- Days of Blood & Starlight
“Me? You were awesome. Holy. Karou. You’re my hero.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re mine, so we’re even.”
Mik, contrary to appearances, was not quite asleep. He rallied to say, “I want to be someone’s hero, too.”
“Oh, you are,” Zuzana assured him, throwing herself on top of him. She kissed him with a smack. “My fairy-tale hero, one task down and two to go.” Karou didn’t know what that was about, but she backed away as Zuzana continued to plant noisy assurances all over his face.
Karou expected Ten to be waiting outside the door and follow her, but the she-wolf must have assumed she would stay in with her friends tonight; she was nowhere to be seen.
With a thrill at the unexpected freedom, Karou wove her way quietly toward the kasbah’s back gate, through the narrow lanes of the ruined village, hearing the scurry of rats at her passing. Several times she had to go airborne and drift over obstacles and collapsed walls, but was careful to keep below the roofline and out of sight of the sentry tower. She had a moment to herself and she was not going to risk it.
Once or twice she got the feeling that she was followed and looked back, but saw no wolfish slink in the shadows. She did catch a glimpse of white and for an instant feared it was Thiago himself, but it was only some of his clothing, laundered and draped on a roof to dry. She breathed. The White Wolf was the last person she wanted to see right now.
Well, maybe not the very last. That position was reserved for Akiva, but there she was safe. Akiva was far away in the Hintermost, apparently, and what the hell was he up to? Had he really saved Ziri? The evidence was flimsy.
One dead hummingbird-moth.
Deep memories stirred: the feel of the living shawl that Akiva had gifted her that night at the Warlord’s ball, the fanning of those soft, furred wings, and then the tickle as the creatures began to eat the glittering sugar that dusted her chest, neck, and shoulders. She still felt shame for the sugar, all these years later—that it had been meant for Thiago, and she had let herself be dusted with it, not quite admitting to herself that she was ready to surrender to him, to let him… taste her. She shuddered to imagine that fanged mouth on her flesh.
Instead it had been hummingbird-moths that tasted her, and later… an angel.
How strange and cruel life was. If there had come a whisper in her ear that long-ago morning that by nightfall she would be in the arms of the enemy—and want to be there—she would have laughed at it. But when it came to pass it had felt as natural and right as the steps in a dance that she had always known.
She wondered now: What if Akiva had never come to Loramendi, with his beautiful, startling talk—love is an element—his soft touch and sweet magic, his heat and humor and his firelight eyes, if she had never have known any suitor but the Wolf?
Had she been such a pliant thing that she would have let herself be taken by him, tasted and claimed? She wished she could believe that she would have awakened to her foolishness even without Akiva’s coming, but her shame would not subside. She might have cringed at Thiago’s touch and shaken herself awake, but… she knew that she would most likely have let the tide carry her along until it was too late.
Well. Her people would still be alive if she had. What was her own happiness compared to that?
She reached the river and slipped down to the bouldered place on its bank where she could sit hidden from view from the kasbah. She kicked off her shoes, put her feet on the cold-splashed stones, and watched the reflection of the stars pull into long, dancing streaks on the moving surface of the water. The scope of that glittering sky had a way of making her feel so small—minuscule, insignificant—and she realized she was relishing that feeling as a way of relieving herself of the pressure to do something.
After all, what can I do?
Really: What? The chimaera were loyal to Thiago, and Thiago would never compromise.
What, Karou wondered, would Brimstone do?
Her longing for him in this moment was so profound that it made her slip into hope—that malingering, wretched hope that he was not truly gone. She let herself imagine, just for a moment: If Brimstone were here, what would be different?
One thing, at least. I would be loved.
It was only a whisper, but she jumped at the sound of her name. Who—? She saw no one, she had heard no approach. Only…
A draft of heat.
A drift of sparks.
Oh god. No.
And then like a dropped veil, his glamour vanished and he was before her.
Light coursed through Karou and darkness chased it—burning through her, chilling her, shimmer and shadow, ice and fire, blood and starlight, rushing, roaring, filling her. Shock and disbelief. And rancor.
And she was on her feet. Her fists were clenched, her fists were stones, so tightly clenched, her whole body was taut with rage at the sight of the angel, every sinew stretched and her skin drawn tight so she felt the blood in her temples, pounding, and the fury in her fists, pulsing, and in her closed palms: the scald. Her hamsas burned and she was opening her hands and lifting them and Akiva did not defend himself.
When the magic of the marks hit him, he lowered his head and endured it.
Magic poured off Karou, and Akiva shook under the onslaught but didn’t move—not away, not toward—and Karou knew that she could kill him. She’d wished she’d done it before and here he was to give her another chance. Why else would he be here—why else?—and what else could she do but kill him?—there was nothing else—after what he had done—after what he had done—after what he had done—but… how could she kill Akiva?
How could she not?
Hadn’t he done enough without forcing yet another impossible choice on her? Why was he here?
He dropped to his knees, and the air between them rippled with Karou’s crippling magic and with memory. The day of her death, this is what she had seen, this: Akiva on his knees, sick with the weight of this same magic coursing off Thiago’s soldiers, and he had struggled to hold his head up and look at her—just like this—with horror and despair and love—and she had wanted more than she had ever wanted anything to go to him and hold him, whisper to him that she loved him and was going to save him, but she couldn’t, not then, and she couldn’t now, not because of shackles or pinions or the executioner’s ax but because he was the enemy. He had proven it beyond any horror she would ever have believed, beyond any betrayal she could ever have dreamed, and he could never be forgiven, not ever.
But… then… her hands fell to her sides.
