Yes, his reasons were clear, all too clear now. While Akiva had been planning to deliver Eretz from Joram, Jael had been waiting in the wings, and not just waiting. Orchestrating. Maneuvering his bastard scapegoat right into place.

“And if I hadn’t killed him?” Akiva asked, disgusted that he hadn’t felt the jerk of puppet strings all along.

“That was never a risk,” said Jael, and Akiva understood that even if he hadn’t killed Joram—if, by chance, he had come here as a loyal soldier to receive his emperor’s gratitude and orders—he would have been framed for the murder anyway. “The moment you walked though that door, you were an assassin and a traitor to the realm. It helps that you are, of course. It’s good to have a true witness. The servant girl owes you her life. Hellas, alas, owes you his death. But don’t feel too badly. He was a viper.” Jael, calling someone a viper. Even he saw the hypocrisy in it, and laughed. Akiva didn’t know if he had ever seen anyone enjoy himself quite so much.

Hazael was the first to succumb to the sickness of the devil’s eyes. He dropped to his knees and vomited onto the blood-spattered tile. Liraz edged closer to him, looking soon to follow suit.

“You think we have no other allies?” Akiva asked. “That no one else will rise against you?”

“If you can’t succeed, nephew, who could?”

It was a fair question. A devastating question. Was this it, then? Had he failed his world—and Karou—so spectacularly?

“I’m a little sorry I can’t have you in my service,” said Jael. “I could use a magus, but it would be so hard to trust you. I can’t shake the feeling that you don’t quite like me.” An apologetic shrug, and his gaze slid past Akiva to lock on… Liraz.

Through his weakness and his nausea, Akiva felt a surge of fury and dread and helplessness, but there was the edge of something more, something hard and glittering that he hoped, he hoped might be the edge of sirithar, coming within reach once more.

“You, though,” Jael said to Liraz. “So lovely. It appears that I’ll have need of new bath attendants when I move into these quarters.” He looked at a dead girl on the floor and smiled that splay of a smile that tugged his scar white and pulled puckers along the remains of his nose and lips.

Liraz gave a hard laugh; Akiva heard his sister’s weakness in it, and her struggle to bear up under it. “You can’t trust him, but you think you can trust me?”

“Of course not. But I never trust women. I learned that lesson the hard way.” He reached up to touch his scar, and when he did, his eyes gave the slightest flicker in Akiva’s direction. That was all, but it was enough.

Akiva knew who had cut Jael.

Hazael rose from his knees. It had to take extraordinary effort, yet somehow he managed a version of his lazy smile when he said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to be a bath attendant. You should take me instead. I’m nicer than my sister.”

Jael returned the lazy smile. “You’re not my type.”

“Well, you’re not anybody’s type,” said Hazael. “No, wait. I take it back. My sword says she’d like to know you better.”

“I’m afraid I must deny her the pleasure. I’ve been kissed by swords before, you see.”

“I may have noticed.”

“Festival,” said Akiva abruptly, and all eyes turned to him. It was Jael’s that he held. “It was my mother who cut you.” He didn’t want to talk about his mother with Jael; he didn’t want to open the door to his uncle’s memories—what lay on the other side of it could only be horrific—but he had to buy time. And… he had hoped her name might be the key to unlocking sirithar. It was not.

“So you have guessed,” said Jael. “Do you know, that might have been my favorite part of the day. When you assumed it was Joram who killed her? He may as well have, though. He did give her to me.”

Give her…? Akiva couldn’t think about it. “She can’t be the reason you hate the Stelians. One woman?”

“Ah, but not just any woman. Women are everywhere, beautiful women are nearly everywhere, but Festival, she was wild as a storm. Storms are dangerous things.” He looked at Liraz again. “Thrilling. Stormhunters know. That there’s no ride in the world like a storm in fury.” He motioned to a soldier. “Take her.”

