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Days of blood & starligh.., p.22
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.22

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

  But… then… her hands fell to her sides.

  Why? She hadn’t meant to drop them. Her hamsas were hot against her own thighs and her breath was ragged and coming in gasps and she couldn’t make herself raise her hands back up. Akiva was shaking and racked with magic, and the pair of them were again in the eye of a storm of misery—their world was a storm of misery and they were caught in its center, in the deceptive stillness that had allowed them to forget, once upon a time, that all around them was a stinging whirl of hatred that would catch them—it was everywhere and everything and they’d been fools to think they could leave their small safe place and not be caught in that vortex like every other living creature in Eretz.

  But they had learned, hadn’t they?

  Karou’s gasps were in danger of becoming sobs, and her legs were trembling. She wanted to drop to her knees, too, but she couldn’t. It would be as good as extending a hand to him. She stood over him. Her palms were still hot with magic, but she kept them at her sides.

  “I thought you were dead.” Akiva’s voice was choked. “And… I wanted… to die, too.”

  “Why didn’t you?” Karou’s face was hot and wet and she was ashamed of her tears and ashamed that she still hadn’t been able to kill him. What was wrong with her, that even now she couldn’t avenge her people?

  Akiva lifted himself up off his hands, pushed back upright. He looked wrung out, pale and shaken and sick, the whites of his eyes red as they had been long ago. “It would have been too easy,” he said. “I don’t deserve peace.”

  “And I don’t, either? Don’t I deserve to finally be free of you?”

  At first he said nothing, and Karou’s words echoed in the silence. They were so ugly—edged in mockery to cover her anguish; she hated the sound of herself. When he did answer, his anguish was undisguised. “You do deserve it. I didn’t come here to torment you—”

  “Then why did you come?” she cried.

  Even before Akiva rose to his feet, Karou felt as if she were fighting against something, but when he did stand, unsteadily, and she had to take a step away and tip back her head to look up at him, she knew what it was. The shape of him—the breadth and contours of his chest, the sharp line of his widow’s peak that her fingers had traced so many times, and his eyes—above all his eyes, his eyes. Confronted with his realness, his nearness, Karou understood that what she was fighting was familiarity—familiarity of a magnitude that was a profound kind of recognition.

  This was Akiva, and the recognition had been there even when he was a stranger, that day at Bullfinch when she had first laid eyes on him. It was why she had done such an astonishing thing as save the enemy’s life. It had been there in the dance in Loramendi, even when he wore a mask, and it had been there again in the lane in Marrakesh, when he was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger again.

  Except that he wasn’t.

  Akiva had never been a stranger, and that was the problem. A kind of call echoed between them, even now, and from the hollow of Karou’s heart where there should have been only enmity and bitterness, came a slow pull of… longing. Rage rushed in and swamped it. Foul heart! She wanted to rip it out.

  How could she still not hate him?

  And when their eyes met, this was what Akiva saw: not the longing but a sudden flare of violence and loathing. He failed to recognize it as self-loathing, and he was lost. He looked sharply away, realizing only now—fool—that he had still had hope. Of what? Not that Karou would be glad to see him—he wasn’t that big a fool—but maybe for a flash, a hint that something remained in her besides hate.

  But that hope vanished and left him empty, and when he found his voice to answer her question, he sounded empty. Scraped and dry.

  “I came to find the new resurrectionist. I didn’t know that it was… you.”

  “Surprised?” she asked. The loathing was as thick in her voice as in her look, and could he blame her for it?

  Surprised? “Yes,” he said, though that wasn’t the word for what he was. He was gutted. “You could say that.”

  She cocked her head in that birdlike way she had, and Akiva’s heart was raw. She saw, and understood. She said, “You wonder why I never told you.”

  He shook his head, dismissing it, but there it was. She had never told him. In the requiem grove for that month that was the only real happiness of Akiva’s life, in all their talk of peace and hope, all their love and discovery and their plans, so grand—to invent a new way of living—Madrigal had never spoken of resurrection. It was the White Wolf who had spilled the chimaera’s great secret, gloating in the prison of Loramendi between lashes of the whip.

  Akiva had kept nothing from her. He had wanted her to know him, truly and fully, from the terrible tally his inked knuckles boasted to the misery of his earliest memories, and love him for who he was, and all these years he’d believed she had. So what did it mean that she had kept such a secret? She may even have come straight from the work of resurrection into his arms and never breathed a word of it.

  “I’ll tell you why,” said Karou. Her words were precise, a knife sliding between his ribs. “I never trusted you.”

  He nodded; he couldn’t look at her. What had been emptiness filled with nausea, as powerful as if revenants were arrayed around him with their hamsas upheld.

  “So are you going to kill me?” she asked. “That’s why you came, isn’t it? To kill another resurrectionist?”

  Akiva’s head snapped up. “What? No. Karou. No. Never.” How could she even ask that? “There’s no reason for you to believe it,” he said, “but I’m done killing chimaera.”

  “You told me that once before.”

  “It was true then,” he said. “And it’s true now.” After Bullfinch he had stopped killing chimaera.

  And after her death, he had started again.

