Zuzana and Mik had gone back to sleep, lulled by the afternoon heat, and the sounds of the kasbah drifted through the closed shutters—sparring in the court, the ring of blades. Voices.
“After the portals burned,” Issa said, “we knew it wouldn’t be long. Joram pressed the attack as he never had before. Our armies shrank by the day, and more and more folk arrived at the gates, coming to Loramendi for… safety.” Issa swallowed. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The city was so full.” She looked down at her hands and Karou’s, still clasped together. “The seraphim took great losses, too. Joram sent them to die, so many, so many, knowing that we would run out of soldiers first, and we did. Such a simple calculus in the end. Loramendi came under siege. That’s when Brimstone…” The tremor overcame her voice and Issa snatched a hand out of Karou’s to press against her mouth. Karou still held her other hand and wished she could do more. Nothing made you feel so useless as another person’s grief.
Issa was struggling; when she lifted her eyes again, she looked stricken. It was such a haunted look that Karou felt a stab of fear. “Issa—”
But Issa rushed over her. “We wanted to stay with him to the end.” She squeezed Karou’s hands. “Of course, I wanted to see you again, and help you, but to leave him, after…” She couldn’t finish. Issa smashed her lips together, pressed them white. Her whole face was rigid with the effort not to weep. She took a deep breath. Another. “But he still needed us. So Yasri and I… died, too.”
What was she skipping? A nameless horror gripped Karou. What had happened in Loramendi? Images pinwheeled; she shook her head. She saw Issa and Yasri bleeding quietly from painless wounds until their lashes fluttered shut. Or had they sipped requiem tea and slipped into sleep? And at the end of it, she imagined Brimstone and Twiga silent, hunched, and stoic as they gleaned the souls of the two women who had been their companions for decades.
“Couldn’t he have gotten you out alive?” she asked plaintively.
Issa looked at her, and Karou knew she’d said the wrong thing. As if the decision might have been lightly made!
“No, child.” She was so sad. “Even if we could have made it out, what would we have done, waiting in hiding, but grieve and worry, grow hungry and thirsty, be discovered, be killed? Stasis is kind; we didn’t even have to be brave. We were messages in bottles.” She smiled. “Messengers in bottles.”
And what was the message? As Brimstone faced his death after a life begun in slavery, endured in pain and sacrifice, prolonged and protracted by war, and soon to end in brutality, what had he wished to tell her? Feeling that she was failing some test, Karou couldn’t bring herself to ask. Yet, anyway.
He had sent their thuribles out with messenger birds, Issa told her—bat-winged crows, or squalls, as Kishmish had been—to be hidden in places that she might find them. Yasri’s soul, she learned, was in the ruins of the temple of Ellai.
“Did he think I might go there?” Karou asked. “Could he imagine that place would mean anything to me now?”
Issa was taken aback. “Yes, child. Once you broke the wishbone and remembered—”
“Once I remembered dooming my people?”
“Sweet girl, what are you saying? You didn’t doom us. A thousand years of hatred doomed us.”
“To war, maybe. Not annihilation.”
“The end was coming. Maybe in one year or one hundred, but it was always coming. How long can a war go on?”
“Is that a riddle? How long can a war go on?”
“No, Karou. The riddle is: How might a war end? Annihilation is one way. Joram’s way. He did this, not you. You dreamed a different way. Akiva, too. You, the pair of you, you had the capacity not to hate. The audacity to love. Do you know what a gift that is?”
“A gift?” Karou choked. “A gift like a knife in the back!” On the bed, Zuzana stirred, and Karou lowered her voice. “It was false. It was crazy. It wasn’t love. It was stupid—”
“It was brave,” countered Issa. “It was rare. It was love, and it was beautiful.”
“Beautiful. Are we even talking about the same story? I died, and he betrayed everything we dreamed of?”
“He was devastated, Karou,” said Issa. “What do you think you would have done?”
Karou stared at Issa. Was she defending Akiva?
“What would you have done if the seraphim had taken you, tortured you, and made you watch as they cut off his head? And think: What might you have done, the pair of you together, if Thiago hadn’t stopped you? What might the world be now?”
