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Days of blood & starligh.., p.32
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.32

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

  He gave a grunt of pain, but his face stayed right there. His blood joined hers on his fangs and his smile came back. His laugh, too. It was obscene. His mouth was a grimace of red and he was still on her.

  “No!” she cried, and the word felt like it pulled from her soul.

  “Don’t act so pure, Karou,” he said. “We’re all just vessels, after all.” And when he yanked at her jeans this time they peeled down and caught on her boots, bunching around her calves. She felt rocks beneath her bare skin, gouging. The screaming in her head was deafening and useless, useless, as his knee came down between hers and wedged them apart. His snarl was pure animal and Karou fought. She fought. She didn’t fall still. Every muscle was in motion, working against him. His clawed fingertips lacerated her arms holding her, and the rocks tore at her back, at her legs, but the pain was so far away. She knew that she must not lie still, she must never lie still. He shifted his grip on her arms so he was holding both her wrists with one hand—to free his other hand, to free his other hand—but she tore out of his grip and reached for his eyes. He pulled back just in time and she missed and dug grooves in his cheeks instead.

  He backhanded her.

  She was blinking and the stars were swimming. She was shaking her head to clear it when she remembered her knife.

  In her boot.

  Her boot seemed such a very long way from her hands. He held her wrists so tightly she could barely feel her fingers, and when he paused and drew himself up again to fumble at his own clothes—not so white now, she heard herself think from very far away—he had to let one of hers go. She let it fall aside this time, limp. She closed her eyes. Outside the circle of their ragged breathing, the desert silence was like a void, eating sound, swallowing it. She wondered: If she screamed, would they even hear her at the kasbah? If they did, would anyone even come?

  Issa. Issa should have been here by now.

  What had they done to Issa?

  Karou didn’t scream.

  Thiago forgot her free hand as he lowered himself onto her, and she turned her head aside and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t look at him. His breath came in wolfish pants now, and she shifted her hips and turned, twisted to deny him, and she didn’t look as she groped under the bunched denim of her jeans for the top of her boot. For her knife. That small hilt, it was cool in her hot hand. In the pain and breathlessness, the squeezed-shut blindness, the fug of rot and the buzz of flies, the scraping, shifting scree and the press and wrench of flesh, that hilt was everything.

  She eased it free. Thiago was trying to push her hips flat. “Come, love,” he said in his purr of a voice. “Let me in.” Nothing had ever been as perverse as that soft voice, and Karou knew that if she looked at him she would find him smiling. So she didn’t look.

  She sank her blade to the hilt in the soft hollow of his throat. It was a small knife, but it was big enough.

  Heat poured over Karou and it was blood. Thiago’s hands abruptly forgot her hips. And when she did open her eyes, he wasn’t smiling anymore.

  72

  A SAD WASTE OF PAIN

  “Kill everyone,” Jael commanded his soldiers with morbid good cheer.

  Akiva still stood in the center of the bath, his brother and sister with him, and they still held their swords, though with the sick pulse of the devil’s marks, he knew they were in no condition to defend themselves against so many soldiers.

  “Not everyone,” corrected Ur-Magus Hellas, who had moved to Jael’s side, and who, unlike the rest of the council members, was manifestly unshocked by all that had transpired. A conspirator.

  “Of course,” said Jael, all lisping courtesy. “I misspoke.” To his soldiers: “Kill everyone but the Misbegotten.”

  Hellas’s look of smug complacency vanished. “What?”

  “Certainly. Traitors must have a public execution, must they not?” said Jael, deliberately not taking Hellas’s meaning. He turned to the bastards, still with that repulsive cheer. “As my brother said earlier, room can always be made on the gibbet.”

  “My lord,” said Hellas, affronted and only just beginning to be afraid. “I mean myself.”

  “Ah, well. I am sorry, old friend, but you have conspired in my brother’s death. How could I trust you not to betray me?”

