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Days of blood & starligh.., p.13
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.13

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

  Still, for all the benefits the Dominion enjoyed, they served at Jael’s pleasure, and Jael’s pleasure was, by all accounts, a gruesome thing.

  “Go on,” said Hazael. “What else?”

  Liraz counted off another finger. “Second, being Misbegotten, I will never lie under Jael.”

  Akiva could only stare at her, aghast. It was the first time he had ever heard his sister make reference to her own sexuality, even in such an oblique way. She wore her ferocity like armor, and it was purely asexual armor. Liraz was untouchable and untouched. The image of her… beneath Jael… was one to reject immediately, abhorrently.

  Hazael looked aghast, too. “I should hope not,” he said, sounding weak with disgust.

  Liraz rolled her eyes. “Look at the pair of you. You know our uncle’s reputation. I’m only saying I’m safe, because I’m blood, and thank the godstars for that if nothing else.”

  “Damn the godstars,” said Hazael, indignant. “You’re safe because you would gut him with your bare hands if he ever tried to touch you. I’d say that I would do it, but I know that by the time anyone else got there our uncle would already be pulled inside out, and less ugly for it, too.”

  “Yes, I suppose.” Liraz sounded weary, looked it. “And what of all the other girls? Do you think they don’t want to pull him inside out, too? And what then? The gibbet? It comes down to life, doesn’t it, and whether it’s worth keeping on with, whatever happens. So… is it?” She looked to Akiva. Was she asking him?

  “Is what?”

  “Is life worth keeping on with, whatever happens?”

  Was she talking about living broken, living with loss? Did she count his loss a real one, and did she really want to know, or was there a barb in this somewhere? Sometimes Akiva felt like he didn’t know his sister at all. “Yes,” he said, wary, thinking of the thurible, and Karou. “As long as you’re alive, there’s always a chance things will get better.”

  “Or worse,” said Liraz.

  “Yes,” he conceded. “Usually worse.”

  Hazael cut in. “My sister, Sunshine, and my brother, Light. You two should rally the ranks. You’ll have us all killing ourselves by morning.”

  Morning. They all knew what would happen in the morning.

  Liraz rose to her feet. “I’m going to sleep while I can, and you two should, too. Once they get here, I think there will be very little rest for anyone.”

  She walked off. Hazael followed. “Coming?” he asked Akiva.

  “In a minute.”

  Or not. Akiva looked to the sky. It was still dark for as far as he could see, but he imagined he felt a change in the air: a pull from the draft of many, many wings. It was illusion, or prophecy, or just dread.

  He had a long way to go tonight, territory to cover, chimaera to save. No rest for him. The Dominion were coming.

  35

  ROLES TO PLAY

  The sphinxes stretched out delicate cat feet to land, small tufts of dust eddying around them. The rest of the chimaera host were emerging from doors and windows to gather in the court and hear their report, and there was Thiago, striding from the guardhouse. Karou’s mind was sharp with wondering. What had they done? Not just the sphinxes, but all the patrols. It was with a sense of unreality that she found her feet carrying her toward all the others.

  “Karou,” Ten called after her, but she kept walking.

  Thiago caught sight of her and paused, watching her approach. The soldiers followed his gaze, the sphinxes, too. All regarded her with identical nonexpressions, but Thiago smiled. “Karou,” he said. “Did everything go all right in town?”

  “Oh. Fine.” Her hands were clammy. “You don’t have to stop. I was just going to listen.”

  The Wolf cocked his head slightly, looking perplexed. “Listen?”

  “To the report.” Karou felt herself shrinking, faltering. “I just want to know what we’re doing.”

  She didn’t know what she expected Thiago to say, but not this: “Is there someone in particular that you’re worried about?”

  Karou’s face went hot. Insidious implication. “No,” she said, affronted. She was also rattled, realizing that anything she said now would come across as concern for seraphim. For Akiva.

  “Well then, don’t worry.” Another smile from the Wolf. “You have enough to think about. You’ve lost the whole day today, and I need to have another team ready by tomorrow. Do you think you can do that?”

