- Days of Blood & Starlight
“I’m fine,” she said.
“You would ask for help, wouldn’t you, if you needed it? At the very least, you should have an assistant.”
“I don’t need an—”
“There’s no weakness in asking for help.” He paused, then added, “Even Brimstone had help.”
He might as well have reached into her chest and seized her heart.
Brimstone. Yes, he’d had help, including, ostensibly, herself. And yet, where had she been while he was tortured, butchered, burned? What was she doing as his angel murderers stood guard over his scorched remains and ensured his evanescence?
Issa, Yasri, Twiga, every soul in Loramendi. Where was she when their souls drifted off like cut kites and ceased to be?
“They’re dead, Karou. It’s too late. They’re all dead.”
Those were the words that had destroyed Karou’s happiness one month ago in Marrakesh. Just minutes before, she and Akiva had held her wishbone between them and snapped it, and her life as Madrigal—all the memories that Brimstone had taken away for safekeeping—had come rushing back. She could feel the heat of the block she’d laid her head on as the executioner raised his blade, and she could hear Akiva’s scream—a thing ripped from his soul—as if its echo had been trapped in the wishbone, too.
Eighteen years ago, she had died. Brimstone had resurrected her in secret, and she had lived this human life with no knowledge of the one that came before it. But in Marrakesh it had all come back to her, and she had… awakened—joined her life already in progress—to find herself with the fractured wishbone in her hand and Akiva miraculously before her.
That was the most astonishing thing—that they had found each other, even across worlds and lifetimes. For a pure and shining moment, Karou had known joy.
Which Akiva had ended with those words, spoken in deepest shame, most wretched sorrow.
“They’re all dead.”
She hadn’t believed it. Her mind simply would not approach the possibility.
Following the maimed angel Razgut from the skies of Earth into those of Eretz, she had clung to the hope that it would not be—could not be—as Akiva had said. But then she had found the city, and… there was no city. She still couldn’t wrap her mind around the devastation. She had lived there once. A million chimaera had lived there. And now? Razgut, foul thing, had laughed at the sight; that was the last she remembered of him. From that moment, she’d been in a daze, and couldn’t remember how they’d parted, or where.
All she’d known in the moment was the ruin of Loramendi. Over that blackened landscape hung something Karou had never felt before: an emptiness so profound that the very atmosphere felt thin, it felt scraped, like an animal hide stretched on a rack and hacked at and hacked at until it was clean.
What she was feeling was the utter absence of souls.
“It’s too late.”
How long she had wandered in the ruins, she could not afterward have said. She was in shock. Memories were at work in her. Her life as Madrigal was twining itself into her self as Karou, and it was fraught with death, with loss, and at the core of her stunned grief was the knowledge that she had enabled it. She had loved the enemy and saved him. She had set him free.
And he had done this.
Bitter, bitter, this desolation of angels.
When a voice splintered the silence, she had spun around, her crescent-moon blades leaping in her hands with the will to make angels bleed. If it had been Akiva there in the ruins, she could not have spared his life again. But it was not him, or any other seraph.
It was Thiago.
“You,” he had said, with something like wonder. “Is it really you?”
Karou couldn’t even speak. The White Wolf looked her over from head to toe, and she shrank away. Her memories burned. Revulsion roiled like snakes in the pit of her belly, and from within the deadness of her shock she was lit with fury—at the universe, for this newest cruelty. At him, for being the one left alive.
Of all possible souls to survive the slaughter: her own murderer.
She should have known that night, long ago in another life, another flesh, that she was followed, but joy had dulled her caution.
She was Madrigal of the Kirin. She was in love. She was in the grip of a huge, bold dream. For a month of secret nights, she had flown in darkness to the temple of Ellai, where Akiva waited, restless with new love and on fire as she was to remake their world. She always savored the moment of arrival—her first glimpse of his upturned face as she slipped down through the canopy of the requiem trees, and how he would see her and light up with a joy to answer her own. It was the image she would keep with her in the days that followed—Akiva’s lifted face, so perfect and golden, bright with such amazement and delight. He reached up to draw her down. His hands skimmed up her legs as she descended, took her h*ps and gathered her right out of the air so that their lips met before her hooves ever touched ground.
