“Wishes are false. Hope is true. Hope makes its own magic.”
She’d nodded as if she understood, but she hadn’t then, and she didn’t now, three months after the portals burned and amputated half her life. She’d been back to the doorway in Josefov at least a dozen times. It had been replaced, along with the wall around it, and they looked too clean, too new for their surroundings. She’d knocked and she’d hoped; she’d worn herself out hoping, and nothing. Again and again: nothing.
Whatever magic there was in hoping, she thought, it had nothing on a good, solid wish.
Now she stood at another door, this one belonging to a hunting cabin in nowhere, Idaho, and she didn’t bother knocking. She just kicked it open. “Hello,” she said. Her voice was bright and hard, and so was her smile. “It’s been a while.”
Inside, the hunter Bain looked up in surprise. He was cleaning a shotgun at his coffee table, and rose swiftly to his feet. “You. What do you want?”
Abominably, he was shirtless, showing an abundance of loose white gut, and his extraordinary beard bushed around his shoulders in clumps. Karou could smell it from across the room, sour as a mouse’s nest.
She stepped uninvited into the cabin. She was dressed in black: slim-fitting wool trousers with boots, and a vintage leather trench belted at the waist. There was a satchel slung across her shoulder, her hair was smoothed back in a single braid, and she wore no makeup. She looked tired. She was tired. “Killed anything fun lately?”
“Do you know something?” Bain asked. “Have the doors opened back up?”
“Oh. No. Nothing like that.” Karou kept her voice light, as if she were paying a social call. It was a farce, of course. Even when she’d been running errands for Brimstone she had never visited here. Bain had always come into the shop himself.
“You weren’t easy to find,” she told him. He lived off the grid; as far as the Internet was concerned, he didn’t exist. Karou had spent several wishes to track him down—low-grade wishes that she’d liberated from other traders.
She looked around the room. A plaid couch, some glazed-eyed elk heads mounted on the wall, and a Naugahyde recliner held together with duct tape. A generator hummed outside the window, and the room was lit by a bare bulb. She shook her head. “Gavriels to play with, and you live in a dump like this? Men.”
“What do you want?” Bain asked, wary. “Do you want teeth?”
“Me? No.” She perched on the edge of the recliner. Still with that hard, bright smile, she said, “Teeth are not what I want.”
Karou’s smile disappeared, like flipping a switch. “I think you can guess what I want.”
A beat. Then Bain said, “I don’t have any. I used them all.”
“Well. I don’t think I’ll take your word on that.”
He gestured around the room. “Have a look, then. Knock yourself out.”
“See, the thing is, I know where you keep them.”
The hunter went still, and Karou considered the shotgun on the table. It was disassembled, not a threat. The question was whether he had another gun within reach. Probably. He was not a one-gun kind of guy.
His fingers twitched almost imperceptibly.
Karou’s pulse jumped in her hands.
Bain lunged for the couch. She was already moving. Smooth as dance, she leapt over the coffee table, caught his head with the flat of her palm and drove it against the wall. With a croak he collapsed onto the couch, and for an instant he was free to scrabble with both hands in the sofa cushions, frantic, and then he found what he was looking for.
He whipped around, pistol raised. Karou caught his wrist with one hand and grabbed a fistful of beard with the other. A crack; a bullet blazed over her head. She braced one foot against the sofa, heaved him by the beard, and swung him to the floor. The table tipped and shotgun parts scattered. Keeping her grip on his wrist, pistol pointed away, she came down hard on his forearm with her knee and heard bones grind. He yelped and released the gun. Karou took it up and pressed its muzzle into his eye socket.
“I’m going to forgive you for that,” she said. “I do see, from your perspective, that this sucks. I just don’t feel all that bad about it.”
Bain was breathing hard and looking murder at her. Up close he smelled rancid. Still holding the gun to his eye, Karou steeled herself and reached into the greasy thatch of his beard to root around. Right away her hand encountered metal. So it was true. He kept his wishes in his beard.
She drew her knife from her boot.
