She got up and took the water glass from his hands. She turned off the light. His wings were sufficient illumination, even for drawing. She got out her sketchbook and a pencil, and she drew Akiva asleep at the locus of his vast wings, and then from memory, with his eyes open. She tried to capture the precise shape of them; she used charcoal for the heavy black kohl that rimmed them and made him look so exotic, and she couldn’t take leaving his fiery irises colorless. She grabbed a watercolor box and painted. She drew and painted for a long time, and he didn’t move except for the soft rise and fall of his chest and the glimmer of his wings, which cast the room in a firelight glow.
Karou didn’t plan to sleep, but some time after midnight she subsided, still half on the landslide of her sketchbooks, to “rest her eyes” for a moment. She fell into dreams, and when she woke just before dawn—something woke her, a quick, bright sound—the room around her was, for a blink, entirely unfamiliar. Only the wings on the wall over her were not, and gave her a surge of pleasure, and then it all slid away as dreams do. She was in her flat, of course, on her bed, and the sound that had awakened her was Akiva.
He was standing over her, and his eyes were molten. They were wide, his orange irises ringed around in white, and he was holding, one in each hand, her crescent-moon knives.
Karou sat up with a suddenness that sent sketchbooks skidding off the bed. Her pencil was still in her hand, and the thought struck her: always with the ridiculous weapon, where this angel was concerned. But even as she adjusted her grip on it, ready to stab, Akiva was backing away, lowering the knives.
He set them where he had found them, where she had left them, in their case, atop the nesting tables. They would have been practically under his nose when he woke.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
Just then, lit only by the flicker of his wings, the sight of him was so… right, somehow. He was right. It made no sense at all, but the feeling flooded through Karou, and whatever it was, it was as sweet as a patch of sun on a glossy floor and, like a cat, she just wanted to curl up in it.
She tried to pretend she hadn’t been about to stab him with a pencil. “Well,” she said, stretching and letting it drop casually out of her hand. “I don’t know your customs, but here, if you don’t want to frighten someone, you don’t go looming over their sleeping body with knives.”
Was that a smile? No. A twitch at the corners of his stern mouth; it didn’t qualify.
She caught sight of the sketchbook open before her, the evidence of her late-night portrait session right there for him to see. She flipped it quickly shut, though he’d of course have seen it while she was still sleeping.
How could she have fallen asleep with this stranger in her flat? How could she have brought this stranger to her flat?
He didn’t feel like a stranger.
“They’re unusual,” Akiva said, gesturing to the knife case.
“I just got them. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
“Beautiful,” he agreed, and he might have been talking about the knives, but he was looking straight at her.
She flushed, suddenly conscious of her appearance—mussed hair, sleep drool?—then got angry. What did it matter what she looked like? What exactly was going on here? She shook herself and climbed off the bed, trying to find a space in the tiny room outside his radiant aura. It was impossible.
“I’ll be right back,” she said, and stepped into the hall and then the tiny bathroom. Separated from him, she experienced a sharp fear that she would return to find him gone. She relieved herself, wondering if seraphim were above such mundane needs—though judging from the duskiness of his jaw, Akiva was not above the need for a razor—then splashed water on her face and brushed her teeth. She ran a brush through her hair, and every moment she lingered, her anxiety grew that when she returned she would find just an empty room, balcony door standing open and the whole universe of sky above, giving no hint which way he’d gone.
But he was still there. His wings were glamoured gone again, his swords strapped in place at his back, innocuous in their decorative leather sheaths.
“Um,” she said, “bathroom’s in there, if, uh…”
He nodded and went past her, awkward as he tried to wedge his invisible wings into the tiny space and get the door closed.
Karou hurriedly changed into clean clothes, then went to the window. It was still dark out. The clock said five. She was starving, and knew from her previous morning’s foraging that there was nothing even remotely edible in the kitchen. When Akiva emerged, she asked, “Are you hungry?”
“As if I might die of it.”
“Come on, then.” She picked up her coat and keys and started toward the door, then paused and changed direction. She went out onto the balcony instead, climbed up onto the balustrade, glanced back over her shoulder at Akiva, and stepped right off.
Six stories to the street, she landed light as hopscotch, unable to suppress a smile. Akiva was right beside her, unsmiling as ever. She couldn’t quite imagine him smiling; he was so somber, but wasn’t there something in the way he looked at her? There, in that sidelong glance: a hint of wonder? She recalled the things he’d said in the night, and now, seeing flickers of feeling interrupt the sad gravity of his face, it shot a pang through her heart. What had his life been like, given over so young to war? War. It was an abstraction to her. She couldn’t conceptualize its reality, not even the edges of its reality, but the way Akiva had been—dead-eyed—and the way he looked at her now, it made her feel as if he was coming back from the dead for her, and that seemed a tremendous thing, and an intimate one. The next time their eyes met, she had to look away.
She took him to her corner bakery. It wasn’t open yet, but the baker sold them hot loaves through the window—honey-lavender, fresh from the oven and still steaming in their crinkly brown bags—and then Karou did what anyone would do if they could fly and found themselves out on the streets of Prague at dawn with loaves of hot bread to eat.
She flew, gesturing to Akiva to follow, up into the sky and over the river, to perch on the high, cold cupola of the cathedral bell tower, and watch the sun rise.
Akiva kept close behind her, watching the snap of her hair, its long tendrils taking on the damp of dawn. Karou had been wrong to suppose her flying didn’t surprise him. It was only that he had learned over many years to crush down all feeling, all reaction. Or he thought he had. In the presence of this girl, it seemed, nothing was certain.
There was a neatness in the way she sliced through the air. It was magic—not glamoured wings, but simply the will to fly made manifest. A wish, he supposed, from Brimstone’s own supply. Brimstone. The thought of the sorcerer came on like an ink splash, a black thought against the brightness of Karou.