“I… I don’t know,” said Karou. “Maybe Thiago would be dead, and Brimstone would be alive.” For an instant—if only for an instant—it seemed as though it were all Thiago’s fault and not hers at all. She had believed back then that they had Fate on their side, but the Wolf had bullied it into submission, and here was the result.
The serpent-woman asked softly, “Tell me, what are you doing, child?”
Karou couldn’t answer. Killing angels. Killing children. She pressed her lips together. Avenging you, she thought next, and the hypocrisy hit her like shattering. If that was all she was doing, how was she any better than him?
No. It wasn’t the same. She released a ragged breath, and words hissed out: “Fighting for the survival of the chimaera races.”
But was she? The rebellion was in Thiago’s hands, not hers; with all his secrecy, how could she know what they were fighting for?
What was it Akiva had said to her by the river? That the future would have chimaera in it or not, depending on what they did now. Well, he’d said a lot of things. Karou had been so shaken by his presence, by her fury—by her longing—that it hadn’t really sunk in. He’d talked of life, and choices. Of the future, as if there might be one.
And what had she said? Anything she could think of to hurt him.
She knew she had to tell Issa everything, not least of all how her thurible had come to Karou, but it was so hard to speak Akiva’s name, and impossible to meet her eyes while doing so. She told from Ziri’s return to Akiva’s appearance at the river, before backtracking to Marrakesh and even Prague. Of course, Issa hadn’t known about any of that, and Karou was so ashamed, admitting that she had… fallen for him again. She left out the kiss. Issa made no judgments and spoke only to coax Karou’s words from her, but Karou felt scrutinized. She tried to keep her voice even, her face straight, to prove that Akiva was nothing to her now but one more seraph enemy. When she was done, Issa was silent a moment, and thoughtful.
“What?” Karou asked. She sounded defensive.
“So,” said Issa, and she laid her words down with even precision, like cards on a table. “Akiva followed Ziri here.” She paused. “Do you fear that he’ll reveal this position to the seraphim?”
The question slammed Karou into a muffled, white-light bubble of shock. Oh, she thought. That.
She’d been worrying about keeping Akiva’s visit secret from the chimaera—not about keeping the chimaera rebels secret from Akiva. What did that mean? She’d told him she never trusted him, and that was a lie he had believed all too easily, but now? How could she still trust him now?
If she didn’t, though, wouldn’t she have rushed back to the kasbah and urged Thiago to make immediate preparations to leave? It hadn’t even occurred to her to do that.
Because it wasn’t Akiva that she feared.
“No matter what happens,” he had told her in Marrakesh, just before they broke the wishbone, “I need you to remember that I love you.” She had promised—breathlessly, unable then to fathom a reality in which she would wish not to remember it. She kept the promise against her will; she wanted to forget, but the knowledge held fast: Akiva loved her. He wouldn’t hurt her. This she knew.
In a wisp of a voice and loath to admit it—it felt as though she were the one defending him now—Karou told Issa, “He won’t.”
Issa nodded, solemn and sad, looking into Karou and knowing her so well that Karou felt like a diary lying open, all her secrets and failings there to read, and her traitor’s heart pulsing blood onto the page. “All right, then,” Issa said, trusting Karou’s trust, and that was that.
“Now.” Issa turned to the table and tooth trays. With forced lightness, she said, “Perhaps we should get to work, lest the Wolf decide we’re not worth the trouble of our sassing mouths.”
There was more to say, Karou knew. There was the message; there was a gap in Issa’s story, and whatever it was that she’d left out haunted her. Karou had never seen Issa look like that. She’ll tell me when she’s ready, she thought, trying to believe that it was for Issa’s sake that she didn’t come right out and ask, when she knew very well that it was just her own fear.
