There was no smoke to guide her. As Brimstone had said, she wouldn’t need it. With a powerful thrust of will, she funneled herself into the body that she had made with such loving care.
There was even less resistance than she had expected—a sensation of surprise, a feeble struggle. Chiro’s soul was a sullen thing made weak by envy. It was no match for Madrigal’s, and subsided almost at once. It wasn’t expelled, only shoved writhing into its own depths. The vessel remained, to all eyes, Chiro.
She trembled violently, performing the blessing, but no one watching thought it strange—her sister lay dead at her feet. And if she was rigid descending the scaffold, her movements jerky, no one questioned that, either.
There was no suspicion because there was no precedent. After Chiro left, there was nothing tethered to the broken body on the platform. The soldiers who stood watch the next three days guarded only meat and air—no soul.
The only one who could have sensed its lack was Brimstone, and he wasn’t inclined to tell.
It was through Chiro’s eyes that Madrigal had her last sight of Akiva. He was on a rack of sorts, his wings and arms wrenched back and secured by rings to the wall. His head had fallen forward, and when she entered his cell, he lifted it to look at her with dead eyes.
The whites were full bloodred from the effort at magic that had burst capillaries, but it wasn’t only that. The gold in them—the exquisite fire—had burned low, and Madrigal had the impression of a soul in cinders. It was the worst thing yet—worse even than her own death.
Now, in Marrakesh, as Karou patched together memories of both her lives, she remembered that same deadness from the first time she had seen him. She had wondered what had happened to make him look like that, and now she knew. It was a splinter in her heart to think that all these years that she had been growing up in a new body, a world apart, childish and blithe and spending wishes on foolish things, he had been soul-dead, grieving for her.
If only he could have known.
In the prison cell, she had rushed to free his arms. She was glad then of Chiro’s diamond strength. Akiva’s chains were pulled so taut that his arms must have been straining at their sockets. She feared that he would be too weak to fly, or to craft the glamour that would enable him to make it out of the city unseen, but she shouldn’t have feared. She knew Akiva’s power. When the chains fell slack, he didn’t slump off the rack. He sprang like a predator that had been lying in wait. He turned on her, seeing only Chiro and in no state to wonder why this stranger had set him free. He hurled her against the wall before she had a chance to speak, and she was engulfed in the darkness of unconsciousness.
The memories ended there. Karou wouldn’t know how Brimstone had found and gleaned her soul until she could ask him. She only knew that he had, because she was here.
“I didn’t know,” Akiva said. He was stroking her hair, smoothing it over the contours of her head and neck down to her shoulders, lovingly and lingeringly. “If I had known he saved you…” He clutched her tight against him.
“I couldn’t tell you it was me,” Karou said. “How would you have believed me? You didn’t know about resurrection.”
He swallowed. Said quietly, “I did know.”
They were still standing together at the foot of the bed. Karou was lost in sensation. The sifting together of memories. The simple, profound joy of being with Akiva. The curious dueling familiarity and… lack. Her body: her seventeen-years skin, utterly hers, and also new. The absence of wings, the flexion of human feet with all their complicated muscles, her hornless head light as wind.
And there was something else, a kind of buzzing, an alarm, an awareness she couldn’t yet quite finger.
“Thiago,” Akiva said. “He… he liked to talk while he… Well. He gloated. He told me everything.”
Karou could believe that. Another set of memories slotted into sense: the Wolf awakening on the stone table as she—Karou—held his hamsa-marked hand in her own. He might have killed her then, she thought, if not for Brimstone. She understood Brimstone’s fury now. All these years he’d hidden her from Thiago, and she had waltzed right down to the cathedral and held his hand. Which had been every bit as beastly as she remembered.
She nestled against Akiva. “I could have said good-bye, then,” she said. “I wasn’t even thinking. I only wanted to see you free.”
“It’s okay. We’re here now.” She breathed the remembered smell of him, warm and smoky, and set her lips against his throat. It was heady. Akiva was alive. She was alive. So much lay ahead of them. Her lips made a trail up his throat to the line of his jaw, remembering, rediscovering. She was soft in his arms the way she had once known—that marvelous way bodies can melt together and erase all negative space. She found his lips. She had to take his head in her hands to angle it down to hers.
Why did she have to do that?
Why… why wasn’t Akiva kissing her back?
