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Days of blood & starligh.., p.28
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.28

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

  “But you need a new team now. If Razor will have you?” Thiago turned to Razor.

  No, thought Ziri, his jaw clenching. Anyone else.

  “Your wish, my general,” came Razor’s hiss of a voice. “But I can’t promise he’ll play hide-in-safety on my team, or keep that pretty skin of his.”

  “Hide-in-safety” was a slur used in stupid bravado by soldiers who couldn’t see the value of preserving the souls of the fallen. Ziri tensed at the implication that he would ever choose to hide, but then he thought of what they would certainly be doing, and there was no conviction in his outrage. He would rather hide. Better yet, he would rather prevent the slaughter from happening at all.

  But of course, that wasn’t going to be an option. Ziri had been a soldier now more years than he hadn’t. He’d never loved the life, but he was good at it, and never, at least, while the Warlord was alive, had he abhorred it. He did now.

  “There’s a string of towns on the Tane River, east of Balezir,” said Thiago. He smiled with the sick exaltation that Ziri knew heralded grievous harm, and said, “I want the angels to wake in Balezir tomorrow and wonder why the Tane runs red.”

  64

  A NICER NUMBER

  Karou was bent over a necklace when Ten came to her doorway, but in truth, her thoughts were far away, in Loramendi. She could still barely get her mind around what Issa had told her. Both good and bad indeed. But good and bad were words for a child’s primer, and did not come close to representing the magnitude of tragedy on the one hand, and on the other… hope.

  Head-clearing, shoulder-lifting, this-changes-everything hope. At least, it could change everything.

  Or Thiago could crush it and carry on his campaign of terror until chimaera truly were beyond all reach of hope. It was up to Karou to persuade them. No big deal, she thought, staring at the teeth in her hand and staving off the wild laugh that wanted to burst from her. They love me here. I think I’ll call a meeting.

  In the doorway, Ten cleared her throat.

  Karou gave her a flat, sideward glance. “What do you want?”

  “Hostile,” said Ten, entering uninvited. “I just came with a message.” She was so casual. Karou assumed the message was from Thiago, but she should have known something was amiss from the amusement in Ten’s voice. “He was sorry he couldn’t say good-bye to you himself.”

  “Good-bye?” That was rich. “Where’s he going?” The days of Thiago leading missions were long over. He was as much a fixture of the kasbah as Karou was. More, because theoretically she could fly away any time she wanted to.

  “To the Tane,” said the she-wolf.

  The Tane was a river in the east of Azenov, the landmass that made up the heart of the Empire’s lands. Karou looked up sharply, but it was Issa who asked, with undisguised contempt, “Whose message is this, she-wolf?”

  “It’s from your friend,” said Ten; she said it like it was an illicit word, a piquant naughtiness to speak behind one’s hand. “Why, whom did you think I meant?”

  Karou went to the window, and there he was in the court with his new team. With Razor. Even as she watched, they gathered the air beneath them and took flight. This time, Ziri did look to her window, and across the distance she saw his face was rigid with anger, and his eyes, as he lifted his hand in farewell, were full of regret.

  Her heart was pounding. It was because he’d helped her yesterday, or maybe because of this morning. Whatever the particulars, she hadn’t been careful enough.

  “Where’s Ziri going?” asked Zuzana, leaning past her to watch the team’s departure.

  “On a mission,” Karou heard herself say.

  “With Razor?” Zuzana made a choking sound of disgust, which, being comical, missed the mark by a thousand miles. She had no idea. “What’s in that gross sack of his, anyway?”

  I guess Ziri is going to find out, Karou thought, feeling sick. Razor was her fault. She had put that slick, wrong-feeling soul into that powerful body and awakened him. And now Ziri was at his mercy—to say nothing of all the seraphim who had fallen and would fall victim to him.

  She had heard… that he ate them.

  She didn’t want to believe it, but you had only to stand downwind of him to catch the abattoir reek of his mouth—rotting flesh in shreds caught between razor teeth. As for his sack of stains, she didn’t want to know. Ever. She just wanted it to end, but there he went, to make mayhem on the Tane.

