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Days of blood & starligh.., p.31
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.31

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

  He sensed the guards coming off their walls, their shock blunting the air. At least one got tangled in his own bell sleeve fumbling for his hilt, and cursed. As one, Hazael and Liraz unsheathed their swords.

  The Silverswords might have believed they had the advantage from numbers alone—eight to two—but at the first crossing of blades their confidence evaporated. This was no exercise of parries and thrusts such as they were used to, no nice ching and chime of silver. Hazael and Liraz wielded their longswords two-handed, such power in their strikes as had rent the armor and hide of countless revenants. Decades of battle, hands black with their terrible tally, and their onslaught caught the guards like a force of nature.

  They weren’t two fighting off eight. They were two cutting through eight. Slight as Liraz was, her first blow dislocated the shoulder of the guard who blocked it. His uff of pain was followed by a clatter as his sword flew from his hand; she didn’t finish him as he staggered back but spun toward another guard with a low lightning kick that took him out at the knee. His uff bit at the heels of his comrade’s, and he was down, too.

  Hazael’s first strike shaved through his opponent’s blade, leaving the guard holding a pretty silver stub.

  All of this transpired in the gasp between breaths—the Misbegotten schooling the swaggering Silverswords in the vital difference between a guard and a soldier—and the guards’ eyes flared wide in understanding. The posture of the remaining five changed from menacing confidence to a defensive hunch. Readjusting their grips, they formed a loose circle around the Misbegotten, and their volley of glances, one to another, was easy to interpret:

  Go on, attack them.

  You attack them.

  They needn’t have worried. Liraz and Hazael didn’t wait. Waiting gave the enemy time to think. They themselves didn’t need to think any more than their swords did. They attacked. They were nithilam. The clangor was deafening, and the nickname “breakblades” proved well-founded as the guards’ flashing, brittle weapons shattered at the slash of steel. Across the room, one of the unknown counselors ducked just in time as a flying shard of silver sword embedded itself in the wall where seconds earlier his head had been.

  The Breakblades were all disarmed, lightly injured, and when one made a halfhearted try for a sword, Liraz had only to grin and shake her head, and he halted like a guilty child.

  “Just stand there,” she told them. “Demonstrate for us your great skill at standing there, and you’ll be fine.”

  The others stood taking up space—so much space, such big bodies, and such poor training. Their lives had never been in danger before, and if Liraz and Hazael had wanted to kill them they’d have found it pitifully easy. But they didn’t want to kill them. They’d scarcely drawn blood. Joram had been one target, and he lay dead and unattended in shallow water that had deepened now from pink to red. Jael was the other.

  But Jael was gone.

  “Akiva,” said Liraz. “Jael.”

  Akiva already knew. The three Misbegotten held the center of the room. It was quiet. All told maybe two minutes had passed since Akiva’s blade had entered his father’s heart. He had disarmed Namais and Misorias—they had put up a better fight, but not good enough—and had rendered them unconscious with the hilt of his sword to forestall any heroics that might force him to kill them. One had landed facedown, and in the moment it had taken Akiva to turn him over with his foot and prevent him from drowning in the shallow red water, Jael had vanished.

  Where? If he had escaped through some secret door, he had failed to take his nephew along. Akiva took a long, level look at the crown prince. Japheth had pulled one of the serving girls against him as a living shield. She was frozen, crushed to his chest, her long braid caught in his fist where a better man would have held a sword.

  And here is the new emperor, Akiva thought.

  Wherever Jael had gone, he must now raise the cry. Akiva braced for the response that must come. He was surprised that it hadn’t already; he’d expected the guards at Samekh Gate to hear the ring of blades and come rushing in; it was then that he and Hazael and Liraz were to have glamoured themselves invisible and taken to their wings to find their way out under cover of chaos.

  There was, however, no chaos.

  Maybe, he thought, sound didn’t travel well through all these interlocking glass walls. In the eerie calm, Akiva’s newfound state of sirithar left him, like something that had come and gone of its own volition, and his senses were robbed of their newfound scope. In this dimness and diminishment, he surveyed the room. The gallery of flatterers sat pinned in place, aghast; mouths gulped fishlike at the humid air. His eyes skimmed over them. Hellas had lost his smugness.

