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Days of blood & starligh.., p.23
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.23

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

  He didn’t care.

  Alef Gate closed, and the concubine’s perfume was too frail to linger on the air. She was gone to her duty, and Nevo would go to his and think no more about her.

  As it happened, his post was here at Alef Gate. With another of his triad, he relieved the standing guard and took their places. The other guards of the parade went on to their own posts, most of them farther inside the great glass tower than Nevo had ever been. The emperor’s private quarters had been described to him as a kind of castle-within-a-castle, occupying the deep inner core of the Tower of Conquest. Alef Gate was the outermost entrance; inside it, corridors branched labyrinthine, so that there was no direct conduit to successive gates—Beit, Gimel, Dalet, and on through the alphabet. Nevo had been only as far as Beit, but the other guards said that it tested the memory to find one’s way within. It was all clouded glass, so much glass, thick and rich with a sheen like honey, and strong. In training they were invited to test it with their swords, and strong as Nevo was, he’d been unable to breach the walls even with his booted foot, even with the hilt of his sword. The corridors curved, layer upon layer of that glossy unbreakable glass, and were riddled with false doors and dead ends, all of it designed to confuse and trap invaders or assassins.

  Good luck to them, thought Nevo. Ten guarded gates stood between himself and the emperor; no one was getting through there. Tonight he himself was glad to be as far from the center as possible. Guards on Samekh Gate sometimes heard… weeping.

  Weeping.

  The women at the comfort house might not weep, but Nevo knew he would not be going there, and as he stood at his post through the long, dull night, it felt as if his true work and challenge—other than standing still for long stretches of time—was in keeping himself from wondering what was happening within. It was ridiculous, how that merest of glimpses had made this girl real in a way that all the women and girls of the past two months had not been. Well, they had been, certainly, but he had managed to overlook it. Would that he could now.

  He indulged in a different folly to distract himself. It was equally futile but less likely to drive him mad, and it was: wishing that he had never been plucked from the army to join the Silverswords.

  It was not a rational wish. The guards’ pension was better—it went to his family—and the chances of survival much better than in the army, but unlike most Silverswords, Nevo had been a soldier first and knew the difference, and the difference was profound.

  Out beyond Astrae, across this land and the next, soldiers had kept the beasts at bay for centuries, fighting and dying and finally winning. There was honor in that, even glory, though Nevo would have given up the glory for simple honor—to feel right in his days and nights, to do something….

  Of course, it was more complicated now. The Chimaera War was over and a new one was brewing, but it was hard to feel the simple righteousness there had always been when fighting beasts.

  The Stelians were seraphim. Beyond that, he knew next to nothing about them; no one did. The Far Isles were, quite literally, on the far side of the globe, trading suns and moons with the Empire in turn, never sharing day or night or anything else; if they had wronged the Empire in some way, it had not been felt by ordinary folk, who bore no animosity toward their distant, mysterious cousins. Nevo’s gauge was his own family, and he could well imagine the talk there would be when it got out that Joram had declared war.

  “On who?” his father would demand, looking dumbstruck. “On a people whose king he doesn’t even know the name of?”

  “If there is a king.” His mother. “I’ve heard they have a queen.”

  “Oh, have you now. And that the air elementals are her spies?”

  “Indeed. And she can kill with a look, and cooks up storms in a great pot to send out over the seas.” She would be smirking. His mother had a laughing smirk and a love of nonsense, and his father had a booming laugh, but a dark furrow of worry, too.

  “What a fight to pick,” Nevo imagined him fretting. “It’s like pelting stones into a cave and waiting to see what comes barreling out.”

  And Nevo was waiting to see. Envoys had been dispatched with Joram’s declaration two weeks ago and hadn’t returned or been heard of. What did it mean? Perhaps they’d gotten lost searching for the Far Isles and hadn’t delivered the scroll at all. Saved from war by poor navigation?

  Wishful thinking.

  He stifled a yawn. It was finally morning, or nearly. His relief would be here soon—

  Alef Gate crashed open.

  Nevo leapt airborne. Chaos poured out. Noise and wings and sparks and rushing and shouting and… what was the protocol? He protected the gate from without. What did he do when chaos burst from within? No one had ever said, and who was this? Stewards and servants, and a handful of Silverswords, too.

