He had pain.
The pain in his shoulder was a constant, and so was his eidolon, the enemy girl, and the two were linked. When his shoulder burned, coming slowly back to life, he couldn’t help but think of her fine hands on it, winching the tourniquet that had saved him.
The healers of Astrae spurned the drugs of the battle surgeons, which didn’t help matters, and they made him use his arm. A slave—chimaera—was employed for the purpose of stretching it to keep the muscles supple, and Akiva was ordered onto the practice field to work his left arm in swordsmanship, in case the right never fully recovered. Against expectation, it did, though the pain did not diminish, and within a few months he was a more formidable swordsman than he had been before. He visited the palace armorer about a set of matched blades, and soon he reigned on the practice field. Fighting two-handed, he drew crowds to the morning bouts, including the emperor himself.
“One of mine?” asked Joram, appraising him.
Akiva had never been in his father’s immediate presence. Joram’s bastards were legion; he couldn’t be expected to know them all. “Yes, my Lord,” said Akiva with bowed head. His shoulders still heaved from the exertion of sparring, his right sending out the flares of agony that were just a part of living now.
“Look at me,” ordered the emperor.
Akiva did, and saw nothing of himself in the seraph before him. Hazael and Liraz, yes. Their blue eyes came straight from Joram, as did the set of their features. The emperor was fair, his golden hair going to gray, and though broad, he was of modest height and had to look up at Akiva.
His look was sharp. He said, “I remember your mother.”
Akiva blinked. He hadn’t been expecting that.
“It’s the eyes,” said the emperor. “They’re unforgettable, aren’t they?”
It was one of the few things Akiva did remember about his mother. The rest of her face was a blur, and he’d never even known her name, but he knew that he had her eyes. Joram seemed to be waiting for him to answer, so he acknowledged, “I remember,” and felt a tug of loss, as if, by admitting it, he was handing over the one thing he had of her.
“Terrible what happened to her,” said Joram.
Akiva went still. He’d had no knowledge of his mother after he was taken from her, as surely the emperor knew. Joram was baiting him, wanting him to ask, What? What happened to her? But Akiva didn’t ask, only clenched his teeth, and Joram, smiling knives, said, “But what can you expect, really, of Stelians? Savage tribe. Almost as bad as the beasts. Watch that the blood doesn’t out, soldier.”
And he walked away, leaving Akiva with the burn of his shoulder and a new urgency to know what he had never cared about before: What blood?
Could his mother have been Stelian? It made no sense that Joram would have had a Stelian concubine; he had no diplomatic relations with the “savage tribe” of the Far Isles, renegade seraphim who would never have given their women as tribute. How, then, had she come to be there?
The Stelians were known for two things. The first was their fierce independence—they were not part of the Empire, having steadfastly refused, over the centuries, to come into the fold with their seraph kindred.
The second was their sympathy with magic. It was believed, in the deep murk of history, that the first magi had been Stelian, and they were rumored still to practice a rarified level of magic unknown in the rest of Eretz. Joram hated them because he could neither conquer nor infiltrate them, at least not while needing to focus his forces on the Chimaera War. There was no doubt, though, in the gossip that swirled through the capital, of where he would set his sights once the beasts were broken.
As for what had happened to his mother, Akiva never found out. The harem was a closed world, and he couldn’t even confirm that there had ever been a Stelian concubine, let alone what had become of her. But for himself, something grew out of his encounter with his father: a sympathy with those strangers of his blood, and a curiosity about magic.
He was in Astrae for more than a year, and besides physical therapy, sparring, and some hours each day in the training camp drilling young soldiers in arms, his time was his own. After that day, he made use of it. He knew about the pain tithe, and thanks to his wound, he now had a constant reservoir of pain to draw on. Observing the magi—to whom he, a brute soldier, was as good as invisible—he learned the fundamental manipulations, starting with summoning. He practiced on bat-crows and hummingbird-moths in the dark of night, directing their flight, lining them up in Vs like winter geese, calling them down to perch on his shoulders, or in his cupped hands.
