“What are you?” he asked.
Not who, but what.
She didn’t answer. The elevator doors closed and she was alone with her reflection, in which she saw what Kaz had seen. She was wearing nothing but soaked jeans and a filmy white camisole gone see-through where it clung to her skin. Her hair clumped in blue coils around her neck, like Issa’s serpents, and rust-streaked bandages hung loose from her shoulders. Against the blood, her skin looked translucent, almost blue, and she was curled over, clutching herself and shaking like some kind of junkie. All of that was bad enough, but it was her face that caught her. Her cheek was swelling from when Brimstone had flung her into the chair, and her head was set in a hard-jawed downward tilt so that her eyes were hooded in shadow. She looked like someone you’d go a long way to avoid walking past, she thought. She looked… not entirely human.
The elevator doors pinged open and she dragged herself down the hall. She had to climb out a window to get onto her balcony, and break a pane out of her balcony door to get into her apartment, and she managed it before her strength gave out or her shivering incapacitated her, and finally she was inside, stripping off her wet clothes. She dragged herself onto her bed, tugged a quilt around her, curled up in a ball, and sobbed.
Who are you? she asked herself, remembering the angel’s question, and the wolf’s. But it was Kaz’s that reverberated through her, an echo that wouldn’t die.
What are you?
Karou spent the weekend alone in her apartment, feverish, bruised, sliced, slashed, and miserable. Rising from bed on Saturday was torture. Her muscles seemed to have been wound with winches, tight enough to snap. Everything hurt. Everything. It was hard to pick out one pain from the next, and she looked like a brochure on domestic violence, her cheek achieving coconut proportions and blooming blue to rival her hair.
She considered calling Zuzana for help but abandoned the idea when she realized she didn’t have her phone. It was with her coat and shoes, bag, wallet, keys, and sketchbook, back at the shop. She could have e-mailed, but in the time it took to boot up her laptop she imagined how Zuzana would react to the sight of her, and she knew her friend wouldn’t let things pass this time with evasions. Karou would have to tell her something. She was too tired to come up with a lie, so she ended up feeding herself Tylenol and tea and passing the weekend in a daze of chills and sweats, pain and nightmares.
She woke often to imagined sounds and looked to her windows, hoping as she had never hoped to see Kishmish with a note, but he didn’t come, and the weekend went by with no one checking on her—not Kaz, whom she’d put through plate glass, and not Zuzana, whom she’d conditioned to accept her absences with wary silence. She had never felt so alone.
Monday came, and she still didn’t leave the apartment. Erratically she kept up with the tea and Tylenol. Sleep was a carousel of nightmares, the same creatures coming around again and again—the angel, the thing on Izîl’s back, the wolf chimaera, Brimstone in fury—and when she opened her eyes the light would have changed, but nothing else did except perhaps that her misery deepened.
It was dark when the buzzer rang. And rang. And rang. She pulled herself over to the console by the door and croaked, “Hello?”
“Karou?” It was Zuzana. “Karou, what the hell? Buzz me up, truant.”
Karou was so glad to hear her friend’s voice, so glad someone had come to check on her, that she burst into tears. When Zuzana came through the door she found Karou sitting on the edge of her bed, tears streaming down her battered face. She came to a halt, all five-almost-feet atop cartoonish platform boots, and said, “Oh. Oh. God. Karou.” She was across the tiny room in a streak. Her hands were cool from the wintry air, and her voice was soft, and Karou put her head on her friend’s shoulder and cried for long minutes without stopping.
Things got better after that.
Zuzana got her settled without asking questions, then went out for supplies: soup; bandages; a box of butterfly closures for sealing the split flesh along Karou’s collarbone, arm, and shoulder, where the angel’s sword had cut her.
“These are going to be some serious scars,” said Zuzana, bent over her doctoring with the same concentration she applied to building marionettes. “When did this happen? You should have gone to the hospital right away.”
“I did,” said Karou, thinking of Yasri’s balm. “Sort of.”