Akiva thrust himself in front of the soldier; he felt slow, sluggish. Hazael was moving, too. Liraz managed to swing her sword, but the sound it made, careening off a Dominion blade, was weak, and it flew from her grip to fall with a muffled thud onto the pile of bodies that had been Joram, Japheth, Namais, and Misorias. Disarmed or not, she was not cowed. “Kill me with my brothers, or you’ll wish you had,” she spat.

“Now I’m insulted,” said Jael. “You would die with them, sooner than scrub my back?”

“A thousand times.”

“My dear.” He pressed a hand to his heart. “Don’t you see? Knowing that is what makes it sweet.”

The soldiers closed in.

Two score Dominion with the severed hands of dead revenants upheld, and Hazael still dealt a death before his own came to him.

His slice took a soldier in the face. His blade lodged in bone, and as the soldier fell, the weight pulled Hazael forward, so the thrust that was coming to him sank deep. Up under one raised arm it slipped, where there was no protection from mail or plate or even leather. It went through him and out between his wings. He stumbled, looked at Akiva, then down at the sword. He let go of his own, gave up trying to free it from the skull it was wedged in, and even as Hellas had, he reached for the blade he was spitted on. But his hands weren’t working. He batted at the hilt; he crumpled, and Akiva saw it all through the flare of clarity he had been desperate for.

Sirithar, come too late. Like a blood daub, after the killing is done.

Hazael fell. Liraz threw herself to her knees to catch him.

Akiva experienced in splendid light the howl that shaped his sister’s mouth. He heard her banshee grief and saw it, too. Sound had form, it was light, everything was light, and everything was grief, and Liraz was trying to hold Hazael’s head as his eyes glazed, but a pair of Dominion grabbed her, dragged her, and Hazael’s head fell. Akiva knew his brother was dead even before his head hit tile, and the thrum he felt inside his skull was like the thousands of summoned wings that had drubbed the skies of the Hintermost.

There were no birds this time. Or if there were, it was the sky that brought them, the sky itself, which at that moment… moved. Outside, over the city and over the sea, as if it had been grasped in a great fist and dragged, the sky lurched. It slid. It gathered, contracting upon one locus and dragging everything to its center: the Tower of Conquest. The sky was a continuous skein, so the disturbance was felt over the whole orb of Eretz.

Campfires as distant as the southern continent flared with the sudden drag of winds. In the jagged ice palaces atop the Hintermost, stormhunters stirred and lifted their great heads. On the mountains’ far side, Sveva and Sarazal and the Caprine emerged from their long passage through the tunnels to blink up at a night sky that seemed set in motion. And on the far side of the world—day where in the Empire it was night—a woman standing at the railing of a terrace looking out over a pale green sea felt the tug of wind at her hair and looked up.

She was young, strong. She wore a diadem on her black hair, a stone scarab set in its burnished gold; her wings were flame and her eyes were, too, and they cut narrow as, overhead, clouds were dragged so fast they blurred. On it went and on, the clouds blurred to streaks, wheeling birds and shadows caught in an inexorable wind. Her eyes stirred to sparks as across her city, her island—her isles—her people stopped what they were doing to watch the sky.

And when it ceased and a profound stillness fell, she knew what was coming, and reached for the railing.

The lurch had been like the gasp that precedes the scream, and then came…

The scream.

Silent, expulsive. The clouds surged back the way they’d come, racing over the pale green sea.

And on the world’s far side, back at the source of this great unnatural gasp and scream, the unbreakable glass of the Hall of Conquest… shattered. The Sword, symbol of the Empire of Seraphim, exploded outward with massive force.

The moons were watching. Their reflections were carried by a million flying shards, so it could be said that everywhere a splinter stuck and stabbed, so, too, stabbed Nitid and Ellai. When the sun rose, dagger fragments of glass would be found embedded in trees many miles away, and in corpses, too, though those were fewer than might have been, had it been day. Pierced birds and angels lay broken on rooftops and a Silversword had crashed through a dome of the seraglio, creating a breach through which dozens of concubines escaped in the confusion, many carrying Joram’s babies in their bellies, others cradled in their arms.

