“Who are you?” he asked, and she almost didn’t recognize the language he spoke as Chimaera, it sounded so soft on his tongue.
Who was she? “Don’t you usually find that out before you try to kill someone?”
At her back, a renewed pressure at the door. If it wasn’t Issa, she was finished.
The angel came a step closer, and Karou moved aside so the door burst open.
“Karou!” Issa’s voice, sharp.
And she spun and leapt through the portal, pulling it shut behind her.
Akiva lunged after her and yanked it back open, only to come face-to-face with a hollering woman who blanched and dropped her broom at his feet.
The girl was already gone.
He stood there a moment, all but unaware of the madness around him. His thoughts were spinning. The girl would warn Brimstone. He should have stopped her, could easily have killed her. Instead he’d struck slowly, giving her time to spin clear, dance free. Why?
It was simple. He’d wanted to look at her.
And what had he seen, or thought he’d seen? Some glimpse of a past that could never come again—the phantom of the girl who had taught him mercy, long ago, only to have her own fate undo all her gentle teaching? He’d thought every spark of mercy was dead in him now, but he hadn’t been able to kill the girl. And then, the unexpected: the hamsas.
A human marked with the devil’s eyes! Why?
There was only one possible answer, as plain as it was disturbing.
That she was not, in fact, human.
THE OTHER DOOR
In the vestibule, Karou fell to her knees. Breathing hard, she leaned into the coil of Issa’s serpent body.
“Karou!” Issa gathered her into an embrace that left them both sticky with blood. “What happened? Who did this to you?”
“You didn’t see him?” Karou was dazed.
Issa’s reaction was profound. She reared back like a serpent ready to strike and hissed, “Angel?”All her snakes—in her hair, around her waist and shoulders—writhed along with her, hissing. Karou cried out, her wounds wrenched by the violent motion.
“Oh, my dear, my sweet girl. Forgive me.” Issa softened again, cradling Karou like a child. “What do you mean, angel? Surely not—”
Karou blinked up at her. Shadows were closing in. “Why did he want to kill me?”
“Darling, darling,” Issa fretted. She pulled away Karou’s sword-slashed coat and scarf to see her wounds, but the blood was heavy and still flowing, and the light in the vestibule was dim. “So much blood!”
Karou felt as if the walls were swinging in a slow arc around her. She was waiting for the inner door to unseal, but it didn’t. “Can’t we go in?” Her voice was faint. “I want Brimstone.” She remembered how he’d picked her up and held her when she came in bleeding from St. Petersburg. How she’d felt perfect trust and calm, knowing he would fix her. And he had, and would again….
Issa bunched up Karou’s blood-soaked scarf and tried to stanch her wounds. “He’s not here right now, sweet girl.”
“Where is he?”
“He… he can’t be disturbed.”
Karou whimpered. She wanted Brimstone. Needed him. She said, “Disturb him,” and then she was losing herself, drifting.
Issa’s voice, far away.
And then nothing.
By and by, flickering images like badly spliced film: Issa’s eyes and Yasri’s, close, anxious. Soft hands, cool water. Dreams: Izîl and the thing on his back, its bloated face the brown-purple of bruised fruit, and the angel staring straight at Karou like he could ignite her with his eyes.
Issa’s voice, hushed and secretive. “What can it mean, that they are in the human world?”
Yasri. “They must have found a way back in. It took them long enough, for all their high opinion of themselves.”
This was not part of the dream. Karou had come back into consciousness like swimming to a distant shore—effortfully—and she lay silent, listening. She was on her childhood cot in the back of the shop; she knew that without opening her eyes. Her wounds stung, and the smell of healing salve was pungent in the air. The two chimaera stood at the end of the aisle of bookcases, whispering.
“But why attack Karou?” Issa hissed.
Yasri. “You don’t think…? They couldn’t know about her.”
Issa. “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“No, no, of course not.” Yasri sighed. “Oh, I wish Brimstone would come back. Do you think we should go and get him?”
