In her flat, she dropped her keys in a basket by the door and looked around. On the wall: her Angel of Extinction wings, uncannily like his wings. If he noticed the similarity, his face gave away nothing. The space was too small for the wings to be spread to their full span, so they were suspended like a canopy, half-sheltering the bed, which was a deep teak bench piled princess-and-the-pea with feather mattresses. It was unmade and lost in an avalanche of old sketchbooks that Karou had been leafing through the night before, keeping company in the only way she could with her family.
One lay open to a portrait of Brimstone. She saw the angel’s jaw clench at the sight of it, and she grabbed it and clutched it to her chest. He went to the window and looked out.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“And you know mine how?”
A long beat. “The old man.”
Izîl. Of course. But… a thought struck her. Hadn’t Razgut said Izîl leapt to his death to protect her? “How did you find me?” she asked.
It was dark outside, and Akiva’s eyes reflected orange in the window glass. “It wasn’t difficult,” was all he said.
She was going to ask him to be specific, but he closed his eyes and leaned his brow against the glass. She said, “You can sit down,” and gestured to her deep green velvet armchair. “If you’re not going to burn anything.”
His lips made a grim twist that was like the joyless cousin of a smile. “I won’t burn anything.”
He loosed the buckle on the leather straps that crossed his chest, and his swords, sheathed between his shoulder blades, fell to the floor with two thunks that Karou did not think her downstairs neighbor would appreciate. Then Akiva sat, or rather collapsed, in the chair. Karou shoved her sketchbooks aside to make a space for herself on the bed, and seated herself in lotus position facing him.
The flat was tiny—just room for the bed and the chair and a set of carved nesting tables, all atop Karou’s splurge of a Persian carpet, haggled for while it was still on the loom in Tabriz. One wall was all bookcases, facing one all of windows, and off the entry hall: a tiny kitchen, tinier closet, and a bathroom roughly the size of a shower stall. The ceilings were a fairly preposterous twelve feet, making even the main room taller than it was wide, so Karou had built a loft above the bookcases, which she had to climb to reach it, just deep enough to lounge on Turkish cushions and take in the view out the high windows: a direct line over the rooftops of Old Town to the castle.
She watched Akiva. He had let his head drop back; his eyes were closed. He looked so weary. He was rolling one shoulder gingerly, wincing as if it pained him. She considered offering him tea—she could have used some herself—but it felt too much like playing hostess, and she struggled to remember the dynamic between them: They were enemies.
She studied him, mentally correcting the drawings she’d done from memory. Her fingers itched to snatch up a pencil and draw him from life. Stupid fingers.
He opened his eyes and caught her looking. She blushed. “Don’t get too comfortable,” she said, discomposed.
He struggled upright. “I’m sorry. It’s like this, after battle.”
Battle. He watched guardedly as she processed the idea. She said, “Battle. With chimaera. Because you’re enemies.”
“Why?” he repeated, as if the notion of enemies needed no justification.
“Yes. Why are you enemies?”
“We have always been. The war had been going on for a thousand years—”
“That’s weak. Two races can’t have been born enemies, can they? It had to start somewhere.”
A slow nod. “Yes. It started somewhere.” He rubbed his face with his hands. “What do you know of chimaera?”
What did she know? “Not a lot,” she admitted. “Until the night you attacked me, I didn’t even know there were more than the four of them. I didn’t know they were an entire race.”
He shook his head. “They aren’t one race. They’re many, allied.”
“Oh.” Karou supposed that made sense, with how unalike they were. “Does that mean there are others like Issa, like Brimstone?”
Akiva nodded. The idea gave new shades of reality to the world Karou had glimpsed. She imagined scattered tribes in vast landscapes, a whole village of Issas, families of Brimstones. She wanted to see them. Why had she been kept from them?
Akiva said, “I don’t understand what your life has been. Brimstone raised you, but just in the shop? Not in the fortress itself?”
“I didn’t even know what was on the other side of the inner door until that night.”
“He took you inside, then?”
Karou pursed her lips, remembering the Wishmonger’s fury. “Sure. Let’s say that’s what happened.”
“And what did you see there?”
“Why would I tell you that? You’re enemies, in which case, you’re my enemy, too.”
“I’m not your enemy, Karou.”
“They’re my family. Their enemies are mine.”
“Family,” Akiva repeated, shaking his head. “But where did you come from? Who are you, really?”
“Why does everybody ask me that?” Karou asked, animated by a flash of anger, though it was something she had wondered herself almost every day since she was old enough to understand the extreme oddness of her circumstances. “I’m me. Who are you?”
It was a rhetorical question, but he took it seriously. He said, “I’m a soldier.”
“So what are you doing here? Your war is there. Why did you come here?”
He took a deep, shuddering breath, sank back once more into the chair. “I needed… something,” he said. “Something apart. I have lived war for half a century—”
Karou interrupted him. “You’re fifty?”
“Lives are long, in my world.”
“Well, you’re lucky,” said Karou. “Here, if you want long life, you have to yank out all your teeth with pliers.”
The mention of teeth brought a dangerous flicker to his eyes, but he said only, “Long life is a burden, when it’s spent in misery.”
Misery. Did he mean himself? She asked him.
His eyes fluttered shut as if he’d been struggling to keep them open and abruptly abandoned the fight. He was silent for so long that Karou wondered if he’d fallen asleep, and gave up on her question. It felt intrusive, anyway. And she sensed he had meant himself. She thought of the way he’d looked in Marrakesh. What made the life go out of somebody’s eyes like that?
Again the caretaker impulse came to her, to offer him something, but she resisted it. She let herself stare at him—the cut of his features, the deep black of his brows and lashes, the bars inked on his hands, which were splayed open on the chair arms. With his head tilted back, she could see the welt on his neck and, a little higher up, the steady pulse of his jugular vein.
