sphinxes, ever their own team. Fifty-six chimaera. It had seemed like so many in the tithing, so many bruises, but Karou, watching from her window, pictured them against a sky full of Dominion and knew that they were nothing. She remembered the shine of the sun on armor, the flaming breadth of seraph wings, and the terrible sight of the enemy arrayed in force, and she felt numb. What did they hope for, going off like this? It was suicide.
They lifted, as squadrons, and flew.
Ziri did not look to her window.
It was not suicide.
The squadrons did not turn south when they passed through the portal. The fifty-six didn’t fly for the Hintermost to the aid of the creatures who peered up through the forest canopy to see why the sun faltered and what it was that the sky was delivering to them. Truly, what could fifty-six have done against so many? Suicide wasn’t in Thiago’s nature. It would have been a pointless exercise, a waste of soldiers.
The rebels didn’t witness the running and falling of desperate chimaera, the running and falling and pushing up again and clutching at babies and hoisting of elderly by elbows. They didn’t see the anguish of their kindred. They didn’t see them die by the scattered hundreds, chased from burning forests and cut down in sight of safety. And they didn’t die defending them, because they weren’t there.
They were in the Empire, causing anguish of their own.
“Our advantage now is twofold,” Thiago had said. “One, they don’t know where we are, they still don’t know who or what we are. We are ghosts. Second, we are now winged ghosts. Thanks to our new resurrectionist, we have freer movement than we have ever had before, and we can cover much greater distance. They won’t be looking for us to strike at them on their own terrain.” He had let a silence settle before adding, with the perverse gentleness that was his way, “The angels have homes, too. The angels have women and children.”
And now they would have fewer of them.
Only one team leader defied his order: Balieros. The stalwart bull centaur would not turn his back on his people. Once the teams separated to make for their assigned territories, he put it to his soldiers to choose, and they followed him proudly. Bear Ixander; griffon Minas; Viya and Azay, both Hartkind as the Warlord had been; and Ziri. They flew south, their wings churning clouds and pushing the long leagues behind them. As swiftly as they crossed the land they had once defended, it was an epic swath of country, and they were a day in flight before they saw the bastions of the Hintermost in the distance.
A mere six soldiers into a maelstrom of enemy wings—it was suicide, and could end in only one way.
They knew it, they flew toward it, hearts on fire and blood pounding, in their doom infinitely more alive than their comrades who went the other way with every expectation of survival.
“So,” said Hazael, coming quietly to Akiva’s side as they awaited the order to fly. They followed Ormerod today, their patrols combined to follow the Dominion, who had already gone. “What do we do now, brother? Do you suppose there will be many birds out today?”
Akiva turned to him. They had never spoken of the chimaera in the gully. “Must have been a bird,” they had agreed at the time, pretending not to see the huddled folk right in front of them.
“Not nearly enough, I think,” said Akiva.
“No, I suppose not.” Hazael put his hand on Akiva’s shoulder and let it weigh there for a moment. “Maybe some, though.” He turned away; Liraz was coming. He intercepted her, leaving Akiva to his thoughts.
Maybe some. His spirits lifted, just a little.
When the fly order came, he left his despair in camp and took instead only his sense of purpose. He didn’t deceive himself that it would be a day of heroics. It would be a day of death and terror, like so many other days, too many other days, and one—or was it two?—renegade seraphim couldn’t hope to save many lives.
Maybe some, though.
Rattle of thuribles, clatter of teeth.
Karou’s fingers were restless at her trays. Sift, string. Teeth, teeth. Human, bull. Jade chips, iron. Iguana teeth—little saw-blade nasties—bat bones. Sift, string. When she came to the antelope teeth, she sat back and stared at them.
“Who are those for?”
Karou startled, and clasped her fist around them. She’d forgotten Ten for a moment. Watching. The she-wolf was always watching.
“No one,” she said, and set them aside.
Ten shrugged, and returned to the task of mixing incense.
In London, at the Natural History Museum, Karou had hesitated beside the beautiful bull oryx for minutes, her hands tracing up its long, ridged horns, remembering what it was like to bear that weight on her own head.
“You could be Kirin again,” Ten had said, but the thought had never even occurred to Karou. The antelope teeth weren’t for her. They were for Ziri, and she hadn’t even wanted to take them. Superstitiously, it had seemed to her that the preparation invited his death—like digging a grave before someone died. Yes, death was expected, death was routine, but… not for Ziri.
Remarkably, he was still in his natural flesh. Through speed, skill—luck, he would be the first to say—he had never yet been killed. And, as foolish, as hypocritical as it was to care about his “purity,” Karou did. He was the last of her tribe, the last true flesh of her kind. There was something sacred in that, and when he had flown out on that first assault, a small, cold dread had crystallized in her and grown, only subsiding when she saw him return.
And now she was waiting again—just to see him, and know that the Kirin were not yet gone from the world—but this wasn’t like before. This time, she didn’t see how he could possibly come back. Her parting words to him—her only words to him—had been so cruel, as if he were to blame for any of it. Would she ever get the chance to unsay them?
Sift, string. Teeth, teeth.
The hours passed and her dread grew. The sun rose, dragging all the hours behind it, and never had a day in this place seemed so sluggish, so hot, so unending. Karou felt aged by the time it finally subsided to twilight. Again and again she found the antelope teeth in her palm.
In the end, that night in London, she had taken her pliers to the oryx’s mouth. It wasn’t an invitation to Ziri’s death, she had persuaded herself, but a way of preparing herself for its inevitability. All chimaera soldiers died. Maybe now his time had come. She tried to imagine him coming back in a thurible, his true flesh—the last Kirin body in all of Eretz—abandoned somewhere, broken or burned—and found that she could handle it.
So long as it kept her from considering the other possibility: that he might not come back at all.
On an unpaved road in southern Morocco, a car crunched to a stop, disgorging two passengers and their backpacks before pulling away with a backdraft of dust and Berber shouts for luck. Zuzana and Mik shielded their faces, coughing. The drone of the engine grew faint, and as the air cleared and they could look around, they found themselves at the edge of a vast emptiness.
Zuzana tilted back her head. “Holy. Mik. What are the creepy lights?”
Mik looked up. “Where?”
She gestured to the sky—the entire sky—and he shuttled his gaze back and forth twice before settling on her and asking, “You mean… the stars?”
“No way. I’ve seen stars. They’re, like, these faraway specks in space. Those are right there.”
What by the light of day was an austere land the unrelieved color of dust became, in the dark, a midnight tapestry ludicrous with stars. Mik laughed, and Zuzana laughed, too, and they cursed and marveled, their necks craned all the way back. “You could pick those bastards like fruit,” Zuzana said, reaching up and waggling her fingers at them.
They soon fell silent and stood looking out over the rough and rugged crust that was this land. It was like something out of a documentary—and not the feel-good kind. His voice bright, Mik said, “We’re not going to die out there, are we?”
“No.” Zuzana was firm. “That only happens in movies.”
“Right. In real life, fool city folk never die in the desert and turn into bleached skeletons—”
“To be crushed under the hooves of camels,” added Zuzana.
“I don’t think camels have hooves,” said Mik, sounding less than certain.
“Well, whatever they have, I would kiss a camel right about now. We probably should have gotten some camels.”
“You’re right,” he agreed. “Let’s go back.”
Zuzana snorted. “Really, intrepid desert explorer. We’ve been here less than five minutes.”
“Right, and where is here, exactly? How do you know this is the right spot? It all looks the same.”
She held up a map. Overscribbled in red ink and fluttering with Post-its, it was not an object to inspire confidence. “Here-here. Don’t you trust me?”
He hesitated. “Of course I do. I know how much work you’ve put into this, but… it’s not exactly our area of expertise.”
“Please. I’m an expert now,” she said. She would have aced any quiz on southern Morocco after the research she’d done, and thought she should qualify as an honorary nomad for her efforts. “I know this is where she is. I’m sure of it. Come on, I even learned how to use a compass. We have water. We have food. We have a phone—” She looked at her phone. “Which doesn’t get a signal. Well. We have water. We have food. And we told people where we’re going. Sort of. What’s the risk?”
“You mean, besides… the monsters?”
“Oh, monsters.” Zuzana was dismissive. “You’ve seen Karou’s sketchbooks. They’re nice monsters.”
“Nice monsters,” Mik repeated, staring out at the stark starlit wilds.
Zuzana wrapped her arms around his waist. “We’ve come all this way,” she cajoled. “It can be one of your tasks.”
He perked up at that. “You mean the fairy-tale tasks?”
