She left the cabin behind and followed the road back in the direction of Boise. She dipped up and down, through tiers of wind. She toyed with speed—effortless, though it left her eyes streaming icy tears. It wasn’t long before she overtook the taxi that had abandoned her to the wilds. Devious scenarios played in her mind. She might fly alongside and knock on the window, shake her fist before launching upward again.
Wicked girl, she thought, and she heard Brimstone’s voice in her head, decrying such mischief as reckless. Well, maybe a little.
The wish itself, though—flying—and the plan that it was part of, what would he think of that? What would he think when Karou turned up on his doorstep, her hair mussed from the wind of two worlds? Would he be glad to see her, or would he still be furious, and roar at her that she was a fool, and cast her out once more? Was she supposed to find him, or did he want her to go on like a butterfly out a window, without a backward glance, as if she’d never even had monsters for a family?
If he expected her to do that, he didn’t know her at all.
She was going to Morocco to find Razgut beneath whichever trash heap or donkey cart he was hiding, and together—together! It made her cringe to even think the word connecting herself to him—they would fly through a slash in the sky and emerge “Elsewhere.”
It struck her that this was what Brimstone had meant by “hope makes its own magic.” She hadn’t been able to simply wish open a portal, but by the strength of her will, of her hope, when she might have given up her chimaera for lost, she had instead done this. She had found a way. Here she was, flying, and a guide waited to take her where she wanted to go. She was proud, and she believed that Brimstone would be, too, whether he showed it or not.
She shivered. It was cold in the sky, and her glee at flying was giving way to chattering teeth and the return of her exhaustion, so she set herself down in the middle of the road, making her first landing as easily as if she’d done it a thousand times, and waited for the taxi to catch up to her.
The driver, needless to say, was surprised to see her. He looked at her like she was a ghost, and spent more time peeking at her in the rearview mirror on the way back to the airport than he did watching the road. Karou was too tired to even think it was funny. She let her eyes close and reached into the collar of her coat for the wishbone, tucking its flanges neatly between her fingers.
She was almost asleep when her phone rang. Zuzana’s name lit up its screen. Karou answered, “Hello, rabid fairy.”
Snort. “Shut up. If anyone’s a fairy, it’s you.”
“I’m not a fairy. I’m a monster. And guess what. Speaking of fairies, do I have a surprise for you.” Karou tried to imagine Zuzana’s face on seeing her rise into the air. Should she tell her, or surprise her? Maybe she could pretend to fall off a tower—or was that just mean?
“What?” asked Zuzana. “Did you get me a present?”
It was Karou’s turn to snort. “You’re like a kid when her parents come home from a party, checking their pockets for cake.”
“Ooh, cake. I’ll take cake. But not pocket cake, because yuck.”
“I have no cake.”
“Sigh. What kind of friend are you anyway? Besides the mostly absent kind.”
“Right now, I’m the mostly tired kind. If you hear snoring, don’t be offended.”
“Where are you?”
“Idaho, on the way to the airport.”
“Oh, yay, airport! You’re coming home, aren’t you? You didn’t forget. I knew you wouldn’t forget.”
“Please. I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks. You don’t even know. It’s like, gross hunter, gross hunter, gross hunter, puppet show!”
“How go the gross hunters, anyway?”
“Grossly. But forget them. Are you all ready?”
“Yep. Freaked. Ready. The puppet’s done and magnificent, if I do say so myself. Now I just need you to work your magic.” She paused. “I mean, your nonmagical magic. Your ordinary Karou wizardry. When will you be back?”
“Friday, I think. I just have to stop in Paris really quick—”
“ ‘Stop in Paris really quick,’ ” repeated Zuzana. “You know, a smaller soul than I might end our friendship on the grounds of you saying obnoxious things like ‘I just have to stop in Paris really quick.’ ”
“There are smaller souls than you?” countered Karou.
“Hey! My body may be small, but my soul is large. It’s why I wear platforms. So I can reach the top of my soul.”