She laughed against his mouth, her wings still open behind her like great dark fans, and he sank down, reclining on the moss right there with her astride him. They were giddy and hungry, and made love in the middle of the grove in plain sight of the bright-eyed evangelines whose night symphony was their music.
In plain sight of those who had followed Madrigal from the city.
Later, it made her sick to realize that they had watched. They had waited and watched, not content with the treason of mere kissing, but needing a more outrageous raft of crimes—to see it all, and to hear what they would talk of afterward.
And what had they been rewarded with?
The lovers moved languidly into the small temple, where they sipped from the sacred spring and ate bread and fruit that Madrigal had brought. They worked at magic. Akiva was teaching Madrigal his invisibility glamour. She could manage it for a moment, but it required a heavier pain tithe than she could sustain on her own to hold it in place. In the temple, she flickered in and out: there, not there.
“What shall I do,” she mused, “for pain?”
“Nothing. No pain for you. Only pleasure.” He nuzzled her, and she pushed him off, smiling.
“Pleasure won’t help me stay invisible long enough for it to count.”
They couldn’t hide forever, and would need to be able to come and go in both their lands, among chimaera and seraphim, unseen as needed. They were working out whom to recruit to their cause; they were poised to begin. It would be a critical moment, giving themselves away to their first few chosen fellows, and they talked them over in turn.
They also discussed whom to kill.
“The Wolf,” Akiva said. “As long as he is alive, there is no hope for peace.”
Madrigal sat silent. Thiago, die? She knew Akiva was right. Thiago would never accept less than the total demise of the enemy, and certainly she had no personal love lost for him, but to kill him? She toyed with the wishbone hanging around her neck, conflicted. He was the soul of the army and a unifying hero of her people. The chimaera would follow him anywhere. “That’s a problem,” she told Akiva.
“You know it as well as I do. Joram, too,” said Akiva.
If possible, the emperor was even more bloody-minded than Thiago was. He also happened to be Akiva’s father. “Do you… do you think you can do it?” asked Madrigal.
“Kill him? What am I for but killing?” His tone was bitter. “I am the monster he created.”
“You’re not a monster,” she said, drawing him to her, stroking his brow, which was always hot as fever, and kissing the ink lines on his knuckles as if she could forgive him the lives they represented. They let talk of killing fall away and wished in silence that they could have the world they wanted without having to kill for it.
Or, as it turned out instead, die for it.
Outside, Thiago decided that he had heard enough, and he set fire to the temple.
Even before they smelled smoke or saw the lick of fire, Madrigal and Akiva were jolted by the screams of the evangelines. They’d never even known that the creatures could scream. They leapt apart, spun instinctively for weapons that weren’t there. They’d left them on the moss outside, along with their shed clothes.
“So careless” was the first thing Thiago said when they were drawn up short, rushing from the burning temple to find a company of soldiers waiting. The White Wolf, front and center, had Madrigal’s crescent-moon knives, one in each hand. He let them swing back and forth, hooked from his fingertips. Behind him, one of his wolf retinue held Akiva’s swords. He chinged the blades together in a taunt.
One beat followed the sound, a single beat of stillness, and then chaos leapt in.
Akiva raised his arms, summoning magic. What he intended to do, Madrigal never knew, because Thiago was ready for him, and four revenant soldiers had already thrown up their palms, hamsas outfaced to the angel. A fury of sickness hit him. He staggered, dropped to his knees, and they were on him with the butts of their swords, their heavy gloved fists and booted feet, and one whipping reptilian tail wrapped in chains.
Madrigal tried to run to him but was caught by Thiago’s fist slamming into her belly so hard it lifted her off her feet. For a weightless, airless moment she didn’t know up from down, and then she hit the ground. Bones jarred. Blood rose up her throat, filled her mouth and nose.
