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Days of blood & starligh.., p.25
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.25

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

  That, and the fact that it was Akiva who brought the thurible, that he was here, right under your nose.

  “As you say,” Thiago said, and Karou was sure she did not imagine, as he swept her room with a glance, that his head lifted in just the way it had when he had caught her scent across the court. The flare of his nostrils was subtle but unmistakable, and his eyes were narrowed with suspicion.

  He would get nothing but incense here, she told herself. Nothing but the sting of brimstone.

  At least, so she very much hoped.

  “I’m sure I don’t have to remind you what’s at stake,” he told her, and she shook her head no, but as he turned to go, she wondered what he meant. The fate of their people? The success of the rebellion? She had defied him; she couldn’t help thinking he meant something more personal than that.

  What was at stake? She felt balanced on a precipice and buffeted by gales. What wasn’t at stake?

  And then, in her doorway, the Wolf shared a look with Ten that was so fraught with scheming—with thwarted schemes—that Karou had a flash of insight that chilled her and sent her mind racing back over the past days and weeks.

  The constant watching, the questions, all the hints and omens. “You could be Kirin again,” Ten had told her. “I would resurrect you. You’d just need to show me how.”

  The suggestion had been repellant: Put her soul in Ten’s hands? Even if the pit didn’t figure into the plan—and it did—it had felt so wrong. And now Karou understood why.

  Ten was meant to replace her. Thiago didn’t want to help Karou. He wanted to not need her.

  Karou felt as though she were opening her eyes and seeing the White Wolf clearly for the first time since he’d found her wandering in the ruins of Loramendi.

  He still wants to kill me.

  Heat was building in her chest and radiating out to her limbs, creeping up her neck as a flush. She wanted to scream. She wanted to get right in his face and scream as loud as she could, but even more than that, she wanted to laugh. Did he really think Ten could do this work? It had taken her years to learn it at Brimstone’s side, and even with his guidance, it was as much gift as practice. She would never forget her pride in the first “Well done” she’d earned, or the surprise and respect in Brimstone’s voice when he had seen, against all his expectation, that she had a sympathy for magic.

  Ten could no more conjure a body than Virko could play a concerto on Mik’s violin.

  Karou understood Thiago’s game now; it had failed, and he still needed her. So his game would have to change.

  To what?

  59

  SWEET GIRL

  “Stop looking at her boobs.”

  “What?” Mik turned to Zuzana, pink spots blooming on his fair cheeks. “I’m not!”

  “Well, I am,” Zuzana declared, regarding Issa. “I can’t help myself. They’re perfect. Nice job, Karou, but couldn’t she maybe wear a T-shirt?”

  “Seriously?” said Karou. “How many nude models have you drawn?”

  “None,” said Mik.

  “Well, okay. Maybe you haven’t, but I’m sure you’ve seen your share of boobs.”

  “Not really.” His eyes drifted again toward Issa. “And, you know, never on a snake goddess.”

  “She’s not a goddess,” Karou said fondly—though she did look like one. She was still marveling: Issa is alive. Issa is here. “She’s a Naja, and they don’t wear clothes.”

  “Right,” said Zuzana. “They just wear snakes.”

  “Yep.”

  The first thing Issa had wanted to do, after greeting the chimaera host—which had taken a good part of the morning—was go through the kasbah and summon snakes to her. Karou had followed behind, a little disturbed to realize that the serpents had been there all the time, including one highly venomous Egyptian cobra. Now, back up in her room, they were wreathed around Issa’s waist and neck, and one was twining through her hair. While Karou watched, a coil of its body slipped down over her brow to rest on the bridge of her nose. Laughing, Issa lifted it gently back up.

  “They tell you anything interesting?” Karou asked her, switching from Czech to Chimaera. She was remembering Avigeth, and how the coral snake had told Issa how the hunter Bain hid his wishes in his beard. If not for that, Karou may never have made it to Eretz.

  Issa’s laugh evaporated. Her face grew serious. “Yes,” she said. “They say it stinks of death since you came here.”

  Karou felt chastened, like the snakes were tattling on her. “Yes, well,” she said. “We’ve done what we had to do.” Right away the “we” felt dirty, and she thought of Thiago telling her, “We are in this together.”

