Akiva cast a cold eye over the quivering Razgut, who was whispering his unceasing chant of “Take me home, please, brother, take me home. I have repented, I have been punished enough, take me home….”
Akiva said, “I don’t need to ask him anything.”
“Ah, no? I see. A man once said, ‘All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.’ Mark Twain, you know. He had a fine mustache. Men of wisdom so often do.”
Something in the old man was shifting as Akiva watched. He saw him lift up his head to peer out over the stone lip that was keeping him from sliding to his death. His madness seemed to have abated, if indeed it hadn’t all been an act to begin with. He was gathering up the tatters of his courage, which, under the circumstances, was not unimpressive. He was also stalling.
“Make this easy, old man,” said Akiva. “I didn’t come here to kill humans.”
“Why did you come? Even the chimaera don’t trespass here. This world is no place for monsters—”
“Monsters? Well, then. I am not a monster.”
“No? Razgut doesn’t think he is, either. Do you, monster of mine?”
He asked it almost fondly, and Razgut cooed, “Not a monster. A seraph, a being of smokeless fire, yes, forged in another age, in another world.” He was looking hungrily at Akiva. “I’m like you, brother. I’m just like you.”
Akiva did not enjoy the comparison. He said, “I’m nothing like you, cripple,” in an acid tone that made Razgut flinch.
Izîl reached up to pat the arm that was like a vise around his own neck. “There, there,” he said, his voice ringing hollow of compassion. “He can’t see it. It is a condition of monsters that they do not perceive themselves as such. The dragon, you know, hunkered in the village devouring maidens, heard the townsfolk cry ‘Monster!’ and looked behind him.”
“I know who the monsters are.” Akiva’s tiger eyes darkened. How well he knew. The chimaera had reduced the meaning of life to war. They came in a thousand bestial forms, and no matter how many of them you killed, more always came, and more.
Izîl replied, “A man once said, ‘Battle not with monsters lest you become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.’ Nietzsche, you know. Exceptional mustache.”
“Just tell me—” Akiva began, but Izîl cut him off.
“Have you ever asked yourself, do monsters make war, or does war make monsters? I’ve seen things, angel. There are guerrilla armies that make little boys kill their own families. Such acts rip out the soul and make space for beasts to grow inside. Armies need beasts, don’t they? Pet beasts, to do their terrible work! And the worst is, it’s almost impossible to retrieve a soul that has been ripped away. Almost.” He gave Akiva a keen look. “But it can be done, if ever… if ever you decide to go looking for yours.”
Fury flashed through Akiva. Sparks rained from his wings, to be borne by breezes over the rooftops of Marrakesh. “Why would I do that? Where I come from, old man, a soul’s as useless as teeth to the dead.”
“Spoken, I think, by one who still remembers what it was like to have one.”
Akiva did remember. His memories were knives, and he was not pleased to have them turned against him. “You should worry about your own soul, not mine.”
“My soul is clean. I’ve never killed anyone. But you, oh you. Look at your hands.”
Akiva didn’t take the bait, but he did curl his fingers reflexively into fists. The bars were etched along the tops of his fingers: Each represented an enemy slain, and his hands bore a terrible tally.
“How many?” Izîl asked. “Do you even know, or have you lost count?”
Gone entirely was the quivering madman Akiva had hauled up off the cobbles of the plaza. Izîl was sitting up now, or as near as he could come to it, encumbered as he was by Razgut, who looked back and forth in distress between his human mule and the angel he hoped had come to save him.
In fact, Akiva knew the precise number of kills recorded on his hands. “What about you?” he threw back at Izîl. “How many teeth, over the years? I don’t suppose you kept count.”
“Teeth? Ah, but I only took teeth from the dead!”
“And you sold them to Brimstone. You know what that makes you? A collaborator.”
“Collaborator? They’re just teeth. He makes necklaces, I saw him. Just teeth on strings!”
“You think he’s making necklaces? Fool. You’ve had everything to do with our war, but you were too stupid to see it. You tell me that battling with monsters has made me a monster? Doing business with devils, what has that made you?”