“And what—? Are these claw marks?” Both of Karou’s upper arms were livid purple, darkest where Brimstone’s fingers had sunk in, and pierced with scabbed puncture marks.
“Um,” said Karou.
Zuzana regarded her in silence, then got up and heated the soup she’d brought. She sat on a chair beside the bed, and when Karou finished eating, she kicked her feet—bootless now—up on the mattress and folded her hands in her lap. “Okay,” Zuzana said. “I’m ready.”
“For a really good story that I hope will be the truth.”
The truth. Karou attempted a subject change—“First tell me what happened Saturday with violin boy”—while she rolled the idea of truth around in her mind.
Zuzana snorted. “I don’t think so. Well, his name is Mik, but that’s all you’re getting until you do some talking.”
“His name! You got his name!” This morsel of normal life made Karou almost absurdly happy.
“Karou, I’m serious.” She was serious. Her dark Slavic eyes took on a no-nonsense intensity that Karou had told her in the past would stand her in good stead as an interrogator with the secret police. “Tell me what the hell happened to you.”
The thing was, Karou told the truth all the time, but she told it with that sardonic smile, as if she were being outrageous. Did she even have a facial expression that went with telling the truth in earnest? And what would she say? This wasn’t a story she could ease into gently, like dipping a toe in cold water. She had to just jump.
“An angel tried to kill me,” she said.
A beat, and then, “Uh-huh.”
“No, really.” Karou was conscious—too conscious—of her expression. She felt as if she were auditioning for the role of “truth teller” and trying way too hard.
“Did Jackass do this?”
Karou laughed, too quick and too hard, then winced and held her swollen cheek. The idea of Kaz hurting her was just silly. Well, hurting her physically, though now even the idea that he could have hurt her heart seemed silly, with everything else she had to worry about. “No. It wasn’t Kaz. The cuts were made by a sword, when an angel tried to kill me Friday night. In Morocco. God, it was probably on the news. Then there was this wolf guy who I thought was dead but was most definitely not. The rest was Brimstone. And, oh. Um, everything in my sketchbooks is true.” She held her wrists out, lined up so her tattoos spelled out true story. “See? It’s a hint.”
Zuzana was not amused. “Jesus, Karou—”
Karou plunged ahead. The truth, she found, felt smooth, like a skipping stone in the palm of your hand. “And my hair? I don’t dye it. I wished it this color. And I speak twenty-six languages, and those were mostly wishes, too. Didn’t you ever think it was weird that I speak Czech? I mean, who speaks Czech but Czechs? Brimstone gave it to me for my fifteenth birthday, right before I came here. Oh, and remember the malaria? I got it in Papua New Guinea, and it sucked. And I’ve been shot, too, and I think I killed the bastard, and I’m not sorry, and for some reason an angel tried to kill me, and he was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen and also the scariest, though that wolf guy was pretty freaking scary, too, and last night I pissed off Brimstone really bad and he threw me out, and when I got back here Kaz was waiting and I threw him through glass, which worked out great actually because I didn’t have my key.” Pause. “So I don’t think he’ll try scaring me again, which is about the only good thing to come of all this.”
Zuzana said nothing. She scraped back her chair and pulled on her boots, setting each foot down with a clomp, and she surely would have left then—probably forever—if not for the thunk that rattled the glass panes of the balcony door.
Karou gave a strangled cry and jumped out of bed, mindless of her many hurts. She lunged for the door. It was Kishmish.
It was Kishmish, and he was on fire.
He died in her hands. She smothered the flames and cradled him, and he was raw and charred, the hummingbird fury of his heartbeat giving way to long pauses as she hunched over him saying, “No no no no no—” His forked tongue worked in and out of his beak, and his frantic chirrups tapered away with his heartbeat. “No no no. Kishmish, no—” And then he died. Karou stayed hunched there, on her balcony, holding him. Her string of nos faded to whispers, but she didn’t stop saying them until Zuzana spoke.
Her voice was weak. “Karou?”
Karou looked up.