  They weren’t, though. It was clear now that they were in this very, very separately.

  She must have sounded defensive. Issa gave her a curious look. “Sweet girl, I have no doubt of that.” She paused. Even the snakes paused and ceased their twining. Karou knew they were attuned to Issa’s mind and emotions, that their stillness echoed hers, and that the time had come to talk. There had been too much going on earlier, too many chimaera crowding around. There was something about the mystery of Issa’s appearance—she was the only known survivor of Loramendi—that buoyed their spirits.

  Zuzana and Mik had a buoying effect, too. At breakfast, Karou had watched with amazement as her friend, who did not even share a language with the chimaera, performed a mocking pantomime of Virko’s violin playing, complete with shrill sound effects and her own Munch’s Scream reaction, that drew roars of laughter from the stern-faced revenants, Virko included. Zuzana had managed to form more of a bond with these soldiers in one meal than she herself had in over a month.

  Her shame had kept her from trying. She saw that now; she’d believed she deserved their contempt. Did she still believe it? Not all their contempt, anyway—not the part based on Thiago’s lies.

  Ziri had been in the hall at breakfast, too, and though they hadn’t spoken, there had been a powerful connection in their shared look. A secret, and more? Karou had hoped Ziri would be a friend, and it seemed that now he was, and she realized she had Akiva to thank for that, too. The angel had saved Ziri’s life, and he had brought her Issa’s soul.

  Why?

  Issa was before her now, her snakes still but for the flicker of tongues, her own Madonna face quiet but watchful. Waiting. Waiting for Karou’s question?

  All morning she’d fought asking it, afraid of what Issa would tell her. Now, though, she had to know. She took a deep breath. “Is he really gone?”

  Issa’s lips trembled, and she knew. Karou felt a sharpness behind her eyes.

  “He was still alive when he sent us away,” said Issa. “But he did not expect to remain so.”

  “Sent you away?” Karou repeated. Of course, Akiva had found the thurible in the Kirin caves. Why had he been there? Home of her first childhood, it was also where they had planned to meet, once upon a time. Where they had planned to build their rebellion. Then the “us” struck her. “Yasri and Twiga, too?”

  “He allowed Twiga to remain with him, but Yasri and I were to survive. For you, when you came. As he knew you would.”

  “He did?” Karou was tentative. She fought back her tears with deep breaths. “He believed me?” She had told Brimstone that she wasn’t some butterfly to shoo out a window, and she’d meant it.

  “Of course. He knew you, child.” A twist of a smile, so bittersweet. “Better than you knew yourself.”

  Karou let out a little laugh, and an edge of sob escaped on it. “Well, that’s certainly true,” she said.

  Issa’s eyes were wet-bright, but with an effort of will she kept the tears from spilling. Karou reached for her hands and clasped them tightly, and they held on to each other while they told their stories.

  Zuzana and Mik had gone back to sleep, lulled by the afternoon heat, and the sounds of the kasbah drifted through the closed shutters—sparring in the court, the ring of blades. Voices.

  “After the portals burned,
” Issa said, “we knew it wouldn’t be long. Joram pressed the attack as he never had before. Our armies shrank by the day, and more and more folk arrived at the gates, coming to Loramendi for… safety.” Issa swallowed. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “The city was so full.” She looked down at her hands and Karou’s, still clasped together. “The seraphim took great losses, too. Joram sent them to die, so many, so many, knowing that we would run out of soldiers first, and we did. Such a simple calculus in the end. Loramendi came under siege. That’s when Brimstone…” The tremor overcame her voice and Issa snatched a hand out of Karou’s to press against her mouth. Karou still held her other hand and wished she could do more. Nothing made you feel so useless as another person’s grief.

  Issa was struggling; when she lifted her eyes again, she looked stricken. It was such a haunted look that Karou felt a stab of fear. “Issa—”

  But Issa rushed over her. “We wanted to stay with him to the end.” She squeezed Karou’s hands. “Of course, I wanted to see you again, and help you, but to leave him, after…” She couldn’t finish. Issa smashed her lips together, pressed them white. Her whole face was rigid with the effort not to weep. She took a deep breath. Another. “But he still needed us. So Yasri and I… died, too.”

