“Pavel likes you, you know,” said Karou. “He’s a certified non-orifice.”
“Yes, well, Pavel’s sweet, but he does not give of the butterflies.”
“The butterflies in the belly.” Karou sighed. “I know. You know what I think? I think the butterflies are always there in your belly, in everyone, all the time—”
“No, not like bacteria, like butterflies, and some people’s butterflies react to other people’s, on a chemical level, like pheromones, so that when they’re nearby, your butterflies start to dance. They can’t help it—it’s chemical.”
“Chemical. Now that’s romantic.”
“I know, right? Stupid butterflies.” Liking the idea, Karou opened her sketchbook and started to draw it: cartoon intestines and a stomach crowded with butterflies. Papilio stomachus would be their Latin name.
Zuzana asked, “So, if it’s all chemical and you have no say in the matter, does that mean Jackass still makes your butterflies dance?”
Karou looked up. “God no. I think he makes my butterflies barf.”
Zuzana had just taken a sip of tea and her hand flew to her mouth in an effort to keep it in. She laughed, doubled over, until she managed to swallow. “Oh, gross. Your stomach is full of butterfly barf!”
Karou laughed, too, and kept sketching. “Actually, I think my stomach is full of dead butterflies. Kaz killed them.”
She wrote, Papilio stomachus: fragile creatures, vulnerable to frost and betrayal.
“So what,” said Zuzana. “They had to be pretty stupid butterflies to fall for him anyway. You’ll grow new ones with more sense. New wise butterflies.”
Karou loved Zuzana for her willingness to play out such silliness on a long kite string. “Right.” She raised her teacup in a toast. “To a new generation of butterflies, hopefully less stupid than the last.” Maybe they were burgeoning even now in fat little cocoons. Or maybe not. It was hard to imagine feeling that magical tingling sensation in the pit of her belly anytime soon. Best not to worry about it, she thought. She didn’t need it. Well. She didn’t want to need it. Yearning for love made her feel like a cat that was always twining around ankles, meowing Pet me, pet me, look at me, love me.
Better to be the cat gazing coolly down from a high wall, its expression inscrutable. The cat that shunned petting, that needed no one. Why couldn’t she be that cat?
Be that cat!!! she wrote, drawing it into the corner of her page, cool and aloof.
Karou wished she could be the kind of girl who was complete unto herself, comfortable in solitude, serene. But she wasn’t. She was lonely, and she feared the missingness within her as if it might expand and… cancel her. She craved a presence beside her, solid. Fingertips light at the nape of her neck and a voice meeting hers in the dark. Someone who would wait with an umbrella to walk her home in the rain, and smile like sunshine when he saw her coming. Who would dance with her on her balcony, keep his promises and know her secrets, and make a tiny world wherever he was, with just her and his arms and his whisper and her trust.
The door opened. She looked in the mirror and suppressed a curse. Slipping in behind some tourists, that winged shadow was back again. Karou rose and made for the bathroom, where she took the note that Kishmish had come to deliver.
Again it bore a single word. But this time the word was Please.
Please? Brimstone never said please. Hurrying across town, Karou found herself more troubled than if the note had said something menacing, like: Now, or else.
Letting her in, Issa was uncharacteristically silent.
“What is it, Issa? Am I in trouble?”
“Hush. Just come in and try not to berate him today.”
“Berate him?” Karou blinked. She’d have thought if anyone was in danger of being berated, it was herself.
“You’re very hard on him sometimes, as if it’s not hard enough already.”
“As if what’s not hard enough?”
“His life. His work. His life is work. It’s joyless, it’s relentless, and sometimes you make it harder than it already is.”
“Me?” Karou was stunned. “Did I just come in on the middle of a conversation, Issa? I have no idea what you’re talking about—”
“Hush, I said. I’m just asking that you try to be kind, like when you were little. You were such a joy to us all, Karou. I know it’s not easy for you, living this life, but try to remember, always try to remember, you’re not the only one with troubles.”
