It was some time before they got back around to their new myth.
“Once upon a time,” Madrigal murmured later, her face now resting on Akiva’s chest so that the curve of her left horn followed the line of his face, and he could tilt his brow against it. “There was a world that was perfectly made and full of birds and striped creatures and lovely things like honey lilies and star tenzing and weasels—”
“Hush. And this world already had light and shadow, so it didn’t need any rogue stars to come and save it, and it had no use for bleeding suns or weeping moons, either, and most important, it had never known war, which is a terrible, wasteful thing that no world ever needs. It had earth and water, air and fire, all four elements, but it was missing the last element. Love.”
Akiva’s eyes were closed. He smiled as he listened, and stroked the soft down of Madrigal’s fur-short hair, and traced the ridges of her horns.
“And so this paradise was like a jewel box without a jewel. There it lay, day after day of rose-colored dawns and creature sounds and strange perfumes, and waited for lovers to find it and fill it with their happiness.” Pause. “The end.”
“The end?” Akiva opened his eyes. “What do you mean, the end?”
She said, smoothing her cheek against the golden skin of his chest, “The story is unfinished. The world is still waiting.”
He said wistfully, “Do you know how to find it? Let’s leave before the sun rises.”
The sun. The reminder stilled Madrigal’s lips from their new course up the curve of Akiva’s shoulder, the one scarred with the reminder of their first meeting, at Bullfinch. She thought how she might have left him bleeding, or worse, finished him, but some ineluctable thing had stopped her so that they might be here, now. And the idea of disentangling, dressing, leaving, gave rise to a reluctance so powerful it hurt.
There was dread, too, of what her disappearance might have stirred up back at Loramendi. An image of Thiago, angry, intruded into her happiness, and she pushed it away, but there was no pushing away the sunrise. In a mournful voice, she said, “I have to go.”
Akiva said, “I know,” and she lifted her face from his shoulder and saw that his wretchedness matched her own. He didn’t ask, “What will we do?” and she didn’t, either. Later they would talk of such things; on that first night, they were shy of the future and, for all that they had loved and discovered in the night, still shy of each other.
Instead, Madrigal reached up for the charm she wore around her neck. “Do you know what this is?” she asked him, untying the cord.
“Well, yes. It’s a wishbone. 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 asked, sitting up. “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.”
“And what do you hope for most?”
“You’re not supposed to tell. Come, wish with me.”
She held up the wishbone.
It was part whimsy and part impudence that had made her put the thing on a cord. She had been fourteen, four years in Brimstone’s service, but also now in battle training and feeling full of her own power. She’d come into the shop one afternoon while Twiga was plucking newly minted lucknows from their molds, and she had wheedled for one.
Brimstone had not yet educated her about the harsh reality of magic and the pain tithe, and she still regarded wishing as fun. When he refused her—as he always did, not counting scuppies, which cost a mere pinch of pain to create—she’d had a small, dramatic meltdown in the corner. She couldn’t even remember now what wish had been of such dire importance to her fourteen-year-old self, but she well remembered Issa extracting a bone from the remains of the evening meal—a grim-grouse in sauce—and comforting her with the human lore of the wishbone.
Issa had a wealth of human stories, and it was from her that Madrigal came by her fascination with that race and their world. In defiance of Brimstone, she took the bone and made an elaborate show of wishing on it.
“That’s it?” Brimstone asked, when he heard what petty desire had inspired her tantrum. “You would have wasted a wish on that?”
She and Issa were on the verge of breaking the bone between them, but they stopped.
“You’re not a fool, Madrigal,” Brimstone said. “If there’s something you want, pursue it. Hope has power. Don’t waste it on foolish things.”
“Fine,” she said, cupping the wishbone in her hand. “I’ll save it until my hope meets your high expectations.” She put it on a cord. For a few weeks she made a point of voicing ridiculous wishes aloud and pretending to ponder them.
“I wish I could taste with my feet like a butterfly.”
“I wish scorpion-mice could talk. I bet they know the best gossip.”
“I wish my hair was blue.”
But she never broke the bone. What started as childish defiance turned into something else. Weeks became months, and the longer she went without breaking the wishbone, the more important it seemed that when she did, the wish—the hope, rather—should be worthy of her.
In the requiem grove with Akiva, it finally was.
She formed her wish in her mind, looking him in the eyes, and pulled. The bone broke clean down the middle, and the pieces, when measured against each other, were of exactly the same length.
“Oh. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it means we both get our wishes.”
“Maybe it means that we wished for the same thing.”
Madrigal liked to think that it did. Her wish that first time was simple, focused, and passionate: that she would see him again. Believing she would was the only way she could bring herself to leave.
They rose from their crushed clothes. Madrigal had to wriggle back into the midnight gown like a serpent back into a shed skin. They went into the temple and drank water from the sacred spring that rose in a fount from the earth. She splashed her face with it, too, paid silent homage to Ellai to protect their secret, and vowed to bring candles when she came again.
Because of course she would come again.
Parting was almost like a stage drama, an exaggerated physical impossibility—to fly away and leave Akiva there—the difficulty of which she would not, before this moment, have believed. She kept turning and returning for one last kiss. Her lips, unaccustomed to such wear, felt mussed and obvious, carnal, and she imagined herself red with the evidence of how she had spent her night.
Finally she flew, trailing her mask by one of its long ribbon ties like a companion bird winging at her side, and the dawn-touched land rolled beneath her all the way back to Loramendi. The city lay quiet in the aftermath of celebration, pungent and hazy with the residue of fireworks. She went in by a secret passage to the underground cathedral. Its interlocking gates were keyed by Brimstone’s magic to open to her voice, and there was no guard to see her come in.
