Yes. She did want him to kiss her. Yes.
His hand slipped down her throat to find her hand, which was still cupping the wishbone on its cord.
Its flanges protruded through the webbing of her fingers, and when Akiva felt them there, he stopped. Something in his gaze froze. He looked down. His breath caught; with a hitch he inhaled and opened Karou’s hand with no caution for her hamsas.
The wishbone was there, a small bleached relic of another life. He gave a cry that was amazement and… what? Something deep and painful wrenched out of him like nails splintering wood as they pulled free.
Karou jumped, startled. “What?”
“Why do you have this?” He had gone pale.
“It’s… it’s Brimstone’s. He sent it to me as the portals burned.”
“Brimstone,” he repeated. His face was alive with furious thought, and then understanding. “Brimstone,” he said again.
What he did then made Karou falter into silence. He sank to his knees. The cord around her neck gave way and the wishbone came away in his hand, and for an instant she felt bereft without it. But then he leaned into her. He pressed his face against her legs, and she felt the heat of it through her jeans. She stood astonished, looking down at his powerful shoulders as he curled into her, letting go of his glamour so his wings sprang visible.
From around them on the bridge came gasps and cries. People stopped in their tracks, gaping. Zuzana and Mik broke from their embrace and spun to stare. Karou was only distantly aware of them. Gazing down at Akiva, she saw that his shoulders were shaking. Was he crying? Her hands fluttered, wanting to touch him, afraid of hurting him. Hating her hamsas, she bent over him and stroked his hair with the backs of her fingers, his hot, hot brow with the backs of her hands.
“What is it?” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
He straightened, still on his knees, and looked up at her. She was curved over him like a question mark. He held her legs, and she could feel tremors shaking his hands, the wishbone in his grip where he clasped the back of her knee. His wings unfolded; they came around like a pair of great fans so the two of them were in a room of fire, more than ever in a world all their own.
He searched her face, looking stunned and, Karou thought, terribly sad.
And he told her, “Karou, I know who you are.”
THE TONGUE OF ANGELS
I know who you are.
Akiva, gazing up into Karou’s face, saw what his words did to her. The hope at odds with the fear of hoping, her black eyes tear-glossed and shining with fire. Only then, seeing the reflection in her eyes, did he realize he’d dropped his glamour. There was a time when such carelessness could have gotten him killed. Now, he just didn’t care.
What? Karou’s lips moved but no sound came out. She cleared her throat. “What did you say?”
How could he just tell her? He was reeling. Here was the impossible, and it was beautiful, and it was terrible, and it flayed open his chest to show that his heart, numb for so long, was still vital and beating… just so it could be ripped out again, after all these years?
Was there any fate more bitter than to get what you long for most, when it’s too late?
“Akiva,” implored Karou. Wide-eyed, distraught, she sank to her knees in front of him. “Tell me.”
“Karou,” he whispered, and her name taunted him—hope—so full of promise and recrimination that he almost wished he was dead. He couldn’t look at her. He gathered her to him and she let herself be gathered, supple as love. Her wind-mussed hair was like tousled silk, and he buried his face in it and tried to think what to tell her.
All around, a weave of murmurs and the weight of being watched, and Akiva registered almost none of it until one sound fought its way forward. A throat was cleared, caustic and theatrically loud. A prickling of unease, and before any words were spoken, he’d already begun to turn.
“Akiva, really. Pull yourself together.”
So out of place here—that voice, that language. His language.
There, with swords sheathed at their sides and wearing twin expressions of dismay, stood Hazael and Liraz.
Akiva couldn’t even register surprise. The appearance of the seraphim was small next to the shocks that had been coming one after another all morning: the crescent-moon knives, Karou’s strange reaction to his tattoos, the dreamlike music of her laughter, and now the undeniable: the wishbone.
“What are you doing here?” he asked them. His arms were still around Karou, who had lifted her head from his shoulder to stare at the intruders.
