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Days of blood & starligh.., p.27
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.27

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

  Liraz said, “Or it’s to do with the mad Stelian conquest. Akiva is Joram’s only link to the Far Isles.”

  Akiva was flying off to the side, lost in thought, but he heard. “I’m no link. I know no more of Stelians than anyone.”

  “But you have their eyes,” she said. “That might earn you a parley, at least.”

  Akiva looked disgusted. “Could he think I’d play emissary for him? Can he imagine that I’m his creature?”

  “Let’s hope so,” said Liraz, her voice sharp. “Because the alternative is that he suspects you.”

  Akiva was silent a long moment, before finally saying, “You don’t have to be part of this. Either of you—”

  “Damn you, Akiva,” she snapped. “I am part of it.”

  “Me, too,” said Hazael.

  “I don’t want to put you in danger,” said Akiva. “I can kill him alone. Even if he does suspect something, he could have no idea what I’m capable of. If I can get to him, I can kill him.”

  “You can kill him. You just might not get out,” Liraz finished for him, and his silence was his acknowledgment. “What, die and be done? How very easy for you.” With Liraz, most strong emotion manifested as anger, but in this case the emotion really was anger. With what they had set in motion, she wouldn’t even have her regiment to return to and the illusion of a life. She would be outcast, traitor to the Empire, and she knew she didn’t have it in her to build a movement behind her. Akiva could; he was Beast’s Bane. And Hazael. Everyone loved Hazael. But who was she? No one even liked her but these two, and she sometimes thought that was only habit.

  “I don’t want to die, Lir,” Akiva said softly.

  She couldn’t tell if he meant it. “Good,” she said. “Because you aren’t going to. We’re going with you, and any dying is going to be done at the other end of our swords.”

  Hazael backed her up, and on Akiva’s face, gratitude vied with the emptiness that Liraz had started thinking of as his “death wish” look. She remembered a time when Akiva had laughed and smiled, when in spite of the violence of their lives he had been a full person, with a full range of emotion. He had never had Hazael’s sunshine demeanor—who did?—but he had been alive. Once upon a time.

  Fury stirred in Liraz for the girl who had done this to her proud, beautiful brother. How many times now had he gone away to find that… creature… and come back broken? Broken and broken again. Creature. It sounded ugly, but Liraz didn’t know how to think of the girl: Madrigal, Karou, chimaera, human, and now resurrectionist. What was she? It wasn’t disgust she felt for Karou, not anymore; it was indignation. Incredulity. A man like Akiva crosses worlds to find you, infiltrates the enemy capital just to dance with you, bends heaven and hell to avenge your death, saves your comrade and kin from torture and death, and you send him off looking gut-punched, diminished, carved hollow?

  Liraz didn’t know exactly what Karou had said to Akiva this last time, but she knew that it had not been kind, and as the three of them flew on in silence, she found herself imagining what she would say to her in the unlikely event that they ever found themselves face-to-face again. It was a surprisingly satisfying way to pass the time in flight.

  “There.” Akiva saw it first, and pointed. The Sword.

  In its golden age, Astrae had been known as the City of a Hundred Spires. One for each of the godstars, the spires had been slender towers of impossible height, like the stems of flowers growing toward the heavens. They had been crystal, sometimes mirroring the storm clouds of the emerald coast, other times scattering prisms of dancing light over the rooftops below.

  That city had been destroyed in the Warlord’s uprising a thousand years ago. This was the new Astrae, built by Joram on the ruins of the old, and though he had tried to restore the dead city of his ancestors, that had been raised by the lost arts of magi, this by slaves. The spires weren’t even half as tall as their precursors, and they weren’t fluid upthrusts of crystal as the old had been, but were glass, seamed and riveted, held together by steel and iron. Of them all, the Tower of Conquest stood tallest, its silhouette shaped like a sword—the Sword—making an apt symbol of the Empire, especially when its edge reflected the fire of the setting sun, as it did now.

  Blood and endings, Liraz thought, seeing that great blade rising red from the distant cliffs. An apt symbol indeed.

