Brimstone had never brought guns into Eretz.

She could only guess why not, but her guess was simple: because it would start an arms race, and accelerate the pace of killing beyond reckoning, and that was the last thing he would have wanted. He had told her—Madrigal-her—in the last moments before her execution, that for all these centuries he had only been holding back a tide, trying to keep his people alive until some other way could be found, some truer way. A path to life, and peace.

Life and peace. Victory and vengeance.

And never the twain shall meet.

In town, Karou bought apricots, onions, courgettes by the crateful. She wore a cotton hijab over her blue hair, and jeans with a long-sleeved jellaba to blend in. They wouldn’t mistake her for Moroccan, but with her black eyes and perfect Arabic, they wouldn’t take her for a Westerner, either. She took care not to let her hamsas be seen, and bought cloth and leather, tea and honey. Almonds and olives and dried dates. Feed for the chickens and discs of flat bread. Red slabs of marbled meat—not a lot; that wouldn’t keep. Couscous, tons of it—sacks so big she could barely heave them but still had to wave away help on account of having a wolf-headed monster stowed away in the back of her truck. Thanks, Ten.

She told an inquisitive woman that she worked for a tour provider. “Hungry tourists” was the response. Indeed. It occurred to Karou that she had literally bought enough food for a small army, and she couldn’t even laugh about it.

She kept thinking of the sphinxes, and what they must be doing.

Which pretty much killed her will to come up with some celebration for the soldiers. She tossed Ten a bottle of water and closed up the back of the truck. But on the way out of town she spotted a shop that made her reconsider. Drums. Berber tribal drums. Sometimes on campaign there had been drumming in camp. Singing, too. There had been no singing at the kasbah, but she thought of Ziri and Ixander clowning in the court, the laughter that she’d had no part in, and she bought ten drums, and drove the long way back as day slid into dark.

She was overseeing the unloading when the Shadows That Live returned.

“I thought the Shadows That Live were the Shadows That Died,” said Liraz.

Word had come from Thisalene, and Akiva was reeling. The horror, the body count, the bold stroke. The fool stroke. To attack so near Astrae was to pierce the perceived sanctity of the Empire itself. Did these rebels even know what they had begun?

Hazael sighed, blowing out a long, weary breath. “Is it just me, or have you noticed that chimaera prefer not to be dead?”

“Well then,” said Liraz. “We have that in common at least.”

“We have more in common than that,” said Akiva.

Liraz turned her eyes on him. “You more than most,” she said, and he thought she meant something biting about “harmony” with the beasts, but she dropped her voice and said, “Slipping about invisible, for example?” and Akiva went cold.

Did she know what he had been doing these past nights, or did she just mean his glamour in general? Her gaze lingered, and there seemed a keen specificity to it, but when she continued, it was only to say, “If Father knew you could do that…” and trail away with a whistle. “He could have his own personal Shadow That Lives.”

Akiva looked around. He didn’t like to talk about it in camp—his magic, his secrets. Even calling the emperor “Father” was punishable, first because use of his honorific was law, and second because the Misbegotten had no claim to paternity. They were weapons, and weapons had no fathers, or mothers, either, and if a sword could claim a maker, it was the blacksmith, not the vein of ore whence came its metal. Of course, that didn’t stop Joram boasting how many “weapons” came from his own “vein of ore.” The stewards kept lists. There had been more than three thousand bastard soldiers born in the harem.

Of which barely three hundred remained, and too many of those were deaths recent.

Akiva saw that there was no one within earshot. “You could do it, too,” he reminded Liraz. He had taught his brother and sister the glamour so they could pass in the human world, helping him to burn the black handprints onto Brimstone’s doors. They managed it, though not with ease, and not for long.

She made a sound of disgust. “I think not. I prefer my victims to know who killed them.”

“So they can dream of your lovely face for all their eternal slumber,” said Hazael.

“It’s a blessing to die at the hand of someone beautiful,” answered Liraz.

