Thiago was calm, always so maddeningly calm—until he wasn’t, anyway—because the hikers posed no urgent danger. He was content to let them approach. And then what?

The pit?

Again Karou’s stomach seized. She could smell it today. Maybe because it had fresh fodder—Bast had finally taken her walk with the Wolf. Karou had already conjured her new body; it lay on her floor even now—and maybe because the breeze was one of those mild but insistent wafts from just the right direction. It might have been saying, Here, smell this. Here, smell this, over and over.

Karou stopped pacing and stood before the Wolf. She put her shoulders back and tried not to shake, tried to sound like someone to be reckoned with as she said, “I’m going to go down there and help them, and I’ll take them around the back gate into the granary.” It was cool in the granary, and isolated. The truck was there. “I’ll give them some water, they will see no one, and then I’ll drive them to a road.” She paused. She heard herself, and knew she wasn’t conveying the forcefulness she wanted. “You won’t have to do anything,” she said, but her voice cracked and her head filled with cursing. What a perfect time to sound like an adolescent boy. “I’ll take care of it.”

“Very well,” Thiago said. His expression was so arranged. Karou imagined she could see the strings holding it in place, this benign Thiago-mask, and it made her furious. It was like beating her fists against a wall talking to him. “Go on, then,” he urged.

And she went, trying to have some dignity and not stomp like a powerless child. She went out the gate, and the breeze was stronger here: rot rot, wrong wrong. Bodies putrefying in a pit, and if she didn’t help them, the hikers would end up there, too, and any other humans who had the misfortune to wander too near this godforsaken place. What had she done, leading the rebels into this world?

But then she thought of Eretz, and what the rebels’ prospects would have been if she hadn’t—and the prospects for all chimaera—and she didn’t know what was right anymore. She’d wanted to believe that they could be trusted to have some humanity. They were soldiers, not brute killers, and not wild animals, either, whose appetites functioned beyond the reach of reason. She knew Amzallag wouldn’t harm anyone without justification, and neither would Balieros, or Ziri, or most of the others. But she had only to think of Razor—and his sack—to know that all bets were off.

She had to remind herself to keep her feet on the ground as she left the kasbah; it was her first impulse now to fly, so unaccustomed had she become to human society, and it wasn’t easy walking on the shifting scree.

She realized that her hair was uncovered. What if the hikers recognized her? They really could be a danger. But what was she supposed to do?

It didn’t take long for them to spot her. Coming down the slope from the fortress, she would be the only moving thing in sight. They were still too far off for her to see clearly, but she heard the cry that came at her, and she stopped walking like she’d hit a barrier. It came rolling over the rocks and scrub, full-throated but dissolving at the edges into weakness.

The voice.

It just wasn’t possible. But the cry was “Karou!” and the voice was Zuzana’s, and Karou had certainly learned that “possible” and “impossible” were rough categories at best. Oh god, no, she thought, staring at the figures and seeing what she had never expected to see: Zuzana and Mik, here.

Not them, not here.

How? How?

Did it matter? They were here, and they were in danger—of heatstroke, of chimaera—and Karou’s heart pounded and swelled within her—with panic, with… gladness… and more panic, and more gladness, and a surge of anger—what were they thinking?—then tenderness, astonishment, and her eyes were wet when her feet left the earth and she flew down the slope and caught them and crushed them in a hug that threatened to finish what the heat had begun.

It was really them. She drew back to look at them. Zuzana had sagged down with exhausted relief. Tear tracks stood out against the red of her cheeks, and she was laugh-crying, crushing Karou’s hands with a vise-tight grip—a squeeze right on the bruised web of her hand that made her gasp.

“Jesus, Karou,” Zuzana rasped, her voice spent in crying out. “The freaking desert? It couldn’t have been Paris or something?”

And Karou was laugh-crying, too, but Mik wasn’t laughing or crying. He had a careful hand at Zuzana’s back, and his face was tense with concern. “We could have died,” he said, and the girls fell silent. “I should never have agreed to this.”