Choking, gasping, sick. Pain. Pain and blood. She coughed for breath. Naked, she curled around the pain. Overhead: smoke, trees catching fire, and then Thiago. He stared down at her, his lip curled in a snarl.
“Foul thing,” he growled in a tone of deepest revulsion. “Traitor.” And then, the vilest thing of all: “Angel-lover.”
She saw murder in his eyes and thought she would die right there on the moss. In some deep place, Thiago was fractured. He was sometimes called the Berserker for his savage killing sprees in battle; his trademark was tearing out throats with his teeth. It was a very dangerous thing to make him angry, and Madrigal flinched from a blow that never came.
Thiago turned away.
Maybe he wanted her to have to watch. And maybe it was just base instinct—an alpha urge to destroy a challenger. To destroy Akiva.
There was so much blood.
The memory was lurid, mixed with choking smoke and the shrieks of serpent-birds roasting alive, and though it wasn’t Karou’s proper memory but Madrigal’s, it was still her own, arising from her deeper self. It was all her, and she remembered everything: Akiva on the ground, his blood running into the sacred stream, and Thiago, wild-eyed but eerily composed and utterly silent, laying into the angel’s body with blow after blow, his own face, his white hair shining with fine bloodspray.
He would have killed Akiva then, but one of his more levelheaded followers stepped in and pulled him off, and so it hadn’t ended there. Madrigal had heard the awful, echoing screams of her lover for days afterward as he was tortured in the prison of Loramendi, where she awaited her own execution.
That was the Thiago whom Karou saw—killer, torturer, savage—when he appeared before her a lifetime later in the ruins of Loramendi.
But… it all looked different now, didn’t it? How, after all, in the light of what had come to pass, could she argue that he had been wrong?
Akiva should have died that day, and so should she. It had been treason, their love, their plans, and worst of all: her fool mercy, to save the angel’s life not once but twice, so that he might live to become what he was now. The Prince of Bastards, they called him, among other names. Thiago had made certain she heard them all—Lord of the Misbegotten, Beast’s Bane, the Angel of Annihilation—and behind each name lurked the accusation: Because of you, because of you.
If it weren’t for her, the chimaera would still live. Loramendi would still stand. Brimstone would be stringing teeth, and Issa, sweet Issa, would be fretting over his health and winding serpents around human necks in the antechamber of the shop. The children of the city would still run riot on the Serpentine in all their many shapes, and they would grow up to be soldiers, as she had, and be cycled through body after body as the war went on. And on.
Looking back now, Karou could scarcely believe her own naiveté, that she had believed the world could be some other way, and that she could be the one to make it so.
In her doorway, Karou thrust out her hand and said, “Thiago, just give me the tooth.”
He stepped closer, so that his chest butted at her fingertips and she had to pull them back. Her pulse stuttered. He was so near; she really wanted to move away, but to do so would give him space to enter, and she must not do that. Since joining with him, she had tried hard never to be alone with him. His nearness made her feel small, so weak by contrast, and so… human.
With a magician’s flourish, he opened his hand, revealing the molar as if he were daring her to take it. What would he do if she did—grab her hand?
She hesitated, wary.
“Is it for Amzallag?” Thiago asked.
She nodded. He had asked her for a body for Amzallag, and that’s what he was getting. Aren’t I the compliant little helper, she thought.
“Good. I’ve brought him.” He raised his other hand, which held a thurible.
Karou’s belly flipped. So it was already done. She didn’t know why this part of the process unsettled her so much; she supposed it was the image of two creatures going off into the scree and only one coming back. She hadn’t seen the pit, and she hoped she never would, but some days she could smell it: a fug of decay that gave reality to what was usually remote. Thuribles were clean and simple; the new bodies she made were as pristine as Thiago’s clothes. It was the other bodies that bothered her—the discarded ones.