  “I?” Hellas went red. “I have conspired? With you—”

  A cluck of the tongue, and Jael said, “You see? Already you are singing songs about me. Everyone knows it was Beast’s Bane who killed Joram and poor Japheth, too, his own blood. How could I let you leave this room, to go and spread lies about me?”

  The magus’s red face drained white. “I wouldn’t. I’m yours. My lord, you need a witness. You said—”

  “The bath girl will serve as a witness. She will serve better, because she will believe what she says. She saw the bastard slay the emperor. The rest, well, she’ll be distraught. She’ll believe she saw it all.”

  “My lord. You… you need a magus—”

  “As if you are capable of magic,” Jael scoffed. “I’ve no need of frauds or poisoners. Poison is for cowards. Enemies should bleed. Take heart, my friend. You die in noble company.” He gave the slightest of gestures—little more than a twitch of his hand—and the soldiers moved forward.

  Hellas cast wildly about for some protector. “Help!” he cried, though he had certainly played a part in ensuring that no help would be forthcoming.

  The other council members cried out, too. Akiva felt more pity for them, though there was little enough space in his own mounting misery to waste pity on this coterie of cruel, hand-picked fools.

  It was a bloodbath. The Silverswords, big useless brutes and already disarmed, struggled and died. One Dominion soldier dispatched both Namais and Misorias—still unconscious—with light sword strokes to their throats. He might have been scything weeds, so dispassionate was the gesture. The bodyguards’ eyes flew open and both experienced the moments of their death with a brief thrash and skid in the dregs of the red bath. The remaining servant girls were not even spared; Akiva saw that coming and tried to shield the one nearest him, but there were too many Dominion, and too many hamsa trophies arrayed against him. The soldiers shoved him back to Hazael and Liraz before silencing the girl’s screams with no evidence of remorse.

  They were their captain’s men through and through, Akiva thought as the scene played out before his eyes. He had witnessed—and partaken in—more than his share of carnage, but this massacre staggered him in its callousness. And its cunning. Watching it, and knowing that he would be blamed for it—that the infamy would be his while Jael took up the mantle of emperor—Akiva burned hot and cold, furious and powerless.

  He cast wildly about for some trace of the clarity and power that had earlier possessed him, but he sensed nothing beyond his mounting desperation. He looked to his brother and sister; they stood back to back. He could see their strain.

  There were four council members besides Hellas; they died more or less as they had watched their emperors die: shocked, outraged, and helpless. Hellas squealed. He tried to get airborne, as if there were any escape in the vaulted glass ceiling, and the soldier’s sword caught him in the gut instead of the heart. The pitch of the squeals sharpened, and the magus grabbed at the blade where it entered him; he clutched it as he sank back to the floor, staring down at it with disbelief, and when the soldier jerked the blade free, fingers scattered. Hellas lifted his maimed hands up before his face—blood, so much blood; it fountained from stumped fingers—and that was what he was looking at, in abject horror and still squealing, when the soldier corrected his aim and delivered a clean thrust to the heart.

  The squealing stopped.

  “I don’t believe he even tried to do any magic,” Jael observed. “And all that pain to tithe, too. What a waste. A sad waste of pain.”

  Then he turned a piercing look Akiva’s way and pointed to him. Akiva tensed to defend himself—or try. His grip on his sword was weak and worsening as sickness pulsed at him from
all sides. But the soldiers were well attuned to their captain’s gestures; they did not attack.

  “Now here,” Jael said, “stands a magus.”

  Akiva was still standing, though he thought not for long. The sensation of so many hamsas trained on him, it dragged him back years to the scaffold in the agora of Loramendi, Madrigal, and how she had looked at him, and how she had laid her head down on the block; how it had fallen and echoed and he had screamed and been able to do nothing. Where had that state of true sirithar been then? He shook his head. He was no magus; a magus could have saved her. A magus could save himself and his brother and sister from these soldiers with their clawed, gnarled trophies, their stolen strength.

  Jael mistook his reaction for modesty. “Come now,” he said. “You think I don’t know, but I do. Oh, this display of glamour, the swords? That was very good, but the birds? That was marvelous.” He whistled wetly and shook his head: a heartfelt compliment.

