He spoke to her and his words drifted down to the onlookers, foreign and richly tonal, rough and somehow a little… animal. Whatever he said to her, she gradually stopped struggling. Still, he kept her hands folded in his own for a long moment. Over in Old Town Square, the bells of Týn Church tolled nine, and it was only when the ninth hour echoed into silence that he released her and sculled backward in the air, tense and watchful, like one who has released a wild thing from a cage and doesn’t know if it’s going to turn on him.
Karou didn’t turn on him. She drew away. The two spoke, gestured. Karou’s movements in the air were languid, her long legs curled up beneath her, arms moving with a tidal rhythm, as if she were keeping herself afloat. It all looked so effortless—so possible—that several tourists cautiously tested the air with their own arms, wondering if they hadn’t strayed into some pocket of the world where… well, where people could fly.
And then, just when they were becoming accustomed to the startling sight of the blue-haired girl and black-haired man floating overhead like a piece of magnificent performance art, the girl made a sudden move. The man sagged in the air and started to fall in fits and starts, struggling to stay aloft.
He lost the struggle and went limp. His head rolled back, loose on his neck, and, in a sizzle of sparks that gave the brief impression of the tail of a comet, he plunged to earth.
STARLIGHT TO THE SUN
When the angel thought he could get away simply by lifting ten feet off the ground, Karou took a devilish pleasure in surprising him. But if he was surprised, he didn’t show it. She rose up into the air in front of him, and he looked at her. Just looked. His gaze was heat across her cheeks, her lips. It was touch. His eyes were hypnotic, his brows black and velvet. He was copper and shadow, honey and menace, the severity of knife-blade cheekbones and a widow’s peak like the point of a dagger. All that and the muted snap of invisible fire, and facing him, Karou was jolted into the hum of blood and magic, and something else.
In her belly: a flutter of winged things shaking themselves fervently to life.
It brought a flush to her cheeks. The temerity of butterflies to trouble her now. What was she, some giddy girl to swoon at beauty?
“Beauty,” Brimstone had scoffed once. “Humans are fools for it. As helpless as moths who hurl themselves at fire.”
Karou would not be a moth. For the moments that they circled each other, she reminded herself that though the seraph wouldn’t fight her now, he had spilled her blood before. He had left her scarred. Worse, he had burned the portals and left her alone.
She put on her anger like armor and attacked him again, surging at him in the air, and for a few minutes she was able to fool herself that she was a match for him, that she could… what? Kill him? She was barely even trying to use her knife. She didn’t want to kill him.
What did she want? What did he want?
And then he grabbed her hands and in one smooth movement disarmed her and disabused her of any notion she might have had that she was winning. He pressed her palms together so she couldn’t lash out with her hamsas again—up close she saw that his neck was welted white where she had touched him—and he was so strong, she couldn’t break free. His hands were warm and enclosed hers completely. Her magic was trapped in her palms, one tattoo hot against the other, and her knife had fallen to the street below. She was caught. She experienced a frantic moment, remembering the way he had stood over her in Morocco, the deadness of his expression. But it wasn’t dead now. Far from it.
He might have been someone else entirely, his look was so full of feeling. What feeling? Pain. He glistened with a fever sheen. His face bore the strain of endured agony, and his breathing was uneven. But that wasn’t all. He blazed with intensity, leaning toward Karou in the air, looking, looking, alive with a searing, wide-eyed searching.
His touch, his heat, his gaze washed over her and, in an instant, it was not butterflies she felt. That was small, the flutterings of a giddy girl.
This new thing that sprang up between them, it was… astral. It reshaped the air, and it was in her, too—a warming and softening, a pull—and for that moment, her hands in his, Karou felt as powerless as starlight tugged toward the sun in the huge, strange warp of space. She fought against it, trying to get away.
His voice low and hoarse, the angel said, “I’m not going to hurt you. What happened before, I’m sorry. Please believe me, Karou. I didn’t come here to hurt you.”