And with that the inner door unsealed and Karou stepped across the threshold. She was confused, ready to defend herself, but when she saw Brimstone, she forgot all that.
He was leaning heavily on his desk, his great head resting in one hand, while the other cupped the wishbone he wore around his neck. Kishmish hopped in agitation from one of his master’s horns to the other, uttering crickety chirrups of concern, and Karou faltered to a halt. “Are… are you okay?” It felt odd asking, and she realized that of all the questions she had barraged him with in her life, she had never asked him that. She’d never had reason to—he’d scarcely ever shown a hint of emotion, let alone weakness or weariness.
He raised his head, released the wishbone, and said simply, “You came.” He sounded surprised and, Karou thought guiltily, relieved.
Striving for lightness, she said, “Well, please is the magic word, you know.”
“I thought perhaps we had lost you.”
“Lost me? You mean you thought I’d died?”
“No, Karou. I thought that you had taken your freedom.”
“My…” She trailed off. Taken her freedom? “What does that even mean?”
“I’ve always imagined that one day the path of your life would unroll at your feet and carry you away from us. As it should, as it must. But I am glad that day is not today.”
Karou stood staring at him. “Seriously? I blow off one errand and you think that’s it, I’m gone forever? Jesus. What do you think of me, that you think I’d just vanish like that?”
“Letting you go, Karou, will be like opening the window for a butterfly. One does not hope for the butterfly’s return.”
“I’m not a freaking butterfly.”
“No. You’re human. Your place is in the human world. Your childhood is nearly over—”
“So… what? You don’t need me anymore?”
“On the contrary. I need you now more than ever. As I said, I’m glad that today is not the day you leave us.”
This was all news to Karou, that there would come a day when she would leave her chimaera family, that she even possessed the freedom to do so if she wished. She didn’t wish. Well, maybe she wished not to go on some of the creepier errands, but that didn’t mean she was a butterfly fluttering against glass, trying to get out and away. She didn’t even know what to say.
Brimstone pushed a wallet across the desk to her.
The errand. She’d almost forgotten why she was here. Angry, she grabbed the wallet and flipped it open. Dirhams. Morocco, then. Her brow furrowed. “Izîl?” she asked, and Brimstone nodded.
“But it’s not time.” Karou had a standing appointment with a graverobber in Marrakesh the last Sunday of every month, and this was Friday, and a week early.
“It is time,” said Brimstone. He gestured to a tall apothecary jar on the shelf behind him. Karou knew it well; usually it was full of human teeth. Now it stood nearly empty.
“Oh.” Her gaze roved along the shelf, and she saw, to her surprise, that many of the jars were likewise dwindling. She couldn’t remember a time when the tooth supply had been so low. “Wow. You’re really burning through teeth. Something going on?”
It was an inane question. As if she could understand what it meant that he was using more teeth, when she didn’t know what they were for to begin with.
“See what Izîl has,” Brimstone said. “I’d rather not send you anywhere else for human teeth, if it can be helped.”
“Yeah, me, too.” Karou ran her fingers lightly over the bullet scars on her belly, remembering St. Petersburg, the errand gone horribly wrong. Human teeth, despite being in such abundant supply in the world, could be… interesting… to procure.
She would never forget the sight of those girls, still alive in the cargo hold, mouths bloody, other fates awaiting them next.
They may have gotten away. When Karou thought of them now, she always added a made-up ending, the way Issa had taught her to do with nightmares so she could fall back to sleep. She could only bear the memory if she believed she’d given those girls time to escape their traffickers, and maybe she even had. She’d tried.
How strange it had been, being shot. How unalarmed she’d found herself, how quick to unsheathe her hidden knife and use it.
And use it. And use it.
She had trained in fighting for years, but she had never before had to defend her life. In the flash of a moment, she had discovered that she knew just what to do.
