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Days of blood & starligh.., p.17
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.17

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

  Again Karou’s expression was her answer.

  “Oh, Karou, I’m so sorry,” Zuzana said, and when she looked to Karou now, she really looked, not with the pure relief that had gripped her on first sight, but seeing her. She was too thin, sharp, her lips were chapped, her hair in a slapdash braid, her shirt—some Moroccan-style loose cotton shift—was wrinkled as if she lived in it, and her eyes had that bruised sleepless look. And not just sleepless; she looked… depleted.

  Another shiver went down Zuzana’s spine. What had she walked into, brought Mik into? She’d gotten so caught up in the mystery and the challenge; of course she’d known something was going on with Karou. Her cryptic e-mail had made that clear, but she hadn’t really considered it might involve the word dead and this stench in the air that she was sure now was rot.

  She swallowed hard. She had a fat headache, her feet were killing her, she really, really wanted a shower, and she had a sad presentiment that ice cream was out of the question, but there was someone she hadn’t asked after yet. She hesitated, afraid of seeing another bleak answer written on her friend’s face. “What about Akiva?”

  An answer appeared on Karou’s face all right, but it wasn’t the one Zuzana had expected. The bleakness transformed to severity. Karou’s jaw clenched, her eyes narrowed. “What about him?” she asked, hard.

  Zuzana blinked. What? “Um. Is he… alive?”

  “Last I heard,” Karou said, and turned away. “Come on.”

  Zuzana and Mik looked at each other wide-eyed and followed in her wake. Karou’s tense posture was a warning to keep silent, but Zuzana chose to ignore it. Frankly, it pissed her off. She’d come all this way; she’d solved a riddle that wasn’t even a riddle; she’d found Karou in the middle of the Sahara desert—okay, they weren’t really in the Sahara desert but close enough, and if she ever told this story she was absolutely going to say she had hiked into the middle of the Sahara desert in zebra-striped sneakers. Whatever. She really didn’t think she deserved to be stonewalled. “What happened?” she asked her friend’s back.

  Karou glanced over her shoulder. “Let it go, Zuze. I’ll tell you everything else, but I don’t want to talk about him.”

  How bitterly she said it. “Karou.” Zuzana reached for Karou’s arm; when her friend winced from her touch, she drew back her hand. “What?” Zuzana asked. “Are you hurt?”

  Karou stopped walking. She let go of the packs she was dragging and hugged her arms to herself, looking so lost. So beautiful and so lost. How was it fair that she looked so beautiful with such an obvious lack of effort? “I’m fine,” she said, trying for a smile. “It’s you two Lawrence of Arabias I’m worried about. Would you just shush and let me get you inside?” Karou looked to Mik for support, and of course he agreed with her.

  “Come on, Zuze, we can catch up on everything later.”

  Zuzana sighed. “Fine. Bullies. But I might die of curiosity.”

  “Not if I can help it,” said Karou, and Zuzuna gave Mik’s hand an involuntary squeeze, because it didn’t sound like she was joking.

  Karou was still trying to push the thought of Akiva from her mind when they reached the palace. Just the mention of his name was enough to make her feel turned to stone. Well. Stone was better than pulp, and she was never going to let anyone make her feel like that again.

  She stepped aside to usher her friends through the door. As dusty and worn on the outside as the rest of the kasbah, inside, the palace was, well, it was dusty and worn, too, but it was also unexpectedly lavish. Once home to the sloe-eyed brides of tribal chiefs and all their chittering broods, it was a complex of many grand rooms. There were pilasters of etched alabaster, badly chipped, and lantern niches in the shape of keyholes. The walls were paneled with faded silk, the ceilings carved in Arabic honeycombs, and a grand staircase swept upward, tiled in cracked lapis the color of Karou’s hair.

  Zuzana turned in a slow circle, taking it all in. “I can’t believe you live here,” she said. “No wonder you gave me your dinky flat.”

  “Are you kidding?” Karou had to laugh at the absurdity of the comparison. “I miss that flat so much.” And that life. “Trade you.”

  “No, thanks,” said Zuzana at once.