Why? She hadn’t meant to drop them. Her hamsas were hot against her own thighs and her breath was ragged and coming in gasps and she couldn’t make herself raise her hands back up. Akiva was shaking and racked with magic, and the pair of them were again in the eye of a storm of misery—their world was a storm of misery and they were caught in its center, in the deceptive stillness that had allowed them to forget, once upon a time, that all around them was a stinging whirl of hatred that would catch them—it was everywhere and everything and they’d been fools to think they could leave their small safe place and not be caught in that vortex like every other living creature in Eretz.
But they had learned, hadn’t they?
Karou’s gasps were in danger of becoming sobs, and her legs were trembling. She wanted to drop to her knees, too, but she couldn’t. It would be as good as extending a hand to him. She stood over him. Her palms were still hot with magic, but she kept them at her sides.
“I thought you were dead.” Akiva’s voice was choked. “And… I wanted… to die, too.”
“Why didn’t you?” Karou’s face was hot and wet and she was ashamed of her tears and ashamed that she still hadn’t been able to kill him. What was wrong with her, that even now she couldn’t avenge her people?
Akiva lifted himself up off his hands, pushed back upright. He looked wrung out, pale and shaken and sick, the whites of his eyes red as they had been long ago. “It would have been too easy,” he said. “I don’t deserve peace.”
“And I don’t, either? Don’t I deserve to finally be free of you?”
At first he said nothing, and Karou’s words echoed in the silence. They were so ugly—edged in mockery to cover her anguish; she hated the sound of herself. When he did answer, his anguish was undisguised. “You do deserve it. I didn’t come here to torment you—”
“Then why did you come?” she cried.
Even before Akiva rose to his feet, Karou felt as if she were fighting against something, but when he did stand, unsteadily, and she had to take a step away and tip back her head to look up at him, she knew what it was. The shape of him—the breadth and contours of his chest, the sharp line of his widow’s peak that her fingers had traced so many times, and his eyes—above all his eyes, his eyes. Confronted with his realness, his nearness, Karou understood that what she was fighting was familiarity—familiarity of a magnitude that was a profound kind of recognition.
This was Akiva, and the recognition had been there even when he was a stranger, that day at Bullfinch when she had first laid eyes on him. It was why she had done such an astonishing thing as save the enemy’s life. It had been there in the dance in Loramendi, even when he wore a mask, and it had been there again in the lane in Marrakesh, when he was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger again.
Except that he wasn’t.
Akiva had never been a stranger, and that was the problem. A kind of call echoed between them, even now, and from the hollow of Karou’s heart where there should have been only enmity and bitterness, came a slow pull of… longing. Rage rushed in and swamped it. Foul heart! She wanted to rip it out.
How could she still not hate him?
And when their eyes met, this was what Akiva saw: not the longing but a sudden flare of violence and loathing. He failed to recognize it as self-loathing, and he was lost. He looked sharply away, realizing only now—fool—that he had still had hope. Of what? Not that Karou would be glad to see him—he wasn’t that big a fool—but maybe for a flash, a hint that something remained in her besides hate.
But that hope vanished and left him empty, and when he found his voice to answer her question, he sounded empty. Scraped and dry.
“I came to find the new resurrectionist. I didn’t know that it was… you.”
“Surprised?” she asked. The loathing was as thick in her voice as in her look, and could he blame her for it?
Surprised? “Yes,” he said, though that wasn’t the word for what he was. He was gutted. “You could say that.”
She cocked her head in that birdlike way she had, and Akiva’s heart was raw. She saw, and understood. She said, “You wonder why I never told you.”
He shook his head, dismissing it, but there it was. She had never told him. In the requiem grove for that month that was the only real happiness of Akiva’s life, in all their talk of peace and hope, all their love and discovery and their plans, so grand—to invent a new way of living—Madrigal had never spoken of resurrection. It was the White Wolf who had spilled the chimaera’s great secret, gloating in the prison of Loramendi between lashes of the whip.
Akiva had kept nothing from her. He had wanted her to know him, truly and fully, from the terrible tally his inked knuckles boasted to the misery of his earliest memories, and love him for who he was, and all these years he’d believed she had. So what did it mean that she had kept such a secret? She may even have come straight from the work of resurrection into his arms and never breathed a word of it.
“I’ll tell you why,” said Karou. Her words were precise, a knife sliding between his ribs. “I never trusted you.”
He nodded; he couldn’t look at her. What had been emptiness filled with nausea, as powerful as if revenants were arrayed around him with their hamsas upheld.
“So are you going to kill me?” she asked. “That’s why you came, isn’t it? To kill another resurrectionist?”
Akiva’s head snapped up. “What? No. Karou. No. Never.” How could she even ask that? “There’s no reason for you to believe it,” he said, “but I’m done killing chimaera.”
“You told me that once before.”
“It was true then,” he said. “And it’s true now.” After Bullfinch he had stopped killing chimaera.
And after her death, he had started again.
He couldn’t stop himself from turning his hands, trying to hide the evidence tattooed on them. He wanted to tell her that everything he had done he had done because he was broken, because watching her die had destroyed him, but there was no way to say it that didn’t sound like he was trying to pin the blame outside himself. There was no way to talk about what he had done, nothing to plead, and no mitigation. Even thinking about it, he came up again and again against the sheer magnitude of his guilt, and there were no words. Confession and apology were worse than inadequate—they were an affront; explanation was impossible. But he had to say something.
I lost my soul. “I lost our dream. Vengeance eclipsed everything. I barely remember the weeks and months after…” After I watched you die, and part of me died, too. “I can’t account for what I’ve done, let alone atone for it. I would bring them all back if I could. I would die a death for every single chimaera. I would do anything. I will do anything, and everything, and I know… I know it will never be enough—”
“No, it won’t. Not ever, because they’re gone—”
“I know. I’m not looking for forgiveness. But there are still lives to be saved, and choices. Karou, the future will have chimaera in it or not, depending on what we do now.”