  And there was Japheth, clutching the serving girl. Akiva supposed this display shouldn’t surprise him, but to hear someone is craven is one thing. To see it made so plain is another. But what was he to do? Their purpose here today must be made clear. It was the assassination of a warmonger, not mutiny against the Empire entire, and not a grasp for power for themselves.

  So, holding the crown prince’s gaze, Akiva spoke the words of accession. “The emperor is dead. Long live the emperor.” In the atmosphere of steam-heat and shock, his voice was heavy, solemn. He crossed his arm over his chest, pressing the hilt of his sword to his heart, and gave Japheth a small nod. Behind him, Hazael and Liraz did the same.

  Japheth’s terror gave way to confusion. He glanced aside, looking to the council for explanation as if this possibility had never occurred to him. The bath girl took advantage of his confusion and writhed free, darting for the door like a creature freed from a trap. Akiva let her go. The door slammed open as she blew through it and he thought surely now the guards must come flooding into the room.

  And still they did not.

  Bereft of his living shield, Japheth dropped to his knees and began to crawl slowly backward, trembling. Akiva turned away, disgusted. “We’re done here,” he said to his brother and sister. Whatever was going on outside this bath, it wouldn’t do to wait any longer. It would have been easier to go with chaos for cover—ten gates standing open as their guards rushed to respond—but they would make do, and fight if they had to. He was ready to be gone, to put Astrae and his own treachery behind him.

  He made it as far as the door.

  It was not Silverswords, with their heavy-booted incompetence and pretty, useless blades, who forced him back. It was Dominion. Not guards but soldiers: ready and calm and many. A score, more. Two score, crowding the room but bringing no chaos with them, no tide of easy escape. Only grim faces and swords already slick with blood.

  Whose blood?

  And… they brought with them something else, something utterly unexpected, and at the first touch of that wave of debilitating and so-familiar nausea, Akiva understood. As the soldiers winched a tightening circle around him and his brother and sister, around the shamefaced disarmed Breakblades and the corpse of the emperor, they carried grisly… trophies… before them, and he knew that this had all been orchestrated. He had played a part written for him by Jael, and he had played it perfectly.

  The Dominion were holding out hands. Dried, severed hands, marked with the devil’s eyes. Revenant hands, as powerful as they had ever been when upheld by their true owners: the chimaera rebels they had killed and burned in the Hintermost.

  Akiva felt the assault of the magic as if it entered his bloodstream and curdled him from the inside. He tried to hold out against it, but it was no good. He began to shake and couldn’t stop.

  “Thank the godstars,” he heard the counselors murmuring. “We are saved.” Fools. Did they not yet wonder what Dominion were doing inside the Tower of Conquest?

  Their captain was with them. “Nephew,” he said. For a second Akiva thought Jael was addressing him, but he was looking at Japheth. “Allow me to be the first to offer my congratulations,” he said. He was flushed—from the heat, from fear?—his scar a long gnarl of white. He moved to Japheth, who remained on his knees, and tol
d him, “This is no meet pose for the ruler of the Empire of Seraphim. Get up.”

  He held out his hand.

  Akiva understood what was going to happen, but the pulsing sickness of the hamsas met the dullness that had descended in the aftermath of sirithar, and he could do nothing to stop it.

  Japheth reached for his uncle’s hand and Jael took it, but did not raise his nephew to his feet. He pivoted behind him. Japheth gave a gasp of pain as Jael crushed the prince’s soft hand in his swordsman’s grip and prevented him from rising. A glint of metal, a jerk of the arm, and it was done inside a second: Jael drew his dagger across his nephew’s throat and a fine red line appeared there.

  Japheth’s eyes were wide and rolling. His mouth gaped and no sound came out but a gurgling. The red line grew less fine. A drip became a rivulet. A rivulet a rush.

  “The emperor is dead,” Jael said before it was strictly true. He smiled and wiped his blade on Japheth’s sleeve before dropping him with a shove that sent his body to join Joram’s in the red water. “Long live the emperor.”

  Akiva felt himself as stunned and fish-mouthed as the counselors.

