And then, there on the Charles Bridge in full view of gawkers, their upheld phones and cameras capturing it for the world, and with the police approaching, wary and grim-faced, all hell broke loose.
“No!” cried Akiva, but it was too late.
Liraz moved first, like the slash of a knife, and she was fast, but Karou matched her with a knifelike speed of her own. She threw up her hands and the air rippled with the expulsion of magic. It made a slow-motion tracery, hanging there for a second like a warp, and then it hit. Its fringes shivered wide to catch Hazael and Akiva, and they both staggered. Liraz, though, was hurled back like a flicked bug. She twisted, acrobatic, and landed on her feet with a concussive force that shook the bridge. In the aftermath of the blast, only Karou stood straight. Her hair had been caught as in a backdraft, sucked forward and then turned loose, and it floated on the churning air.
She was still smiling, cold. With her drifting hair, and her palms outfaced with their staring ink eyes, she looked malevolent, even to Zuzana, like some species of fell goddess in the unconvincing guise of a girl. Zuzana, Mik, and the other onlookers faltered back. Liraz dropped her glamour, and it was as though the veil that had cloaked them was drawn away to reveal a raging fire. Hazael dropped his glamour, too, and moved to his sister’s side, and a battle line was drawn, the two angels facing Karou, their heads lowered against the misery her hamsas were pulsing at them.
Akiva stood between them, stricken. He had to move to one side or the other. A step or two in either direction, just that, and it was a choice that would define him forever. He looked rapidly back and forth between his comrades and Karou.
“Akiva,” hissed Liraz. She expected him to come to them. It had always been the three of them, advancing against the enemy, killing, and afterward drawing the rough tally marks on one another’s hands with knife tips and campfire soot. To them, Karou was just another tattoo waiting to happen, a line to be carved.
And then there was Karou, so ready to raise her hands and unleash Brimstone’s noxious magic.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” Akiva said, but his voice was thin, as if he didn’t believe it himself.
“It is like this,” said Liraz. “Don’t be a child, Akiva.”
He was still between them, straddling two possible futures.
Liraz said, “If you can’t kill her yourself, then go. You don’t have to see it. We’ll never speak of it again. It’s over. Do you hear me? Go home.”
She spoke with urgency and resolution. She really believed she was taking care of him, and that this—this thing with Karou, so beyond her ken—was some madness to be forcibly forgotten.
He said, “I’m not going home.”
Hazael. “What do you mean, you’re not going home? After all you’ve done? All you’ve fought for? It’s a new age, brother. Peace—”
“It’s not peace. Peace is more than the absence of war. Peace is accord. Harmony.”
“Harmony with beasts, you mean?” Mistrust shaded into Hazael’s expression, and disgust, and still, still, the hope that it was all a misunderstanding.
When Akiva answered, he knew he was crossing a final border, beyond all possibility of misinterpretation or return. It was a border he should have crossed a long time ago. Everything had gotten so twisted; he had gotten so twisted. “Yes. That’s what I mean.”
Karou broke her gaze away from the two intruders to glance at him. The hard smile had left her face already, and now, as she sensed his turmoil, even her upheld hands faltered. Thoughts of herself, her answers, her emptiness were forgotten, all overshadowed by Akiva’s anguish, which she felt like it was her own.
The police arrived. They hesitated in the face of this otherworldly tableau. Karou saw their baffled faces, their nervous guns, and she saw the way they looked at her. There were angels on the Charles Bridge, and she was their foe. She: enemy of angels, in her black coat and evil tattoos, with her lashing blue hair and black eyes. They: so golden, the very image of church frescoes come to life. She was the demon in this scene, and she half expected, glancing at her shadow sharp before her, to see that it had horns. It did not. Her shadow was a girl’s shadow, and seemed in that moment to have nothing at all to do with her.
Akiva, who a moment ago had pressed his face against her legs and wept, stood stock-still, and Karou felt fear for the first time since the two angels had come upon them. If he should take their side…
“Akiva,” she whispered.
