“I don’t know,” he said, to the asked question and the unasked, and he stared into the cremation fire as it burned fast and infernal, leaving only ash for an urn they didn’t have.

What did he have in him, to have done such a thing, and why hadn’t it shown itself when he needed it most—not just in time to save Hazael’s life, but years ago, to save Madrigal’s? Had the years of devotion to sirithar honed his sympathy for magic? Or was it triggered by that sudden surge of memories of his mother?

Liraz asked, “Do you think Jael is alive?”

Akiva didn’t know what to say to that, either. He didn’t want to think about Jael, but it couldn’t very well be avoided. “He may be,” he allowed. “And if he is…”

“I hope he is.”

Akiva looked at his sister. The tough veneer had not returned. She still seemed vulnerable and young. She had spoken simply, quietly, and Akiva understood. A part of him hoped it, too. Jael deserved no such easy death as the explosion would have dealt him. But if he was alive, there were things to be done.

He rose and looked around. Mud walls, wooden door, no guards with outstretched hamsas to keep them weak; this dark place couldn’t hold them. Where was the Wolf, and why had he allowed his prisoners to rest and regain their strength?

And where was Karou? With Thiago? The idea brought gut pain, like a stab. Akiva couldn’t shake the memory of the look that had passed between them. That one look made him question everything he’d thought he knew about Karou. “I think it’s time to be going.” He held his hand out to his sister.

Once, Liraz would have rolled her eyes and risen without help. Now, she let him pull her to her feet. But once she had risen, she stood rooted beside the remains of Hazael’s pyre, staring at it. “I feel like we’re leaving him here.”

“I know,” said Akiva. To have flown so far bearing his weight, and to leave now with nothing? It seemed, in that moment, unthinkable. He looked around again, saw a jug inside the door.

“Water,” Liraz told him. “The Naja woman left it.” Akiva went and got it, offered it to Liraz, and then drank deeply himself. It was sweet and good and much needed, and when it was gone, he carefully filled the jug with Hazael’s ashes. Maybe it was foolish or morbid to keep such physical residue, but it helped, somehow.

“Okay,” he said.

“To the caves? The others must be thinking we died in the blast.”

The Kirin caves, where once upon a time he and Madrigal were to have met to begin their revolution. It was his Misbegotten brothers and sisters who awaited him there now, and with them a future that did not yet feel real. His sense of purpose was intact: to finish what he had started, end the killing, create—somehow—a new way of living. But without Karou by his side, the dream lay ahead of him with all the magic of a dusty path to a flat horizon.

“Yes,” he said. “But there’s something we have to do first.”

Liraz let out a long breath. “Please tell me it doesn’t involve saying good-bye.”

Good-bye. The word hurt. Good-bye was the last thing Akiva ever wanted to tell Karou. He thought of their first night together, how at the Warlord’s ball and later at the temple they had whispered “hello” to each other, again and again like a shared secret. It had been on his lips the first time he kissed her. That was what he would say to her if he could have what he wanted. Hello. “No,” he told Liraz, and reminded her it was bad luck to say good-bye.

To which she replied, deadpan, “Bad luck? By all means, let’s not start having any of that.”

It was neither “hello” nor “good-bye” that Akiva interrupted his escape to say, stealing glamoured again into Karou’s room to take her and Issa by surprise.

The Wolf, bless the godstars, was not there, but when Karou shot to her feet she threw a quick, uncertain look to the door and it was another gut-stab to Akiva—a reminder that Thiago was near, and had full access to that door.

“What are you doing here?” Karou asked, startled. Her peacock-blue hair was braided over one shoulder, and sleeves now hid the bruises on her arms. The swelling of her cheek had come down some, and her anger seemed to have gone, too. A flush spread up her neck, sudden color overtaking her pallor. “You were supposed to go.”