After a beat, Karou agreed. “No, you shouldn’t.” She took in the desert panorama with new eyes, imagining coming across it on foot. “What on earth were you thinking?”

“What?” Mik stared at her, looked to Zuzana then back to Karou. “Didn’t you want us to come?”

Karou was taken aback. “Of course not. I would never… God. How did you even find me?”

“How?” Mik was helpless with frustration. “Zuze figured out your riddle, that’s how.”

Riddle? “What riddle?”

“The riddle,” Zuzana said. “Priestess of a sandcastle, in a land of dust and starlight.”

Karou blinked at her. She remembered writing that e-mail; she had just brought the chimaera through the portal to the kasbah, and had been in Ouarzazate scrounging supplies for Aegir. “That’s how you found me? Oh, Zuze. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to come here. I never thought…”

“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Mik raised his hands to his head and turned his back. “We’ve come to the godforsaken navel of nowhere and you don’t even want us here.”

Zuzana looked crestfallen. Karou felt horrible. “It’s not that I don’t want you!” She dragged her friend into another crushing hug. “I do. So much. So much. It’s just… I would never have brought you into… this.” She gestured to the kasbah.

“What is this?” Zuzana asked. “Karou, what are you doing out here?”

Karou opened her mouth and closed it again, twice, like a fish. Finally, she said, “It’s a long story.”

“Then it can wait,” Mik said firmly. Karou had never seen anger on his face before, but he was flushed with it now, his eyes narrow with accusation. “Can we please get her out of the sun?”

“Of course.” Karou took a deep breath. “Come on.”

She shouldered one of their packs and dragged the other. Mik helped Zuzana up the slope, and Karou didn’t take them the long way around to the granary, but the more direct route to the main gate, where they froze on the threshold and stared.

Again, Karou saw with new eyes, imagining how these creatures must look to humans.

Thiago stood looking bemused, Ten just behind him. Thiago himself you could almost mistake for human, but Ten was another story with her wolf head and humped shoulders. As for the rest of the court, it was a horror show: soldiers gathered in the gallery and on the ground, even on the rooftops, strangely still but for the lash of a tail here and there, the flick of a wing. Their monstrous size, their many and varied eyes, unblinking. Razor, too near for comfort, flicked out his serpent tongue, and Karou found herself in a ready stance, light on her toes, in case he should leap.

Mik spoke in a hoarse stage whisper. “Let’s just get this out of the way so I can relax. Karou, your friends aren’t going to eat us, are they?”

No, Karou thought. They are not. She whispered back, “I don’t think so. But try not to look delicious, okay?”

She was rewarded with a snort from Zuzana. “That poses a problem, seeing as how we are totally delicious.” A half beat later, anxiously: “Wait. They don’t understand Czech, right?”

“Right,” said Karou. The whole time, she was looking at Thiago and he was looking at her. The stench of the pit was in the air, and it was then that the nightmare surreality of the life she had been living was sucked away as by a vortex, just gone, and everything was real. This was her life, not a grim dream she would wake from, and not purgatory but her actual life in the actual world—worlds—and now her friends were in it, and it was their life, too.

It made a difference.

“These humans are my guests,” she said, and she felt the words come from some iron place within her that hadn’t existed an hour ago. She didn’t speak loudly, but there was such a change in her voice. Coming from that iron place, it was heavy and true; it wasn’t persuasive, or desperate, or antagonistic. It just was. She approached the Wolf, nearer than she liked to be to him. She forced herself to breach his physical space, the way he did hers, tilted back her head, and said, “Their lives are not a luxury. These are my friends, and I trust them.”

“Of course,” he said, smiling, the perfect gentleman. “That changes everything.” He nodded to Mik and Zuzana and even welcomed them, but his smile, it was just wrong. Like he’d learned it from a book.



“Who was that?” Zuzana whispered as Karou led her and Mik out of the big courtyard where the monsters were gathered. “The other white meat?”

Karou’s laugh sounded like a choke. “Oh god,” she said when she could breathe again. “And now that’s what I’m going to think every time I see him. Watch your step.”

