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Days of blood & starligh.., p.3
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.3

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

  His hope was like an intake of icy air—it hurt—and just as sharp and sudden was his jealousy. In an instant he was hot and cold with it, his hands clenching into fists so tight they burned. A flare of adrenaline coursed through him and left him shaking, and it wasn’t her. It wasn’t her, and for the fleeting flash of an instant, he felt relief. Followed by crushing disappointment and self-loathing for what his reaction had been.

  He waited for Karou’s friends to wake. That was who it was: the musician and the small girl whose eyes would give Liraz’s a run for ferocity. He watched them throughout the day, hoping at every turn that Karou would show up, but she never did. She wasn’t here, and there was a long moment when her friend stood stock-still, scanning the crowds on the bridge, the roofline, even the sky—such a searching look that it told Akiva she wasn’t accounted for, either.

  There were no whispers or edges of rumor in Eretz that hinted at her; there was nothing but the thurible with its singular, terrible explanation.

  For a month Akiva let his life carry him along. He did his duty, patrolling the northwestern corner of the former free holdings with its wild coastlines and low, sprawling mountains. Fortresses studded the cliffs and peaks. Most, like this one, were dug into vertical seams in the rock to protect them from aerial assault, but in the end it hadn’t mattered. Cape Armasin had seen one of the fiercest battles of the war—staggering loss of life on both sides—but it had fallen. Slaves now labored at rebuilding the garrison’s walls, whip-wielding masters never far off, and Akiva would find himself watching them, every muscle in his body as tight as wound wires.

  He had done this.

  Sometimes it was all he could do to stop the screaming in his head from finding its way out, to mask his despair in the presence of kindred and comrades. Other times he managed to distract himself: with sparring, his secret occupation of magic, and with simple companionship and striving to earn the forgiveness of Hazael and Liraz.

  And he might have gone on in that way for some time had not the end of… aftermath… come to the Empire.

  It happened overnight, and it drew from the emperor such howling wrath, such bloodcurdling unholy fury as to turn storms back to sea and blast the buds of the sycorax trees so they shed their mothwing blossoms unopened in the gardens of Astrae.

  In the great wild heart of the land that day by day fell prey to the halting onslaught of slave caravans and carnage, someone started killing angels.

  And whoever it was, they were very, very good at it.



  “Hey, Zuze?”

  “Hmm?” Zuzana was on the floor with a mirror set up on a chair before her, painting pink dots onto her cheeks, and it was a moment before she could look up. When she did, she saw Mik watching her with that small concern-crease he got between his eyebrows sometimes. Adorable wrinkle. “What’s up?” she asked.

  He looked back at the television in front of him. They were at the flat he shared with two other musicians; there was no TV at Karou’s place, where Zuzana mostly lived now—the media circus having finally died down a little—and where they usually spent their nights. Mik was eating a bowl of cereal and catching up on the news while Zuzana got ready for the day’s performance.

  Though it was making them a bundle of money, Zuzana was getting restless with the whole thing. The problem with puppet shows is that you have to keep doing them over and over, which requires a temperament she didn’t have. She got bored too easily. Not of Mik, though.

  “What is it about you?” she had asked him recently. “I almost never like people, even in tiny doses. But I never get tired of being with you.”

  “It’s my superpower,” he had said. “Extreme be-with-able-ness.”

  Now he looked back from the TV screen, his concern-crease deepening. “Karou used to collect teeth, right?”

  “Um, yeah,” Zuzana said, distracted. She rooted around for her false eyelashes. “For Brimstone.”

  “What kind of teeth?”

  “All kinds. Why?”


  Huh? Mik turned back to the TV, and Zuzana was suddenly very alert. “Why?” she asked again, rising from the floor.

  Pointing the remote to click up the volume, Mik said, “You need to see this.”



  “They knew we were coming.”

