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Days of blood & starligh.., p.16
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.16

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

  Jael did not have a mustache. Around him, Ziri sensed the Dominion tightening. Jael stood at a safe remove, his face showing calculated forbearance. “Did I,” he said.

  “A sad, wispy specimen, but never mind. I went to cut the bone out, using your sword, and that was my mistake right there. It’s much bigger than I’m used to.” He held up his crescent moons to illustrate his point. “And, well, I missed. Spectacularly, really, though I always say: I wish I’d missed in the other direction.” He mimicked slashing a throat. “Nothing personal.”

  “Of course not.” Jael ran a fingertip down the long, jagged line of his scar. “Do you want to know how I really got it?”

  “No, thank you. I’m this close to believing my own version.” A flicker of movement. Behind Ziri, a soldier; he spun, his knives glinting, the sunlight bright and beckoning along their well-honed curves. The steel wanted blood and so did he. The soldier pulled back.

  “You can lower your weapons,” said Jael. “We aren’t going to kill you.”

  “I know,” Ziri replied. “I’m going to kill you.”

  They thought this was funny. Several laughed. But not for very long.

  Ziri was a blur. He took the laughers first, and two angels were dead where they stood, throats gaping open before the others could even draw their weapons.

  If any of them had ever fought a Kirin, they wouldn’t have felt such comfort in their numbers as to stand so near him with their swords sheathed. Well, their swords came out fast now. The two bodies slumped to the ground, and another two angels were bleeding before ever steel rang on steel. Then it was a melee. Nithilam, as the seraphim called it. Chaos.

  Ziri was outnumbered, but he turned it to his advantage. He moved so fast in the spinning kata of moon blades that the seraphim scarcely knew where to look for him. They followed; he spun. They got in the way of one another’s strikes. Ziri’s part was easier: everything was enemy. Everything was target. His crescent-moon blades seemed to multiply in the air; this was what they were made for, not slicing smiles but taking on multiple opponents, blocking, slashing, piercing. Two more angels fell: gut wound, cut tendons.

  “Keep him alive!” roared Jael, and Ziri was aware, even in the spiral and glint of flesh and steel, that this was not good news.

  He lunged at them, gripping his hilts hard so blood wouldn’t flow beneath his fingers and make his grip slippery. He flew at them, took the fight airborne, and cut and killed, but he never held out any real hope of escape. These were seraph soldiers; he was fast, but they were far from slow, and they were many. Not for the first time in his life, he wished for hamsas. The marks might have weakened them, given him a chance. By the time they disarmed him their host was halved, but he himself bled only from shallow wounds—which he attributed as much to their discipline as to his own agility. They wanted him alive, and so he was.

  He was on his knees before them, and no one was laughing now. Jael came toward him. He had lost his smugness; his face was rigid, the scar livid white against the red of his fury. Ziri saw the kick coming and curled to absorb the blow, but it still caught his stomach hard and drove the breath from him.

  He turned the gasp into a laugh. “What was that for?” he asked, straightening back up. “If I’ve done something to give offense—”

  Jael kicked him again. And again. Ziri ran out of laughter. Only when he was choking up blood did Jael come close enough to rip the gleaning staff off of his back. His eyes were hard with triumph, and Ziri felt the first burn of fear.

  “I have an amusing story, too, only mine is true. I met your Warlord and Brimstone recently, and I burned them like I burned your comrades and that is how I know that they are dead and gone, and that this”—he held up the thurible—“can only be for someone else. So… who?”

  Ziri’s blood had become strangely loud in his head. It was dawning on him what this was about, that the seraphim had laid a trap in the clearing and waited to see if anyone came gleaning. The rebels had been ghosts, as the Wolf had said; now they were real. He had tipped their hand. “I’m sorry.” Ziri feigned confusion. “Who what now?”

  Jael looked down. He stirred the ashes with the tip of his sword. “You will tell me who the resurrectionist is,” he said. “Sooner would be better. For you, I mean. Myself, truly I don’t mind if it takes… a bit of work.”

  Well, that didn’t sound like fun at all. Ziri had no experience of torture, and when he thought of it, there was one face that came to mind.