  “What’s happened?” Nevo barked, but no one heard him over the roaring coming from within.

  The bellowing, the fury.

  Joram.

  The girl, thought Nevo. And while stewards and servants stumbled over each other trying to escape the path of the emperor’s rage, he pushed inside. Beit Gate was abandoned; where was Resheph? Had he been one of those to flee? Flee? Unbelievable.

  Nevo rushed through the door and was deeper in the inner sanctum than he had ever been. He didn’t know the way, but Joram’s rage was like a river he traced upstream. When he took a wrong turn, he doubled back and found the right way. Minutes were lost to the glass labyrinth. The emperor’s voice came and went now. The howling gave way to words, though Nevo couldn’t make them out.

  Gimel Gate, Dalat, Hei, Vav, all unguarded; the Silverswords had either rushed out or in, leaving their posts. Nevo’s first thought was to be appalled by the lack of discipline, but then he realized that he, too, had left his post, and he began to be afraid. It was the only time he wavered; he could still go back—maybe in the madness his breach would be overlooked.

  Later, it would be some consolation to know that it wouldn’t have mattered. By now, nothing he said or did could matter. All was done and decided long before he burst at a flying run into the emperor’s bedchamber.

  Plashing fountains, orchids, the chatter and squawk of caged birds. The ceiling seemed leagues overhead—all glittering glass spangled by constellations of lights that gave the illusion of the night sky. In the middle of it all, the bed was raised on a dais, like some monument to virility. It was empty.

  Joram stood in the center of the room with his hands on his hips. He was powerful, thickened by age but toughened, too, and marked with old battle scars. His jaw was square, his face red with rage and hard with scorn. He wore a robe; it showed a triangle of chest, and seemed somehow vulgar.

  A handful of other guards were here, standing around looking—Nevo thought—stupid and large. Eliav was one of them. The Captain of the Silverswords had himself been on Samekh Gate, and would have been the first on the scene—save Namais and Misorias, of course, Joram’s personal bodyguards, who slept by turns in the antechamber. They stood just paces from their master, their faces seeming chiseled from wood. Byon, the head steward, was leaning heavily on his cane, his palsy much more pronounced than usual.

  “You didn’t place it there?” Joram demanded of the old seraph.

  “No, my lord. I would have woken you at once, of course. For something like this—”

  “A basket of fruit?” Joram was incredulous, and then—“A basket of fruit!”—his fury returned and flashed through the chamber as heat and light.

  Nevo took a step back. He scanned for the girl. He hadn’t been thinking clearly, or thinking at all; it hadn’t even occurred to him until this moment that he would see her unveiled, and certainly not that she, like Joram’s chest, might be… exposed. As soon as he caught sight of her—peripherally, a blur of flesh on the far side of the dais—he realized this was the case, and his instinct was not to look, not to turn toward her, but only to back out to the door and be away from here.

  “Explain
to me how it came to be here.” Joram’s fury turned to ice. “Through so many guarded doors to arrive at the foot of my bed.”

  It was her stillness that made Nevo turn his head.

  She was young; he had been right. And she was exposed. Naked. There was a girlish fullness to her face, but her breasts were full, too, nothing girlish there. Her hair was red and wild, and her eyes were brown. She was slumped against the wall, making no effort to cover herself, staring at him—at him—without expression.

  Without motion.

  Almost as soon as Nevo settled his eyes on her, she tipped slowly sideways. He watched it happen, remembering how slowly she had walked across the skybridge. This was like that, his mind tried telling him, just like that. But then: the rubbery jounce and splay of limbs as she subsided to the floor, the tinkle of her bangles settling, and stillness. The fire of her wings dimmed. Died. On the wall behind her was a streak of blood which, traced upward by the eye, led to a red stain on the glass.

  Her head had done that.

  She had been thrown.

  Nevo was hot and cold and sick. He thought of the Shadows That Live—his instinct was to blame beasts, and he knew the fabled assassins were at large again, somehow still alive—but this wasn’t what they did. The Shadows slit throats.

  And, of course, he knew who had done it. His eyes roved wild over the lavish room as snatches of conversation penetrated his dismay. He knew who, but not why.