“So, not at Jael’s hand, then,” remarked Hazael.

Jael. Akiva glanced at the sky. The name was a sharp reminder.

“No. Godstars.” Liraz shuddered. “There is no blessing that will help his victims. Do you know, there are two reasons I am glad I am Misbegotten, and both of them are Jael.”

“What reasons?” Akiva couldn’t imagine why anyone, especially his sister, would be glad to be the emperor’s bastard.

The Misbegotten were the most effective and least rewarded of all of the Empire’s forces. They could never command, lest they strive above their station, but were only fodder for the ranks, given out on loan to regiments of the Second Legion to do the dirty work. They had no pensions, being expected to serve until their deaths, and were not permitted to marry, to bear or father children, to own land, or even to live elsewhere than their barracks. It was a sort of slavery, really. They weren’t even given burial but only cremation in common urns, and since their names were borrowed more than owned, it was deemed meaningless to engrave them on a stone or placard. The only record of life a Misbegotten left behind was his or her name stricken from the stewards’ list so that it could be given over to some new mewling babe soon enough to be ripped from its mother’s arms.

Live obscure, kill who you’re told, and die unsung. That could have been the Misbegotten’s creed, but it wasn’t. It was Blood is strength.

“Being Misbegotten,” said Liraz, counting the first reason on her finger, “I will never serve under Jael.”

“A good reason,” Akiva agreed. Jael was the emperor’s younger brother, and the commander of the Dominion, the Empire’s elite legion and a source of endless bitterness to the bastards. Any Misbegotten would best any Dominion soldier in sparring or—if it ever came to it—combat, yet the Dominion were held supreme in every way. They were richly attired and provisioned from the coffers of the Empire’s first families—who filled their ranks with second and third sons and daughters—and they had been richly rewarded at war’s end, too, gifted with castles and lands in the carve-up of the free holdings.

An elder bastard half sister named Melliel had dared to ask Joram if the Misbegotten would be given their due, and their father’s answer had been, in his sly way making even the refusal a boast of his virility, “There aren’t castles enough in Eretz for all the bastards I’ve sired.”

Still, for all the benefits the Dominion enjoyed, they served at Jael’s pleasure, and Jael’s pleasure was, by all accounts, a gruesome thing.

“Go on,” said Hazael. “What else?”

Liraz counted off another finger. “Second, being Misbegotten, I will never lie under Jael.”

Akiva could only stare at her, aghast. It was the first time he had ever heard his sister make reference to her own sexuality, even in such an oblique way. She wore her ferocity like armor, and it was purely asexual armor. Liraz was untouchable and untouched. The image of her… beneath Jael… was one to reject immediately, abhorrently.

Hazael looked aghast, too. “I should hope not,” he said, sounding weak with disgust.

Liraz rolled her eyes. “Look at the pair of you. You know our uncle’s reputation. I’m only saying I’m safe, because I’m blood, and thank the godstars for that if nothing else.”

“Damn the godstars,” said Hazael, indignant. “You’re safe because you would gut him with your bare hands if he ever tried to touch you. I’d say that I would do it, but I know that by the time anyone else got there our uncle would already be pulled inside out, and less ugly for it, too.”

“Yes, I suppose.” Liraz sounded weary, looked it. “And what of all the other girls? Do you think they don’t want to pull him inside out, too? And what then? The gibbet? It comes down to life, doesn’t it, and whether it’s worth keeping on with, whatever happens. So… is it?” She looked to Akiva. Was she asking him?

“Is what?”

“Is life worth keeping on with, whatever happens?”

Was she talking about living broken, living with loss? Did she count his loss a real one, and did she really want to know, or was there a barb in this somewhere? Sometimes Akiva felt like he didn’t know his sister at all. “Yes,” he said, wary, thinking of the thurible, and Karou. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always a chance things will get better.”

“Or worse,” said Liraz.

“Yes,” he conceded. “Usually worse.”