It was easy; he kept going. He quickly came up against the boundary of the known, which wasn’t saying much—what passed for magic in this age was little more than parlor tricks, illusions. And he never fooled himself that he was a magus, or anywhere close, but he was inventive, and unlike the courtly fops who called themselves magi, he didn’t have to flog or burn or cut himself to dredge up power—he had it, low and constant. But the real reason he surpassed them was neither his pain nor his inventiveness. It was his motivation.
The idea that had grown from a wild thing into a hope—to see the chimaera girl again—had become a plan.
It had two parts. Only the first was magical: to perfect a glamour that could conceal his wings. There was a manipulation for camouflage, but it was rudimentary, only a kind of “skip” in space that could trick the eye—at a distance—into overlooking the object in question. Invisibility it was not. If he hoped to pass in disguise among the enemy—which was exactly what he hoped—he would have to do better than that.
So he worked at it. It took months. He learned to go into his pain, like it was a place. From within it, things looked different—sharp-edged—and felt and sounded different, too, tinny and cool. Pain was like a lens that honed everything, his senses and instincts, and it was there, through relentless trial and repetition, that he did it. He achieved invisibility. It was a triumph that would have garnered him fame and the emperor’s highest honors, and it gave him a cold satisfaction to keep it to himself.
Blood will out, he thought. Father.
The other part of his plan was language. To master Chimaera, he perched on the roof of the slave barracks and listened to the stories they told by the light of their stinking dungfire. Their tales were unexpectedly rich and beautiful, and, listening, he couldn’t help imagining his chimaera girl sitting at a battle campfire somewhere telling the same stories.
His. He caught himself thinking of her as his, and it didn’t even seem strange.
By the time he was sent back to his regiment at Morwen Bay, he could have used a little more time to perfect his Chimaera accent, but he thought he was basically ready for what came next, in all its bright and shining madness.
ALMOST LIKE MAGIC
Back then, it had been Madrigal’s existence that had called to him across space. Now it was Karou’s. Then, Loramendi had been his destination, the caged city of the beasts. Now it was Marrakesh. Once again he left Hazael and Liraz behind, but this time he didn’t leave them in ignorance. They knew the truth about him.
What they would do about it, he couldn’t guess.
Liraz had called him a traitor, said he made her sick. Hazael had just stared, pale and repulsed.
But they had let him go without bloodshed—his or theirs—and that was the best he had hoped for. Whether they would tell their commander—or even the emperor—come back hunting for him, or cover for him, he couldn’t know. He couldn’t think about it. Flying over the Mediterranean with the wishbone in his hand, his thoughts belonged to Karou. He imagined her waiting for him at the mad Moroccan square where he’d first locked eyes with her. He could picture her so clearly, down to the way she would keep lifting her hand to her throat, reaching for the wishbone before she remembered, with a fresh pang every time, that she didn’t have it.
He had it. Everything it meant, to the past, to the future, was right here in his hand—almost like magic, as Madrigal had told him once.
Until the night that he had finally seen Madrigal again, he hadn’t even known what a wishbone was. She wore one on a cord around her neck, so incongruous a thing against her silk gown, her silken skin.
“It’s a wishbone,” she’d told him, holding it out. “You hook your finger around the spur, like this, and we each make a wish and pull. Whoever gets the bigger piece gets their wish.”
“Magic?” Akiva had asked. “What bird does this come from, that its bones make magic?”
“Oh, it’s not magic. The wishes don’t really come true.”
“Then why do it?”
She shrugged. “Hope? Hope can be a powerful force. Maybe there’s no actual magic in it, but when you know what you hope for most and hold it like a light within you, you can make things happen, almost like magic.”
He was lost in her. The radiance of her eyes kindled something in him that made him aware he had passed his life in a haze of half-living, at best half-feeling. “And what do you hope for most?” he asked, wanting—whatever it was—to give it to her.
She was coy. “You’re not supposed to tell. Come, wish with me.”
Akiva reached out and hooked one finger around the bone’s slender spur. The thing he wished for most was a thing he had never wished for at all, not until he had discovered her. And it came true that night, and many nights after. A brief and shining span of happiness, it was the pivot point around which his whole life spun. Everything he had done since, it had been because he had loved Madrigal, and lost her, and lost himself.
