What had he said to her in the night?
“Anyway,” she went on, not meeting his eyes, “you got me thinking, and I was trying to remember my own earliest memory.” She levered herself back to her feet from the roof’s edge, a move that required releasing her hair, which sprang wild back into the wind.
“Brimstone.” A hitch in her breathing, a fond and infinitely sad smile. “It’s Brimstone. I’m sitting on the floor behind his desk, playing with the tuft of his tail.”
Playing with the tuft of his tail? That didn’t fit with Akiva’s own idea of the sorcerer, which had been forged by his deepest anguish, seared into his soul like a brand.
“Brimstone,” he said, bitter. “He was good to you?”
Karou was fierce in her reply. Her hair a blue torrent, her eyes hungry, she said, “Always. Whatever you think you know of chimaera, you don’t know him.”
“Isn’t it possible, Karou,” he said slowly, “that it’s you who don’t really know him?”
“What?” she asked. “What exactly don’t I know?”
“His magic, for one thing,” said Akiva. “Your wishes. Do you know what they come from?”
“It’s not free, Karou. Magic has a price. The price is pain.”
BOTH PLACE AND PERSON
As Akiva explained, Karou felt sick. She thought of every nonsensical wish she’d ever made—why had Brimstone never told her? The truth would have achieved what all his grumpy looks never did. She would never have made another wish if she’d known.
“To take from the universe, you must give,” said Akiva.
“But… why pain? Couldn’t you give something else? Like… joy?”
“It’s a balance. If it were something easy to give, it would be meaningless.”
Karou said, “You really think joy is easier to come by than pain? Which have you had more of?”
He gave her a long look. “That’s a good point. But I didn’t create the system.”
“My people believe it was the godstars. The chimaera have as many stories as races.”
Troubled, Karou asked, “Well… where does the pain come from? Is it his own pain?”
Akiva said, “No, Karou. It is not his own pain.” He enunciated each word carefully, and the implication hung there: If it wasn’t his own pain, whose was it?
She felt queasy. An image came to her of bodies laid out on tables. No. That could be something else completely. She knew Brimstone, didn’t she? She might not know… well, anything about him… but she knew him, trusted him, not this angel.
Swallowing a lump in her throat, she said, “I don’t believe you.”
Not ungently, he said, “Karou, what were the errands you did for him?”
She opened her mouth to answer and closed it again. A slow wave of understanding began to creep over her, and she wanted to push it away. Teeth: one of the great mysteries of her life. Carcasses, pliers, death. Those Russian girls with their bloody mouths. For as long as she had been aware of Brimstone’s trafficking, she had held on to the idea that he needed the teeth for something vital, and that pain was a sad and desperate corollary of it. But… what if pain was the whole point? If it was how Brimstone paid for his power, for wishes, for everything?
“No,” she said, and shook her head, but the conviction had gone out of her.
A little while later, when she stepped back off the cathedral and into the air, her pleasure in flying was gone. Whose pain, she wondered, had paid for it?
They went to a teahouse on Nerudova, the long, winding road down from the castle, and Akiva proceeded to tell her about his world. Empire and civilization, uprising and massacre, cities lost and taken, lands burned, walls battered, sieges where the children starved first, no matter that their parents gave them all they had and perished soon after.
He talked of bloodshed and terror in a land of failing beauty. “The ancient forests have gone to build ships, siege engines; or they’ve been torched so they couldn’t be turned to ships and siege engines.”
Of hulking, ruined cities, mass graves, treachery.
Beast armies that kept coming and kept coming, never dwindling, never breaking.
There were other things—epic, terrible things—that he didn’t tell her but skirted around, like caressing the edges of a wound, hesitant, testing for pain.
Karou, listening wide-eyed, horror-struck at the brutality, wished that some time in the last seventeen years Brimstone had seen fit to give her a lesson in Elsewhere. It occurred to her to ask, “What’s it called, your world?”
“Eretz,” Akiva said, which caused Karou’s eyebrows to shoot up.
“That’s Earth,” she said. “In Hebrew. Why do our worlds have the same name?”
“Once, the magi believed the worlds were layered, like rock sediment, or the rings of trees,” said Akiva.
“Uh, okay,” said Karou, brow furrowed. And then, “Magi?”
“The seraph sorcerers.”
“You said ‘once.’ What do they believe now?”
“They believe nothing. The chimaera slaughtered them all.”
“Oh.” Karou pursed her lips. What could you say to something like that? “Well.” She pondered the idea of the worlds. “Maybe we just stole the name Eretz from you way back when, the way we built our religions on the look of you.” It was what Brimstone had called a quilt of fairy tales, which humans had patched together out of glimpses. “Beauty equals good; horns and scales, evil. Simple.”
“And, in this case, true.”
Behind the counter, the waitress was staring back and forth between them. Karou wanted to ask her what she was looking at, but didn’t. “So basically,” she said to Akiva, trying to gather all the things he’d told her into a simple strand, “the seraphim want to rule the world, the chimaera don’t want to be ruled, and that makes them evil.”
His jaw worked; he was displeased with the simplification. “They were nothing but barbarians in mud villages. We gave them light, engineering, the written word—”
“And took nothing for it, I’m sure.”
“Uh-huh.” Karou wished she’d paid closer attention in her own human history classes so she could better imagine a context for the vast scope of what he was telling her. “So, a thousand years ago, for no good reason, the chimaera rose up and slaughtered their masters, and took back control of their lands.”
