Once upon a time, an angel and a devil held a wishbone between them.
And its snap split the world in two.
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 <
Subject: Miss Radio Silence
To: Karou <
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 <
To: Karou <
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 <
Subject: Please no
To: Karou <
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 brushstrokes. 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 <
Subject: Not dead yet
To: Zuzana <
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?”
Excerpted from Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor Copyright © 2012 by Laini Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
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