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Blackbringer, p.29
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       Blackbringer, p.29

           Laini Taylor
 
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  A sound—a laugh, a sob—escaped Bellatrix’s lips, and Kipepeo cried out. They met in the air and clung to each other as the force of their flight spun them up toward the ceiling of the vaulted room. They laughed and sobbed and their wings fanned and held them aloft and spun them as their cheeks pressed, tears mingled, and lips met.

  Snoshti beamed and chortled. Circling the spire, Fade peered in through the moon windows and exhaled a cascade of fireworks. And in the vault of the sky the seraphim gathered to watch, and even such souls as they who had gone beyond all earthly concerns were moved by the embrace and began to weep.

  Kipepeo wasn’t the only one who came to the Moonlit Gardens that day. The elders of Dreamdark had managed to explain to all the gathered souls what had befallen them and had welcomed any who chose to stay. Some did, but many more chose the Gardens, unable to face a world from which their loved ones had been gone already for thousands of years.

  A week passed and the throng in Dreamdark thinned. The Rathersting hunted down escaped devils in the dark corners of the forest and found many of the sniveling, mild snags from the catacombs in Rome. These they put in the dungeon and fed on leftovers while they decided what to do with them, but as for the more fiendish devils, these they recaptured in bottles the Magruwen crafted for that purpose. They didn’t know how many still lurked in the great wood, and kept searching.

  Talon, returning after dark from a day spent casting a human phantasm to guide the lost mannies to the hedge, found the crowd in the Great Hall composed mostly of Rathersting for the first time since the battle. He piled a plate with mushroom sandwiches and blackberry pie and plunked it down at the chief’s table. His father wrapped his arm around him and left it there, periodically squeezing his son’s shoulder or tousling his hair. Talon beamed and told his father stories as he ate, but as soon as he was done he pushed back his chair and went to his room. All night his knitting needles could be heard clicking unsteadily as he maneuvered them with his bandaged hand. The dawning of the new age might occupy his days, but his nights were for creating, and he worked in secret with a single-mindedness that was driving him to exhaustion.

  Orchidspike and Poppy worked side by side day after day, mending old wounds from the devil wars, administering potions and poultices, and reweaving all shapes of wings. The healer was each day more astonished by the lass’s gifts and each day more delighted with her sweet nature and surprising twinkling of mischief.

  As for the young Rathersting warriors who took to offering the healer their help—something that had certainly never happened before—Orchidspike attributed that to Poppy’s uncommon loveliness. But her new apprentice seemed to have no mind for flirtation and paid the lads no heed at all.

  At Hai Issrin Ev the great work had begun. A tent camp had sprung up at the mouth of the Deeps as faeries and imps from across Dreamdark came to throw their energies into building the new temple. And folk and creatures began to arrive from farther afield too. The Magruwen had given a message to the web-toed, eyeless imps who swim the labyrinth of dark springs underlying the world, and they carried word to hundreds of faerieholds that the Djinn King was returned to his temple. Each day the news spread farther. From one hidden village and clanhold to the next, all across the world, wonder was blooming in the hearts of faeries.

  They came day by day, pilgrims and artisans from other forests hauling the tools of their trade, the masons’ hammers and chisels, glaziers’ kilns, weavers’ looms, and many other things too, and the new temple began to rise on the ruins of the old.

  The Magruwen himself was often away. He’d forged two new pairs of knitting needles, one for Talon and one for himself, and with his own he’d followed the lad’s example and knit himself a disguise to cloak his fireproof skin. Now as a great horned owl he explored his world, learning it anew.

  The falcon skin, meanwhile, was far from Dreamdark. The world’s only flying imp was skulking steadily back toward Rome to fetch his wheelbarrow from the catacombs, and he spread his own legend at every opportunity. He sang, “All through the silvery treetops he twirled, the first, and the only, winged imp in the world. . . .”

  Every creature he’d met throughout Dreamdark and Iskeri had been treated to wheezy songs of his flying adventures, though the songs, truth be told, were more numerous than the adventures. Though he’d never admit it, deep in his crusty heart Batch missed the faerie’s floating spells and being hauled through the air by crows, and the Djinn’s silver bat wings had not been forgotten, either. The falcon skin was a keen disguise, but the flying wasn’t working out exactly as Batch had hoped. Even if it hadn’t been unraveling, it was too much for his poor arms. After just a few short minutes of wing flapping they hung so heavy at his sides he could scarcely lift them to pick his nose! Mostly he scampered along, wheezing his glorious songs and dreaming of silver wings.