  As for Jael, he couldn’t have looked more pleased. He turned to Akiva and executed a mocking bow. “Thank you,” he said. “I was so hoping you would do that.”

  From there, Akiva’s best-case scenario went very badly wrong.

  71

  THE PIT

  By the time Karou reached the pit, it was already done.

  Amzallag, Tangris, Bashees. They lay dead in the starlight and Thiago stood by their bodies, calm and shining in all his white, waiting. Waiting for her. Others stood by in a loose semi-circle, and Karou should have taken one look at the scene, spun right around in the air, and fled back to the questionable safety of her room. But she couldn’t, not with those bodies lying there, Amzallag and the sphinxes, their slashed throats still pumping blood into the scree and their souls anchored by failing tethers. Because they had taken her side.

  This was to be the price? She would never have another ally. If she let this stand, she might as well abandon the chimaera cause right here and now.

  She was dazed with disgust and fury as she dropped down, landing heavily before the Wolf. The blood spatter across his chest and sleeve read as black in the night. Behind him: mounds of earth from the excavation of the pit; a line of shovels standing upright like fence pickets; Karou could hear a low drone, as of a distant engine, but realized it was flies. Down in the dark. She was a moment surveying the terrible scene before she found her voice. Choking, she said, “And here stands the great hero of the chimaera, murderer of his own soldiers.”

  “They weren’t my own soldiers, apparently,” he replied. “Their mistake.” And he turned to Amzallag’s body. It lay at the very verge of the pit. Thiago braced himself and, with one clawed wolf’s foot, dug in and gave a powerful shove so that the body rolled. It had to weigh five hundred pounds, but once the shoulders overbalanced the edge, their bulk dragged at the rest. It was slow, so slow… and then sudden. Amzallag’s body tipped into the pit and disappeared into that foul darkness.

  Lisseth did the same to the sphinxes’ bodies, which were much lighter, and there was almost no sound, as if the landings were soft—Karou knew, and didn’t want to picture, what it was that cushioned them—but stench rose, and flies, flies by the hundreds. They rose in a buzz of black and seemed to carry the putrescence with them. She backed away, fighting her gag reflex. She could almost feel the air in her mouth, thick and choking, fume and liquid. She staggered back, looked aghast at Thiago.

  “They aren’t all monsters like you,” she said. “Like the rest of you.” She scanned the captains assembled around them—Nisk, Lisseth, Virko, Rark, Sarsagon—and they met her eyes, blank and unashamed except for Virko, who looked down when she lit on him.

  “Monsters, yes, we are monsters,” said Thiago. “I will give the angels their ‘beasts.’ I will give them nightmares to haunt their dreams long after I am gone.”

  “Is that it, then?” she snapped. “That’s your objective, to leave a legacy of nightmares when you die? Why not? Why wouldn’t it be all about you? The great White Wolf, killer of angels, savior to no one.”

  “Savior.” He laughed. “Is that what you want to be? What a lofty goal for a traitor.”

  “I was never a traitor. If anyone is, it’s you. All of that today about excavating the cathedral? Was it all lies?”

  “Karou, what do you think? What would we do with those thousands of souls? Our resurrectionist can barely build an army.”

  Such contempt in his voice. Karou’s was its equal. “Yes, well, I’m done building your army, so I’ll need something to keep me busy.” She was practically spitting now, her head filled with the white noise of rage. She would get Amzallag’s soul, and the sphinxes’, too. Amzallag had not lived to have the hope of his family only to die now.

  “Done, are you?” Thiago smiled. Killer, torturer, savage. He was in his element. “Do you really think this is a game you can win?” He shook his head. “Karou, Karou. Oh, your name does amuse me. That fool Brimstone. He named you hope because you rutted with an angel? He should have named you lust. He should have named you whore.”

  There was no sting in the word. Nothing Thiago said could wound her. Looking at him now, she could scarcely understand how she had let herself be led for so long, doing his bidding, building monsters to ensure his nightmare legacy. She thought of Akiva, the night he had come to her at the river, the crushing pain and shame in his face, and love, still love—sorrow and love and hope—and she remembered the night of the Warlord’s ball, how Akiva had always been the right to Thiago’s wrong, the heat to the Wolf’s chill, the safety to this monster’s menace.

