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Days of blood & starligh.., p.19
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.19

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

  “Oh.” She saw the sense in that, and as much as she hated to wake Ziri to his pain, she did, as gently as she could.

  It was terrible to see his eyes flutter open and cloud with agony. They sought her face, then flickered to the Wolf and back to her. Again she saw in them the urgency that had been there when he first arrived, and felt sure there was something he wanted to tell her.

  Thiago was his best self as he knelt at his soldier’s side to question him. “Who did this?” he asked in a soothing tone, but it quickly became evident that Ziri couldn’t speak, not with the severed muscles in his cheeks. The Wolf had to settle for yes and no questions, which Ziri answered with nods and head shakes that clearly caused him pain.

  “Did you tell them anything?” asked Thiago, who had learned no more than that “they” were seraphim.

  Ziri gave a head shake, immediate and resolute.

  “Well done. And… the rest of the team?”

  Ziri shook his head again. Tears gathered in his lashes, and Karou understood that he meant they were dead. She had already supposed so, but the news still hit her like a punch. Five soldiers, dead. Balieros. Ixander. She remembered the unexpected softness of Ixander’s soul and how she’d wished to do better by him than that monstrous body.

  “Were you able to glean their souls?” asked the Wolf, and Karou leaned forward, hoping.

  Ziri hesitated. His eyes went to her. Despairing. Confused. He neither nodded nor shook his head. What did it mean? Thiago asked him again, but Ziri’s eyes fluttered shut, his lashes releasing tears to track down his ash-smudged face, and he moaned. He was lost in pain, and after a few more attempts, Thiago had to let it go with the reassurance that Ziri had not compromised their position. He stood. “Go ahead,” he told Karou, “and luck to you.”

  She wished she could assert that luck had nothing to do with it, but the truth was she was praying for it herself. She was almost ready to ask Nitid for help. “Thank you,” she said, and as he went out, she reached for some vises from her table.

  Ziri made an inarticulate sound and she looked to him to find him shaking his head, agitated. She didn’t understand at first, but then he hit himself on the chest with his mangled hands and she got it. He wanted her to use his pain.

  “Oh, no. No. You’d have to stay conscious to tithe—”

  He nodded, hit his chest again, and tried to speak. His face contorted and fresh blood pulsed from the slashes. “Stop,” Karou cried, reaching out to restrain his hands. Their fingers curled together and he held hers tight in spite of the agony it must be causing him. He nodded again.

  There were tears in Karou’s eyes now. “Okay,” she said, wiping them away. “Okay.”

  Ten returned with water and cloths, and Karou set about cleaning Ziri’s wounds. She had some antiseptic, and as she dabbed it on she felt Ziri’s pain amplify in the air around him, almost like currents of electricity. It was a terrible waste to let it all dissipate while she cleaned his wounds. She needed help. She turned to Ten, but one look at the she-wolf’s heavy, ungentle hands and she looked away again. She couldn’t entrust Ziri’s wounds to her. She looked over her shoulder. Zuzana and Mik were still in the room, standing against the far wall. Zuzana was wide-eyed, pale, and watching her intently. Surely this was not what she had meant when she had petitioned to be Igor, resurrectionist’s assistant, but she did have fine small hands and years of training at delicate work.

  “Zuze, do you think you can help me? You don’t have to if you’re not comfortable—”

  “What can I do?” She came at once to Karou’s side.

  Ten tried to assert herself, but Karou waved her off and explained to Zuzana what she needed, and though her friend paled further, she took the clean gauze and water basin and antiseptic and turned to Ziri. “Hi,” she said. Aside to Karou: “How do you say hi in Chimaera?”

  Karou told her, and she repeated it, and Ziri couldn’t say it back, but he nodded.

  “This is the one you drew,” said Zuzana. “From your tribe.”

  “Yes.”

  “Okay. Well. Let’s get started.”

  Karou nodded encouragement and watched for a moment to make sure Zuzana would be all right, and then, with a deep breath, she sank into the slash-and-burn landscape of Ziri’s pain and began to gather it, and use it.