Once more his physicality struck her, that he was a flesh-and-blood being, though unlike any she had ever seen or touched. He was a melding of elements: fire and earth. She would have thought an angel would have something of air, but he didn’t. He was all substance: powerful and rugged and real.
His eyes opened and she jumped, caught staring once again. How many times was she going to blush, anyway?
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice faint. “I think I fell asleep.”
“Um.” She couldn’t help it. “Do you need some water?”
“Please.” He sounded so grateful she felt a pang of guilt for not offering sooner.
She untangled her legs from their lotus, rose, and brought him a glass of water, which he drained in a draft. “Thank you,” he said in a weirdly heartfelt way, as if he were thanking her for something much more profound than a glass of water.
“Uh. Uh-huh,” she said, awkward. She felt like she was hovering, standing there. There was really nowhere in the room to go except the bed, so she scooted back onto it. She kind of wanted to take off her boots, but that was something you didn’t do if there was any chance you might have to quickly flee or kick someone. Judging from Akiva’s plain exhaustion, she didn’t think she was in danger of either. The only danger was of foot smell.
She kept her boots on.
She said, “I still don’t get why you burned the portals. How does that end your war?”
Akiva’s hands tightened on the empty water glass. He said, “There was magic coming through the doorways. Dark magic.”
“From here? There’s no magic here.”
“Says the flying girl.”
“Okay, but that’s because of a wish, from your world.”
She acknowledged this with a nod.
“So you know that he’s a sorcerer.”
“I… Uh. Yeah.” She’d never really thought of Brimstone as a sorcerer. Did he do more than manufacture wishes? What did she know, really, and how much did she not know? Her ignorance was like standing in pure dark that could be either a closet or a vast, starless night.
A kaleidoscope of images whirled in her mind. The fizz of magic when she stepped into the shop. The array of teeth and gems, the stone tables in that underground cathedral, laid out with the dead… the dead who were not, as Karou had learned the hard way, actually dead. And she remembered Issa admonishing her not to make Brimstone’s life any harder—his “joyless” life, as she had said. His “relentless” work. What work?
She picked up a sketchbook at random, fanning past drawings of her chimaera so that they made a jerky kind of animation. “What was the magic?” she asked Akiva. “The dark magic.”
He didn’t answer, and she expected when she looked up to see that he had fallen asleep again, but he was watching the images flash past in her sketchbook. She snapped it closed, and his eyes fixed on her instead. Again, that vivid searching.
“What?” she asked, discomfited.
“Karou,” he said. “Hope.”
She raised her eyebrows, as if to say So?
“Why did he give you that name?”
She shrugged. It was getting tiring, not knowing anything. “Why did your parents name you Akiva?”
At the mention of his parents, Akiva’s face hardened, and the vivid watchfulness of his gaze glazed back to fatigue. “They didn’t,” he said. “A steward named me from a list. Another Akiva had been killed. The name opened up.”
“Oh.” Karou didn’t know what to make of that. It made her own strange upbringing seem cozy and familial by comparison.
“I was bred to be a soldier,” Akiva said in a hollow voice, and he closed his eyes again, tightly this time, as if gripped by a wave of pain. He was silent for a long time, and when he spoke again, he said far more than she expected.
“I was taken from my mother at five years old. I don’t remember her face, only that she did nothing when they came for me. It’s my earliest memory. I was so small that they were just legs, these looming soldiers surrounding me. They were the palace guard, so their shin plates were silver, and I could see myself mirrored in them, in all of them, my own terrified face over and over. They took me to the training camp, where I was one of a legion of terrified children.” He swallowed. “Where they punished our terror and taught us to conceal it. And that became my life, the concealment of terror, until I didn’t feel it anymore, or anything else.”
Karou couldn’t help imagining him as a child, afraid and forsaken. Tenderness welled up in her like tears.
In a fading voice, he said, “I exist only because of war—a war that began a thousand years ago with a massacre of my people. Babies, elders, no one spared. In Astrae, the capital of the Empire, the chimaera rose up to massacre the seraphim. We are enemies because the chimaera are monsters. My life is blood because my world is beasts.
“And then I came here, and humans…” A dreamlike wonder shaded into his tone. “Humans were walking freely, weaponless, gathering in the open, sitting in plazas, laughing, growing old. And I saw a girl… a girl with black eyes and gemstone hair, and… sadness. She had a sadness that was so deep, but it still could turn to light in a second, and when I saw her smile I wondered what it would be like to make her smile. I thought… I thought it would be like the discovery of smiling. She was connected to the enemy, and though the only thing I wanted to do was look at her, I did what I was trained to do and I… I hurt her. And when I went home, I couldn’t stop thinking about you, and I was so grateful that you had defended yourself. That you didn’t let me kill you.”
You. Karou did not miss the pronoun shift. She sat unblinking, barely breathing.
“I came back to find you,” Akiva said. “I don’t know why. Karou. Karou. I don’t know why.” His voice was so faint she could barely hear him. “Just to find you and be in the world that you’re in…”
Karou waited, but he didn’t say any more, and then… something happened in the air around him.
A shimmer, like an aura at first, brightening to light and becoming wings—open and upthrust from his shoulder blades to sprawl over the armchair and sweep the carpet in great arabesques of fire. His glamour had given way, and Karou almost gasped to see his wings revealed, but the flame didn’t catch. It was smokeless, somehow self-contained. The subtle shifts of the fire-feathers were hypnotic, and Karou breathed again, deeply, and sat watching them for minutes as Akiva’s features relaxed into something like peacefulness. This time he was truly asleep.
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