  She disliked Astrae; she always had. There was an atmosphere of strain and subtle fear, a culture of whispers and spies. How right Melliel had been, calling it a “spider’s web”—even down to the dangling dead displayed to all comers.

  The Westway gibbet was the first thing they saw on reaching the city. Beside the fourteen guards there hung another, older corpse that she took for the unfortunate sentry from Thisalene, and yet another pair who’d been hung by their ankles, wings dragging open and catching every breeze to send them eddying in circles like broken dolls. Their crime—or ill luck—Liraz couldn’t guess. She had an impulse to scorch a black handprint into the wood of the support post and burn the gibbet out of existence. Night was falling; blue fire would lick the darkening sky, full of dreams and visions. Not yet, she told herself.

  Soon.

  The three came down to the Westway and presented themselves for entry to the city. Liraz found herself gritting her teeth in expectation of the greeting Silverswords reserved for Misbegotten, which was, at best, to see how long they could keep them waiting, and at worst, open taunting. Breakblades had no use for soldiers in general: Cloistered as they were in the scented calm of the capital, they only wondered what had taken others so long to win the war. As for Misbegotten, bastards were beneath their notice.

  In Liraz’s case, literally beneath. She stood as high as their breastplates; they enjoyed pretending not to see her. Like all Breakblades, these two were near seven feet tall, not including helmet plumes. Maybe a couple of inches were boot heel, but even barefoot they would have been giants. They were giants that Liraz knew she could fell with a stroke, which made it all the more maddening to endure their disrespect.

  “Slaves enter by the Eastway,” said the one on the left, bored, without even looking at them.

  Slaves.

  Their armor marked them clearly as Misbegotten. They wore vests of dark gray mail over black gambesons, with shoulder guards and breeches of black leather reinforced with plate. The leather was worn, the mail was dull, there were dents and repairs in the plate. For the purpose of their audience with the emperor, they wore short capes, which were in better shape than the rest of their uniform since they were rarely worn. Capes were a bad idea—nothing but a claw-hold for the enemy.

  Well, that and a place for their badge: an oval escutcheon containing links in a chain. Chain. Supposedly it signified strength in solidarity, but everyone knew it really meant bondage. Liraz thought of the chimaera rebels feeding the slavers their chains, and she understood the impulse. She saw herself tearing off her cape and stuffing it down the Breakblade’s great gorge, but it was fantasy. She did nothing, said nothing.

  Hazael, however, laughed. He was the only person Liraz knew whose fake laugh sounded real—disarmingly so. The Breakblade darted a glance at him, brow creasing. Dumb brute, couldn’t tell if he was being mocked. Always assume so, she wanted to tell him. Hazael elbowed her. “Because of the badge, he meant,” he said, as if she’d missed the joke.

  She didn’t laugh; she couldn’t even imagine being able to laugh the way her brother did—the tumbling, easy sound of it, the loose-muscled abandon. When she did laugh, the sound was sharp and dry even to her own ears—a hard crust of laughter compared to Hazael’s warmth and give. If I were bread, she thought, I would be a stale soldier’s ration, just enough to live on.

  Akiva didn’t laugh, either. Devoid of antagonism or any kind of reaction, he held the Imperial summons up inches from the guard’s face and waited while he read it. Disgruntled, the guard waved them through.

  My brothers, Liraz thought, entering Astrae between them. How different they
were from each other, Hazael with his fair hair and laughter, Akiva saturnine and silent. Sunshine and shadow. And what am I? She didn’t know. Stone? Steel? Black hands and muscles too tense for laughter?

  I am a link in a chain, she thought. Their badge had it right—not in bondage but in strength. She strode between her brothers, three abreast down the center of the broad city boulevard. This is my chain. Their armor was dull in the moonlight, in the lamplight, in the firelight of their feathers, and folk drew back from their passage with looks of wariness. Oh, Astrae, she thought, we have kept you too safe if it is us that you fear. They were neither loved nor respected by the people, Liraz knew, and soon they would be infamous and outcast, but she didn’t care. As long as she had her brothers.

  63

  LUCK FRICTION

  “They’re unreal, aren’t they?”