“Do you want to know how I knew?” she asked him. He’d drilled holes in the wish coins and knotted his dirty hair right through them. She sliced them free one by one. “It was Avigeth. The snake? She had to circle your stinking neck, didn’t she? I did not envy her that. Did you think she wouldn’t tell Issa what you have hidden in this disgusting shrub of yours?”
It gave her a pang, remembering those casual nights in the shop, sitting cross-legged on the floor, sketching Issa and gossiping while Twiga’s tools droned in the corner and Brimstone strung his endless necklaces of teeth. What was happening there now?
Bain’s wishes were mostly shings. There were a few lucknows, though, and best of all, heavy as hammers, there were two gavriels. That was good. That was very good. From the other traders she’d visited so far, she’d gotten only lucknows and shings. “I was hoping you wouldn’t have spent these yet,” Karou told him. “Thank you. Sincerely. Thank you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“Bitch,” he muttered.
“Well, that’s brave,” she said, conversational. “I mean, to say that to the girl with the gun against your eyeball.” She went on sawing away hanks of beard as Bain lay rigid. He was probably twice her weight, but he didn’t struggle. There was a wild light in her eyes and it cowed him. Plus, he’d heard rumors of St. Petersburg, and knew she wasn’t shy with her knife.
She depleted his wish stash and, sitting back on her heels, used the barrel of the gun to peel back his lower lip. She grimaced when she saw his teeth. They were crooked and tobacco-brown. They were real. No hope of a bruxis, then.
“You know, you’re the fifth one of Brimstone’s traders I’ve tracked down, and you’re the only one with your teeth.”
“Yeah, well, I like meat.”
“You like meat. Of course you do.”
Of the other traders on whom she’d paid these “social calls,” all had made the trade for a bruxis, and all had already spent them, mostly on long life. One, the hag matriarch of a clan of poachers in Pakistan, had botched the wish, forgetting to include youth and health, and she was a disaster of collapsing flesh, a testament to Brimstone’s admonition that even a bruxis had limits.
Well, a bruxis would have been quite a score, but it was a pair of gavriels that Karou really needed, and now she had them. She gathered up all the wishes, along with the dirty beard hair that clung to them, and shoved the whole mess into her satchel. She kept one shing in her palm; she’d need it to make her exit.
“You think you can just do this?” Bain asked, low. “You piss off a hunter, you’re gonna live like prey, little girl, always wondering who’s tracking you.”
Karou made a pondering gesture. “Hmm. Can’t have that, can we?” She raised the pistol and sighted down the barrel at him, saw his eyes go wide and then squinch shut as she gave an enthusiastic little-boy “Kablam!” and then lowered the gun again. “Dummy. Lucky for you, I’m not that kind of girl.”
She laid the gun on the sofa and, as he started to sit up, wished him to sleep. His head hit the floor with a thud and the shing vanished from her palm. Karou didn’t look back. Her feet were heavy on the porch steps, and all the way down the dark gravel drive to where she’d left a cab idling at a clump of mailboxes.
She reached the mailboxes. There was no cab.
Karou sighed. The driver must have heard the gunshot and taken off. She could hardly blame him. It was like a scene out of a film noir: a girl pays him a ridiculous sum to drive her from Boise up into this no-man’s-land, where she vanishes into a hunting cabin and a shot is fired. Who in his right mind would stick around to see how that played out?
With another sigh, she closed her eyes and almost rubbed them, then remembered she’d been handling Bain’s filthy beard and wiped her hands on her pants instead. She was so tired. She reached into her bag. Judging it would take a lucknow to turn the cab around, she palmed one and was just about to make the wish when she stopped. “What am I thinking?” One cheek dimpled as her lips skewed into a smile.
She took out a gavriel instead. “Hello, you,” she whispered to it. Weighing it on her palm, she tilted back her head and looked up at the sky.