  Still camped on the green above Snoshti’s village, the crows were no use to anyone. They didn’t even hunt down snags with the Rathersting but just huddled miserably around their fire, puffing smoke rings and waiting for their lass to come back to them.

  They weren’t the only ones waiting. The Magruwen visited his champion in her dreams but her friends weren’t so lucky. Like the crows, Poppy and Talon could only wait, though they put their energies into work instead of smoking and did a little better job of hiding their longing.

  FORTY-ONE

  When Magpie finally opened her eyes, Bellatrix was by her side. “Child of my heart,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

  Kipepeo stepped up and placed a hand on his bride’s shoulder. “Blessings to you,” he said.

  Magpie knew the traditional Ifrit greeting from her time excavating the temple of the Ithuriel, and she told him, “And to the fire that kindled you,” her voice hoarse after such long silence.

  Pleased, Kipepeo knelt beside her and took her hand. “Thank you, little one,” he said, “for guiding me out of the darkness.”

  “I should thank you,” she told him with a weak smile. “If Lady Bellatrix didn’t love you so awful much, she’d never have meddled with the Magruwen’s dreams, and I might not have been born.”

  He raised an eyebrow and looked at his lady. “Meddled with the Magruwen’s dreams?” he repeated.

  “I’ve much to tell you,” Bellatrix said, biting her lip and laughing. A look of mischief transformed her features so that she seemed very young, as indeed she had been when she’d died. Remembering the terrible despair she had seen so recently on that same face, Magpie was nearly overcome with a wave of emotion to think that she had played a part in Bellatrix’s happiness and Kipepeo’s freedom. Joy was bright in their eyes, and Magpie smiled, feeling warm and calm.

  “Dreamdark is eager for your return, Magpie,” said Bellatrix. “The new temple is begun and many have come from afar who are eager to see you.”

  Magpie knew of the temple from the luminous dreams the Magruwen sent her. She’d seen a tent camp and cook fires and faeries of every shade from golden to ebony to snow, gathered together to work. She’d glimpsed Poppy, laughing and alive, and Maniac, as grim and fierce as ever. Indeed, all her crows were mighty grim, and now that she was awake, Magpie felt a deep pang of yearning for her clan, both her feathered family and her parents and grandmother, and the West Wind too. And, she realized when a tracery spinning in her vision turned out to be not a glyph but a tattoo, for Talon.

  It was time to return to the world of light.

  She parted fondly from Bellatrix and Kipepeo at the doorway to her dreaming place, and Fade carried her on the top of his head back across the canyon. Sitting in the same hollow at the ridge of his brow where once Bellatrix had knelt to tell Fade the stories that would bring Magpie into being, she had her first glimpse of the seraphim. Beings of the air, they seemed formed of fluid crystal, each with a brilliant spark at its core. They were singing, and it was the most glorious sound Magpie had ever heard.

  “Mags!” gasped Pup, choking on a smoke ring. “Mags!” he croaked and
, still coughing, tackled her where she’d appeared. She hit the ground and rolled with him, completely enveloped in feathers. She couldn’t see and could scarcely hear or breathe but she knew when the other crows came hooting and cawing and jumped on Pup. She felt like a sprout’s dearest doll, the one that ends up with its button eyes wallowed off by love.

  “Crows!” she gasped. “Please!”

  When at last they let her breathe again she staggered to her feet and flung her arms around Maniac’s neck and didn’t let go for minutes. “I love you, blackbird,” she said quietly into his feathers.

  “Ach, Mags,” he grumbled, patting her with his feathertips. “’Tis awful fine to see ye too.”

  Then the same crows who had only minutes before been mauling her around on the moss commenced to fuss like biddies, clucking, examining the bandage on her shoulder, and arguing over who got to carry her across the woods to see the new temple. Calypso won, and the others griped about it all the way.

