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Days of blood & starligh.., p.29
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.29

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

  “There are still lives to be saved,” Karou said, “and choices.” They were Akiva’s words, she realized once they were out. She flushed, though nobody could know that she was parroting Beast’s Bane. Well, he was right. More right than he could have known.

  “Choices?” Thiago’s look was cool, flat. Ten’s hand closed on Karou’s arm.

  “You remember the choice we talked about yesterday,” said the she-wolf in a low growl.

  “What choice is that, Ten?” Karou asked full-voice. “Do you mean the choice between Zuzana and Mik, and who you would kill first? I choose neither, and they’re out of your reach. Get your hand off me.” She yanked her arm free, and turned back to the host. She saw some confusion, and shuttling of glances back and forth between herself and Thiago. “The choice I mean is to protect our own innocents from the seraphim, instead of slaughtering theirs.”

  “There are no innocent seraphim,” said the Wolf.

  “That’s what they say when they kill our children.” She couldn’t help sliding a glance in Amzallag’s direction. “Some even believe it. We know better. All children are innocent. All children are sacred.”

  “Not theirs.” A low growl edged Thiago’s voice.

  “And all the folk on both sides just trying to live?” Karou took a step toward him. Another. She couldn’t feel her feet; maybe she wasn’t even walking, but drifting. In her state of anxiety and pumped-up courage her heartbeat roared in her ears. Her courage was a guise. She wondered if courage always was, or if there were those who truly felt no fear. “Thiago, I’ve been trying to work something out, but I’ve been afraid to ask you.” She swept the host with a look. All these faces, these eyes of her own creation, all these souls she had touched, some beautiful, some not. “I wonder if everyone here understands but me, or if any of you lose sleep wondering.” She turned back to Thiago. “What is your objective?”

  “My objective? Karou, it is not required of you to understand strategy.” She could see he was still trying to work out what audacity brought her to question him, and how he might reassert his control without open threats.

  “I didn’t ask your strategy, only your objective,” she said. “It’s a simple question. It should have a simple answer. What are we fighting for? What are we killing for? What do you see when you look into the future?”

  How hard and unblinking his eyes, how immobile his face was. His wrath was ice. He had no answer. No good answer, anyway. We’re fighting to kill, he might have said. We’re killing for vengeance. There is no future. Karou felt the collective waiting of the chimaera and wondered how many of them would be satisfied with that. How many had lost all ability to hope for more, and how many might find a last scrap of it once they knew what Brimstone had done.

  “The future,” Thiago said after an overlong pause. “I once overheard you planning the future. You were in the arms of your angel lover, and you spoke of killing me.”

  Ah, yes, Karou thought. It was a skillful evasion on his part. To these soldiers, that image—a chimaera entwined with a seraph—was enough to eclipse her question. “I never agreed to it,” she said, which was true, but she sensed that the curiosity she had kindled was waning; she would lose whatever small ground she might have gained. “Answer my question,” she said. “Where are you taking us? What do you see in the future? Do we live? Do we have lands? Do we have peace?”

  “Lands? Peace? You should ask the seraph emperor, Karou, not me.”

  “What, the beasts must die? We’ve always known his objective, but the Warlord never mimicked it like you are. These terror killings only bring worse down on the people you’ve forsaken.” To the soldiers, “Are you even trying to save chimaera, or is it just about revenge now? Kill as many angels as you can before you die? Is it that simple?” She wished she could tell them what Balieros’s patrol had done, and what they had witnessed in the Hintermost, but she couldn’t bring herself to reveal that secret. What would Thiago do if he knew?

  “You think there’s another way, Karou?” He shook his head. “Has all their gentle treatment led you to believe they want to make friends? There’s only one way to save chimaera, and that is by killing the angels.”

  “Killing them all,” she said.

  “Yes, Karou, killing them all.” Scathing. “I know this must be hard for you to hear, with your lover among them.”

