Bain’s words rang in Karou’s ears as she looked around, searching faces in the throng surrounding her. Feeling exposed in the middle of the bridge, she squinted at the roofscapes on both riverbanks, her imagination running to the hunter sighting her through a rifle scope.
She shook it off. He wouldn’t, would he? The feeling faded and she told herself it had only been paranoia, but over the rest of the day it came and went in scattered chills as Zuzana danced a dozen more times, gaining confidence with each performance, and Mik’s violin case filled again and again, far exceeding his promised take.
He and Zuzana tried to coax Karou out to dinner with them, but she declined, pleading jet lag, which was not untrue but was also not foremost on her mind.
She was certain she was being watched.
Her fingertips fluttered against her palms. A prickle sparked there and traveled up her arms, and as she walked off the bridge and into the cobbled maze of Old Town, she knew she was being followed. She paused and knelt, pretending to adjust her boot as she pulled out her knife—her ordinary knife; her new crescent moons were in their case at her flat—and slipped it up her sleeve while scanning ahead and behind.
She saw no one, and kept going.
The first time she’d come to Prague, she’d gotten so lost exploring these streets. She’d passed an art gallery and a few blocks later doubled back to find it, and… couldn’t. The city had swallowed it. In fact, she had never found it. There was a deceptive tangling of alleys that gave the impression of a map that shifted behind you, gargoyles tiptoeing away, stones like puzzle pieces rearranging themselves into new configurations while you weren’t looking. Prague entranced you, lured you in, like the mythic fey who trick travelers deep into forests until they’re lost beyond hope. But being lost here was a gentle adventure of marionette shops and absinthe, and the only creatures lurking around corners were Kaz and his cohorts in vampire makeup, ready with a silly thrill.
Tonight Karou felt a real threat, and with each step she took, cool, precise, she willed it to manifest. She wanted to fight. Her body was a loaded spring. The way it so often taunted her with the phantom of what else it might be doing, at this moment, she was sure that in her phantom life she would fight.
“Come on,” she whispered to her unseen pursuer, ducking her head and quickening her pace. “I have a surprise for you.”
She was on Karlova, the major pedestrian route between the bridge and Old Town Square, and tourists continued thick as fish. She moved among them, darting and erratic, throwing looks back over her shoulder more to craft the illusion of fear than in the hope of catching a glimpse of her stalker. At the intersection of a quiet side alley, she ducked left, hugging close to the wall. She knew this territory well. It was riddled with lurking places for Kaz’s tours. Just ahead, the curve of a medieval guildhall created a hidden niche where she had several times lain in wait in ghost garb. She moved into the shadows to tuck herself away.
And came face to face with a vampire.
“Hey!” said a sharp voice as Karou worked a quick reversal of momentum and tottered backward, out of the shadows. “Oh god,” said the voice. “You.”
The vampire leaned back against the wall and crossed her arms in an attitude of bored superiority.
Svetla. Karou’s jaw clenched at the sight of the other girl. She was model tall and thin, with a harsh kind of beauty that was sure to age scary. She was wearing white face paint and Goth eyeliner, with fake fangs and a dribble of blood at the corner of her ruby lips. Kaz’s sexy vampire vixen to a T, black cape and all, and she was, most inconveniently, wedged into Karou’s intended hiding place.
Stupid, Karou admonished herself. It was tour hour. Of course Kaz’s hiding places would be stuffed with actors. It often amused her, as she walked through Old Town in the evening, to see bored ghosts leaning against walls, texting or tweeting while they waited for the next clutch of tourists to be led along.
“What are you doing here?” Svetla asked, her lip curling like she smelled something off. She was one of those beautiful girls with a knack for making herself ugly.
Karou glanced back to Karlova, then ahead to the next curve in the alley that could provide her with cover. It was too far down; she couldn’t chance it. She could almost feel her stalker drawing nearer.
Svetla drawled, “If you’re looking for Kaz, don’t bother. He told me what you did.”
Jesus, thought Karou. As if any of that mattered now. She said, “Svetla, shut up,” and thrust herself into the niche right along with her, shoving the other girl back against the stones.
Svetla gasped and tried to shove her out. “What are you doing, freak?”