  She fixed Thiago with a narrow stare and said quietly, coolly, “It still eats at you, doesn’t it? That I chose him over you? You want to know something?” Love is an element. “It was no contest.” She hissed the last words, and a spasm of fury wracked Thiago’s cold, composed face. That beautiful vessel that Brimstone had made; it hid such a black, deadly thing within.

  “Leave us.” He spoke through clenched teeth, and the others were shaking out their wings to obey before Karou had even a moment to regret her words. With the sound of wings and the great, dust-stirring gusts of their backbeats, the fanning fumes of rot, the sting of dirt on her bare arms, her face, she felt the phantom twitch of her own once-wings, so deep was her impulse to flee. Like the night of the Warlord’s ball, when she danced with Thiago and every second her wings had ached to carry her away from him.

  Away, away. Get away from him. She gathered herself to leap, but before she could leave the ground, Thiago moved. Fast. His hand flashed out, clamped around her arm—her bruises screamed—and he held. Tight.

  “It does eat at me, Karou. Is that what you want to hear? That you humiliated me? I punished you for it, but the punishment was… unsatisfying. It was impersonal. Your protector Brimstone made certain I was never alone with you. Did you know that? Well, he’s not here now, is he?”

  Caught in his grip, Karou looked after the departing soldiers. Only Virko looked back. He didn’t stop, though, and all too soon the darkness gathered him and he was gone with the others, wingbeats fading, dust settling, and Karou was left alone with Thiago.

  His hand on her arm was a vise; Karou knew how Brimstone had made the Wolf’s bodies. She knew the strength in him, and she didn’t hope to break his grip. “Let me go.”

  “Wasn’t I kind? Wasn’t I gentle? I thought that was what you wanted. I thought it would be the best way with you. Coaxing and kindness. But I see I was wrong. And do you want to know? I’m glad. There are other means of persuasion.”

  His free hand, suddenly, was at her waist, thrust under the edge of her shirt to clutch at her bare skin. Her own free hand flew to the crescent-moon blade sheathed at her hip, but Thiago batted it away and seized the weapon himself, flinging it into the pit. It was only seconds before the other followed it, an
d Karou was shoving uselessly at his chest in her struggle to get free of him.

  It all happened so fast, and she was off her feet, hitting the scree so hard her vision went dark and her breath was driven from her lungs. She was gasping and Thiago was over her, heavy and far too strong, and the useless thought looping in her mind was, He can’t, he can’t hurt me, he needs me, and all the while he was laughing.

  Laughing. His breath on her face; she turned away from it, struggled, every muscle straining against him, every gasped breath a lungful of stench from the pit.

  She was strong, too. Her body was Brimstone’s work as much as his was, and it wasn’t empty strength, either—she had trained all her life. She got an arm free and twisted, wedged her shoulder between them, pulled up a knee and threw him off, rolled clear as he came lunging right back at her and she was up and reaching for the sky, for escape, when he tackled her from behind and she went down hard again. Her face in the scree this time and pain flaring through her and she was pinned, his weight so heavy on her shoulders she could get no purchase to throw him off, and then his voice was in her ear—“Whore,” he breathed—and his breath was hot, his lips were on her earlobe, and then the sharp points of his fangs.

  He bit her. Tore her.

  She screamed, but he slammed her head into the scree again and the scream choked off.

  She couldn’t see him. He was holding her facedown in the dirt and rocks when she felt his clawed fingers dig under the waistband of her jeans and tug. For a second, her mind went blank.

  No.

  No.

  The screaming wasn’t her voice. It was her mind, and it was the same foolish, outraged loop again: He can’t, he can’t.

  But he could. He was.

  The jeans stayed put, though, even when he yanked so hard it dragged her a foot across the ground, her cheek feeling every rock, and so he rolled her over again to get at the button and he was on her and he was smiling and her blood was on his lips, on his fangs, it dripped into her mouth and she tasted it. The stars were above him and it was when he let go of her arm to grab both sides of her jeans and try to lever them off that her fingers closed on a rock and she smashed his smile from his face.

 
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