  He would keep coming back to that, and funny thing: The more times he mentioned it, the less shame Karou felt. What had she done, really, but fall in love and dream of peace? Brimstone had already forgiven her. He had more than forgiven her; he had believed in her dream. And now… he had entrusted it to her—not to Thiago, but to her—to find a way that their people might live again.

  And she had thought the pile of thuribles in her room was a burden? Ah, what a little perspective could do. But the sense that had overcome her when Issa told her about the cathedral wasn’t the pinned-in-place trapped feeling that she suffered doing Thiago’s bidding. No. It was as if she’d been on her knees and Brimstone had grasped her hand and raised her to her feet. It was redemption.

  She looked at Issa, who gave a little nod, and she took a deep breath. To the rebels she said, “Most of you or maybe even all of you cheered at my execution. Maybe you blame me for all of this. I don’t expect you to listen to me, but I hope you’ll hear Brimstone.”

  That caused a stir. “Brimstone?” some said, skeptical. They looked to Issa, as they should.

  Thiago looked to her, too. “What is this?” he asked. “Does Brimstone’s ghost speak through you, Naja?”

  “If you like, Wolf,” returned Issa. To the soldiers: “You all know me. For years I was Brimstone’s companion, and now I am his messenger. He sent me out from Loramendi in a thurible to serve this purpose, and to do so meant that I could not die beside him as I would have chosen. So listen well, for the sake of his sacrifice and mine. It is grotesque to imagine that killing and mutilation and terror could ever deliver to us a life worth living. They will bring what they always have: more killing, more mutilation, more terror. If you believe vengeance is all that is left to you, hear me.” How lovely she was, raised tall on her serpent’s coil, and how powerful with her cobra hood flared wide, her scales gleaming like polished enamel in the dawn light. She was beaming, beatific, and radiant with emotion.

  She said, “You have more to live for than you know.”

  66

  KILL THE MONSTER. CHANGE THE WORLD.

  “The emperor will receive you now.”

  Akiva had been staring over the skybridge at the gray glass domes of the seraglio where he had been born. It was so closed and silent, so unknowable from the outside, but he had dim memories of noise and shafting light, children and babies, playing and singing—and he looked around at the voice. It was the head steward, Byon, leaning on his cane and dwarfed beneath the high, heavy arch of Alef Gate and the pair of Silverswords who flanked it. He was white-haired and grandfatherly at a glance, but only at a glance. It was Byon who maintained the lists of the emperor’s bastards, canceling the dead so their names might be given to the newborns. Seeing him, Akiva couldn’t help wondering if he would outlive the old seraph, or if that crabbed hand would draw the strike through his own name. He had stricken six Akivas already; what was one more?

  For a moment he felt himself to be nothing more than a placeholder for a name—one is a succession of flesh placeholders for a name that belonged, like everything else, to the emperor. Expendable. Endlessly renewable. But then he focused on what he had come here to do, and he met Byon’s rat-black eyes with the cultivated blankness that had been his default expression for years.

  He was no placeholder. There would be no eighth Misbegotten bearer of the name Akiva; fathering bastards was only one of many things that Joram would not be doing after tonight. Along with starting wars. Along with breathing.

  “Remove your weapons,” Byon instructed.

  This was expected. No arms save the guards’ own were permitted in the empe
ror’s presence. Akiva hadn’t even worn his usual pair of swords crossed at his back—the cape that was part of his formal uniform interfered with them. He had buckled a short sword at his hip only to make a show of laying it down on request, which he did.

  Hazael and Liraz likewise disarmed and laid down their weapons.

  Their visible ones, anyway.

  Akiva’s own glamoured blade hung from the opposite hip from the one he had laid down. It couldn’t be seen, but anyone studying him closely might notice a quirk in the play of shadow along his leg where it hung invisible, and of course it could be felt—cold steel—by any who brushed too near or thought to search him or embrace him, which Akiva thought a small enough risk—the embrace, anyway. As for the search, this was the first test of the emperor’s suspicion.

  Had he brought the Prince of Bastards here to use him, or to expose him? Akiva waited out the steward’s scrutiny. There was no search. Byon gave him the merest nod, and when he turned and vanished into the Tower of Conquest, Akiva fell into step behind him, and Hazael and Liraz behind him in turn.

