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Days of blood & starligh.., p.2
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.2

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

  And now it had changed again.

  What had happened, and when? Only a few days had passed since Morocco and that backward glance. It wasn’t possible. What had happened?

  Akiva was dazed; he felt wrapped in skins of air. Voices seemed to not quite reach him—he could hear them, but as from a distance, and he had the queer sensation of not being entirely present. With the kata he had been trying to center himself, to achieve sirithar, the state of calm in which the godstars work through the swordsman, but it was the wrong exercise. He was calm. Unnaturally so.

  Hazael and Liraz were looking at him strangely. They exchanged a glance.

  He made himself speak. “I would have sent word that I was back,” he said, “but I knew that you would already know.”

  “I did know.” Hazael was vaguely apologetic. He knew everything that went on. With his easy manner and lazy smile, he gave off an air of nonambition that made him unthreatening. People talked to him; he was a natural spy, affable and egoless, with a deep and entirely unrecognized cunning.

  Liraz was cunning, too, though the opposite of unthreatening. An icy beauty with a withering stare, she wore her fair hair scraped back in harsh braids, a dozen tight rows that had always looked painful to her brothers; Hazael liked to tease her that she could use them as a tithe. Her fingers, tapping restlessly on her upper arms, were so lined with tattooed kill marks that they read at a distance as pure black.

  When, on a lark one night and perhaps a little drunk, some of their regiment had voted on whom they would least like to have for an enemy, the unanimous victor had been Liraz.

  Now here they were, Akiva’s closest companions, his family. What was that look they shared? From his strange state of remove, it might have been some other soldier’s fate that hung in the balance. What were they going to do?

  He had lied to them, kept secrets for years, vanished without explanation, and then, on the bridge in Prague, he had chosen against them. He would never forget the horror of that moment, standing between them and Karou and having to choose—no matter that it wasn’t a choice, only the illusion of one. He still didn’t see how they could forgive him.

  Say something, he urged himself. But what? Why had he even come back here? He didn’t know what else to do. These were his people, these two, even after everything. He said, “I don’t know what to say. How to make you understand—”

  Liraz cut him off. “I will never understand what you did.” Her voice was as cold as a stab, and in it Akiva heard or imagined what she did not say, but had before.

  Beast-lover.

  It struck a nerve. “No, you couldn’t, could you?” He may once have felt shame for loving Madrigal. Now it was only the shame that shamed him. Loving her was the only pure thing he had done in his life. “Because you don’t feel love?” he asked. “The untouchable Liraz. That’s not even life. It’s just being what he wants us to be. Windup soldiers.”

  Her face was incredulous, vivid with fury. “You want to teach me how to feel, Lord Bastard? Thank you, but no. I’ve seen how well it went for you.”

  Akiva felt the anger go out of him; it had been a brief vibration of life in the shell that was all that was left of him. It was true what she said. Look what love had done for him. His shoulders dropped, his swords scraped the ground. And when his sister grabbed a poleax from the practice rack and hissed “Nithilam,” he could barely muster surprise.

  Hazael drew his great sword and gave Akiva a look that was, as his voice had been, vaguely apologetic.

  Then they attacked him.

  Nithilam was the opposite of sirithar. It was the mayhem when all is lost. It was the godless thick-of-battle frenzy to kill instead of die. It was formless, crude, and brutal, and it was how Akiva’s brother and sister came at him now.

  His swords leapt to block, and wherever he had been, dazed and adrift, he was here now, just like that, and there was nothing muffled about the shriek of steel on steel. He had sparred with Hazael and Liraz a thousand times, but this was different. From first contact he felt the weight of their strikes—full force and no mistake. Surely it wasn’t a true assault. Or was it?

  Hazael wielded his own great sword two-handed, so while his blows lacked the speed and agility of Akiva’s, they carried awesome power.

  Liraz, whose sword remained sheathed at her hip, could only have chosen the poleax for the thuggish pleasure of its heft, and though she was slender, and grunted getting it moving, the result was a deadly blur of six-foot wooden haft edged in double ax blades with a spear tip half as long as Akiva’s arm.

