“Could you walk back out of here, if you had to? At night, when it’s not so hot?”
They nodded, huge-eyed.
Karou scraped her lip between her teeth and worried it. “Do you think…” she asked haltingly, hoping it wasn’t the worst idea she had ever had, “that you might like to learn… to, um, turn invisible?”
She would have given much in that moment for a camera, to preserve forever the expression on her best friend’s face.
The answer, needless to say, was yes.
They worked at it all day.
“This is a little less awesome than it could be,” was as close as Zuzana came to complaining about the tithe, but her glee, when she came visible again after her first success at glamour, was bright and beautiful, as she was bright and beautiful, and Karou couldn’t help it—she grabbed her into the kind of overlong, too-tight hug that could really only mean: This is it, I’ve loved knowing you. When she finally drew back, Zuzana’s eyes were wet, her mouth skewed into an angry don’t-cry grimace, and she didn’t say a word.
Karou still had to pull off some resurrections so that she might present soldiers to Thiago, lest he guess that her attention had been elsewhere that day. She managed it with Issa’s help—three new soldiers—and she managed to get through dinner, too, eating mechanically, and now more than ever, she scanned the host and wondered: Who among them had the courage to stand up to the Wolf?
For such a reason as she was now ready to give them, she told herself, there must be some.
Zuzana and Mik gave away nothing, sitting as usual on the floor among soldiers, learning words in an otherworldly language they would never again have the opportunity to speak. Friend, fly, I love you. Virko thought this last one was hilarious, but Karou felt pulped by it. Mik played Mozart that night, and Karou saw Bast moved to tears, and later, much later, in her room, she handed vises to her friends, and put one on herself, and led them out unseen into the desert night. They took only what fit in their pockets—money, dead phones, passports, the compass—and canteens slung over their shoulders. Everything else they left.
Karou walked a little way with them, then flew back to the kasbah to watch and make sure that their absence went unnoticed.
Tucked into her tooth tray she found a folded paper: a drawing of Zuzana and Mik, and written out phonetically, the Chimaera for “I love you.” She broke down then, and Issa held her, and she held Issa, and they both wept, but by the time the sun rose and the kasbah came to life, they were calm again. Pale and subdued. Ready.
It was time.
Once upon a time, chimaera descended by the thousands into a cathedral beneath the earth.
And never left.
It was a choice. When the end came, every chimaera in Loramendi had it to make. Well, not the soldiers. They would die defending the city. And not the children. Parents chose for them, and the seraph invaders would later remember very few children in the city when the siege finally broke the iron bars of the Cage. Maybe none, in fact. So much had already burned and collapsed. It was hard to make an accounting in all the rubble.
So the angels never guessed what lay buried beneath their feet.
Go down to the cathedral beneath the city. Carry your babies and lead your children by the hand. Go down into the airless dark and never come out.
Or stay above and face the angels.
It was a choice of deaths, and it was easy. The one below would be gentler. And perhaps… possibly… less permanent.
Brimstone didn’t promise. How could he? It was only a dream.
“You were always the dreamer between the two of us,” the Warlord said to him, when Brimstone came to propose it. They were two old men—“old monsters,” as the enemy would have it—who had risen from the most abject slavery to tear down their masters and carve out for their people a thousand years of freedom. A thousand years and no more. It was over, and they were very tired.
“I’ve had better dreams,” said Brimstone. “That the cathedral was for blessings and weddings, instead of resurrection. I never dreamed it a tomb.”
The cathedral was the massive natural cavern that lay beneath the city. Few had ever seen its carved stalactites but the revenants who woke on its great stone tables. Whatever blessings and weddings Brimstone had dreamed for it when first he found it and built a city on it, it had only ever seen the one purpose: revenant smoke and hamsas.
And now this.
“Not a tomb,” said the Warlord, putting a hand on his friend’s hunched shoulder. “Isn’t that the point? Not a tomb at all, but a thurible.”