“Well, okay then. In that case, we’d better get moving.” He hoisted his backpack on and held hers up as she slipped her arms through the straps.
They stepped off the road, and all lay before them.
“Maybe I should have asked before,” said Mik. “But how many tasks are there?”
“There are always three. Now come on. It should be about twelve miles.” She grimaced. “Uphill.”
“Twelve miles? My love, have you ever walked twelve miles?”
“Sure,” said Zuzana. “Cumulatively.”
Mik laughed and shook his head. “Good thing you left your platforms behind.”
“As if. They’re in your pack.”
“My—?” Mik heaved his shoulders up and down, jouncing his pack and the attached violin case with it. “I thought it felt heavier.”
Zuzana looked innocent. On her feet were her approximation of sensible shoes. They were sneakers, but their foam soles were thicker than was strictly necessary, not to mention zebra-striped. She gave Mik’s hand a tug and plunged into the desert. They were both alive with the thrill of adventure, but it was Zuzana who practically gave off a hum, so tightly wound was her excitement. She was going to see her friend again.
Not to mention a giant sandcastle.
Full of monsters.
Another night crawled above the kasbah, the stars never so slow in their arc as when lives were in question.
Karou distracted herself with work, a new urgency in the building of bodies. She tried not to think as if she were starting from scratch, but it was hard, with such grim odds.
It could be days before they knew anything. It was an epic long way to the Hintermost, with all the free holdings and the vast southern continent between here and there. Without wings, it would have been several weeks’ overland trudging, but overland trudging was a thing of the past, and thank goodness for that. Karou remembered, when she was Madrigal, chafing at the unbearable pace of her battalions. But with wings, depending on what happened, the patrols could be back in days.
The possibility that no one would come back at all was very real, and the strain of knowing that, and waiting, waiting to know something by never actually knowing, it was as old as war itself and it was the worst kind of dragged-out, miserable, gradual understanding she could think of.
So she was startled to hear the sentry’s call just after dawn—too soon—and she was out the window in a stride, a string of teeth still clasped in her hands. She leapt up the parapet on tiptoe and kept going, up and into the sky. It was barely thirty-six hours and there were shapes on the horizon, a full patrol. It seemed like a miracle.
Another minute and they were near enough that she could make out Amzallag’s bulk. It was Amzallag’s team.
No Ziri then.
Yet. She ignored her disappointment, glad at least to see Amzallag, and just marveled that a team—any team, if not the one she was most hoping for—had returned intact from such a fight, and so quickly! She settled to perch on the green palace roof tiles and watch them land. Thiago came out to meet them as he always did, clasping arms and not seeming out-of-the-usual pleased or surprised. She couldn’t hear what they said, but she could see that the soldiers’ sleeves were stiff with blood.
Another patrol returned, and another.
The sun climbed, the squadrons came home to roost one by one, and the miracle of it began to feel suspect. How was it possible that they had lost no one? By midmorning every team was accounted for but Balieros’s, and Karou could barely swallow around the lump in her throat.
“Where did they go?” she asked Ten back in her room, making a fidgeting effort at work.
“What do you mean? They went to the Hintermost,” said the she-wolf, but Karou knew it was a lie. Aside from the fact that they were back too soon, too alive, and the mood was wrong. It was heavy.
From her vantage point she saw the soldier Virko, who with his spiraling ram’s horns reminded her a little of Brimstone, go behind the piss-rampart and fall to his knees to vomit. The sound of his retching rose and fell, traveling in waves across the court where the rest of the company, milling in a queerly quiet way, fell even quieter, and seemed to avoid looking at one another.
Amzallag sat under the arcade cleaning his sword, and when Karou looked down an hour later or even longer, he was still cleaning it, his movements jerky, angry.
The sight, though, that made Karou’s mouth fill with the sweet saliva that precedes gagging, was Razor. Whatever the teams had been doing for the past day and a half—which was not by any calculation enough time to reach the Hintermost and return—had added a swagger to his whisper-smooth reptilian stride, and… he carried a sack. It was a brown cloth sack, heavy and full, and… stained with some fluid seepage, its color indeterminate, thanks to the brown of the sack. Fighting back the gag, Karou knew what the seepage was, and its color, and no matter how she had berated herself for her willful ignorance just a couple of days earlier, she did not want to know any more than that.
She found the antelope teeth again in her hand and put them down. She kept going to the window. Ten snapped at her for aimlessness, but she couldn’t focus. This was wrong.
And then, finally, at the slow waning of the day’s hottest hour, the sentry called again. Ziri. Karou was out the window and into the air. The sky was pure cobalt, cloudless and depthless, hiding nothing.
It was also empty. She turned to the sentry tower, confused. Oora was standing duty, and she wasn’t even looking in the direction of the portal. The Wolf appeared beside her, and Oora pointed downhill, into the distance. Karou had to squint to see what they were looking at, and when she did, she breathed, “No. No no. No.”
Humans, two of them, slipping as they climbed the scree.
They were headed straight for the kasbah.
This time, when angels came upon them, Sveva searched their eyes, and none were fire, and she swept their armor, and saw no lilies. Different angels. Bad luck.
To come so close to safety…
She’d really thought they’d made it. The mountains were so big, they’d kept seeming nearer than they were, and within reach. And then at the top of a slope that just had to be the last one—the last hill before the land must feather into those great granite folds that were like the world’s own walls—another valley would yawn open at their feet. Another expanse to cross, another rise to climb. It was like a trick.
But this one, this really was the last. Sveva could see the very place where a row of huge bulged stones met a meadow.
“They look like toes on a big fat foot,” she’d just said, not two minutes ago, smiling with the others. And she’d spun Lell, and the babe had laughed. “The mountain’s toes,” she’d sung. “We’ve reached the mountain’s toes!” And she was prancing, hugging the little Caprine to her chest, still singing her happy nonsense—“I wonder if it’s stinky in between the mountain’s toes”—when Sarazal cried, “Svee!”
And she looked, and they were there. Angels. The wrong angels.
Still, Sveva tensed in a place between hate and hope that hadn’t even existed a few days earlier. They had met mercy once; why not twice? Mercy, she had discovered, made mad alchemy: a drop of it could dilute a lake of hate. Because of what had happened in the gully, seraphim were more than slavers and faceless winged killers to her.
And yet, when these seraphim came pressing down, swords already red and no mercy in their eyes, she had no trouble screaming, “Kill them!”
The angels hadn’t seen him. They were almost smirking, this pair in shining armor. They saw a flock of Caprine, a couple of Dama, some grizzled old Hartkind—easy kills all. And the Dashnag? He’d been last up the rise; they didn’t see him until he was on them, already inside the reach of their swords and dragging them down to the ground, grappling, tearing.
They were screaming.
Sveva didn’t want to watch, but she made herself, which is how she saw one of them free an arm and raise his sword, slamming it onto Rath’s back. She shoved Lell at Sarazal and darted in with her slaver’s knife and stuck it. She stuck it right in the gap the angel’s armor left bare. She stabbed him in the armpit, deep, and he dropped his sword.
So that’s what it feels like, she thought as her boldness gave way to trembling. It feels awful. Her knife was slippery and her gorge was rising. Sarazal grabbed her shoulder. “Svee, come on!” Urgent. And then they were swimming in shadows, all of them. Shadows wheeling, weaving. More angels overhead. Sveva threw back her head.
A lot more angels.
Rath roared. Sveva looked at her sister, at Lell, at Nur with her arms outstretched, trying to reach her child, at all the other Caprine and the old Hartkind couple, and she held on to her knife and pointed to the stone toes in the distance. “Run!” she screamed. They did.
She stood with Rath.
Look at me, she thought with weird, cold pride. Everything was sharp and sure. Stabbing was awful, and she’d never have believed she would stand when she could run. She loved to run. But standing felt good, too. She looked at Rath. He looked at her. She thought he might urge her to go, but he didn’t. Maybe he just knew it wouldn’t matter, that there was no safety, but maybe… maybe he liked not being alone. He was, after all, just a boy.
Sveva smiled at him, and there they stood, so near the end of their journey they could feel the mist of waterfalls from on high, but they were in the shadows of angels now, and not likely to ever come out again.
Unless of course there was another miracle.
When the figures crested the tree line, Sveva almost couldn’t believe it. If she hadn’t seen them before, she would have been as afraid of them as she was of the angels. They were much scarier than angels.
They were revenants. Chimaera.
