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Days of blood & starligh.., p.20
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.20

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

  “I believe you,” Ziri said.

  That was something, but not enough. Karou held her stomach, which, in spite of being empty to concavity—or maybe because of it—was rolling with nausea. Ziri reached out an uncertain hand and drew it back. “I’m sorry,” he said, distressed.

  She nodded, steadied herself. “Thank you for telling me.”

  “There’s more—”

  But then, shocking in its volume: a sound from outside. A shriek, a wail. Karou’s heartbeat was midskip when it hit her what it was that had been nagging at her. It was absence. Zuzana’s and Mik’s. Where were her friends?

  And who had just screamed?

  Out in the court, Zuzana covered her ears and gritted her teeth.

  Mik was more diplomatic. He nodded to the chimaera named Virko, who had just drawn an earsplitting skreeek from his violin. “That’s right,” he said. “That’s, um, how it makes sound.”

  Virko was holding the instrument more or less correctly. Though it was dwarfed by the jut of his jaw, his big hands managed the bow all right. One thing Zuzana had noticed was that many of the chimaera had human hands—or human-ish—even though the rest of their body might be solidly beast. Judging from the array of swords and axes and daggers and bows and other implements of killing and dismemberment that they carried around, she gathered that manual dexterity was an imperative.

  The better to kill you with, my dears.

  For all that, though, weapons and claws and such, they weren’t that scary. Oh, well, they were scary as hell to look at, but their manners weren’t menacing. Maybe it was because Zuzana and Mik had crossed paths first with Bast, the one from Karou’s floor, who had understood their pantomime of eating and brought them with her to the food, introducing them around with words Zuzana and Mik could not understand.

  “Do you want these humans grilled or minced in a pie?” Mik had translated under his breath, but Zuzana could see that he was in awe more than he was scared. The chimaera had seemed more curious than anything else, really. Maybe a bit suspicious, and there were some who turned her blood cold for no better reason than the unblinkingness of their stares; she stayed away from those, but overall it had been fine. Dinner was bland but no worse than what they’d eaten at a tourist trap in Marrakesh on their way here, and they’d learned a few words of Chimaera: dinner, delicious, tiny, the last—she hoped only the last—in regard to herself. She was quite the object of fascination, and submitted to pats on the head with unusual good grace.

  Now, in the court, it was Mik’s violin that was the object of fascination. Virko produced a few more hellish shrieks and a sawing sound before another chimaera shoved him and growled something that must have meant give it back, because Virko handed it over and gestured to Mik to play, which he proceeded to do. Zuzana had learned to recognize his signature pieces, and this was the Mendelssohn that always raised the hairs on the back of her neck and made her feel happy and sad, salty and sweet at the same time. It was big and intricate, kind of… cute in some places, but epic in others, and wrenching, and Zuzana, standing back and watching, saw the change it worked on the creatures arrayed around her.

  First: the startle, the surprise that the same instrument that had produced Virko’s skreeek could do this. There was some exchange of glances, some murmurs, but that fell away quickly and there was only wonder and stillness, music and stars. Some soldiers hunkered down on haunches or settled on walls, but most stayed standing. From doorways and windows others peered and slowly emerged, including the unsoldierly stooped figures of the two kitchen women.

  Even the Other White Meat looked transfigured, standing stock-still in all his weirdly repellant beauty, a look of deep and terrible longing on his face. Zuzana wondered if she could have been wrong about him, but dismissed the thought.

  Anyone who would wear all white like that clearly had issues. Just looking at him made her wish she had a paintball gun, but hell, you couldn’t pack for every eventuality.

  Karou shook her head in wonder. Zuzana swaying lightly in the court while Mik played his violin for such an audience; back in Prague she could never have imagined this scene.

  “How did they come to be here?” Ziri asked. He had risen, too, and stood behind her looking over her shoulder.

