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Days of blood & starligh.., p.18
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.18

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

  Mik asked, “Where is he? Is he here?”

  “His team is overdue back from a mission in Eretz.”

  Zuzana must have heard the anxiety in her voice. “What does that mean, overdue? Are they okay?”

  “Maybe. I hope. They might just be late.”

  Or they might be dead.

  47

  ASSASSINS AND SECRET LOVERS

  Day passed to night, and Karou found herself faced with the undesirable task of explaining the toilet situation to Zuzana. That is, the lack-of-toilet situation.

  To her surprise, Zuzana said only, “Well, that explains the smell.”

  It seemed Karou really had neutralized their capacity for surprise. She decided the best course would be to go to the river so they could bathe and take care of immediate needs with some privacy. “Privacy,” in air quotes, as it were. Thiago met them on the way out, his courtly, overly solicitous manner stilted and old-fashioned as he insisted that Ten accompany them. “Just to be sure you’re safe,” he said.

  Safe, thought Karou. Right. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not going to make a break for it.”

  “Of course not,” he said, and she knew that she couldn’t if she tried. She wouldn’t be able to escape the creatures she had made. Winged, powerful, and with keen animal senses, they’d be on them in no time. Good going, me, she thought as, with the she-wolf trailing, she led her friends out the gate and down the slope to the river. With the heat of the day gone, the cold water was less than inviting—plus, Ten’s hunched presence on a rock was small inducement to shed clothes—so they didn’t bathe properly, but only splashed themselves, scrubbed their faces and necks, and lay out on a rock to dry.

  “Star bathing,” said Karou.

  “Seriously.” Zuzana reached up as if to brush the stars with her fingertips. “I always thought pictures of night skies like this were faked or enhanced or something.”

  “Like those giant moon photos,” added Mik.

  Karou turned to them. “Did I tell you there are two moons in Eretz? And one of them really is that big.”

  “Two moons?”

  “Yeah. The chimaera—we—worship them.” She didn’t, though, not anymore. Once upon a time she had believed there was a will at work in the cosmos, but if there had been, it had abandoned her at the temple of Ellai. “Nitid is the big one. She’s the goddess of just about everything.”

  “And the other one?”

  “Ellai,” said Karou, remembering the temple, the hish-hish of the evangelines, the shush of the sacred stream. The blood. “She’s the goddess of assassins and secret lovers.”

  “Cool,” said Zuzana. “That’s the one I’d worship.”

  “Oh, really. And which are you, an assassin or a secret lover?”

  “Well,” Zuzana said in a smarmy voice, “my love is no secret,” and rolled on her side to kiss Mik. “Guess that makes me an assassin. How about you?” She turned back to Karou.

  Karou’s throat tightened. “Not an assassin,” she said, and instantly regretted it.

  A pause came between them, and it was so full of Akiva that Karou imagined she could smell him. Stupid, she scolded herself for opening the subject; it was like she wanted to talk about him. The pause grew, and for a moment she thought Zuzana was going to let it pass, for which she was grateful. She did not want to talk about Akiva. She didn’t want to think about him. Hell, she wanted to unknow him, to go back in time to Bullfinch and turn another way on the battlefield as he bled out his life into the sand.

  “I wish you’d tell me what happened,” said Zuzana.

  “I don’t want to talk about it.”

  “Karou, you’re miserable. What good is having friends if they can’t help you?”

  “Believe me, it’s not something you can help me with.”

  “Try me.”

  Karou’s whole body was rigid. “Yeah? Okay,” she said, staring up into the stars. “Let’s see. You know how, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wakes up in the crypt and Romeo’s already dead? He thought she was dead so he killed himself right next to her?”

  “Yeah. That was awesome.” A pause, followed by “Ow,” suggested elbow punctuation on the part of Mik.

  Karou ignored it. “Well, imagine if she woke up and he was still alive, but…” She swallowed, waiting out a tremor in her voice. “But he had killed her whole family. And burned her city. And killed and enslaved her people.”

  After a long pause, Zuzana said in a small voice, “Oh.”