  Too?

  What was she skipping? A nameless horror gripped Karou. What had happened in Loramendi? Images pinwheeled; she shook her head. She saw Issa and Yasri bleeding quietly from painless wounds until their lashes fluttered shut. Or had they sipped requiem tea and slipped into sleep? And at the end of it, she imagined Brimstone and Twiga silent, hunched, and stoic as they gleaned the souls of the two women who had been their companions for decades.

  “Couldn’t he have gotten you out alive?” she asked plaintively.

  Issa looked at her, and Karou knew she’d said the wrong thing. As if the decision might have been lightly made!

  “No, child.” She was so sad. “Even if we could have made it out, what would we have done, waiting in hiding, but grieve and worry, grow hungry and thirsty, be discovered, be killed? Stasis is kind; we didn’t even have to be brave. We were messages in bottles.” She smiled. “Messengers in bottles.”

  And what was the message? As Brimstone faced his death after a life begun in slavery, endured in pain and sacrifice, prolonged and protracted by war, and soon to end in brutality, what had he wished to tell her? Feeling that she was failing some test, Karou couldn’t bring herself to ask. Yet, anyway.

  He had sent their thuribles out with messenger birds, Issa told her—bat-winged crows, or squalls, as Kishmish had been—to be hidden in places that she might find them. Yasri’s soul, she learned, was in the ruins of the temple of Ellai.

  “Did he think I might go there?” Karou asked. “Could he imagine that place would mean anything to me now?”

  Issa was taken aback. “Yes, child. Once you broke the wishbone and remembered—”

  “Once I remembered dooming my people?”

  “Sweet girl, what are you saying? You didn’t doom us. A thousand years of hatred doomed us.”

  “To war, maybe. Not annihilation.”

  “The end was coming. Maybe in one year or one hundred, but it was always coming. How long can a war go on?”

  “Is that a riddle? How long can a war go on?”

  “No, Karou. The riddle is: How might a war end? Annihilation is one way. Joram’s way. He did this, not you. You dreamed a different way. Akiva, too. You, the pair of you, you had the capacity not to hate. The audacity to love. Do you know what a gift that is?”

  “A gift?” Karou choked. “A gift like a knife in the back!” On the bed, Zuzana stirred, and Karou lowered her voice. “It was false. It was crazy. It wasn’t love. It was stupid—”

  “It was brave,” countered Issa. “It was rare. It was love, and it was beautiful.”

  “Beautiful. Are we even talking about the same story? I died, and he betrayed everything we dreamed of?”

  “He was devastated, Karou,” said Issa. “What do you think you would have done?”

  Karou stared at Issa. Was she defending Akiva?

  “What would you have done if the seraphim had taken you, tortured you, and made you watch as they cut off his head? And think: What might you have done, the pair of you together, if Thiago hadn’t stopped you? What might the world be now?”

  “I… I don’t know,” said Karou. “Maybe Thiago would be dead, and Brimstone would be alive.” For an instant—if only for an instant—it seemed as though it were all Thiago’s fault and not hers at all. She had believed back then that they had Fate on their side, but the Wolf had bullied it into submission, and here was the result.

  The serpent-woman asked softly, “Tell me, what are you doing, child?”

  Karou couldn’t answer. Killing angels. Killing children. She pressed her lips together. Avenging you, she thought next, and the hypocrisy hit her like shattering. If that was all she was doing, how was she any better than him?

  No. It wasn’t the same. She released a ragged breath, and words hissed out: “Fighting for the survival of the chimaera races.”

  But was she? The rebellion was in Thiago’s hands, not hers; with all his secrecy, how could she know what they were fighting for?

  What was it Akiva had said to her by the river? That the future would have chimaera in it or not, depending on what they did now. Well, he’d said a lot of things. Karou had been so shaken by his presence, by her fury—by her longing—that it hadn’t really sunk in. He’d talked of life, and choices. Of the future, as if there might be one.

  And what had she said? Anything she could think of to hurt him.

