- Days of Blood & Starlight
“They’re hiding under the aqueduct,” said Hallam, he of the vehemence, drawing his sword.
“Wait.” Bethena felt the word form on her lips, and it was spoken. Her fellow soldiers looked to her. They were eight. The slave caravan moved at the lumbering overland pace of their quarry and was a day behind them. Eight seraph soldiers were more than enough to stamp out a village like this. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said, and motioned them down.
It feels like a trap. That had been her thought, but it was a flashback to the war, and the war was over.
The seraphim came down on both sides of the underpassage, trapping the beasts in the middle. Against the possibility of archers—there was no greater equalizer than arrows—they kept close to the stone, out of range. The day was bright, the shadows deepest black. The chimaera’s eyes, thought Bethena, would be accustomed to the dark; light would dazzle them. Get it over with, she thought, and gave her signal. She leapt in, fiery wings blinding, sword low and ready. She expected livestock, cowering villagers, the sound that had become familiar: the moan of cornered animals.
She saw livestock, cowering villagers. The fire of her wings painted them ghastly. Their eyes shone mercury-bright, like things that live for night.
They weren’t moaning.
A laugh; it sounded like a match strike: dry, dark. All wrong. And when the angel Bethena saw what else was waiting under the aqueduct, she knew that she’d been wrong. The war was not over.
Though for her and her comrades, abruptly, it was.
THE UNFATHOMABLE WHY
A phantom, the news anchor said.
At first, the evidence of trespass had been too scant to be taken seriously, and of course there was the matter of it being impossible. No one could penetrate the high-tech security of the world’s elite museums and leave no trace. There was only the prickle of unease along the curators’ spines, the chilling and unassailable sense that someone had been there.
But nothing was stolen. Nothing was ever missing.
That they could tell.
It was the Field Museum in Chicago that captured proof of the intruder. First, just a wisp on their surveillance footage: a tantalizing bleed of shadow at the edge of sight, and then for an instant—one gliding misstep that brought her clearly into frame—a girl.
The phantom was a girl.
Her face was turned away. There was a hint of high cheekbone; her neck was long, her hair hidden in a cap. One step and she was gone again, but it was enough. She was real. She had been there—in the African wing, to be precise—and so they went over it inch by inch, and they discovered that something was missing.
And it wasn’t just the Field Museum. Now that they knew what to look for, other natural history museums checked their own exhibits, and many discovered similar losses, previously undetected. The girl had been careful. None of the thefts were easily visible; you had to know where to look.
She’d hit at least a dozen museums across three continents. Impossible or not, she hadn’t left so much as a fingerprint, or tripped a single alarm. As to what she had stolen… the how was quickly drowned out by the unfathomable why.
To what possible end?
From Chicago to New York, London to Beijing, from the museums’ wildlife dioramas, from the frozen, snarling mouths of lions and wild dogs, the jaws of Komodo dragon specimens and ball pythons and stuffed Arctic wolves, the girl, the phantom… she was stealing teeth.
I FEEL HAPPY
From: Karou <[email protected]>Subject: Not dead yetTo: Zuzana <[email protected]>Not dead yet. (“Don’t want to go on the cart!”)Where am I and doing what?You might well ask.Freaky chick, you say?You can’t imagine.I am priestess of a sandcastlein a land of dust and starlight.Try not to worry.I miss you more than I could ever say.Love to Mik.(P.S. “I feel happy…. I feel happy….”)
Light through lashes.
Karou is only pretending to be asleep. Akiva’s fingertips trace her eyelids, slip softly over the curve of her cheek. She can feel his gaze on her like a glow. Being looked at by Akiva is like standing in the sun.
“I know you’re awake,” he murmurs, close to her ear. “Do you think I can’t tell?”
She keeps her eyes closed but smiles, giving herself away. “Shush, I’m having a dream.”
“It’s not a dream. It’s all real.”
“How would you know? You’re not even in it.” She feels playful, heavy with happiness. With rightness.
