Days of Blood & Starlight(11)

And no wonder, considering their history.

He had scars now that he hadn’t when she knew him before, when she was Madrigal. A healed slash cleaved one of his eyebrows and spidered up into his hairline; another interrupted the edge of his jaw and jagged down his neck, drawing the eye along his trapezius to the smooth form of his shoulders, straight and full and strong.

He had not come unscathed through the last brutal battles of the war, but he had come through alive and, if possible, even more beautiful for the scars that made him seem more real. In Karou’s doorway now, he was all too real, and too near, too elegant, too there. Always, the White Wolf had been larger than life.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked. The tooth was cupped in his palm; he didn’t offer it up.

“Sleep,” said Karou. “How cute. Do people still do that?”

“They do,” he said. “If they can.” There was pity in his look—pity!—as he added softly, “I have them, too, you know.”

Karou had no idea what he was talking about, but she bristled at his softness.

“Nightmares,” he said.

Oh. Those. “I don’t have nightmares,” she lied.

Thiago was not deceived. “You need to care for yourself, Karou. Or”—he glanced past her into her room—“let others care for you.”

She tried to fill her doorway so that no slice of space might be construed as an invitation to enter. “That’s okay,” she said. “I’m good.”

He moved forward anyway, so that she had to either back away or tolerate his nearness. She stood her ground. He was clean-shaven and smelled faintly, pleasingly, of musk. How he managed to be always pristine in this palace made of dirt, Karou did not know.

Scratch that. She did know. There was no chimaera who would not stoop gladly to see to the White Wolf’s needs. She even suspected his attendant, Ten, of brushing his hair for him. He scarcely had to speak his will; it was anticipated, it was already done.

Right now his will was to enter her room. Anyone else would have subsided at his first hint of approach. Karou did not, though her heartbeat hammered a small-animal panic to be so near him.

Thiago didn’t press. He paused and studied her. Karou knew how she looked: pale and grim and waning thin. Her collarbones were oversharp, her braid was a mess, and her black eyes were glossed with weariness. Thiago was gazing into them.

“Good?” he repeated, skeptical. “Even here?” He brushed her biceps with his fingers and she shrugged away, wishing she were wearing sleeves. She didn’t like anyone to see her bruises, and him least of all; it made her feel vulnerable.

“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.

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