Fingerless gloves. She saw them in a vendor’s stall, densely knit things of striped Berber wool, reinforced with leather at the palms. She bought them and pulled them on. They covered her hamsas entirely, and she couldn’t deceive herself that she’d bought them for warmth. She knew what she wanted. She wanted what her hands wanted: to touch Akiva, and not just with her fingertips, and not with caution, and not with fear of causing him pain. She wanted to hold him and be held, in soft perfect unity, like slow-dancing. She wanted to fit herself to him, breathe him, come alive against him, discover him, hold his face as he had held hers, with tenderness.
“It will come, and you will know it,” Brimstone had promised her once, and though he had surely never dreamed it would come to her as the enemy, she knew now he hadn’t been wrong. She did know it. It was simple and total, like hunger or happiness, and when she looked up from her tea on the third morning and saw Akiva in the square, standing some twenty yards off and looking at her, it thrilled through her like her nerves were channeling starlight. He was safe.
He was here. She rose from her chair.
It struck her, the way he was just standing there at a distance.
And when he came to her, it was with a heavy tread and a closed expression, slowly, reluctantly. Her certainty vanished. She did not reach for him, or even step out from behind the table. All the starlight shrank back up her nerve endings, leaving her cold, and she stared at him—the heavy slowness, the flatness of his look—and wondered if she had imagined everything between them.
“Hi,” she said in a small voice, hesitant and with an uplift of hope that she might be misreading him, that he might still mirror back at her the starburst that the sight of him had ignited in her. It was what she had always wanted and thought that she’d found: someone who was for her, as she was for him, whose blood and butterflies sang to hers and answered them, note for note.
But Akiva answered nothing. He gave a tight nod and made no move to come closer.
“You’re okay,” she said, and her voice didn’t begin to convey her gladness.
“You waited,” he said.
“I… I said I would.”
“As long as you could.”
Was he bitter that she hadn’t promised? Karou wanted to tell him that she hadn’t known then what she knew now—that “as long as she could” was a long time indeed, and that she felt as if she’d been waiting for him all her life. But she was silenced by his closed expression.
He thrust out his hand and said, “Here,” and there was her wishbone, dangling by its cord.
She took it, managing a whispered thank you as she slipped it over her head. It settled back into its place at the base of her throat.
“I brought these, too,” Akiva said, and placed on the table the case that held her crescent-moon knives. “You’ll need them.”
It sounded hard, almost like a threat. Karou just stood there, blinking back tears.
“Do you still want to know who you are?” Akiva asked. He wasn’t even looking at her. He was looking past her, at nothing.
“Of course I do,” she said, though it wasn’t what she had been thinking. What she wanted right now was to go back in time, to Prague. She had believed then, with a certainty that was both thrill and refuge, that Akiva was coming back from some dark night of the soul for her. Now it was like he was dead again, and though she had her wishbone back, and though she was going to learn, finally, the answer to the question at the core of her being, she felt dead, too.
“What happened?” she asked. “With the others?”
He ignored the question. “Is there somewhere we can go?”
Akiva gestured to the crowds in the square, the vendors building their pyramids of oranges, the tourists toting cameras and parcels of shopping. “You’ll want to be alone for this,” he said.
“What… what do you have to tell me that I’ll want to be alone to hear it?”
“I’m not going to tell you anything.” Akiva had been gazing past her, unfocused, this whole time, so that she’d begun to feel like some kind of blur, but he fixed his eyes on her now. Their brilliance was like the sun in topaz, and she saw, before he looked away again, the bare glint of a yearning so deep it hurt to behold. Her heart leapt.
“We’re going to break the wishbone,” he said.
And then she would know everything, and she would hate him. Akiva was trying to prepare himself for the way she would look at him once she understood. He had watched her from the square for a handful of seconds before she looked up, and he witnessed the way her face was transformed by the sight of him—from anxious, lost expectancy, to… light. It was as if she had emitted a pulse of radiation that reached him even where he stood, and it bathed him and it burned him.