  “Yeah,” said Karou, and closed her eyes against the stars.

  The sentry’s call came as they were walking back up the slope. A throat-deep rumble that Karou recognized as Amzallag’s, and at once she was rising into the air, squinting in the direction of the portal. At first she saw nothing. Was it more humans? No. Amzallag was pointing to the sky.

  And then the stars shimmered. A figure was cutting across the night, visible first only as a canceling of stars. One figure, alone—one, only one?—and… its wingbeats were labored and uneven. It pitched, dropped, caught, pushed on, pain in every movement. And there were soldiers in the air going to meet him and help him—him, Karou saw that it was him. It was Ziri. Alive. She wanted to go, too, but there were her friends on the ground below, and anyway, she didn’t imagine Ziri could want to see her, not after the last thing she had said to him, so she dropped back down and said, “Come on. Hurry.”

  Ten wanted to know what she’d seen, so she told her, and the she-wolf loped on ahead while Karou took her friends by the elbows and rushed them uphill, practically lifting them off the ground in her hurry.

  “What?” Zuzana demanded. “Karou, what?”

  “Just come,” she said, and by the time they got there, Nisk and Emylion were lowering Ziri to the ground before Thiago. His wings hung limp, and the Wolf knelt to support him, and Karou was there, a roaring in her ears as she searched for the source of the blood, the blood that was all over him. Where was it was coming from? Ziri was bent over, head down, arms pulled tight against his body, and… something was wrong with his hands. They were dark with blood and crooked stiff, like claws—oh god, what had happened to his hands?—and then he lifted his head, and his face…

  Karou sucked a breath.

  Behind her, she heard Zuzana cry out.

  Ziri was as white as shock, and that was one thing Karou saw, but the rest was… it was confused, he was white but he was also gray, ash-gray—his chin, his mouth… his lips were black, clotted and crusted, and even that wasn’t the worst thing. Karou’s gaze skittered away and lost focus and she forced it back.

  What had they done to him?

  Of course. Of course they had done this. They had cut him as he had cut them, but he was still alive, wearing that terrible smile. He was… carved. Bleeding, white with shock and blood loss. His eyes searched for her and found her and focused with a snap—a whiptail snap when their eyes met—and her own jumped wider and he was telling her things with his look, but she couldn’t understand, the words were missing, there was only the urgency.

  Then he pitched forward and Thiago caught him, but not before one of his long horns hit the flagstone, snapping off the tip with a crack like a gunshot. Ten lunged forward and took his other arm, and he hung limp between the two as they lifted him and carried him away. Karou grabbed the piece of horn—she didn’t know why—and went in quick short steps in their wake, gesturing for Zuzana and Mik to follow.

  “Wait,” she said, when Thiago and Ten came to the door of the keep where the soldiers slept. “Take him to my room. I think… I think I might be able to heal him.”

  Thiago gave a nod and changed direction. Ten followed his lead, and Karou, behind them, felt a sudden prickling at the back of her neck and turned. She scanned the path behind her. It was strewn with detritus; the wall beyond was high and the stars were bright, but there was nothing else.

  She turned back and hurried up the path.

  Akiva fell to his knees. He hadn’t breathed s
ince he saw her. He gasped now and his glamour failed, and if Karou had still been looking back she would have seen the shape of him cut in and out of the air, wings limned in fire and sparks like bursting embers. He was not twenty feet from her.

  From Karou.

  She was alive.

  Soon, everything else would come rushing at him. Like the ground to a falling man, it would come rushing up and hit him all at once—the place, the company, her words; one implication would lead to another and shatter him—but around that intake of breath the world hung silent and bright, so bright, and Akiva knew only this one thing, and held on to it and wanted to live inside of it and stay there forever.

  Karou was alive.

  Once upon a time, a girl lived in a sandcastle,

  making monsters to send through a hole in the sky.

  48

  FASCINATING GUEST

  “Captain, we’ve found… something. Sir.”