  Akiva’s.

  Ziri would never forget the day. The agora, all of Loramendi turned out to watch, and Madrigal’s lover forced to watch, too. The seraph had been on his knees as Ziri was now, weak from beatings and hamsas and undone by grief. Had he given up anything to the Wolf? Ziri didn’t think so, and strangely enough, the thought gave him strength. If the angel could withstand torture, he could, too. To protect Karou, and with her, the chimaera’s hope, he thought he could endure anything.

  “Who is it?” asked the captain again.

  “Come closer,” replied Ziri with a bloody grin. “I’ll whisper it in your ear.”

  “Oh, good.” Jael sounded pleased. “I was afraid you were going to make it easy.” He gestured to his soldiers, and two stepped in to seize Ziri’s arms. “Hold him,” he said. He stabbed the gleaning staff into the black earth and began to roll up his sleeves. “I’m feeling inspired.”

  44

  SOME LUXURIES

  “I said no humans would be hurt.” Karou’s voice, already hoarse from arguing, sounded like a growl to her. “That was the first thing. No humans hurt. Period.” She was pacing in the court. Chimaera were gathered in the gallery and on the ground, some basking in the sun and others withdrawn in shade.

  As if he were teaching her a hard life truth, Thiago said, “In war, Karou, some luxuries must be put aside.”

  “Luxuries? You mean not killing innocent people?” He didn’t say anything. That was what he meant. Karou’s stomach twisted in a knot. “Oh god, no. Absolutely no. Whoever they are, they’re nothing to do with your—” She stopped. Corrected herself. “Our war.”

  “But if they endanger our position here, they are everything to do with it. You had to know the risk, Karou.”

  Had she known? Because of course he was right that it would only take a hiker telling tales to bring a media storm down on the kasbah. And then what? She didn’t like to think of it. The military, surely. Once upon a time, a tale of monsters in the desert might have been dismissed as backpackers smoking too much hashish, but times had changed. So, what now?

  “They might keep going,” she said, but that was feeble and they both knew it. It was a hundred degrees out and there was no other destination for many miles. Besides which, even at a distance it was obvious the hikers weren’t doing so well.

  They were dragging uphill, pausing every minute or so to bend over with hands on knees, slug water from canteens, and then… the small one doubled over and heaved. They were too far for the accompanying sound to carry, but it was obvious that they were at risk of heat exhaustion, if not already suffering from it. The pair leaned together for a long time before they got moving again. Karou paced. The hikers needed help, but this was oh so very much not the place that they would find it. If they only knew what they were headed toward. But even if they did know, they were clearly in no state to turn back.

  Thiago was calm, always so maddeningly calm—until he wasn’t, anyway—because the hikers posed no urgent danger. He was content to let them approach. And then what?

  The pit?

  Again Karou’s stomach seized. She could smell it today. Maybe because it had fresh fodder—Bast had finally taken her walk with the Wolf. Karou had already conjured her new body; it lay on her floor even now—and maybe because the breeze was one of those mild but insistent wafts from just the right direction. It might have been saying, Here, smell this. Here, smell this, over and over.

  Karou stopped pacing and stood before the Wolf. She put her shoulder
s back and tried not to shake, tried to sound like someone to be reckoned with as she said, “I’m going to go down there and help them, and I’ll take them around the back gate into the granary.” It was cool in the granary, and isolated. The truck was there. “I’ll give them some water, they will see no one, and then I’ll drive them to a road.” She paused. She heard herself, and knew she wasn’t conveying the forcefulness she wanted. “You won’t have to do anything,” she said, but her voice cracked and her head filled with cursing. What a perfect time to sound like an adolescent boy. “I’ll take care of it.”

  “Very well,” Thiago said. His expression was so arranged. Karou imagined she could see the strings holding it in place, this benign Thiago-mask, and it made her furious. It was like beating her fists against a wall talking to him. “Go on, then,” he urged.