All that he didn’t deserve and could never have was in that instant. All he wanted now was to fold her against him, lose his hands in her hair—which was clean and combed straight as rivers over her shoulders—lose himself in the fragrance and softness of her.
He remembered a story Madrigal had told him once: the human tale of the golem. It was a thing shaped of clay in the form of a man, brought to life by carving the symbol aleph into its brow. Aleph was the first letter of an ancestral human alphabet, and the first letter of the Hebrew word truth; it was the beginning. Watching Karou rise to her feet, radiant in a fall of lapis hair, in a woven dress the color of tangerines, with a loop of silver beads at her throat and a look of joy and relief and… love… on her beautiful face, Akiva knew that she was his aleph, his truth and beginning. His soul.
His wing joints ached with the desire to beat, once, and propel him to her, but instead he walked, heavy and heartsick. His arms felt banded by iron, keeping them from reaching for her. The way the light went out of her at the cold manner of his approach, the hesitation and hope in her voice—it was killing him by degrees. It was better this way. If he gave in and let himself have what he wanted, she would only hate him more once she knew what he really was. So he held himself remote, aching, preparing for the moment he knew must come.
“Break it?” Karou asked now, looking at the wishbone in surprise. “Brimstone never did—”
“It wasn’t his,” said Akiva. “It was never his. He was just keeping it. For you.”
He hadn’t been able to drop it in the sea. That he had even considered it made him sick with himself—more evidence of his unworthiness of her. She deserved to know everything, in all its heartbreak and brutality, and if he was right about the wishbone, she very soon would.
She seemed to sense something of the magnitude of the moment. “Akiva,” she whispered. “What is it?”
And when she looked at him with her bird-black eyes, frightened and imploring, he had to turn away again, so powerful was the longing that twisted through him. Not touching her in that moment was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
And it might have gone on between them in that terrible, false way, but Karou had seen what she had seen, and felt it, too—Akiva’s yearning, meeting her own in a deep place—and when he turned away she experienced a sudden unspooling, like the snap of a cable and all her restraints giving way, and she couldn’t bear it anymore. She reached for him. Her half-gloved hand, hamsa covered, took his arm, gently and full against his skin, and turned him back to her. She stepped close, tipping back her head to gaze up at him, and took his other arm.
“Akiva,” she murmured, her tone no longer fearful, but low and ardent and sweet. “What is it?” Her hands climbed him, over the steel of his arms and shoulders, up ramps of trapezius to his throat, his rough-smooth jaw, and then her fingertips were on his lips, so soft by comparison. She felt them tremble. “Akiva,” she repeated. “Akiva. Akiva.” She seemed to be saying, Enough of this; stop pretending.
And so, with a shudder, he did. He dropped the pretense, and dropped his head, so his brow came to rest against the sun-warmed top of hers. His arms went around her and drew her in, and Karou and Akiva were like two matches struck against each other to flare starlight. With a sigh, she softened, and it was pure homecoming to melt against him and rest. She felt the coarseness of his unshaven throat at her cheek as he tested, against his own, the perfect water-smoothness of her hair. They stood like that for a long time, and they were quiet but their blood and nerves and butterflies were not—they were rampantly alive, rushing and thrumming in a wild and perfect melody, matched note for note.
The wishbone, small but sharp, was trapped between them.
ACHE AND SALT AND ALLNESS
“In here,” Karou said, leading Akiva to a sky-blue door set in a dusty wall. Their fingers were laced together. They couldn’t not touch, and guiding him through the medina, Karou had felt like she was floating. They might have hurried, but instead they drifted, pausing to watch a carpet-maker, to peer into a basket of puppies, to test the points of ornamental daggers with their fingertips—anything but haste.
