Karou almost panicked. Her eyes darted back to the door she had come from. She didn’t think she could reach it. Instead, she pressed herself into the window niche and held stone-still.
They passed her, near enough to touch. Karou feared that they would go into the shop and close the door behind them, trapping her in this strange place. She was ready to cry after them to prevent it, but they bypassed the door. Her panic subsided. In its wake, something else flared: anger.
Anger at the years of secrets, as if she weren’t worthy of trust or even the barest details of her own existence. Her anger made her bold, and she determined to find out more—as much as she could while she was here. This chance, she suspected, would never come again. So when Brimstone and Twiga turned into a stairwell, she followed.
They were tower stairs, a tight corkscrew down. The spiraling descent made Karou dizzy: down, around, down, around, hypnotic, until it seemed as if she were caught in a purgatory of stairs and would go down like this forever. There were small slot windows for a while, and then they disappeared. The air grew cool and still, and Karou had the impression of being belowground. She heard Brimstone and Twiga in snatches, and could make no sense of their conversation.
“We will need more incense soon.” Twiga.
“We will need more of everything. There has not been an onslaught like this in decades.” Brimstone.
“Do you think they have their eye on the city?”
“When have they not?”
“How long?” Twiga asked with a quaver. “How long can we hold them off?”
Brimstone. “I don’t know.”
And just when Karou thought she couldn’t bear any more turning, they reached the bottom. It was here that things got interesting.
The stairs spilled out into a vast, echoing hall. Karou had to hold herself back to make sure Brimstone and Twiga had gone on, but when she heard their voices moving away, rendered small by the immensity of the space that swallowed them, she crept out after them.
It seemed she was in a cathedral—if, that is, the earth itself were to dream a cathedral into being over thousands of years of water weeping through stone. It was a massive natural cavern that soared overhead to a near-perfect Gothic arch. Stalagmites as old as the world were carved into pillars in the shapes of beasts, and candelabras hung so high they were like clusters of stars. A scent was heavy in the air, herbs and sulfur, and smoke wreathed among the pillars, teased into wisps by breezes emanating from unseen openings in the carven walls.
And below it all, where Brimstone and Twiga walked down the cathedral’s long nave, there weren’t pews for worship, but tables—stone tables huge as menhirs, so huge they must have required elephants to haul them there. Indeed, they were large enough to accommodate an elephant reclining, though only one of them actually did.
An elephant, laid out on a table.
Or… no. It was not an elephant. With clawed feet and a head that was some nightmare of a massive, tusked grizzly bear, it was elsething. Chimaera.
And it was dead.
On each of the tables lay a dead chimaera, and there were dozens of them. Dozens. Karou’s gaze fluttered, erratic, from table to table. No two of the dead were alike. Most had some human quality to them, head or torso, but not all. There, an ape with the mane of a lion; an iguana-thing so huge it could only be called a dragon; a jaguar’s head on the nude body of a woman.
Brimstone and Twiga moved among them, touching them, examining. They paused the longest over a man.
He was na**d, too. He was what Karou and Zuzana would have called, with the smug smiles of connoisseurs, a “physical specimen.” Heavy shoulders tapering to neat hips, abdomen corrugated, all the muscles Karou could identify from life drawing study ruggedly pronounced. On his powerful chest was a down of pure white hair, and the hair of his head was white, too, long and silken on the stone table.
A fug of incense hung thick around him. It was coming from a kind of ornate silver lantern suspended from a hook above his head, exhaling a steady fume. A thurible, Karou thought, like those twirled about in Catholic Mass. Brimstone laid a hand to the dead man’s chest, let it linger there a moment in a gesture Karou couldn’t decipher. Fondness? Sadness? When he and Twiga moved on and vanished into the rearing wall of shadow at the far end of the nave, she crept out of hiding and went to the table.
Up close, she saw that the man’s white hair was an incongruity. He was young, his face unlined. He was very handsome, though blank and waxen in death, and seeming not quite real.
