“On behalf of the animals of North America,” whispered Karou, “can’t you just make her bite him?”
“I could, but Brimstone wouldn’t be happy. As well you know, Bain is one of his most valued traders.”
Karou sighed. “I know.” For longer than she had even been alive, Bain had been supplying Brimstone with bear teeth—grizzly, black, and polar—and lynx, fox, mountain lion, wolf, and sometimes even dog. He specialized in predators, always of premium value down here. They were also, Karou had pointed out to Brimstone on many occasions, of premium value to the world. How many beautiful carcasses did that pile of teeth amount to?
She watched, dismayed, as Brimstone took two large gold medallions out of his strongbox, each the size of a saucer and engraved with his own likeness. Gavriels. Enough to buy her flight and invisibility, and he pushed them across the desk to the hunter. Karou scowled as Bain pocketed them and rose from his chair, moving slowly so as not to irritate Avigeth. Out of the corner of one soulless eye, he cut Karou a look that she could almost swear was a gloat, and then had the gall to wink.
Karou clenched her teeth and said nothing as Issa escorted Bain out. Had it been only that morning that Kaz had winked at her from the model stand? What a day.
The door closed, and Brimstone gestured Karou forward. She heaved the canvas-wrapped tusks toward him and let the bundle collapse on the shop floor.
“Be careful,” he barked. “Do you know the value of these?”
“Indeed I do, since I just paid it.”
“That’s the human value. The idiots would carve them to bits to make trinkets and baubles.”
“And what will you do with them?” asked Karou. She kept her voice casual, as if Brimstone might forget himself and reveal, at last, the mystery at the core of everything: what in the hell he did with all these teeth.
He only gave her a weary look, as if to say, Nice try.
“What? You brought it up. And no, I don’t know the inhuman value of tusks. I have no idea.”
“Beyond price.” He started sawing at the duct tape with a curved knife.
“It’s a good thing I had some scuppies on me, then,” said Karou, flopping into the chair Bain had just vacated. “Otherwise you’d have lost your priceless tusks to another bidder.”
“You didn’t give me enough money. This little bastard war criminal kept bidding them up and—well, I’m not sure he was a war criminal, but he had this certain indefinable war-criminaliness about him—and I could see he was determined to get them, so I… maybe I shouldn’t have, though, since you don’t approve of my… pettiness, did you call it?” She smiled sweetly and dangled the remaining beads of her necklace. It was more of a bracelet now.
She’d used her new itch trick on the man, wishing a relentless onslaught of cranny itches on him until he fled the room. Surely Brimstone knew; he always knew. It would be nice, she thought, if he would say thank you. Instead, he just slapped a coin onto the table.
A measly shing.
“That’s it? I dragged those things across Paris for you for a shing, while beardy gets away with double gavriels?”
Brimstone ignored her and extricated the tusks from their shroud. Twiga came to consult with him, and they muttered in undertones in their own language, which Karou had learned from the cradle in the natural way, and not by wish. It was a harsh tongue, growlsome and full of fricatives, with much of it rising from the throat. By comparison, even German or Hebrew seemed melodious.
While they talked about tooth configurations, Karou helped herself to the scuppy teacups and set about replenishing her string of nearly useless wishes, which she decided to keep as a multistrand bracelet for now. Twiga hauled the tusks over to his corner for cleaning, and Karou contemplated going home.
Home. The word always had air quotes around it in her mind. She’d done what she could to make her flat cozy, filling it with art, books, ornate lanterns, and a Persian carpet as soft as lynx fur, and of course there were her angel wings taking up one whole wall. But there was no help for its real emptiness; its close air was stirred by no breath but her own. When she was alone, the empty place within her, the missingness as she thought of it, seemed to swell. Even being with Kaz had done something to keep it at bay, though not enough. Never enough.
She thought of the little cot that used to be hers, tucked behind the tall bookcases in the back of the shop, and wished whimsically that she could stay here tonight. She could fall asleep like she used to, to the sound of murmured voices, Issa’s soft slither, the scritch of wee elsething beasties scampering in the shadows.