  Right away he had to go airborne to clear it, couch his feet against a bartizan, and shoot back to gain some space, but Hazael was there to meet him, and Akiva blocked a hack that jarred his entire skeleton and shunted him back to the ground. He landed in a crouch and was greeted by poleax. Dove aside as it slammed down and gouged a wedge out of the hardpan where he had been. Had to spin to deflect Hazael’s sword and got it right this time, twisting as he parried so the force of the blow slipped down his own blade and was lost—energy fed to the air.

  So it went.

  And went.

  Time was upended in the whirlwind of nithilam and Akiva became an instinct-creature living inside the dice of blades.

  Again and again the blows came, and he blocked and dodged but didn’t strike; there was no time or space for it. His brother and sister batted him between them, there was always a weapon coming, and when he did see a space—when a split-second gap in the onslaught was as good as a door swinging open to Hazael’s throat or Liraz’s hamstring—he let it pass.

  Whatever they did, he would never hurt them.

  Hazael roared in his throat and brought down a blow as heavy as a bull centaur’s that caught Akiva’s right sword and sent it spinning from his grip. The force of it ripped a red bolt of pain from his old shoulder injury, and he leapt back, not quickly enough to dodge as Liraz came in low with her poleax and swiped him off his feet. He landed on his back, wings sprawling open. His second sword skidded after the first and Liraz was over him, weapon raised to deal the deathblow.

  She paused. A half second, which seemed an eon coming out of the chaos of nithilam, it was enough time for Akiva to think that she was really going to do it, and then that she wasn’t. And then… she heaved the poleax. It took all the air in her lungs and it was coming and there was no stopping it—the haft was too long; she couldn’t halt its fall if she wanted.

  Akiva closed his eyes.

  Heard it, felt it: the skirr of air, the shuddering impact. The force of it, but… not the bite. The instant passed and he opened his eyes. The ax blade was embedded in the hardpan next to his cheek and Liraz was already walking away.

  He lay there, looking up at the stars and breathing, and as the air passed in and out of him, it settled on him with weight that he was alive.

  It wasn’t some fractional surprise, or momentary gratitude for being spared an ax in the face. Well, there was that, too, but this was bigger, heavier. It was the understanding—and burden—that unlike those many dead because of him, he had life, and life wasn’t a default state—I am not dead, hence I must be alive—but a medium. For action, for effort. As long as he had life, who deserved it so little, he would use it, wield it, and do whatever he could in its name, even if it was not, was never, enough.

  And even though Karou would never know.

  Hazael appeared over him. Sweat beaded his brow. His face was flushed, but his expression remained mild. “Comfortable down there, are you?”

  “I could sleep,” Akiva said, and felt the truth of it.

  “You may recall, you have a bunk for that.”

  “Do I?” He paused. “Still?”

  “Once a bastard, always a bastard,” replied Hazael, which was a way of saying there was no way out of the Misbegotten. The emperor bred them for a purpose; they served until they died. Be that as it may, it didn’t mean his brother and sister had to forgive him. Akiva glanced at Liraz. Hazael followed hi
s gaze. He said, “Windup soldier? Really?” He shook his head, and, in his way of delivering insults without rancor, added, “Idiot.”

  “I didn’t mean it.”

  “I know.” So simple. He knew. Never theatrics with Hazael. “If I thought you had, I wouldn’t be standing here.” The haft of the poleax was angled across Akiva’s body. Hazael grasped it, wrenched it free of the ground, and set it upright.

  Akiva sat up. “Listen. On the bridge…” he began, but didn’t know what to say. How, exactly, do you apologize for betrayal?