A PIECE OF EMPTY CANDY
It had been three months since the portals burned, and Karou had had no word in all that time. How often had her thoughts, however otherwise occupied, suddenly skidded back to the scorched note in Kishmish’s claws? Like a scratch in a record, the note had worn its groove in her mind. What had it said? What had Brimstone wanted to tell her as the portals burned?
What had the note said?
And then there was the wishbone, which she now wore around her neck, as Brimstone always had. It had occurred to her, of course, that it might be a wish, one more powerful even than a bruxis, and she had held it in her hand and wished on it—wished for a portal to peel open to Elsewhere—but nothing ever happened. There was something comforting in the feel of it in her hand, though. Its frail wings fit between her fingers as if it were meant to be held. But if it was anything more than a bone, she couldn’t guess what, and as for why Brimstone had sent it to her, she feared she would never know. The fear festered alongside all her unanswered questions, and with it new fears, strange and undefinable.
Something was happening to her.
Sometimes when she looked in the mirror now, she experienced a moment of blank unfamiliarity, as if she were meeting the gaze of a stranger. Her name, called out to her, didn’t always register, and even the lay of her shadow could strike her as foreign. Recently she’d caught herself testing it with quick gestures to see if it was hers. She was pretty sure this was not normal behavior.
Zuzana disagreed. “It’s probably post-traumatic stress disorder,” she’d said. “What would be weird is if you were fine. I mean, you lost your family.”
Karou still marveled at the way in which Zuzana had accepted her whole bizarre story. Her friend was not, in practice, someone who believed in things, but after seeing Kishmish and getting a little scuppy demonstration she’d bought it all, and it was a good thing. Karou needed her. Zuzana was her anchor to her normal life. What remained of it, anyway.
She was still in school, if only technically. After the angel arsons it had taken about a week for her injuries to heal, at least enough that the yellow-green stage of her bruises could be concealed with makeup. She’d gone back to class for a couple of days, but it was a lost cause. She couldn’t keep her focus, and her hand, clasping pencil or paintbrush, seemed incapable of delicacy. A furious energy built up in her, and more than ever before she was plagued by that phantom sense that she was meant to be doing something else.
Something else. Something else. Something else.
She made contact with Esther and other of Brimstone’s less-vile associates around the world to confirm that the phenomenon was global: The portals were gone, every last one.
She also, in the process, discovered something quite unexpected: She was rich. Brimstone, it turned out, had established bank accounts for her over the course of her life. Juicy bank accounts overflowing with zeroes. She even owned real estate, such as the buildings in which, until recently, the portals had been. And land. A swamp, of all things. An abandoned medieval hill town in the lava path of Mount Etna. A mountain flank in the Andes where an amateur paleontologist claimed—to widespread scientific merriment—to have unearthed a cache of “monster skeletons.”
Brimstone had seen to it that Karou would never worry about money, which was lucky, as she had to pay her “social calls” in the way of ordinary humans: airplanes, passport, overly friendly businessmen, and all.
She made it to school only sporadically after that, claiming family emergency. If not for all the extra work she did, the constant drawing in her new sketchbook—number ninety-three, which picked up where ninety-two, left behind in Brimstone’s shop, had so abruptly cut off—she would surely have gotten the boot by now. As it was, she was hanging by a thread.
The last time she was there, Profesorka Fiala had been all frowns and judgment. Leafing through Karou’s sketchbook, she paused on one drawing in particular, a rendering of the angel in Marrakesh, done from memory. It was of the moment Karou had first seen him up close in the alley. “This is life drawing class, Karou,” said Fiala. “Not fantasy drawing.”
Karou did a double take. She was pretty sure she’d left the wings out, and indeed, she saw, she had. “Fantasy?” she asked.
“No one is this perfect,” said the teacher, skimming dismissively past the page.
Karou didn’t argue, but later had said to Zuzana, “The funny thing is, I didn’t even do him justice. Those eyes. Maybe a painting could capture those eyes, but a drawing never could.”
“Yeah, well,” said Zuzana, “he’s one scary-looking beautiful bastard, is what he is.”
“I know. You should have seen him.”
“Well. I certainly hope I never do.”
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