  Eight seraphim stood in an empty village. Evidence of sudden departure was everywhere: doors standing open, chimney smoke, a sack lying where it had tumbled off the back of some wagon and spilled out grain. The angel Bethena found herself turning again to the cradle that lay by the stile. It was carved and polished, so smooth, and she could see finger-divots worn into its sides from generations of rocking. And singing, she thought, as if she could see that, too, and she felt, just for an instant, the agonized pause of the beast mother who had admitted to herself, in that precise spot, that it was too heavy to take as they fled their home.

  “Of course they knew,” said another soldier. “We’re coming for them all.” He pronounced it like justice, like the edges of his words might catch the sunlight and glint.

  Bethena cast him a glance, weary, weary. How could he muster vehemence for this? War was one thing, but this… These chimaera were simple creatures who grew food and ate it, rocked their children in polished cradles, and probably never spilled a single drop of blood. They were nothing like the revenant soldiers the angels had fought all their lives—all their history—the bruising, brutal monsters that could cut them in half with a blow, send them reeling with the force of their inked devils’ eyes, tear out their throats with their teeth. This was different. The war had never penetrated here; the Warlord had kept it locked at the land’s edges. Half the time, these scattered farm hamlets didn’t even have militias, and when they did, their resistance was pathetic.

  The chimaera were broken—Loramendi marked the end. The Warlord was dead, and the resurrectionist, too. The revenants were no more.

  “What if we just let them get away?” Bethena said, looking out over the sweet green land, its hazy hills as soft as brush-strokes. Several of her comrades laughed as if she’d made a joke. She let them think she had, though her effort at smiling was not a success. Her face felt wooden, her blood sluggish in her veins. Of course they couldn’t let them go. It was the emperor’s edict that the land be cleared of beasts. Hives, he called their villages. Infestations.

  A poor sort of hive, she thought. Village after farm and the conquerors had not once been stung. It was easy, this work. So terribly easy.

  “Then let’s get it over with,” she said. Wooden face, wooden heart. “They can’t have gone far.”

  The villagers were easy to trace, their livestock having dropped fresh dung along the south road. Of course they would be fleeing for the Hintermost, but they hadn’t gotten far. Not three miles down, the path cut under the arch of an aqueduct. It was a triple-tiered structure, monumental and partially collapsed, so that fallen stones obscured the underpassage. From the sky, the road beyond looked clear, twisting away down a narrow valley that was like a part in green hair, the forest dense on either side. The beasts’ trail—dung and dust and footprints—did not continue.

  “They’re hiding under the aqueduct,” said Hallam, he of the vehemence, drawing his sword.

  “Wait.” Bethena felt the word form on her lips, and it was spoken. Her fellow soldiers looked to her. They were eight. The slave caravan moved at the lumbering overland pace of their quarry and was a day behind them. Eight seraph soldiers were more than enough to stamp out a village like this. She shook her head. “Nothing,” she said, and motioned them down.

  It feels like a trap. That had been her thought, but it was a flashback to the war, and the war was over.

  The seraphim came down on both sides of the underpassage, trapping the beasts in the middle. Against the possibility of archers—there was no greater equalizer than arrows—they kept close to the stone, out of range. The day was bright, the shadows
deepest black. The chimaera’s eyes, thought Bethena, would be accustomed to the dark; light would dazzle them. Get it over with, she thought, and gave her signal. She leapt in, fiery wings blinding, sword low and ready. She expected livestock, cowering villagers, the sound that had become familiar: the moan of cornered animals.

  She saw livestock, cowering villagers. The fire of her wings painted them ghastly. Their eyes shone mercury-bright, like things that live for night.

  They weren’t moaning.

  A laugh; it sounded like a match strike: dry, dark. All wrong. And when the angel Bethena saw what else was waiting under the aqueduct, she knew that she’d been wrong. The war was not over.

  Though for her and her comrades, abruptly, it was.



  A phantom, the news anchor said.