“What are we doing here?” repeated Liraz. “I think, all things considered, that question belongs to us. What in the name of the godstars are you doing here?” She looked dumbfounded, and Akiva saw himself as she was seeing him: on his knees, weeping, entwined with a human girl.
And it struck him how important it was that they think Karou was just that: a human girl. However strange it might seem, it was only that: strange. The truth would be much worse.
He straightened, still on his knees, and turned, ushering Karou behind him. Quietly, so his brother and sister wouldn’t hear him speak the language of the enemy, he murmured, “Don’t let them see your hands. They won’t understand.”
“Understand what?” she murmured back, not taking her eyes from them, as they didn’t take theirs from her.
“Us,” he said. “They won’t understand us.”
“I don’t understand us, either.”
But thanks to the wishbone, fragile in his fist, Akiva finally did.
Karou lapsed into tense silence, keeping her eyes on the two seraphim. They had their wing glamours in place, but even so, their presence on the bridge seemed unnatural, and not a little unnerving—Liraz especially. Though Hazael was more powerful, Liraz was more frightening, she always had been; perhaps she’d had to be, being female. Her pale hair was scraped back in severe plaits, and there was something coolly sharklike about her beauty: a flat, killer apathy. Hazael had more life in his eyes, but just now it was mostly a frank bafflement as he regarded Akiva before him, still on his knees.
“Get up,” he said, not unkindly. “I can’t stand the sight of you like that.”
Akiva rose, drawing Karou up with him and keeping her behind the shield of his wings.
“What’s going on?” Liraz demanded. “Akiva, why did you come back here? And… who is that?” She made a wild gesture of disgust toward Karou.
“Just a girl.” Akiva heard himself echo Izîl, sounding just as unconvincing as the old man had.
“Just a girl who flies,” amended Liraz.
A heartbeat’s pause, and then Akiva said, “You’ve been following me.”
“What did you think,” Liraz spat, “that we’d let you vanish again? The way you were acting after Loramendi, we knew something was coming. But… this?”
“What exactly is this?” Hazael asked, clearly still hoping for some explanation that would make it all okay. Akiva felt split down the middle. Here before him were his closest allies, and they felt like enemies, and it was his fault.
If Akiva had a family, it was not his mother, who had turned away when the soldiers came to take him; and it was certainly not the emperor. His family was these two, and there was no answer he could give them to make this make sense. There was nothing he could say to Karou, either, who stood behind him desperate to know what had been kept from her all her life—a secret so big and so strange he couldn’t begin to find words to frame it. So he stood there mute, the languages of two races useless to help him explain anything.
“I don’t blame you wanting to get away,” said Hazael, always the peacemaker. He and Liraz bore a sibling resemblance they didn’t share with Akiva. They were fair-haired and blue-eyed, with a blush to their honey skin. Hazael had an ease to him, almost a slouch, and for a resting expression a lazy smile that could almost fool you into misjudging him. He was, always, a soldier—reflexes and steel—but at heart he had managed somehow to retain something childlike that training and years of war worked hard to stamp out. He was a dreamer. He said, “I had thoughts myself, of coming back to this world after everything—”
“But you didn’t,” snapped Liraz, who had within her no dreamer at all. “You didn’t vanish in the night, leaving others to make up stories to cover for you, not knowing when or even if you’d come back this time.”
“I didn’t ask you to cover for me,” said Akiva.
“No. Because then you’d have had to tell us you were going. Instead you snuck off, just like before. And were we to wait for you to come back broken again, and never tell us what had broken you?”
“Not this time,” he said.
Liraz gave him a brittle smile, and Akiva knew that under her iciness she was hurt. He might never have returned; they might never have known what had happened to him. What did that say for the decades they had protected one another? Hadn’t it been Liraz, years ago, who had risked her life to return to the battlefield at Bullfinch? Against any expectation that he might still be alive, and with chimaera crawling over their victory and spitting the wounded on pikes, she had returned and found him, and borne him away. She had risked her life for him, and would again without hesitation, and so would Hazael, and Akiva would for them. But he couldn’t tell them why he’d come here, or what he’d found.
