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Days of blood & starligh.., p.12
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.12

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

  “Hmm,” said Hazael. “Not the usual response.”

  “Oh, do you give flowers often?”

  “Yes,” he said. He probably did. Hazael had a way of enjoying life in spite of the many restrictions they lived under, being soldiers, and worse, being Misbegotten. “I hope it wasn’t poisonous,” he said lightly.

  Liraz just shrugged. “There are worse ways to die.”

  32

  DEATH RULED THEM ALL

  “There you are,” said Ten, exasperated, catching up to Karou in her spying place.

  “Here I am,” agreed Karou, eyeing the she-wolf. “Where are they going?”

  “Who?”

  “The sphinxes. Where did he send them? To do what?”

  “I don’t know, Karou. To Eretz, to do what they do. Can we get back to work?”

  Karou turned back to the court. The soldiers had gathered around Thiago in a knot, all watching the sky where the Shadows That Live had vanished. Go, she willed herself. Go ask. But she just couldn’t find it in herself to stroll over and feel all those eyes settle on her in that flat way they had, or to put forth her voice and breach their silent, watchful intensity.

  So when Ten put a hand on her arm and said, “Come. Emylion, then Hvitha. We have an army to build,” Karou was almost relieved. Coward.

  She let herself be led.

  After two days of Nur’s ministrations, Sarazal could put weight on her leg again, though Rath mostly still carried her—now in a sling that they’d fashioned for his back—and Sveva felt the burden of her sister’s life lift from her own shoulders. Sarazal would be fine, and they’d find their tribe again, just… not right away. It was a hard thing, going in the wrong direction, but it was far too great a risk to go north. Too many seraphim lay between them and home.

  We’re okay, Mama. We’re alive. Sveva kept sending her thoughts out over the land, imagining them to be squalls bearing notes that her mother could just unroll and read. She almost convinced herself of it; it was too hard to admit the truth: that their people must believe them lost. Angels spared us, she thought to her mother, still reeling from the miracle of it. Her life felt new: lost and found, both lighter and heavier at the same time.

  If you meet an angel with eyes like fire, and another with a bog lily tucked in his armor, she thought to her mother, don’t kill them.

  The herd moved south toward the mountains, with their rumors of safe haven. They met others along the way and urged them to get moving. A pair of Hartkind joined them, but they were careful not to let their convoy grow. It wasn’t safe to travel in large groups. Well, nothing was safe, but you did what you could. Unless they had dense tree cover, they moved only by night, when seraphim were easy to spot, their fiery wings painting light onto the darkness.

  Lell rode on Sveva’s back, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world now to hoist her up there whenever they got moving, and fall into step behind Rath, where she could keep a good eye on Sarazal.

  “I can’t wait to run again,” said her sister under her breath one morning as they plodded up a hillside at Caprine pace.

  “I know,” Sveva said. And then, at the top of the hill, they got their first glimpse of the Hintermost: hazed by distance and impossibly huge, their snowy peaks merging with the clouds like some white country of the air. “But it’s good to be alive.”

  The seraph patrols were having poor hunting. The land was too big and wild, its inhabitants scarce and getting scarcer.

  “Someone is warning them,” said Kala one morning, when they had come upon another abandoned village. Villages were rare; more common were simple farms where small clans lived off the land, but these, too, they’d been finding deserted. In the evenings, around the fire, soldiers still cleaned their swords, but it was more of habit than necessity. The country seemed to empty ahead of them; they’d scarcely drawn blood in days. Whispers about ghosts persisted. Some blamed the slaves, though they all knew it would have been a remarkable feat—of both courage and logistics—for those few freed creatures to warn this whole vast land of the coming scourge.

  The only logical conclusion, though there was no evidence to support it, was that it was the rebels.

  “Why won’t they show themselves?” stormed a soldier of the Second Legion. “Cowards!”

  Akiva wondered the same thing. Where were the rebels? He happened to know that it wasn’t rebels warning the folk.

  It was him.

