This time, it was Akiva who jerked his hand away. “Wait,” he said. “Wait.”
He reached for her face, and Karou covered his hand with hers, pressing it to her cheek.
He said, “I want you to know…” He swallowed. “I need you to know that I was drawn to you—to you, Karou—before the wishbone. Before I knew, and I think… I think I would always find you, no matter how you were hidden.” He was focused on her with extraordinary intensity. “Your soul sings to mine. My soul is yours, and it always will be, in any world. No matter what happens—” His voice cracked, and he took a breath. “I need you to remember that I love you.”
Love. Karou felt bathed in light. The cherished word leapt to her own lips to answer him, but he beseeched her, “Tell me you’ll remember. Promise me.”
Here was a promise she could make, and did. Akiva fell silent, and Karou, sitting forward, breathless, thought that that was all—that he would just say something like that and then not kiss her. Which was absurd, and she would have protested had it come to that, but it did not.
One of his hands was already at her cheek; he lifted the other. He cradled her face in his hands, and then it was as smooth as inevitability: a gliding together. His mouth brushed hers. A dip, a touch like a whisper—a gentle, gentle grazing of Akiva’s full lower lip across both of Karou’s in an upward lilt, and then there was space between them again, so small a space, their faces so close. They breathed each other’s breath as the pull gathered between and around and in them, astral, and then the space was gone again, and all there was was the kiss.
Sweet and warm and trembling.
Soft and hard and deepening.
Mint on Karou’s breath, salt on Akiva’s skin.
His hands in her hair, plunged to the wrists like it was water; her palms at his chest, the wishbone forgotten in the discovery of his heartbeat.
Sweetness gave way to something else. Pulse. Pleasure. What overwhelmed Karou was the realness, the deep physical trueness of Akiva—salt and musk and muscle, flame and flesh and heartbeat—the feeling of allness. The taste of him and the feel of him against her lips—his mouth and then his jaw, his neck and the soft place beneath his ear, and how he shivered when she kissed him there, and somehow her hands slipped under his shirt and up, so that only her half gloves were between her hands and his chest. Her fingertips danced over him and he shook and crushed her to him and the kiss was so much more than a kiss now.
It was Karou who leaned back, drawing him down with her, over her, and the feel of all of him against all of her was total and burning and… familiar, too, and she was herself but not herself, arching into him with a soft animal mewl.
And Akiva broke away.
It was quick as shattering—a lurch and he was up, leaving behind the jagged edges of the moment. Karou sat up fast. She didn’t know where her breath had gone. Her dress was bunched at her thighs; the wishbone lay abandoned on the blanket, and Akiva stood at the foot of the bed, faced away from her with his hands on his h*ps and his head lowered. His breathing matched hers in rhythm, even now. Karou sat silent, overcome by the power of what had possessed her. She had never felt anything like it. With space between them now, she was chastened—what had made her take things so far?—but she also wanted it back, the ache and salt and allness of it.
“I’m sorry,” said Akiva, strained.
“No, it was me, and it’s all right. Akiva, I love you, too—”
“It’s not all right,” he said, turning back, his tiger eyes violently ablaze. “It’s not all right, Karou. I didn’t mean for that to happen. I don’t want you to hate me more than you already—”
“Hate you? How could I ever—”
“Karou,” he said, cutting her short. “You have to know the truth, and you have to know it now. We have to break the wishbone.”
And so, at last, they did.
Such a little thing, and brittle, and the sound it made: a sharp, clean snap.
Rushing, like wind through a door, and Karou was the door, and the wind was coming home, and she was also the wind. She was all: wind and home and door.
She rushed into herself and was filled.
She let herself in and was full.
She closed again. The wind settled. It was as simple as that.
She was whole.
She is a child.
She is flying. The air is thin and miserly to breathe, and the world lies so far below that even the moons, playing chase across the sky, are seen from above, like the shining crowns of children’s heads.
She is no longer a child.