  With her chin resting on Calypso’s head, flying betwixt treetops and low clouds and feeling an absolute absence of impending doom, Magpie sighed contentedly. When they arced around the edge of the Spine and the face of Issrin came into sight, she sat up straight and stared. It had been only two weeks but new columns had already been erected to brace a new pediment. Carvers stood on scaffolds or hovered on their wings, tapping with their chisels and hammers and etching an abstract pattern of wind and flames into the marble.

  The Magruwen came to meet her in the marble dust of the courtyard and guided her through the scaffolding to the ancient halls and corridors within. He had left them largely undamaged when he destroyed the facade and blocked all entry, and faeries were everywhere busy cleaning and polishing. He showed her the reception hall with its obsidian throne and then, down several flights of sweeping stairs and through a massive locked door, his archives. On towering shelves down labyrinthine aisles, every book and scroll his scribes had penned since the Dawn Days was in its place, unplundered and untouched by time. And in the far reaches, in a dark niche beyond the scribes’ carrels, stood the Blackbringer’s bottle.

  Just looking at it, every memory of Magpie’s journey seemed to surge through her. The fishing boat, the Vritra’s ashes, her first sight of Dreamdark in the mists of dawn, the terrifying descent down the old well with a cake in her hands, all churning faster and faster, Poppy’s white face vanishing before her eyes, Bellatrix, Fade . . . until the moment she felt the Blackbringer’s tongue wrap around her. She shuddered. Here he was, sealed away, this elegant silverwork giving no hint of the turmoil within.

  She had done it.

  The Magruwen said, “Much lies ahead if a new age is to be built . . . on forgiveness.”

  Magpie blinked. Those had been her own words. Somehow she had persuaded the Djinn King to come back to the world. He wasn’t looking at her but past her, lost in his memories, and Magpie wondered again what terrible secret lay buried in the history of her folk. Of what great treachery were faeries guilty? She almost hoped she would never know, but something told her that one day the dusts of the past would be sifted and secrets long buried would be laid bare. It shivered her.

  “My brethren must be awakened if the Tapestry is to be healed,” the Magruwen continued. “And faeries must awaken too and learn what world they live in, or soon every forest will tumble under axe, every river will run black, and every devil will squirm free. No longer can you be alone against them. There must be other champions. This is no golden age of peace upon us, child, but it is a reawakening, and we will let neither devil nor dragon killer steal the world we made.”

  Standing there, a bandaged twig of a sprout, Magpie clung to the hope that she would be equal to the life that lay ahead of her. “I’ll do my best, Lord,” she said.

  He reached out one golden gauntlet and Magpie saw the familiar gleam of Skuldraig in his grip. She took the knife back, and the Djinn said, “Blessings fly with you, child.”

  From Issrin, Magpie and the crows flew above the Deeps toward the healer’s cottage. Poppy, of course, attuned to the web of green whisperers that made up the forest, heard she was coming and raced to meet her. They collided in a mid-air hug and spun laughing among the trees. They settled back down to Orchidspike’s garden, and the lady and her apprentice checked Magpie’s shoulder and assured themselves Bellatrix had done a fine job of it, though not so fine as the healer might have. There would be scars.

  Orchidspike told Poppy to go off and enjoy her friend’s company. “I’ve waited hundreds of years for you, lass. I can wait a few more days. Go play.”

  The lasses flew to Rathersting Castle, and every warrior on the ramparts whooped and clamored as soon as they hove into view. “Hail, the Magruwen’s champion!” they cried, and Chief Grith came outside, eager to meet the lass who’d saved his life. When he dropped to one knee before her and bowed, Magpie blushed deep red. “A feast!” he cried. “We must have a feast! Come to the hall, lasses . . . Talon!” he bellowed. “Where is that lad?”

  But Talon couldn’t be found, and the celebration began without him. Magpie was offered the tremendous honor of a clan tattoo. She gritted her teeth while it was stung onto the back of her neck by old Caelum, one of the warriors who’d followed her out of the dark. The table was laid, whisker fiddles were tuned, and mugs overflowed with mead. Magpie’s eyes kept straying to the door, but still Talon didn’t come. She was dancing a whirling jig with Poppy and Nettle when she sensed a hurtling shape coming at her fast. She leapt aside just in time to see Talon land one of his wild scamperer’s leaps right before her. His arms were outstretched, and too late Magpie realized he had meant to hug her. There was an awkward moment as she stumbled away and he dropped his arms to his sides, and his hug turned into a wave. “Blessings, Magpie,” Talon said with a blush.