  “Of course,” Ten answered for her, and she took Karou by the arm as she had the day before. “We’re just going.”

  “Good,” said Thiago. “Thank you.” And he waited for them to be gone before resuming speaking.

  Karou felt pinched awake from some stupor. It wasn’t that Thiago didn’t want her bothered with details, it was that he flat-out didn’t want her to know what he was doing. As Ten drew her away, she locked eyes—briefly—with Ziri. He looked so guarded. Thiago’s remark… Did they all think she still loved Akiva? And they didn’t even know about Marrakesh and Prague, or that she’d met him again so recently. Met him and… No. Nothing. She’d left him behind. That was what mattered. This time, she had made the right choice.

  When they were out of the court, Karou pulled her arm from Ten’s grip, wincing as it dragged at her bruises. “What the hell?” she said. “I think I have a right to know what my pain is paying for.”

  “Don’t be a child. We all have our roles to play.”

  “Oh. And yours is what, babysitter? I’m sorry, I mean traitor-sitter?”

  Ten’s eyes flashed with defiance. “If Thiago asks it, yes.”

  “And you’ll do whatever he asks.”

  For a second Ten only stared at her as if she were dim-witted. “Of course” was her answer. “And so will you. Especially you. For the good of our people, and the memory of all we’ve lost, and the very great debt you owe.”

  Karou’s shame response was instant, but it was followed this time by a surge of anger. They would never let her forget what she had done. She was here willingly, when she, unlike they, had a choice in the matter. She had a whole other life, and right now she really just wanted to fly back to it, back to Prague and her friends and art and tea and worrying about nothing more dire than butterflies in her belly—Papilio stomachus, she recalled with an ache. How quaint and small that life seemed now, like something you could fit inside a snow globe.

  She wouldn’t go. Ten was right: She did owe a debt. But she was sick to death of the cowering thing she’d become. She thought Brimstone would scarcely recognize this compliant little shame-creature; she had certainly never followed his orders so meekly.

  When they had climbed the stairs back to her room, she picked up the necklace she had begun earlier, while Ten, impatient, spilled her case out on the table. Brass clamps clattered in all directions. Karou picked one up but didn’t put it on. She was in no state to conjure a body now.

  What wasn’t she allowed to know?

  “Do you want me to tithe?” Ten asked. Karou looked up at her. The she-wolf didn’t offer up her pain very often, and Karou surprised herself by saying, “No. Thanks.” It was only when she heard her own reply that she realized she was going to do something.

  What am I going to do?

  Oh.

  She toyed with the vise, twisting the screw tighter, looser. Did she even remember how? It was a long time ago.

  What shall I do for pain?

  Nothing. No pain for you. Only pleasure.

  Still fidgeting with the vise, she said to Ten, “I don’t suppose you know the story of Bluebeard.”

  “Bluebeard?” Ten eyed Karou’s hair. “A relative of yours?”

  Karou shot her a wry smile. “I have no relatives, remember?”

  “No one does anymore,” Ten said simply, and Karou realized it was true. Everyone here had lost… everyone. They were a people with nothing more to lose.

  “Well,” she said, calmly fitting the vise over the web of flesh and muscle that connected her t
humb and palm. It was a tender spot. “Bluebeard was this lord, and when he brought his new bride home to his castle, he gave her the keys to every door and told her she could go anywhere she wanted except this one little door down in the cellar. And there she must never go.” She tightened the screw, and her pain began to open like a flower.

  “And I suppose that was the first place she went,” said Ten.

  “The minute his back was turned.”

  Ten had just turned to reach for the teapot. At Karou’s words, she spun back around, and cursed.

  Karou knew by her reaction that it had worked; she had remembered Akiva’s invisibility manipulation after all. Funny, the pain had seemed like a big deal back then. Not anymore. It throbbed to the tune of her heartbeat and felt nearly as natural.