Supposed to go. This wasn’t the surprise it might have been. Their imprisonment had been a sham. When Akiva had laid his hand to the door to burn it, it had sighed open. It wasn’t even locked. He’d let out a small breath of a laugh and peered through the crack to see an ugly little courtyard piled with rubble, and no guards.

“We are going. But there’s something I have to tell you.” Akiva paused, seeing Karou tense. What did she think he was going to say? Was she afraid that he’d come to speak of love? He shook his head, wanting to assure her that those days were over, that she had no more such torment to fear from him. Tonight he brought a new torment. Again he was the bearer of an impossible choice. He said, “I am going to seal the portals.”

Whatever she was braced for, it wasn’t that. Her voice was a gasp. “What?”

“I’m sorry. I wanted to warn you,” he said, “so you could decide which side you’ll be on.”

Which side: Eretz or the human world? Which life will you give up?

“Which side?” She came out from behind her table. “You can’t. Not this portal. I need it. We need it.” What began as astonishment was becoming outrage, edged with panic. Issa moved to her side in a ripple. “Haven’t you burned enough? Why would you even try—?”

“To save both worlds,” said Liraz, “from corrupting each other.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Weapons,” said Akiva simply. He paused. He couldn’t begin to imagine compressing all that had happened in the Tower of Conquest into a neat explanation to offer her. “Jael. He may be dead, but if he’s not, he’ll be coming here for weapons. With the Dominion.”

The whites of Karou’s eyes were rings around her black irises, and she put out a hand to steady herself on her table. “How could he even know about human weapons?” A flash of fury. “Did you tell him?”

Another stab, that she could believe that Akiva would arm Jael, but it was no satisfaction to him to tell her the truth. He wished he could lie and spare her. “Razgut,” he said.

She stayed frozen a moment in her stare, then shut her eyes. All the rose-flush that had colored her cheeks drained away, and she made a small, anguished moan. At her side, Issa whispered, “It is not your fault, sweet girl.”

“It is,” she said, opening her eyes. “Whatever else isn’t, this is.”

“And mine,” said Akiva. “I found a portal for the Empire.” The portals—and hence the human world—had been lost to seraphim for a millenium; Akiva had changed that. He had found one portal, the one in Central Asia, above Uzbekistan. Razgut had shown Karou the other. “They could come by either portal. Jael planned it as a pageant, to play on all that humans believe angels to be.”

Karou was clutching Issa’s hand and taking long, shallow breaths. “Because things weren’t bad enough already,” she said, and began to laugh a broken laugh that Akiva could feel in his heart.

He wanted to fold her in his arms and tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t promise that, and, of course, he couldn’t touch her. “The portals must be closed,” he said. “If you need time to decide—”

“To decide what? Which world I’ll be in?” She stared at him. “How can you ask that?”

And Akiva knew that Karou would choose Eretz. Of course, he had known it already. If he hadn’t, he thought that no magnitude of threat—worlds at stake and lives—could have induced him to close the doors between them and trap himself forever in a world where she was not. “You have a life here,” he said. “There may never be a way back.”

“Back?” She cocked her head in that bird way that was pure Madrigal. She was bruised and shadowed, standing before him, breathing fast and summoning courage like a glamour. With her hair pulled back, the line of her neck was exaggerated, like an artist’s rendering of elegance. The planes of her face were also exaggerated—too thin—but they still vied with softness, and that interplay seemed the very essence of beauty. Her dark eyes drank the candlelight and shone like a creature’s, and there was no question in that moment that, whatever body it was sleeved in, her soul belonged to the great wild world of Eretz, terrible and beautiful, so much still unmapped and untamed, home to beasts and angels, stormhunters and sea serpents, its story still to be written.

She said, in a voice that was hiss and purr and the rasp of the blade to the sharpening stone, “I am chimaera. My life is there.”

Akiva felt something course through him, or many things: a tremor of love and a chill of awe, a wave of power and a surge of hope. Hope. Truly, hope was as unkillable as the great shield beetles that lay inert for years beneath the desert sands, waiting for prey to happen near. What possible grounds had he for hope?