And now? He was flying toward Karou with the truth in his hand, this thing so fragile, “almost like magic.”
Almost? Not this time.
This wishbone seethed magic. Brimstone’s signature was as powerful on it as on the portals that set Akiva’s teeth on edge. In the bone was the truth, and with it, the power to make Karou hate him.
And if it were to vanish—such a tiny thing to drop in an ocean—what then? Karou never needed to know anything. He could have her then; he could love her. More to the point, if there were no wishbone, she could love him.
It was a poisonous thought, and it filled Akiva with self-loathing. He tried to quell it, but the bone taunted him. She never has to know, it seemed to say, lying there on his open hand. And the Mediterranean far below, dappled and sun-dazzled and fathoms deep, affirmed it.
She never has to know.
Karou was exactly where Akiva had imagined her to be, at a cafe table at the edge of the Jemaa el-Fna, and also as he had imagined, she was unquiet in the absence of the wishbone. Once, her fingers would have needed no occupation but the holding of her pencil. Now her sketchbook lay open before her, white pages blinding in the North African sun, and she fidgeted, unfocused, unable to keep her eyes from searching the plaza for Akiva.
He would come, she told herself, and he would bring back the wishbone. He would.
If he was alive.
Would they have harmed him, those other seraphim? It had been two days already. What if…? No. He was alive. To imagine him otherwise… Karou’s mind couldn’t approach it. Absurdly, she kept remembering Kishmish, years ago, gulping down that hummingbird-moth—the stark suddenness of it: alive, not alive. Just like that.
Her thoughts veered away, finding focus on the wishbone. What did it mean, that it had had that effect on Akiva? And… what could he have to tell her that had made him fall to his knees? The mystery of her self took on a dark tint and she felt a shiver of apprehension. She couldn’t help remembering Zuzana and Mik, the looks on their faces—stunned and afraid. Of her. She had called Zuzana from her airport layover in Casablanca. They had argued.
“What are you doing?” Zuzana had demanded to know. “Let’s not regress to the time of mysterious errands, Karou.”
There wasn’t much point being cagey now, so she’d told her. Zuzana, unsurprisingly, had taken Akiva’s line that it was too dangerous, and Brimstone wouldn’t want it.
“I want you to take my flat,” said Karou. “I already called the landlord. He has a key for you, and it’s paid for the rest of—”
“I don’t want your stupid flat,” Zuzana said. Zuzana, who boarded with a cabbage-cooking elder aunt and joked not infrequently about killing Karou just for her flat. “Because you live in it. You are not just going to vanish like this, Karou. This isn’t some goddamn Narnia book.”
There was no reasoning with her. The conversation ended badly, and Karou was left sitting with her phone warm in her hands and no one else to call. It struck her with terrible clarity how few people were in her life. She thought of Esther, her fake grandmother, and that just made her sad, that her mind would default to a stand-in. She almost tossed the phone in the trash right there—she didn’t have the charger, anyway—but was very glad the next morning that she hadn’t. It vibrated in her pocket at the cafe, on the dregs of its juice, and disclosed the message:
No. Food. Anywhere. Thanks a lot for starving me. *croak expire*
She laughed, and held her face, and even cried a little, and when an old man asked her if she was okay, she wasn’t quite sure.
Two days she had been sitting here now; two nights she had tried to sleep in her rented room nearby. She had tracked down Razgut, just to know where he was when she was ready to go, and had left him again, wailing for his gavriel, which she did not give him. She would make his wish for him when the time came to go.
To go. With or without Akiva, with or without her wishbone.
How long would she wait?
Two days and two unending nights, and her eyes were darting, hungry. Her heart was gasping, empty. Whatever resistance had been in her, she gave it up. Her hands knew what they wanted: They wanted Akiva, the spark and heat of him. Even in the warmth of the Moroccan spring she was cold, as if the only thing with a chance of warming her was him. On the third morning, walking through the souks to the Jemaa el-Fna, she made a curious purchase.