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Days of blood & starligh.., p.11
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.11

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

  He was probably in the guardhouse, the half-razed structure where he held court with his captains, drawing maps in the dirt and then scuffing them away, pacing, ranting, planning. Karou started in that direction and passed Hvitha, who gave her a sharp nod and didn’t slow his steps. I guess I’ll see you later, thought Karou with a twist of pity. Hvitha hadn’t exactly been kind to her, but he hadn’t been unkind, either—he hadn’t been anything—and it couldn’t be very nice walking around knowing he was scheduled to have his throat slit in a few hours. Such a waste, it seemed, of Brimstone’s craftsmanship.

  Not my call.

  Karou passed clothes draped over a wall to dry in the sun, and it came to her that this place was beginning to feel downright inhabited—thanks to herself. Nine more soldiers in the past few days—her pace was improving with Ten’s help, but holy hell, her arms were a mess—and life seemed everywhere amplified. She could hear Aegir’s hammer and see smoke rising from the forge, smell the almost-but-not-quite-nothing smell of boiling couscous, and also the not-nearly-nothing-enough waft of rankness from the buttress that had become the default piss wall of soldiers who couldn’t bother to walk out of the kasbah—or, hello, fly.

  You’re welcome for the wings, now use them to pee farther away please thank you!

  An argument, a hoot of laughter, and from the court: the ching of newly wrought blades heaved in newly wrought hands as her most recent revenants got the feel of their bodies, wings and all. She paused under an arch to watch and caught sight of Ziri at once. He was with Ixander, her greatest monstrosity to date, and was positively dwarfed by him.

  Ixander had always been big—he was Akko, one of the larger tribes and a mainstay of the army—but now he stood grizzly height, maybe ten feet, thickset and tusked to Thiago’s specifications. His wings were almost as big as a stormhunter’s, and the muscle required to anchor them made his hunched bear back enormous. The body was inelegant, and Karou was sorry about it. Her brief contact with his soul had surprised her with its… meadowiness.

  The impression of souls was synesthetic: sound or color, flashes of image or feeling, and Ixander’s had been meadowy. Dappled light and newbloom and quiet—the opposite of the colossal beast body that he seemed now, with Ziri’s help, to be mastering.

  Ziri cast himself to the sky, graceful and silent, and beckoned Ixander to follow, which he did with neither grace nor silence. His wingbeats gave the air a sonic thrashing and kicked up flurries of dust that reached Karou even across the court. In the air, the pair began to drill fighting stances, and Karou found her focus not on Ixander but on Ziri, as she forgot her outrage and her errand and was sucked back across years by the sight of a Kirin in flight.

  Every time, it was like falling backward into Madrigal. She never felt more chimaera than in the first instant of catching sight of Ziri—and never more human than in the next, when it caught up to her what she was now. It wasn’t disappointing. She was who she was. It was just the slightest bit disorienting, a brief vibration between two selves that would always be separate, like two yolks in one shell.

  “You could be Kirin again, you know,” Ten had told her at the river.

  “What?” Karou, rinsing her hair, had thought she must have misheard.

  “You could be chimaera. It might be easier for the others to accept you.” Again she’d given Karou that up-and-down look and chuffed at her unfortunate humanness. “I could help you.”

  “Help me?” She had to be joking. “What, you mean kill me? Thank you sooo much!”

  But Ten was not joking. “Oh, no. Thiago would do that, of course. But I would resurrect you. You’d just need to show me how.”

  Oh, is that all? “Tell you what,” Karou had said with a big mock-cheerful smile. “Let’s do you instead. I have all kinds of ideas for your next body.” Ten hadn’t particularly liked that, but Karou did not care much what Ten liked. She was still annoyed. Was this something Ten and Thiago had discussed? Maybe it would be easier to blend in if she looked like a chimaera, but it didn’t make sense to even think about it now. Karou needed to be human to get the rebels’ food for them, as well as cloth for clothes, and material for Aegir’s forge, not to mention teeth. But would they expect it of her, eventually?

  Well, they could expect all they wanted. She looked at the hamsas on her palms; they almost seemed like a signature. Brimstone had made her this body, and she was keeping it.