  At night, while the camp slept, he cloaked himself in glamour and slipped from his tent. Wherever the next day’s sweep was to lead them, he went ahead, and when he found a village or farm or nomad’s camp, he let himself be seen, frightening off the folk and hoping they would have the good sense to stay gone.

  It was something. It wasn’t enough, and his exhaustion was not sustainable, but he didn’t know what else to do. What can a soldier do when mercy is treason, and he is alone in it? It might have bought some of these southern folk time to reach the Hintermost, though. It should have.

  But it didn’t.

  Because overnight, on dark, silent wings, while Akiva was struggling to save the enemy one family at a time, the rebels were sending the Empire such a message that Joram’s response must blow away any hope he had of allaying the killing.

  “Life is your master, or death is,” Brimstone had said, but in these days of blood, there was no luxury of choice.

  Death ruled them all.

  Once upon a time, the sky knew the weight of angel armies on the move,

  and the wind blew infernal with the fire of their wings.

  33

  THE SHADOWS THAT LIVE

  At the seraph garrison at Thisalene—not on some far shore or lonely sweep of beast-ranged wilderness, but hooked to the cliffs of the curved Mirea Coast in the heart of the Empire itself—a sentry watched from his tower as the sun rose over the sea and his comrades failed to stir. Not a rustle from the hundred soldiers trained to rise at first light, no sound at all. The barracks lay quiet in the dawn, and the silence was surreal and deeply wrong. Quiet was for night. There should have been clamor, cooksmoke, the early, desultory chime of blades on the practice ground.

  He knew he should have been relieved of duty by now, but he couldn’t make himself leave his post. Terror held him where he was. Nothing moved but the sea, the sun. It was as if all living things in the world had frozen except for him. When the first blood daub circled, he finally unfroze, leapt from his tower, and flew down to discover bunk after bunk of sleeping comrades who would never wake.

  A hundred throats opened neat as letters. A hundred red smiles, and on the wall, also in red, a new message:

  THE ANGELS MUST DIE.

  It was an echo of the emperor’s own infamous words, so long thundered from the heights of the Tower of Conquest and drummed from infancy into every seraph’s consciousness, citizen or soldier: The beasts must die.

  He should have deserted, that soldier. He must have known he would hang for his failure; it was unpardonable, even if it was true what he reported, stricken and babbling, when he reached the city, just north along the coast. Thisalene was the Empire’s main slave port, a mere half day’s journey overland from the capital—an hour at most on wing—and was heavily armed and fortified. Soldiers from his own regiment rotated in to patrol the seawalls, and he feared to find them dead, too, and gasped out, “Thank the godstars! You must triple the watches. They’re alive. They’re back and we are all killed!”

  The commander was sent for, and by the time he arrived, the soldier’s shock had worn off. The first thing he said was, “I never fell asleep, sir, I swear it.”

  “Who says you did? What happened, soldier? You’re covered in blood.”

  “You have to believe me. I would never sleep at my post. They’re alive. I would have seen any natural thing—”

  “Speak sense. Who’s killed? Who’s alive?”

  “We are killed. Sir. I never closed my eyes! It was the Shadows That Live. It had to be. They’re back.


  34

  CELEBRATION

  Karou was good at a lot of things, but driving wasn’t one of them. She wasn’t actually old enough for a license, which struck her now as funny. She didn’t know about Morocco, but in Europe you had to be eighteen, which she wouldn’t be for another month—that is, unless you counted her two lives together. Should’ve asked for credit for that, she thought as she bounced and skidded off-road in the old blue truck she used for getting supplies to the kasbah.

  A big bump kicked the truck up onto two tires, where it hung in suspension for a long moment before slamming back down with an impact that bounced Karou at least a foot off the driver’s seat. Oof. “Sorry!” she sang over her shoulder, sweetly, insincerely. Ten was in the back, hidden from view.

  Karou aimed for another bump.

  “If I didn’t want to be here, you know, I’d have left already,” she’d said to Thiago before setting out, she-wolf in tow, against her protestations. “I don’t need a prison guard.”

