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Days of blood & starligh.., p.34
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.34

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

  It doesn’t matter what happens to me, she told herself. I am one of billions. I am stardust gathered fleetingly into form. I will be ungathered. The stardust will go on to be other things someday and I will be free. As Brimstone is free.

  Stardust. This was science, she had heard it and read it—all matter came from the explosions of stars—but it sounded like the humans’ own version of Eretz myths. A little drier, maybe: no rapist sun, no weeping moon. No stabbing moon. That was the Kirin story: The sun had tried to take Ellai by force and she had stabbed him as Karou had stabbed Thiago. Nitid had wept, and her tears became chimaera. Children of regret.

  Karou wondered: Had Ellai wept? Had she bathed in the sea and tried to feel clean again? That could have been part of the story: Her tears gave the seas their salt, and everything in the world was born of violence, betrayal, and grief.

  Karou had bathed in the river. Her tears wouldn’t make it to the sea; they would water date palms in some oasis; they would become fruit and be eaten, and perhaps be wept again through other eyes.

  That’s not how it works.

  Yes, it is. Nothing is ever lost. Not even tears.

  What about hope?

  She was as clean as it was possible to be without hot water and soap. She had submerged herself in the rushing water until her arms and legs were numb, her bruised, torn skin scrubbed free of blood—her own blood and… not only her own blood. Not even mostly.

  And not only Thiago’s, either.

  She heard a sound and it was near and it was wings.

  She jolted her mind from the memory like it was a face she could slap.

  Think of something else.

  Her pain. That would serve. Which pain, though? There were so many, and she had become too much a connoisseur of pain to let them blend into one haze. Each scrape, each contusion was its own entity, like stars in a constellation. A constellation called what? The Victim?

  She looked like a victim. Raw. Brutalized. The right side of her face had been dragged over the scree. Her lip was split, her cheek purple, scraped and scabbing. Open blisters on her palms wept from the handle of the shovel. The shovel. Don’t think. Her earlobe. That was the pain she decided to focus on; she could do something about that. It was torn and swollen where the Wolf had bitten her; she might have mended it the way she had mended Ziri’s hands and cut smile, but she didn’t think she would be able to maintain the focus she would need, and anyway, she couldn’t bear the thought of the vises. Her whole body was ache and sting and scream.

  “You make beautiful bruises,” Thiago had told her once. You don’t, she thought, looking at the ugly mottling that covered her arms, the splayed finger marks that told what he had done to her.

  Tried to do, she reminded herself.

  Had Ellai stabbed the sun in time, she wondered, or had the sun had his way? The story was unclear. Karou decided to believe that Ellai had protected herself, as she had. She held a curved upholstery needle over a candle flame to sterilize it. A hand mirror was propped on the table in front of her, and when she looked at it she zeroed in on her ear, avoiding any focus on her face. She didn’t want to see her face.

  All those years of martial arts training, she thought as the needle began to glow. You’d think fighting could look like it does in movies: plenty of space to deliver elegant choreography, land clean kicks, and glare cool glares. Ha. There had been no space, only grappling and panic, and Thiago’s strength had counted for a hell of a lot more than her repertoire of fancy kicks.

  Of course, she had killed him. She might look like a victim, but she wasn’t. She had stopped him.

  If only that could have been the end of it.

  A sound and it was near and it was wings.

  It echoed in her head, the wingbeats, and the thud, the thumping sound dirt made when it was flung from the shovel. And the flies. How did flies find the dead so fast?

  She felt like she was still at the edge of the pit, that fetid darkness threatening to drag her down. She jammed the needle through her earlobe, hard. It served to thrust the memory away again, but she knew the memory was like the flies—she might shoo it away, but nothing could keep it from coming back—and the piercing hurt. Her small sharp gasp was enough to wake Issa.

  Issa. There was the night’s one blessing. She still had Issa.

  “Sweet girl, what are you doing?” The serpent-woman uncoiled from her place in front of the door and gave a little hiss of exasperation when she saw the needle stuck through Karou’s earlobe like a fishhook. “Let me do that.”