Izîl stared at him, mouth hanging open, then stated in a rush of sudden understanding, “You know. You know what he does with the teeth.”
Bitterly, Akiva breathed, “Yes, I know.”
“Shut up!” Akiva commanded as the final tether of his patience snapped. “Tell me where to find her. Your life is nothing to me. Do you understand?” He heard the brutality in his own voice and saw himself as if from without, looming over these poor, broken creatures. What would Madrigal think if she could see him now? But she couldn’t, could she? And that was the point.
Madrigal was dead.
The old man was right. He was a monster, but if he was, it was because of the enemy. Not just a lifetime at war—that hadn’t managed to make Akiva what he was. It was one act that had done this, one unspeakable act that he could never forget or forgive, and for which, in vengeance, he had vowed to destroy a kingdom. He hissed. “Do you think I can’t make you talk?”
To which Izîl replied with a smile, “No, angel. I don’t think you can.” And then he pitched himself off the minaret, carrying Razgut with him, to fall two hundred feet and shatter against the roof tiles below.
NOT WHO, BUT WHAT
The cathedral conducted Karou’s scream and splintered it into a symphony of screams that echoed and collided so the vast vaulted space was alive with her voice. And then it wasn’t. The chimaera silenced her with a backhand and she skidded off the stone slab, knocking down the metal crook and thurible, which sent up a clangor. He sprang down after her, and she thought he would tear out her throat with his teeth, his face was so close to hers, but then… he was dragged back as if plucked, and thrust away.
And Brimstone was there.
Karou had never been so happy to see him. “Brimstone…” she choked out, and then stopped. Her relief faltered. His crocodile pupils closed to black slashes, as they always did when he was angry, but if Karou thought she had seen him angry before, this was to be an education in rage.
The moment froze as he mastered his shock at seeing her there, while for Karou, an eternity revolved in the space between heartbeats.
“Karou?” He snarled his incredulity, lips peeling back in a terrible grimace. His breath, fast, hissed through his teeth as he reached for her, claws flexed.
Behind him, the white-haired wolf chimaera demanded, “Who is that?”
Brimstone growled. “That is no one.”
Karou thought maybe she should run.
A lunge, and Brimstone caught her arm right over the blood-tinged bandage of her last angel slash, and crushed it in his grip. Light trembled behind Karou’s eyelids and she gasped. He grabbed her other arm and picked her up, raising her so that her face was just inches from his own. Her bare feet paddled for purchase and found none. Her arms were pinned, his claws piercing her skin. She couldn’t move. She could only stare back into his eyes, which had never in her life seemed so alien, so animal, as they did now.
“Give her to me,” said the man.
Brimstone said, “You need rest, Thiago. You should still be sleeping. I’ll take care of her.”
“Take care of her? How?” Thiago demanded.
“She won’t trouble us again.”
Peripherally, Karou saw the familiar shape of Twiga with his long, hunched neck on sloping shoulders, and she turned to him, but the look on his face was worse than Brimstone’s, because it was both appalled and afraid, as if he were about to witness something that he would rather not see. Karou started to panic.
“Wait,” she gasped, writhing in Brimstone’s grasp. “Wait, wait—”
But he was already moving, carrying her to the stairs, taking them fast, in leaps and lunges. He wasn’t careful with her, and she felt what it must be like for a doll in a toddler’s hands, whipped around corners and drubbed against walls, dropped and tossed like an inanimate thing. Sooner than she would have thought possible—or maybe she lost consciousness for a time—they were back at the shop door, and he hurled her through it. She didn’t land on her feet but went sprawling, catching a chair with her cheek so that a firework detonated behind her eyes.
Brimstone slammed the door behind him and loomed over her. “What were you thinking?” he thundered. “You could not have done worse. Foolish child! And you!” He spun on Yasri and Issa, who had rushed out of the kitchen and were gaping, horrified. They flinched. “If we were going to keep her here, we said, there would be rules. Inviolable rules. Did we not all agree?”