  Laughter called her back to the moment. Ziri and Ixander were sparring, and Ixander had lost his balance and begun to spiral groundward. Trying to right himself, he thrust back on awkward wingbeats to crash into the crumbled parapet that edged the court, where he set off a cascade of dirt and ended up hanging by one hand from the wall. Laughing. And Ziri was laughing, and others, and the sound was so alien, so light. It made Karou realize she was spying, because they never laughed when she was around and would surely stop if they saw her. She drew back, not wanting that to happen.

  Ziri darted forward in the air and smacked Ixander’s hand with the flat of his blade, making him lose his grip on the parapet and drop to the ground with a roar. He landed with concussive force and tried to swat at Ziri, who was taunting him from above, still laughing as he darted just near enough to whack Ixander on the helmet before pulling clear. Some of the others gathered around taunting—in unmistakable good humor—and when Ixander leapt airborne in pursuit, they cheered.

  All five patrols had returned from Eretz, not a single casualty, barely even a wound. Thiago had been in a fine mood, and the atmosphere in the kasbah was one of glory, though what glory, or what their mission had been, Karou still didn’t know. One of the farmwives who cooked the food had made Thiago a new gonfalon to replace the one that had burned with Loramendi; it was more modest, made of canvas, not silk, but it bore a white wolf and the words Victory and vengeance that were his motto. And now, apparently, all of theirs.

  Privately, Karou preferred the Warlord’s heraldry: antlers sprouting leaves to signify new growth, but she was far from immune to the desire for vengeance—it was huge and ugly in her: a primal drumbeat, a baring of teeth—and she had to admit Thiago’s motto made a better rallying cry for a rebellion.

  The banner hung from the gallery at the head of the court, seeming to declare the Wolf’s eminence. Where’s mine? Karou thought, with an inward surge of hilarity. Why not? We’re in this together, Thiago had told her. So what would he do if she made her own gonfalon to string up beside his? And what would be on it? A string of teeth? A pair of pliers? No. A vise, and her motto could be Ouch.

  She smiled to herself. It was funny, she thought, but her smile turned wistful because she had nobody to tell. In the court, the soldiers were still laughing, and she was in the shadows and no part of it.

  Ixander was moving with much more ease now, and it took her a moment to understand why—it was because he wasn’t trying so hard. He was moving as bodies are meant to move, without thought. She experienced a surge of pride, seeing the bear heft of him snap to a smooth glide. Ziri’s taunting had provoked him to forget his self-consciousness—which Karou guessed was Ziri’s plan—and Ziri paid the price for it now as Ixander caught him around the neck and fake-throttled him before tossing him right out of the air. Ziri hit the ground at a reeling run and skidded to a halt on his cloven hooves practically nose-to-nose with Balieros, the big bull centaur who was his patrol leader.

  Balieros shook his head, his shoulders shaking with laughter, and, putting an arm around Ziri’s shoulder, walked back with him to watch Ixander fly.

  Karou got a lump in her throat. How easy they all were with each other, and quick to laugh. Once she had been part of their soldiers’ closeness, sharing barracks and battle camps, meals and songs. She had saved lives and gleaned souls; she had been one of them.

  But she’d made her choices, and now she had to live with them.

  When the laughter abruptly ceased, Karou gave a start, thinking the soldiers had seen her spying, but they weren’t looking in her d
irection. A beat later, Thiago strode into view. Karou recalled that she had been going to demand her crossbar back, but now her outrage-courage left her. It wasn’t just him, though the Wolf certainly had an effect on her courage. It was whom he was with.

  The Shadows That Live.

  They were beautiful in their way, and sinuous in their stride. Tangris and Bashees were identical: sphinxlike panther creatures of dusky black, fine-boned and softly furred, with the heads of women and wings of dark owl feathers that were perfectly silent in flight. They weren’t large, or terrible, but Thiago treated them with a deference he showed no other soldiers, and it was no wonder. No one else could do what they did. Karou’s hands turned clammy. Was he sending them on a mission?

  He was.