Karou laughed, a bright bell sound that drew the cab driver’s eyes to her in the rearview mirror.
“And also for kissing,” added Zuzana. “Because otherwise I could only date midgets.”
“How’s Mik, anyway? Besides not a midget?”
Zuzana’s voice instantly went gooey. “He’s goood,” she said, stretching the word out like taffy.
“Hello? Who’s there? Put Zuzana back on. Zuzana? There’s this sappy chick on the line, pretending to be you—”
“Shut up,” said Zuzana. “Just get here, okay? I need you.”
“And bring me a present.”
“Tch. Like you deserve a present.”
Karou ended the call, smiling. Zuzana did deserve a present, and it was why she was stopping in Paris before going home to Prague.
Home. The word might still have air quotes around it, but half of Karou’s life had been chopped off, and the other half—the normal half—was in Prague. Her tiny flat with its rows and rows of sketchbooks; Zuzana and marionettes; school, easels, na**d old men with feather boas; Poison Kitchen, statues in gas masks, bowls of goulash steaming on coffin lids; even her jackass of an ex-boyfriend lurking around corners dressed like a vampire.
So, okay. Normal-ish.
And though there was a part of her that was anxious to go straight to Morocco, collect her gruesome traveling companion, and strike out for points Elsewhere, she couldn’t bear the thought of just disappearing, not with all that she’d already lost. She supposed she was going back to say good-bye, and to refill her normal for the last time in the foreseeable future.
Plus, she wasn’t about to miss Zuzana’s puppet show.
Karou arrived back in Prague late Friday night. She gave the taxi driver her address, but as he neared her neighborhood, she changed her mind and asked him to let her off in Josefov, near the old Jewish Cemetery. It was the most haunted place she knew, the ground mounded high over centuries of dead, the tombstones as haphazard as bad teeth. Malign crows nested there, and the tree branches were like crone fingers. She loved drawing there, but it was closed, of course, and it wasn’t her destination. She walked along its buckled outer wall, feeling the weight of its silence, and made her way to Brimstone’s portal, nearby. Or, what had been his portal.
She stood across the street from it, daring herself to go up and knock. Suppose the door just opened, she thought. Suppose it creaked open and Issa was there with an exasperated smile on her face. “Brimstone is in a foul mood,” she might say. “Are you sure you want to come in?”
As if it had all been some silly mistake. And wasn’t it still possible?
She crossed the street. Her heartbeat a throb of hope, she lifted her hand and knocked, three sharp raps. No sooner had she done it than her hope crested painfully. She sucked a big breath and found herself holding it as her heart beat its please please please and her eyes pricked with gathering tears. If it opened or didn’t, she would weep. The tears were ready for either disappointment or relief.
Please please please.
She breathed again, a slumping exhalation that unspooled a single track of tears from each eye, and still she waited, curling herself against the cold for minutes, minutes into minutes, before she finally gave up and headed home.
That night, Akiva watched her sleep. Her lips were softly parted, both hands curled childlike under one cheek, her breathing deep. She’s innocent, Izîl had claimed. Asleep, she looked it. Was she?
Akiva had felt haunted by her these past months—her lovely face tilted up to look at him as she cowered in his shadow, believing she was going to die. The memory scalded him. Again and again it hit him, how close he had come to killing her. And what had stopped him?
Something about her had conjured another girl, long-ago and long-lost, but what? It wasn’t her eyes. They weren’t loam-brown and warm as earth; they were black—black as a swan’s, stark against the cream of her skin. And in her features he could pinpoint no resemblance to that other face, beloved, first seen through fog so long ago. Both were beautiful, that was all, but something had made a connection and stayed his hand.
Finally it came to him. It was a gesture: the birdlike way she had cocked her head to look at him. That was what had saved her. So small a thing as that.
Standing on her balcony, looking in the window, Akiva asked himself, What now?