  “Every guard who was on duty,” he heard Joram say.

  Eliav, in horror: “My lord! Every—?”

  “Yes, Captain. Every. Guard. Did you think, after a lapse like this, that you might live?”

  “My lord, there was no lapse. Your doors never opened, I swear it. It was some sorcery—”

  “Namais?” Joram said. “Misorias?”

  “Sir?”

  Joram said, “See it done before the city wakes,” and the guards replied, “Of course.”

  The emperor kicked out at something—a basket—and it tipped and sent pink orbs spinning, and one struck the bed dais and burst with a sound such as the girl’s skull may have made on the wall. Nevo looked at her again. He couldn’t help himself. The sight of her there, dead, and no one else seeming even to notice, made the whole scene feel like a vivid hallucination. It wasn’t, of course. It was all happening, and he understood with a kind of seeping clarity that he was going to hang.

  But not why.

  Only that it had something to do with a basket of fruit.

  56

  A SURPRISE

  Shaken awake, Zuzana sat up and didn’t know where she was. It was dark; the air was thick and the smells were pungent—earth and sharp animal scents with an undertone of decay. A touch, gentle on her shoulder, and Karou’s voice. “Wake up,” she was saying softly. Zuzana became aware of her aching muscles and remembered everything.

  Oh, right. Monster castle.

  She blinked her friend into focus in the dim candlelight. “Hell time is it?” she muttered. Her mouth was so dry it felt like the desert itself had curled up and spent the night in there. Karou put a bottle of water into her hands.

  “It’s early,” she said. “Not yet dawn.”

  “Early’s stupid,” groaned Zuzana. At her side, Mik still slept. She took a swig of the water and swished it around. Better. She blinked in the dim and focused on Karou. She felt a small jolt, and her sluggishness slid away. “You’re crying,” she said.

  Karou’s eyes were wet; there was an unblinking brightness to them, and a hard set to her jaw. Zuzana tried to interpret the look but failed. She couldn’t tell if her friend was happy or sad, only that she was intent. “I’m fine,” Karou said. “But I need your help again.”

  “Yeah, okay.” Zuzana hoped it wouldn’t entail cleaning hideous wounds. “What with?”

  “A resurrection. I have to finish before Thiago or Ten come up.” Karou smiled, but again it was impossible to interpret, neither happy nor sad, but steely. “I want it to be a surprise.”

  57

  A BASKET OF FRUIT

  “A basket of fruit,” repeated Akiva, incredulous.

  When Joram had declared war on the Stelians, he must have prepared for many scenarios, but Akiva doubted it had ever entered the emperor’s mind that his chosen foe might… turn him down.

  He was back in Cape Armasin with his regiment, where the news had traveled on the tongues of scouts and soldiers and in small scroll missives tied to the legs of squalls; it came in scraps and whispers, lies and truth and guesses mixed with official dispatches that were just as full of lies as the gossip was, and it was a few days before Akiva, Hazael, and Liraz had enough pieces to make a puzzle.

  It had not been Joram’s envoys, it seemed, who delivered the Stelian response. Indeed, the envoys had not returned at all, on top of which communication with advance troops staging in Caliphis had been severed, and a reconnaissance mission had likewise fallen off the map. Every seraph sent in the direction of the Far Isles had vanished. That news alone chilled Akiva, and also stirred his fascination. What was happening over the edge of the world?

  And then… a basket of fruit.

  Such was their reply. Truly, it was nothing more sinister than that. It wasn’t a basket of envoys’ heads or entrails; the fruit wasn’t even poisoned. It was just fruit, of some tropical variety unknown in the Empire. The emperor’s tasters had declared it “sweet.”

  There was a note. Of its message, reports differed, but the report Akiva believed came from a nephew to an imperial steward, and it was this, in archaic Seraphic, in a feminine hand, and stamped with a wax seal depicting a scarab beetle: Thank you, but we must respectfully decline your overture, being more enjoyably occupied at present.

  The nerve of it, the staggering gall. It took Akiva’s breath away.

  “I still don’t understand,” Liraz said, after the initial shock wore off. “How does this explain the Breakblades?”