  Hazael didn’t make him grope for words. In his easy, lazy voice, he said, “On the bridge you protected a girl.” He shrugged. “Do you want to know something? It’s a relief to finally understand what happened to you.” He was talking about eighteen years ago, when Akiva had disappeared for a month and resurfaced changed. “We used to talk about it.” He gestured to Liraz. She was sorting the weapons in the rack, either not paying attention to them or pretending not to. “We used to wonder, but we stopped a long time ago. This was just who you were now, and I can’t say I liked you better, but you’re my brother. Right, Lir?”

  Their sister didn’t reply, but when Hazael tossed her the poleax, she caught it neatly.

  Hazael held out his hand to Akiva.

  Is that all? Akiva wondered. He was stiff and battered, and when his brother pulled him to his feet, another pain ripped from his shoulder, but it still felt too easy.

  “You should have told us about her,” Hazael said. “Years ago.”

  “I wanted to.”

  “I know.”

  Akiva shook his head; he almost could have smiled, if it weren’t for everything else. “You know all, do you?”

  “I know you.” Hazael wasn’t smiling, either. “And I know something has happened again. This time, though, you’ll tell us.”

  “No more secrets.” This came from Liraz, who still stood at a distance, grave and fierce.

  “We didn’t expect you back,” said Hazael. “The last time we saw you, you were… committed.”

  If he was vague, Liraz was blunt. “Where’s the girl?” she asked.

  Akiva hadn’t said it out loud yet. Telling them would make it real, and the word caught in his throat, but he forced it out. “Dead,” he said. “She’s dead.”

  5

  A STRANGE MOON WORD

  From: Zuzana

  Subject: Hellooooo

  To: Karou

  HELLO. Hello hello hello hello hello hello.

  Hello?

  Damn, now I’ve gone and done it. I’ve made hello go all abstract and weird. It looks like an alien rune now, something an astronaut would find engraved on a moon rock and go, A strange moon word! I must bring this back to Earth as a gift for my deaf son! And which would then—of course—hatch flying space piranhas and wipe out humanity in less than three days, SOMEHOW sparing the astronaut just so he could be in the final shot, weeping on his knees in the ruins of civilization and crying out to the heavens, It was just helloooooooo!

  Oh. Huh. It’s totally back to normal now. No more alien doom. Astronaut, I just kept you from destroying Earth.

  YOU’RE WELCOME.

  Lesson: Do not bring presents back from strange places. (Forget that. Do.)

  Also: Write back to signify your continuing aliveness or I will give you the hurts.

  Zuze

  6

  THE VESSEL

  There was one place besides Loramendi, Akiva told Hazael and Liraz, that he had thought Karou might go. He hadn’t really expected to find her there; he had convinced himself by then that she had fled back through the portal to her life—art and friends and cafes with coffin tables—and left this devastated world behind. Well, he had almost convinced himself, but something pulled him north.

  “I think I would always find you,” he had told her just days ago, minutes before they snapped the wishbone. “No matter how you were hidden.”

  But he hadn’t meant…

  Not like this.

  In the Adelphas Mountains, the ice-rimed peaks that had for centuries served as bastion between the Empire and the free holdings, lay the Kirin caves.

  It was there that the child Madrigal had lived, and there that she had returned one long-ago afternoon in shafts of diamond light to find that her tribe had been slaughtered and stolen by angels while she was out at play. The sheaf of elemental skins she’d gripped in her small fist had fallen at the threshold and been swept inside by the wind. They would have been turned by time from silk to paper, translucent to blue, and then finally to dust, but other elemental skins littered the floors when Akiva entered. No flash and flitter of the creatures themselves, though, or of any other living thing.

  He had been to the caves once before, and although it had been years and his recollections were dominated by grief, they seemed to him unchanged. A network of sculpted rooms and paths extending deep into the rock, all smooth and curving, they were half nature, half art, with clever channels carved throughout that acted as wind flutes, filling even the deepest chambers with ethereal music. Lonely relics of the Kirin remained: woven rugs, cloaks on hooks, chairs still lying where they’d scattered in the chaos of the tribe’s last moments.

  On a table, in plain sight, he found the vessel.