He was also not quite human, though nearer to it than most of the chimaera here. The flesh and musculature of his legs transitioned at mid-thigh to become the white-furred haunches of a wolf, with long backward-bending canine feet and black claws. And his hands, she saw, were hybrid: broad and furred across the backs like paws, with human fingers tapering to claws. They were lying palm up, as if they had been arranged that way, and that was how Karou saw what was etched on his skin.
In the center of each palm was a tattooed eye identical to her own.
She took a startled step back.
This was something. Something critical, something key, but what did it mean? She turned to the next table, the lion-maned creature. Its hands were simian, the flesh black, but she could still make out the hamsas on them.
She went to the next table, and the next. Even the elephant-creature: The soles of its mammoth forefeet were marked. Each of these dead creatures wore the hamsas, just like she did. Her thoughts hammered in her head the way her heart thumped in her chest. What was going on? Here were dozens of chimaera, and they were dead and na**d—without, she noted, any visible wounds—and laid out cold on slabs in some kind of underground cathedral. Her own hamsas connected her to them in some way, but she couldn’t imagine how.
She circled back around to the first table, the white-haired man, and leaned against it. She was conscious of the scented smoke from the thurible and had a moment of anxiety when she realized her hair would be infused with the smell and give her away to Yasri and Issa when she snuck back into the shop. The shop. The thought of climbing back up that interminable corkscrew made her want to sink down into fetal position. Her wounds throbbed. They were seeping through the bandages, and Yasri’s balm was wearing off. She hurt.
But… this place. These dead. With her muddled head, Karou felt unequal to the mystery. The white-haired man’s hand lay right before her, its hamsa taunting her. She laid her own beside it to compare the marks, but his lay in the shadow of his body, so she reached out to lift it into the light.
The marks were identical. She saw that as her mind worked at something else, a too-slow warning from her sluggish senses.
His hand, his dead hand… it was warm.
It was not dead.
He was not dead.
A whip-crack movement and he came upright, spinning on his knees. His hand, which had lain inert in hers, caught her throat and lifted her off her feet, slamming her down onto the stone table. Her head. Against stone. Her vision blurred. When it cleared again he was above her, eyes ice-pale, lips drawn back over fangs. She couldn’t breathe. His hand still clutched her throat. She clawed at it, struggled to throw him off, managed to get her knees between them and kick out.
His grip loosened and she gasped a breath, tried to scream, but he was over her again, heavy and na**d and bestial, and she fought him with everything in her, fought him with a wildness that plunged them over the edge of the table to the floor. It was chaos and thrashing, and bare limbs so strong Karou couldn’t break free. He was on her, straddling her legs, staring, and some kind of crazed madness seemed to clear from his eyes. His lips eased from their snarl and he looked human again, almost, and beautiful, but still terrifying and… confused.
He gripped her by the wrists, forced open her hands to see her hamsas, then looked sharply at her face. His gaze roved over all of her so that she felt as if she were the na**d one, and then he gave a thick growl that sent shudders through her. “Who are you?”
She couldn’t answer. Her heart was pounding. Her wounds were on fire. And, as ever, she had no answer.
“Who are you?” He dragged her upright by her wrists and flung her back onto the stone table and was over her again. His movements were fluid and animal, his teeth sharp enough to rip out her throat, and all at once Karou saw how her trespass through the other door was going to end: in a pool of blood. She found her breath.
BATTLE NOT WITH MONSTERS
“Girl?” Izîl squinted up at Akiva. “You… you mean Karou?”
Karou? Akiva knew that word. It meant hope in the language of the enemy. So not only did she bear the hamsas, she had a chimaera name. “Who is she?” he demanded.
Clearly terrified, the old man pulled himself up a little straighter. “Why do you want to know, angel?”
“I’m asking the questions,” said Akiva. “And I suggest you answer them.” He was impatient to get on and meet the others, but loathe to leave with this mystery hanging over him. If he didn’t find out who the girl was now, he would never know.
Eager to be helpful, Razgut supplied, “She tastes like nectar and salt. Nectar and salt and apples. Pollen and stars and hinges. She tastes like fairy tales. Swan maiden at midnight. Cream on the tip of a fox’s tongue. She tastes like hope.”