In a thurible, properly sealed, souls could be preserved indefinitely. And if the cathedral were sealed, its vent shafts blocked and its long corkscrew stair collapsed and concealed, Brimstone had proposed that it might serve, in essence, as a massive vessel for the preservation of thousands of souls.
“It may only ever be a tomb,” he warned.
“But whose idea is this?” asked the Warlord. “Am I to convince you, who brought it to me? You could look out the window today, see the sky raining fire, and say that it has all been for nothing, everything we’ve ever done, because now we’ve lost. But folk were born and lived and knew friendship and music in this city, ugly as it is, and all across this land that we fought for. Some grew old, and others were less lucky. Many bore children and raised them, and had the pleasure of making them, too, and we gave them that for as long we could. Who has ever done more, my friend?”
“And now our time is done.”
The Warlord’s smile was all rue. “Yes.”
The tomb—the vessel—could not be for them, because the angels would leave no stone unturned until they found the Warlord and the resurrectionist. The emperor must have his finale. This might be Brimstone’s dream, but its fulfillment would depend on another.
“Do you believe that she’ll come?” the Warlord asked.
Brimstone’s heart was heavy. He couldn’t know if Karou would ever find her way back to Eretz; he hadn’t prepared her for anything like this. He’d given her a human life and tried to believe that she might escape the fate of the rest of her people, the endless war, the broken world. And now he would hang it all around her neck? Heavy, heavy, keys to a shattered kingdom. The weight of all these souls would be as good as shackles to her, but he knew that she wouldn’t shirk them. “She will,” he said. “She’ll come.”
“Well then, we do it. You named her aptly, old fool. Hope, indeed.”
So they put it to the people to choose, and the choice was easy. Everyone knew what was coming; their lives had shrunk down to huddling and hunger—and fire, always fire—as they waited for the end. Now the end was here, and… like a dream this hope came to them; it came in whispers to their dark dwellings, their ruins and refugee squats. They knew, all of them, the devastation of waking from hopeful dreams to darkness and the stench of siege. Hope was mirage, and none trusted easily to it. But this was real. It was not a promise, only a hope: that they might live again, that their souls and their children’s souls might bide in peace, in stasis until such a day…
And this was the other hope, heavier still, that Brimstone hung around Karou’s neck, and the greater task by far: that there may come such a day at all, and a world for them to wake to. Brimstone and the Warlord had never been able to achieve it with all their armies, but Madrigal and the angel she loved had shared a beautiful dream, and, though that dream had died on the executioner’s block, Brimstone knew better than anyone that death is not the end it sometimes seems.
By the thousands the folk of the united tribes filed down the long spiral stair. It would be crushed behind them; there would be no way out. They beheld the cathedral and it was glorious. They pressed in tight and sang a hymn. It was possible that it would never be more than their tomb, and yet, this was the easy choice.
The hard choice and true heroism was in those who chose to stay above, because they couldn’t all go. If every chimaera vanished from Loramendi, the seraphim would guess what they had done and go digging. So some citizens—many—had to stay and give the angels satisfaction. They had to be the angels’ satisfaction, the hard-won corpses to feed to their fires. The old stayed, as did most who had already lost their children, and an undue number of the ravaged refugees who had endured so much and had but this one thing left to give.
They sacrificed themselves that some might yet know life in a better time.
This was what Karou went armed with this morning, as well as her literal arms: her crescent-moon blades slung at her h*ps and her small knife pushed down the side of her boot. With Issa at her side, she headed to the court where the Wolf and his soldiers were already awake and gathered in the clean, crisp air, several teams armed and ready to fly. Amzallag’s team was one, and Karou felt her heart reaching toward the soldier. She wished she could tell him her news alone, and some of the others, too, who would be most powerfully affected by it.
Amzallag had children. Or he had had them, before Loramendi fell.
“We’ll hit them north of the capital,” Thiago was saying. “The towns are poorly fortified, and sparsely guarded. The angels haven’t seen battle there for hundreds of years. My father had let his edge grow dull. He took a defensive stance. Now we have nothing left to defend.”