She startled at the sound of her name and stopped struggling. How did he know her name? “Why did you come?”
On his face, a helpless look. He said again, “I don’t know,” and this time it didn’t strike her as funny. “Just… just to talk,” he said. “To try to understand this… this…” He fumbled for words and trailed away, at a loss, but Karou thought she knew what he meant, because she was trying to understand it, too.
“I can’t withstand more of your magic,” he said, and she was aware again of his strain. She had really hurt him. As she should, she told herself. He was her enemy. The heat in her hands told her that. Her scars told it, and her severed life. But her body wasn’t listening. It was focused on the contact of their skin, his hands on hers.
“But I won’t hold you,” he said. “If you want to hurt me, it’s no more than I deserve.”
He released her. His heat deserted her and the night rushed between them, colder than it had been before.
Clasping her hamsas in her fists, Karou backed away, barely aware that she was still floating.
Holy. What was that?
Remotely, she was conscious that she was flying in plain view of a gathered mass of people, and that more gawkers were coming in droves, as if the tourist route of Karlova had been diverted into this side channel. She sensed their pointing and amazement, saw the camera flashes, heard the shouts, but it was all muted muted muted, like it was playing on a screen, less real than the moment she was living.
She was on the cusp of something ineffable. When the seraph had held her hands, and when he had let her go, it was as if she had been filled and didn’t realize it until he pulled away and the absence rushed back in. It pounded inside her now, cold and aching, void and wanting—wanting—and a desperate part of her had to be stilled from darting forward to grab his hands again. Wary of the extraordinary compulsion beating in her, she forced herself to resist. It was like fighting a tide, and in the fight was the same terror: of being swept into deep water, beyond all safety.
When the angel made as if to move toward her, she threw up her hands between them, both hands at once, and at close range. His eyes went wide and he faltered in the air, a breach in his perfect grace. Karou’s breath caught. He tried to steady himself on the lintel of a fourth-story window, and failed.
His eyes rolled back and he dropped a few feet, sending up sparks. Was he losing consciousness? Karou spoke around a tight constriction in her throat. “Are you okay?”
But he wasn’t, and he fell.
Akiva was dimly aware that he was no longer in the air. Beneath him, stone. In flashes he saw faces peering at him. Consciousness strobed. Voices in languages he couldn’t understand, and at the edge of sight: blue. Karou was there. A roar rose up in his ears and he forced himself upright, and the roar was… applause.
Karou, her back to him, dropped a theatrical curtsy. With a flourish she plucked her knife from where it had embedded itself between cobbles, and sheathed it in her boot. She peered over her shoulder at him, seeming relieved to see him conscious, and then stepped back and… took his hand. Carefully, just her fingertips in his, so her marks wouldn’t burn him. She helped him stand, and said, low in his ear, “Bow.”
“Just take a bow, okay? Let them think this was a performance. It’ll be easier to get away. Leave them trying to figure out how we did it.”
He gave an approximation of a bow and the applause thundered.
“Can you walk?” Karou asked.
It still wasn’t easy getting away. People stood in their way, wanting to talk to them. Karou spoke; he didn’t know what was said, didn’t understand the language, but her answers were clipped. The onlookers were awed and delighted—except one of them, a young man in a tall hat who glared at Akiva and tried to take Karou’s elbow. His proprietary air stirred old wrath in Akiva and made him want to throw the human into a wall, but Karou didn’t need his intervention. She brushed the man aside and led Akiva out of the crowd. Her fingers were still in his; they were cool and small, and he was sorry when, turning a corner into a plaza of empty market stalls, she pulled away.
“Are you okay?” she asked, putting distance between them.
He steadied himself against a wall in the shadows beneath an awning. “Not that I didn’t deserve it,” he said. “But I feel as though an army has marched over me.”
She paced, anxious energy fairly vibrating in her. “Razgut said you were looking for me. Why?”
“Razgut?” Akiva was startled. “But I thought he was—”
“Dead? He survived. Not Izîl, though.”