  Jael favored the scout with the baleful look his soldiers knew well. The Captain of the Dominion was not hot-tempered like his brother. His anger was a cool, intentional thing, but just as brutal—arguably more so, as he had full control when he committed his worst acts, and was more able to enjoy himself. “Am I to understand,” he said softly, “that by ‘something’ you don’t mean the rebel?”

  “No, sir, not him.” The scout stared past Jael’s head at the silk wall of the pavilion. It was night and the breeze was up. The folds of the tent flapped in a light breeze, and the glow of lanterns painted its ripples crimson and fire, ever-shifting, mesmerizing. Jael knew; he’d been staring at it himself until his steward showed the scout in, but he didn’t imagine the scout was mesmerized. He imagined he just didn’t like to look at his captain’s face.

  “Well, what then?” he asked, impatient. It was the rebel he wanted—the Kirin who, unbelievably, had slipped through his fingers—and he could little imagine that anything else would hold his attention at the moment.

  He was wrong.

  “We’re not sure what it is, sir,” said the scout. He sounded bewildered. He looked repulsed. Jael was used to that look; he got it enough. They tried to hide it, but there was always a tell: a tic, a sliding away of the eyes, a subtle pursing of the lips. Sometimes it irritated him enough that he gave them something to take their mind off their revulsion. Like agony, for example. But if Jael were to punish everyone who was disgusted by his face, he would be kept very busy indeed. And anyway, this particular revulsion wasn’t for him. When he realized that, his curiosity stirred.

  “We found… it… hiding in the ruins of Arch Carnival. It had a fire.”

  “It?” prompted Jael. “A beast?”

  “No, sir. It’s like no beast I’ve seen. It says… It says it’s a seraph.”

  Jael let out a spray of laughter. “And you can’t tell? What manner of fools surround me that can’t recognize our own kind?”

  The scout looked acutely uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, sir. At first I thought it was impossible, but there’s something about the thing. If what it says is true—”

  “Bring it here,” said Jael.

  And they did.

  He heard it before he saw it. It spoke the tongue of seraphim and it was moaning. “Brothers, cousins,” it implored, “be gentle with this poor broken thing, take pity!”

  Jael’s steward held the flap of the tent open and beheld the creature first. The fellow was stoic from years in his service and all that that entailed, so when Jael saw him blanch, he took notice.

  Two soldiers dragged the thing by its armpits. Its body was a bloated ball, its arms were reedy and ropey, and its face…

  Jael did not blanch. The things that disgusted others were a fascination to him. He rose from his chair. Went closer and knelt before the thing to peer at it, and when it looked at his face, it recoiled. This was funny—that such a monster could feel disgust—but Jael did not laugh.

  “Please!” it cried. “I have been punished enough. I have come home at last. The blue lovely made me fly again, but she was wicked, oh, false girl, she tasted of fairy tales, but let her have her ash city, let her mourn her dead monsters, she cheated me. The wish ran out. How many times must I fall? It has been a thousand years. I have been punished enough!”

  Jael understood that he was looking at a legend. “Fallen,” he said, amazed, and he took in the creature’s fine eyes, sunk in the bloat of its purple face. He looked at its dangling, useless legs and the splinters of bone jutting from its shoulder blades where, in a long-distant past—a past out of stories whose books had been burned and lost—its wings had been ripped from its body.

  “So you’re real,” said Jael, and he felt no small awe that the thing could be alive after all that it had endured.

  “I am Razgut, good brother, have pity. The other angel, he was cruel, oh, his fire eyes were bright, but he was a dead thing, he wouldn’t help me.”

  Fire eyes. Suddenly, Jael found the creature’s gibberish as fascinating as his history.

  With a flash of unexpected strength from those reed-thin arms, Razgut jerked free of the soldier holding him and seized Jael’s hand. “You who know what it is to be broken, brother, you will pity me.”