  And she went, trying to have some dignity and not stomp like a powerless child. She went out the gate, and the breeze was stronger here: rot rot, wrong wrong. Bodies putrefying in a pit, and if she didn’t help them, the hikers would end up there, too, and any other humans who had the misfortune to wander too near this godforsaken place. What had she done, leading the rebels into this world?

  But then she thought of Eretz, and what the rebels’ prospects would have been if she hadn’t—and the prospects for all chimaera—and she didn’t know what was right anymore. She’d wanted to believe that they could be trusted to have some humanity. They were soldiers, not brute killers, and not wild animals, either, whose appetites functioned beyond the reach of reason. She knew Amzallag wouldn’t harm anyone without justification, and neither would Balieros, or Ziri, or most of the others. But she had only to think of Razor—and his sack—to know that all bets were off.

  She had to remind herself to keep her feet on the ground as she left the kasbah; it was her first impulse now to fly, so unaccustomed had she become to human society, and it wasn’t easy walking on the shifting scree.

  She realized that her hair was uncovered. What if the hikers recognized her? They really could be a danger. But what was she supposed to do?

  It didn’t take long for them to spot her. Coming down the slope from the fortress, she would be the only moving thing in sight. They were still too far off for her to see clearly, but she heard the cry that came at her, and she stopped walking like she’d hit a barrier. It came rolling over the rocks and scrub, full-throated but dissolving at the edges into weakness.

  The voice.

  It just wasn’t possible. But the cry was “Karou!” and the voice was Zuzana’s, and Karou had certainly learned that “possible” and “impossible” were rough categories at best. Oh god, no, she thought, staring at the figures and seeing what she had never expected to see: Zuzana and Mik, here.

  Not them, not here.

  How? How?

  Did it matter? They were here, and they were in danger—of heatstroke, of chimaera—and Karou’s heart pounded and swelled within her—with panic, with… gladness… and more panic, and more gladness, and a surge of anger—what were they thinking?—then tenderness, astonishment, and her eyes were wet when her feet left the earth and she flew down the slope and caught them and crushed them in a hug that threatened to finish what the heat had begun.

  It was really them. She drew back to look at them. Zuzana had sagged down with exhausted relief. Tear tracks stood out against the red of her cheeks, and she was laugh-crying, crushing Karou’s hands with a vise-tight grip—a squeeze right on the bruised web of her hand that made her gasp.

  “Jesus, Karou,” Zuzana rasped, her voice spent in crying out. “The freaking desert? It couldn’t have been Paris or something?”

  And Karou was laugh-crying, too, but Mik wasn’t laughing or crying. He had a careful hand at Zuzana’s back, and his face was tense with concern. “We could have died,” he said, and the girls fell silent. “I should never have agreed to this.”

  After a beat, Karou agreed. “No, you shouldn’t.” She took in the desert panorama with new eyes, imagining coming across it on foot. “What on earth were you thinking?”

  “What?” Mik stared at her, looked to Zuzana then back to Karou. “Didn’t you want us to come?”

  Karou was taken aback. “Of course not. I would never… God. How did you even find me?”

  “How?” Mik was helpless with frustration. “Zuze figured out your riddle, that’s how.”

  Riddle? “What riddle?”

  “The riddle,” Zuzana said. “Priestess of a sandcastle, in a land of dust and starlight.”

  Karou blinked at her. She remembered writing that e-mail; she had just brought the chimaera through the portal to the kasbah, and had been in Ouarzazate scrounging supplies for Aegir. “That’s how you found me? Oh, Zuze. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for you to come here. I never thought…”

  “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.” Mik raised his hands to his head and turned his back. “We’ve come to the godforsaken navel of nowhere and you don’t even want us here.”

  Zuzana looked crestfallen. Karou felt horrible. “It’s not that I don’t want you!” She dragged her friend into another crushing hug. “I do. So much. So much. It’s just… I would never have brought you into… this.” She gestured to the kasbah.

  “What is this?” Zuzana asked. “Karou, what are you doing out here?”

  Karou opened her mouth and closed it again, twice, like a fish. Finally, she said, “It’s a long story.”

  “Then it can wait,” Mik said firmly. Karou had never seen anger on his face before, but he was flushed with it now, his eyes narrow with accusation. “Can we please get her out of the sun?”