Saviors. It was so much like the night at the slave caravan, but it was day now and she could see them clearly. She recognized some of them: there was the griffon who had unlocked her shackle, and the bull centaur who had untwisted the metal scrap that bound Sarazal. Sveva searched for the other—the handsome horned one who had put this knife in her hand—but him she didn’t see.
The rebels were five against thrice that number, but they tore through the seraphim like a calamity.
After the first clash, and the first thuds of fallen bodies—enemies all—Rath did turn to Sveva and urge her to go. His eyes were alight. “I knew they’d come back,” he said fervently. “I knew they wouldn’t abandon us. Sveva, go. Catch the others. Take care of them, and tell them I said good-bye.” He put a big clawed hand on her shoulder. “Good luck.”
“But what about you?”
“I told you before, I was looking for the rebels.” He was happy; she saw that this was what he had wanted all along. “I’m going to join them,” he said.
And he did. When Sveva fled, Rath stayed and fought with the rebels.
And died with them, right there at the toes of the mountains.
And was dragged with them into a big pile.
“Come on,” said Hazael. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
More? That would imply they had done something. They had found no opportunity. Too many Dominion, too much open ground. Akiva shook his head and said nothing. Maybe his night flight had spurred folk from their resting places, maybe chased them near enough that some had made the ravines and tunnels ahead of the angels. He would never know. All he would know was this before him.
The sky was spring blue and mountain-clean. Pristine. The smoke was still contained to thin columns, here and there. From this high rock perch the world became a lace of treetop and meadow, and the runoff rivers in the sun were like veins of pure light curving through the contours of hills. Mountains and sky, tree and stream, and the spark of wings as Dominion squadrons moved from site to site, setting their fires. This place was damp, ferny: mist veils and waterfalls. It wouldn’t burn easily.
In such a place, with such a vista, it was almost impossible to accept what had happened here today. The blood daubs gave it away, though.
There were so many. The carrion birds could scent blood in the air from miles away. Judging from their numbers—and from the jerking eagerness of their usually languid spirals—there was plenty of it in the air today.
“And there are our birds,” Akiva said, defeated.
Hazael took his meaning. “I’m sure some got to safety,” he said. It was a moment before Akiva realized he’d said it with Liraz right there. She was looking at them. He waited for her to say something, but she just turned away, looked up into the peaks.
“They say you can’t fly over them,” she said. “The wind is too strong. Only stormhunters can survive it.”
“I wonder what’s on the other side,” said Hazael.
“Maybe it’s a mirror of this side, and seraphim there have chased their chimaera into tunnels, too, and they meet in the middle, in the dark, and find out there’s no safe place in all the world, and no happy ending.”
“Or,” said Hazael, overbright, “maybe there are no seraphim on that side, and there’s the happy ending. No us.”
She turned from the peaks, abrupt. Her tone, which had been curiously remote, turned hard. “You don’t want to be us anymore, do you?” Her gaze shuttled back and forth between them. “You think I can’t see it?”
Hazael pursed his lips, glanced at Akiva. “I still want to be us,” he said.
“So do I,” said Akiva. “Always.” He thought back to the sky of the other world, when he had stopped the pair of them in their pursuit of Karou and made himself tell them—finally—the truth. That he had loved a chimaera, and dreamed of a different life. He’d gambled then that his sister was more than the emperor’s weapon, and if she had shunned the idea of harmony, at least she hadn’t turned on him. Did he think he was the only one who was sick of death? Look at Hazael. How many others? “But a better us,” he said.
“A better us?” Liraz asked. “Look at us, Akiva.” She held up her hands to show her ink. “We can’t pretend. We wear what we’ve done.”
“Only the killing. There are no marks for mercy.”
“Even if there were, I would bear none,” she said. Akiva met her eyes, and he saw a kind of torment in her.
“You have only to begin, Lir. Mercy breeds mercy as slaughter breeds slaughter. We can’t expect the world to be better than we make it.”
“No,” she said, faint, and for a moment he thought she was going to say more, go deeper, demand his secrets. Confess hers? But when she turned away, it was only to say, “Let’s get out of here. They’re burning bodies, and I don’t want to smell the char.”
Ziri watched the blaze. He was upslope on a ridge, in the safety of the trees.
Safety. The word felt absurd. There was no safety. The angels might as well light the whole world on fire and be done with it. The things he had seen burn in these last months. Farms, entire rivers slick with oil. Children running, fleet and screaming—aflame—until they could run and scream no more. And now, friends.
His grip on his knife hilts was so fierce it felt as if his fingers would gouge through the leather to the steel beneath, and through that, too. Safety, he thought again. It was worse than absurd, it was profane. It had also been his mandate on this mission: to be safe.
Balieros had ordered him to hide.
In every engagement there was to be someone kept back, designated safety against such an eventuality as this, to glean the souls of the others should they be slain. It was an honor, a deep trust—to hold his comrades’ perpetuity in his hands—and it was torture.
Lucky Ziri, he thought with bitterness. He knew why Balieros had chosen him. It was such a rare thing for a soldier to be in his natural body; the commander had wanted to give him a chance to keep it. As if he cared about that. Being the one left alive was worse. He’d had to watch the slaughter and do nothing. Even that Dashnag boy had fought—and well—but not Ziri, though his mind and body had screamed to fly into the fray.
The one breach he had permitted himself was to cut down a seraph who pursued the little Dama girl, the deer centaur, pretty as a doll. She was the same girl he’d helped free from the slavers up in the Marazel Hills, and she was holding the knife he’d given her. To think that they had come so far and nearly died right here. He saw the group of them, Dama and Caprine, vanish into a crease in the rocks, and that was good. It had been something solid to hold on to as he watched his comrades die. To know that it was not for nothing.
The five of them had taken fivefold the lives they gave, and the Dashnag boy added to the count. Ziri had watched the seraphim gape and gesture over the corpses—Ixander, especially, whom it took three of them to drag when it finally came to it. They pulled the bodies into a pile, and then, unholy butchers, they hacked off their hands before setting them alight, hacked them off and kept them—why? As trophies?—then lit the whole clearing and watched the blaze devour the mutilated remains. Ziri smelled them now—mingled with the sweet char of grass was the odor of scorched fur, horns, and, horribly, the cookfire scent of meat—and he imagined his comrades’ souls hovering over the clearing, maintaining a tenuous connection with their burnt bodies for as long as they could.
He couldn’t wait much longer. Burning hastened evanescence, and it had been hours already. Soon it would be too late. If Ziri hoped to save his comrades, he had to do it now.
The angels had lingered from morning into afternoon, but finally they were going, lifting skyward in all their abominable grace, and flying away.
He moved steadily down the slope, keeping to the thickest cover, and by the time he came to the edge of the clearing the enemy was gone from the horizon. He surveyed the clearing. The seraph fire was an infernal thing, and burned so hot that the bodies had been eaten to nothing. A wind was rising, stirring the mound of ashes, carrying it into Ziri’s eyes and worse: sundering what little the souls had left to cling to. He lit four cones of incense in his thurible and held it steady. Five soldiers and one volunteer. He hoped he had them all, the boy, too.
He’d done all he could. He closed the thurible with a twist and slipped the gleaning staff back through its loop across his back. He scanned the sky. It was empty, but he knew he had to wait until dark to fly—more hiding, more waiting. The Dominion were everywhere, still spreading the emperor’s message with their terrible efficiency, and, as he had seen… enjoying themselves.
At first, in the rebels’ opening strike, Ziri had hated cutting the Warlord’s smiles on the dead, but right now, all he could think was that the angels’ black joy must be answered.
And what if the act of answering sparked a black joy of its own? What would Karou think of that? No. Ziri pushed down the thought. He had taken no joy in it, but he couldn’t blame Karou for her scorn. It had surprised him, at the river, how deeply it cut—how she looked at him, how she walked away. He’d covered his shame with anger in the moment—who was she to scorn him?—but he couldn’t fool himself anymore. When Balieros had pulled the patrol aside to ask if they were with him—if they wished to slaughter enemy civilians or aid their own—Ziri’s first thought had been of Karou, of erasing her scorn and replacing it with something else. Respect? Approval? Pride?
Maybe he was still that lovestruck little boy, after all.
Ziri shook his head. He turned back toward the cover of the trees. And saw them standing there watching him: three angels with their arms crossed.
“You,” said Ziri.
It was often said among chimaera that all seraphim look alike, with such sameness of parts as make them up, but any chimaera would know this angel on sight. The scar that split his face was unique.
Ziri whistled. “Wait until my friends hear that I killed the Captain of the Dominion. They won’t believe it.”