“I’m here,” he said, and when he moved, it was to her. There had never been any doubt, only a hope that somehow the choice wouldn’t be forced, that the moment could be backed away from, but it was too late for that. So he stepped into his future, coming between Karou and his brother and sister, and he said to them in a low but steady voice, “I won’t let you harm her. There are other ways to live. We have it in us to do else than kill.”
Hazael and Liraz stared at him. Unthinkably, he had chosen the girl. Liraz’s shock quickly turned to bitterness. “Do we?” she flung back at him. “That’s a convenient position to take now, isn’t it?”
Karou had lowered her hands when Akiva came before her. She reached out, just her fingertips to his back, because she couldn’t help it.
He told her, “Karou, you have to go.”
“Get away from here. I’ll keep them from following you.” His voice was grim with what that would mean, but his decision was made. He gave her a quick look over his shoulder; his face was strained but set. “I’ll meet you in the place we first saw each other. Promise me you’ll wait for me there.”
The place they first saw each other. The Jemaa el-Fna, heart of Marrakesh, where she had caught his burning gaze through the chaos of a crowd and been pierced through the soul by it. Akiva said, in a voice hoarse with urgency, “Promise me. Karou, promise you won’t go with Razgut until I find you. Until I explain.”
Karou wanted to promise. She saw that he had thrown his allegiance to her, even against his own kind. He had surely saved her life—could she have survived an attack by two armed seraphim?—in addition to which, he had chosen her. Wasn’t that what she had always wanted, to be chosen? Cherished? He had given up his place in his own world for her, and he was asking that she wait for him in Marrakesh.
But something unyielding in her shrank from the promise. He might have chosen her, but that didn’t mean that she would do the same if she were faced with the same choice—against Brimstone, Issa, Yasri, Twiga. She had told Brimstone, “I want you to know I would never just leave you,” and she wouldn’t. She would choose her family. Anything else was unthinkable, though even now the idea of turning and leaving Akiva behind brought on physical pain.
She said, “I’ll wait for you as long as I can. That’s the best I can do.”
And she thought the brilliance of his burning wings dimmed just a little. He said in a hollow voice, still faced away from her, “Then that will have to be good enough.”
Liraz drew her sword, and Hazael followed suit. The police responded by falling back, raising their guns, shouting in Czech for the angels to drop their weapons. The onlookers cried out in a kind of ecstatic terror. Zuzana, jostled among them, kept her eyes on Karou.
Akiva, whose swords were less obvious in their crossed sheaths between his wings, reached double-handed over his shoulders and drew them with a harmonic ringing. Without looking back, he urged, “Karou. Go.”
She gathered herself into a crouch, and just before she sprang skyward to vanish into the ether in a streak of blue and black she said, both choked and pleading, “Come and find me, Akiva.”
And then she was gone, and he was left alone to face the fallout of his shattering choice.
Once upon a time,
an angel lay dying in the mist.
And a devil knelt over him and smiled.
Akiva was helpless to keep his blood in his body. It pulsed up under his fingers and escaped, riding the tide of his heartbeat out in hot spurts. He couldn’t stop the bleeding. The wound was a mauling, and clutching at it was a little like gathering a fistful of meat scraps to fling to a dog.
He was going to die.
Around him, the world had lost its horizons. Sea mist choked Bullfinch beach, and Akiva heard waves breaking but could see only as far as the nearest corpses: gray hummocks obscured by the fog. They might have been chimaera or seraphim—except for the nearest one, he couldn’t tell. That one lay only a few yards away, with his own sword embedded in it. The beast had been part hyena, part lizard, a monstrosity, and it had raked him open from collarbone to biceps, rending his mail as easily as cloth. It had clung to him, its teeth meeting through the flesh of his shoulder, even after he’d skewered it through its barrel chest. He’d twisted his blade, thrust deeper, twisted again. The beast had screamed deep in its throat, but didn’t let him go until it died.
Now, as Akiva lay waiting to die, the post-battle silence was split by a roar. He stiffened and clasped his wound tighter. Later, he would wonder why he’d done that. He should have let go, tried to die before they could reach him.
The enemy was stalking the field, killing the wounded. They had taken the day, driven the seraphim back to the fortifications at Morwen Bay, and they had no interest in prisoners. Akiva should have hurried his dying, slipped away in the calm of blood loss, like falling asleep. The enemy would be far less kind.