  “They found me,” Karou said, and the simplicity of it filled her with warmth. They had looked for her, and found her; she wasn’t alone, after all. And the music… It rose and swelled, seeming to fill the world. She hadn’t heard music in weeks, and felt like some gasping part of her was gulping it and coming back to life. She climbed onto the window ledge, ready to step off and drift down to join her friends in the court, but Ziri stopped her.

  “Wait, please.”

  She looked back.

  “I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to talk to you. Karou, I… I don’t know what to do.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “The souls.” He was agitated. He turned and paced away from her, stooped to reach for something, and came back up with a thurible. “My team,” he said.

  “You saved them?” Karou stepped back into the room. “Oh, Ziri. That’s wonderful. I thought—”

  “I’ll have to report to Thiago, and I don’t know whether to tell him.” He weighed the vessel on his palm.

  Karou was confused. “Whether to tell him that you saved your team? Why wouldn’t you?”

  “Because we disobeyed his order.”

  Karou didn’t know what to say to that. Disobeyed the Wolf? That just didn’t happen. After a pause, she asked, “Why?”

  Ziri was very grave, very careful. “Do you know what the order was?”

  “The… the Hintermost. To defend against the Dominion.” She said it, but she didn’t believe it.

  He shook his head. “It was a counterattack. On seraph civilians.”

  Karou’s hand flew to her mouth. “What?” she asked, her voice paper-thin.

  Ziri’s jaw worked as he nodded. “It’s a terror campaign, Karou.” He looked ill. “It’s all we can attempt, he says, being so few.”

  Terror, thought Karou. Blood. Blood. How many had died in Eretz on both sides over the last days?

  “But we disobeyed him. We went to the Hintermost. It was…” His eyes were out of focus, haunted. “Maybe Thiago was right. There was nothing we could do. There were too many of them. I was safety, and I watched the team die.”

  “But you got their souls. You gleaned—”

  “It was a trap. I walked right into it.”

  “But… you escaped.” She was trying to understand. “You’re here.”

  “Yes. That’s what I don’t understand.” Before she could ask what he meant, he took a deep breath and reached into his bloodied, ash-stained tunic, taking something from an inner pocket. Karou saw a flash of vivid green, but that was all. Whatever it was, it was small and fit neatly into his hand. He said, “They had me, Karou. Jael had me. He was going to make me tell him.” His eyes, large and brown and bruised with exhaustion, were wide with a strange intensity. “About you. And… I would have. I wanted to think I wouldn’t break, but I would have.” He choked out the words. “Eventually.”

  “Anyone would.” Karou kept her voice even, but a panic was building in her. “Ziri, what happened?”

  52

  A SUMMONING OF BIRDS

  “Akiva.” Liraz’s voice, sharp. She’d pointed down and away, down the slope where rock furrows met green, to a small clearing hazed by the smoke of a dead fire, a blot of ash at its center. And angels. “Jael,” she’d hissed, then looked to her brothers, grim, as they saw the rest for themselves.

  Jael’s soldiers had a chimaera surrounded.

  From such a distance, all Akiva had known was that it was a Kirin, the first he had seen since Madrigal died, but as soon as the Kirin moved—cutting, killing, like dance—Akiva understood that here was no fleeing freed slave, but a soldier.

  Jael had found a rebel. All Akiva’s unspent mercy and thwarted purpose came down to
this moment. And when the Dominion finally fought the Kirin to the ground, and when Jael stood over him, rolling up his sleeves, Akiva had known that all his hope came down to this moment, too. A resurrectionist. The thurible. Karou. Would Jael find the rebels, or would he?

  How had Hazael put it? “Do you suppose there will be many birds out today?”

  As it happened, there were. From his high slope perch, Akiva had scanned the deep distance: blood daubs and squalls circled in great numbers, disappointed by the fires that cheated them of flesh. Of course, Hazael hadn’t meant literal birds.

  But even Hazael didn’t know what Akiva was capable of.

  It began as a sound, Ziri told Karou. Gathering and building, a tremulous, encircling murmur growing to a roar. At first he had thought it was something of the angels’ making, but it distracted them, too. His captors looked around, alarmed. They were holding him down, two to a side. He was on his back in the ash, his arms wrenched wide, hands… secured. Jael had him pinned, each hand speared through by a sword from a soldier he had killed.