  She didn’t know how long she was within herself, in that strange place where she worked at Brimstone’s magic. This wasn’t the continuous, meditative, and fluid feel of a conjuring, but a faltering, puzzling piecing-together and picking at loose ends, trying to reconstruct what had once been whole. It seemed to take a very long time; she existed in a curious sense of suspension, like she was underwater and should have to surface to take a breath, but didn’t, and when she finally did come up it was like rising from black water. She blinked, breathed. The sun had risen; the shutters were closed but light seeped in around the edges, and though the fortress walls kept out the worst of the heat, the coolness of night had gone; it felt like much of the day had gone with it.

  “Karou.” It was Zuzana’s voice, hushed with reverence. “That was… amazing.”

  What was? Karou tried to focus her eyes. They were dry, as if she hadn’t blinked in hours, which maybe she hadn’t. She looked around. Ten was gone. Zuzana was still at her side; Mik was on her other side, his arm around her, and she realized with a slumping weariness that he was pretty much all that was holding her upright. Her exhaustion felt like gravity, inexorable. Her head had never been so heavy.

  Finally she looked at Ziri, who had kept conscious for hours as well, feeding her his pain, and she found him looking back. He smiled at her. It was a smile full of exhaustion, sorrow, and other unreadable things, but it was a true smile, and not an ugly message carved in flesh.

  She had done it.

  She drank in the sight of his face. She had mended him, and almost without a trace of scarring. And his hands? That was the true test. She reached for them, held them and looked, and at first her breath caught because the scarring was ugly, knotted, and she thought she had failed, but then he flexed his fingers and the movements were fluid, and she breathed again. She breathed out a laugh and tried to rise. Dizziness broke over her.

  The room fell sideways.

  And that was all there was for a while.

  50

  LIKE JULIET

  Zuzana perched on the edge of Karou’s bed. Her friend lay asleep, eyes closed, the skin around them deep blue. Her breathing was steady and deep. At her side lay Ziri, also sleeping, and their breathing had fallen into rhythm. Zuzana had bathed her friend’s face with cool water, and her hands and wrists, too, before laying them at her sides. “She needs rest,” she said to Mik. “And I need food. Tell me you’re not starving.”

  In response, Mik flipped open his pack and dug something out. “Here,” he said.

  Zuzana took it. It was—or had been—a bar of chocolate. “It melted on hell hike.”

  “And then unmelted. In a new and exciting shape.”

  Zuzana inhaled deeply in the direction of the window, and fanned air at Mik. “Do you smell that? It’s food. Excitingly shaped chocolate can be dessert. We can share it with the chimaera.”

  Mik’s concern-crease appeared. “You don’t really want to go down there without Karou.”

  “I do.”

  “And share your chocolate.”

  “Yes.”

  “Okay. Who are you, and what have you done with the real Zuzana?”

  “What do you mean?” she asked, putting on a stiff affect and flat voice. “I am the human called Zuzana, and I am not trying to lure you out to the monsters. Trust me, meaty human—I mean Mik.”

  Mik laughed. “I’m only not freaked out by that because you haven’t been out of my sight since we got here.” He took her hand. “Don’t go out of my sight, okay?”

  She regarded him mildly. “What about the bathroom?”

  “Ah. That.” They had made a pact never to be one of those couples who use
the bathroom in front of each other. “I must maintain my mystique,” Mik had told her solemnly, holding her hand in both of his. Now he said, “Well, we should at least have a code word then, to determine whether the other one is an impostor. In case, you know, a monster steals my body in the five minutes I’m peeing.”

  “You think they can steal bodies? And more importantly, you can pee for five minutes, and yet you wouldn’t even pee on Kaz for me?”

  “I’ll be apologizing for that forever, won’t I? But seriously. Code word.”

  “Fine. How about… impostor?”

  Mik was expressionless. “Our impostor code word should be impostor?”

  “Well, it’s easy to remember.”

  “The whole point is to be sly. If I suspect you’re not really you, I need to find out without you knowing I know. Like in movies. I’ll have my back to you, you know, facing the camera, and I casually say, uh, haberdasher in conversation—”

  “Haberdasher? That’s our code word?”