  Jael smiled. It was when Jael smiled that he felt most keenly what his face was: a mask of scar tissue, a horror. He didn’t mind being a horror. He lived. The one who had cut him, well, she had lived long enough to rue her poor aim, and then long enough to rue having ever lived at all. Jael was ugly, and though his teeth were broken he was most avowedly not, and as for pity, it had never troubled him. Still, he let Razgut clutch at his hand. He waved the soldiers off when they tried to drag the creature back, and he ordered his steward to bring food.

  “For our guest,” he said.

  Our fascinating guest.

  49

  A TRUE SMILE

  All of Karou’s careful hiding of her bruises was undone the moment she rolled up her sleeves and dumped her tool case out on her table. It was a small shock lost in larger shocks, though, and Zuzana said nothing. Karou didn’t look at her; she didn’t want to see her friend’s reaction. She focused on Ziri.

  Thiago and Ten put him on her bed—so much for Zuzana and Mik sleeping there tonight—and Ten went for boiled water to wash his wounds. Ziri had not regained consciousness, which was a mercy since Karou had nothing to give him for the pain. Why would she? She wasn’t a healer.

  But… she supposed she was; she could do what an ordinary healer could not—at least, in theory. The same magic used in conjuring flesh could also knit and heal it. It was even possible to repair a dead body and restore its soul to it, though this could only be done immediately after death before any decomposition began, and if the injuries were not too extensive. As soldiers tended not to die at the resurrectionist’s door, the gleaning of souls was the practical alternative. Also, Brimstone had said that it was usually easier to conjure a new form than restore a broken one.

  He had compared it to mending a slice in knitted wool: the wool skein had been one continuous fiber in the original creation and was now fraught with interruptions, each its own snafu of loose ends and lost stitches. The interruptions could be put right, but it took maniacal craft, and the whole was unlikely to emerge quite as it had been before.

  Karou knelt to examine Ziri’s injuries. As terrible as the smile looked, she felt sure she could manage. It had been sliced clean by a very sharp blade, and the muscles affected were on the large side, their configuration straightforward. There might be some scarring, but what of that?

  Thiago leaned over her shoulder. “Is that… ash?” he asked.

  Karou realized that it was. It was ash blackening Ziri’s mouth and lips. The inside of his mouth was black, too. “It looks like he ate it,” she said.

  “Or was fed it,” replied Thiago darkly.

  Fed ash? By who? Karou reached for Ziri’s hands, gently curling them open. When she saw what had been done to him, a soft sound of anguish escaped her lips. His hands were pierced th
rough, as if he had been crucified. The left one was torn entirely from the center of his palm out through the webbing between his third and fourth finger, as if he had wrenched it free of whatever had pinned it. The imagined pain brought a trembling white noise to her ears. She laid the hands back gently on Ziri’s chest.

  “So. Can you heal them?” asked Thiago.

  Karou heard skepticism in his voice, and didn’t blame him for it. Hands were ridiculously complex. She’d had to draw and label them in anatomy classes in art school: all twenty-nine bones, seventeen muscles just in the palm, and… over a hundred ligaments. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

  “If you can’t, tell me now.”

  She went cold. “Why?” she asked, though she knew the answer.

  “If he can’t use his hands, this body is of no use to him—or to me.”

  “But it’s his natural flesh.”

  Thiago shook his head, not unsympathetic. “I know. And as rare a thing as that is, do you think he’ll thank you for salvaging it if he can’t hold his blades?”

  Is that all that matters? Karou wondered, and the bleak answer was: yes.

  She felt the Wolf looking at her, but she kept her eyes on Ziri. Broken, brutalized Ziri. Lovely, long-limbed Ziri, graceful echo of a dead people. What manner of monstrous body would Thiago ask for to replace this perfect one? It wouldn’t come to that. She would keep Ziri from the pit. She would. “I’ll heal him.”

  Thiago began, “If it would be faster to make him a new—”

  “I can do it,” Karou snapped, and the Wolf sat back.

  When she turned to face him, he was giving her a considering look. “All right, then. Try. But first I need to question him.”

  “What? Wake him?” Karou shook her head. “It’s better this way—”

  “Karou, what do you think happened to him? He’s been tortured, and I need to know by who, and if he gave anything away.”

 
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