She slips down from the sky, through the boughs of requiem trees. It is dark, and the grove is alive with the hish-hish of evangelines, night-loving serpent-birds that drink the requiem blooms. They’re drawn to her—hish-hish—and dart around her horns, stirring the blossoms so pollen sifts down, golden, and settles on her shoulders.
Later, it will numb her lover’s lips as he drinks her in.
She is in battle. Seraphim plummet from the sky, trailing fire.
She is in love. It is bright within her, like a swallowed star.
She mounts a scaffold. A thousand-thousand faces stare at her, but she sees only one.
She kneels on the battlefield beside a dying angel.
Wings enfold her. Skin like fever, love like burning.
She mounts the scaffold. Her hands are tied behind her, her wings pinioned. A thousand-thousand faces stare; feet stamp, hooves; voices shriek and jeer, but one rises above them all. It is Akiva’s. It is a scream to scour ghosts from their nests.
She is Madrigal Kirin, who dared imagine a new way of living.
The blade is a great and shining thing, like a falling moon. It is sudden—
Karou gasped. Her hands flew to her neck and wrapped around it, and it was intact.
She looked at Akiva and blinked, and when she breathed his name, there was a new richness in her voice, an infusion of wonder and love and entreaty that made it seem to rise out of time. As it did. “Akiva,” she breathed with the fullness of her self.
With longing, with anguish, he watched her, and waited.
She dropped her hands from her neck and they trembled as she stripped off her gloves to reveal her palms. She stared at them.
They stared back.
They stared back—two flat indigo eyes—and she understood what Brimstone had done.
She finally understood everything.
Once upon a time,
there were two moons, who were sisters.
Nitid was the goddess of tears and life,
and the sky was hers.
No one worshipped Ellai but secret lovers.
Madrigal ascended the scaffold. Her hands were tied behind her, her wings pinioned so she couldn’t fly away. It was an unnecessary precaution: Overhead arched the iron bars of the Cage. The bars were there to keep seraphim out, not chimaera in, but today they would have served that purpose. Madrigal was not going anywhere but to her death.
“That is unnecessary,” Brimstone had objected when Thiago ordered the pinion. His voice had come out as a scraping almost too low to hear, like something being dragged across the ground.
Thiago, the White Wolf, the general, the Warlord’s son and right hand, had ignored him. He knew it was unnecessary. He wanted to humiliate her. Madrigal’s death wasn’t enough for him. He wanted her abject, penitent. He wanted her on her knees.
He would be disappointed. He could bind her hands and wings, he could force her to her knees, and he could watch her die, but it was not in his power to make her repent.
She was not sorry for what she had done.
On the palace balcony, the Warlord sat in state. He had the head of a stag, his antlers tipped in gold. Thiago was in his place at his father’s side. The seat at the Warlord’s left hand belonged to Brimstone, and was empty.
A thousand-thousand eyes were on Madrigal, and the cacophony of the crowd was sharpening to something dark, the voices cresting to jeers. Feet stamped, thunderous. There had not been an execution in the plaza in living memory, but those gathered knew what to do, as if hate were an atavism just waiting to resurface.
A shrieked accusation: “Angel-lover!”
Some in the crowd were stricken, uncertain. Madrigal was a beauty, a joy—could she really have done this unthinkable thing?
And then Akiva was brought out. It was Thiago’s order that he be forced to watch. The guards knocked him to his knees on a platform opposite hers, from which his view would be unobscured. Even bloodied and shackled and weak from torture, he was glorious. His wings flared radiant; his eyes were fire, and they were fierce, and fixed on her, and Madrigal was filled with a warmth of memories and tenderness, and with sharp regret that her body would never again know his, her mouth never again meet his, that their dreams would never come to their fruition.
Her eyes filled with tears. She smiled across space to him, and it was a look of such unmistakable love that no one watching could continue to doubt her guilt.
Madrigal Kirin was guilty of treason—of loving the enemy—sentenced to death and worse, a sentence that had not been handed down for hundreds of years: evanescence.