“I said shut up,” Karou hissed, and when Svetla did not, she whipped her knife from her sleeve and held it up. It curved at the tip like the claw of a cat, and its edge caught a thread of light and glinted. Svetla gave a little gasp and fell silent, but not for long. “Oh, right. I’m so sure you’re going to stab me—”
“Listen,” said Karou, low. “Just be quiet for a minute and I’ll fix your stupid eyebrows.”
Shocked silence preceded a rasped “What?”
Svetla’s hair was cut in a long, hard bang, so low it brushed her eyes, and it was shellacked with hairspray so it scarcely moved, all in order to hide her eyebrows, on which Karou had wasted a shing in a fit of spite around Christmastime. Black and bushy under her hair, they were likely not working any wonders for her modeling career.
Svetla’s expression hovered somewhere between confusion and outrage. There was simply no way that Karou could know about her eyebrows, always kept so carefully covered. She would think Karou had been spying on her. Karou didn’t care what she thought. She just wanted silence. “I’m serious,” she breathed. “But only if I’m still alive to do it, so shut up.”
Voices drifted over from Karlova, along with strains of music from nearby cafes, and the purr of engines. She couldn’t hear footsteps, but that didn’t mean anything. Hunters understood stealth.
Svetla’s expression remained aghast, but for the moment, at least, she was quiet. Karou stood rigid and fierce-eyed, listening intently.
Someone was coming. Footsteps like the ghosts of footsteps. Out in the alley, a shadow seeped into view. Karou watched it lengthen on the ground in front of her as its source drew nearer. Her palms throbbed; she clasped her knife tighter and peered at the shadow, trying to make sense of it.
She blinked, and words spilled across her thoughts. Not Bain’s words, but Razgut’s.
My brother seraph was looking for you, lovely.
The shadow. The shadow had wings.
Oh god, the angel. Karou’s pulse went jagged. The distraction of Bain’s warning lifted like smoke to reveal what had been there all along: in her palms, a coursing energy. Her hamsas were on fire. How could she not have realized sooner? She turned a ferocious warning glare on Svetla and mouthed, Quiet. Svetla dropped the snarl. She looked afraid.
The shadow advanced, and behind it, the angel. He was peering ahead, intense. His wings were glamoured, his eyes glowed in the gloom, and Karou had a clear view of his profile. His beauty was as shocking as it had been the first time she’d seen him. Fiala, she invoked her drawing teacher, if you could see this. Though there was a pair of sheathed swords crossed on his back, his arms were passive at his sides, hands slightly raised and fingers splayed as if to demonstrate he was unarmed.
Good for you, thought Karou, tightening her grip on her knife. I’m not.
He drew even with the niche.
Karou gathered herself.
She had to launch herself upward to hook him around the neck—he was tall, six foot four at least—and she slammed into him hard and sent him staggering. She clung to him, feeling immediately what she couldn’t see: the heat and mass of wings, invisible but real. She felt too the warmth and breadth of his shoulders and arms, and was keenly aware of their powerful vitality as she brought her blade against his throat.
“Looking for me?”
“Wait—” he said, making no move to fight her or throw her off.
“Wait,” Karou scoffed, and, on impulse, she took the flat of her other hand and pressed its ink eye to the exposed skin of the angel’s neck.
As in Morocco, when she had first directed the unknown magic of her hamsas at him, something happened. That time, it had hurled him through the air. Now, its awful force didn’t hit and throw him—it went into him. Where Karou’s tattoo touched him, she felt a shrieking in his skin that forced shudders down into his flesh and reverberated up her own arm, into the core of her, even the roots of her teeth. It was mind-splitting. Horrific. And that was her.
For him, it was much worse. Spasms wracked his powerful form, threatening to knock her loose. She hung on. He choked. The magic wracked him. It felt sick and wrong—what was it doing? He lurched, shaking violently, and tried to pry her hand away, but his fingers fumbled. Under Karou’s hand, his skin was smooth and hot, so hot, so hot, and the heat was rising. The heat of his wings, too, like a bonfire whipped into a frenzy.
Fire, invisible fire.
Karou couldn’t bear it. Her palm lost contact with his neck. As her hand came away, stinging with the heat, the angel rallied. He grabbed her wrist and pivoted hard, flinging her off.