  Every kick jarred the blades, and the pain only began in his hands but didn’t end there. It got in his head; it possessed him. It was everything, and in the small moments between kicks, when he could keep still and let it abate, the fear came back—the fear of what he would do and say to make it stop.

  He had told them nothing yet, but they were far from through with him. Jael knelt over him with a helm full of ashes. “This was a friend of yours just a few hours ago,” he said. “Open wide.”

  “No!”

  They clawed his mouth open with their fingers. Ziri felt the hot steel of the helm against his lip, and tasted ash as it began to spill. He fought, he struggled, but in it fell and filled his throat and he was choking on his own dead, drowning in death. His struggling gasps sucked it into his lungs and he was burning from within, all ash and no air, and time spun interminable. Bright lights in pinpoints and the seraphim blurred: their leering faces, Jael’s sucking hole of a mouth flecked with spittle from his exertions. The pain closed in, the burning and the gasping, the hot awful closing-in airless dying…

  Dying.

  And then water.

  It choked him, too, but it cleared the ash and then he was coughing it all out and breathing water and ash but also air, and not dying.

  “Is this helping your memory any?” Jael asked. “I can do this all day.”

  The physical misery was overwhelming. Ziri saw how it could take over, how pain could become puppet master and make you do things. Tell things.

  No.

  The helm came again. He tensed, fought. Clenched his teeth, and they couldn’t pry his mouth open.

  That was when they cut his smile.

  The helm was again to his lips when… the sound. The angels stopped, the helm fell aside as they spun in confusion. They drew their weapons, and the hum grew to an overwhelming, all-encompassing drone and kept growing. It became more than sound. It became shade.

  The sky took on a life of its own. Chaotic and every-colored. Shifting. Loud. Pressing in.

  It was a phenomenon.

  It was… a distraction.

  “Birds,” Ziri told Karou, shaking his head in wonder. “Blood daubs first and then others. Every kind. I don’t know how many thousands. The sky filled with birds, Karou, filled with birds, and they were on us.”

  “They attacked?” Karou was leaning forward, her eyes wide.

  Ziri shook his head. “They just came. Around us. Between us. Driving the angels back.”

  She cocked her head in that way she had, and it made Ziri want to reach out and lay his hand—his newly healed hand—full against the long, fair column of her neck—or, he thought, flushing as he recalled the feel of her body’s warmth against his when they had lain side by side, to just draw her to him and tuck her against him and hold her. He looked away again, stared hard and unblinking at the wall.

  His hand pulsed as if the small thing he held were still alive; it wasn’t. It was his own blood thrumming in his veins… because he was alive. He didn’t understand it, and he didn’t know what to say next, so he held out his hand and opened it.

  Karou saw the tiny feathered corpse. She just looked at it, blank, not making the connection, and Ziri doubted for the hundredth time that this blue-haired human girl was truly Madrigal. Surely she couldn’t forget this.

  And then her eyes flew wide and her gaze lifted to his, startled.

  It was a hummingbird-moth. Its furred wings were soft gray and crushed; its body was brilliant viridian with a band of scarlet at the throat. When the birds had descended—birds of every kind, birds of the day and the night, shadowlarks, evangelines, bat-winged crows and blood daubs, songbirds, raptors, even stormhunters, their wings still flecked with snow—Ziri had seized the opportunity to escape. It had meant tearing one hand free. The swords that held him were driven too deep into the earth to shift, so he had set his teeth and… pulled. The blade had been blessedly sharp. His hand came away in a scream of agony, red pulsing filling Ziri’s vision, chaos and adrenaline drowning out some of it, maybe, and somehow he had used that mangled hand to free the other.