Issa attempted an answer. “Yes, but—”
But Brimstone had rounded on Karou again and grabbed her up off the floor. “Did he see your hands?” he demanded. She had never heard his voice raised to this pitch. It was like stone grating against stone. She felt it in her skull. He was gripping her arms so hard. A whiteness washed across her vision, and she feared she was going to faint.
“Did he?” he repeated, louder.
She knew that no was the right answer, but she couldn’t lie. She gasped, “Yes. Yes!”
He gave a kind of howl that chilled her worse than anything had during this whole terrible night. “Do you know what you’ve done?”
Karou did not know.
“Brimstone!” Yasri squawked. “Brimstone, she’s injured!” The parrot-woman’s arms were flapping like wings. She tried to pry the Wishmonger’s hands from Karou’s wound, but he shook her off.
He dragged Karou to the front door and wrenched it open, shoving her ahead of him into the vestibule.
“Wait!” cried Issa. “You can’t put her out like that—”
But he wouldn’t hear it. “Get out, now!” he snarled at Karou. “Get away!” He wrenched open the outer door of the vestibule—another measure of his rage; the doors were never opened together, never, it was a fail-safe against intrusion—and the last thing she saw was his face contorted with fury before he shoved her hard and slammed the door.
Released so suddenly, she took three or four reeling steps backward before tripping off the curb and collapsing, and there she sat, stunned, barefoot, and bleeding, light-headed and gasping, in a gutter stream of melting snow. She was torn between relief that he’d let her go—for a moment she’d feared far worse than this—and disbelief that he had thrown her out injured and barely dressed into the cold.
Dazed and dizzy, she hardly knew what to do. Shivering was setting in. It was frigid out, and she was soaked with gutter slush now in addition to blood. She picked herself up and stood there, uncertain. Her flat was a ten-minute walk. Already her feet burned with the cold. She stared at the door—unsurprised now to see a black handprint on its surface—and thought surely it must open. At the very least Issa would bring her coat and shoes.
But the door didn’t and didn’t and still didn’t open.
A car rumbled past at the end of the block, and here and there laughter and arguments drifted out windows, but no one was near. Karou’s teeth chattered. She clutched her arms around herself, for all the good it did, and stayed fixed on the door, unable to believe that Brimstone would just leave her out here. Cold, awful moments ticked by and finally, outraged tears springing to her eyes, Karou turned away, hugging herself, and began to limp on numb feet in the direction of her flat. She got a few wide-eyed looks along the way, and some offers of help, which she ignored, and it wasn’t until she reached her door, shivering convulsively, and reached for a coat pocket that wasn’t there that she realized she didn’t have her keys. No coat, no keys, and no shings, either, with which she would have been able to wish open the door.
“Damn damn damn,” Karou cursed, tears icy on her cheeks. All she had were the scuppies around her wrist. She took one between her fingers and wished, but nothing happened. Unlocking doors exceeded a scuppy’s small power.
She was about to buzz a neighbor awake when she sensed, behind her, a furtive movement.
She was beyond thinking. A hand came down on her shoulder, and she was all nerve and impulse. She seized the hand and threw her weight forward. The figure behind her was lifted—Karou registered a second too late the voice, concerned, saying, “Jesus, Roo, are you okay?”—to catapult over her shoulder and through the plate glass of the door.
The glass shattered as Kaz sailed through it and hit the ground with an explosive grunt. Karou stood still, the awareness catching up to her that he hadn’t even been trying to scare her this time, and now he was lying across the threshold in a litter of glass. She thought she should feel something—regret?—but she felt nothing at all.
The problem of the locked door, at least, was solved.
“Are you hurt?” she asked him, flat.
He just blinked, stunned, and she skimmed the scene with a cursory glance. No blood. The glass had broken into rectangular chunks. He was fine. She stepped over him and picked her way to the elevator. Throwing Kaz had cost her what little strength she had left, and she doubted she could walk up the six flights of stairs. The elevator doors opened and she got in, turning to face Kaz, who still hadn’t moved. He was staring after her.
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