Jael laughed. It was a wet sound. He stepped forward, and his soldiers fanned out to encircle Ziri. Three angels didn’t upset him overmuch, even if one of them was the emperor’s brother. Three was easy. He heard a sound behind him and glanced back to see another… six… emerge from the far wood. Ah. And when he turned back, another three behind Jael. A dozen.
So death, then.
“Do you know,” Ziri said to Jael, “every last chimaera soldier claims to have given you that scar. It’s a game we play when we’re bored, who can come up with the best story. Would you like to hear mine?”
“Every last chimaera soldier?” said Jael. “And how many is that these days, four? Five?”
“Yes, well. One chimaera is worth”—he made a show of counting them and a show of smiling—“at least a dozen seraphim. So that should be taken into account.” He had drawn his blades at the first sight of them. They gave him a wide berth now, but he knew that they would close in and try to take him. He welcomed it. All the anguish of the past hours was alive in his hands—a hot thrum where he clasped his hilts. “The story goes like this,” he said. “We were having dinner together, you and I. As we do from time to time. It was grimgrouse. Overspiced. You killed the cook for that. Temper.” He added, as an instructive aside, “You know, in a story, it’s the details like that that make it seem real. Anyway, you got a bone stuck in your mustache. Did I mention you had a mustache?”
Jael did not have a mustache. Around him, Ziri sensed the Dominion tightening. Jael stood at a safe remove, his face showing calculated forbearance. “Did I,” he said.
“A sad, wispy specimen, but never mind. I went to cut the bone out, using your sword, and that was my mistake right there. It’s much bigger than I’m used to.” He held up his crescent moons to illustrate his point. “And, well, I missed. Spectacularly, really, though I always say: I wish I’d missed in the other direction.” He mimicked slashing a throat. “Nothing personal.”
“Of course not.” Jael ran a fingertip down the long, jagged line of his scar. “Do you want to know how I really got it?”
“No, thank you. I’m this close to believing my own version.” A flicker of movement. Behind Ziri, a soldier; he spun, his knives glinting, the sunlight bright and beckoning along their well-honed curves. The steel wanted blood and so did he. The soldier pulled back.
“You can lower your weapons,” said Jael. “We aren’t going to kill you.”
“I know,” Ziri replied. “I’m going to kill you.”
They thought this was funny. Several laughed. But not for very long.
Ziri was a blur. He took the laughers first, and two angels were dead where they stood, throats gaping open before the others could even draw their weapons.
If any of them had ever fought a Kirin, they wouldn’t have felt such comfort in their numbers as to stand so near him with their swords sheathed. Well, their swords came out fast now. The two bodies slumped to the ground, and another two angels were bleeding before ever steel rang on steel. Then it was a melee. Nithilam, as the seraphim called it. Chaos.
Ziri was outnumbered, but he turned it to his advantage. He moved so fast in the spinning kata of moon blades that the seraphim scarcely knew where to look for him. They followed; he spun. They got in the way of one another’s strikes. Ziri’s part was easier: everything was enemy. Everything was target. His crescent-moon blades seemed to multiply in the air; this was what they were made for, not slicing smiles but taking on multiple opponents, blocking, slashing, piercing. Two more angels fell: gut wound, cut tendons.
“Keep him alive!” roared Jael, and Ziri was aware, even in the spiral and glint of flesh and steel, that this was not good news.
He lunged at them, gripping his hilts hard so blood wouldn’t flow beneath his fingers and make his grip slippery. He flew at them, took the fight airborne, and cut and killed, but he never held out any real hope of escape. These were seraph soldiers; he was fast, but they were far from slow, and they were many. Not for the first time in his life, he wished for hamsas. The marks might have weakened them, given him a chance. By the time they disarmed him their host was halved, but he himself bled only from shallow wounds—which he attributed as much to their discipline as to his own agility. They wanted him alive, and so he was.
He was on his knees before them, and no one was laughing now. Jael came toward him. He had lost his smugness; his face was rigid, the scar livid white against the red of his fury. Ziri saw the kick coming and curled to absorb the blow, but it still caught his stomach hard and drove the breath from him.
He turned the gasp into a laugh. “What was that for?” he asked, straightening back up. “If I’ve done something to give offense—”
Jael kicked him again. And again. Ziri ran out of laughter. Only when he was choking up blood did Jael come close enough to rip the gleaning staff off of his back. His eyes were hard with triumph, and Ziri felt the first burn of fear.
“I have an amusing story, too, only mine is true. I met your Warlord and Brimstone recently, and I burned them like I burned your comrades and that is how I know that they are dead and gone, and that this”—he held up the thurible—“can only be for someone else. So… who?”
Ziri’s blood had become strangely loud in his head. It was dawning on him what this was about, that the seraphim had laid a trap in the clearing and waited to see if anyone came gleaning. The rebels had been ghosts, as the Wolf had said; now they were real. He had tipped their hand. “I’m sorry.” Ziri feigned confusion. “Who what now?”
Jael looked down. He stirred the ashes with the tip of his sword. “You will tell me who the resurrectionist is,” he said. “Sooner would be better. For you, I mean. Myself, truly I don’t mind if it takes… a bit of work.”
Well, that didn’t sound like fun at all. Ziri had no experience of torture, and when he thought of it, there was one face that came to mind.
Ziri would never forget the day. The agora, all of Loramendi turned out to watch, and Madrigal’s lover forced to watch, too. The seraph had been on his knees as Ziri was now, weak from beatings and hamsas and undone by grief. Had he given up anything to the Wolf? Ziri didn’t think so, and strangely enough, the thought gave him strength. If the angel could withstand torture, he could, too. To protect Karou, and with her, the chimaera’s hope, he thought he could endure anything.
“Who is it?” asked the captain again.
“Come closer,” replied Ziri with a bloody grin. “I’ll whisper it in your ear.”
“Oh, good.” Jael sounded pleased. “I was afraid you were going to make it easy.” He gestured to his soldiers, and two stepped in to seize Ziri’s arms. “Hold him,” he said. He stabbed the gleaning staff into the black earth and began to roll up his sleeves. “I’m feeling inspired.”
“I said no humans would be hurt.” Karou’s voice, already hoarse from arguing, sounded like a growl to her. “That was the first thing. No humans hurt. Period.” She was pacing in the court. Chimaera were gathered in the gallery and on the ground, some basking in the sun and others withdrawn in shade.
As if he were teaching her a hard life truth, Thiago said, “In war, Karou, some luxuries must be put aside.”
“Luxuries? You mean not killing innocent people?” He didn’t say anything. That was what he meant. Karou’s stomach twisted in a knot. “Oh god, no. Absolutely no. Whoever they are, they’re nothing to do with your—” She stopped. Corrected herself. “Our war.”
“But if they endanger our position here, they are everything to do with it. You had to know the risk, Karou.”
Had she known? Because of course he was right that it would only take a hiker telling tales to bring a media storm down on the kasbah. And then what? She didn’t like to think of it. The military, surely. Once upon a time, a tale of monsters in the desert might have been dismissed as backpackers smoking too much hashish, but times had changed. So, what now?
“They might keep going,” she said, but that was feeble and they both knew it. It was a hundred degrees out and there was no other destination for many miles. Besides which, even at a distance it was obvious the hikers weren’t doing so well.
They were dragging uphill, pausing every minute or so to bend over with hands on knees, slug water from canteens, and then… the small one doubled over and heaved. They were too far for the accompanying sound to carry, but it was obvious that they were at risk of heat exhaustion, if not already suffering from it. The pair leaned together for a long time before they got moving again. Karou paced. The hikers needed help, but this was oh so very much not the place that they would find it. If they only knew what they were headed toward. But even if they did know, they were clearly in no state to turn back.
Thiago was calm, always so maddeningly calm—until he wasn’t, anyway—because the hikers posed no urgent danger. He was content to let them approach. And then what?
Again Karou’s stomach seized. She could smell it today. Maybe because it had fresh fodder—Bast had finally taken her walk with the Wolf. Karou had already conjured her new body; it lay on her floor even now—and maybe because the breeze was one of those mild but insistent wafts from just the right direction. It might have been saying, Here, smell this. Here, smell this, over and over.
