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Days of blood & starligh.., p.10
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.10

         Part #2 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 

  Liraz wasn’t with them; their team was a dozen strong, and she’d been assigned to another. Akiva couldn’t help wondering, over the course of the day, with what zeal his sister was pursuing her orders.

  “So what do you really think?” Hazael asked him out of the blue. It was getting on into evening, and they had yet turned up no fleeing slaves or villagers.

  “About what?”

  “About who’s behind these attacks.”

  What did he think? He didn’t know. All day Akiva had been at war with hope—trying not to let himself hope, partly because it was so wrong a feeling to take away from a site of massacre, and partly out of simple fear that it might prove fruitless. Was there another resurrectionist? Was there not?

  “Not ghosts, anyway,” he gave as a safe answer.

  “No, probably not ghosts,” Hazael agreed. “It is curious, though. No blood on our soldiers’ blades, no tracks leading away save the fleeing folk, and five attacks in one night—so how many attackers in all? They have to be strong to do what they did, and probably winged, to come and vanish without tracks, and I’d guess they had hamsas, else our soldiers must have gotten in some strikes. This was just an opening act.” It was a studied assessment; Akiva had thought of all these things himself. Hazael gave him a long look. “What are we dealing with here, Akiva?”

  He finally had to say it. “Revenants. It has to be.”

  “Another resurrectionist?”

  Akiva hesitated. “Maybe.” Did Hazael understand what it meant to him if there was another resurrectionist? Could he guess his hope—that Karou might live again? And what sympathy could he have for his hopes? Suppose his forgiveness hinged on Karou being dead, as if Akiva’s madness might be in the past, something to be gotten over so they could keep on as usual.

  There could be no more “as usual” for Akiva. What could there be?

  “There!” called the patrol leader, jarring him out of his thoughts. Kala was a lieutenant of the Second Legion, the largest by far of the Empire’s forces, sometimes called the common army. She was pointing down into a gully where the fringe of trees didn’t quite come together, and where, as Akiva watched, one flicker of movement begat another, and another, and then a rush of bodies. Herd movement. The Caprine. His gut seized, and his first impulse was anger: What fools, in all this great wild land, to let themselves be seen.

  It was too late to divert attention from them; there was nothing he could do but follow as Kala led the team down toward the trees. She was alert for ambush, and motioned Akiva and Hazael to sweep wide to the gully’s far side, which they did, staring hard into the broken space between treetops, hoping for a clear view, which they did not get—only glimpses of fleece and ambling motion.

  Akiva held his swords bitterly. His training was very clear. Take up a weapon and you become an instrument with as pure a purpose as the weapon itself: to find arteries and open them, limbs and sever them; to take what is alive and deliver it unto death. There was no other reason to hold a weapon, no other reason to be one.

  He didn’t want to be that weapon anymore. Oh, he could desert, he could vanish right now. He didn’t have to be party to this. But it wasn’t enough that he cease to kill chimaera. He had dreamed so much bigger than that once.

  The trees were a whisper of green as he and Hazael descended with the others, and the voice that filled his head was one he had heard only once. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master or death is. When Brimstone had spoken those words, they’d meant nothing to Akiva. Now he understood. But how could a soldier change masters?

  How, with swords clenched in both hands, could one hope to keep blood from spilling?

  28

  THE WORST KIND OF SILENCE

  So many different kinds of silence, Sveva thought, pressing her face into Rath’s shoulder and trying not to breathe. This was the worst kind. This was make-a-sound-and-die silence, which, though she had never experienced it before, she understood instinctively grew more fraught the more souls you shared it with. One might trust oneself to be quiet, but thirty-odd strangers?

  With babies?

  They were huddled under a lip of earth carved out by the creek in fuller seasons; the water passed before them, flicking at their hooves—and Rath’s huge clawed paws—and its burble might at least cover some small sounds—whimpers or sniffs. Of which, Sveva noted, she heard none and nothing. With her eyes closed, she might have been alone, but for the heat of Rath on one side and Nur on the other. The Caprine mother held her baby tucked against her, and Sveva kept expecting Lell to cry, but she didn’t. This silence, she thought, was remarkable: a perfect, shimmering thing, and fragile. Like glass, if it shattered, it would never come back together again.