  This time she couldn’t wonder dumbly what nature of mission, or pretend not to understand. The Shadows That Live were legend, and they were… special… and so their mission must be special, too.

  They lifted away and flew, leaving silence behind them. No one called good-bye or wished them luck. They didn’t need luck. Somewhere in Eretz, some angels needed it badly, but they wouldn’t get it. Whoever they were, they were as good as dead already.

  31

  TALLY

  Akiva could have done without fire that night at camp. He’d had enough fire for one day: the sky was still curdled with smoke from the blazes they’d set to herd fugitive chimaera out of the safety of the forest. When he looked up, he couldn’t see a single star. But fire was a camp fixture and focal point. Soldiers were gathered around it to clean their blades and eat and drink, and though he had no appetite, he did have a thirst. He was on his third flagon of water, sunk in thoughts as murky as the sky, when a voice caught his attention.

  “What are you doing?”

  It was a sharp demand, and it came from Liraz. Akiva looked up. His sister was on the far side of the fire, lit lurid by its glow.

  “What does it look like?” This from a Second Legion soldier Akiva didn’t know. He was sitting with two others, and when Akiva saw what it was they held—what they were about to do—his fists clenched.

  Tattoo tools, such as they were. A knife and ink stick were all it took to record kills on flesh.

  “It looks like you’re about to add to your tally,” said Liraz, “but that can’t be, can it, because no self-respecting soldier would ink today onto their hands.”

  Today. Today. What had Liraz’s patrol done today? Akiva didn’t know. Her look, when he and Hazael had found her after their own bleak day, had seemed to dare him to ask her, but he didn’t want to know. Injuries had been sustained by some in her group—whiplashes, some bite wounds. None serious, but telling enough. Akiva hadn’t offered up what he had done, either, hours earlier in that gully to the south and east. He and Hazael hadn’t even talked about it, had barely exchanged a glance to acknowledge that it had happened at all.

  The point was that the tally was for battle kills, for soldiers slain. Not fleeing folk.

  “They were armed,” the soldier said with a shrug.

  “Oh, is that all it takes in the common army?” asked Liraz. “Give a slave a knife and it becomes a worthy opponent?” She gestured to his hands, to all the black marks already ticked onto his fingers. “How many of those fought back? Any of them?”

  The soldier rose suddenly to his feet. He was a foot taller than Liraz, though if he imagined that gave him an advantage, he would learn his mistake. Akiva rose, too—not because he thought his sister was going to need his help, but more out of surprise at the nature of her anger.

  “I earned my marks,” said the soldier, looming over her.

  Liraz didn’t back down. Through clenched teeth, and with acid contempt, she said, “Not today you didn’t.”

  “And who are you to decide?”

  Her lips drew up over her clamped teeth in a vicious smile. “Ask around.”

  Maybe it was the smile, or something he saw in her eyes, but the soldier wavered in his looming swagger. “Is that supposed to scare me?”

  “Well, it gave me chills.” Hazael had appeared. “I’d be happy to tell you stories, if you really want to know. I’ve known her all my life.”

  “Lucky you,” said one of the others, which kicked off some stupid laughter.

  “Oh, I know.” Hazael was earnest. “It’s good to have someone around to save your life. How many times has it been, Lir? Four?” he asked her.

  She didn’t reply. Akiva stepped up beside them. “Making friends, Lir?”

  “Everywhere I go.”

  Akiva nodded to the other soldiers. “You know she’s right,” he said. “You shame yourself taking pride in today’s work.”

  “Just following orders,” said the soldier, who had grown uneasy in Akiva’s presence.

  “And were you ordered to enjoy it?”

  “Come on,” said one of the others, pulling at his friend’s elbow, and as they retreated, mutterings of “Misbegotten” could be heard in low tones.

  Liraz called to their backs, “If I see fresh ink on any of you tomorrow, I’m taking fingers.”

  The looming one let out an incredulous laugh and looked back.

  “Try me,” she said.

  “Don’t try her,” said Hazael. “Please? I think she’d enjoy having a finger collection a little too much.”