THE NEW GAME
Karou had told Thiago the truth: The work really did go much faster with Issa’s help, and Zuzana’s. Two pairs of clever hands and she could delegate every task but the actual conjuring. After Ziri turned up to tithe—insistent, even imploring, to repay her for her magic—Karou felt as if she were scarcely doing anything at all. Her room was too full. It was stuffy, Ziri’s wings took up space, and Issa’s tail seemed to be everywhere she wanted to place her feet, but she felt… happy. Actual happy, not Holy Grail happy. And the task that she was happiest to delegate? Even more than the tithe, it was the math.
“I’m good at math,” Mik volunteered, overhearing her complaints about wing-to-weight ratios. “Can I help?”
When it turned out that he could, Karou dropped to her knees to genuflect. “Gods of math and physics,” she intoned, “I accept your gift of this clever, fair-haired boy.”
“Man,” corrected Mik, insulted. “Look: sideburns. Chest hair. Sort of.”
“Man,” amended Karou, rising and bending again in mock prayer. “Thank you, gods, for this man—” She interrupted herself to ask Zuzana, in her normal voice, “Wait. Does that make you a woman?”
She only meant that it was strange to go from thinking of Zuzana—and herself, too—as a girl to a woman. It just sounded weirdly old. But Zuzana’s response, employing full eyebrow power in the service of lechery, was, “Why, yes, since you ask. This man did make me a woman. It hurt like holy hell at first, but it’s gotten better.” She grinned like an anime character. “So. Much. Better.”
Poor Mik blushed like sunburn, and Karou clamped her hands over her ears. “La la la!” she sang, and when Ziri asked her what they were saying, she blushed, too, and did not explain—which only made him blush in turn, when he grasped the probable subject matter.
By the end of that first day, they had built five new soldiers for the rebellion, double Karou’s average when working with Ten, and that was with a late start and having to teach Zuzana and Mik the basics. They had followed Thiago’s wish list and specifications to appease him, even when Zuzana’s drawn-at-random thurible—the one she’d been pestering Karou about since her first afternoon—turned out to contain Haxaya. The fox soldier had been Madrigal’s friend once, and her soul was the touch of sunset and laughter, with a bite like the sting of nettles; Haxaya was someone you wanted on your side… which started Karou thinking about sides.
Who could she trust? The soldiers of the chimaera army were and had always been fiercely loyal to their general. But she had Issa, of course, and there was Ziri, who took a risk even coming here to tithe. Maybe the rest of Balieros’s renegade patrol. They remained in stasis, so she couldn’t know for certain. She thought Amzallag was unhappy with Thiago’s tactics, and possibly Bast. She liked Virko. He had a jovial go-along nature, and judging from his vomiting he was no fan of these terror missions, but she couldn’t see him defying the Wolf.
What was she even thinking? She couldn’t see herself defying the Wolf, let alone asking others to. She’d told Ziri her suspicions about the Wolf’s desire to kill her, and, uncomfortingly, he’d shown no surprise. “He needs to be in complete control,” he said. “And you proved a long time ago that you’re not under his spell.”
Yes, she had proven that, all right. The question that echoed in her brain now was: What can I do?
She couldn’t go along with him. His course was barbaric, and that was bad enough, but it was also ruin. Look what he’d brought down on the southern folk. She kept catching herself thinking that if the soldiers understood the cause and effect—if she could just make them see—then they could not support his strategy. But, of course, they did understand. That was the worst part. They had followed his orders anyway, all except one patrol.
And she couldn’t stand up to him, either. Thiago might as well have been their god, and what was she? A known angel-lover in human skin? Even if anyone was to listen to her, she was no leader. It had been a long time since she was even a soldier, and she was afraid. Of responsibility, of the Empire, of the odds against their survival, and most of all, of Thiago himself. Right now, she was afraid of seeing that malice in his eyes again.
“Maybe another day,” she had said to Zuzana, closing Haxaya’s thurible and setting it aside. “Right now, let’s just try to make the Wolf happy.”
And he was happy with their work.
“Well done,” he said, when they presented him with the five new soldiers. His mask was back in place. He was all mild benevolence at dinner, even pouring wine—wine? That was a rare commodity, and Karou hadn’t brought it—he raised a glass to the five new revenants. “To survival,” he said, and she wondered: Whose?