It was a bold statement, and was met with a shifting of weight by some soldiers. It sounded almost as though he were blaming the Warlord for the fall of their people.
“We do, though,” Karou spoke up, stepping out from the same archway she had hidden beneath to watch Ziri and Ixander spar. Thiago turned his benevolent-mask to her; how thin it was, how utterly unconvincing. “We have something to defend.”
“Karou,” he said, and he was already skimming the scene for Ten, traitor-sitter. Peripherally, Karou saw her on the move.
“There are still lives to be saved,” Karou said, “and choices.” They were Akiva’s words, she realized once they were out. She flushed, though nobody could know that she was parroting Beast’s Bane. Well, he was right. More right than he could have known.
“Choices?” Thiago’s look was cool, flat. Ten’s hand closed on Karou’s arm.
“You remember the choice we talked about yesterday,” said the she-wolf in a low growl.
“What choice is that, Ten?” Karou asked full-voice. “Do you mean the choice between Zuzana and Mik, and who you would kill first? I choose neither, and they’re out of your reach. Get your hand off me.” She yanked her arm free, and turned back to the host. She saw some confusion, and shuttling of glances back and forth between herself and Thiago. “The choice I mean is to protect our own innocents from the seraphim, instead of slaughtering theirs.”
“There are no innocent seraphim,” said the Wolf.
“That’s what they say when they kill our children.” She couldn’t help sliding a glance in Amzallag’s direction. “Some even believe it. We know better. All children are innocent. All children are sacred.”
“Not theirs.” A low growl edged Thiago’s voice.
“And all the folk on both sides just trying to live?” Karou took a step toward him. Another. She couldn’t feel her feet; maybe she wasn’t even walking, but drifting. In her state of anxiety and pumped-up courage her heartbeat roared in her ears. Her courage was a guise. She wondered if courage always was, or if there were those who truly felt no fear. “Thiago, I’ve been trying to work something out, but I’ve been afraid to ask you.” She swept the host with a look. All these faces, these eyes of her own creation, all these souls she had touched, some beautiful, some not. “I wonder if everyone here understands but me, or if any of you lose sleep wondering.” She turned back to Thiago. “What is your objective?”
“My objective? Karou, it is not required of you to understand strategy.” She could see he was still trying to work out what audacity brought her to question him, and how he might reassert his control without open threats.
“I didn’t ask your strategy, only your objective,” she said. “It’s a simple question. It should have a simple answer. What are we fighting for? What are we killing for? What do you see when you look into the future?”
How hard and unblinking his eyes, how immobile his face was. His wrath was ice. He had no answer. No good answer, anyway. We’re fighting to kill, he might have said. We’re killing for vengeance. There is no future. Karou felt the collective waiting of the chimaera and wondered how many of them would be satisfied with that. How many had lost all ability to hope for more, and how many might find a last scrap of it once they knew what Brimstone had done.
“The future,” Thiago said after an overlong pause. “I once overheard you planning the future. You were in the arms of your angel lover, and you spoke of killing me.”
Ah, yes, Karou thought. It was a skillful evasion on his part. To these soldiers, that image—a chimaera entwined with a seraph—was enough to eclipse her question. “I never agreed to it,” she said, which was true, but she sensed that the curiosity she had kindled was waning; she would lose whatever small ground she might have gained. “Answer my question,” she said. “Where are you taking us? What do you see in the future? Do we live? Do we have lands? Do we have peace?”
“Lands? Peace? You should ask the seraph emperor, Karou, not me.”
“What, the beasts must die? We’ve always known his objective, but the Warlord never mimicked it like you are. These terror killings only bring worse down on the people you’ve forsaken.” To the soldiers, “Are you even trying to save chimaera, or is it just about revenge now? Kill as many angels as you can before you die? Is it that simple?” She wished she could tell them what Balieros’s patrol had done, and what they had witnessed in the Hintermost, but she couldn’t bring herself to reveal that secret. What would Thiago do if he knew?