  He couldn’t stop himself from turning his hands, trying to hide the evidence tattooed on them. He wanted to tell her that everything he had done he had done because he was broken, because watching her die had destroyed him, but there was no way to say it that didn’t sound like he was trying to pin the blame outside himself. There was no way to talk about what he had done, nothing to plead, and no mitigation. Even thinking about it, he came up again and again against the sheer magnitude of his guilt, and there were no words. Confession and apology were worse than inadequate—they were an affront; explanation was impossible. But he had to say something.

  I lost my soul. “I lost our dream. Vengeance eclipsed everything. I barely remember the weeks and months after…” After I watched you die, and part of me died, too. “I can’t account for what I’ve done, let alone atone for it. I would bring them all back if I could. I would die a death for every single chimaera. I would do anything. I will do anything, and everything, and I know… I know it will never be enough—”

  “No, it won’t. Not ever, because they’re gone—”

  “I know. I’m not looking for forgiveness. But there are still lives to be saved, and choices. Karou, the future will have chimaera in it or not, depending on what we do now.”

  “We?” Karou was incredulous. “What we?”

  “I,” he hastened to clarify. He knew that no “we” would ever again stretch to encompass the two of them. “And in the seraph ranks there may be others who are tired, and who want life, not death.”

  “They have life. Unlike my people.”

  Akiva had been thinking of Brimstone’s last words—“It is life that expands to fill worlds”—but of course Karou couldn’t know that. He wanted to tell her what Brimstone had said. He thought she would want to know, but coming from him, wouldn’t it seem like a taunt? “It’s not a life worth living,” he said. “Not one worth handing on to children.”

  “Children,” said Karou, and she was so bleak—and so beautiful. Akiva couldn’t help himself—he looked at her and looked at her, and he ached, looking, knowing he would never again touch her or see her smile. “When both sides start butchering children,”
she said, “I think it’s safe to say life has lost.”

  What did she mean? She saw his confusion. “Oh. You don’t know yet?” Grim. “You will.”

  It hit him. Thiago. “What has he done?”

  “Nothing you haven’t.”

  “I’ve never killed a child.”

  “You’ve killed thousands of children, Beast’s Bane,” she hissed. He flinched to hear her speak the name, and he couldn’t argue.

  He hadn’t done it with his own swords, but he’d opened the way for the killers. There were things he had seen that he would never unsee. Images swelled in him like screams—strobe memories, flashing, ugly, ugly, unforgivable. Akiva closed his eyes. This was what he was to her: a killer of children, a monster. She was working side by side with the White Wolf, and it was Akiva who was the monster. How had the world gotten so twisted around?

  If Thiago had not found them out and come to the requiem grove that night, what might they have gone on to do?

  Maybe nothing. Maybe they would have died some other way and accomplished nothing.

  It didn’t matter. The dream had been pure. Even in his despair, Akiva knew it, felt it, but he knew Karou couldn’t. He took a step back from her, ventured to look at her again. She had her arms wrapped around herself, and her face was desolation. She was broken, as he had been all these years. And… he had broken her.

  “I’ll go,” he said. “I didn’t come to cause you pain, and please believe I didn’t come to kill. I came because… I thought you were dead. Karou, I thought…”

  His hand went to the thurible. What would it mean to her, he wondered, this vessel and its message: Karou. If it wasn’t her soul, whose was it? His first thought on finding it had been that the name was a label, but it was clear to him now that it was an inscription.

  “I found this in the Kirin caves,” he said, and held it out. “It must have been left there for you to find.” She looked startled by the sight of a thurible in his hands. He held it out; she hesitated, unwilling to come any nearer to him. “This is why I wanted to die,” he said, and he turned the small square of paper so that she could read it. “Because I thought it was you.”

  Karou snatched the vessel from him and stared at the writing. She wasn’t breathing.

  Karou.

  How many times, back in Prague, had she gotten notes just like this? Then, they would have been pierced through by Kishmish’s claws and somewhat the worse for wear, but the paper was the same, and the writing… she would know it anywhere.

  It was Brimstone’s.

  She stared at it until a gust of sparks pulled her out of her shock, and she knew that Akiva had gone. She didn’t have to look around. She felt his absence, the way she always had—as cold rushing in to fill the void he left behind. Her heart was hammering, she held the vessel to her chest and imagined she could feel the soul within vibrating against her heartbeat. That was pure fancy; there could be no hint through the silver of what—who—was inside. But it had to be….

  It had to be.

  Her hands shook. All it would take was twisting the vessel open. An impression of the soul would filter out and she would know at once.

  She held it ready. Hesitated. What if it wasn’t?

  Her thoughts were scattershot; they came and cascaded away, but one came and came again. Akiva had brought her the thurible. Thiago—her ally—lied to keep her isolated and alone. Akiva—her enemy—brought her the thurible that might… that might… that might contain… Brimstone.

  Did it?

  A twist of the wrist and Karou opened the vessel. Half a second. The soul skimmed against her senses.

  And she knew.

  55

  THE EMPEROR’S PROWESS

  A bare foot, highly arched. A slender ankle festooned in golden bangles.