  “Wise girl.” Karou started up the stairs, pausing to offer Zuzana her arm. Between herself and Mik, who was not exactly peppy, they helped her up to the first landing, where a corridor led to Thiago’s suite and the small antechamber where Ten slept. A twist, and there were more stairs. “I still can’t believe you’re here,” Karou said as they climbed. “You have to tell me how you did it. After you get some rest, that is. You two can have my bed while you’re here.”

  “Where will you sleep?” asked Mik.

  “Oh, don’t worry about that. I don’t sleep much.”

  Zuzana’s eyebrow rode high. “Really. Or eat, apparently. Or groom.” At the sight of that eyebrow—insult notwithstanding—Karou was flooded with love. Zuzana, here. It boggled. She crushed her in another hug, which did not stop Zuzana from asking, “So what do you do, exactly?”

  Karou released her. “I’ll tell you everything else,” she had said, and she’d meant it. She’d been desperate for someone to talk to, hadn’t she, and now, like a wish granted, Zuzana and Mik were here. It felt like magic.

  Karou took a deep breath, mindful of the state in which she had left her room, and put her hand to the heavy cedar door. “You sure you want to know?”

  Eyebrow.

  “Okay then.” Karou pushed open the door. “Come in and I’ll tell you.” Innocently, as they moved past her, she added, “Oh, and don’t trip over the body on the floor.”

  46

  UN-ALIVE

  Some months had passed since Karou had first tested truth-telling on Zuzana back in Prague. It had been so unfamiliar then, talking about her secret life, that she hadn’t known how to begin. She’d just blurted it all out, angels and chimaera and all, and if Kishmish hadn’t appeared at that very moment—on fire—she would probably have lost her friend forever.

  Well, the things she had to tell now made that first round of confessions sound plain tame, but Mik and Zuzana were primed to believe. They had, after all, just walked into a kasbah full of monsters. Still, the idea of resurrection might take some getting used to.

  “Ohmygodwhyisthereadeadmonsteronyourfloor?” was Zuzana’s breathless question when she saw Bast’s new body sprawled before her.

  “Well. She’s not dead exactly,” Karou hedged.

  Zuzana reached out a dust-caked sneaker and gave the inert flesh a nudge. “She’s not alive.”

  “True. Um. Let’s call her… un-alive.”

  And thus did Zuzana and Mik learn that un-alive could mean dead—and usually did—but it could also mean new. “I made it earlier,” Karou told them, much as she might say she had knitted a hat, or baked a cake.

  Zuzana was calm, effortfully so. She perched herself at the edge of Karou’s bed and folded her hands in her lap. “Made it,” she repeated.

  “Yes.”

  “Explain, please.”

  Karou did explain, as succinctly as possible, gesturing to her tooth trays and neglecting to mention the small matter of the pain tithe. She also poured water into a basin so her friends could bathe their faces and feet—in that order, she specified with mock gravity—made mint tea, and set out dishes of almonds and dates. When they were done with the basin, she emptied it out the window without looking, hoping Thiago or Ten might be walking below, but no shout or growl answered the splash, and she closed her shutters against the heat.

  She performed the resurrection right away, partly because it was easier to show what she did than tell, but also to clear the room of bodies so her friends could relax.

  The awakening was the easy part. The magic was already done, so no tithe was required or rolling up of sleeves to reveal ugly bruised arms. Karou felt such shame for her bruises, and didn’t want Zuzana to see them, but it wasn’t called for at this stage. All she had t
o do was hang up the thurible Thiago had brought her, light a cone of incense, and place it on the body’s brow. Zuzana and Mik watched the whole procedure without blinking, though there was really nothing to see. The scent of sulfur, the creak of chain, these were the only signs. Karou alone could sense the soul that emerged from the vessel, lingering for just a moment before funneling itself into its new body.

  Bast had, until now, looked rather like an Egyptian cat goddess: the slender human form, high breasts, feline head with exaggerated ears; Karou had maintained the feline aspect as much as she could, but had, at Thiago’s request, sacrificed much of the human. This new body was all sleek muscle, not as big as some, being made for agility. The arms and upper torso remained human for versatility with weapons—Bast was a good archer—but the haunches were leopard, for leaping and springing. And of course there were the all-important wings, sprawled open to take up much of the floor. Karou was glad this wasn’t one of her more monstrous creations, first for the sake of Zuzana and Mik, and now, unexpectedly, Bast.