  “She’s not a guard,” he’d replied. “Karou. Karou.” The intensity of his eyes was as unnerving as ever. “I just can’t stand to watch you go off alone. Humor me? If something were to happen to you, I’d be lost.” Not we would be lost. I would.

  Ick.

  It could be worse, of course. Thiago could have come himself, and there had been a tense moment when she’d feared he might. But with the Shadows That Live due back from their mission, he’d chosen to wait at the kasbah.

  “Get something for a celebration,” he’d told her. “If you can.”

  The hairs on the back of her neck stood up at that. “What are we celebrating?”

  In answer, Thiago only pointed up at his gonfalon and smiled. Victory and vengeance.

  Right.

  So, Karou wondered, what does one bring to a celebration of victory and vengeance? Booze? Hard to find in Morocco, and it was just as well. Booze was the last thing she needed to be giving the soldiers.

  Well, okay, maybe not the last thing.

  When she reached Agdz, with its long, dusty main street that looked more Wild West than Arabian Nights, she avoided the shop on the north end, the one she remembered had rifles in the window. She didn’t want to risk Ten seeing them from her hiding place and asking what they were.

  Wouldn’t that make a nice treat for the celebration? No doubt about it.

  Looming large in Karou’s mind, always, was the issue of guns. At the thought of them, her hand went to her stomach, where three small, shiny scars remembered the bullets that had torn through her once, in the hold of a ship in St. Petersburg where all around her girls and women had bled from toothless mouths and cried, and run.

  Karou hated guns, but she knew what they could mean for the rebellion. A dozen times she’d considered telling Thiago about human killing technology, and a dozen times she’d stopped herself. She had a lot of reasons, starting with her personal feelings and the people she would have to deal with to procure arms—weren’t things bad enough without adding arms dealers to the mix? But she could have dealt with that if it weren’t for the bigger reason, the thing she always came back to.

  Brimstone had never brought guns into Eretz.

  She could only guess why not, but her guess was simple: because it would start an arms race, and accelerate the pace of killing beyond reckoning, and that was the last thing he would have wanted. He had told her—Madrigal-her—in the last moments before her execution, that for all these centuries he had only been holding back a tide, trying to keep his people alive until some other way could be found, some truer way. A path to life, and peace.

  Life and peace. Victory and vengeance.

  And never the twain shall meet.

  In town, Karou bought apricots, onions, courgettes by the crateful. She wore a cotton hijab over her blue hair, and jeans with a long-sleeved jellaba to blend in. They wouldn’t mistake her for Moroccan, but with her black eyes and perfect Arabic, they wouldn’t take her for a Westerner, either. She took care not to let her hamsas be seen, and bought cloth and leather, tea and honey. Almonds and olives and dried dates. Feed for the chickens and discs of flat bread. Red slabs of marbled meat—not a lot; that wouldn’t keep. Couscous, tons of it—sacks so big she could barely heave them but still had to wave away help on account of having a wolf-headed monster stowed away in the back of her truck. Thanks, Ten.

  She told an inquisitive woman that she worked for a tour provider. “Hungry tourists” was the response. Indeed. It occurred to Karou that she had literally bought enough food for a small army, and she couldn’t even laugh about it.

  She kept thinking of the sphinxes, and what they must be doing.

  Which pretty much killed her will to come up with some celebration for the soldiers. She tossed Ten a bottle of water and closed up the back of the truck. But on the way out of town she spotted a shop that made her reconsider. Drums. Berber tribal drums. Sometimes on campaign there had been drumming in camp. Singing, too. There had been no singing at the kasbah, but she thought of Ziri and Ixander clowning in the court, the laughter that she’d had no part in, and she bought ten drums, and drove the long way back as day slid into dark.

  She was overseeing the unloading when the Shadows That Live returned.

  “I thought the Shadows That Live were the Shadows That Died,” said Liraz.

  Word had come from Thisalene, and Akiva was reeling. The horror, the body count, the bold stroke. The fool stroke. To attack so near Astrae was to pierce the perceived sanctity of the Empire itself. Did these rebels even know what they had begun?