  “Seven’s one too many for a team, isn’t it,” remarked Ten. “Six is a nicer number.”

  A nicer number? Karou understood, and whirled on her. “What? Say what you mean. That only six will return?”

  “Anything could happen,” replied Ten with a shrug. “We always know that when we go into battle.”

  Karou’s chest was rising and falling with her quickened breath. “You always know that, do you?” she spat back. “When was the last time you went into battle? You or your master?” Her hand flashed out; she snatched a knife off the table. It was the little one, barely bigger than a nail file; she used it for a hundred things, like slicing the incense cakes and prying teeth loose from jawbones, and pricking her fingertips for the small bursts of pain she sometimes needed at the end of a conjuring. “Come here, Ten,” she said, gripping it. “How about a little resurrection? No need to march all the way to the pit. I’ll just throw your body out the window.”

  Ten laughed. At the little knife, and at her. It sounded like barking. “Really, Karou. Is that how you want to play?” She flung a hand in the direction of Zuzana and Mik. “And which of them dies first? The Wolf will probably let you choose.”

  “Well, you’ll already be dead, so I guess you’ll miss it.”

  Issa grabbed Karou’s arm and took the knife. “Sweet girl, stop this!”

  Shaking with fury, Karou snarled, “Get out!” Still laughing, Ten did.

  Karou turned to Mik and Zuzana, who were flat against the wall, holding hands, and wearing identical Um, what? expressions. She brushed past them, back to the window, and looked into the deep, empty sky. Ziri was gone, and down in the court, earthbound and easy to pick out from the milling troops of the small but ever-growing army, was Thiago. Looking up at her.

  Karou slammed the shutters.

  “What?” asked Zuzana, starting to flutter and hop. “What what what?”

  Karou exhaled a long, shaky breath. Ziri was a soldier, and a Kirin, she told herself. He could take care of himself. At least, that was the surface of her thoughts. Underneath, in the sucking currents of her wild, fist-beating powerlessness, she knew… she knew that she would probably never see him again. “Tonight,” she said. “I’m getting you out of here.”

  Zuzana started to argue.

  Karou cut her off. “This is not a good place for you,” she said in a rasping whisper, as emphatic as she could make it. “Have you wondered how I died?”

  “How you—? Uh. Battle? I assumed.”

  “Wrong. I fell in love with Akiva, and Thiago had me beheaded.” Plain and brutal. Zuzana gasped. “So now you know,” said Karou. “Will you please let me get you to safety?”

  “But what about you?”

  “I have to take care of this. It has to be me. Zuze. Please.”

  In as small a voice as Karou had ever heard her use, Zuzana said, “Okay.”

  Mik asked, “Um… how?”

  It was a good question. Karou was watched, that much was clear, and not just by Ten. She didn’t have Ziri to rely on now, and she couldn’t risk resurrecting Balieros’s patrol—it would be too transparent. There was no one else she could be sure of, but she did have one idea that didn’t involve any other chimaera.

  She took another deep, uneven breath and considered Zuzana and Mik. They were emphatically not soldiers, and it wasn’t merely that they were human, but that they were supremely… first world, utterly unaccustomed to hardship of any kind. The hike here had almost done them in, and Zuzana had only been sort of joking when she said that losing at cakewalk was th
e worst day of her life. Could they handle the tithe? They would just have to.

  “Could you walk back out of here, if you had to? At night, when it’s not so hot?”

  They nodded, huge-eyed.

  Karou scraped her lip between her teeth and worried it. “Do you think…” she asked haltingly, hoping it wasn’t the worst idea she had ever had, “that you might like to learn… to, um, turn invisible?”

  She would have given much in that moment for a camera, to preserve forever the expression on her best friend’s face.

  The answer, needless to say, was yes.

  They worked at it all day.