  If Lell cried, or if someone’s hoof lost purchase and skidded on the bank, or if any sound rose over the innocent burble of the creek, they would all die.

  And if the innermost frightened-child part of her wanted to blame Rath for them being here at all, she couldn’t. Oh, not for lacking of trying. It was good to have someone to blame, but the problem with Sveva and blame was that if she kept tracing it back, there was only her, racing down the valley ahead of Sarazal, wind in her hair and not heeding her sister’s call to turn back. This wasn’t Rath’s fault, and what’s more, she and her sister would probably be dead already if not for him. And the Caprine, well, they would be dying right now. Right this very moment.

  What an odd and terrible thing to know.

  If Rath hadn’t scented the Caprine and followed them, caught up to them, and joined them, then this fraught silence would not exist at all; this same air would be pierced with bleating screams, and Lell would be crying, sweet small bundle, and all the others, too, instead of the aries.

  “Aries!” said Hazael, laughing—laughing with relief, it seemed to Akiva—and he saw that in the gully were only aries: shaggy, curling-horned livestock, and no Caprine sheepfolk, no chimaera at all.

  “You and you.” Kala pointed out two soldiers. “Kill them. The rest of you…” She turned in a half circle, surveying her team; she hung in the air, wings sweeping wide enough to brush the leaning trees at the gully’s edges and shed sparks. “Find their owners.”

  Sveva heard the screams of the aries and pressed her face harder into Rath’s shoulder. Rath had persuaded the sheepfolk to drive off their flock and double back along the creek bed, climb out of that ravine and into another—this one—and take shelter. They were too many, all together, and the aries were too loud, too unruly to trust with their lives; they’d be seen, he’d said, and he’d been right.

  Now the aries were dying.

  Sveva clutched her sister’s hand; it was limp. The screams of the aries were terrible, even at a distance, but they didn’t last long, and when they finally trailed away she imagined she could feel the angels wheeling in the sky overhead. Angels, hunting. Hunting them. She clutched the hilt of her own stolen knife and it made her feel her smallness all the more, made as it was for an angel’s big brute fist.

  Maybe she would stab one with it. What would that feel like? Oh, her hate was hot; she almost hoped she got the chance. She’d always hated angels, of course, but in a faraway, vague kind of way. They’d been monsters from bedtime tales. She’d never even seen one before she was captured. For centuries this land had been safe—the Warlord’s armies had kept it so. What ill luck, then, to live in the time of failed safety! Now, suddenly, seraphim were real: leering tormentors, beautiful in a way that made beauty hideous.

  And then there was Rath, dreadful in a way that made dreadful… well, if not beautiful, then regal, at least. Proud. How curious, to take comfort in the bulk of a flesh-eater at her side, but she did. Again, Sveva felt herself scraping at her own shallows; since she was taken slave, her world had fallen open. She had beheld seraphim and revenants; she had seen death and smelled it, and today, just today, she had learned more of folk than in all her fourteen years together. First Rath, then the Caprine: sheepfolk she had called h
erdbeasts, and would have left to fend for themselves. Nur had made a poultice for Sarazal and given her some spice in water, hoping to break her fever. They had shared their food, and Lell, who smelled of grass, had taken to Sveva and ridden astride her back for a time, her little arms wrapped around Sveva’s waist where just days ago a great black shackle had been.

  Sveva’s eyes were closed. Her face was against Rath’s shoulder, and her hip hard against Nur’s, and the silence held them together. It was the worst kind of silence, but a good kind of closeness. These weren’t her folk, but… they were, and maybe that meant that anyone could be anyone’s, which was a sort of nice thing to think, with the world falling apart. Sveva wondered if she would ever get home to her mother and father so she could tell them that.

  She tried to pray, but she had only ever prayed at night, and it seemed to her that the moons made poor protectors when angels chose to hunt by day.

  In the end, it wasn’t Lell who gave them away, but Sarazal.