But as slowly as they went, they still arrived at their destination. Akiva followed Karou down a dark passage, where they were spilled into the light of a courtyard, a hidden world open only to the sky. It was fringed with date palms and brilliant with zelij tiles, a fountain plashing in its center. A balcony ran around the second story, and Karou’s room was up a twist of stairs. It was bigger than her flat, with a high, timbered ceiling. The walls were vermillion tadelakt with a deep, earthen glow, and a Berber blanket on the bed spelled out some mysterious blessing in a language of symbols.
Akiva closed the door and let go of Karou’s hand, and the moment that she had been pushing ahead of them, forestalling—the breaking of the wishbone… It was here.
This was it.
This was it.
Akiva paced away from her, looked out a window, raised his hands and raked his fingers through his hair in a gesture that was becoming familiar, then turned back to her. “Are you ready, Karou?”
Suddenly, no. She was not ready. Panic, like a chaos of wings in her rib cage. “We can wait,” she said with artificial brightness. “We don’t want to fly until nightfall anyway.” The plan was to fetch Razgut once the sun went down, and to fly with him under cover of darkness to the portal, wherever it might be.
Akiva came back toward her, a few halting steps, and stopped just out of reach. “We could wait,” he agreed, seeming lured by the idea. Then he added, very softly, “But it won’t get any easier.”
“You’d tell me, wouldn’t you, if it was something awful?”
He came closer, reached up and stroked her hair, once, slowly. Feline, she leaned into his touch. He said, “You don’t have to be afraid, Karou. How could it be awful? It’s you. You can only be beautiful.”
A shy smile tugged at her lips. She took a breath and said with resolve, “Okay then. Should I, um, sit down?”
“If you like.”
She went to the bed and climbed to its center, curling her legs under her and tucking down the hem of her orange dress, which she’d bought in the souk with the thought of Akiva seeing her in it. She had bought more practical apparel, too, for the journey and whatever might come after. It was packed in a new bag and ready to go, along with such mundane necessaries as she’d had to leave Prague without, having fled town so abruptly. She was glad Akiva had brought her knives—glad to have them, that is, and afraid of needing them.
He sat facing her, his legs long and easy, shoulders rolled forward in a way that accentuated their breadth.
It was then that Karou had another flash, a split in the surface of time, and a glimpse, within, of Akiva. He was sitting just like this, his shoulders heavy and relaxed in just that way, but… they were bare, as was his chest, and he was all tawny muscle, the right shoulder a snarl of scar tissue. Again, on his face, the smile that hurt with its beauty. Again, an instant and it was gone.
She blinked, cocked her head, and murmured, “Oh.”
“What?” Akiva asked.
“Sometimes I think I see you, in another time or something….I don’t know.” She shook her head and waved it off. “Your shoulder. What happened to it?”
He touched it, watching her intently. “What did you see?”
She blushed. There had been something so sensual about that moment, him sitting there shirtless and happy. She said only, “You… smiling. I haven’t seen you smile like that, not really.”
“It’s been a long time.”
“I wish you would,” she said. “For me.”
He didn’t. Pain flashed over his face and he looked down at his knuckles and then back up at her. “Come here,” he said, and reached out, easing the wishbone’s cord up and over her head. He hooked a finger around it. “Like this.”
She didn’t take it. She said in a rush, “Whatever happens, we don’t have to be enemies. Not if we don’t want to be. It’s up to us, isn’t it?”
“It will be up to you,” he said.
“But I already know—”
He shook his head, sorrowful. “You can’t know. You can’t know until you know.”
She let out an exasperated breath. “You sound like Brimstone,” she muttered, and set about composing herself. And then, finally, she lifted her hand to slip her pinkie around the wishbone’s free spur. Her knuckle came to rest against Akiva’s, and even that small contact kicked off an effervescence all through her.
Now, all they had to do was pull. Karou waited a beat, thinking Akiva would lead, but then she thought he was waiting for her. She checked his eyes—they were on hers, searing—and tensed her hand. The only way to do it was to do it. She started to pull.