Akiva looked at the ground. “I didn’t know he would jump.”
“Well, he did. But that doesn’t answer my question. Why were you looking for me?”
Again, the helplessness. He groped for meaning. “I didn’t understand who you were. Are. A human, marked with the devil’s eyes.”
Karou looked at her palms, then up at him, a confused vulnerability in her expression. “Why do they… do that? To you?”
He narrowed his eyes. Could she not know?
The eye tattoos were just one example of Brimstone’s deviltry. The magic hit like a wall of wind, one that carried a fury of sickness and weakness, and Akiva had trained to resist it—all seraph soldiers did—but there was only so much he could take. If he’d been in battle, he’d have sliced off the enemy’s hands before letting them focus so much of their evil energy at him. But Karou… the last thing he wanted to do was hurt her again, so he had endured as much as he could.
Now more than ever she struck him like a fairy in a tale—a haunted one with shadowed eyes and a sting like a scorpion. The scorch of her touch on his neck felt like an acid splash, accompanying the dull, roiling nausea from her relentless assault. He felt enfeebled, and feared he might collapse again.
He said carefully, “They’re the revenants’ marks. You must know that.”
He studied her face. “Do you really not know?”
“Know what? What’s a revenant? Isn’t it a ghost?”
“It’s a chimaera soldier,” he said, which was part of the truth. “The hamsas are for them.” Pause. “Only.”
She made tight, sudden fists. “Obviously not only.”
He didn’t answer.
Everything was between them, everything he’d felt suffuse the air while they faced each other over the rooftops. Being near her was like balancing on a tipping world, trying to keep your footing as the ground wanted to roll you forward, hurl you into a spiral from which there was no recovery, only impact, and it was a longed-for impact, a sweet and beckoning collision.
He’d felt this before and never wanted to feel it again. It could only diminish the memory of Madrigal; it already was. Again his memory failed to conjure her face. It was like trying to call up a melody while another song played. Karou’s face was all he could see—shining eyes, smooth cheeks, the arc of soft lips pressed together in consternation.
He’d cut out feeling; it shouldn’t even have been possible to feel this—this welter, this urgency and tumult, this thrum. And under it all, a crippled twist of thought he held prisoner in the shadows of his mind, so warped he didn’t recognize it for what it was: a hope. A very small hope. And at its center: Karou.
She was a wingspan away, still pacing. They were prowling on the edges of their mutual compulsion, both afraid to draw nearer together. “Why did you burn the portals?” she asked.
He let out a deep breath. What could he say? For vengeance? For peace? Both were true in their way. Warily, he said, “To end the war.”
“War? There’s a war?”
“Yes, Karou. War is all there is.”
She was taken aback, again, by his use of her name. “Are Brimstone and the others… are they okay?” There was a breathlessness in her voice Akiva realized was fear—fear of what his answer would be.
Under the roiling nausea from the hamsas, he felt another, deeper sickness—the beginnings of dread. “They’re in the black fortress,” he said.
“Fortress.” Her voice lifted in hope. “With the bars. I was there, I saw it, the night you attacked me.”
Akiva looked away. A wave of nausea went through him. The throbbing in his head was getting hard to focus past; only once before had he taken such sustained trauma from the devil’s marks, a torture he had not expected to survive, and still didn’t understand why he had. He was having a hard time holding his eyes open, and his body felt like an anchor trying to drag him down.
Karou’s head snapped around. Akiva looked. Some of their audience had traced them here and were pointing.
“Follow me,” said Karou.
As if he could have done anything else.
She led him to her flat, all the while thinking, Stupid, stupid, what are you doing?
Answers, she told herself. I’m getting answers.
She hesitated at the elevator, unsure about being in so small a space with the seraph, but he wasn’t in any state to climb stairs, so she pushed the button. He followed her in, seeming unfamiliar with the principle of elevators, and startled slightly when the mechanism chugged to life.