  Hazael sighed, blowing out a long, weary breath. “Is it just me, or have you noticed that chimaera prefer not to be dead?”

  “Well then,” said Liraz. “We have that in common at least.”

  “We have more in common than that,” said Akiva.

  Liraz turned her eyes on him. “You more than most,” she said, and he thought she meant something biting about “harmony” with the beasts, but she dropped her voice and said, “Slipping about invisible, for example?” and Akiva went cold.

  Did she know what he had been doing these past nights, or did she just mean his glamour in general? Her gaze lingered, and there seemed a keen specificity to it, but when she continued, it was only to say, “If Father knew you could do that…” and trail away with a whistle. “He could have his own personal Shadow That Lives.”

  Akiva looked around. He didn’t like to talk about it in camp—his magic, his secrets. Even calling the emperor “Father” was punishable, first because use of his honorific was law, and second because the Misbegotten had no claim to paternity. They were weapons, and weapons had no fathers, or mothers, either, and if a sword could claim a maker, it was the blacksmith, not the vein of ore whence came its metal. Of course, that didn’t stop Joram boasting how many “weapons” came from his own “vein of ore.” The stewards kept lists. There had been more than three thousand bastard soldiers born in the harem.

  Of which barely three hundred remained, and too many of those were deaths recent.

  Akiva saw that there was no one within earshot. “You could do it, too,” he reminded Liraz. He had taught his brother and sister the glamour so they could pass in the human world, helping him to burn the black handprints onto Brimstone’s doors. They managed it, though not with ease, and not for long.

  She made a sound of disgust. “I think not. I prefer my victims to know who killed them.”

  “So they can dream of your lovely face for all their eternal slumber,” said Hazael.

  “It’s a blessing to die at the hand of someone beautiful,” answered Liraz.

  “So, not at Jael’s hand, then,” remarked Hazael.

  Jael. Akiva glanced at the sky. The name was a sharp reminder.

  “No. Godstars.” Liraz shuddered. “There is no blessing that will help his victims. Do you know, there are two reasons I am glad I am Misbegotten, and both of them are Jael.”

  “What reasons?” Akiva couldn’t im
agine why anyone, especially his sister, would be glad to be the emperor’s bastard.

  The Misbegotten were the most effective and least rewarded of all of the Empire’s forces. They could never command, lest they strive above their station, but were only fodder for the ranks, given out on loan to regiments of the Second Legion to do the dirty work. They had no pensions, being expected to serve until their deaths, and were not permitted to marry, to bear or father children, to own land, or even to live elsewhere than their barracks. It was a sort of slavery, really. They weren’t even given burial but only cremation in common urns, and since their names were borrowed more than owned, it was deemed meaningless to engrave them on a stone or placard. The only record of life a Misbegotten left behind was his or her name stricken from the stewards’ list so that it could be given over to some new mewling babe soon enough to be ripped from its mother’s arms.

  Live obscure, kill who you’re told, and die unsung. That could have been the Misbegotten’s creed, but it wasn’t. It was Blood is strength.

  “Being Misbegotten,” said Liraz, counting the first reason on her finger, “I will never serve under Jael.”

  “A good reason,” Akiva agreed. Jael was the emperor’s younger brother, and the commander of the Dominion, the Empire’s elite legion and a source of endless bitterness to the bastards. Any Misbegotten would best any Dominion soldier in sparring or—if it ever came to it—combat, yet the Dominion were held supreme in every way. They were richly attired and provisioned from the coffers of the Empire’s first families—who filled their ranks with second and third sons and daughters—and they had been richly rewarded at war’s end, too, gifted with castles and lands in the carve-up of the free holdings.

  An elder bastard half sister named Melliel had dared to ask Joram if the Misbegotten would be given their due, and their father’s answer had been, in his sly way making even the refusal a boast of his virility, “There aren’t castles enough in Eretz for all the bastards I’ve sired.”

 
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