  “Yes. And you fail to respond to it and my expression goes all bleak and horrible”—he demonstrated bleak and horrible—“because I’ve just found out your body has been taken over by hostile forces, but by the time I turn around I’m cool. I pretend to be fooled while I quietly plot my own escape.”

  “Escape?” She stuck out her lower lip. “You mean you wouldn’t try to save me?”

  “Are you kidding?” He pulled her against him. “I would stick my head down monster throats looking for you.”

  “Yes. And hope that they’d conveniently swallowed me without chewing. Like in fairy tales.”

  “Of course. And I cut them open and out you pop. Though they would be missing out on your amazing flavor if they didn’t chew.” He nibbled her neck and she squeaked and pushed him off. “Come on then, brave monster-throat-looker-downer, let’s go get some dinner. I am almost positive it will not be us on the menu.” She sniffed the air. “If only because they’re already cooking it.” When he started to renew his protest, she held up a hand. “What are you more afraid of: them, or me with low blood sugar?”

  His stern caution-mouth twisted into a smile. “I’m not sure.”

  “Bring your violin,” she said, and with a shrug, he did. Zuzana laid her hand on Karou’s forehead before leaving, and then they were out the door, skipping down the stairs on the trail of food.

  Karou’s sleep was haunted and dangerously deep. She lost the thread of her days and nights, or her lives—human and chimaera—and wandered through tableaux of memory like they were rooms in a museum. She dreamed of Brimstone’s shop and her childhood there, of Issa and Yasri and Twiga, scorpion-mice and winged toads and… Brimstone. And even in her sleep she felt as if her vises were clamping down on her heart.

  She dreamed of the battlefield at Bullfinch, the fog, and her first sight of Akiva as he lay dying.

  Of the temple of Ellai. Love and pleasure and hope, the hugeness of the dream that had filled her in those weeks—she had never in either of her lives been as happy as that—and the delicacy of the wishbone that she and Akiva had held between them, their knuckles resting together in the moment before the snap.

  And finally, Karou dreamed herself in a crypt, waking like a revenant—or like Juliet—on a stone slab. All around were bodies burned beyond recognition, and in their midst stood Akiva. His hands were on fire and his eyes were pits. He stared across the piled dead at her and said, “Help me.”

  She came awake and upright in an instant, and day had again passed to night, and there was a warm presence at her side.

  “Akiva,” she gasped. It spilled from the dream, this name that carved a piece out of her when she even so much as thought it. Spoken aloud it was sharp and cruel, a spike, a slap—and not only to herself but Ziri, if he heard. Because it was not Akiva beside her. Of course it wasn’t, and what ran through Karou’s mind in that instant was bitterness, a double pang: one for when she thought it was him.

  And one for when she realized it wasn’t.

  Akiva started at the sound of his name, the sound of Karou’s voice, the sight of her upright, awake, and so near. He couldn’t stop the surge of heat that answered her cry, a flare that must surely have rolled off his wings and touched her across the room. Touched her and… the one lying beside her, who didn’t move or open his eyes even when she cried out.

  Akiva held himself still, glamoured, and Karou didn’t so much as look around; her eyes were on the Kirin, and Akiva couldn’t guess what had made her call his name, but whatever it was, it seemed already forgotten. She stared down at the Kirin and Akiva closed his eyes. He quieted his breathing and reassured himself that she couldn’t hear his heartbeat as he moved toward the window.

  He wanted to stay. He never wanted to take his eyes off Karou again, but now that she had awakened—he’d just had to know that she would—he couldn’t stomach spying on her like this. And he wasn’t sure he could handle what might come next, when the Kirin woke.

  He wouldn’t wonder what there was between the two of them. He had no right to wonder.

  She was alive, that was what mattered.

  That, and… she was the resurrectionist. That realization carried a numbness that blotted out nearly everything else.

  Nearly.

  Seeing her sleeping at another man’s side was too big to blot out. It was too like the sight of her friends through her window in Prague, and Akiva was shaken by the same absurd jealousy as he had been then, when for a moment he’d thought it was her. If he had any decency in him he would wish her happiness with one of her own kind, because whatever else was uncertain in these terrible days, one thing was sure: There was no hope that she could still love him.