  Karou let her take the needle. What if she didn’t have Issa? If, after everything else, they had taken Issa from her, too? “I couldn’t sleep,” she whispered.

  “No?” Issa’s voice was soft, and so were her hands. She eased the needle through Karou’s flesh and pulled the first stitch taut. “My poor child, it’s little wonder. I wish I had some dream tea to give you.”

  “Or requiem tea,” said Karou.

  Issa’s voice was not soft when she said, “Don’t say such things! You are alive. As long as you are alive, and he is…” She tapered off. He who? Whatever she was going to say, she rethought it. “As long as you are alive, there is still hope.” She took a breath, steadied her hand, and asked, “Ready?” before she put needle again to flesh.

  Karou winced. She waited until the needle was through. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Was it…? Is that how you and Yasri…?”

  “Yes,” said Issa. “It was peaceful, child, don’t be sad.” She sighed. “I wish she were here, though. She would know what to give you. She had a dozen tricks for helping Brimstone sleep.”

  “We’ll get her,” Karou said, wondering when, wondering how, and wondering what the place looked like today. Thiago had put the temple to the torch and the requiem grove, too. It had been eighteen years; had the trees grown back? The grove had been ancient. She remembered arriving in the moonlight to the sight of the treetops, the glint of the temple roof showing through, and how her heart would race knowing Akiva was waiting for her below. Akiva, waiting to gather her out of the air. Akiva lying beside her, tracing her eyelids with his fingertip, his touch as soft as hummingbird-moths, as soft as the drift of requiem blossoms falling in the darkness.

  She closed her eyes and clasped her arms, one hand over each forearm, and felt the tenderness of her bruises. Thiago, her ally; Akiva, her enemy. How twisted it was. What makes an enemy?

  No. She couldn’t forget. She dug her fingers into her bruises to shake herself out of her memories. Ink lines inscribed on killing hands make an enemy. Ash palisades where cities once stood make an enemy.

  Issa tied off another stitch and cut the thread. Karou thanked her and wondered What now?

  The sun would rise; she couldn’t stay in her room forever. She would have to face the chimaera. She couldn’t wait for her bruises to fade. Would they even notice? They took her bruises for granted. How much did they know of what had happened at the pit?

  Not all of it, that was certain, and—dear gods and stardust—they had better never find out.

  A sound and it was near and it was—

  “Karou.”

  A choked whisper. Karou blinked.

  “Who’s there?” Issa’s voice was sharp, and Karou knew she hadn’t imagined the whisper. It came from the window, and this time it was not Bast.

  “Please.”

  The voice was disembodied, the word pulled long, and it was too low a whisper to ring with the richness of his voice, but Karou knew who it was. Her body flashed hot and cold. Why? Why would he come back here? She stood up fast and her chair smashed backward.

  Issa stared at her. “Who is it, child?”

  But Karou didn’t have time to answer. The bolts were gone from the shutters. The window came open. Issa startled, the heavy muscle of her serpent’s coil rippling in the candlelight, and Karou shrank from the intrusion—and from the heat—as Akiva simultaneously appeared, in the soft glimmer of a vanishing glamour, and crashed to the fl
oor.

  76

  DEAD WEIGHT

  He wasn’t alone. Karou felt the presence of others even before the glamours fell away and revealed them. The two from the Charles Bridge. She knew them at once, though they looked so different now. The sister—Liraz—whose beautiful face had been so sharp and dangerous; it was transfigured by misery. She was gasping, and her eyes were red pits of grief—though nowhere near as red as Akiva’s, which looked as they had that long-ago day when Madrigal had worn a hijacked body to free him from his cell in Loramendi. The whites had gone bloodred from burst capillaries. What had done that? He looked waxen, ravaged by exhaustion.

  But neither of them was so altered as their brother. Who was… dead.

  They cradled his body between them, and neither seemed up to the task. As they lowered him to the floor, he slipped and landed heavily. A moan came from Liraz, who dropped to her knees and picked up his head with such gentleness.