“Not this time what?” Liraz demanded. “You’re not coming back broken? Or you’re not coming back at all?”
“I didn’t plan anything. I just couldn’t stay there.” He groped to explain; he owed them the effort, at least. “After Loramendi, an end was reached, and it was like the edge of a cliff. There was nothing else I wanted, nothing except…” He left the rest unsaid. He didn’t need to say it; they’d seen him on his knees. They fixed their eyes on Karou.
“Except her,” said Liraz. “A human. If that’s what she is.”
“What else would she be?” he said, covering a spark of fear.
“I have a theory,” she said, and Akiva’s heart lurched. “Last night, when she attacked you, there was something strange about that fight, wasn’t there, Hazael?”
“Strange,” agreed Hazael.
“We weren’t close enough to feel any… magic… but it certainly seemed as though you were feeling it.”
Akiva’s thoughts spun furiously. How could he get Karou away from here?
“You seem to have forgiven her for it, though.” Liraz came a step closer. “Is there anything you want to tell us?”
Akiva retreated, keeping Karou behind him. “Leave her alone,” he said.
Liraz advanced. “If you have nothing to hide, let us see her.”
In a sorrowful voice that was worse than Liraz’s sharp tone, Hazael said, “Akiva, just tell us it isn’t what it looks like. Just tell us she isn’t…”
Akiva felt a kind of rushing around him, years of secrets catching him up like a wind—a wind, he wished with a wild kind of surrender, that could just bear him away, with Karou, to a place without seraphim and chimaera and their talent for hate, without humans to stand around and gape, without anyone to come between them, ever again. “Of course she isn’t,” he said. It came out as a snarl, and Liraz took it as a challenge to prove it—what Karou was and what she wasn’t—and her eyes flashed with a look Akiva knew too well, a hard fury she harnessed on the battlefield. She came closer.
Adrenaline surged hot as his hands seized into fists, the wishbone bowing under the pressure, and he braced himself for what must come next. Sick incredulity washed over him, that it had come to this.
But whatever he expected to happen, it was not for Karou to speak up in a clear, cool voice and ask, “What? What am I not?”
Liraz halted, her fury blinking to shock. Hazael looked startled, too, and it took Akiva a beat to realize why, but, with a start, he did.
Karou’s words. They were as smooth as falling water. They were in his language. She had spoken the tongue of angels, which she had no way, earthly or elsewise, of knowing. In the hesitation wrought by her question, she stepped out from the shelter of his wings and stood exposed before Liraz and Hazael.
Then, with the same bright savagery she had smiled at Akiva when she attacked him the night before, she said to Liraz, “If you want to see my hands, all you have to do is ask.”
TO DO ELSE THAN KILL
All it took was a lucknow from her pocket and a whispered wish, and the words of the seraphim swam from melodious flow into meaning—another language for Karou’s collection, and it was a prize. She already knew, from the hard, darting eyes of the female seraph and the protective stance of Akiva, that they were talking about her.
“Just tell us she isn’t…” said the male, letting his words trail into some unspoken horror, as if he were pleading with Akiva to disprove their suspicions about her.
Who did they think she was? Was she to stand here mute while they talked her over?
“What?” she asked. “What am I not?” She saw their faces freeze in shock as she stepped out from behind Akiva. The female angel was just paces away, staring. She had the dead eyes of a jihadist, and Karou felt a tremor of vulnerability with Akiva no longer between them. She thought of her crescent-moon knives sitting useless in her flat, and then she realized she didn’t need them. She had a weapon tailored just to seraphim.
She was a weapon tailored just to seraphim.
The smile rose unbidden from her phantom self, and she said, with a leaping, dark excitement, “If you want to see my hands, all you have to do is ask.”