Karou stopped pacing and stood before the Wolf. She put her shoulders back and tried not to shake, tried to sound like someone to be reckoned with as she said, “I’m going to go down there and help them, and I’ll take them around the back gate into the granary.” It was cool in the granary, and isolated. The truck was there. “I’ll give them some water, they will see no one, and then I’ll drive them to a road.” She paused. She heard herself, and knew she wasn’t conveying the forcefulness she wanted. “You won’t have to do anything,” she said, but her voice cracked and her head filled with cursing. What a perfect time to sound like an adolescent boy. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Very well,” Thiago said. His expression was so arranged. Karou imagined she could see the strings holding it in place, this benign Thiago-mask, and it made her furious. It was like beating her fists against a wall talking to him. “Go on, then,” he urged.
And she went, trying to have some dignity and not stomp like a powerless child. She went out the gate, and the breeze was stronger here: rot rot, wrong wrong. Bodies putrefying in a pit, and if she didn’t help them, the hikers would end up there, too, and any other humans who had the misfortune to wander too near this godforsaken place. What had she done, leading the rebels into this world?
But then she thought of Eretz, and what the rebels’ prospects would have been if she hadn’t—and the prospects for all chimaera—and she didn’t know what was right anymore. She’d wanted to believe that they could be trusted to have some humanity. They were soldiers, not brute killers, and not wild animals, either, whose appetites functioned beyond the reach of reason. She knew Amzallag wouldn’t harm anyone without justification, and neither would Balieros, or Ziri, or most of the others. But she had only to think of Razor—and his sack—to know that all bets were off.
She had to remind herself to keep her feet on the ground as she left the kasbah; it was her first impulse now to fly, so unaccustomed had she become to human society, and it wasn’t easy walking on the shifting scree.
She realized that her hair was uncovered. What if the hikers recognized her? They really could be a danger. But what was she supposed to do?
It didn’t take long for them to spot her. Coming down the slope from the fortress, she would be the only moving thing in sight. They were still too far off for her to see clearly, but she heard the cry that came at her, and she stopped walking like she’d hit a barrier. It came rolling over the rocks and scrub, full-throated but dissolving at the edges into weakness.
It just wasn’t possible. But the cry was “Karou!” and the voice was Zuzana’s, and Karou had certainly learned that “possible” and “impossible” were rough categories at best. Oh god, no, she thought, staring at the figures and seeing what she had never expected to see: Zuzana and Mik, here.
Not them, not here.
Did it matter? They were here, and they were in danger—of heatstroke, of chimaera—and Karou’s heart pounded and swelled within her—with panic, with… gladness… and more panic, and more gladness, and a surge of anger—what were they thinking?—then tenderness, astonishment, and her eyes were wet when her feet left the earth and she flew down the slope and caught them and crushed them in a hug that threatened to finish what the heat had begun.
It was really them. She drew back to look at them. Zuzana had sagged down with exhausted relief. Tear tracks stood out against the red of her cheeks, and she was laugh-crying, crushing Karou’s hands with a vise-tight grip—a squeeze right on the bruised web of her hand that made her gasp.
“Jesus, Karou,” Zuzana rasped, her voice spent in crying out. “The freaking desert? It couldn’t have been Paris or something?”
And Karou was laugh-crying, too, but Mik wasn’t laughing or crying. He had a careful hand at Zuzana’s back, and his face was tense with concern. “We could have died,” he said, and the girls fell silent. “I should never have agreed to this.”
After a beat, Karou agreed. “No, you shouldn’t.” She took in the desert panorama with new eyes, imagining coming across it on foot. “What on earth were you thinking?”
“What?” Mik stared at her, looked to Zuzana then back to Karou. “Didn’t you want us to come?”
Karou was taken aback. “Of course not. I would never… God. How did you even find me?”
“How?” Mik was helpless with frustration. “Zuze figured out your riddle, that’s how.”
Riddle? “What riddle?”
“The riddle,” Zuzana said. “Priestess of a sandcastle, in a land of dust and starlight.”
Karou blinked at her. She remembered writing that e-mail; she had just brought the chimaera through the portal to the kasbah, and had been in Ouarzazate scrounging supplies for Aegir. “That’s how you found me? Oh, Zuze. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to come here. I never thought…”
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Mik raised his hands to his head and turned his back. “We’ve come to the godforsaken navel of nowhere and you don’t even want us here.”
Zuzana looked crestfallen. Karou felt horrible. “It’s not that I don’t want you!” She dragged her friend into another crushing hug. “I do. So much. So much. It’s just… I would never have brought you into… this.” She gestured to the kasbah.
“What is this?” Zuzana asked. “Karou, what are you doing out here?”
Karou opened her mouth and closed it again, twice, like a fish. Finally, she said, “It’s a long story.”
“Then it can wait,” Mik said firmly. Karou had never seen anger on his face before, but he was flushed with it now, his eyes narrow with accusation. “Can we please get her out of the sun?”
“Of course.” Karou took a deep breath. “Come on.”
She shouldered one of their packs and dragged the other. Mik helped Zuzana up the slope, and Karou didn’t take them the long way around to the granary, but the more direct route to the main gate, where they froze on the threshold and stared.
Again, Karou saw with new eyes, imagining how these creatures must look to humans.
Thiago stood looking bemused, Ten just behind him. Thiago himself you could almost mistake for human, but Ten was another story with her wolf head and humped shoulders. As for the rest of the court, it was a horror show: soldiers gathered in the gallery and on the ground, even on the rooftops, strangely still but for the lash of a tail here and there, the flick of a wing. Their monstrous size, their many and varied eyes, unblinking. Razor, too near for comfort, flicked out his serpent tongue, and Karou found herself in a ready stance, light on her toes, in case he should leap.
Mik spoke in a hoarse stage whisper. “Let’s just get this out of the way so I can relax. Karou, your friends aren’t going to eat us, are they?”
No, Karou thought. They are not. She whispered back, “I don’t think so. But try not to look delicious, okay?”
She was rewarded with a snort from Zuzana. “That poses a problem, seeing as how we are totally delicious.” A half beat later, anxiously: “Wait. They don’t understand Czech, right?”
“Right,” said Karou. The whole time, she was looking at Thiago and he was looking at her. The stench of the pit was in the air, and it was then that the nightmare surreality of the life she had been living was sucked away as by a vortex, just gone, and everything was real. This was her life, not a grim dream she would wake from, and not purgatory but her actual life in the actual world—worlds—and now her friends were in it, and it was their life, too.
It made a difference.
“These humans are my guests,” she said, and she felt the words come from some iron place within her that hadn’t existed an hour ago. She didn’t speak loudly, but there was such a change in her voice. Coming from that iron place, it was heavy and true; it wasn’t persuasive, or desperate, or antagonistic. It just was. She approached the Wolf, nearer than she liked to be to him. She forced herself to breach his physical space, the way he did hers, tilted back her head, and said, “Their lives are not a luxury. These are my friends, and I trust them.”
“Of course,” he said, smiling, the perfect gentleman. “That changes everything.” He nodded to Mik and Zuzana and even welcomed them, but his smile, it was just wrong. Like he’d learned it from a book.
“Who was that?” Zuzana whispered as Karou led her and Mik out of the big courtyard where the monsters were gathered. “The other white meat?”
Karou’s laugh sounded like a choke. “Oh god,” she said when she could breathe again. “And now that’s what I’m going to think every time I see him. Watch your step.”
They were on a rubble-strewn path, Mik holding Zuzana’s elbow, and they had to pick their way over a collapsed wall. Zuzana peered around. From a distance, the kasbah had looked regal in a crazy sandcastle way, but inside it was pretty desolate. Not to mention—she stepped over a timber bristling with giant rusty nails and skirted the edges of a gaping hole—dangerous. And it smelled bad, too, like piss and worse. What was that smell? Why was Karou living here? And the creatures back there… They weren’t entirely unlike the drawings in her sketchbooks, but they weren’t like them, either. They were much bigger and freakier than anything Zuzana had imagined.
As for the white guy, he looked almost human; he was supernaturally hot—holy, those eyes, those shoulders, he’d be right at home on the cover of a romance novel—but there was something so icy about him that she’d gotten a shiver in spite of practically melting to death in this desert hell.
“That was Thiago,” Karou said. “He’s… in charge.”
Zuzana had gotten that much from his lord-of-the-manor air. “In charge of what, exactly?” she asked. Something occurred to her and she stopped walking. “Wait. Where’s Brimstone?”
Karou stopped, too, and her stricken expression was all the answer Zuzana needed. “Oh no,” she said. “Not—?” Dead?
Dead. That word was not supposed to be part of this adventure. Horrified, Zuzana asked, “And… Issa? Yasri?”
Again Karou’s expression was her answer.