  It was lantern-like, of dark hammered silver, and he knew what it was. He’d seen enough of them in the war: chimaera soldiers carried them on long, curved staffs. Madrigal had been holding one when he first set eyes on her on the battlefield at Bullfinch, though he hadn’t understood then what it was, or what she was doing with it.

  Or that it was the enemy’s great secret and the key to their undoing.

  It was a thurible—a vessel for the capture of souls of the dead, to preserve them for resurrection—and it didn’t look to have been on the table for long. There was dust under it but none on it. Someone had placed it there recently; who, Akiva couldn’t guess, nor why.

  Its existence was a mystery in every aspect but one.

  Affixed to it with a twist of silver wire was a small square of paper on which was written a word. It was a chimaera word, and under the circumstances the cruelest taunt Akiva could fathom, because it meant hope, and it was the end of his, since it was also a name.

  It was Karou.

  7

  PLEASE NO

  From: Zuzana

  Subject: Please no

  To: Karou

  Oh Jesus. You’re dead, aren’t you?

  8

  THE END OF AFTERMATH

  And this was Akiva’s new hell: to have everything change and nothing change.

  Here he was, back in Eretz, not dead and not imprisoned, still a soldier of the Misbegotten and hero of the Chimaera War: the celebrated Beast’s Bane. It was absurd that he should find himself back in his old life as if he were the same creature he had been before a blue-haired girl brushed past him in a narrow street in another world.

  He wasn’t. He didn’t know what creature he was now. The vengeance that had sustained him all these years was gone, and in its place was an ash pit as vast as Loramendi: grief and shame, that gnawing wretchedness, and, at the edges, an unfixed sense of… imperative. Of purpose.

  But what purpose?

  He had never thought ahead to these times. “Peace,” it was being feted in the Empire, but Akiva could only think of it as aftermath. In his mind, the end had always been the fall of Loramendi and revenge on the monsters whose savage cheers had played accompaniment to Madrigal’s death. What would come next, he had barely thought of. He supposed he had assumed he would be dead, like so many other soldiers, but now he could see that it would be too easy to die.

  Live in the world you’ve made, he thought to himself, rising each morning. You don’t deserve to rest.

  Aftermath was ugly. Every day he was forced to bear witness to it: the slave caravans on the move, the burn
ed hulls of temples, squat and defiled, the crushed hamlets and wayside inns, always columns of smoke rising in the distance. Akiva had set this in motion, but if his own vengeance was long spent, the emperor’s wasn’t. The free holdings were crushed—an accomplishment made easier by the pitiful fact that untold thousands of chimaera had fled to Loramendi for safety, only to burn alive in its fall—and the Empire’s expansion was under way.

  The populous north of the chimaera lands were but the cusp of a great wild continent, and though the main strength of Joram’s armies had come home, patrols continued on, moving like the shadow of death deeper south and deeper, razing villages, burning fields, making slaves, making corpses. It might have been the emperor’s work, but Akiva had made it possible, and he watched with bleak eyes, wondering how much Karou had seen before she died, and how acute had been her hate by the end.

  If she were alive, he thought, he would never be able to look her in the eye.

  If she were alive.

  Her soul remained, but because of Akiva, the resurrectionist was dead. In one of his darker moments, the irony started him laughing and he couldn’t stop, and the sounds that came from him, before finally tapering into sobs, were so far from mirth they might have been the forced inversion of laughter—like a soul pulled inside out to reveal its rawest meat.

  He was in the Kirin caves when that happened, no one to hear him. He went back to retrieve the thurible, which he had hidden there. It was a day’s journey, and he sat with the vessel and tried to believe it was Karou, but, laying his hand on the chill silver, he felt nothing, and such a depth of nothing overwhelmed him that he allowed himself the hope that it was not her soul within—it couldn’t be. He would feel it if it were; he would know. So he made the journey back through the portal to the human world, all the way to Prague, where he peered in her window as he had once before, and beheld… two sleeping figures entwined.

 
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