  The emperor’s inner sanctum. Hazael had made inquiries; they knew roughly what to expect—the interlocking passages of thick, honey-hued glass, gate after guarded gate. Akiva committed each turn to memory; this way would be the only way out. They would glamour themselves; that was the plan. In the tumult that would follow the assassination, in the rush and stomp of guards they would vanish and retreat. And escape.

  He hoped.

  Another passage, another turn, another gate, another passage. Deeper into the emperor’s inner sanctum. Akiva’s anticipation grew taut.

  How weary he was of this brute response to all problems: Kill your enemy. Kill, kill. But right now the brute response was the only response. For the good of Eretz, for an end to war.

  Joram must die.

  Akiva reached for sirithar—the state of calm in which the godstars work through the swordsman—but didn’t come anywhere close to it. He managed to hold his heartbeat steady, but his mind raced—through scenarios, magical manipulations, even words. What would he say when he faced his father and unsheathed his blade? He didn’t know. Nothing at all. It didn’t matter. It was the deed that mattered, not words.

  Do the thing. Kill the monster. Change the world.

  67

  THE ONLY HOPE IS HOPE

  Amzallag bulled forward and fell to his knees before Issa. “Who?” he asked, almost whispering. “Who went into the cathedral?” A few other soldiers leaned forward with intense, restrained yearning.

  “Thousands.” Issa’s voice was tender. “There was no time to make a record. I’m sorry.”

  Karou stepped forward. “All the children went,” she said, looking to Issa for confirmation. “And all the mothers. The chances are very good for your families.”

  Amzallag looked stunned. On his tiger features “stunned” came across as a wide-eyed version of his constant ferocity—ferocity that was more Karou’s doing than his. His soul was as plain as tilled earth and as steady as a carthorse, but with this body she had given him he could hardly help but look ferocious. His jaws with their kitchen-knife fangs were agape and his deep orange eyes were unblinking. Although he was kneeling—his stag forelegs buckled before him and tiger haunches bunched in a crouch—he still towered above Issa, and his arms, when he reached for her hands, were huge and gray. Before he sees his family again, Karou thought, I can give him a gentler form.

  But that was getting ahead of herself. Way ahead.

  While Amzallag’s big hands took Issa’s, Karou watched Thiago. When Amzallag said “Thank you,” in a voice like the saddest pull of a violin, Thiago’s fangs showed in a fleeting snarl.

  “I am only a messenger,” said Issa.

  At that, Thiago’s eyes slid from her to Karou. “Tell us again,” he said, “how exactly that was accomplished.”

  “How what was accomplished?” Issa asked. Amzallag released her hands and rose, turning himself with smooth tiger movements to stand at her side—and Karou’s side—across the court from the Wolf. The move was deliberate, and sent a clear message of allegiance. Karou’s feeling of triumph was compromised, however, by the inquisition she felt coming.

  “How you arrived among us,” Thiago said. “One morning, here you were. It is very strange.”

  “Strange it may be, but I can’t satisfy you. The last thing I remember before waking is, of course, dying.”

  “And where was it Brimstone planned to send your soul, in the grip of his squall? You must know that at least.”

  Karou interrupted. “Is this all you have to say? We’ve just told you that thousands of our people can still be saved, and you talk of squalls? Thiago, our children can live again. This is enormous news. Can’t you be glad?”

  “My gladness, my lady, is tempered with realism, as yours should be. Live where? Live how? This changes nothing.”

  “It changes everything!” she cried. “Everything you’re doing is hopeless. Can’t you see? It is futureless. This brutality, the civilian attacks? Your father would be sick. Everything you do to the seraphim, Joram will return a hundredfold, a thousandfold.” She was appealing to the host now. “Did Thisalene give you satisfaction? The angels must die?” She pinpointed Tangris and Bashees, and fought against the fear that would have snatched her voice right back into her throat. To call out the Shadows That Live? Was she mad? Remember the chicken impression, she told herself with a surge of hysteria.