She was alone on the scaffold with the hooded executioner. Head held high, she stepped toward the block and sank to her knees, and it was then that Akiva started to scream. His voice soared over the pandemonium—a scream to scour the souls of all gathered, a sound to drive ghosts from their nests.
It drilled through Madrigal’s heart, and she yearned to gather him in her arms. She knew Thiago wanted her to break and scream and beg, but she wouldn’t. There was no point. There was not the slightest hope of life. Not for her.
One last look to her love, and she laid her head down on the block. It was black rock, like everything in Loramendi, and it was hot as an anvil against her cheek. Akiva screamed, and Madrigal’s heart answered it. Her pulse raced—she was about to die—but she kept calm. She had a plan, and it was what she held on to as the executioner raised his blade—a great and shining thing, like a falling moon—because she had work ahead of her, and she couldn’t afford to lose her focus. She wasn’t finished yet.
After she died, she was going to save Akiva’s life.
Madrigal Kirin was Madrigal of the Kirin, one of the last winged tribes of the Adelphas Mountains. The Adelphas were the natural bastion between the Seraph Empire and the free holdings—the defended chimaera territory—and it had been centuries since anyone had dwelt safely in their peaks. The Kirin, flash-fast and superb archers, lasted longer than most. They were annihilated only a decade ago, when Madrigal was a child. She grew up in Loramendi, a child of towers and rooftops, not mountains.
Loramendi—the Cage, the Black Fortress, the Warlord’s Nest—was home to some million chimaera, creatures of all aspects who would never, but for the seraphim, have lived together or fought side by side, or even spoken the same language. Once, the races had been scattered, isolated, sometimes trading with one another, sometimes skirmishing—a Kirin like Madrigal having no more in common with an Anolis from Iximi, for example, than a wolf did with a tiger—but the Empire had changed all that. In naming themselves the world’s keepers, the angels had given the creatures of the land a common enemy, and now, centuries into their struggle, they shared heritage and language, history, heroes, a cause. They were a nation—of which the Warlord was leader, and Loramendi capital.
It was a port city, its broad harbor filled with warships, fishing vessels, and a stout trade fleet. Ripples in the surface of the water gave evidence of amphibious creatures who, part of the alliance, escorted the ships and fought on their side. The city itself, within the massive black walls and bars of the fortress, was shared by a multifarious population, and though they had been stirred together over the centuries, still they tended to settle in neighborhoods like with like, or near enough, and a caste system prevailed, based on aspect.
Madrigal was of high-human aspect, as was said of races with the head and torso of man or woman. Her horns were a gazelle’s, black and ridged, flowing up off her brow and back in a scimitar sweep. Her legs shifted at the knees from flesh to fur, the gazelle portion giving them an elegant, exaggerated length, so that when she stood to her full height she was nearly six feet, not including horns, and an undue portion of that was leg. She was slender as a stem. Her brown eyes, spaced wide, were as large and glistening as a deer’s but with none of a deer’s vacantness. They were keen and immediate and intelligent, leaping like sparks. Her face was oval, smooth and fair, her mouth generous and mobile, made for smiling.
By anyone’s measure, she was beautiful, though she made as little as possible of her beauty, keeping her dark hair short as fur and wearing no paint or ornament. It didn’t matter. She was beautiful, and beauty would be noticed.
Thiago had noticed.
Madrigal was hiding, though she would deny it if accused. She was on the roof of the north barracks, stretched out on her back like she’d fallen from the sky. Or, not the sky. If she had fallen from the sky, she would have landed on iron bars. She was within the Cage, on a rooftop, her wings splayed wide on either side of her.
All around, she felt the manic rhythms of the city, and heard and smelled them, too—excitement, preparations. Meat roasting, instruments being tuned. A firework test fizzled past like a misbegotten angel. She should have been preparing, too. Instead she lay on her back, hiding. She wasn’t dressed for festivity, but in her usual soldier’s leathers—breeches that fit like a skin to the knee, and a vest that laced in the back, accommodating wings. Her blades, shaped in homage to the sister moons, were at her sides. She looked relaxed, even limp, but her stomach was churning, her hands clasped in fists.