  At first, the evidence of trespass had been too scant to be taken seriously, and of course there was the matter of it being impossible. No one could penetrate the high-tech security of the world’s elite museums and leave no trace. There was only the prickle of unease along the curators’ spines, the chilling and unassailable sense that someone had been there.

  But nothing was stolen. Nothing was ever missing.

  That they could tell.

  It was the Field Museum in Chicago that captured proof of the intruder. First, just a wisp on their surveillance footage: a tantalizing bleed of shadow at the edge of sight, and then for an instant—one gliding misstep that brought her clearly into frame—a girl.

  The phantom was a girl.

  Her face was turned away. There was a hint of high cheekbone; her neck was long, her hair hidden in a cap. One step and she was gone again, but it was enough. She was real. She had been there—in the African wing, to be precise—and so they went over it inch by inch, and they discovered that something was missing.

  And it wasn’t just the Field Museum. Now that they knew what to look for, other natural history museums checked their own exhibits, and many discovered similar losses, previously undetected. The girl had been careful. None of the thefts were easily visible; you had to know where to look.

  She’d hit at least a dozen museums across three continents. Impossible or not, she hadn’t left so much as a fingerprint, or tripped a single alarm. As to what she had stolen… the how was quickly drowned out by the unfathomable why.

  To what possible end?

  From Chicago to New York, London to Beijing, from the museums’ wildlife dioramas, from the frozen, snarling mouths of lions and wild dogs, the jaws of Komodo dragon specimens and ball pythons and stuffed Arctic wolves, the girl, the phantom… she was stealing teeth.



  From: Karou

  Subject: Not dead yet

  To: Zuzana

  Not dead yet. (“Don’t want to go on the cart!”)

  Where am I and doing what?

  You might well ask.

  Freaky chick, you say?

  You can’t imagine.

  I am priestess of a sandcastle

  in a land of dust and starlight.

  Try not to worry.

  I miss you more than I could ever say.

  Love to Mik.

  (P.S. “I feel happy…. I feel happy….”)



  Light through lashes.

  Karou is only pretending to be asleep. Akiva’s fingertips trace her eyelids, slip softly over the curve of her cheek. She can feel his gaze on her like a glow. Being looked at by Akiva is like standing in the sun.

  “I know you’re awake,” he murmurs, close to her ear. “Do you think I can’t tell?”

  She keeps her eyes closed but smiles, giving herself away. “Shush, I’m having a dream.”

  “It’s not a dream. It’s all real.”

  “How would you know? You’re not even in it.” She feels playful, heavy with happiness. With rightness.

  “I’m in all of them,” he says. “It’s where I live now.”

  She stops smiling. For a moment she can’t remember who she is, or when. Is she Karou? Madrigal?

  “Open your eyes,” Akiva whispers. His fingertips return to her eyelids. “I want to show you something.”

  All at once she remembers, and she knows what he wants her to see. “No!” She tries to turn away, but he’s got her. He’s prying her eyes open. His fingers press and gouge, but his voice loses none of its softness.

  “Look,” he coaxes. Pressing, gouging. “Look.”

  And she does.

  Karou gasped. It was one of those dreams that invade the space between seconds, proving sleep has its own physics—where time shrinks and swells, lifetimes unspool in a blink, and cities burn to ash in a mere flutter of lashes. Sitting upright, awake—or so she’d thought—she gave a start and dropped the tiger molar she was holding. Her hands flew to her eyes. She could still feel the pressure of Akiva’s fingers on them.

  A dream, just a dream. Damn it. How had it gotten in? Lurking vulture dreams, circling, just waiting for her to nod off. She lowered her hands, trying to calm the fierce rush of her heartbeat. There was nothing left to be afraid of. She had already seen the very worst.

  The fear was easy to banish. The anger was something else. To have that surge of perfect rightness overcome her, after everything… It was a filthy lie. There was nothing right about Akiva. That feeling had slipped in from another life, when she had been Madrigal of the Kirin, who loved an angel and died for it. But she wasn’t Madrigal anymore, or chimaera. She was Karou. Human.