How could something as light as Karou’s graceful flight come from the evil of Brimstone’s magic?
They flew above casual observation, over the river and veering in the direction of the castle, where they circled down toward the cathedral at its heart. It was a Gothic beast, carved and weathered like some tortured cliff battered by ages of storms. Karou alighted upon the cupola of the bell tower. It was not a kind perch. The wind scoured past, full of ice and ill will, and Karou had to gather her hair in her hands and hold it off her face. She produced a pencil—the same one she had brandished at him?—knotted her hair, and shoved the pencil through it; an all-purpose implement. Blue wisps escaped the arrangement and danced across her brow, blowing over her eyes and catching on her lips, which were smiling with uncomplicated, childlike delight. “We’re on the cathedral,” she said to him.
“No. We’re on the cathedral,” she said again, and he thought he was missing something, some nuance lost in language, but then he realized: She was just amazed. Amazed to be perching atop the cathedral, high on the hill above Prague with everything below her. She hugged her arms around the warm bread and stood looking out, and on her face was a na**d awe more potent than Akiva could ever recall feeling, even when flying was new. It was likely he had never felt any such thing. His own early flights weren’t occasion for awe or joy—only discipline. But he wanted to be part of the moment that was making her face shine like that, so he moved to her side and looked out.
It was a remarkable sight, the sky beginning to flush pale at the roots, all the towers bathed in a soft glow, the streets of the city still shadowed and aglitter with fireflies of lamplight and the weaving, winking beams of headlights.
“You haven’t come up here before?” he asked.
She turned to him. “Oh, yes, I bring all the boys up here.”
“And if they don’t meet with approval,” he said, “you can always push them off.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Karou’s expression darkened. No doubt she was thinking of Izîl. Akiva admonished himself for making an effort at humor. Of course it would come off all wrong. It had been a long time since he’d had the will to banter.
“The truth is,” Karou said, letting it pass, “I only made the wish for flying a few days ago. I haven’t had a chance to enjoy it yet.”
Again he was surprised; it must have shown this time, because Karou caught his look and said, “What?”
He shook his head. “You were so smooth in the air, and the way you stepped off your balcony without a second’s pause, as if flying is just a part of you.”
She said, “You know, it didn’t occur to me that the wish could wear off. That would have been some punishment for showing off, wouldn’t it? Splat.” She laughed, untroubled by the thought, and said, “I should be more careful.”
“Do the wishes wear off?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. My hair has never changed back.”
“That’s a wish? Brimstone let you use magic on… that?”
“Well. He didn’t exactly approve.” She skewed him a glance that was both sheepish and defiant. “It’s not like he ever let me have any real wishes. Just enough to make minor mischief—Oh.” A thought struck her. “Oops.”
“I made a promise last night and forgot all about it.” She rummaged in her coat pocket and pulled out a small coin, on which Akiva glimpsed Brimstone’s likeness. It was there on her palm when she closed her hand; when she opened it, it was gone. “Magic,” she said. “Poof.”
“What did you wish?” he asked.
“Just something stupid. A mean girl somewhere down there is going to wake up happy. Not that she deserves it. Hussy.” She stuck out her tongue at the city, a flash of childish whimsy. “Oh. Here.” She turned to Akiva and thrust one of the bakery bags at him. “You know, so you don’t die.”
While they ate, he saw that she was shivering, and he opened his wings—invisible—so the wind would catch their heat and fan it around her. It seemed to help. She sat down, dangling her legs over the edge, and kicked them casually while she pulled little pieces of bread off her loaf and ate them. He went into a crouch at her side.
“How are you feeling, by the way?” she asked.
“That depends,” he said, feeling sly, as if Karou’s whimsy were catching.
“On whether you’re asking because you’re concerned for my well-being, or because you mean to keep me weak and helpless.”
“Oh. Weak and helpless. Definitely.”
“In that case, I feel awful.”
“Good.” She said it seriously enough, but with a glint in her eye. Akiva realized that she had been taking care with her hamsas, to not accidentally turn them in his direction. He was moved, as he had been when he’d awakened to find her sleeping just feet from him, so lovely and vulnerable, and her trust, like Madrigal’s, so unearned.
“I’m feeling better,” he said softly. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me. I’m the one who hurt you.”
Shame engulfed him. “Not… not like I hurt you.”
“No,” Karou agreed. “Not like that.”
The wind was spiteful; with an insurgent gust it freed her hair, then danced in to seize it; in an instant it was everywhere, as if a pod of air elementals were trying to make off with it, to line their nests with its blue silk. She scrambled to contend with it; the pencil was lost over the roof’s edge, plunging between flying buttresses, so she held her hair with both hands.
Akiva waited for her to say she was ready to get down out of the wind, but she didn’t. The sun climbed above the hills and she watched as its glow herded night into the shadows where it gathered, all the darker for its density—all of night crowded into the slanting places beyond the reach of the dawn.
After a while she said, “You know last night, you said your earliest memory was of the soldiers coming for you—”
“I told you that?” He was startled.
“What, don’t you remember?” She turned to him, eyebrows twin quirks, cocoa-dark, raised in surprise.
He shook his head, searching his mind. He’d been so ill from the devil’s marks, it was all a fugue, but he couldn’t believe he’d spoken of his childhood, and that day of all days. It made him feel as if he’d dragged that bereft little boy out of the past—as if, in a moment of weakness, he had become him again. He asked, “What else did I say?”
Karou cocked her head. It was the gesture that had saved her in Marrakesh, the quick birdlike tilt, to regard him almost sideways, and Akiva’s heart sped up. “Not much,” she said, after a moment. “You fell asleep after that.” She was clearly lying.
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