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Days of blood & starligh.., p.21
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.21

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

  It had. The effort of the summoning had left Akiva gasping and shaking, his eyes tight shut so that Hazael and Liraz had not seen until it was done how blood vessels had burst and turned them red.

  “For the life of one chimaera,” said Liraz.

  “For the life of one, yes, and the hope of more,” said Hazael.

  “The hope of her,” said Liraz, not without bitterness. How could she not hate this phantom of a girl who was neither alive nor dead, human nor chimaera—what the hell was she, anyway? It was just so very far outside of everything, so deeply abnormal, and… Liraz knew that at the root of it was jealousy, and she hated that. Akiva was hers.

  Oh, not in that way. He was her brother. But Hazael and Akiva were her people, her only people. They had hundreds of other brothers and sisters, but this was different. It had always been the three of them, and though she had come close to losing them in battle more than once, until recently she’d never had to worry about losing them in this way. Misbegotten didn’t love and marry. It was forbidden. And… it would be worse, she thought, because it would be their choice. They wouldn’t die, or be taken from her. They would go freely to make their life around another person and leave her behind.

  She had said she didn’t feel fear, but it was a lie; this was her fear: being left alone. Because of one thing she was certain, and it was that she could never love, not like that. Trust a stranger with her flesh? The closeness, the quiet. She couldn’t imagine it. Breathing someone else’s breath as they breathed yours, touching someone, opening for them? The vulnerability of it made her flush. It would mean submission, letting down her guard, and she wouldn’t. Ever. Just the thought made her feel small and weak as a child—and Liraz did not like to feel small and weak. Her memories of childhood were not kind.

  Only Hazael and Akiva had gotten her through it. She’d thought that she would do anything for them, but it had never occurred to her that “anything” might mean letting them go.

  “I wonder if he’s found them,” she said now to Hazael. The rebels, she meant. She spoke low; they were nearing Jael’s pavilion. “We should have gone with him.”

  “We have our part to play here,” he said, and Liraz only nodded. She hadn’t wanted to let Akiva go off alone again, but how could she stop him? The worst thing of all would be making him hate her. So they’d watched him struggle to glamour himself invisible—he had been so weary after the summoning—and follow the Kirin into the bird-torn sky, while she and Hazael had returned to the camp. To play their part, as they had before, and cover for him.

  Never before, though, had they been summoned before the Captain of the Dominion to tell their lies and half-truths.

  “Ready?” asked Hazael.

  Liraz nodded and went first through the flap. The same flap Loriel had come through, was it just the day before? Liraz felt the brief contact of her brother’s fingertips at the small of her back and carried the connection with her as she faced Jael.

  Loriel said she was fine. She said it was nothing—just a man, and men wash off.

  She was older than most of the female soldiers, more worldly. She had volunteered—to spare some virgin being thrown to Jael, she said—and though Liraz had not been in danger, being Jael’s own blood, she thought it was an act of courage unlike any she had ever witnessed. Braver than taking the vanguard or doubling back for wounded comrades. Braver than facing a host of revenants. Liraz had done those other things, but she knew she could never have walked into this tent and out of it again, not like that.

  “My lord,” she said now, with the appropriate deep bow. Drawing even with her, Hazael did the same.

  “Niece, nephew,” he drawled. It was mockery, but Liraz was glad of it. And don’t forget it, she thought. She lifted her head and looked at him.

  And really did not like what she saw on his face. It was aimed at her, cutting Hazael out, and it was… interest. Unmistakable and unsettling. “What is your name?” he asked her.

  “My sister is Liraz,” Hazael spoke up. “And I am Hazael.”

  But Jael repeated only, “Liraz.” He said it wetly, followed it with a heavy sigh. “Misbegotten. What a pity. You’re a fresher fruit than some others who’ve come my way. But my brother does have a way of… inserting himself.”

  Hazael laughed. “I get it,” he said, and succeeded this time in drawing Jael’s eyes from her. “Inserting himself. That’s funny.”

  Stop, Liraz willed him, but Jael only smiled. Hazael’s laughter sounded genuine. He had a gift for laughter.