“Try the Jemaa el-Fna,” Brimstone said. “Kishmish spotted Izîl there, but that was hours ago, when I first summoned you. If you’re lucky, he might still be there.” And with that, he bent back over his tray of monkey teeth, and Karou was apparently dismissed. Now there was the old Brimstone, and she was glad. This new creature who said “please” and talked about her like she was a butterfly—he was unsettling.
“I’ll find him,” Karou said. “And I’ll be back soon, with my pockets full of human teeth. Ha. I bet that sentence hasn’t been said anywhere else in the world today.”
The Wishmonger didn’t respond, and Karou hesitated in the vestibule. “Brimstone,” she said, looking back, “I want you to know I would never just… leave you.”
When he raised his reptilian eyes, they were bleary with exhaustion. “You can’t know what you will do,” he said, and his hand went again to his wishbone. “I won’t hold you to that.”
Issa closed the door, and even after Karou stepped out into Morocco, she couldn’t shake the image of him like that, and the uneasy feeling that something was terribly wrong.
SOMETHING ELSE ENTIRELY
Akiva saw her come out. He was approaching the doorway, was just steps from it when it swung open, letting loose an acrid flood of magic that set his teeth on edge. Through the portal stepped a girl with hair the improbable color of lapis lazuli. She didn’t see him, seeming lost in thought as she hurried past.
He said nothing but stood looking after her as she moved away, the curve of the alley soon robbing him of the sight of her and her swaying blue hair. He shook himself, turned back to the portal, and laid his hand on it. The hiss of the scorch, his hand limned in smoke, and it was done: the last of the doorways that were his to mark. In other quarters of the world, Hazael and Liraz would be finishing, too, and winging their way toward Samarkand.
Akiva was poised to spring skyward and begin the last leg of his journey, to meet them there before returning home, but a heartbeat passed, then another, and still he stood with his feet on the earth, looking in the direction the girl had gone.
Without quite deciding to do it, he found himself following her.
How, he wondered, when he caught the lamp-lit shimmer of her hair up ahead, had a girl like that gotten mixed up with the chimaera? From what he’d seen of Brimstone’s other traders, they were rank brutes with dead eyes, stinking of the slaughterhouse. But her? She was a shining beauty, lithe and vivid, though surely this wasn’t what intrigued him. All of his own kind were beautiful, to such an extent that beauty was next to meaningless among them. What, then, compelled him to follow her, when he should have taken at once to the sky, the mission so near completion? He couldn’t have said. It was almost as if a whisper beckoned him onward.
The medina of Marrakesh was labyrinthine, some three thousand blind alleys intertwined like a drawer full of snakes, but the girl seemed to know her route cold. She paused once to run a finger over the weave of a textile, and Akiva slowed his steps, veering off to one side so he could see her better.
There was a look of unguarded wistfulness on her pale, pretty face—a kind of lostness—but the moment the vendor spoke to her, it transmuted to a smile like light. She answered easily, making the man laugh, and they bantered back and forth, her Arabic rich and throaty, with an edge like a purr.
Akiva watched her with hawklike fixedness. Until a few days ago, humans had been little more than legend to him, and now here he was in their world. It was like stepping into the pages of a book—a book alive with color and fragrance, filth and chaos—and the blue-haired girl moved through it all like a fairy through a story, the light treating her differently than it did others, the air seeming to gather around her like held breath. As if this whole place were a story about her.
Who was she?
He didn’t know, but some intuition sang in him that, whoever she was, she was not just another of Brimstone’s street-level grim reapers. She was, he was sure, something else entirely.
His gaze unwavering, he prowled after her as she made her way through the medina.
Karou walked with her hands in her pockets, trying to shake her uneasiness about Brimstone. That stuff about “taking her freedom”—what was that about? It gave her a creeping sense of impending aloneness, like she was some orphaned animal raised by do-gooders, soon to be released into the wild.
She didn’t want to be released into the wild. She wanted to be held dear. To belong to a place and a family, irrevocably.