It was easy.
That first day she was hesitant, cautious, not knowing what had passed in her absence, or what wrath might await her. But the fates were weaving their unguessable threads, and a spy came that morning from the Mirea coast with news of seraph galleons on the move, so that Thiago was gone from Loramendi almost as soon as Madrigal returned to it.
Chiro asked her where she’d been and she gave a vague lie, and from then on her sister’s manner toward her changed. Madrigal would catch her watching her with a strange, flat affect, only to turn away and busy herself with something as if she hadn’t been watching her at all. She saw her less, too, in part because Madrigal was adrift in her new and secret world, and in part because Brimstone had need of her help in that time, and so she was excused from her other duties, such as they were. Her battalion was not mobilized in response to the seraph troop movements, and she thought, ironically, that she had Thiago to thank for it. She knew that he’d been keeping her from any potential danger that might relieve her of her “purity” before he had a chance to marry her. He must not have had time to countermand the orders before his departure.
So Madrigal spent her days in the shop and cathedral with Brimstone, stringing teeth and conjuring bodies, and she spent her nights—as many as she could—with Akiva.
She brought candles for Ellai, and cones of frangible, the moon’s favorite spice, and she smuggled out food fit for lovers, which they ate with their fingers after love. Honey sweets and sin berries, and roasted birds for their ravenous appetites, and always they remembered to take the wishbone from its place in the bird’s breast. She brought wine in slender bottles, and tiny cups carved from quartz to sip it from, which they rinsed in the sacred spring and stored in the temple altar for the next time.
Over each wishbone, at each parting, they hoped for a next time.
Madrigal often thought, as she sat quietly working in Brimstone’s presence, that he knew what she was doing. His gold-green gaze would rest on her, and she would feel pierced, exposed, and tell herself that she couldn’t go on as she was, that it was madness and she had to end it. Once she even rehearsed what she was going to say to Akiva as she flew to the requiem grove, but as soon as she saw him it went out of her mind, and she slipped without struggle into the luxury of joy, in the place they had come to think of as the world from her story—the paradise waiting for lovers to fill it with happiness.
And they did fill it. For a month of stolen nights and the occasional sun-drenched afternoon when Madrigal could get away from Loramendi by day, they cupped their wings around their happiness and called it a world, though they both knew it was not a world, only a hiding place, which is a very different thing.
After they had come together a handful of times and begun to learn each other in earnest, with the hunger of lovers to know everything—in talk and in touch, every memory and thought, every musk and murmur—when all shyness had left them, they admitted the future: that it existed, that they couldn’t pretend it didn’t. They both knew this wasn’t a life, especially for Akiva, who saw no one but Madrigal and spent his days sleeping like the evangelines and longing for night.
Akiva confessed that he was the emperor’s bastard, one of a legion bred to kill, and he told her of the day the guards had come into the harem to take him from his mother. How she had turned away and let them, as if he wasn’t her child at all, but only a tithe she had to pay. How he hated his father for breeding children to the task of death, and in flashes she could see that he blamed himself, too, for being one of them.
Madrigal smoothed the raised scars on his knuckles and imagined the chimaera represented by each line. She wondered how many of their souls had been gleaned, and how many lost.
She did not tell Akiva the secret of resurrection. When he asked why she bore no eye tattoos on her palms, she invented a lie. She couldn’t tell him about revenants. It was too great a thing, too dire, the very fate of her race balanced upon it, and she couldn’t share it, not even to assuage his guilt for all the chimaera he had killed. Instead, she kissed his marks and told him, “War is all we’ve been taught, but there are other ways to live. We can find them, Akiva. We can invent them. This is the beginning, here.” She touched his chest and felt a rush of love for the heart that moved his blood, for his smooth skin and his scars and his unsoldierly tenderness. She took his hand and pressed it to her breast and said, “We are the beginning.”
They began to believe that they could be.
Akiva told her that, in the two years since Bullfinch, he had not slain another chimaera.
“Is it true?” she asked, hardly believing it.
“You showed me that one might choose not to kill.”
Madrigal looked down at her hands and confessed, “But I have killed seraphim since that day,” and Akiva took her chin and tilted her face up to his.
“But in saving me, you changed me, and here we are because of that moment. Before, could you have thought it possible?”
She shook her head.
“Don’t you think others could be changed, too?”
“Some,” she said, thinking of her comrades, friends. The White Wolf. “Not all.”
“Some, and then more.”
Some, and then more. Madrigal nodded, and together they imagined a different life, not just for themselves, but for all the races of Eretz. And in that month that they hid and loved, dreamed and planned, they believed that this, too, was meant: that they were the blossoms set forth by some great and mysterious intention. Whether it was Nitid or the godstars or something else altogether, they didn’t know, only that a powerful will was alive in them, to bring peace to their world.
When they broke their wishbones now, that was what they hoped for. They knew they couldn’t hide in the requiem grove and daydream forever. There was work to be done; they were just beginning to make it real, with such passion in their hope that they might have wrought miracles—begun something—had they not been betrayed.
“Akiva,” breathed Karou with the fullness of her self.
Mere seconds had passed since they had broken the wishbone, but in that space of time, years had come home to her. Seventeen years ago, Madrigal had ended. All that had happened since was another life, but it was hers, too. She was Karou, and she was Madrigal. She was human and chimaera.