  Karou reached for the Kirin’s hand and it was more than Akiva could bear. He hurled himself out the window and was gone.

  51

  THE BETTER TO KILL YOU WITH

  Karou bent to examine Ziri’s hands and see more closely the healing that she had worked on them. She felt the disturbance in the air behind her, but Ziri’s fingers closed on hers in the moment she would have turned, and the sparks that gusted in the window skittered across the dirt floor and spent themselves unseen.

  “You’re awake,” Karou said. Had he heard what name she called out?

  “I’m glad we’re alone,” Ziri said, and her reaction was to pull her fingers free and shift away from him. What did he mean? But he looked stricken by her response and seemed to become aware all at once of the unexpected intimacy of the scene. “No, not…” He broke off, flushed, sat up and back, putting space between them on the bed. His blush made him look very young. He added with haste, “I mean, because I have to tell you what happened. Before he comes back.”

  He? Who? For a breathless instant Akiva’s name came again to Karou’s mind and she pushed it away in frustration. “Thiago?”

  Ziri nodded. “I can’t tell him what really happened, Karou. But I need to tell you. And I… I need your help.”

  Karou just looked at him. What did he mean? What kind of help? She felt slow, still wrapped in the haunting spell of her dreams, and there was something nagging at her that she couldn’t seem to focus on.

  Ziri rushed to fill the silence. “I know I don’t deserve your help, not with the way I’ve treated you.” He swallowed, peered down at his hands, and flexed his fingers. “I don’t deserve this. I shouldn’t have listened to him.” Shame weighed heavily on his expression. He said, “I wanted to speak to you, and I should have. He ordered us not to, but it always felt wrong.”

  Karou processed this. “You mean… Thiago ordered you not to speak to me? All of you?”

  Ziri nodded, tense and miserable.

  “What reason did he give?”

  With reluctance, he told her, “He said we couldn’t trust you. But I do. Karou—”

  “He said that?” She felt slapped. She felt stupid. “He told me he was working on you all, that you’d come to trust me as he did.”

  Ziri said nothing, but the message
was clear. Thiago had been lying to her all along, and how could it even surprise her? “What else did he say?” she demanded.

  Ziri looked helpless. “He reminded us, often, of your… treason.” His voice was soft, his posture hunched. “That you sold our secret to the seraphim.”

  She blinked. “Sold—?” What? This did surprise her, the magnitude of this lie. “He said that?”

  Ziri nodded and Karou reeled. Thiago had been telling the chimaera that she sold secrets to the seraphim? No wonder they hissed traitor at her. “I never sold anything,” she said, and it occurred to her: She hadn’t sold anything, and she hadn’t told anything, either. She’d been so busy wallowing in her shame these past weeks that she hadn’t even questioned whether it was justified. What exactly was her crime? Loving the enemy, that was a grave thing; setting him free, graver still, but they didn’t know she had done that, and anyway… she had not told Akiva the chimaera’s deepest secret.

  Thiago had.

  The White Wolf was blaming her for his own breach, keeping her isolated from the rest of the company, feeding steady lies in both directions. All to control her, and her magic, and it had been working neatly for him, hadn’t it? She’d done everything he asked.

  Not anymore. Her heart was beating fast. She looked at Ziri. “It’s not true,” she said, and it came out like a twisted whisper. “I didn’t tell… the angel.” She couldn’t say his name again. “I never told him about resurrection. I swear it.” She wanted him to believe her, for someone to know and believe that though she might be a traitor in some measure, she had not done that. And then it came to her that Brimstone might have thought she had.

  She felt sick. If he had, he must have forgiven her for it, because he had given her life, safety, and even—though she hadn’t realized it until she lost him—love. And it killed her to think he might have believed she had betrayed his secret, his magic, his pain. Even more, it killed her that she would never be able to tell him the truth. Whatever he had thought, he had died thinking it, and the finality of it brought his death home to her in a way that nothing really had so far.

 
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