What made him wait? The hope of killing one more chimaera? But if that was it, why didn’t he try to drag himself over to retrieve his sword? He just lay there, holding his wound, living those extra few minutes for no reason that he could fathom.
And then he saw her.
She was just a silhouette at first. Vast bat wings, long ridged gazelle horns as sharp as pikes—the bestial parts of the enemy. Black loathing filled Akiva and he watched her pause beside first one corpse and then the next. She came to the body of the hyena-lizard and stood there a long moment—what was she doing? Death rites?
She turned and prowled toward Akiva.
She came clearer with every step. She was slender, her legs long—lean human thighs that gave way, below the knee, to the sleek taper of gazelle’s legs, the fine cloven hooves making her seem to balance on pins. Her wings were folded, her gait both graceful and tense with suppressed power. In one hand she held a crescent-moon blade; another just like it was sheathed at her thigh. With the other hand she raised a long staff that was not a weapon. It was curved like a shepherd’s crook, with something silver—a lantern?—suspended from the end.
No, not a lantern. It gave off not light, but smoke.
A few steps, hooves sinking into the sand, then the mist revealed her face to him, and his to her. She stopped abruptly when she saw he was alive. He braced for a snarl, a sudden lunge, and new pain as he was gutted by her blade, but the chimaera girl didn’t move. For a long moment they just looked at each other. She cocked her head to one side, a quizzical, birdlike gesture that spoke not of savagery, but curiosity. There was no snarl on her lips. Her face was solemn.
Unaccountably, she was beautiful.
She took a step closer. He watched her face as she drew nearer. His gaze slipped down her long neck to the ridges of her collarbones. She was finely made, elegant and spare. Her hair was short as swan’s down, soft and dark and close as a cap, so the architecture of her face was unobscured; perfect. Black greasepaint made a mask around her eyes, which Akiva could see were large—brown and bright, vivid and sorrowful.
He knew the sorrow was for her fallen comrades and not for him, but he still found himself transfixed by the compassion in her gaze. It made him think that perhaps he had never really looked at a chimaera before. He saw slaves often enough, but they kept their eyes on the ground, and warriors like this he only ever met while dodging a killing blow or dealing one, half-blind with the blood rage of battle. If he ignored the fact of her bloodied blade and her closely fitted black armor, her devilish wings and horns, if he focused just on her face—so unexpectedly lovely—she looked like a girl, a girl who had found a young man dying on the beach.
For a moment, that’s what he was. Not a soldier, not anyone’s enemy, and the death that was upon him seemed meaningless. That they lived as they did, angels and monsters locked in a volley of killing and dying, dying and killing, seemed an arbitrary choice.
As if they might just as well choose not to kill and die.
But no. That was all there was between them. And this girl was here for the same reason he was: to slay the enemy. And that meant him.
Why, then, didn’t she do it?
She knelt at his side, doing nothing to protect herself from any sudden move he might make. He remembered the knife at his hip. It was small, nothing like her own fantastical double-crescent, but it could kill her. In one motion he could embed it in the soft curve of her throat. Her perfect throat.
He made no move.
He was dream-lost by then. Blood-lost. Gazing up at the face above him, he was beyond wondering whether this was real. It could be a dying dream, or she could be a reaper sent from the next life to cull his soul. The silver censer hung on its crook, exhaling a fume of smoke that was both herbal and sulfurous, and as its scent wafted down to him, Akiva felt a tug, a lure. Dizzy, he thought he wouldn’t mind following this messenger into the next realm.
He imagined her guiding him by the hand, and with that serene image cradled in his mind, he let go of his wound to reach for her fingers, caught them in his, which were slippery with blood.
Her eyes went wide and she snatched her hand away.
He’d startled her; he hadn’t meant to. “I’ll go with you,” he said, speaking in Chimaera, which he knew enough of to give orders to slaves. It was a rough tongue, a cobbling together of many tribal dialects that the Empire had brought under one roof, and which had been melded over time into a common language. He could scarcely hear his own voice, but she made out his words well enough.