  Now that Jael troubled to look at Hazael, he saw what everyone did when the pair of them stood side by side, and looked back and forth between brother and sister. “Twins?” he asked. “No? The same mother, at least.”

  But Hazael shook his head. “No, sir, only our father’s blood shining through.”

  Liraz was stunned enough to turn her head and stare. To name Joram “father,” to Jael? She knew what he was doing, trying to keep the focus on himself. Stop it, she willed him again, but Jael didn’t take offense. Maybe because of the foolish good humor of Hazael’s manner, and maybe because his thoughts were elsewhere.

  “Indeed,” said the captain. “Though that’s not the case with the Prince of Bastards, is it? I would say his Stelian taint rose to the top.”

  Taint? It was true that Akiva looked nothing like Joram; more than that, Liraz couldn’t say. She didn’t remember her own mother, let alone Akiva’s. What did Jael want?

  “I’m told that Akiva is not in camp. Is that right?”

  “Yes, sir,” they said in unison.

  “And I’m told that if anyone knows where he is, it’s you two.”

  “He’s still out hunting, sir,” said Hazael. “For the rebels.”

  Not even a lie, thought Liraz.

  “Admirable. Our stalwart Beast’s Bane never rests. But you came back without him?”

  “I was hungry, sir,” said Hazael, contrite.

  “Well, I suppose we can’t all be heroes.”

  His disdain snapped something in Liraz. “And did you catch any rebels?” she asked, with none of Hazael’s comic contrition. “Sir.”

  His eyes swiveled back to her. A beat, and he answered firmly, “No.”

  Liar, she thought, recalling the sight of him brutalizing the Kirin. He’d enjoyed himself. Feeding him the ashes of his comrades? It made her sick. Funny, how easy it had been to root for the enemy when the enemy was up against Jael. Well, the form and nature of the enemy had surely helped. Had he been Heth or Akko or some snarling, beast-aspect revenant, it would have been harder to take his side, Jael or not. But the Kirin, it had been thrilling watching him fight—Liraz had even thought for a moment that he might prevail and escape. He was so quick. She hadn’t seen a Kirin since she was a green soldier on her first forays and she had forgotten what they were like. So when Akiva had told them, in a quiet, choked voice, that Madrigal had been Kirin, too, the last of Liraz’s revulsion had loosened and evaporated.

  In spite of the rebel’s creature elements, there had been a lean and elegant grace to him that was not animal. Not at all. She hadn’t wanted him to die.

  The same couldn’t be said of Jael. No elegance, no grace. She would have been glad to see him choked with ash. How badly, she wondered, had he hurt that soldier? And how many others had he delighted in torturing in just that way? “No?” she heard herself say, goading him. “Maybe they really are ghosts.”

  Oh, fool. Jael’s look of lazy interest sharpened and sparked. “They are animals,” he replied simply, in an offhand manner as if he couldn’t care less. He took another step toward her. “You know, you remind me of someone.” He was studying her face, her body. “Not in particulars. She was dark, not fair, but you have the same… fire… that she had.”

  Had. Liraz forced her eyes to the floor. Don’t push him, don’t test him, he is Jael. Do you really think bastard blood will constrain him if you anger him?

  “Can we relay a message to Akiva for you?” asked
Hazael, trying again to draw their uncle’s attention away. “He should be back in a day or two.”

  “No.” Jael stepped back. “No message. I’m returning to Astrae. But no doubt we’ll meet again.”

  “I can’t believe you went downstairs without me,” Karou said, exasperated.

  “What?” Zuzana was impenitent. “I was starving and our hostess was passed out on the bed with a hot monster boy.”

  Hot monster boy? “God. That makes it sound…” Karou threw up her hands and shook her head. It was silly to be so retroactively anxious about something that hadn’t happened, but when she thought of what Zuzana and Mik had walked right into, it made her cold. When she had finally gone down to the court she’d found Zuzana sitting between, of all possible chimaera, Tangris and Bashees, having much the same sort of pointing-and-charades “conversation” one has anywhere while traveling and meeting people who don’t speak your language. Only… these weren’t “people.”