  Sort of.

  And she had no time for dreams.

  On the table before her, dull in the light of a pair of candles, lay a necklace. It consisted of alternating human and stag teeth, carnelian beads, eight-sided iron filings, long tubes of bat bone, and, making it sag with asymmetry, a lone tiger molar—its mate having skittered under the table when she dropped it.

  Asymmetry, when it came to revenant necklaces, was not a good thing. Each element—tooth, bead, and bone—was critical to the resulting body, and the smallest flaw could be crippling.

  Karou scraped back her chair and dropped to her knees to grope in the darkness under her worktable. In the cracks of the cold dirt floor her fingers encountered mouse droppings, snipped ends of twine, and something moist she hoped was just a grape rolled off to rot—Let it remain a mystery, she thought, leaving it be—but no tooth.

  Where are you, tooth?

  It wasn’t like she had a spare. She’d gotten this one in Prague a few days earlier, half of a matched set. Sorry about the missing leg, Amzallag, she imagined herself saying. I lost a tooth.

  It started her laughing, a slappy, exhausted sound. She could just imagine how that would go over. Well, Amzallag probably wouldn’t complain. The humorless chimaera soldier had been resurrected in so many bodies that she thought he’d just take it in stride—no pun intended—and learn to do without the leg. Not all of the soldiers were stoic about her learning curve, however. Last week when she had made the griffon Minas’s wings too small to carry his weight, he had not been forbearing.

  “Brimstone would never make such a ridiculous mistake,” he’d seethed.

  Well, Karou had wanted to retort, with all the gravity and maturity she could muster. Duh.

  This wasn’t an exact science to begin with, and wing-to-weight ratios—well. If Karou had known what she would be when she grew up, she might have taken different classes in school. She was an artist, not an engineer.

  I am a resurrectionist.

  The thought rose up, flat and strange as always.

  She crawled farther under the table. The tooth couldn’t have just vanished. Then, through a crack in the stone, a breeze fluted over her knuckles. There was an opening. The tooth must have fallen through the floor.

  She sat back. An icy stillness filled her. She knew what she would have to do now. She would have to go downstairs and
ask the occupant of the chamber beneath if she could search for it. A deep reluctance pinned her to the floor. Anything but that.

  Anything but him.

  Was he there now? She thought so; she sometimes imagined she could feel his presence radiating up through the floor. He was probably asleep—it was the middle of the night.

  Nothing would make her go to him in the middle of the night. The necklace could just wait until morning.

  At least that was the plan.

  Then, at her door: a knock. She knew at once who it was. He had no compunction about coming to her in the night. It was a soft knock, and the softness disturbed her most of all—it felt intimate, secret. She wanted no secrets with him.

  “Karou?” His voice was gentle. Her whole body tensed. She knew better than anyone what a ruse that gentleness was. She wouldn’t answer. The door was barred. Let him think she was asleep.

  “I have your tooth,” he called. “It just landed on my head.”

  Well, hell. She couldn’t very well pretend to be asleep if she had just dropped a tooth on his head. And she didn’t want him to think she was hiding from him, either. Damn it, why did he still affect her this way? Severe and straight-backed, her braid swinging in a blue arc behind her, Karou went to the door, drew back the ancient crossbar—which was primarily a defense against him—and opened it. She held out her hand for the tooth. All he had to do was drop it on her palm and walk away, but she knew—of course she knew—it would not be that simple.

  With the White Wolf, it never was.



  The White Wolf.

  The Warlord’s firstborn, hero of the united tribes and general of the chimaera forces. What remained of them.


  He stood in the corridor, elegant and cool in one of his creaseless white tunics, his silken white hair gathered loosely back and tied with a twist of leather. The white hair belied his youth—the youth of his body, at least. His soul was hundreds of years old and had endured endless war and deaths beyond counting, many of them his own. But his body was in its prime, powerful and beautiful to the full extent of Brimstone’s artistry.

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