Hazael cut in. “My sister, Sunshine, and my brother, Light. You two should rally the ranks. You’ll have us all killing ourselves by morning.”

Morning. They all knew what would happen in the morning.

Liraz rose to her feet. “I’m going to sleep while I can, and you two should, too. Once they get here, I think there will be very little rest for anyone.”

She walked off. Hazael followed. “Coming?” he asked Akiva.

“In a minute.”

Or not. Akiva looked to the sky. It was still dark for as far as he could see, but he imagined he felt a change in the air: a pull from the draft of many, many wings. It was illusion, or prophecy, or just dread.

He had a long way to go tonight, territory to cover, chimaera to save. No rest for him. The Dominion were coming.



The sphinxes stretched out delicate cat feet to land, small tufts of dust eddying around them. The rest of the chimaera host were emerging from doors and windows to gather in the court and hear their report, and there was Thiago, striding from the guardhouse. Karou’s mind was sharp with wondering. What had they done? Not just the sphinxes, but all the patrols. It was with a sense of unreality that she found her feet carrying her toward all the others.

“Karou,” Ten called after her, but she kept walking.

Thiago caught sight of her and paused, watching her approach. The soldiers followed his gaze, the sphinxes, too. All regarded her with identical nonexpressions, but Thiago smiled. “Karou,” he said. “Did everything go all right in town?”

“Oh. Fine.” Her hands were clammy. “You don’t have to stop. I was just going to listen.”

The Wolf cocked his head slightly, looking perplexed. “Listen?”

“To the report.” Karou felt herself shrinking, faltering. “I just want to know what we’re doing.”

She didn’t know what she expected Thiago to say, but not this: “Is there someone in particular that you’re worried about?”

Karou’s face went hot. Insidious implication. “No,” she said, affronted. She was also rattled, realizing that anything she said now would come across as concern for seraphim. For Akiva.

“Well then, don’t worry.” Another smile from the Wolf. “You have enough to think about. You’ve lost the whole day today, and I need to have another team ready by tomorrow. Do you think you can do that?”

“Of course,” Ten answered for her, and she took Karou by the arm as she had the day before. “We’re just going.”

“Good,” said Thiago. “Thank you.” And he waited for them to be gone before resuming speaking.

Karou felt pinched awake from some stupor. It wasn’t that Thiago didn’t want her bothered with details, it was that he flat-out didn’t want her to know what he was doing. As Ten drew her away, she locked eyes—briefly—with Ziri. He looked so guarded. Thiago’s remark… Did they all think she still loved Akiva? And they didn’t even know about Marrakesh and Prague, or that she’d met him again so recently. Met him and… No. Nothing. She’d left him behind. That was what mattered. This time, she had made the right choice.

When they were out of the court, Karou pulled her arm from Ten’s grip, wincing as it dragged at her bruises. “What the hell?” she said. “I think I have a right to know what my pain is paying for.”

“Don’t be a child. We all have our roles to play.”

“Oh. And yours is what, babysitter? I’m sorry, I mean traitor-sitter?”

Ten’s eyes flashed with defiance. “If Thiago asks it, yes.”

“And you’ll do whatever he asks.”

For a second Ten only stared at her as if she were dim-witted. “Of course” was her answer. “And so will you. Especially you. For the good of our people, and the memory of all we’ve lost, and the very great debt you owe.”

Karou’s shame response was instant, but it was followed this time by a surge of anger. They would never let her forget what she had done. She was here willingly, when she, unlike they, had a choice in the matter. She had a whole other life, and right now she really just wanted to fly back to it, back to Prague and her friends and art and tea and worrying about nothing more dire than butterflies in her belly—Papilio stomachus, she recalled with an ache. How quaint and small that life seemed now, like something you could fit inside a snow globe.

She wouldn’t go. Ten was right: She did owe a debt. But she was sick to death of the cowering thing she’d become. She thought Brimstone would scarcely recognize this compliant little shame-creature; she had certainly never followed his orders so meekly.