  Bast’s soul, she discovered, had a delicate beauty ill-suited to a soldier, and she wondered briefly what sort of life she might have had in a different world. Well, she thought as Bast opened her eyes, they would just never know.

  Zuzana gave a small gasp. Mik just stared.

  Bast lifted her head, eyes widening at the sight of new humans, but said nothing. She focused on her new self, testing her limbs with small gestures before rising unsteadily to find paws where hands and feet had been.

  “All right?” Karou asked.

  The soldier nodded and stretched her entire supple spine. The gesture was unmistakably feline; she might almost have been a cat waking on a window ledge. “It’s well done,” she said, her voice like a purr in her newly made throat. “Thank you.”

  Something clenched in Karou’s chest. None of them had ever thanked her before. “You’re welcome,” she said. “Do you need help down the stairs?”

  Bast shook her head again. “I don’t believe so.” She stretched again. “As I said, it’s well done.” Again, that clenching in Karou’s chest. A compliment. It was kind of ridiculous how grateful she felt for those few words. When the door settled closed behind Bast, she turned to her friends.

  “Well,” said Mik, leaning back on one elbow, eyes lazy with feigned cool. “That wasn’t weird.”

  “No?” Karou dropped into her chair and rubbed her face. “My weird gauge must be off. I’d have guessed it was at least a little weird.”

  “Again,” said Zuzana.

  “What?” Karou dropped her hands and looked at her friend.

  Zuzana’s expression was vivid with amazement. “Again, again.” She bounced up and down at the edge of the bed, childlike, clapped her hands and demanded, “When can I do it? You’re going to teach me, right? Of course you are. That’s why you brought me here.”

  “Teach you? I didn’t bring you here—”

  But Zuzana wasn’t listening. “This is so much better than puppetry. Holy hell, Karou. You’re making living things. You’re freaking Frankenstein!”

  Karou laughed and shook her head. “No, I’m not.” She’d had ample time to consider and discard that comparison. “The whole point with Frankenstein is where the soul comes from.” If a human created “life,” there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world—or heaven or hell, either, if you were concerned about that, which Karou was not. “I have the souls already.” She pointed to the pile of thuribles. “I’m just making the bodies.”

  “Oh, is that all?” drawled Mik. “Ho hum.”

  But Zuzana was fixed on the dozens and dozens and more dozens of thuribles. Her eyes went round, her mouth, too. “All of those?” She was across the room in a flash, pulling one from the middle of the pile and setting off a minor landslide. “Let’s make one. Please? Show me how you make the body.” She was still bouncing; Karou feared she might ricochet. “I’ll be your Igor. Please please please? Look.” She went hunchback and dragged a leg. “What is your wish, Herr Doktor?” Snap, she was herself again. “Please? Whose soul is this? How can you tell? Can you tell?”

  She had a million more questions and didn’t give Karou time to answer any of them. Karou looked helplessly at Mik, who sat back and shrugged, as if to say, this one’s all yours.

  “Oh my god.” Zuzana snapped motionless as an idea seized her. “Art exhibit. Can you imagine?” She set the scene with spokesmodel hands. “Balthus Gallery, a half-dozen chimaera bodies in, like, decorative sarcophagi, and at the opening everyone’s all, ooh, ahh, what’s your medium, they’re so lifelike, and we just smile all Mona Lisa and swirl our wine around in our glasses? That would be the best thing ever. But no! Even better. We bring them to life! The smoke, the smell, those lantern things, and then these sculptures lift their heads and get up. Everyone would just think it was puppetry or something, what else could it be, and they’d be trying to figure out how we did it, and they’d be all posing for pictures with monsters and not even know it.”

  She kept going, and Karou laughed helplessly and tried to stop her. “That is never going to happen. You understand that, right? Never.”

  Zuzana rolled her eyes. “Duh, killjoy, but wouldn’t it be awesome?”