He objected. “The land had never been theirs. They had small farm holdings, stone hovels. At the most, villages. The cities were built by the Empire, and not just cities. Viaducts, harbors, roads—”
“But it was where they’d been born and died since, like, the beginning of everything? Where they fell in love, raised their babies, buried their elders. So what if they hadn’t built cities on it? Wasn’t it still theirs? I mean, unless you’re going on the rule that what’s yours is what you can defend, in which case anyone is within their rights at any time to try to take anything from anyone else. That’s hardly civilization.”
“You don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t.”
Akiva took a deep breath. “We built the world, in good faith. We lived alongside them—”
“As equals?” Karou asked. “You keep calling them ‘beasts,’ so I have to wonder.”
He didn’t answer right away. “What have you seen of them, Karou? Did you say four chimaera, and none of them warriors? When you have seen your brothers and sisters gored by minotaurs, mauled by lion-dogs, ripped to pieces by dragons, when you have seen your—” Whatever he was about to say, he bit it off hard, with a look of agony. “When you have been tortured and forced to witness the execution of… loved ones… then you can speak to me of what makes a beast.”
Loved ones? He didn’t mean brothers and sisters, the way he said that. Karou felt a pang of… surely it wasn’t jealousy. What did it matter who he loved, or had loved? She swallowed. What could she say? She couldn’t contradict a thing he’d told her. Her ignorance was entire, but that didn’t mean she had to just believe him, either. “I’d like to hear Brimstone’s side,” she said quietly. Something occurred to her then, something big. “You could take me there. You could take me back.”
He blinked, startled, then shook his head. “No. It’s no place for humans.”
“And this is a place for angels?”
“It’s not the same. It’s safe here.”
“Oh, really? Tell my scars how safe it is here.” She pulled the collar of her shirt out of shape to reveal the puckered slash of scar tissue across her collarbone. Akiva winced at the sight of it, ugly and of his own making, and Karou set her collar back in place. “Besides,” she argued, “there are more important things than safety. Like… loved ones.” She felt cruel, using his words, like she was twisting a knife.
“Loved ones,” he repeated.
“I told Brimstone I would never just leave him, and I won’t. I’m going, even without your help.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
“There are ways,” she said, cagey. “But it would be easier if you would take me.” Easier indeed. What a preferable traveling companion Akiva would be to Razgut.
But he said, “I can’t take you. The portal is guarded. You’d be killed on sight.”
“You seraphim do a lot of that, killing on sight.”
“The monsters have made us who we are.”
“Monsters.” Karou thought of Issa’s laughing eyes, Yasri’s excitable flutter and soothing touch. She called them monsters herself sometimes, but fondly, the same way she called Zuzana rabid. From Akiva’s mouth, the word was just ugly. “Beasts, devils, monsters. If you’d ever known any chimaera, you couldn’t dismiss them like that.”
He dropped his eyes and didn’t answer, and the thread of their conversation was lost in a tense silence. She thought he looked pale, still unwell. The tea mugs were big earthen affairs without handles, and Karou cupped hers with both hands. She kept her palms flat against it, both to warm them up after the frigid hours atop the cathedral and to prevent herself from inadvertently flashing any painful magic at Akiva. Across the table, his pose mirrored her own, his hands also wrapped around his mug, so that she couldn’t help seeing his tattoos: the repeating black bars across the tops of his fingers.
Each one was slightly raised, like scar tissue, and Karou thought that, unlike hers, they were just cuts rubbed in lampblack—a primitive procedure. The longer she looked at them, the more she was seized with a strange sense of knowing something, or almost knowing it. It was as if she was at the cusp of an awareness, vibrating between knowing and not knowing, so fast that she couldn’t quite register what it was—like trying to see the wings of a bee in flight. She couldn’t fix on it.
Akiva saw her staring, and it made him self-conscious. He shifted, covering one hand with the other, as if he could blot out the tattoos.
“Do yours have magic in them, too?” Karou asked.
“No,” he said, she thought, a little gruffly.
“What, then? Do they mean something?”
He didn’t answer and she reached out, unthinking, to trace them with her fingertip. They were in a classic five-count pattern: For every four lines, the fifth was a diagonal strike-through. “It’s a count,” she said, as her fingertip moved lightly from one five-count to the next on his right index finger—five, ten, fifteen, twenty—and each time she touched him it was like a leaping spark and a call, a call to entwine her fingers in his, and even—god, what was wrong with her?—to lift his hands to her lips and kiss the marks there….
And then, out of nowhere, she knew. She knew what they tallied, and snatched back her hand. She stared at him and he sat there, unguarded, ready to accept whatever judgment she would lash at him.
“They’re kills,” she said, faint. “They’re chimaera.”
He didn’t deny it. As when she had attacked him, he wouldn’t defend himself. His hands stayed where they were, still as bones, and Karou knew he was fighting the urge to hide them.
She was shaking, staring at those marks, thinking of the ones she’d touched—twenty on one index finger alone. “So many,” she said. “You’ve killed so many.”
“I’m a soldier.”
Karou imagined her own four chimaera dead and put a hand over her mouth, afraid she might be sick. When he’d been telling her of the war, it was a world away. But Akiva was real and right in front of her, and the fact that he was a killer was real now, too. Like teeth spilled across Brimstone’s desk, all those marks stood for blood, death—not of wolves and tigers, but the blood and death of chimaera.
She was looking at him, fixed on him, and… she saw something. As if the moment split like an eggshell to reveal another moment inside it, almost indistinguishable from it—almost—and then it was gone, and time stood intact. Akiva was just as he had been and nothing at all had happened, but that glimpse…
Karou heard herself say, in a vague voice that might have emanated from within that eggshell moment, “You have more now.”
“What?” Akiva regarded her, blank—then, like lightning strike, not blank. He sat sharply forward, his eyes wide and flashing, the sudden movement upsetting his tea. “What?” he said again, louder.