  “This is a little less awesome than it could be,” was as close as Zuzana came to complaining about the tithe, but her glee, when she came visible again after her first success at glamour, was bright and beautiful, as she was bright and beautiful, and Karou couldn’t help it—she grabbed her into the kind of overlong, too-tight hug that could really only mean: This is it, I’ve loved knowing you. When she finally drew back, Zuzana’s eyes were wet, her mouth skewed into an angry don’t-cry grimace, and she didn’t say a word.

  Karou still had to pull off some resurrections so that she might present soldiers to Thiago, lest he guess that her attention had been elsewhere that day. She managed it with Issa’s help—three new soldiers—and she managed to get through dinner, too, eating mechanically, and now more than ever, she scanned the host and wondered: Who among them had the courage to stand up to the Wolf?

  For such a reason as she was now ready to give them, she told herself, there must be some.

  Zuzana and Mik gave away nothing, sitting as usual on the floor among soldiers, learning words in an otherworldly language they would never again have the opportunity to speak. Friend, fly, I love you. Virko thought this last one was hilarious, but Karou felt pulped by it. Mik played Mozart that night, and Karou saw Bast moved to tears, and later, much later, in her room, she handed vises to her friends, and put one on herself, and led them out unseen into the desert night. They took only what fit in their pockets—money, dead phones, passports, the compass—and canteens slung over their shoulders. Everything else they left.

  Karou walked a little way with them, then flew back to the kasbah to watch and make sure that their absence went unnoticed.

  It did.

  Tucked into her tooth tray she found a folded paper: a drawing of Zuzana and Mik, and written out phonetically, the Chimaera for “I love you.” She broke down then, and Issa held her, and she held Issa, and they both wept, but by the time the sun rose and the kasbah came to life, they were calm again. Pale and subdued. Ready.

  It was time.

  Once upon a time, chimaera descended by the thousands into a cathedral beneath the earth.

  And never left.

  65

  BEAST REQUIEM

  It was a choice. When the end came, every chimaera in Loramendi had it to make. Well, not the soldiers. They would die defending the city. And not the children. Parents chose for them, and the seraph invaders would later remember very few children in the city when the siege finally broke the iron bars of the Cage. Maybe none, in fact. So much had already burned and collapsed. It was hard to make an accounting in all the rubble.

  So the angels never guessed what lay buried beneath their feet.

  Go down to the cathedral beneath the city. Carry your babies and lead your children by the hand. Go down into the airless dark and never come out.

  Or stay above and face the angels.

  It was a choice of deaths, and it was easy. The one below would be gentler. And perhaps… possibly… less permanent.

  Brimstone didn’t promise. How could he? It was only a dream.

  “You were always the dreamer between the two of us,” the Warlord said to him, when Brimstone came to propose it. They were two old men—“old monsters,” as the enemy would have it—who had risen from the most abject slavery to tear down their masters and carve out for their people a thousand years of freedom. A thousand years and no more. It was over, and they were very tired.

  “I’ve had better dreams,” said Brimstone. “That the cathedral was for blessings and weddings, instead of resurrection. I never dreamed it a tomb.”

  The cathedral was the massive natural cavern that lay beneath the city. Few had ever seen its carved stalactites but the revenants who woke on its great stone tables. Whatever blessings and weddings Brimstone had dreamed for it when first he found it and built a city on it, it had only ever seen the one purpose: revenant smoke and hamsas.

  And now this.

  “Not a tomb,” said the Warlord, putting a hand on his friend’s hunched shoulder. “Isn’t that the point? Not a tomb at all, but a thurible.”

  In a thurible, properly sealed, souls could be preserved indefinitely. And if the cathedral were sealed, its vent shafts blocked and its long corkscrew stair collapsed and concealed, Brimstone had proposed that it might serve, in essence, as a massive vessel for the preservation of thousands of souls.

  “It may only ever be a tomb,” he warned.

  “But whose idea is this?” asked the Warlord. “Am I to convince you, who brought it to me? You could look out the window today, see the sky raining fire, and say that it has all been for nothing, everything we’ve ever done, because now we’ve lost. But folk were born and lived and knew friendship and music in this city, ugly as it is, and all across this land that we fought for. Some grew old, and others were less lucky. Many bore children and raised them, and had the pleasure of making them, too, and we gave them that for as long we could. Who has ever done more, my friend?”