  Once they were gone, Liraz sat down. She gave Akiva a sideward glance. “I don’t need Beast’s Bane settling my arguments.”

  Hazael was offended. “What about me? I’m pretty sure it was me they were afraid of.”

  “Yes, because nothing instills fear quite like bragging how many times your sister has saved your life.”

  “Well, I left out how many times I’ve saved your life,” he said. “I believe we’re currently even?”

  “I wasn’t settling anything,” Akiva broke in. “Just agreeing with you.” He hesitated. “Liraz, what happened today?”

  “What do you think?” was her only reply. What he thought was that they had come across some of the other escaped slaves from the caravan, and, as the soldier had said, followed their orders. By the way Liraz was staring into the fire, he judged that she had taken no pleasure in it, but he wouldn’t have expected her to. She might glory in a well-fought battle, but never in a slaughter. The question was, how committed was she to following orders? And… might she surprise him, as Hazael had?

  Akiva looked at his brother now and found Hazael looking back. The gaze held, over their sister’s head, and it amounted to their first acknowledgment of what they had done that day in the gully.

  Or, more to the point, what they had not done.

  When Akiva had heard the scream—brief, bitten off, but unmistakable—Hazael had been nearer to its source than he. Only by a few wingspans, but still it was Hazael who responded first, suddenly folding his wings and plunging down to land in the rocky creek bed, crouched in a ready stance in case he needed to burst skyward again. A half a heartbeat and Akiva was beside him, and saw what he saw, huddled in a concavity in the ravine: a quivering mass of terrified sheepfolk.

  The Caprine were one of the mildest of the chimaera tribes, so ill-suited to fighting that they were exempt from the army. The fact was that many chimaera tribes made poor soldiers: they were too small, or configured ill for holding weapons, or they were aquatic, or they were timid, or they were large but lumbering and slow. There were as many reasons as there were tribes, and it was why Brimstone had had to do what he had done for so long: too many of his people were simply not made for fighting at all, and certainly not for fighting seraphim.

  The main might of the chimaera army had always been drawn from some dozen of the fiercer tribes, and it was with surprise that Akiva recognized one such in the center of this huddle. A Dashnag, among Caprine. A small one, not yet grown, but even a small Dashnag is a brutish thing, though this one was holding a slender deer centaur girl in his thick arms—her hand was clamped over her own mouth; it was she who had screamed, and her limpid deer eyes were imposs
ibly huge in her sweet small face. Another deer girl was shrunk in fright against the boy’s side, and though Akiva couldn’t know precisely what had brought these folk together in this moment, the tableau was simple, and it painted in miniature what the angels had done to Eretz: Through terror, they had united it against them.

  All this in an instant, and the Dashnag boy was setting the centaur girl aside, gently, and there was fear in his eyes, but he would defend these folk. Akiva’s swords were in his hands, but he didn’t want them.

  This isn’t who we have to be, he thought. “Haz—” he started to say.

  His brother turned to him. He looked puzzled, a squint drawing at his eyes. “That’s strange,” he said, cutting Akiva off. “I could have sworn I heard something down here.”

  It took Akiva a beat to understand, and then a rush of relief—and reprieve, and gratitude—flooded through him. “Me, too,” he said, cautious, hoping he was reading his brother right. The Dashnag boy was watching them intently, every muscle poised to spring. All the Caprine and the two Dama girls were staring unblinking. A baby started to murmur—a baby—and its mother clutched it tighter. “Must have been a bird,” Akiva ventured.

  “A bird,” Hazael agreed. And… he turned away from the fugitives. He took a few splashing steps in the creek, casual, even a little comical, and bent to pick one of the blooms that grew on reedy stalks at the water’s edge, tucking it into a notch in his mail. It was still there.

  He took it out now, and presented it to Liraz. Akiva tensed, wondering if he was going to tell her that they had spared a whole village worth of chimaera today, and even a Dashnag who, though a boy, would certainly grow into a soldier. What would she think of that? But Hazael only said, “I brought you a present.”

  Liraz took the flower, looked at it, and then at Hazael, expressionless. And then she ate it. She chewed the flower and swallowed it.

 
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