  “Jacksmoke, Talon! Where you been?”

  “Me? I might ask you! Lazing about in the afterlife with dragons feeding you grapes, I ken? That what being champion does to a lass?”

  “Neh!” Magpie laughed.

  “Lad!” cried Bertram, hobbling over on his peg. “Fine to see ye!” The crows mobbed him, and they weren’t too bashful to hug him. “Ye’re a good lad, Talon, and I’ll miss ye fierce when we go,” Bertram told him.

  “When you go? When’s that?”

  “Three days,” Magpie answered with a touch of wistfulness.

  “So soon?”

  “Aye. We’re headed for Anang Paranga to see my folk. Sure they’ll be winding up their work with the shapeshifters soon, and I reckon once I tell them everything that’s happened, about the Magruwen being awake and all, they’ll be keen to come back here and meet him—”

  “And his library,” interrupted Bertram.

  “Aye,” agreed Magpie. “I wish I could be here to see Papa’s face when he sets eyes on it!”

  “Won’t you be coming back with them?” Talon asked.

  “Neh, not so soon as that. There’s work to do and plenty of it.”

  “Champion work?”

  Magpie blushed, still unaccustomed to her new title. “Sure. We got the other Djinn to find now. The dreaming places of the Azazel and the Sidi Haroun are like to be around there, maybe in one of the Yalay volcanoes, or up in the Sayash, and we might have luck. And there’s always devils to catch. Guess you’ve seen your share of snags lately, neh?”

  “Aye, the dungeon’s full of ’em,” Talon said distractedly. Under his breath he muttered, “Three skiving days?”

  But Magpie had caught sight of food being carried in and didn’t hear him. “Jacksmoke! I could eat slugs, I’m so famished,” she declared, her eyes following platters of fritters and apricots and cakes, and they all went to fetch their dinner. Magpie, Poppy, and Talon sat down to dine together, scarcely noticing the lads who fought for the fourth seat at the table. It was Hiss who won by stamping on another’s foot, and he spent the meal staring at Poppy and missing his mouth with his spoon.

  They’d scarcely finished dessert when
Talon stood and said good night and left the Great Hall. Magpie watched him go with a pang. She danced and sang with the others until the moon was sliding down the far slope of the sky, but Talon didn’t return.

  Magpie and Poppy were inseparable over the next few days. They wandered through the tent camp meeting the faeries from foreign forests, and everywhere Magpie went, all eyes were on her. Faeries called blessings and held up babes to see her, and imps of sorts she’d never seen gave her posies of flowers. She blushed so much Swig predicted she’d be stained a permanent crimson, but she minded it less than she would have thought. To feel that she was a daughter of Dreamdark in these times, that was something.

  She saw nothing of Talon in those days.

  On the day of their departure, Magpie and the crows were toasting taters around a fire with Poppy and a clan of Iskeri stonemasons when Magpie looked up to see a falcon veer across the sky. Her pulse quickened. “Is that Talon?” she asked, pointing.

  By her side, Swig snorted. “Un-skiving-likely. His skin’s long gone. Sure ye heard, Mags, neh?”

  “Heard what?” she asked, puzzled.

  “How he traded that crusty scavenger his fine skin? Eh, birds!” he hooted. “Mags don’t know about the lad’s skin!”

  “Aye,” Calypso told her. “When Vesper’d stowed ye in that mirror we were mad frantic and Batch wasn’t keen to help find ye—ye know what those meats are like—but Talon made the trade quick as quick, soon as he heard what the imp wanted.”

  Magpie frowned, flummoxed. What with Talon’s absence these past days she’d all but convinced herself their friendship was a fancy. As for the times he’d saved her life, well, wasn’t he a Rathersting? Wasn’t that what they did? But to learn he’d traded his most cherished thing to find her . . . She bit her tater so she wouldn’t have to speak. But there was an explanation: he’d saved her so she could save his folk. Simple as that.

 
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