  She knew she had to tell Issa everything, not least of all how her thurible had come to Karou, but it was so hard to speak Akiva’s name, and impossible to meet her eyes while doing so. She told from Ziri’s return to Akiva’s appearance at the river, before backtracking to Marrakesh and even Prague. Of course, Issa hadn’t known about any of that, and Karou was so ashamed, admitting that she had… fallen for him again. She left out the kiss. Issa made no judgments and spoke only to coax Karou’s words from her, but Karou felt scrutinized. She tried to keep her voice even, her face straight, to prove that Akiva was nothing to her now but one more seraph enemy. When she was done, Issa was silent a moment, and thoughtful.

  “What?” Karou asked. She sounded defensive.

  “So,” said Issa, and she laid her words down with even precision, like cards on a table. “Akiva followed Ziri here.” She paused. “Do you fear that he’ll reveal this position to the seraphim?”

  The question slammed Karou into a muffled, white-light bubble of shock. Oh, she thought. That.

  She’d been worrying about keeping Akiva’s visit secret from the chimaera—not about keeping the chimaera rebels secret from Akiva. What did that mean? She’d told him she never trusted him, and that was a lie he had believed all too easily, but now? How could she still trust him now?

  If she didn’t, though, wouldn’t she have rushed back to the kasbah and urged Thiago to make immediate preparations to leave? It hadn’t even occurred to her to do that.

  Because it wasn’t Akiva that she feared.

  “No matter what happens,” he had told her in Marrakesh, just before they broke the wishbone, “I need you to remember that I love you.” She had promised—breathlessly, unable then to fathom a reality in which she would wish not to remember it. She kept the promise against her will; she wanted to forget, but the knowledge held fast: Akiva loved her. He wouldn’t hurt her. This she knew.

  In a wisp of a voice and loath to admit it—it felt as though she were the one defending him now—Karou told Issa, “He won’t.”

  Issa nodded, solemn and sad, looking into Karou and knowing her so well that Karou felt like a diary lying open, all her secrets and failings there to read, and her traitor’s heart pulsing blood onto the page. “All right, then,” Issa said, trusting Karou’s trust, and that was that.

  “Now.” Issa turned to the tab
le and tooth trays. With forced lightness, she said, “Perhaps we should get to work, lest the Wolf decide we’re not worth the trouble of our sassing mouths.”

  There was more to say, Karou knew. There was the message; there was a gap in Issa’s story, and whatever it was that she’d left out haunted her. Karou had never seen Issa look like that. She’ll tell me when she’s ready, she thought, trying to believe that it was for Issa’s sake that she didn’t come right out and ask, when she knew very well that it was just her own fear.

  60

  THE NEW GAME

  Karou had told Thiago the truth: The work really did go much faster with Issa’s help, and Zuzana’s. Two pairs of clever hands and she could delegate every task but the actual conjuring. After Ziri turned up to tithe—insistent, even imploring, to repay her for her magic—Karou felt as if she were scarcely doing anything at all. Her room was too full. It was stuffy, Ziri’s wings took up space, and Issa’s tail seemed to be everywhere she wanted to place her feet, but she felt… happy. Actual happy, not Holy Grail happy. And the task that she was happiest to delegate? Even more than the tithe, it was the math.

  “I’m good at math,” Mik volunteered, overhearing her complaints about wing-to-weight ratios. “Can I help?”

  When it turned out that he could, Karou dropped to her knees to genuflect. “Gods of math and physics,” she intoned, “I accept your gift of this clever, fair-haired boy.”

  “Man,” corrected Mik, insulted. “Look: sideburns. Chest hair. Sort of.”

  “Man,” amended Karou, rising and bending again in mock prayer. “Thank you, gods, for this man—” She interrupted herself to ask Zuzana, in her normal voice, “Wait. Does that make you a woman?”

  She only meant that it was strange to go from thinking of Zuzana—and herself, too—as a girl to a woman. It just sounded weirdly old. But Zuzana’s response, employing full eyebrow power in the service of lechery, was, “Why, yes, since you ask. This man did make me a woman. It hurt like holy hell at first, but it’s gotten better.” She grinned like an anime character. “So. Much. Better.”

 
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