  “In Thisalene,” she said, “you slew a hundred angels.” The sphinxes met her look in their inscrutable way. “And hundreds of chimaera died for it.” One sphinx blinked. Karou continued, taking in the others. Oh, her heart, it was beating furious-fast. “And the rest of you. You let them die. You gave them hope—the Warlord’s smiles, the messages. We are arisen? And then? All those folk of the south, they couldn’t believe that you would start this fight, call the enemy down on them in such impossible numbers, only to abandon them. Do you know…” Karou swallowed. Her own cruelty felt icy, spiky, to put it to them like this. “Do you know that they died watching the sky for you?”

  She saw Bast take a stagger-step back. Some others were breathing as though their throats had gone tight. Virko was staring at the ground.

  “Don’t listen to this,” snarled Ten. “She can’t know what happened there.”

  “I do know what happened,” said Karou. She hesitated. Was it betrayal to tell of Balieros’s defiance? He would tell them, if he were here; she felt sure of it. The future of the rebellion hung in the balance, and she had this weight to slam heavy on the scale. How could she not use it? “Because one team did what none of the rest of you would. Do you really believe Balieros and Ixander, Viya, Azay, and Minas succumbed to some town guard? They died fighting Dominion in the south. They died defending chimaera. While you were doing what?”

  The sun was climbing, the heat growing heavy. The court was bright and still. Thiago answered her. “While we were doing what the angels were doing, and yet it’s us you scathe, not them. Would you have us lie down and bare our throats to them?”

  “No.” Karou swallowed. This was difficult ground she was treading: how to argue for a different course without coming across as some starry-eyed peacenik—naive at best, an enemy sympathizer at worse, which they already believed she was. It all came down to this: She could offer them no real alternative to fighting. When she had dreamed together with Akiva of the world remade, she had believed that he would bring his people forward as she would somehow bring hers—as if the future were some country they could meet in, a land with different rules, where the past might be overcome—or overlooked?—like a seraph knuckle tally erased from the skin.

  Now, on the outside of the bubble of that foolish love, Karou saw how grim their dream would have become had they been left to pursue it, how dirty, how bruised. Those tally marks would never have faded. They would have remained always—between herself and Akiva, chimaera and seraphim—and the hamsas would, too. They coul
dn’t even touch properly. To have believed that they might join two such sets of hands together, the dream seemed madder than ever. And yet… the only hope is hope. Brimstone’s words, back then and again now, as gifted her by Issa.

  “Daughter of my heart,” was the message Brimstone had sent just for Karou. She wanted to cry again right here in the court, thinking of it. “Twice-daughter, my joy. Your dream is my dream, and your name is true. You are all of our hope.”

  Her dream. A dream dirty and bruised is better than no dream at all. But she had had Akiva then, and the hope that he might bring the seraphim to their new way of living. What did she have now? Nothing to promise, and no plan. Nothing but her name.

  “No,” she said again. “I would not have us bare our throats. Nor would I have you thrust our people to their knees in your rush to slaughter theirs. Nor would I have you leave our future buried under the ash, so that you might bury theirs.”

  Thiago’s eyes narrowed as he tried but couldn’t at once find words to answer that.

  Karou went on. “Brimstone once told me that to stay true in the face of evil is a feat of strength. If we let them turn us into monsters…” She looked at Amzallag, the gray hue of his flesh, at Nisk and Lisseth, who stood just behind Thiago, still recognizable as Naja but with none of Issa’s beauty and grace. At all the others, overlarge, overfanged, winged and clawed, and unnatural. She had done this, the literal work of turning these chimaera into the monsters the angels believed them to be.

  “Someone has to stop killing,” she implored Thiago. “Someone has to stop first.”

  “Let it be them, then,” he said, so cold, his lips trembling with the effort not to fall into a full wolf snarl. His fury was palpable.

  “We can only decide for ourselves. At least we can stop the assaults long enough to think of another way, instead of making it worse, always worse.”

  “We are destroyed, Karou. It can’t get any worse.”

 
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