“Is that…?” Zuzana gestured a jittery hand at Kishmish’s lifeless form. She looked perplexed. “That’s… um. That looks like—”
Karou didn’t help her out. She looked back down at Kishmish and tried to make sense of this sudden intrusion of death. He flew here on fire, she thought. He came to me.
She saw that something was tied to his foot: a piece of Brimstone’s thick notepaper, charred, which crumbled to ashes when she touched it, and… something else. Her fingers shook as she untied it, and then she held the object in her palm. Her heartbeat jumped with a child’s ingrained fear: She wasn’t supposed to touch it.
It was Brimstone’s wishbone.
Kishmish had brought it to her. On fire he had brought it.
Out in the city a siren wailed, and it hurried a connection her mind had been slow to make. Burning. Black handprint. The portal. She struggled to her feet and rushed inside, pulled on a jacket and boots. Zuzana was there, asking, “What is it, Karou? What is that? What—?” but Karou barely heard her.
She went out the door and down the stairs, Kishmish still cradled in her arm, the wishbone tucked in her palm. Zuzana followed her into the street and all the way to Josefov, to the service door that had been Brimstone’s Prague portal.
It was now a blue-white inferno impervious to the jets of the fire hoses.
At the same moment, though Karou didn’t know it, across the world, at every door emblazoned with the black handprint, fires raged. They couldn’t be doused, and yet they didn’t spread. Flame ate away the doors and the magic that clung to them and then swallowed itself, leaving charred holes in dozens of buildings. Metal doors melted, so hot was the fire, and witnesses who stared at the flames saw, in the nimbus of their dazzled retinas, the silhouettes of wings.
Karou saw them and understood. The way to Elsewhere had been severed, and she was cast adrift.
Once upon a time,
a little girl was raised by monsters.
But angels burned the doorways to their world, and she was all alone.
HOPE MAKES ITS OWN MAGIC
Once, when Karou was a little girl, she used a handful of scuppies to flatten the wrinkles out of a drawing that Yasri had sat on. Wrinkle by wrinkle, wish by wish—a painstaking procedure accomplished with total concentration, tongue peeking out at the corner of her lips.
“There!” She held it up, proud.
Brimstone made a sound that put her in mind of a disappointed bear.
“What?” she demanded, eight years old, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and skinny as the shadow of a sapling. “It’s a good drawing. It deserved to be rescued.”
It was a good drawing. It was a rendering of herself as a chimaera, with bat wings and a fox’s tail.
Issa clapped with delight. “Oh, you’d look darling with a fox tail. Brimstone, can’t she have a tail, just for today?”
Karou would rather have had the wings, but neither was to be. The Wishmonger, looking put-upon, breathed a weary no.
Issa didn’t beg. She just shrugged, kissed Karou on the forehead, and tacked up the drawing in a place of honor. But Karou was taken with the idea, so she asked, “Why not? It would only take a lucknow.”
“Only?” he echoed. “And what do you know of the value of wishes?”
She recited the scale in a single breath. “Scuppy shing lucknow gavriel bruxis!”
But that was not, apparently, what he meant. More disappointed bear sounds, like growls routed through the nose, and he said, “Wishes are not for foolery, child.”
“Well, what do you use them for?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I do not wish.”
“What?” It had astonished her. “Never?” All that magic at his fingertips! “But you could have anything you wanted—”
“Not anything. There are things bigger than any wish.”
“Most things that matter.”
“But a bruxis—”
“A bruxis has its limits, just like any wish.”
A moth-winged hummingbird stuttered into the light and Kishmish launched off Brimstone’s horn, plucked it from the air, and swallowed it whole—and just like that, the creature un-was. It was, and then it wasn’t. Karou’s stomach roiled as she contemplated the possibility of being so suddenly not.
Watching her, Brimstone added, “I hope, child, but I don’t wish. There’s a difference.”
She turned this over in her mind, thinking that if she could come up with the difference, it might impress him. Something occurred to her, and she struggled to put it into words. “Because hope comes from in you, and wishes are just magic.”