  It didn’t occur to Ten that Karou might not have moved from her seat. She just thought she was out the window again, and so when she unfroze, she lunged toward it, and Karou slipped out the door. Ironically, the absence of the bar made it easier for her to get away. Holding the glamour in place, she whipped down the stairs and out to the court to hear whatever she could before Ten bolted down with the news of her vanishing.

  It wasn’t much.

  It wasn’t her shadow that gave her away. The glamour didn’t conceal shadows, so she kept to the shade and she didn’t make a sound. She was certain of that. She wasn’t even touching the ground. Still, she had been in the court only a couple of minutes, just long enough to learn the sickening nature of the “message” that the rebels had been sending to the seraphim, and… the emperor’s response—dear god, the sky dark and bright with Dominion, a merciless display of might, hopeless, hopeless—before Thiago cut off midsentence, pivoted on the pads of his wolf feet, and, lifting his head just slightly, nostrils flaring delicately, scented the air.

  And looked at her.

  She froze. She was already still, and she was yards away, but she stopped breathing and watched those colorless eyes with dread. They couldn’t quite fix on her, but they narrowed. Again he sniffed. He couldn’t see her, she knew that, and neither could the rest of the company, who followed his gaze. Still—stupid, stupid—they knew she was near the same way Thiago did.

  They were creatures. They could smell her.

  36

  FEEL LIKE SMILING

  She took the vise off at the river, let go of the magic, and watched herself flush visible again. Her hand was blue where the clamp had bitten. A bruise. Had anything ever been more insignificant than a bruise?

  Would Thiago guess about the glamour? That had been stupid of her. If he suspected she could do that, he and his spy would never take their eyes off her again. Not to mention, if he suspected she could do that, he would want to know how. He would want all his soldiers to know how, and shouldn’t Karou want that, too, if it could help them?

  Help them kill more angels in their sleep?

  That was what Tangris and Bashees did. No one knew exactly how; they had a way of pulling the shadows around themselves to stalk unseen among the enemy, but glamour alone couldn’t account for the mass killings conducted in perfect silence. Who slept so deeply that they wouldn’t wake to gasp as their throat was cut? Yet these victims slept on as throat by throat they died and all breath was subtracted from the room until only the killers’ remained.

  Karou didn’t know why it bothered her so much. It was painless. And how many chimaera had those soldiers killed, and surely with less kindness.

  Kindness? What an appalling thought.

  Karou sat arguing with herself, wishing more desperately than ever for someone to talk to. There were conflicts in herself she just couldn’t settle. This brutality that she was a part of, she had been half pretending it was all a bad dream in an effort to get through her days, because she just couldn’t come to terms with it.

  With war.

  Her life as Karou had in no way prepared her for this. War was something from the news, and she didn’t even watch the news, it was too terrible. And if she’d thought that Madrigal could help her, as if her deeper self might enable her to accept this ugly reality, she was mistaken there, too. Why had Madrigal done what she’d done, conspiring with Akiva for peace? Because she’d had no stomach for war even when it was her life. She had always been a dreamer.

  And what was happening in Eretz… The rebels had made it worse, so much worse. They had knocked down a hornet’s nest. The cut smiles, the cut throats, the blood scrawl. What had Thiago been thinking, taunting the Empire like that? And the emperor’s answer was swift and enormous. For the chimaera it would be cataclysmic. The full might of the Dominion, sent to crush civilians?

  What had Thiago thought would happen? What had she thought?

  She hadn’t thought; she hadn’t wanted to know, and now look.

  I feel happy…. I feel happy….

  Karou took off her shoes and put her feet in the cool water. Back at the kasbah they would be searching for her, and they should find her easily enough. She waited in plain sight, and at length she heard wings, and then a shadow fell over her. It was horned, and for an instant it aligned with her own shadow so the horns seemed hers.

  Ziri.

  Ziri had been the one on his patrol to do the cutting. His curved blades—just like her own—were suited to it; he had only to hook the corners of a corpse’s mouth and with a flick of his wrist it was done: smile rendered. And this is what has become of my little Kirin shadow. She turned to look up at him. The sun was behind him; she had to shade her eyes. Now that he’d found her, he didn’t seem to know what to do. She saw his gaze trail down her arms—bruises and tattoos intermingling—before returning to her face. “Are you… all right?” he asked, hesitant.