“I’m in all of them,” he says. “It’s where I live now.”
She stops smiling. For a moment she can’t remember who she is, or when. Is she Karou? Madrigal?
“Open your eyes,” Akiva whispers. His fingertips return to her eyelids. “I want to show you something.”
All at once she remembers, and she knows what he wants her to see. “No!” She tries to turn away, but he’s got her. He’s prying her eyes open. His fingers press and gouge, but his voice loses none of its softness.
“Look,” he coaxes. Pressing, gouging. “Look.”
And she does.
Karou gasped. It was one of those dreams that invade the space between seconds, proving sleep has its own physics—where time shrinks and swells, lifetimes unspool in a blink, and cities burn to ash in a mere flutter of lashes. Sitting upright, awake—or so she’d thought—she gave a start and dropped the tiger molar she was holding. Her hands flew to her eyes. She could still feel the pressure of Akiva’s fingers on them.
A dream, just a dream. Damn it. How had it gotten in? Lurking vulture dreams, circling, just waiting for her to nod off. She lowered her hands, trying to calm the fierce rush of her heartbeat. There was nothing left to be afraid of. She had already seen the very worst.
The fear was easy to banish. The anger was something else. To have that surge of perfect rightness overcome her, after everything… It was a filthy lie. There was nothing right about Akiva. That feeling had slipped in from another life, when she had been Madrigal of the Kirin, who loved an angel and died for it. But she wasn’t Madrigal anymore, or chimaera. She was Karou. Human.
And she had no time for dreams.
On the table before her, dull in the light of a pair of candles, lay a necklace. It consisted of alternating human and stag teeth, carnelian beads, eight-sided iron filings, long tubes of bat bone, and, making it sag with asymmetry, a lone tiger molar—its mate having skittered under the table when she dropped it.
Asymmetry, when it came to revenant necklaces, was not a good thing. Each element—tooth, bead, and bone—was critical to the resulting body, and the smallest flaw could be crippling.
Karou scraped back her chair and dropped to her knees to grope in the darkness under her worktable. In the cracks of the cold dirt floor her fingers encountered mouse droppings, snipped ends of twine, and something moist she hoped was just a grape rolled off to rot—Let it remain a mystery, she thought, leaving it be—but no tooth.
Where are you, tooth?
It wasn’t like she had a spare. She’d gotten this one in Prague a few days earlier, half of a matched set. Sorry about the missing leg, Amzallag, she imagined herself saying. I lost a tooth.
It started her laughing, a slappy, exhausted sound. She could just imagine how that would go over. Well, Amzallag probably wouldn’t complain. The humorless chimaera soldier had been resurrected in so many bodies that she thought he’d just take it in stride—no pun intended—and learn to do without the leg. Not all of the soldiers were stoic about her learning curve, however. Last week when she had made the griffon Minas’s wings too small to carry his weight, he had not been forbearing.
“Brimstone would never make such a ridiculous mistake,” he’d seethed.
Well, Karou had wanted to retort, with all the gravity and maturity she could muster. Duh.
This wasn’t an exact science to begin with, and wing-to-weight ratios—well. If Karou had known what she would be when she grew up, she might have taken different classes in school. She was an artist, not an engineer.
I am a resurrectionist.
The thought rose up, flat and strange as always.
She crawled farther under the table. The tooth couldn’t have just vanished. Then, through a crack in the stone, a breeze fluted over her knuckles. There was an opening. The tooth must have fallen through the floor.
She sat back. An icy stillness filled her. She knew what she would have to do now. She would have to go downstairs and ask the occupant of the chamber beneath if she could search for it. A deep reluctance pinned her to the floor. Anything but that.
Anything but him.
Was he there now? She thought so; she sometimes imagined she could feel his presence radiating up through the floor. He was probably asleep—it was the middle of the night.
Nothing would make her go to him in the middle of the night. The necklace could just wait until morning.
At least that was the plan.