  “It would be pretty awesome,” Karou allowed. She hadn’t really thought of her work as art, which struck her now as silly, especially in the wake of Bast’s compliment. A memory rose from her Madrigal life, how when she was a child newly in Brimstone’s service she had loved to come up with ideas for new chimaera, and had even drawn pictures to show him what she had in mind. She wondered if that was what had made Issa start her—Karou-her—with drawing. Sweet Issa, how she missed her.

  “But you’ll let me help you, right?” Zuzana was earnest. She handed Karou the thurible she had pulled from the pile. “Let’s do this one first. Who is it?”

  Karou took it and just held it. She didn’t want to say that Thiago decided who got resurrected and when. “Zuze,” she said instead, “you can’t.”

  “I can’t what?”

  “You can’t help me. You can’t stay here.”

  “What? Why?” Zuzana began to come out of her spell of wild glee.

  “Trust me, you don’t want to stay here. I’m going to take you back as soon as you’re rested enough to travel. I have a truck—”

  “But we just got here.” She looked so betrayed.

  “I know.” Karou sighed. “And it’s so great to see you. I just want to keep you safe.”

  “Well, what about you? Are you safe?”

  “Yeah, I am,” she said, aware as she said it how unsafe she felt pretty much all the time. “Me, they need.”

  “Uh-huh.” Zuzana regarded her unhappily. “About that. Why you? Why are you here, with them? How is it you are doing this?”

  That was a whole other neighborhood of the truth, and Karou felt as reluctant to broach the subject of her true nature as she was to reveal her bruises. Why all the shame? She took a deep breath.

  “Because,” she said, “I’m one of them.”

  “What kind?”

  Karou blinked. It was Mik who had asked, and the question was so casual she thought she must have misheard. “What?”

  “What kind of chimaera were you? You were resurrected, right? You have the tattoo eyes.” He gestured to her palms.

  Karou turned to Zuzana and found her looking every bit as unflabbergasted as Mik. “That’s it?” she said. “I tell you I’m not human, and you’re all tra-la-la?”

  “Sorry,” said Mik. “I think you neutralized our capacity for surprise. You should have started with that, and then told us you raise the dead.”

  “Anyway,” added Zuzana. “It’s kind of obvious.”

  “How is it obvious?” Karou demanded. She had believed she was human her whole life; she would not be persuaded that she had somehow been unconvincing at it.

  “Just this aura of weird you have.” Zuzana shrugged. “I don’t know.”
<
br />   “Aura of weird,” Karou repeated, flat.

  “Good-weird,” said Mik.

  “So what kind?” Zuzana asked.

  The question was so light, so offhand. Karou felt her palms go clammy. It was, after all, her tribe they were asking about, the family that had been ripped away from her so long ago. Flashes of the day besieged her, the long blood streaks on the floors where bodies had been dragged to the cave mouth and heaved over the drop. She breathed. They didn’t get it. Of course they didn’t. In their life it was not necessary to worry whether someone had been orphaned by slave raiders before you asked after their family.

  Once upon a time she had had parents, a home, kin. Once upon a time, she had belonged somewhere, perfectly and without trying. “I was Kirin,” she said softly. I am Kirin, she thought, though everything Kirin had been taken from her: her tribe and her home by angels, her true flesh by the White Wolf, and now, maybe… Ziri. “I’ll show you,” she heard herself say.

  She reached for her sketchbook and pencil and held them a moment, tight, wondering if she could do this. She had tried to draw Madrigal before, but found her hand deflecting her pencil into some other effort. She was afraid—of getting it wrong, of getting it right, of what she would feel at the sight of her former self. Would she feel like it was her true form, and long for it? Or would it be strange, as if she had never even been that long-ago girl? Either way, she couldn’t imagine it would make her happy.

  Still, she thought it was time, and so she started to draw. A curved line. Another. Her horns took shape. Zuzana and Mik watched. Karou almost felt as if she were watching, too, rather than creating the image, and she was a little surprised by what emerged on the page. By who emerged.

  “Um. You were a guy?” asked Zuzana.

  Karou released her pent-up breath in a laugh. “No. Sorry. That’s not me; that’s Ziri. He’s…” It felt too brutal to say he was the last living member of her tribe, so she said only, “He’s Kirin, too.”

  “Oh, phew. I don’t know why it would be freakier if you were a not-human guy in your previous body than a not-human girl, but it would.”

 
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