  “Breakblades” was what Misbegotten called Silverswords, after their elegant weapons that would never withstand a blow in real combat—not that they ever saw any. The only indisputable fact of the entire mystery was this: Two days past, Astrae had awakened to the sight of fourteen Silverswords swinging from the Westway gibbet.

  “Well,” said Hazael, “that would be the manner of delivery of the basket of fruit. You see, when our father woke in the morning, it was simply sitting at the foot of his bed, and no one could tell him how it had gotten there. Through ten guarded gates, into the heart of the inner sanctum where he believed himself safe from all comers, even the Shadows That Live.”

  “Even the Shadows That Live could not have done this,” said Akiva, and he tried to fathom what magic could account for it. Invisibility alone was no help against closed doors. Had the Stelian emissary passed through walls? Beguiled each guard in turn? Simply wished the gift there? That was a thought. Just what were the Stelians capable of? Sometimes, when he was deep inside himself working a manipulation, Akiva imagined skeins of connection tracing across the great dark surfaces of oceans and coming at length to islands—islands green in honeyed light, morning air ashimmer with evaporating mist and the wings of iridescent birds, and he wondered: Did his blood make him Stelian? Joram’s blood didn’t make him his; why should his mother’s make him hers?

  “Fourteen Breakblades swinging on the Westway.” Hazael let out a low whistle. “Imagine the sight, all that silver blinding in the sun.”

  “Can the gibbet hold fourteen Breakblades, giants that they are?” Liraz wondered.

  “Maybe it will collapse under their weight, and good riddance,” said Akiva—meaning the gibbet, not the guards. He had no love of Breakblades, but he couldn’t wish them dead. He shook his head. “Can the emperor believe he’s safer now?”

  “If he does he’s a fool,” said Hazael. “The message is clear. Please enjoy this lovely fruit while contemplating all the ways we might kill you in your sleep.”

  Grim as it all was—as bleak the picture of the
gibbet bowed by the weight of fourteen guards—the most upsetting news came as an afterthought, and from a Misbegotten. Indeed only a Misbegotten would have taken note of it, or cared.

  Melliel was the older half sister who had spoken up on behalf of the Misbegotten at the end of the war. She was thick, scarred, and inked; she fought with an ax and kept her gray hair hacked short as a man’s. There was nothing feminine about Melliel except her voice, which even in barked greeting had a ring of music to it. She had sometimes sung at campfires on campaign, and her song-stories had been transporting as few things ever were in a battle camp. She was posted in the capital, or had been until the day before. Now she was with a detachment of Misbegotten going west, into the mists and mysteries of the vanished troops. As if the Empire hadn’t lost enough soldiers in the final battles of the war. All of its armies had bled, but none more than the Misbegotten.

  “Of course he would send Misbegotten,” Liraz had hissed, hearing their mission. “Who cares if bastards come back?”

  Melliel, though, said she was glad to go—glad to be free of the spider’s web that was Astrae. It was she who told them what else had happened at the Tower of Conquest while the Breakblades swung.

  “A shrouded body was… released… through Tav Gate that same morning.” Tav was the last of the Tower’s gates. It was the gutter door, belowground and egress-only; it was where waste was flushed out to sea.

  Akiva steeled himself. “Who?”

  Melliel’s jaw worked. “There’s no way to know for certain, but… apparently no one thought to dismiss the harem escort. They waited two hours at Alef before a steward noticed and sent them away.”

  Akiva felt the news in his gut first and his fists an instant later—a hot surge that made them clench so tight his forearms burned. From Liraz came a choked noise; Hazael’s breathing grew hoarse and he turned abruptly to pace away trailing sparks. Turned and paced back. His fair face was red. Liraz was shaking, her fists clenched as tight as Akiva’s.

  The harem escort was the procession of Silverswords that marched the concubines to and from the emperor’s bed. “Parade duty,” they called it. Akiva’s mother had made that walk years ago, who knew how many times—on one return with himself beginning in her belly. Liraz’s and Hazael’s mothers, too, and Melliel’s, and untold other girls and women. And the morning of the hangings, it would seem, the concubine who should have emerged from Alef had been sent out Tav instead, along with the night’s refuse.

 
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