  The seraphim tried to grab him. He couldn’t hold blades, so he lowered his head and used his horns, caught one soldier in the side, but his horns weren’t sharp enough to pierce mail and the soldier only fell and Ziri had to drop a knee, crushing his throat. Another he swept off his feet with a long low kick, and he was looking for Jael, intent on doing what he had said he would and killing the Captain of the Dominion, but he couldn’t find him. The gleaning staff still stood in the earth, so he grasped it in his mangled hands as the thickness of birds became a maelstrom and he could scarcely see his enemies through the fury of feathers. Or they him.

  In the rushing of wings, he chose flight.

  He didn’t stop then to consider how or why this thing had happened, and certainly not who—it didn’t occur to him that there was a who until he got well away, clear and unpursued, far, far, and fell against a tree to breathe. The hummingbird-moth was dead when he discovered it. It was entangled in his mail, a small victim of the chaos, and—it seemed to him at once—a sign.

  Hesitating, he told Karou, “I can’t say for certain that… he… did this—”

  “He?” Karou was wary. “I don’t know who you mean.”

  Ziri looked at her long and searching. In no single detail did she resemble Madrigal. The shape of her face was different; her eyes were black, not brown. Her mouth was less wide, her hair was blue, she had no horns, she was human. With the memory of Madrigal bright in his mind—and the night of the Warlord’s birthday that had been the beginning of the end—Karou seemed unconnected to it all, and he could almost believe her denial. He asked himself, did she really need to know? It wasn’t as if he wanted to talk about the angel. Her lover. Maybe it was enough that he had shown her the bird. Let her think what she wanted. As he had said, he didn’t know for certain.

  But… he believed there was only one possible explanation for his being alive, and he couldn’t keep silent. “I never saw him,” he said, and Karou didn’t ask who he meant. She was silent, still wary, guarded. “Maybe I’m wrong,” Ziri said, “but I don’t know what else to think. I’ve never heard of a summoning of birds but that one night, at the Warlord’s ball. The… the shawl.”

  Her eyes widened in surprise. “How did you know about that?”

  Ziri’s face grew hot. He looked down and admitted, “I was watching you.”

  Eighteen years ago at the Warlord’s ball, Ziri had been a boy in a crowd, and he had watched Madrigal dance with a stranger and wished it were him, wished he were grown, wished, wished, uselessly wished. Of course he hadn’t guessed that the stranger was a seraph, but he had seen what no one else there had: that he was the same man in different masks, and she danced with him again and again. There had been something melting and supple about her movements that hinted at adult mysteries—as opposed to the brittle way she held herself with Thiag
o—and when the drifting hummingbird-moths fanned down from the constellations of lantern light to settle on her bare shoulders, Ziri had seen that, too, and understood that it was magic, and that the stranger had done it. The man had lifted Madrigal up, cloaked in her living shawl, and brought her back down again, and even a boy could see that there was magic between them, and more than magic.

  Ziri had been a watchful child, and had seen many things he was too young to understand. He’d had to watch Madrigal die, and he hadn’t understood the fervor—the ecstasy—of the crowd. He hadn’t understood why the only one who mourned her was the enemy, driven to his knees and bloody from torture. Ziri would never forget Akiva’s screams—absolute despair, rage, helplessness. It remained the worst thing he had ever heard.

  He had seen Thiago that day, too, a chill white presence on the palace balcony, motionless and unmoved.

  Ziri had begun to hate someone on that day, and it wasn’t Akiva.

  “I don’t know why, Karou,” he said. “But I think the angel saved my life.”

  53

  HEROES

  “We should have killed him when we had the chance,” Liraz said under her breath as she and Hazael walked in step through the Dominion camp.

  “We didn’t have the chance,” Hazael reminded her. “There were too many damn birds in the way.”

  “Yes, well, I hoped he’d been suffocated or pecked to death or something,” she replied.

  She was talking about Jael, who they were headed to see. For reasons yet mysterious, their charming uncle had asked to see them. “Couldn’t Akiva have made the birds kill him?”

  Hazael shrugged. “Who knows what our brother can do. I don’t think he quite knows himself. And I don’t think he’d ever tried anything that big before. It cost him.”

 
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