“You know he can’t be interrupted. But it shouldn’t be long now.”
After a fraught pause, Issa ventured, “He’ll be very angry.”
“Yes,” agreed Yasri, a tremor of fear in her voice. “Oh, yes.”
Karou felt the two chimaera looking at her and tried her best to appear unconscious. It wasn’t hard. She felt sluggish, and pain blossomed across her chest, arm, and collarbone. Slash wounds to keep her bullet scars company. She was thirsty, and knew she had only to let out a murmur for Yasri to scurry toward her with water and a soothing hand, but she kept silent. There was too much to think about.
Yasri had said, “They couldn’t know about her.”
It was maddening, this secrecy. She wanted to sit up and scream, “Who am I?” but she didn’t. She feigned sleep, because there was something else nudging at her thoughts.
Brimstone wasn’t here.
He was always here. She had never before been granted admittance to the shop in his absence, and only the extraordinary circumstance of her nearly dying accounted for this breach.
Karou waited until she heard Yasri and Issa moving away, peering through her lashes to be certain they had gone. She knew that as soon as she shifted her weight to stand the springs of the cot would creak and give her away, so she reached for the strand of scuppies around her wrist.
Yet another use for nearly useless wishes: to silence creaking bedsprings.
She stood and steadied herself, head spinning, wounds burning, without making a sound. Yasri and Issa had taken her boots off, along with her coat and sweater, so she was wearing only bandages and a blood-streaked camisole and jeans. She went barefoot around a pair of cabinets and under hanging strings of camel and giraffe teeth, then paused, listened, and peered out into the shop.
Brimstone’s desk was dark, and so was Twiga’s, no lanterns lit for the hummingbird-moths to flutter to. Issa and Yasri were in the kitchen, out of sight, and the whole shop was cast in gloom, which made the other door stand out all the more, a crack of light giving away its edge.
For the first time in Karou’s life, it was ajar.
Heart pounding, she approached it. She paused for a beat with her hand on the knob, then eased the door open a fraction and peered through it.
Akiva found Izîl cowering behind a garbage pile in the Jemaa el-Fna, his creature still clinging to his back. A half circle of frightened humans crowded in on them, menacing, but when Akiva dropped from the sky in an explosion of sparks, they fled in all directions, squealing like slapped pigs.
The creature reached out to Akiva. “My brother,” it crooned. “I knew you’d come back for me.”
Akiva’s jaw clenched. He forced himself to look at the thing. Bloated as its face was, its features held an echo of long-ago beauty: almond eyes, a fine, high-bridged nose, and sensuous lips that were perverse on such a wretched face. But the key to its true nature was at its back. From its shoulder blades protruded the splintered remnants of wing joints.
Incredibly, this thing was a seraph. It could only be one of the Fallen.
Akiva knew the story as legend and had never wondered whether it was true, not until this moment, faced with the proof of it. That there were seraphim, exiled in another age for treason and collaborating with the enemy, cast into the human world forever. Well, here was one of them, and indeed, he had fallen far from what he once had been. Time had curved his spine, and his flesh, pulled taut, seemed to snag on every ridge of vertebrae. His legs dangled uselessly behind him—that was not the work of time, but of violence. They had been pulverized with cruel purpose, that he should never walk again. As if it were not punishment enough that his wings were torn away—not even cut, but torn—his legs were destroyed, too, leaving him a crawling thing on the surface of an alien world.
A thousand years he had lived like this, and he was beside himself with joy to see Akiva.
Izîl was not so happy. He cowered against the stinking mound of refuse, more afraid of Akiva than he had been of the mob. While Razgut gibbered, “My brother, my brother,” in an ecstatic chant, the old man shook with a palsy and tried to back away, but there was nowhere for him to go.
Akiva loomed over him, the brilliance of his unglamoured wings lighting the scene like daylight.