Karou opened her eyes. He was looking at her, not with desire but… anguish.
“What?” she asked. “What is it?” A terrible thought came to her and she stepped back, letting him go and hugging her arms around herself. “Is it… is it because I’m not pure? Because I’m a… a made thing?”
Whatever was plaguing him, her question made it worse. “No,” he said, wretched. “How could you think that? I’m not Thiago. You promised to remember, Karou. You promised to remember that I love you.”
“Then what is it? Akiva, why are you acting so weird?”
He said, “If I’d known… Oh, Karou. If I had known that Brimstone saved you…” He raked his fingers through his hair and began to pace the room. “I thought he was with them, against you, and it was worse, his betrayal, because you loved him like a father—”
“No. He’s like us, Akiva. He wants peace, too. He can help us—”
His look stopped her. So desolate. He said, “I didn’t know. If I’d known, Karou, I would have believed in redemption. I never… I never would have…”
Karou’s heartbeat went arrhythmic. Something was very, very wrong. She knew it, and was afraid of it, didn’t want to hear it, needed to hear it. “Never would have what? Akiva, what?”
He halted his pacing, stood with his hands on his head, gripping it. “In Prague,” he said, forcing out each word. “You asked how I found you.”
Karou remembered. “You said it wasn’t difficult.”
He reached into his pocket and produced a folded paper. With palpable reluctance, he handed it to her.
“What—?” she began, but stopped. Her hands started to shake uncontrollably, so that as she unfolded it, the page tore along a well-worn crease, right down the center of her self-portrait, and she was holding two halves of herself, and the plea, in her own script, If found, please return.
It was from her sketchbook, which she had left in Brimstone’s shop. Comprehension was instant and blinding. There was only one way Akiva could have this.
She gasped. Everything clicked into place. The black handprints, the blue infernos that had devoured the portals and all their magic, putting an end to Brimstone’s trade. And the echo of Akiva’s voice, telling her why.
To end the war.
When she had dreamed with him, long ago, of ending the war, they had meant by bringing peace. But oh, peace wasn’t the only way to end a war.
She saw it all. Thiago had told Akiva the chimaera’s deepest secret, believing it would die with him, but she—she—had turned him loose with it.
“What have you done?” she asked, unbelieving, her voice breaking.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
Black handprints, blue infernos.
An end to resurrection.
Akiva’s hands, his hands that had held her in dance, in sleep, and in love, his knuckles that she had kissed and forgiven—they were newly etched. They were full. She cried out, “No!” the word pulled long and pleading, and then she was grabbing his shoulders, nails digging in, grabbing and holding him and forcing him to look at her.
“Tell me!” she screamed.
In a husk of a voice—such pure sorrow, such deep shame—Akiva said, “They’re dead, Karou. It’s too late. They’re all dead.”
A slash in the sky, that’s all it was, nothing like Brimstone’s cunning portal with its aviary doors. There was no door at all, and no guardian. Its only protection was its nowhereness, high above the Atlas Mountains, and its narrowness, less than a seraph’s wingspan.
It was remarkable that Razgut had managed to find it after so long.
Or, Karou thought, looking at the creature, perhaps not so remarkable, that the worst moment of one’s life could be seared into the memory, brighter than any joy. She understood now why pain was the tithe for magic: It was more powerful than joy. Than anything.
She saw the pyre in Loramendi as if she’d been there herself: chimaera corpses fed to the flames like scraps of flung cloth, and Akiva watching it all from a tower, breathing the ashes of her people. She tasted ash, and imagined it had still lingered on his flesh when she’d kissed him.
Because of her, he had lived to do this.
And still, she hadn’t been able to kill him, though he had brought her knives from Prague himself, and would have fallen to his knees to make it easier for her.
She left him, and even after everything, the distance between them felt like a sphere pulled out of proportion. Wrong, that growing distance. Aching, the void that had been her new fullness. A miserable part of her wanted to unknow Akiva’s treachery, go back to before, to the incandescent happiness before it all came crashing down.
“Are you coming?” Razgut asked, shouldering his way through the gash in the world, so that half his body disappeared into the ether of Eretz.
Karou nodded. The rest of him vanished, and she breathed deep of the raw air, gathering herself to follow. There was no more happiness. But under the misery, there was hope.
That the name Brimstone had given her was more than a whim.
That this was not the end.