Memories rose unbidden of the last time he had watched someone sleep. Then, there had been no glass between them frosted by his breath; he hadn’t been on the outside looking in, but warm beside Madrigal, propped up on one elbow and testing himself to see how many minutes he could go without reaching for her.
Not even a whole minute. There had been an ache in his fingertips that could be assuaged only by touching her.
He had borne far fewer marks on his hands then, though he hadn’t been free of his death ink. He was already a killer, but Madrigal had kissed his marked hands, knuckle by knuckle, and absolved him. “War is all we’ve been taught,” she whispered, “but there are other ways to live. We can find them, Akiva. We can invent them. This is the beginning, here.” She laid her palm against his bare chest—his heart jumped at her touch—and she brought his hand against her own heart, pressing it to the satin of her skin. “We are the beginning.”
It had felt like a beginning, from that first stolen night with her—like the invention of a new way of living.
Akiva had never used his hands so softly as when he traced Madrigal’s sleeping eyelids with his fingertip, imagining what dreams chased behind them and made them flutter.
She had trusted him enough to let him touch her while she slept. Even in recollection, it amazed him—that from the start she had trusted him to lie beside her and trace the lines of her sleeping face, her graceful neck, her lean, strong arms and the joints of her powerful wings. Sometimes he’d felt her pulse spike with jagged dreams; other times she’d murmured and reached for him, waking as she drew him against her and then, silkily, into her.
Akiva turned away from the window. What was it that made these memories of Madrigal rise so thick and fast?
The tendrils of an idea were unfurling in the deep reaches of his mind, beginning to probe for connections—a way to make the impossible possible—but he didn’t admit it to himself. He wouldn’t even have believed that somewhere in him lurked the capacity for hope.
What, he asked himself, had made him leave his regiment in the night, not even telling Hazael and Liraz, to come back into this world?
It would be nothing to break the window glass, or melt it. In seconds he could be beside Karou, waking her with a hand clamped over her mouth. He could demand to know… what, exactly? Did he think she would be able to tell him why he’d come? Besides, the idea of scaring her made him ill. Turning his back, he stalked to the balustrade and looked out over the city.
Hazael and Liraz would have realized by now that he was gone. “Again,” they would be muttering to each other in low voices, even as they covered his absence with some quick story.
Hazael was his half brother, Liraz their half sister. They were children of the harem, offspring of the seraph emperor, whose hobby was breeding bastards to fight the war. Their “father”—and they spoke the word through clenched teeth—visited a different concubine each night, women given as tribute or handpicked as they caught his eye. His secretaries kept a list of his progeny in two columns, girls and boys. Babies were always being added, and as they grew up and died on the battlefield, they were stricken unceremoniously off.
Akiva, Hazael, and Liraz had been added to the list in the same month. They had grown up together, babies in that place of women, and been given over at five to training. They’d managed to stay together since, always fighting in the same regiments, volunteering for the same missions, including the last: marking Brimstone’s doorways with the incendiary handprints that had ignited all in an instant to destroy the sorcerer’s portal.
This was the second time Akiva had vanished without explanation. The first time was years ago, and he’d been gone so long that time that his brother and sister thought he’d died.
A part of him had.
He had never told them or anyone where he’d been for those missing months, or what had happened to make him into who he was now.
Izîl had called him a monster, and wasn’t he? He imagined what Madrigal would think if she could see him today, and see what he had made of the “new way of living” they had whispered about, long ago, in the quiet world of their own cupped wings.
For the first time since he’d lost her, his memory failed to conjure Madrigal’s face. Another face intruded: Karou’s. Her eyes were black and terrified, reflecting the blaze of his wings as he loomed above her.
He was a monster. The things he’d done, nothing could shrive.
He shook open his wings and lifted himself into the night. It was wrong, his being there at the window, a lurking threat while Karou slept so peacefully. He retreated again across the street to let himself sleep, too, and when he did at last, he dreamed he was on the other side of the glass. Karou—not Madrigal but Karou—smiled at him and pressed her lips against his knuckles one by one, each kiss erasing black lines until his hands were clean.
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