“Sweet girl.” Yasri bustled out of the kitchen with a tea tray. Beside the teapot was a plate of the custard-filled pastries in the shape of horns that were her specialty. “You must be hungry,” she said in her parrot voice. With a sideward glance at Brimstone, she added, “It’s not healthy for a growing girl, always running off hither and thither at not a moment’s notice.”
“That’s me, hither-and-thither girl,” said Karou. She grabbed a pastry and slumped in her chair to eat it.
Brimstone spared her a glance, then said to Yasri, “And I suppose it’s healthy for a growing girl to live on pastry?”
Yasri tutted. “I’d be happy to fix her a proper meal if you ever gave me warning, you great brute.” She turned to Karou. “You’re too thin, lovely. It isn’t becoming.”
“Mmm,” agreed Issa, caressing Karou’s hair. “She should be leopard, don’t you think? Sleek and lazy, fur hot from the sun, and not too lean. A well-fed leopard-girl, lapping from a bowl of cream.”
Karou smiled and ate. Yasri poured tea for them all, just how they liked it, which meant four sugars for Brimstone. After all these years, Karou still thought it was funny that the Wishmonger had a sweet tooth. She watched as he bent back to his never-ending work, stringing teeth into necklaces.
“Oryx leucoryx,” she identified as he selected a tooth from his tray.
He was unimpressed. “Antelopes are child’s play.”
“Give me a hard one, then.”
He handed her a shark’s tooth, and Karou was reminded of the hours she’d sat here with him as a child, learning teeth. “Mako,” she said.
“Longfin or shortfin?”
“Oh. Uh.” She went still, holding the tooth between her thumb and forefinger. Brimstone had trained her in this art since she was small, and she could read the origin and integrity of teeth from their subtle vibrations. She declared, “Short.”
He grunted, which was about as close as he came to praise.
“Did you know,” Karou asked him, “that mako shark fetuses eat each other in the womb?”
Issa, who was stroking Avigeth, gave a tch of disgust.
“It’s true. Only cannibal fetuses survive to be born. Can you imagine if people were like that?” She put her feet up on the desk and, two seconds later, at a dark look from Brimstone, took them down again.
The shop’s warmth was making her drowsy. The cot in its little nook called to her, as did the quilt Yasri had made her, so soft from years of snuggling. “Brimstone,” she said, hesitant. “Do you think—?”
At that moment, a thudding sounded, violent.
“Oh, dear,” said Yasri, clicking her beak in agitation as she gathered up the tea things.
It was the shop’s other door.
Back behind Twiga’s workspace, in the shadowed reaches of the shop where no lantern ever hung, there was a second door. In all Karou’s life, it had never been opened in her presence. She had no idea what was behind it.
The thudding came again, so hard it rattled the teeth in their jars. Brimstone rose, and Karou knew what was expected of her—that she rise, too, and leave at once—but she slouched down in her chair. “Let me stay,” she said. “I’ll be quiet. I’ll go back to my cot. I won’t look—”
“Karou,” said Brimstone. “You know the rules.”
“I hate the rules.”
He took a step toward her, prepared to help her out of the chair if she didn’t obey, and she shot to her feet, hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay.” She put on her coat as the banging continued, and grabbed another pastry from Yasri’s tray before letting Issa usher her into the vestibule. The door closed behind them, sealing out sound.
She didn’t bother asking Issa who was at the other door—Issa never gave away Brimstone’s secrets. But she said, a little pitifully, “I was just about to ask Brimstone if I could sleep in my old cot.”
Issa leaned forward to kiss her cheek and said, “Oh, sweet girl, wouldn’t that be nice? We can wait right here, the way we did when you were small.”
Ah, yes. When Karou was too small to shove out into the world’s streets on her own, Issa had kept her here. Hours they had sometimes crouched in this tiny space, Issa trying to keep her entertained by singing songs or drawing—in fact, it was Issa who had started her drawing—or crowning her with venomous snakes, while inside Brimstone confronted whatever lurked on the other side of that door.
“You can come back in,” Issa continued, “after.”