They were on a rubble-strewn path, Mik holding Zuzana’s elbow, and they had to pick their way over a collapsed wall. Zuzana peered around. From a distance, the kasbah had looked regal in a crazy sandcastle way, but inside it was pretty desolate. Not to mention—she stepped over a timber bristling with giant rusty nails and skirted the edges of a gaping hole—dangerous. And it smelled bad, too, like piss and worse. What was that smell? Why was Karou living here? And the creatures back there… They weren’t entirely unlike the drawings in her sketchbooks, but they weren’t like them, either. They were much bigger and freakier than anything Zuzana had imagined.

As for the white guy, he looked almost human; he was supernaturally hot—holy, those eyes, those shoulders, he’d be right at home on the cover of a romance novel—but there was something so icy about him that she’d gotten a shiver in spite of practically melting to death in this desert hell.

“That was Thiago,” Karou said. “He’s… in charge.”

Zuzana had gotten that much from his lord-of-the-manor air. “In charge of what, exactly?” she asked. Something occurred to her and she stopped walking. “Wait. Where’s Brimstone?”

Karou stopped, too, and her stricken expression was all the answer Zuzana needed. “Oh no,” she said. “Not—?” Dead?

Karou nodded.

Dead. That word was not supposed to be part of this adventure. Horrified, Zuzana asked, “And… Issa? Yasri?”

Again Karou’s expression was her answer.

“Oh, Karou, I’m so sorry,” Zuzana said, and when she looked to Karou now, she really looked, not with the pure relief that had gripped her on first sight, but seeing her. She was too thin, sharp, her lips were chapped, her hair in a slapdash braid, her shirt—some Moroccan-style loose cotton shift—was wrinkled as if she lived in it, and her eyes had that bruised sleepless look. And not just sleepless; she looked… depleted.

Another shiver went down Zuzana’s spine. What had she walked into, brought Mik into? She’d gotten so caught up in the mystery and the challenge; of course she’d known something was going on with Karou. Her cryptic e-mail had made that clear, but she hadn’t really considered it might involve the word dead and this stench in the air that she was sure now was rot.

She swallowed hard. She had a fat headache, her feet were killing her, she really, really wanted a shower, and she had a sad presentiment that ice cream was out of the question, but there was someone she hadn’t asked after yet. She hesitated, afraid of seeing another bleak answer written on her friend’s face. “What about Akiva?”

An answer appeared on Karou’s face all right, but it wasn’t the one Zuzana had expected. The bleakness transformed to severity. Karou’s jaw clenched, her eyes narrowed. “What about him?” she asked, hard.

Zuzana blinked. What? “Um. Is he… alive?”

“Last I heard,” Karou said, and turned away. “Come on.”

Zuzana and Mik looked at each other wide-eyed and followed in her wake. Karou’s tense posture was a warning to keep silent, but Zuzana chose to ignore it. Frankly, it pissed her off. She’d come all this way; she’d solved a riddle that wasn’t even a riddle; she’d found Karou in the middle of the Sahara desert—okay, they weren’t really in the Sahara desert but close enough, and if she ever told this story she was absolutely going to say she had hiked into the middle of the Sahara desert in zebra-striped sneakers. Whatever. She really didn’t think she deserved to be stonewalled. “What happened?” she asked her friend’s back.

Karou glanced over her shoulder. “Let it go, Zuze. I’ll tell you everything else, but I don’t want to talk about him.”

How bitterly she said it. “Karou.” Zuzana reached for Karou’s arm; when her friend winced from her touch, she drew back her hand. “What?” Zuzana asked. “Are you hurt?”

Karou stopped walking. She let go of the packs she was dragging and hugged her arms to herself, looking so lost. So beautiful and so lost. How was it fair that she looked so beautiful with such an obvious lack of effort? “I’m fine,” she said, trying for a smile. “It’s you two Lawrence of Arabias I’m worried about. Would you just shush and let me get you inside?” Karou looked to Mik for support, and of course he agreed with her.