  “You don’t understand.” Karou hadn’t wanted to freak her friends out before, but they were obviously not freaked out enough. “Do you know what they’re called? They’re the Shadows That Live, Zuze. They’re assassins.”

  “Like me,” said Zuzana cheerfully.

  Karou thought maybe she should hold her head so it didn’t come apart. “No, not like you. Not pretend assassins. Real assassins. They slit angels’ throats in their sleep.”

  “Yikes.” Zuzana grimaced and grabbed her throat. “But the angels are the bad guys, right?”

  Karou really didn’t know how to respond to that. None of it was real to Zuzana. “They’re just really creepy, okay?” she said, hearing how lame she sounded, then hesitated. How could she be sure of anything, in light of the fact that she’d been living in a theater of Thiago’s lies? “Aren’t they?”

  Zuzana shrugged. “I don’t know. They were cool.”

  Cool. The Shadows That Live were cool. “And I suppose Thiago is a peach, too.”

  “Eww,” said Zuzana with a shudder. “No. Nonpeach. Wormy peach.”

  Well, at least they agreed about that.

  “You should get some sleep,” Karou said.

  Mik was already stretched out on the bed, barely conscious, and Zuzana’s energy looked to finally be winding down. “I know.” She yawned. “I will. What about you?”

  “I slept already,” Karou said. With Ziri. How strange. And now they were allies with a shared secret. Thiago didn’t suspect. They’d heard him coming and had time to pretend sleep before he walked in—in a less intimate arrangement than before, with Karou on the chair beside the bed. They had already decided that Ziri would tell the general about the gleaned souls, and that Karou would somehow manage the resurrections in private so that she could give Balieros and the others their cover story when they woke. If all went well, Thiago never needed to know that they had disobeyed orders. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with the extra soul Ziri warned her she might find: the Dashnag boy who’d fought and died with them. Stasis, she guessed.

  Of course, this was all only the beginning of the problem. The large and looming issue was: What now? This terror campaign. Karou had believed—as far as she had peered out of her misery to really think about it—that the objective of the rebellion was the protection of chimaera. Thiago was protecting no one. Maybe it was true that he lacked the numbers to do any more than that, which he would say was her fault, but… had he given up on everything else?

  “That can’t have been enough rest,” said Zuzana. “You can sleep here. I’ll scooch over.”

  Karou shook her head. “Be comfortable. I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.” There was too much spinning in her mind. What to do? What to do? “I think I’m going to go for a walk while it’s still cool. In the morning it’s back to work.” Zuzana’s face brightened, and Karou said, “Yes, Igor. You can help. And thanks for earlier. You were awesome.”

  “Me? You were awesome. Holy. Karou. You’re my hero.”

  “Yeah? Well, you’re mine, so we’re even.”

  Mik, contrary to appearances, was not quite asleep. He rallied to say, “I want to be someone’s hero, too.”

  “Oh, you are,” Zuzana assured him, throwing herself on top of him. She kissed him with a smack. “My fairy-tale hero, one task down and two to go.” Karou didn’t know what that was about, but she backed away as Zuzana continued to plant noisy assurances all over his face.

  54

  RECOGNITION

  Karou expected Ten to be waiting outside the door and follow her, but the she-wolf must have assumed she would stay in with her friends tonight; she was nowhere to be seen.

  With a thrill at the unexpected freedom, Karou wove her way quietly toward the kasbah’s back gate, through the narrow lanes of the ruined village, hearing the scurry of rats at her passing. Several times she had to go airborne and drift over obstacles and collapsed walls, but was careful to keep below the roofline and out of sight of the sentry tower. She had a moment to herself and she was not going to risk it.

  Once or twice she got the feeling that she was followed and looked back, but saw no wolfish slink in the shadows. She did catch a glimpse of white and for an instant feared it was Thiago himself, but it was only some of his clothing, laundered and draped on a roof to dry. She breathed. The White Wolf was the last person she wanted to see right now.

  Well, maybe not the very last. That position was reserved for Akiva, but there she was safe. Akiva was far away in the Hintermost, apparently, and what the hell was he up to? Had he really saved Ziri? The evidence was flimsy.

  One dead hummingbird-moth.