  She jolted awake, her limp hand suddenly clenching and pulling free of Sveva’s. The fever had come down; Nur’s spice and poultice had worked, and Sarazal’s big dark eyes, when they fluttered open, were much clearer than when Sveva had looked at them last. Only… they fluttered open to see Rath’s fearsome face mere inches from her own.

  And Sarazal opened her mouth, and screamed.

  29

  THE DEVILS WILL STILL BE THERE IN THE MORNING

  “Listen to this one,” said Zuzana. “She-devil sighting in southern Italy—”

  “Blue hair?” asked Mik. It came out muffled. He had a pillow over his face and had been trying to sleep.

  “Pink, actually. I guess the legions of Satan are exploring their color options.” She was sitting up in bed, reading off her laptop. “So, she scaled the side of this cathedral and hissed, at which point the witness was able to ascertain, at a distance of some hundred feet, that her tongue was forked.”

  “Good eyes.”

  “Yeah.” She puffed out her cheeks and backpaged to her Google search screen. “What a bunch of morons.”

  Mik peered out from beneath the pillow. “It’s bright out there,” he said. “Come into my lair.”

  “Lair. That’s some fancy lair you’ve got, mister.”

  “It’s exactly the right size for my head.”

  “Uh-huh,” Zuzana said vaguely. “Here’s one from yesterday, um, Bakersfield, California. Blue hair, cool coat, floating. Hurray! We’ve found Karou! What she’s doing in Bakersfield, California, stalking schoolchildren is unclear.” She gave a derisive snort and returned to the Google screen.

  The world, it would seem, was overrun with blue-haired devils. The same message boards that reported angels among us were keeping abreast of the devil situation, too, and in a quirk of coincidence—ahem—ever since the widely televised showdown on the Charles Bridge, devils tended to have blue hair, black trench coats, and tattoos of eyes on the palms of their hands.

  Karou was the face of the Apocalypse, which Zuzana happened to think was a pretty kick-ass brand of infamy. She had even made the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Is This What a Demon Looks Like?” There was this gorgeous picture someone had taken that day as she faced the angels, her hair wild, hamsas outthrust before her, a look on her face of fierce concentration with a hint of… wild delight. Zuzana remembered the wild delight. It had been a little freaky. Time had tried to interview her for the piece, and strangely enough had failed to print her expletive-riddled response. Kaz, of course, had not disappointed them.

  “Come sleep,” Mik tried again. “The devils will still be there in the morning.”

  “In a minute,” Zuzana said, but it wasn’t a minute. An hour later she had made a cup of tea and moved to the armchair beside the bed. The message boards weren’t getting her anywhere; that was where the crazies went to play. She narrowed her search. She’d already traced the IP address of Karou’s single e-mail to Morocco, which wasn’t a surprise. The last she’d heard from her friend she’d been in Morocco. This wasn’t Marrakesh, though, but a city called Ouarzazate—pronounced War-za-zat—in a region of palm oases, camels, and kasbahs at the fringes of the Sahara desert.

  Dust and starlight? Why, yes. One would imagine.

  Priestess of a sandcastle? Kasbahs did look extraordinarily like sandcastles. Too bad there were, like, fifty million of them scattered over hundreds of miles. Still, Zuzana was excited. This had to be right. She got that dorky song “Rock the Casbah” stuck in her head and hummed it as she drank tea and paged through dozens of sites that mostly came up as trek outfitters or “authentic nomad experience” kasbah hotels, all of them with these sparkling swimming pools that didn’t look terribly nomad-y to her.

  And then she came across a travel blog a French guy had written about his trek in the Atlas Mountains. It was only a couple of days old and mostly it was just landscape pictures and camel shadows and dusty children selling jewelry at the roadside, but then there was this one shot that caused Zuzana to set her teacup aside and sit up. She zoomed in and leaned close. It was the night sky with a perfect half pie of a moon, and—obscure enough that she wouldn’t have noticed them if she weren’t looking—shapes. Six of them, with wings, they were visible mostly for the way they blotted out the stars. Hard to determine scale in a sky photo, it was the subtitle that got her.

  Don’t tell the angel chasers, but they have some seriously big night birds down here.