  These were the first words he had spoken to her. If they had come earlier she would have been so glad. From her first frightened days with the rebels, she had hoped he might be a friend, an ally; she’d thought she recognized something in him—compassion? The sweetness of his younger self? Even now, she could see that boy in him, those round brown eyes, his gravity and bashfulness. But he had stayed away from her all these weeks, and now when he finally chose to speak to her, it didn’t matter at all.

  “You seem…” He faltered, discomfited. “You don’t seem well.”

  “No?” Karou could have laughed. “Imagine that.” She stood, brushed off her jeans, and picked up her shoes. She looked up at Ziri. He had grown so tall, she had to tilt her head back. On one of his horns there was a hack mark, several ridges shaved away, and you had only to look to see that the horn had saved his head from a killing blow. He was lucky. She’d heard the other chimaera say so. Lucky Ziri.

  “Don’t worry about me,” Karou told him. “Next time I feel like smiling, I guess I know who to ask.”

  He flinched like he’d been slapped, and she stepped around him, went up the dusty riverbank and toward the kasbah. She didn’t fly, but walked. She was in no hurry to get back.

  The emperor’s brother looked cut in half. A scar ran from the top of his head right down the center of his face, hooking under his chin and stopping—unfortunately—just shy of his throat. And it was no thin tracery either, but a puckered, livid keloid that overcame what remained of his nose and split his lips aside to reveal broken teeth. No one knew how he’d gotten it. He claimed it was a battle scar, but whispers contradicted him—though so many and so varied that it was impossible to guess which, if any, might be true. Even Hazael, with his way of finding things out, had no idea.

  Whatever its cause, the scar’s result was to make it almost unendurable to hear Jael eat, which he was doing now with sounds very like the gluckings of a dog licking its tenders.

  Akiva kept his face impassive, as ever, though truly it felt like a feat. No one could tempt a lip curl quite like the Captain of the Dominion.

  “Think of it as a hunting party,” Jael said casually when he had downed half a cold smoked songbird with a gulp of ale, not bothering to wipe at the dribble that spilled from his ruined mouth. “A
very large hunting party. Do you hunt?” he inquired of Akiva.

  “No.”

  “Of course not. Soldiers have no luxury for sport. Until the enemy becomes the quarry. I think you’ll enjoy it.”

  Not likely, thought Akiva.

  The full weight of the Dominion hung poised to fall on the fleeing folk of the southern continent, several thousand troops now staging to cut off their escape to the Hintermost and then move steadily northward, killing every living thing in their path.

  “I said it was too soon to withdraw our main strength,” said Jael. “But my brother didn’t believe the south was a threat.”

  “It wasn’t,” said Ormerod, the Second Legion commander who had, until now, been overseeing this sweep and who was, Akiva thought, unhappy at being displaced. They were at table in his pavilion—not Akiva’s usual place. Far from it. Bastards did not sit at high table or dine with their superiors. He was here, to his surprise and not delight, at the request of Jael.

  “The Prince of Bastards,” the captain had cried, catching sight of him on his arrival. Akiva had had to work with him in the past, and even when their passions had aligned—the destruction of Loramendi, for example—he’d despised him, and had sensed the feeling was mutual. And yet: “What an honor,” Jael had said that morning. “I hadn’t thought to look for you here. You must join us for breakfast. I’m sure you have thoughts on our situation.”

  Oh, Akiva did, but not such as he could share at this table.

  “The south wasn’t a threat before and it isn’t now,” Ormerod continued, and Akiva admired his forthrightness.

  He could go so far as to agree with that. “Whoever is striking at seraphim, it isn’t these common folk.”

  “Yes, well. The rebels are hiding somewhere, aren’t they?” Jael sighed. “Rebels. My brother is put out. He just wants to plan his new war. Is that so much to ask? And here comes the old one, back from the dead.” He laughed at his own witticism, but Akiva wasn’t laughing.

 
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