  Akiva took care to give away nothing. Jael might suspect, but he couldn’t know the birds had been his work.

  “And all to save a chimaera. I’ll admit, that puzzled me. Beast’s Bane, help a beast?” Jael was looking at him, drawing out a pause. Akiva didn’t like the look or the pause. Always, their encounters had played like a high-stakes game: exaggerated courtesy veiling mutual distrust and deep dislike. They had gone far beyond the need for courtesy now, but the captain kept up the charade, and in it there was a ghost of glee. He was toying with a smile.

  What does he know? Akiva wondered, feeling certain now there was something, and he would have given much in that moment to put a sharp end to Jael’s glee.

  “She tasted of fairy tales,” Jael said. The words struck a chord of familiarity—and a note of dread, too—but Akiva couldn’t place them. Not until Jael added, almost singing, “She tasted of hope. Oh. What does that taste like? Pollen and stars, the Fallen said. He did go on about it, foul thing. I almost felt sorry for the girl, to have felt the touch of such a tongue.”

  A roaring in Akiva’s ears. Razgut. Somehow, Jael had found Razgut. What had the creature told him?

  “I wonder,” asked Jael, “did you ever find her?”

  “I don’t know who you mean,” Akiva replied.

  Jael’s smile unfurled fully now, and it was a nasty specimen, malicious and excited. “No?” he said. “I’m glad to hear it, since there was no mention of any girl in your report.” This was true. Akiva had said nothing of Karou, or the hunchback Izîl who had hurled himself from a tower rather than give up Karou, or of Razgut, either—who at the time Akiva assumed had died with the hunchback. “A girl who worked for Brimstone,” Jael continued. “Who was raised by Brimstone. Such an interesting story. Far-fetched, though. What interest could Brimstone possibly have taken in a human girl? For that matter, what interest could you have taken in a human girl? The usual kind?”

  Akiva said nothing. Jael was too happy; it was clear that Razgut had told him everything. The question, then, was how much did Razgut know? Did he know where Karou was now? That she was carrying on Brimstone’s work?

  What did Jael want?

  The captain—no, Akiva reminded himself, Jael was the emperor now—said with a shrug, “Of course, the Fallen also claimed the girl had blue hair, which really strains credulity, so I thought, how can I trust all the other things he’s telling me about the human world? All the other fascinating things you left out of your report. I had to get creative. By the end, I believed he was telling the truth, strange as it all sounds, and what I can’t make out is how the three of you failed to report on their advancements. Their devices, nephew. How is it that you failed to mention their wondrous, unimaginable weapons?”

  Akiva’s sick feeling was deepening, and it wasn’t just from the hamsas. It was all coming together. Razgut and weapons. Pure white surcoats. Harpers. Pageantry. To make an impression, he had thought when he’d heard the rumors, but it hadn’t made any sense. No one could imagine that the Stelians would be impressed by white surcoats and harps.

  Humans, on the other hand…

  “You’re not invading the Stelians at all,” Akiva said. “You’re invading the human world.”

  73

  THE SCREAM

  Thiago seemed to not quite understand why all of a sudden he couldn’t breathe, or what the small pinch at his throat had to do with it. His hand flew to the blade, pulled it out, and as his blood poured out all the faster—onto Karou, all onto Karou—he looked at the knife with… condescension. Karou had the idea that his last living thought was, This knife is too small to kill me.

  It wasn’t.

  His eyes lost focus. His neck lost strength. His head came down heavy on her face; for a moment he floundered, then twitched, then stopped. He was dead weight. He was dead. Thiago. Dead and heavy. His blood kept flowing and Karou was pinned under him, her knees still splayed, her ankles caught in her pushed-down jeans, and her own panicked gasping breath was so loud in her ears she imagined the stars could hear it.