  Hazael, Karou remembered. His name was Hazael. His eyes were open and staring, his skin livid, neck and limbs already rigid. His wings had burnt out; his flame feathers were nothing but bare quills now, the barbs all turned to ash and fallen away. He had been dead for some time.

  Karou’s body was still flashing from hot to cold and back; she stood frozen in place, trying to make sense of the scene. It was Issa who moved slowly forward and bent over Hazael to touch his face. Karou only watched, a queer detachment settling over her—that old unreality returned, as if her life were a shadow play cast on a wall—and she expected the fierce sister to snarl and shove Issa away, but she didn’t. Liraz reached for Issa’s hand and gripped it. The serpents in Issa’s hair and around her neck grew still and taut, ready to strike if it came to that.

  “Please.” Liraz’s voice was strangled. Her eyes shifted from Issa to Karou and they were wild. “Save him.”

  Karou heard the words, but in her slowed-down state they seemed to drift in the air. Her gaze swung to Akiva. The way he was looking at her… it was like touch. She took an involuntary step back. His face was a silent plea; he was nearly as gray as the corpse of his brother, which they had laid down on the space of floor where Karou conjured bodies. The resurrection floor. They were all looking to her. Even Issa had turned to her.

  Save him?

  They had come to her for help? After burning Brimstone’s portals—and Brimstone—after destroying her people, they had brought her their slain brother to resurrect?

  How far had they carried him? They were racked with tremors from the effort. Akiva slumped against the wall. His arms hung at his sides. He looked more dead than alive, more dead even than when she had first seen him, bleeding on the battlefield at Bullfinch.

  “What happened to you?”

  It might have been her asking him that question, but it wasn’t. It was Akiva, and he was looking at her cheek, her lip, and her newly stitched earlobe. Self-consciously, she untucked her hair from behind her ear and concealed it. “Who did that to you?” he asked. Weak as his voice was, it burned with anger. “It was him, wasn’t it? It was the Wolf.”

  He was not wrong, and all Karou could think of, seeing the fury on his face, was the living shawl he had made her once, the so-soft touch of moth wings on her shoulders. Once upon a time, Thiago had torn her dress, and, down from the false stars of the festival lanterns, Akiva had summoned a living shawl to cover her.

  She had made a choice that night, and it had not been the wrong choice.

  But that was then. So much had happened since.

  Too much.

  She ignored his question, hating the physical evidence of her vulnerability, wishing her arms were covered, and wishing she had mended herself. What was a little more pain, after all? She must not show weakness, not now. She stepped forward, turning her attention to Hazael. Akiva had brought her his dead brother? Well, he had also brought her Issa. And he had given her Ziri back, she mustn’t forget that, whatever may have happened since. She lowered herself to her knees beside the body—slowly; everything hurt—and wondered that they had brought his body so far.

  Bodies are only dead weight—we’re all just vessels, after all—but knowing that was one thing; leaving a body behind was another. Karou understood that well enough. It is bodies that make us real. What is a soul without eyes to look through, or hands to hold? Her own hands trembled and she clasped them to keep them still.

  The wound was under Hazael’s left arm. His heart. It would have been a quick death.

  “Please,” Liraz said again. “Save him. I’ll give you anything. Name your price.”

  Price? Karou looked at her sharply, but there was no trace of the cruelty or severity she remembered, only anguish. “There is no price,” she said. She glanced at Akiva. Or if there is, she could have added, you’ve already paid it.

  “You’ll do it?” Liraz’s words trembled with hope.