  Ziri flushed. He hadn’t heard Karou come up beside him, and she’d caught him watching her friends kiss. Had he been staring? What had she seen in his face? He tried to look nonchalant.

  She said, “I think they breathe at least half their air out of each other’s mouths.”

  It did seem like that, but Ziri didn’t want to let on that he had noticed. He’d never known anyone to act like Zuzana and Mik. They were out in the chicken yard right now—of all places unconducive to romance, not that they seemed to mind. He could see them through the open door, washed white by sunlight. Zuzana was balancing on the edge of the rusty livestock trough so she was taller than Mik, leaned over him with both arms wrapped entirely around his head, her hands splayed, fingers tangled in his hair. His hands, though. His hands were cupped around the curve of her pale legs, tracing lightly from the backs of her knees up her thighs and down again. It was that more than the kissing that had made Ziri forget himself and stare. The startling intimacy of the touch.

  He had witnessed affection in chimaera, and he had witnessed passion, but the one had generally been reserved for mothers and children, and the other for dark-corner encounters during the drunken revels of the Warlord’s ball. He had lived all his life in a city at war, spent most of his time with soldiers, and had never known his parents; he’d never seen affection and passion so perfectly paired, and… it hurt, somehow. It wrenched an ache from his chest to watch them. He could scarcely imagine having someone who was his, to touch like that.

  “It must be a human thing,” he said, trying to make light of it.

  “No.” Karou’s voice was wistful. “More of a luck thing.” He thought he saw a flash of pain on her face, too, but she smiled and it was gone. “Funny to think it’s only been a few months since she was afraid to even talk to him.”

  “Neek-neek, afraid? I don’t believe it.” There was a ferocity in the tiny Zuzana that had started Virko calling her neek-neek, after a growlsome breed of shrew-scorpion known for facing down predators ten times its size.

  “I know,” said Karou. “She’s not exactly timid.” They were in the mess hall; the breakfast hour had gone. Ziri had just finished sentry duty and scraped the dregs of breakfast onto a plate for himself: cold eggs, cold couscous, apricots. Had Karou already eaten? Her arms were hugged around her waist. “It was the only time I’ve ever seen her like that,” she said, smiling in the soft way of good memories. Her face had become so much more alive since her friends arrived. “She didn’t even know his name for the longest time. We called him ‘violin boy.’ She’d get so nervous every time she thought she might see him.”

  Ziri tried unsuccessfully—not for the first time—to picture Karou’s human life, but he had no context for it, having seen nothing of this world beyond the kasbah and the desert and mountains surrounding it.

  “So what happened?” he asked, setting his plate on the table. The hall was empty; Thiago had called an assembly in the court, and he had planned to eat quickly and go straight there. Finding himself alone with Karou, though, he lingered. He didn’t want to gulp down food in front of her, for one thing, and for another, he just wanted to stand here, near her. “How did they… finally?” He meant to say “fall in love,” but it embarrassed him too much to speak of love—especially now that she knew how he’d felt about her as a boy. She had to have read it on his face and in his blush when he’d told her how he’d been watching her at the Warlord’s ball all those years ago. He wished he could take back that confession. He didn’t want her thinking of him as the boy who used to follow her around. He wanted her to see him as he was now: a man grown.

  She understood his meaning, though, even if he didn’t use the word love. “Well, since she was too afraid to talk to him, she drew him a treasure map. She hid it in his violin case when he was performing—they worked at the same theater, but they’d never spoken—and she left early that night so she wouldn’t see him get it. In case he got all pained-looking or something, you know, and she just couldn’t take it. She’d already decided that if he didn’t follow the map to the treasure, she would just never go to work again and that would be the end of that.”

  “What was the treasure?”

  “She was.” Karou laughed. “That’s Zuze being shy. She won’t talk to him, but she’ll make herself the object of a treasure hunt. Right in the middle of the map was a drawing of her face.”

  Ziri laughed, too. “So obviously he went. He followed it.”

  “Mm-hmm. He went to the place and she wasn’t there, but there was another map, which led to another, and finally to her. And they fell in love and they’ve been like this ever since.”