  “Of course.” Karou took a deep breath. “Come on.”

  She shouldered one of their packs and dragged the other. Mik helped Zuzana up the slope, and Karou didn’t take them the long way around to the granary, but the more direct route to the main gate, where they froze on the threshold and stared.

  Again, Karou saw with new eyes, imagining how these creatures must look to humans.

  Thiago stood looking bemused, Ten just behind him. Thiago himself you could almost mistake for human, but Ten was another story with her wolf head and humped shoulders. As for the rest of the court, it was a horror show: soldiers gathered in the gallery and on the ground, even on the rooftops, strangely still but for the lash of a tail here and there, the flick of a wing. Their monstrous size, their many and varied eyes, unblinking. Razor, too near for comfort, flicked out his serpent tongue, and Karou found herself in a ready stance, light on her toes, in case he should leap.

  Mik spoke in a hoarse stage whisper. “Let’s just get this out of the way so I can relax. Karou, your friends aren’t going to eat us, are they?”

  No, Karou thought. They are not. She whispered back, “I don’t think so. But try not to look delicious, okay?”

  She was rewarded with a snort from Zuzana. “That poses a problem, seeing as how we are totally delicious.” A half beat later, anxiously: “Wait. They don’t understand Czech, right?”

  “Right,” said Karou. The whole time, she was looking at Thiago and he was looking at her. The stench of the pit was in the air, and it was then that the nightmare surreality of the life she had been living was sucked away as by a vortex, just gone, and everything was real. This was her life, not a grim dream she would wake from, and not purgatory but her actual life in the actual world—worlds—and now her friends were in it, and it was their life, too.

  It made a difference.

  “These humans are my guests,” she said, and she felt the words come from some iron place within her that hadn’t existed an hour ago. She didn’t speak loudly, but there was such a change in her voice. Coming from that iron place, it was heavy and true; it wasn’t persuasive, or desperate, or antagonistic. It just was. She approached the Wolf, nearer than she liked to be to him. She forced herself to breach his physical space, the way he did hers, tilted back her head, and said, “Their lives are not a luxury. These are my friends, and I trust them.”
>
  “Of course,” he said, smiling, the perfect gentleman. “That changes everything.” He nodded to Mik and Zuzana and even welcomed them, but his smile, it was just wrong. Like he’d learned it from a book.

  45

  DEAD

  “Who was that?” Zuzana whispered as Karou led her and Mik out of the big courtyard where the monsters were gathered. “The other white meat?”

  Karou’s laugh sounded like a choke. “Oh god,” she said when she could breathe again. “And now that’s what I’m going to think every time I see him. Watch your step.”

  They were on a rubble-strewn path, Mik holding Zuzana’s elbow, and they had to pick their way over a collapsed wall. Zuzana peered around. From a distance, the kasbah had looked regal in a crazy sandcastle way, but inside it was pretty desolate. Not to mention—she stepped over a timber bristling with giant rusty nails and skirted the edges of a gaping hole—dangerous. And it smelled bad, too, like piss and worse. What was that smell? Why was Karou living here? And the creatures back there… They weren’t entirely unlike the drawings in her sketchbooks, but they weren’t like them, either. They were much bigger and freakier than anything Zuzana had imagined.

  As for the white guy, he looked almost human; he was supernaturally hot—holy, those eyes, those shoulders, he’d be right at home on the cover of a romance novel—but there was something so icy about him that she’d gotten a shiver in spite of practically melting to death in this desert hell.

  “That was Thiago,” Karou said. “He’s… in charge.”

  Zuzana had gotten that much from his lord-of-the-manor air. “In charge of what, exactly?” she asked. Something occurred to her and she stopped walking. “Wait. Where’s Brimstone?”

  Karou stopped, too, and her stricken expression was all the answer Zuzana needed. “Oh no,” she said. “Not—?” Dead?

  Karou nodded.

  Dead. That word was not supposed to be part of this adventure. Horrified, Zuzana asked, “And… Issa? Yasri?”

 
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