  Would she? Karou knew she was their only hope—she whom they would have slain in Prague just for bearing the hamsas on her hands—and there was irony there, but she took no pleasure in it. She couldn’t bear the sight of Liraz’s hands—they were so black—but they were so tender on her brother’s neck, her fingers so soft on his dead cheek, and Karou knew she should not feel sympathy for this killer of her people, but she did. Who among them, after all, had clean hands? Not her. Oh, Ellai, my hands will never be clean again. She clenched them suddenly and her blisters burned from her work with the shovel. It felt to her as if to do this one thing, save this life… it might be a salve. Not just for these seraphim but for herself, after the horror of the pit and the shovel and what she had had to do, and… and the lie she was now forced to live. She wanted to do this. A tick on her knuckle for a life saved instead of taken.

  “I can’t preserve this body,” she said. “It’s too late. And I can’t make him look the same, either.” Maybe Brimstone would have known how to conjure those fiery wings, but they were far beyond her. “He won’t be a seraph anymore.”

  “It doesn’t matter,” Akiva said. She met his eyes, his red, red eyes, and she wanted to do this for him. “As long as he is himself,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”

  Yes, she told herself, and wanted to believe it as firmly as he did. Soul is what matters. Flesh is vessel. “Okay.” She took a deep breath and looked down at Hazael. “Give me the thurible.”

  Her words were met with a silence that was like sinking.

  Sinking.

  Oh no. No. Karou stared at Hazael’s dead face, his open blue eyes, his laugh lines, and her upwelling sorrow overwhelmed her with its force. No. She bit her lip, willing it to stillness. She was rigid. She had to be. Her grief… if she let it out, it would be a magician’s scarf, one grief tied to another to another, it would never end. She didn’t want to look up again, to see the stricken faces frozen in that terrible silence.

  “We didn’t… we didn’t have one.” Liraz. Whispering. “We brought him here. To you.”

  Akiva was hoarse. “It’s only been a day. Karou. Please.” As if it were a matter of persuading her.

  They didn’t understand. How could they? She had never told Akiva how it worked, how tenuous the soul’s connection grew after death, or how easily it could be cast adrift if it was not contained. She had never told him, and now there was nothing in the air or aura of this dead angel—soldier, killer, beloved brother—no impression of light or laughter to go along with those blue eyes and laugh lines, no stir of any kind to brush against her senses and tell her who he was because… he wasn’t.

  She looked up. She forced herself to meet Akiva’s red eyes and Liraz’s so they would see and understand her sorrow.

  And know that Hazael’s soul was lost.

  77

  TO LIVE

  It was her sorrow that undid Akiva. One look and he knew. Hazael was gone.

  “No!” Liraz’s cry was choked, airless, nearly soundless, and she was in motion.

  Akiva didn’t have the strength to restrain her. She couldn’t have much stren
gth left, either. Even after the sickness of the hamsas, she had borne most of Hazael’s weight on the long journey here—and for what, all for nothing—and sometimes his weight, too, catching him by an arm and screaming at him to wake up when he would start to slide into the darkness. The darkness, the darkness. Even now it was lapping at him.

  What had he done in Astrae?

  He didn’t know. He had known only the thrum in his skull and the gathering, the pressure, the pressure, and he had grabbed Liraz and held her to him, fallen on Hazael and held him, too, and the blast when it came—from where?—had carried them clear. Far away, far, and not one dagger of all the glass of the shattered Sword—not one splinter—had touched them.

  They had brought Hazael to a field and he was already dead. But what is death? Akiva had thought of Karou. Of course he had. Hope, he had told himself, on his knees in the grass, weak and dazed and numb. Her name means hope.

  But not in their language, and not for them.

  Liraz lunged at Karou and Akiva reached after her but he was too slow. She hit Karou and slammed her backward. There was a chair lying on its side. They went down. Karou cried out in pain.

  Liraz found air. “You’re lying!” she screamed.

  Screamed.

  Akiva was moving, but it was like wading through darkness; the serpent-woman was faster—the serpent-woman was Issa, he knew her from Karou’s drawings. She must have been the one in the thurible. Thurible thurible thurible. Why hadn’t he had a thurible? But maybe the blast had torn away Hazael’s soul; maybe it was already gone when they laid him in the field, and there had never been a chance of saving him. They would never know. Hazael was gone, that was all that mattered.

 
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