  At “like this” she gestured out the open door, to where Zuzana was now gingerly treading along the edge of the trough, holding Mik’s hand.

  Ziri had never heard anything like that story of a trail of treasure maps. Except possibly the story of the angel who had come disguised into the cage city of the enemy to dance with his lady.

  He liked Zuzana’s story better. “A luck thing,” he said.

  “Yeah,” said Karou. She looked at him, and away again. “I think they both have to be lucky. It’s like, luck friction. One’s flint and one’s steel, striking together to make fire.” She hugged her arms tighter around herself. “It’s better when they tell the story themselves. They’re funnier than I am.”

  “I’ll ask them,” he said. He was conscious that Thiago’s assembly would be starting, and that he needed to be there. “The way they’re learning Chimaera, it won’t be long before they can tell it.”

  She didn’t say anything. The softness of good memories was gone. She looked over her shoulder, furtive, and then up at him, piercing. “Ziri,” she said in a hush, “I have to get them out of here.”

  “What? Why?”

  “Thiago’s threatened them. As long as they’re here, I have to do exactly what he says. And I really want to stop doing what he says.” She said the last part quietly, burningly, and Ziri had the impression of something shifting in her, a girding up, a gathering of breath and strength.

  “Do Zuzana and Mik know?”

  “No, and they won’t want to go. They like it here. They like being part of something magical.”

  So did Ziri. He’d relished those hours spent in Karou’s room with her and Issa and Mik and Zuzana, even if he had been tithing. They had been lively and filled with laughter and warmth, with resurrection instead of killing. “I’ll help you. We’ll get them to safety.”

  “Thank you.” She touched his hand and said again, “Thank you.”

  Then Zuzana called something to her in their human language and came spinning through the door.

  “Are you coming?” Ziri asked Karou. “Thiago’s assembly will have begun.”

  “Not invited,” she said. “I’m not supposed to worry myself over such matters. Will you tell me what he says? What he’s planning?”

  “I will,” Ziri promised.

  “And I have something to tell you, too.” Again, that girding and gathering, and a keen new resolve. Gone was the trembling girl Thiago had found in the ruins.

  “What is it?” Ziri asked, bu
t the small human whirlwind reached them then.

  “Later,” Karou said as Zuzana grabbed her hand and pulled her away with a distracted hello over her shoulder to Ziri.

  He left his breakfast uneaten and went out the door. What did she want to tell him? He could still feel her touch on his hand.

  Once, when he was a boy and she was Madrigal, she had kissed him. She had taken his face in her hands and kissed him lightly on the forehead, and it was ridiculous how many times he had thought of it since. But his moments of happiness were a sad, small lot, and the kiss hadn’t had much competition for best memory. Now it did.

  Now he had the memory of Karou’s shoulder warm against his own as they slept side by side, and the memory of waking beside her. What would it be like to wake beside her every morning? To lie down with her every night? And… to fill, with her, the hours between. All the hours of night.

  “A luck thing,” she had said.

  Supposedly he was lucky. Lucky Ziri. Because he had his natural flesh? It was a claim none of his comrades could make, so he didn’t argue if they wanted to call him lucky, but he’d never felt it, growing up without a people, no life but war, and even less now that the war was over—whatever that meant, as the killing raged on.

  Then he thought of the screams of the dying, the smoke of the corpses, and he was ashamed to question his own luck. He was alive; that was not nothing, and it couldn’t be like this forever.

  Everyone was already in the court when he got there—except Ten, who came slinking in a moment after Ziri and sidled up to the Wolf to whisper in his ear. Thiago paused to listen, and then his glance slid, cool, to lock on Ziri. It made Ziri’s flesh crawl, and then the Wolf spoke.

  “As you all know, we lost a team in our strikes the other night, our first casualties, but their safety did his duty and returned with all their souls. Ziri.” Thiago nodded to him. There were cheers in the assembly, and someone reached out a heavy hand to jostle Ziri’s shoulder. But Ziri didn’t for a moment believe this speech was headed anywhere good, and he braced himself, and was unsurprised by the rest.

 
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