Akiva was stone-faced, unreasonably disturbed by the thought of this abomination tasting the girl. He waited until Razgut gibbered into silence before he said, his voice low in his throat, “I didn’t ask what she tastes like. I asked who she is.”
Izîl shrugged, fluttering his hands in an effort at nonchalance. “She’s just a girl. She draws pictures. She’s nice to me. What more can I tell you?”
His voice was glib, and Akiva saw that he thought he could protect her. It was noble, and laughable. Having no time to waste playing games, he decided on a more drastic approach. He seized Izîl by his shirtfront and Razgut by one of his jagged bone spurs and leapt airborne with the pair of them, hauling their combined weight as if it were nothing.
It was only a matter of wingbeats before all of Marrakesh glimmered below them. Izîl was screaming, his eyes squeezed shut, but Razgut was silent, his face displaying such unutterable longing it shot pity into Akiva’s heart like a splinter—more painful, indeed, than the shard of wood Karou had stabbed him with. It surprised him. Over the years he had learned to deaden himself, and he had lived so long with the deadness that he believed pity and mercy were extinguished in him, but tonight he had experienced dull stabs of both.
Slowly spiraling downward like a bird of prey, he brought the two to rest on the domed peak of the city’s tallest minaret. They scrabbled to hold on and failed, sliding down its slick surface, paddling frenziedly for handholds and footholds before coming to rest against a low, decorative parapet that was all that kept them from plummeting over the edge, several hundred feet to the rooftops of the mosque below.
Izîl’s face was gray, his breathing thin. When Razgut shifted himself on the old man’s back, they teetered perilously close to the edge. Izîl let out a stream of panicked commands to stay low, not shift, hang on to something.
Akiva stood over them. Behind him, the serrated ridge of the Atlas Mountains shone in the moonlight. Breezes teased the flame-feathers that made up his wings, setting them dancing, and his eyes were the muted glow of embers. “Now. If you wish to live, tell me what I want to know. Who is the girl?”
Izîl, with a horror-struck glance over the edge of the roof, answered in a rush. “She’s nothing to you, she’s innocent—”
“Innocent? She bears the hamsas, traffics teeth for the devil sorcerer. She doesn’t seem innocent to me.”
“You don’t know. She is innocent. She just runs errands for him. That’s all.”
Was that all she was, some kind of servant? It didn’t explain the hamsas. “Why her?”
“She’s the Wishmonger’s foster daughter. He raised her from a baby.”
Akiva processed this. “Where did she come from?” He knelt to bring his face closer to Izîl’s. It felt very important that he know.
“I don’t know. I don’t! One day she was just there, cradled in his arm, and after that she was always there, no explanations. Do you think Brimstone told me things? If he had, maybe I would still be a man instead of a mule!” He gestured to Razgut and fell into lunatic laughter. “ ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ Brimstone said, but I didn’t listen, and look at me now!” Tears sprang to the wrinkled corners of his eyes as he laughed and laughed.
Akiva was rigid. Trouble was, he believed what the hunchback said. Why would Brimstone tell his human minions anything, especially mad fools like this? But if Izîl didn’t know, what hope did Akiva have of finding out? The old man was his only lead, and he had lingered too long already.
“Then tell me where to find her,” he said. “She was friendly with you. Surely you know where she lives.”
Woe flickered in the old man’s eyes. “I can’t tell you that. But… but… but I can tell you other things. Secret things! About your own kind. Thanks to Razgut, I know far more of seraphim than I do of chimaera.”
He was bargaining, still hoping to protect Karou. Akiva said, “You think there’s anything you can tell me about my kind?”
“Razgut has stories—”
“The word of the Fallen. Has he even told you why he was exiled?”
“Oh, I know why,” said Izîl. “I wonder if you do.”
“I know my history.”
Izîl laughed. One cheek was pressed flat against the dome of the minaret, and his laugh came out as a wheeze. He said, “Like mold on books, grow myths on history. Maybe you should ask someone who was there, all those centuries ago. Maybe you should ask Razgut.”