She landed light and spun back to face him.
He stood slouched, breathing hard, one hand holding his neck as he stared at her with his tiger’s eyes. She felt pinned in place, and for a long beat she could only stare back. He looked pained. Puzzlement drew a crease in his brow, like he was divining a mystery.
Like she was his mystery.
Then he moved, and the moment unfroze. He raised his hands, placating. His nearness pulsed at Karou. Her hamsas pulsed. Her heart, her fingertip, her memories: a slashing sword, Kishmish on fire, torched portals, Izîl the last time she’d seen him, wailing, “Malak!”
And when she raised her hands, it was not in peace. One gripped her knife; the other flashed its eye.
The seraph flinched and the hamsa buffeted him back several steps. “Wait,” he said, straining against it. “I won’t hurt you.”
A laugh caught in Karou’s throat. Just who was in danger of being hurt here? She felt powerful. Her phantom life had stopped taunting her, had slipped instead into her skin and possessed her. This was who she was: not prey, but power.
She launched herself at him, and he fell back. She pursued, he retreated. In all the sparring she’d done in years of training, she’d always held a little something back. Not now. Feeling strong, feeling unleashed, she delivered a whirling kata, landing blows to his chest, his legs, even his upheld, peacemaking hands, and with every contact she was reminded of his solidity—his firmly rooted physical presence. Angel or not—whatever that even meant—there was nothing ethereal about him. He was flesh.
“Why are you following me?” she growled in Chimaera.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Karou laughed. It really was kind of funny. She felt light as air and bright as danger. She attacked in a cool fury and still he barely defended himself, only parrying knife jabs and cringing under the force of her outfaced hamsa.
“Fight,” she hissed at him when another kick hit home and he did nothing but absorb it.
He didn’t. Instead, the next time she came at him, he gathered the air beneath him and took flight, lifting off the cobbles and out of her reach. “I just want to talk to you,” he said from above her.
She threw her head back and looked up to where he hovered in the air. The draft of his wingbeats whipped her hair around her face in wild blue tendrils.
She smiled, savage, and sank into a crouch. “So talk,” she said, and sprang into the air to meet him.
ATTITUDE OF PRAYER
In her hiding place, the vampire Svetla momentarily forgot how to breathe.
Down the alley at the junction with Karlova, a small tour group rounded the corner and came to a shocked halt. Gum fell from slack mouths. Kaz, sporting a top hat and carrying a wooden stake jauntily under one arm, perceived that his ex-girlfriend was in midair.
Honestly, he wasn’t that surprised. There was something about Karou that activated an unusual credulity. Things you wouldn’t dream of believing of others seemed, where Karou was concerned, not such a stretch. Karou, flying? Well, why not?
What Kaz felt wasn’t surprise. It was jealousy. Karou was flying, sure, but she was not flying alone. She was with a man, a man who even Kaz—who claimed it was “gay” to recognize the attractiveness of other men—had to admit to himself was beautiful to the point of absurdity. Beautiful to the point of completely overdoing it.
Uncool, he thought, crossing his arms.
It couldn’t exactly be described as flying, what the two were doing. They were up even with the roofline, but they were barely moving—circling like cats, staring at each other with extraordinary intensity. The air fairly throbbed between them, and Kaz felt it like a punch in the gut.
Then Karou attacked the guy, and he felt much better.
Later he would claim the airborne fight was part of his tour, and he’d rake in record tips. He’d refer to Karou as his girlfriend, infuriating Svetla, who would stalk home to glare at her eyebrows—still caterpillar-fat—in the mirror. But for now, they all just gawked at the two beautiful creatures fighting in the air with the rooftops of Prague behind them.
Well, Karou was fighting, anyway. Her opponent only dodged, with great grace and a strange kind of… gentleness?… and he seemed to shy away from her and flinch as if struck even when she hadn’t touched him.
It went on like that for a few minutes as the crowd thickened on the ground, and then it happened that when she came at him, the guy seized her hands so she dropped her knife—it fell a long way and landed point down between cobblestones and stuck there—and he held her. It was strange: He held her palms pressed together in an attitude of prayer. She struggled, but he was clearly much stronger and held her with ease, his hands pressed over hers, like he was forcing her to pray.