  Nevo didn’t mean to see, but the music of the bangles drew his attention at the moment the girl stepped through the door and he glimpsed this secret sight before he could jerk his chin down and pin his gaze to the ground.

  The concubine of the night, leaving the harem to be escorted across the skybridge to the emperor’s inner sanctum. She was veiled and cloaked as the women always were, in a hooded robe that concealed even her wings, and she would scarcely have registered as a person at all but for that glimpse of foot. It was the most Nevo had ever seen of one of Joram’s concubines, and he was caught off guard by its effect on him.

  Instantly he wanted to help her.

  Help her what? Escape? That was rich. It was his duty to ensure that she didn’t. He was part of the Silversword escort standing ready to deliver her across the bridge. They were six, a virtual parade. It was ludicrous: six guards to walk a girl across a bridge.

  A girl—not a woman? Nevo couldn’t have said why he thought so—it was hardly the foot—but he guessed that she was young. And then, she hesitated.

  When the harem doors clanged shut behind her, she stood frozen in place.

  Nevo sensed frantic energy beneath all that gauzy cloth. He could see her veil stirred by too-quick breathing, and her cloak by courses of shivers, not from cold, but terror. It had to be her first time making this walk.

  The thought pierced him.

  Several times a week he drew parade duty, as they called it, and he had learned that you could infer a lot from the manner of a woman’s bearing, even beneath so much concealment. Slow, steady steps, short quick frantic steps; head held high or darting left and right, peering through the screen of her veil at the world outside her prison. He had seen—or guessed at—weariness and resignation, pride, dejection, but he had never seen a girl freeze before, and he tensed, thinking she was going to bolt.

  The skybridge was a slender span of glass, the city far below, and sometimes the women chose to leap rather than be delivered across it. Under those cloaks their wings were pinioned, and to fall was to die—or try to die. A guard would leap after her. If he caught her, she was punished; if he didn’t, he was.

  It had happened before, though not in his own time here. Nevo was only twenty; he had had his silver sword only two years, and been promoted to the emperor’s personal detail just two months ago. He didn’t know what to do in a situation like this.

  Not a one of his fellow guards moved or spoke. They waited, and so he waited, too, unaccountably nervous. And when the girl began, finally, to propel herself so-slowly forward, trembling, Nevo came to understand something. He had thought the six-guard parade a ridiculous display: Lest anyone fail to take note of the emperor’s prowess, or to count the women who were his and the bastards he sired, here were six guards standing each over eight feet tall in their extravagant helmet plumes to draw all eyes to the spectacle.

  But maybe there was more to it than that. Because in this moment, if Nevo alone were this girl’s escort, he couldn’t swear that he would do his duty. As powerful as his loyalty to the emperor was, there were stronger impulses, like the urge to protect the helpless.

  Fool, Nevo, he chastened himself with an inward snarl. Some said Joram’s magi could read thoughts, and he hoped it wasn’t true, because in the space of seconds he had allowed such ridiculous visions to flit through his head—saving this girl, taking her somewhere safe. Godstars, there was even a lean-to dwelling in the picture, a garden behind it, and a great overarching sky with no spires as far as the eye could see, no Tower of Conquest, no Astrae, no Empire. Just a small, safe place, and himself hero to an unknown, faceless girl.

  All because of a glimpse of foot?

  Pathetic. Maybe his bunkmates were right, that Nevo needed some “tending to” in the soldiers’ comfort house. He told himself he would go, resolved on it as he marched, his boot heels too slow on the glass walk. The escort was grouped in two triads with the girl between, so that Nevo walked right behind her, adjusting his steps to match her mincing pace. She looked so small—they always did, framed by the giants of the guard. He could hear her uneven breathing—the high, fluting gasps of near-hysteria—and feel the waves of heat rolling off her cloa
ked wings.

  Her perfume was so delicate it might almost have been her natural scent.

  He wondered what color her hair was, and her eyes.

  Stop it. You’ll never know.

  The march was short over that span of glass, Astrae opening beneath them and closing again when they came to the other end. The girl was delivered. A steward met her at Alef Gate and she went in and was gone without a glance at her escort.

  Absurdly, that stung. As if she should have taken note of him, somehow understood that he felt sorry for her?

  Nevo knew that in his Imperial Guard uniform he was as anonymous to her as she should have been to him, and the thought made him restless and angry. He had lost himself to a uniform—this shining silver costume of a uniform with its bouffant plumage and its overlong bell sleeves that would interfere with a clean draw, if ever he were called on to draw his sword, which he never was, except in the training arena, and even that was more dancing lesson than fighting. The Silverswords were not what he had thought when he was selected from the ranks of the common army to join them. He’d been chosen for his height, not even for his swordsmanship, which he had once been proud to know was exceptional. But the recruiter hadn’t seen him fight. He had been interested only in his look, the upshot of which was that in all his finery Nevo was indistinguishable from any other Silversword in Astrae. Maybe his own mother could pick him out, but certainly the emperor’s terrified concubine wouldn’t recognize him if she saw him again, two times or two hundred.

  And why should he care if she did?

 
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