“That’s okay,” Karou said with a sigh. “I’ll just go.”
Issa squeezed her arm and said, “Sweet dreams, sweet girl,” and Karou hunched her shoulders and stepped back out into the cold. As she walked, clock towers across Prague started arguing midnight, and the long, fraught Monday came at last to a close.
THE DEVIL’S DOORWAYS
Akiva stood at the edge of a rooftop terrace in Riyadh, peering down at a doorway in the lane below. It was as nondescript as the others, but he knew it for what it was. He could feel its bitter aura of magic as an ache behind his eyes.
It was one of the devil’s portals into the human world.
Spreading vast wings that were visible only in his shadow, he glided down to it, landing in a rain of sparks. A street sweeper saw him and dropped to his knees, but Akiva ignored him and faced the door, his hands curling into fists. He wanted nothing so much as to draw his swords and storm inside, end things quick right there in Brimstone’s shop, end them bloody, but the magic of the portals was cunning and he knew better than to attempt it, so he did what he had come here to do.
He reached out and laid his hand flat against the door. There was a soft glow and a smell of scorching, and when he took away his hand its print was scored into the wood.
That was all, for now.
He turned and walked away, and folk cringed close to walls to let him pass.
Certainly, they couldn’t see him as he truly was. His fiery wings were glamoured invisible, and he should have been able to pass as human, but he wasn’t quite pulling it off. What people saw was a tall young man, beautiful—truly, breath-stealingly beautiful, in a way one rarely beholds in real life—who moved among them with predatory grace, seeming no more mindful of them than if they were statuary in a garden of gods. On his back a pair of crossed swords were sheathed, and his sleeves were pushed up over forearms tanned and corded with muscle. His hands were a curiosity, etched both white with scars and black with the ink of tattoos—simple repeating black lines hatched across the tops of his fingers.
His dark hair was cropped close to his skull, with a hairline that dipped into a widow’s peak. His golden skin was bronzed darker across the planes of his face—high ridges of cheekbones, brow, bridge of the nose—as if he lived his life in drenching rich honey light.
Beautiful as he was, he was forbidding. It was difficult to imagine him breaking into a smile—which indeed Akiva hadn’t done in many years, and couldn’t imagine doing ever again.
But all of this was just fleeting impression. What people fixed on, stopping to watch him pass, were his eyes.
They were amber like a tiger’s, and like a tiger’s they were rimmed in black—the black both of heavy lashes and of kohl, which focused the gold of his irises like beams of light. They were pure and luminous, mesmerizing and achingly beautiful, but something was wrong, was missing. Humanity, perhaps, that quality of benevolence that humans have, without irony, named after themselves. When, coming around a corner, an old woman found herself in his path, the full force of his gaze fell on her and she gasped.
There was live fire in his eyes. She was sure he would set her alight.
She gasped and stumbled, and he reached out a hand to steady her. She felt heat, and when he continued past, his unseen wings brushed against her. Sparks shivered from them and she was left gaping in breathless, paralyzed panic at his receding form. Plainly she saw his shadow wings fan open and then, with a gust of heat that blew her headscarf off, he was gone.
In moments Akiva was up in the ether, scarcely feeling the sting of ice crystals in the thin air. He let his glamour fall away, and his wings were like sheets of fire sweeping the black of the heavens. He moved at speed, onward toward another human city to find another doorway bitter with the devil’s magic, and after that another, until all bore the black handprint.
In far reaches of the world, Hazael and Liraz were doing the same. Once all the doors were marked, the end would begin.
And it would begin with fire.
In general, Karou managed to keep her two lives in balance. On the one hand, she was a seventeen-year-old art student in Prague; on the other, errand girl to an inhuman creature who was the closest thing she had to family. For the most part, she’d found that there was time enough in a week for both lives. If not every week, at least most.
This did not turn out to be one of those weeks.
Tuesday she was still in class when Kishmish alighted on the window ledge and rapped at the glass with his beak. His note was even more succinct than yesterday’s and read only Come. Karou did, though if she’d known where Brimstone was sending her, she might not have.