  “And now our time is done.”

  The Warlord’s smile was all rue. “Yes.”

  The tomb—the vessel—could not be for them, because the angels would leave no stone unturned until they found the Warlord and the resurrectionist. The emperor must have his finale. This might be Brimstone’s dream, but its fulfillment would depend on another.

  “Do you believe that she’ll come?” the Warlord asked.

  Brimstone’s heart was heavy. He couldn’t know if Karou would ever find her way back to Eretz; he hadn’t prepared her for anything like this. He’d given her a human life and tried to believe that she might escape the fate of the rest of her people, the endless war, the broken world. And now he would hang it all around her neck? Heavy, heavy, keys to a shattered kingdom. The weight of all these souls would be as good as shackles to her, but he knew that she wouldn’t shirk them. “She will,” he said. “She’ll come.”

  “Well then, we do it. You named her aptly, old fool. Hope, indeed.”

  So they put it to the people to choose, and the choice was easy. Everyone knew what was coming; their lives had shrunk down to huddling and hunger—and fire, always fire—as they waited for the end. Now the end was here, and… like a dream this hope came to them; it came in whispers to their dark dwellings, their ruins and refugee squats. They knew, all of them, the devastation of waking from hopeful dreams to darkness and the stench of siege. Hope was mirage, and none trusted easily to it. But this was real. It was not a promise, only a hope: that they might live again, that their souls and their children’s souls might bide in peace, in stasis until such a day…

  And this was the other hope, heavier still, that Brimstone hung around Karou’s neck, and the greater task by far: that there may come such a day at all, and a world for them to wake to. Brimstone and the Warlord had never been able to achieve it with all their armies, but Madrigal and the angel she loved had shared a beautiful dream, and, though that dream had died on the executioner’s block, Brimstone knew better than anyone that death is not the end it sometimes seems.

  By the thousands the folk of the united tribes filed down the long spiral stair. It would be crushed behind them; there would be no way out. They beheld the cathedral and it was glorious. They pressed in tight and sang a hymn. It was possible that it would never be more than their tomb, and yet, this was the easy choice.

  The hard c
hoice and true heroism was in those who chose to stay above, because they couldn’t all go. If every chimaera vanished from Loramendi, the seraphim would guess what they had done and go digging. So some citizens—many—had to stay and give the angels satisfaction. They had to be the angels’ satisfaction, the hard-won corpses to feed to their fires. The old stayed, as did most who had already lost their children, and an undue number of the ravaged refugees who had endured so much and had but this one thing left to give.

  They sacrificed themselves that some might yet know life in a better time.

  This was what Karou went armed with this morning, as well as her literal arms: her crescent-moon blades slung at her hips and her small knife pushed down the side of her boot. With Issa at her side, she headed to the court where the Wolf and his soldiers were already awake and gathered in the clean, crisp air, several teams armed and ready to fly. Amzallag’s team was one, and Karou felt her heart reaching toward the soldier. She wished she could tell him her news alone, and some of the others, too, who would be most powerfully affected by it.

  Amzallag had children. Or he had had them, before Loramendi fell.

  “We’ll hit them north of the capital,” Thiago was saying. “The towns are poorly fortified, and sparsely guarded. The angels haven’t seen battle there for hundreds of years. My father had let his edge grow dull. He took a defensive stance. Now we have nothing left to defend.”

  It was a bold statement, and was met with a shifting of weight by some soldiers. It sounded almost as though he were blaming the Warlord for the fall of their people.

  “We do, though,” Karou spoke up, stepping out from the same archway she had hidden beneath to watch Ziri and Ixander spar. Thiago turned his benevolent-mask to her; how thin it was, how utterly unconvincing. “We have something to defend.”

  “Karou,” he said, and he was already skimming the scene for Ten, traitor-sitter. Peripherally, Karou saw her on the move.

 
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