  Deep memories stirred: the feel of the living shawl that Akiva had gifted her that night at the Warlord’s ball, the fanning of those soft, furred wings, and then the tickle as the creatures began to eat the glittering sugar that dusted her chest, neck, and shoulders. She still felt shame for the sugar, all these years later—that it had been meant for Thiago, and she had let herself be dusted with it, not quite admitting to herself that she was ready to surrender to him, to let him… taste her. She shuddered to imagine that fanged mouth on her flesh.

  Instead it had been hummingbird-moths that tasted her, and later… an angel.

  How strange and cruel life was. If there had come a whisper in her ear that long-ago morning that by nightfall she would be in the arms of the enemy—and want to be there—she would have laughed at it. But when it came to pass it had felt as natural and right as the steps in a dance that she had always known.

  She wondered now: What if Akiva had never come to Loramendi, with his beautiful, startling talk—love is an element—his soft touch and sweet magic, his heat and humor and his firelight eyes, if she had never have known any suitor but the Wolf?

  Had she been such a pliant thing that she would have let herself be taken by him, tasted and claimed? She wished she could believe that she would have awakened to her foolishness even without Akiva’s coming, but her shame would not subside. She might have cringed at Thiago’s touch and shaken herself awake, but… she knew that she would most likely have let the tide carry her along until it was too late.

  Well. Her people would still be alive if she had. What was her own happiness compared to that?

  She reached the river and slipped down to the bouldered place on its bank where she could sit hidden from view from the kasbah. She kicked off her shoes, put her feet on the cold-splashed stones, and watched the reflection of the stars pull into long, dancing streaks on the moving surface of the water. The scope of that glittering sky had a way of making her feel so small—minuscule, insignificant—and she realized she was relishing that feeling as a way of relieving herself of the pressure to do something.

  After all, what can I do?

  Really: What? The chimaera were loyal to Thiago, and Thiago would never compromise.

  What, Karou wondered, would Brimstone do?

  Her longing for him in this moment was so profound that it made her slip into hope—that malingering, wretched ho
pe that he was not truly gone. She let herself imagine, just for a moment: If Brimstone were here, what would be different?

  One thing, at least. I would be loved.

  “Karou.”

  It was only a whisper, but she jumped at the sound of her name. Who—? She saw no one, she had heard no approach. Only…

  A draft of heat.

  A drift of sparks.

  Oh god. No.

  And then like a dropped veil, his glamour vanished and he was before her.

  Akiva.

  Light coursed through Karou and darkness chased it—burning through her, chilling her, shimmer and shadow, ice and fire, blood and starlight, rushing, roaring, filling her. Shock and disbelief. And rancor.

  And rage.

  And she was on her feet. Her fists were clenched, her fists were stones, so tightly clenched, her whole body was taut with rage at the sight of the angel, every sinew stretched and her skin drawn tight so she felt the blood in her temples, pounding, and the fury in her fists, pulsing, and in her closed palms: the scald. Her hamsas burned and she was opening her hands and lifting them and Akiva did not defend himself.

  When the magic of the marks hit him, he lowered his head and endured it.

  Magic poured off Karou, and Akiva shook under the onslaught but didn’t move—not away, not toward—and Karou knew that she could kill him. She’d wished she’d done it before and here he was to give her another chance. Why else would he be here—why else?—and what else could she do but kill him?—there was nothing else—after what he had done—after what he had done—after what he had done—but… how could she kill Akiva?

  How could she not?

  Hadn’t he done enough without forcing yet another impossible choice on her? Why was he here?

  He dropped to his knees, and the air between them rippled with Karou’s crippling magic and with memory. The day of her death, this is what she had seen, this: Akiva on his knees, sick with the weight of this same magic coursing off Thiago’s soldiers, and he had struggled to hold his head up and look at her—just like this—with horror and despair and love—and she had wanted more than she had ever wanted anything to go to him and hold him, whisper to him that she loved him and was going to save him, but she couldn’t, not then, and she couldn’t now, not because of shackles or pinions or the executioner’s ax but because he was the enemy. He had proven it beyond any horror she would ever have believed, beyond any betrayal she could ever have dreamed, and he could never be forgiven, not ever.

 
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