“Oh, Karou, I’m so sorry,” Zuzana said, and when she looked to Karou now, she really looked, not with the pure relief that had gripped her on first sight, but seeing her. She was too thin, sharp, her lips were chapped, her hair in a slapdash braid, her shirt—some Moroccan-style loose cotton shift—was wrinkled as if she lived in it, and her eyes had that bruised sleepless look. And not just sleepless; she looked… depleted.
Another shiver went down Zuzana’s spine. What had she walked into, brought Mik into? She’d gotten so caught up in the mystery and the challenge; of course she’d known something was going on with Karou. Her cryptic e-mail had made that clear, but she hadn’t really considered it might involve the word dead and this stench in the air that she was sure now was rot.
She swallowed hard. She had a fat headache, her feet were killing her, she really, really wanted a shower, and she had a sad presentiment that ice cream was out of the question, but there was someone she hadn’t asked after yet. She hesitated, afraid of seeing another bleak answer written on her friend’s face. “What about Akiva?”
An answer appeared on Karou’s face all right, but it wasn’t the one Zuzana had expected. The bleakness transformed to severity. Karou’s jaw clenched, her eyes narrowed. “What about him?” she asked, hard.
Zuzana blinked. What? “Um. Is he… alive?”
“Last I heard,” Karou said, and turned away. “Come on.”
Zuzana and Mik looked at each other wide-eyed and followed in her wake. Karou’s tense posture was a warning to keep silent, but Zuzana chose to ignore it. Frankly, it pissed her off. She’d come all this way; she’d solved a riddle that wasn’t even a riddle; she’d found Karou in the middle of the Sahara desert—okay, they weren’t really in the Sahara desert but close enough, and if she ever told this story she was absolutely going to say she had hiked into the middle of the Sahara desert in zebra-striped sneakers. Whatever. She really didn’t think she deserved to be stonewalled. “What happened?” she asked her friend’s back.
Karou glanced over her shoulder. “Let it go, Zuze. I’ll tell you everything else, but I don’t want to talk about him.”
How bitterly she said it. “Karou.” Zuzana reached for Karou’s arm; when her friend winced from her touch, she drew back her hand. “What?” Zuzana asked. “Are you hurt?”
Karou stopped walking. She let go of the packs she was dragging and hugged her arms to herself, looking so lost. So beautiful and so lost. How was it fair that she looked so beautiful with such an obvious lack of effort? “I’m fine,” she said, trying for a smile. “It’s you two Lawrence of Arabias I’m worried about. Would you just shush and let me get you inside?” Karou looked to Mik for support, and of course he agreed with her.
“Come on, Zuze, we can catch up on everything later.”
Zuzana sighed. “Fine. Bullies. But I might die of curiosity.”
“Not if I can help it,” said Karou, and Zuzuna gave Mik’s hand an involuntary squeeze, because it didn’t sound like she was joking.
Karou was still trying to push the thought of Akiva from her mind when they reached the palace. Just the mention of his name was enough to make her feel turned to stone. Well. Stone was better than pulp, and she was never going to let anyone make her feel like that again.
She stepped aside to usher her friends through the door. As dusty and worn on the outside as the rest of the kasbah, inside, the palace was, well, it was dusty and worn, too, but it was also unexpectedly lavish. Once home to the sloe-eyed brides of tribal chiefs and all their chittering broods, it was a complex of many grand rooms. There were pilasters of etched alabaster, badly chipped, and lantern niches in the shape of keyholes. The walls were paneled with faded silk, the ceilings carved in Arabic honeycombs, and a grand staircase swept upward, tiled in cracked lapis the color of Karou’s hair.
Zuzana turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. “I can’t believe you live here,” she said. “No wonder you gave me your dinky flat.”
“Are you kidding?” Karou had to laugh at the absurdity of the comparison. “I miss that flat so much.” And that life. “Trade you.”
“No, thanks,” said Zuzana at once.
“Wise girl.” Karou started up the stairs, pausing to offer Zuzana her arm. Between herself and Mik, who was not exactly peppy, they helped her up to the first landing, where a corridor led to Thiago’s suite and the small antechamber where Ten slept. A twist, and there were more stairs. “I still can’t believe you’re here,” Karou said as they climbed. “You have to tell me how you did it. After you get some rest, that is. You two can have my bed while you’re here.”
“Where will you sleep?” asked Mik.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. I don’t sleep much.”
Zuzana’s eyebrow rode high. “Really. Or eat, apparently. Or groom.” At the sight of that eyebrow—insult notwithstanding—Karou was flooded with love. Zuzana, here. It boggled. She crushed her in another hug, which did not stop Zuzana from asking, “So what do you do, exactly?”
Karou released her. “I’ll tell you everything else,” she had said, and she’d meant it. She’d been desperate for someone to talk to, hadn’t she, and now, like a wish granted, Zuzana and Mik were here. It felt like magic.
Karou took a deep breath, mindful of the state in which she had left her room, and put her hand to the heavy cedar door. “You sure you want to know?”
“Okay then.” Karou pushed open the door. “Come in and I’ll tell you.” Innocently, as they moved past her, she added, “Oh, and don’t trip over the body on the floor.”
Some months had passed since Karou had first tested truth-telling on Zuzana back in Prague. It had been so unfamiliar then, talking about her secret life, that she hadn’t known how to begin. She’d just blurted it all out, angels and chimaera and all, and if Kishmish hadn’t appeared at that very moment—on fire—she would probably have lost her friend forever.
Well, the things she had to tell now made that first round of confessions sound plain tame, but Mik and Zuzana were primed to believe. They had, after all, just walked into a kasbah full of monsters. Still, the idea of resurrection might take some getting used to.
“Ohmygodwhyisthereadeadmonsteronyourfloor?” was Zuzana’s breathless question when she saw Bast’s new body sprawled before her.
“Well. She’s not dead exactly,” Karou hedged.
Zuzana reached out a dust-caked sneaker and gave the inert flesh a nudge. “She’s not alive.”
“True. Um. Let’s call her… un-alive.”
And thus did Zuzana and Mik learn that un-alive could mean dead—and usually did—but it could also mean new. “I made it earlier,” Karou told them, much as she might say she had knitted a hat, or baked a cake.
Zuzana was calm, effortfully so. She perched herself at the edge of Karou’s bed and folded her hands in her lap. “Made it,” she repeated.
Karou did explain, as succinctly as possible, gesturing to her tooth trays and neglecting to mention the small matter of the pain tithe. She also poured water into a basin so her friends could bathe their faces and feet—in that order, she specified with mock gravity—made mint tea, and set out dishes of almonds and dates. When they were done with the basin, she emptied it out the window without looking, hoping Thiago or Ten might be walking below, but no shout or growl answered the splash, and she closed her shutters against the heat.
She performed the resurrection right away, partly because it was easier to show what she did than tell, but also to clear the room of bodies so her friends could relax.
The awakening was the easy part. The magic was already done, so no tithe was required or rolling up of sleeves to reveal ugly bruised arms. Karou felt such shame for her bruises, and didn’t want Zuzana to see them, but it wasn’t called for at this stage. All she had to do was hang up the thurible Thiago had brought her, light a cone of incense, and place it on the body’s brow. Zuzana and Mik watched the whole procedure without blinking, though there was really nothing to see. The scent of sulfur, the creak of chain, these were the only signs. Karou alone could sense the soul that emerged from the vessel, lingering for just a moment before funneling itself into its new body.
Bast had, until now, looked rather like an Egyptian cat goddess: the slender human form, high breasts, feline head with exaggerated ears; Karou had maintained the feline aspect as much as she could, but had, at Thiago’s request, sacrificed much of the human. This new body was all sleek muscle, not as big as some, being made for agility. The arms and upper torso remained human for versatility with weapons—Bast was a good archer—but the haunches were leopard, for leaping and springing. And of course there were the all-important wings, sprawled open to take up much of the floor. Karou was glad this wasn’t one of her more monstrous creations, first for the sake of Zuzana and Mik, and now, unexpectedly, Bast.
Bast’s soul, she discovered, had a delicate beauty ill-suited to a soldier, and she wondered briefly what sort of life she might have had in a different world. Well, she thought as Bast opened her eyes, they would just never know.
Zuzana gave a small gasp. Mik just stared.
Bast lifted her head, eyes widening at the sight of new humans, but said nothing. She focused on her new self, testing her limbs with small gestures before rising unsteadily to find paws where hands and feet had been.
“All right?” Karou asked.
The soldier nodded and stretched her entire supple spine. The gesture was unmistakably feline; she might almost have been a cat waking on a window ledge. “It’s well done,” she said, her voice like a purr in her newly made throat. “Thank you.”