Razgut reached longingly toward Akiva. “My sentence is up, and you’ve come to bring me back. That’s it, isn’t it, my brother? You’re going to take me home and make me whole again, so I can walk. So I can fly—”
“This has nothing to do with you,” said Akiva.
“What… what do you want?” Izîl choked out in the language of the seraphim, which he had learned from Razgut.
“The girl,” Akiva said. “I want you to tell me about the girl.”
On the far side of the other door, Karou discovered a passage of dull black stone. Peering out, she could see that the corridor went on for some ten feet before turning out of sight. Just before it did, there was a window—a narrow, barred niche at the wrong angle for her to see through from where she stood. White light washed in, painting rectangles across the floor. Moonlight, Karou thought, and she wondered what landscape she would see if she crept over and looked out. Where was this place? Like the shop’s front door, did this rear one open onto myriad cities, or was this something else altogether, some depth of Brimstone’s Elsewhere that she couldn’t begin to fathom? A few steps and she might know that, if nothing else. But did she dare?
She listened hard. There were sounds but they seemed far away, echoing calls in the night. The passage itself was silent.
So she did it. She prowled out. Quick silent steps, high on the balls of her bare feet, and she was over to the window. Peering through its heavy iron bars. Seeing what was there.
Her facial muscles, tense with anxiety, abruptly slackened with the onset of total awe, and her jaw actually dropped. It was a second before she realized it and snapped it closed, wincing when the sharp report of her teeth broke the silence. She leaned forward, taking in the scene before and below her.
Wherever this was, she was sure of one thing: It was not her world.
In the sky were two moons. That was the first thing. Two moons. Neither was full. One was a radiant half disc high overhead, the other a pale crescent just rising to clear a crust of mountain. As for the landscape they illuminated, she saw she was in a vast fortress. Huge, bermed defensive walls met at hexagonal bastions; a generous town was laid out in the center of it all, and crenellated towers—in one of which, Karou gauged by her high vantage point, she must be—reared above it all, with the silhouettes of guards pacing at their peaks. But for the moons, it might have been a fortified town of old Europe.
It was the bars that made it something else.
Extraordinarily, the city was banded over by iron bars. She’d never seen anything like it. They arched over the whole of the place from one expanse of rammed-earth walls to the next, beetle-black and ugly, enclosing even the towers. A quick study gave away no gaps; the bars were spaced so closely that no body could possibly squeeze between them. The streets and plazas of the town were entirely screened from above as if they existed within a cage, and moonlight cast rickrack shadows over everything.
What was it about? Were the bars meant to keep something in or out?
And then Karou saw a winged figure sweeping down out of the sky and she flinched, thinking she had her answer. An angel, a seraph—that was her first thought, her heart starting to hammer and her wounds to throb. But it wasn’t. It passed overhead and out of sight, and she clearly saw that its form was animal—some sort of winged deer. A chimaera? She had always supposed there must be more, though she had only ever seen her four, who would never say if there were others.
It hit her now that this whole city must be inhabited by chimaera, and that beyond its walls lay an entire world, a world with two moons, also inhabited by chimaera, and she had to grip the bars to hold herself upright as the universe seemed to tremble and grow larger around her.
There was another world.
Of all the theories she’d dreamed up about the other door, she’d never imagined this: a world apart, complete with its own mountains, continents, moons. She was already light-headed with blood loss, and the revelation made her reel so she had to clutch at the window bars.
It was then that she heard voices. Near. And also familiar. She had listened to their murmurs all her life as their incongruous heads bent together in discussions of teeth. It was Brimstone and Twiga, and they were coming around the corner.
“Ondine has brought Thiago,” Twiga was saying.
“The fool,” Brimstone breathed. “Does he think the armies can afford the loss of him at a time like this? How many times must I tell him, a general need not fight at the front?”
“It is because of you that he knows no fear,” said Twiga, to which Brimstone only snorted, and that snort sounded dangerously close.