As long as you’re alive, he had told Liraz, only half believing it himself, there is always a chance.

Well, he was alive, and so was Karou, and they would be in the same world. It was possibly the thinnest grounds for hope that he had ever heard of—we are alive and in the same world—but he clung to it as he told her his plan to fly to the Samarkand portal and burn it first, before doubling back for this one. He wanted to ask her where the rebels would go now, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t for him to know. They were enemies still, and once he left here, Karou would vanish from his life again, for long or forever, he couldn’t know.

“How much time do you need?” he asked through the tightness in his throat. “To retreat?”

Again she glanced toward the door, and Akiva felt the burn of fury and envy, knowing that she would go to the Wolf as soon as he was gone, and that they would plan their next move together, and that wherever the chimaera rebels went, Karou would still be with Thiago, and not—and never—with him. All his restraint broke. He took a heavy step toward her. “Karou, how…? After what he’s done to you?” He started to reach toward her, but she shrank back, gave a single sharp shake of her head.


His hand fell.

“You don’t get to judge,” she said in a violent half whisper. Her eyes were wet and wide and desperately unhappy, and he saw her hand lift by old instinct to her throat, where once upon a time she had worn a wishbone on a cord. She had been wearing it their first night together; they had broken it when the sun threatened dawn and they knew they must part, and in the days that followed it had become their ritual. Always in parting. And if the wish had blossomed over the days and weeks to become their grand dream of a world remade, it had begun much more humbly. That first night, the wish had been simple: that they might see each other again.

But Karou’s hand found nothing at her throat and fell away again, and she faced Akiva squarely and spoke coolly, and what she said was, “Good-bye.”

It felt like a final tether snapping. As long as you’re alive, there is always a chance. A chance of what? Akiva wondered, throwing a glamour over himself and his sister together, and pushing himself out into the night. That things will get better? How had the rest of the conversation gone, back at that grim battle camp?

Or worse. That was it. Usually worse.



Karou felt Akiva’s departure as she always had: as cold. His warmth was like a gift given and snatched away, and she stood there with her back to the window, feeling chilled, bereft, and undone. And angry. It was a childish, cartoonish anger—facing Akiva, she had wanted to beat her fists at his chest and then fall against him and feel his arms close around her.

As if he might be the place of safety that she was always seeking and never finding.

Karou breathed. She imagined she could feel him growing farther away and farther, and the distance hurt more with every phantom wingbeat. She took gulps of breath to fight back sobs. Issa’s arm was around her. Be your own place of safety, she told herself, straightening. No crossbar in the world could protect her from what lay ahead, and neither could a tiny knife tucked in her boot—though there her tiny knife would most certainly remain—and neither could a man, not even Akiva. She had to be her own strength, complete unto herself.

Be who Brimstone believes you are, she told herself, willing the strength to suddenly well up from some unknown depth. Be who all those buried souls need you to be, and all the living, too.

“Sweet girl,” said Issa. “It’s all right, you know.”

“All right?” Karou stared at her. Which part? The threat of human weapons to Eretz, or the threat of seraphim here. The havoc the angels could cause to human society just by existing, let alone by soliciting guns for a war beyond human ken… What had she done now? How could she have turned Razgut loose on Eretz with his poisoned soul and such deadly knowledge as he possessed? How many more such mistakes did she have it in her to make, huge enough to destroy worlds? What, exactly, she wanted to demand of Issa, was “all right”?

Issa said, “To love him,” and Karou felt a jolt go through her at the unexpectedness of it.

“I don’t—” she tried to protest, out of habit of shame.

“Please, child, do you think I don’t know you at all? I’m not going to say there is some easy future for you, or even any future at all. I only want you not to punish yourself. You’ve always felt the truth in him, then and now. Your heart is not wrong. Your heart is your strength. You don’t have to be ashamed.”