Something clenched in Karou’s chest. None of them had ever thanked her before. “You’re welcome,” she said. “Do you need help down the stairs?”
Bast shook her head again. “I don’t believe so.” She stretched again. “As I said, it’s well done.” Again, that clenching in Karou’s chest. A compliment. It was kind of ridiculous how grateful she felt for those few words. When the door settled closed behind Bast, she turned to her friends.
“Well,” said Mik, leaning back on one elbow, eyes lazy with feigned cool. “That wasn’t weird.”
“No?” Karou dropped into her chair and rubbed her face. “My weird gauge must be off. I’d have guessed it was at least a little weird.”
“Again,” said Zuzana.
“What?” Karou dropped her hands and looked at her friend.
Zuzana’s expression was vivid with amazement. “Again, again.” She bounced up and down at the edge of the bed, childlike, clapped her hands and demanded, “When can I do it? You’re going to teach me, right? Of course you are. That’s why you brought me here.”
“Teach you? I didn’t bring you here—”
But Zuzana wasn’t listening. “This is so much better than puppetry. Holy hell, Karou. You’re making living things. You’re freaking Frankenstein!”
Karou laughed and shook her head. “No, I’m not.” She’d had ample time to consider and discard that comparison. “The whole point with Frankenstein is where the soul comes from.” If a human created “life,” there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world—or heaven or hell, either, if you were concerned about that, which Karou was not. “I have the souls already.” She pointed to the pile of thuribles. “I’m just making the bodies.”
“Oh, is that all?” drawled Mik. “Ho hum.”
But Zuzana was fixed on the dozens and dozens and more dozens of thuribles. Her eyes went round, her mouth, too. “All of those?” She was across the room in a flash, pulling one from the middle of the pile and setting off a minor landslide. “Let’s make one. Please? Show me how you make the body.” She was still bouncing; Karou feared she might ricochet. “I’ll be your Igor. Please please please? Look.” She went hunchback and dragged a leg. “What is your wish, Herr Doktor?” Snap, she was herself again. “Please? Whose soul is this? How can you tell? Can you tell?”
She had a million more questions and didn’t give Karou time to answer any of them. Karou looked helplessly at Mik, who sat back and shrugged, as if to say, this one’s all yours.
“Oh my god.” Zuzana snapped motionless as an idea seized her. “Art exhibit. Can you imagine?” She set the scene with spokesmodel hands. “Balthus Gallery, a half-dozen chimaera bodies in, like, decorative sarcophagi, and at the opening everyone’s all, ooh, ahh, what’s your medium, they’re so lifelike, and we just smile all Mona Lisa and swirl our wine around in our glasses? That would be the best thing ever. But no! Even better. We bring them to life! The smoke, the smell, those lantern things, and then these sculptures lift their heads and get up. Everyone would just think it was puppetry or something, what else could it be, and they’d be trying to figure out how we did it, and they’d be all posing for pictures with monsters and not even know it.”
She kept going, and Karou laughed helplessly and tried to stop her. “That is never going to happen. You understand that, right? Never.”
Zuzana rolled her eyes. “Duh, killjoy, but wouldn’t it be awesome?”
“It would be pretty awesome,” Karou allowed. She hadn’t really thought of her work as art, which struck her now as silly, especially in the wake of Bast’s compliment. A memory rose from her Madrigal life, how when she was a child newly in Brimstone’s service she had loved to come up with ideas for new chimaera, and had even drawn pictures to show him what she had in mind. She wondered if that was what had made Issa start her—Karou-her—with drawing. Sweet Issa, how she missed her.
“But you’ll let me help you, right?” Zuzana was earnest. She handed Karou the thurible she had pulled from the pile. “Let’s do this one first. Who is it?”
Karou took it and just held it. She didn’t want to say that Thiago decided who got resurrected and when. “Zuze,” she said instead, “you can’t.”
“I can’t what?”
“You can’t help me. You can’t stay here.”
“What? Why?” Zuzana began to come out of her spell of wild glee.
“Trust me, you don’t want to stay here. I’m going to take you back as soon as you’re rested enough to travel. I have a truck—”
“But we just got here.” She looked so betrayed.
“I know.” Karou sighed. “And it’s so great to see you. I just want to keep you safe.”
“Well, what about you? Are you safe?”
“Yeah, I am,” she said, aware as she said it how unsafe she felt pretty much all the time. “Me, they need.”
“Uh-huh.” Zuzana regarded her unhappily. “About that. Why you? Why are you here, with them? How is it you are doing this?”
That was a whole other neighborhood of the truth, and Karou felt as reluctant to broach the subject of her true nature as she was to reveal her bruises. Why all the shame? She took a deep breath.
“Because,” she said, “I’m one of them.”
Karou blinked. It was Mik who had asked, and the question was so casual she thought she must have misheard. “What?”
“What kind of chimaera were you? You were resurrected, right? You have the tattoo eyes.” He gestured to her palms.
Karou turned to Zuzana and found her looking every bit as unflabbergasted as Mik. “That’s it?” she said. “I tell you I’m not human, and you’re all tra-la-la?”
“Sorry,” said Mik. “I think you neutralized our capacity for surprise. You should have started with that, and then told us you raise the dead.”
“Anyway,” added Zuzana. “It’s kind of obvious.”
“How is it obvious?” Karou demanded. She had believed she was human her whole life; she would not be persuaded that she had somehow been unconvincing at it.
“Just this aura of weird you have.” Zuzana shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Aura of weird,” Karou repeated, flat.
“Good-weird,” said Mik.
“So what kind?” Zuzana asked.
The question was so light, so offhand. Karou felt her palms go clammy. It was, after all, her tribe they were asking about, the family that had been ripped away from her so long ago. Flashes of the day besieged her, the long blood streaks on the floors where bodies had been dragged to the cave mouth and heaved over the drop. She breathed. They didn’t get it. Of course they didn’t. In their life it was not necessary to worry whether someone had been orphaned by slave raiders before you asked after their family.
Once upon a time she had had parents, a home, kin. Once upon a time, she had belonged somewhere, perfectly and without trying. “I was Kirin,” she said softly. I am Kirin, she thought, though everything Kirin had been taken from her: her tribe and her home by angels, her true flesh by the White Wolf, and now, maybe… Ziri. “I’ll show you,” she heard herself say.
She reached for her sketchbook and pencil and held them a moment, tight, wondering if she could do this. She had tried to draw Madrigal before, but found her hand deflecting her pencil into some other effort. She was afraid—of getting it wrong, of getting it right, of what she would feel at the sight of her former self. Would she feel like it was her true form, and long for it? Or would it be strange, as if she had never even been that long-ago girl? Either way, she couldn’t imagine it would make her happy.
Still, she thought it was time, and so she started to draw. A curved line. Another. Her horns took shape. Zuzana and Mik watched. Karou almost felt as if she were watching, too, rather than creating the image, and she was a little surprised by what emerged on the page. By who emerged.
“Um. You were a guy?” asked Zuzana.
Karou released her pent-up breath in a laugh. “No. Sorry. That’s not me; that’s Ziri. He’s…” It felt too brutal to say he was the last living member of her tribe, so she said only, “He’s Kirin, too.”
“Oh, phew. I don’t know why it would be freakier if you were a not-human guy in your previous body than a not-human girl, but it would.”
Mik asked, “Where is he? Is he here?”
“His team is overdue back from a mission in Eretz.”
Zuzana must have heard the anxiety in her voice. “What does that mean, overdue? Are they okay?”
“Maybe. I hope. They might just be late.”
Or they might be dead.
Day passed to night, and Karou found herself faced with the undesirable task of explaining the toilet situation to Zuzana. That is, the lack-of-toilet situation.
To her surprise, Zuzana said only, “Well, that explains the smell.”
It seemed Karou really had neutralized their capacity for surprise. She decided the best course would be to go to the river so they could bathe and take care of immediate needs with some privacy. “Privacy,” in air quotes, as it were. Thiago met them on the way out, his courtly, overly solicitous manner stilted and old-fashioned as he insisted that Ten accompany them. “Just to be sure you’re safe,” he said.
Safe, thought Karou. Right. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not going to make a break for it.”
“Of course not,” he said, and she knew that she couldn’t if she tried. She wouldn’t be able to escape the creatures she had made. Winged, powerful, and with keen animal senses, they’d be on them in no time. Good going, me, she thought as, with the she-wolf trailing, she led her friends out the gate and down the slope to the river. With the heat of the day gone, the cold water was less than inviting—plus, Ten’s hunched presence on a rock was small inducement to shed clothes—so they didn’t bathe properly, but only splashed themselves, scrubbed their faces and necks, and lay out on a rock to dry.