The Sword met the dawn as a steel skeleton, layer after layer of glass gone, all of those labyrinthine corridors peeled away, all those birdcages and painted screens, and that dais of a bed, gone as if they had never been.

The day—dazzling, cloudless—grew into a patchwork of hush and horror, rush and rumor and bodies washing up on beaches as far away as Thisalene.

What had happened?

It was said the emperor was dead at the hand of Beast’s Bane, and the crown prince, too. It surprised no one that Beast’s Bane and his bastard cohorts were gone, or that the ragged Silverswords who had survived the night found, on storming the Misbegotten barracks, that it was empty, not hide nor hair of a bastard soldier anywhere in Astrae.

Across the Empire this would prove true. The Misbegotten had gone with the clouds, it was said.

They hadn’t, though. The clouds had fled to the far side of the world, where the young queen of the Stelians had set aside her scarab diadem, bound back her black hair, and set out with her magi to trace the source of the extraordinary disturbance.

As for the Misbegotten, they had gone to gather at the Kirin caves and await their brother Akiva, seventh of the name, to pledge selves and swords to his cause.



“I feel like a fly when it’s trapped in the window and almost dead.” Zuzana’s voice sounded as limp as her hair felt.

“That’s it exactly,” agreed Mik. “Fan faster.”

It was Zuzana’s turn wielding the fan, an artifact of crackly palm fronds they had found on the roof of the hotel. Mik, wearing only shorts, was in the chair, tilted back with his feet on the bed and his head back to expose his throat to the breeze. “You are a goddess of air circulation,” he said.

“And you are a specimen of glistening maleness.”

Mik’s laugh was dulled by heat coma. “I was surrounded by monster soldier torsos for a week. I know that I am a glistening specimen of scrawn.”

“You’re not scrawny.” Up and down went the fan as Zuzana formulated a compliment. It was true that being surrounded by bronze-hard pectorals and biceps bigger than her head cast Mik’s physique in a new light, but really, who needed biceps bigger than her head? Well, unless their job was killing angels, in which case that might come in handy. She told Mik, “You have perfect violin-playing muscles.”

“And you, with your mighty puppeteer arms. We put the chimaera to shame.”

She stopped fanning and fell backward onto the bed. It was a bad bed in a cheap hotel, and the flop jarred her teeth. “Ow,” she said without conviction.

“Hey. Your turn isn’t even half up.”

“I know. I just succumbed to ennui.”

“Just now.”

“Just exactly now. You saw it happen.”

Mik let his chair rock forward, and used the momentum to pitch onto the bed beside her. “Ow,” she said again.

“I know a cure for ennui,” Mik told her, half rolling toward her before giving up and flopping onto his back. “But it’s too hot.”

“It is way too hot,” agreed Zuzana, who had no doubt what his cure entailed. “How are there even people in this country? Who can make babies in heat like this?”

“So let’s go,” he said. “The coast. Home. Australia. I don’t know. Why are we still here, Zuze?”

“Here” was Ouarzazate, the biggest city in southern Morocco. It looked like a film set for The Mummy or something, which it probably was, seeing as how it was a movie studio town at the edge of the Sahara desert. It was a little bland, a lot hot, and though their hotel ostensibly had air-conditioning, it had ceased to function some time in the night, which they had not noticed, since the nights actually were cool enough for curing ennui and populating countries.

Why were they still here, a full day after their invisible escape from monster castle, feet freshly blistered from the hike and resulting tithe bruises at the height of their purple glory?

“I don’t want to go,” Zuzana admitted in a small voice. “Back to tourists and angel cults and puppets and real life?” She was whining and she knew it. “I want to make monsters and do magic and help Karou.”

“That’s real life, too,” he said. “And more to the point, real death. It’s too dangerous.”

“I know,” she said, and she did, but it just felt all wrong leaving Karou there. If Thiago had killed her once, how could she know he wouldn’t again? “Damn it, why doesn’t she have a phone?” she grumbled. Karou was rich; she couldn’t splurge on a satellite phone or something? Whatever. If Zuzana could just know her friend was okay, she would be okay, too.

Which is not to say that she would stop whining.