Then, at her door: a knock. She knew at once who it was. He had no compunction about coming to her in the night. It was a soft knock, and the softness disturbed her most of all—it felt intimate, secret. She wanted no secrets with him.
“Karou?” His voice was gentle. Her whole body tensed. She knew better than anyone what a ruse that gentleness was. She wouldn’t answer. The door was barred. Let him think she was asleep.
“I have your tooth,” he called. “It just landed on my head.”
Well, hell. She couldn’t very well pretend to be asleep if she had just dropped a tooth on his head. And she didn’t want him to think she was hiding from him, either. Damn it, why did he still affect her this way? Severe and straight-backed, her braid swinging in a blue arc behind her, Karou went to the door, drew back the ancient crossbar—which was primarily a defense against him—and opened it. She held out her hand for the tooth. All he had to do was drop it on her palm and walk away, but she knew—of course she knew—it would not be that simple.
With the White Wolf, it never was.
THIS DESOLATION OF ANGELS
The White Wolf.
The Warlord’s firstborn, hero of the united tribes and general of the chimaera forces. What remained of them.
He stood in the corridor, elegant and cool in one of his creaseless white tunics, his silken white hair gathered loosely back and tied with a twist of leather. The white hair belied his youth—the youth of his body, at least. His soul was hundreds of years old and had endured endless war and deaths beyond counting, many of them his own. But his body was in its prime, powerful and beautiful to the full extent of Brimstone’s artistry.
It was high-human in aspect and had been made to his own specifications: human at a glance but beast in the details. A carnal human smile revealed sharp cuspids, his strong hands were tipped in black claws, and his legs transitioned at mid-thigh from human to wolf. He was very handsome—somehow both rugged and refined, with an undertone of the wild that Karou felt as a lashing danger whenever he was near.
And no wonder, considering their history.
He had scars now that he hadn’t when she knew him before, when she was Madrigal. A healed slash cleaved one of his eyebrows and spidered up into his hairline; another interrupted the edge of his jaw and jagged down his neck, drawing the eye along his trapezius to the smooth form of his shoulders, straight and full and strong.
He had not come unscathed through the last brutal battles of the war, but he had come through alive and, if possible, even more beautiful for the scars that made him seem more real. In Karou’s doorway now, he was all too real, and too near, too elegant, too there. Always, the White Wolf had been larger than life.
“Can’t sleep?” he asked. The tooth was cupped in his palm; he didn’t offer it up.
“Sleep,” said Karou. “How cute. Do people still do that?”
“They do,” he said. “If they can.” There was pity in his look—pity!—as he added softly, “I have them, too, you know.”
Karou had no idea what he was talking about, but she bristled at his softness.
“Nightmares,” he said.
Oh. Those. “I don’t have nightmares,” she lied.
Thiago was not deceived. “You need to care for yourself, Karou. Or”—he glanced past her into her room—“let others care for you.”
She tried to fill her doorway so that no slice of space might be construed as an invitation to enter. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m good.”
He moved forward anyway, so that she had to either back away or tolerate his nearness. She stood her ground. He was clean-shaven and smelled faintly, pleasingly, of musk. How he managed to be always pristine in this palace made of dirt, Karou did not know.
Scratch that. She did know. There was no chimaera who would not stoop gladly to see to the White Wolf’s needs. She even suspected his attendant, Ten, of brushing his hair for him. He scarcely had to speak his will; it was anticipated, it was already done.
Right now his will was to enter her room. Anyone else would have subsided at his first hint of approach. Karou did not, though her heartbeat hammered a small-animal panic to be so near him.
Thiago didn’t press. He paused and studied her. Karou knew how she looked: pale and grim and waning thin. Her collarbones were oversharp, her braid was a mess, and her black eyes were glossed with weariness. Thiago was gazing into them.
“Good?” he repeated, skeptical. “Even here?” He brushed her biceps with his fingers and she shrugged away, wishing she were wearing sleeves. She didn’t like anyone to see her bruises, and him least of all; it made her feel vulnerable.