  30

  A POOR JUDGE OF MONSTERS

  Karou went to the river to bathe—feeling almost absurdly indulgent about shampooing her hair, and more so about the wastrel fifteen minutes she took to let it dry fanned out on a hot rock—and when she got back to the fortress, the crossbar was missing from her door.

  “Where is it?” she demanded of Ten.

  “How would I know? I was with you.”

  Yes, she had been, never mind that Karou hadn’t wanted her. It wasn’t safe for her to go off alone, Thiago had said, even to the shallows of the river that spilled out of the mountains and passed just downhill of the kasbah, in plain sight of the sentry tower—with some large rocks that she valued for the hiding of nudity from keen eyes. The chimaera were as intrigued by her humanity as Issa and Yasri had always been, but were less kind about it.

  “What a queer plain thing you are,” Ten had observed today, with an up-and-down look that took in Karou’s tailless, clawless, hoofless, and otherwise less self.

  “Thanks,” Karou had said, sinking into the river. “I try.”

  She’d had a fleeting impulse to let the current carry her away under the water, just downstream a ways where she could be free of the she-wolf’s presence for, oh, a half hour? Ten had been quite the fixture over the past several days: her assistant and chaperone, overseer and shadow.

  “What will you do when I have to go back out for teeth?” Karou had asked Thiago that morning. “Send her with me?”

  “Ten? No. Not Ten,” he’d replied, in such a way that Karou had instantly taken his meaning.

  “What, you? You’re going to come with me?”

  “I admit, I’m curious to see this world. There must be more to it than this desert. You can show me.”

  He was serious. Karou’s stomach had seized. She’d been joking about Ten, but him? “You couldn’t. You’re not human—you’d be seen. And you can’t fly.” And you’re vile, and I don’t want you.

  “We’ll think of something.”

  Will we, Karou had thought, imagining Thiago in Poison Kitchen with his wolf feet kicked up on a coffin, spooning goulash into his cruel, sensual mouth. She wondered if Zuzana would swoon over his beauty as she had Akiva’s, and immediately thought: No. Zuze would see right through him.

  But there was a flaw in that. Zuzana hadn’t seen through Akiva, had she? And neither had she. Apparently Karou was a poor judge of monsters, which was most unfortunate considering her current situation.

  “Who took it?” she demanded. Her heartbeat was out
of whack, coming in little staccato bursts.

  “What are you carrying on about? It’s only a piece of wood.”

  “It’s only my safety.”

  This was to be the cost of clean hair? How was she supposed to sleep when anyone could waltz right in? She slept poorly enough as it was. It struck her then, a swift little thought like the jab of a needle, that she had slept just fine with Akiva only a few feet away, that night in her flat in Prague. What was wrong with her sensors that she had felt safe with him? “This was your idea, wasn’t it? Because I locked you out the other day?” Even the wall brackets had been pried away, so she couldn’t just find another beam and slot it in place. “Do you want someone to kill me in my sleep?’

  “Calm down, Karou,” said Ten. “No one wants to kill—”

  “Oh, really. No one wants to, or no one will?”

  Did she expect Ten to sugarcoat it? “Fine. No one will,” said the she-wolf. “You are under the White Wolf’s protection. That’s better than any piece of wood. Now, come. Let’s get back to work. There’s Emylion to finish, and Hvitha goes to the pit tonight.”

  And that was that? She was just supposed to sidle meekly into her room and get back to work on the Wolf’s resurrection wish list? Like hell. Karou turned back toward the stairs, but Ten stood in her way, so she crossed the room to where the window stood open. If Thiago wanted her watched, she thought, he’d do better to assign a shadow who could fly.

  Ten realized what she was about to do and said, “Karou…” just as she stepped into the air and, after floating there just long enough to throw a defiant glare Ten’s way, let herself fall. Fast. A great whoosh of air, and she pulled up short at the last second to land in a crouch four stories down.

  Ow. Pulled up a little too short. The soles of her feet smarted, but it had surely looked dramatic. Ten’s head was out the window, and Karou fought the impulse to flip her off—the British V version, which was so much cooler than the American single-finger—but it was ridiculous either way. Don’t be such a human, she told herself, and went looking for the Wolf.

 
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