  She pushed him off, partway anyway, dragged herself the rest of the way out from under him, kicking at his legs to get free, and then she rose, unsteady, and pulled at her jeans. She fell and rose again. Her arms were shaking so violently it was a few tries before the jeans were up, and then she couldn’t manage the button. She couldn’t stop shaking, but she couldn’t leave it undone, it was unthinkable, and it was this that brought the tears—her frustration that she couldn’t make her fingers perform this simple action, and she had to do it, she couldn’t leave it. She was sobbing by the time it was finally done.

  And then she looked at him.

  His eyes were open. His mouth was open. His fangs were red with her blood and she was red with his blood. Her vest that had been gray was sodden and black in the starlight, and the White Wolf, he was… exposed, he was obscene, his intention laid bare and as dead as the rest of him.

  She had killed the White Wolf.

  He had tried to—

  Who would care?

  He was the White Wolf, hero of the chimaera races, architect of impossible victories, the strength of their people. She was the angel-lover, the traitor. The whore. Those who would have stood with her were gone—murdered right here or sent away to die. Ziri wouldn’t be coming back. And Issa, what had they done to her?

  Am I alone again?

  She couldn’t bear to be alone again.

  She still couldn’t stop her shaking. It was convulsive. She was having a hard time drawing breath. She felt light-headed. Breathe, she told herself. Think.

  But no thoughts came, and scarcely more breath.

  What were her options? Flee or stay. Leave them, let them die—all of them, all the chimaera in Eretz, and let the souls lay buried—or stay and… what? Be forced to resurrect Thiago?

  Just the thought of it—of the skim of his soul against her senses, of life returning to those pale eyes and strength to those clawed hands—dropped Karou to her knees to retch. Both options were unbearable. She couldn’t abandon her people—a thousand years Brimstone had borne this burden, and she broke after a couple of months? “Your dream is my dream. You are all of our hope.”

  But she couldn’t face the Wolf again, either, and if she stayed, they would make her bring him back.

  Or kill her.

  Oh god, oh god.

  She retched again. It racked her, spasm after spasm, until she was a shell, as raw on the inside as the outside—a vessel, she heard his voice in her head, we’re all just vessels, and she retched again and it was just bile. Her throat stung, and when the rasp of her own choking finally died away, she heard a sound, and it was near.

  And it was wings.

  She panicked.

  They were coming back.

  “Invade the human world?” Jael looked affronted. “You malign me, nephew. Is it an invasion if we are welcomed?”

  “Welcomed?”

  “Yes. Razgut assured me they will worship us as gods. That they already do. Isn’t it wonderful? I’ve
always wanted to be a god.”

  “You’re no god,” Akiva said through clenched teeth. He thought of the human cities he had seen—images of lands at peace that had struck him as so alien when he had first arrived. Prague with its beautiful bridge, people congregating, strolling, kissing on the cheeks. Marrakesh, its wild square filled with dancers and snake charmers, the teeming lanes where he had walked beside Karou before… before they had broken the wishbone, and with it the fragile happiness he had known could not last. “They’ll take one look at your face and brand you a monster.”

  Jael reached up and ran a finger down his scar. “What, this?” He shrugged, unconcerned. “That’s what masks are for. Do you imagine they’ll really care if their god wears a mask? They’ll give me what I want readily enough, I have no doubt.”

  And what was that? Akiva didn’t know much about human battle, but he knew some. He remembered the strange cafe Karou had taken him to in Prague, decorated with gas masks from a bygone war. He understood that they could poison the air and make all things die gasping, and that they could pump each other full of metal in the time it took an archer to draw back a bowstring, and he knew that Razgut had not lied to Jael. Humans did worship angels. Not all of them did, but many, and their worship could be as deadly as their weapons. Bring the two things together—bring them into Eretz—and it would make the war of the last thousand years look like a shoving match.

  “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “It will mean the end of Eretz.”

  “The end of the Stelians, anyway,” said Jael. “For the Empire, it will be a new beginning.”

  “This is about the Stelians, then? Why?” Akiva couldn’t understand what stoked this hatred of Stelians. “Send me to them, as Joram wanted to. I’ll be your envoy, your spy. I’ll carry your message to them, but leave human weapons in the human world.”

 
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