“Star bathing,” said Karou.
“Seriously.” Zuzana reached up as if to brush the stars with her fingertips. “I always thought pictures of night skies like this were faked or enhanced or something.”
“Like those giant moon photos,” added Mik.
Karou turned to them. “Did I tell you there are two moons in Eretz? And one of them really is that big.”
“Yeah. The chimaera—we—worship them.” She didn’t, though, not anymore. Once upon a time she had believed there was a will at work in the cosmos, but if there had been, it had abandoned her at the temple of Ellai. “Nitid is the big one. She’s the goddess of just about everything.”
“And the other one?”
“Ellai,” said Karou, remembering the temple, the hish-hish of the evangelines, the shush of the sacred stream. The blood. “She’s the goddess of assassins and secret lovers.”
“Cool,” said Zuzana. “That’s the one I’d worship.”
“Oh, really. And which are you, an assassin or a secret lover?”
“Well,” Zuzana said in a smarmy voice, “my love is no secret,” and rolled on her side to kiss Mik. “Guess that makes me an assassin. How about you?” She turned back to Karou.
Karou’s throat tightened. “Not an assassin,” she said, and instantly regretted it.
A pause came between them, and it was so full of Akiva that Karou imagined she could smell him. Stupid, she scolded herself for opening the subject; it was like she wanted to talk about him. The pause grew, and for a moment she thought Zuzana was going to let it pass, for which she was grateful. She did not want to talk about Akiva. She didn’t want to think about him. Hell, she wanted to unknow him, to go back in time to Bullfinch and turn another way on the battlefield as he bled out his life into the sand.
“I wish you’d tell me what happened,” said Zuzana.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Karou, you’re miserable. What good is having friends if they can’t help you?”
“Believe me, it’s not something you can help me with.”
Karou’s whole body was rigid. “Yeah? Okay,” she said, staring up into the stars. “Let’s see. You know how, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wakes up in the crypt and Romeo’s already dead? He thought she was dead so he killed himself right next to her?”
“Yeah. That was awesome.” A pause, followed by “Ow,” suggested elbow punctuation on the part of Mik.
Karou ignored it. “Well, imagine if she woke up and he was still alive, but…” She swallowed, waiting out a tremor in her voice. “But he had killed her whole family. And burned her city. And killed and enslaved her people.”
After a long pause, Zuzana said in a small voice, “Oh.”
“Yeah,” said Karou, and closed her eyes against the stars.
The sentry’s call came as they were walking back up the slope. A throat-deep rumble that Karou recognized as Amzallag’s, and at once she was rising into the air, squinting in the direction of the portal. At first she saw nothing. Was it more humans? No. Amzallag was pointing to the sky.
And then the stars shimmered. A figure was cutting across the night, visible first only as a canceling of stars. One figure, alone—one, only one?—and… its wingbeats were labored and uneven. It pitched, dropped, caught, pushed on, pain in every movement. And there were soldiers in the air going to meet him and help him—him, Karou saw that it was him. It was Ziri. Alive. She wanted to go, too, but there were her friends on the ground below, and anyway, she didn’t imagine Ziri could want to see her, not after the last thing she had said to him, so she dropped back down and said, “Come on. Hurry.”
Ten wanted to know what she’d seen, so she told her, and the she-wolf loped on ahead while Karou took her friends by the elbows and rushed them uphill, practically lifting them off the ground in her hurry.
“What?” Zuzana demanded. “Karou, what?”
“Just come,” she said, and by the time they got there, Nisk and Emylion were lowering Ziri to the ground before Thiago. His wings hung limp, and the Wolf knelt to support him, and Karou was there, a roaring in her ears as she searched for the source of the blood, the blood that was all over him. Where was it was coming from? Ziri was bent over, head down, arms pulled tight against his body, and… something was wrong with his hands. They were dark with blood and crooked stiff, like claws—oh god, what had happened to his hands?—and then he lifted his head, and his face…
Karou sucked a breath.
Behind her, she heard Zuzana cry out.
Ziri was as white as shock, and that was one thing Karou saw, but the rest was… it was confused, he was white but he was also gray, ash-gray—his chin, his mouth… his lips were black, clotted and crusted, and even that wasn’t the worst thing. Karou’s gaze skittered away and lost focus and she forced it back.
What had they done to him?
Of course. Of course they had done this. They had cut him as he had cut them, but he was still alive, wearing that terrible smile. He was… carved. Bleeding, white with shock and blood loss. His eyes searched for her and found her and focused with a snap—a whiptail snap when their eyes met—and her own jumped wider and he was telling her things with his look, but she couldn’t understand, the words were missing, there was only the urgency.
Then he pitched forward and Thiago caught him, but not before one of his long horns hit the flagstone, snapping off the tip with a crack like a gunshot. Ten lunged forward and took his other arm, and he hung limp between the two as they lifted him and carried him away. Karou grabbed the piece of horn—she didn’t know why—and went in quick short steps in their wake, gesturing for Zuzana and Mik to follow.
“Wait,” she said, when Thiago and Ten came to the door of the keep where the soldiers slept. “Take him to my room. I think… I think I might be able to heal him.”
Thiago gave a nod and changed direction. Ten followed his lead, and Karou, behind them, felt a sudden prickling at the back of her neck and turned. She scanned the path behind her. It was strewn with detritus; the wall beyond was high and the stars were bright, but there was nothing else.
She turned back and hurried up the path.
Akiva fell to his knees. He hadn’t breathed since he saw her. He gasped now and his glamour failed, and if Karou had still been looking back she would have seen the shape of him cut in and out of the air, wings limned in fire and sparks like bursting embers. He was not twenty feet from her.
She was alive.
Soon, everything else would come rushing at him. Like the ground to a falling man, it would come rushing up and hit him all at once—the place, the company, her words; one implication would lead to another and shatter him—but around that intake of breath the world hung silent and bright, so bright, and Akiva knew only this one thing, and held on to it and wanted to live inside of it and stay there forever.
Karou was alive.
Once upon a time, a girl lived in a sandcastle,
making monsters to send through a hole in the sky.
“Captain, we’ve found… something. Sir.”
Jael favored the scout with the baleful look his soldiers knew well. The Captain of the Dominion was not hot-tempered like his brother. His anger was a cool, intentional thing, but just as brutal—arguably more so, as he had full control when he committed his worst acts, and was more able to enjoy himself. “Am I to understand,” he said softly, “that by ‘something’ you don’t mean the rebel?”
“No, sir, not him.” The scout stared past Jael’s head at the silk wall of the pavilion. It was night and the breeze was up. The folds of the tent flapped in a light breeze, and the glow of lanterns painted its ripples crimson and fire, ever-shifting, mesmerizing. Jael knew; he’d been staring at it himself until his steward showed the scout in, but he didn’t imagine the scout was mesmerized. He imagined he just didn’t like to look at his captain’s face.
“Well, what then?” he asked, impatient. It was the rebel he wanted—the Kirin who, unbelievably, had slipped through his fingers—and he could little imagine that anything else would hold his attention at the moment.
He was wrong.
“We’re not sure what it is, sir,” said the scout. He sounded bewildered. He looked repulsed. Jael was used to that look; he got it enough. They tried to hide it, but there was always a tell: a tic, a sliding away of the eyes, a subtle pursing of the lips. Sometimes it irritated him enough that he gave them something to take their mind off their revulsion. Like agony, for example. But if Jael were to punish everyone who was disgusted by his face, he would be kept very busy indeed. And anyway, this particular revulsion wasn’t for him. When he realized that, his curiosity stirred.
“We found… it… hiding in the ruins of Arch Carnival. It had a fire.”
“It?” prompted Jael. “A beast?”
“No, sir. It’s like no beast I’ve seen. It says… It says it’s a seraph.”
Jael let out a spray of laughter. “And you can’t tell? What manner of fools surround me that can’t recognize our own kind?”
The scout looked acutely uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, sir. At first I thought it was impossible, but there’s something about the thing. If what it says is true—”
“Bring it here,” said Jael.
And they did.
He heard it before he saw it. It spoke the tongue of seraphim and it was moaning. “Brothers, cousins,” it implored, “be gentle with this poor broken thing, take pity!”
Jael’s steward held the flap of the tent open and beheld the creature first. The fellow was stoic from years in his service and all that that entailed, so when Jael saw him blanch, he took notice.