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Days of blood & starligh.., p.36
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.36

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

  She had hoped that her little Kirin shadow might prove an ally, but she had never imagined… this.

  After that first instant of slack astonishment he had lunged to her side and he had been so careful with her, so present and good and unfaltering—none of his shyness now; he was all focus and strength. He had held her shoulders, carefully but firmly, and made her look at him.

  “You’re all right,” he had told her when he was sure that the blood that painted her wasn’t her own. “Karou. Look at me. You’re all right. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

  “He can, he will,” she had said, near hysteria. “He can’t be dead, it can’t stand. They’ll make me bring him back. He’s the White Wolf. He’s the White Wolf.”

  That was it, all there was to say. Ziri knew it, too; they didn’t have to talk what-ifs. It was Ziri who saw what to do and who did it. Karou grasped his intent when he drew his crescent-moon blade; she gasped, tried to stop him. He said he was sorry. “But not for myself. That part’s all right. I’m just sorry to leave you alone, for the time between.”

  Between. Between bodies.

  “No! No!” No no no no no no no. “We’ll think of something else. Ziri, you can’t do this—”

  But he did, and with a practiced hand, and his blade was very sharp.

  She held him while he died, and his round brown eyes were wide and unafraid, and they were sweet, in the instant before they dulled, they were sweet and hopeful as they’d been when he was a boy following her around Loramendi. That was who she thought of as she held him dead in her arms—the boy he had been—and again now, as he held her in his new arms. She thought of the boy so that she wouldn’t betray him by shuddering. It was so unfair, after the magnitude of his sacrifice, and so cruel, but it was all she could do not to wrench herself away, because though he was Ziri, his arms were the Wolf’s, and his embrace was anathema.

  When she couldn’t stand it another moment, she used a pretense to draw back. She reached into her pocket, stepping away, and drew out the thing that she had put there days earlier and half forgotten.

  “I have this,” she said. “It’s… I don’t know.” It seemed stupid now. Ridiculous, even—what was he supposed to do with it? It was the tip of his horn, a couple of inches long, that had snapped off in the court when he’d fallen unconscious. She wasn’t sure what had made her take it, and now, as he reached for it, she wished she hadn’t. Because there was a shyness in his voice when he said, “You kept this,” that made it clear he was reading too much into it.

  “For you,” she said. “I thought you might want it. That was before…” Before she had buried the rest of him in a shallow grave? Again, her stomach felt like a clenching fist. It had been the best she could do, and at least it wasn’t the pit. Not the pit for the last true Kirin flesh, dear Ellai, be it only so much stardust gathered fleetingly into form. It had been hard enough to shovel dry dirt onto his face. She’d kept thinking she should change her mind. After all, it was up to her. She had two bodies freshly dead. She could mend either one. She could have put Ziri’s soul back where it belonged; he’d done what he’d done and it was so brave, but then it was in her hands. His soul was in her hands.

  Ziri’s soul felt like the high roaming wind of the Adelphas Mountains and the beat of stormhunters’ wings, like the beautiful, mournful, eternal song of the wind flutes that had filled their caves with music he could not possibly remember. It felt like home.

  And she had put it in such a vessel. Because he was right, after all. This was the only way to take control of the chimaera’s fate. Through such a deception.

  If they could pull it off.

  It wouldn’t be easy even under ordinary circumstances, but so soon, while they were both still reeling and hadn’t even been able to talk or plan, to come to such a test. The angels must be dealt with.

  Karou turned away and went to her table. She righted the chair that she had toppled when Akiva fell through her window, and eased herself into it. The backs of her legs were so torn up from thrashing under Thiago’s weight, and her whole body pretty much felt like it had been clamped in vises. But that would all pass in a day or two; the rest was here to stay. The problems, the terrible responsibility, and the lie that at all costs must go no further than this room.

  Issa and Ten returned, minus Nisk and Lisseth.

  “I want them gone,” said Issa in a dangerous tone, and Karou knew that she meant Nisk and Lisseth, not the angels. “They’re savages, leaving you out there with him like that. The others, too.”

  Karou tended to agree, but still. “They were following orders.” She pointed out that they had followed worse orders than that.

  “I don’t care,” said Issa. She was even more disgusted with the pair because they were Naja, and she wanted to believe better of her own kind. “There has to be some basic understanding of right and wrong, even when it comes to orders.”

  “If we made that a rule, we’d have no one left. Well.” She glanced at the Wolf. At Ziri. “Very few.” Balieros’s team must be resurrected soon, along with Amzallag and the sphinxes, whose souls she had gleaned from the pit. She needed soldiers she could trust. “Anyway, we can’t start disappearing everyone we don’t like. That would be suspicious. And,” she added somewhat after the fact, “wrong.”

  In fact, they had disappeared no one, and she didn’t plan to start. Razor didn’t count. He had died attacking a seraph stronghold called Glyss-on-the-Tane—the same engagement in which Ziri had been lost, to the sorrow of all. No one need ever know what had really happened when Razor had tried, and failed, to carry out Thiago’s order, or that one of the two of them had returned—though only to the comfort of a shallow grave and the starring role in this enormous subterfuge.

  “Let me have the two Naja,” said Ten, clicking her teeth together. “This wolf mouth has a hunger. I’ll say they asked me to eat them.”

  “Don’t be terrible,” Issa protested mildly.

  “No?” Ten peered around at Karou. “But wasn’t that the whole inducement?”

  Karou couldn’t help but smile, which hurt her raw cheek. Ten was no more Ten than Thiago was Thiago; she was Haxaya, and it was easier with her. As much as Karou had grown to hate the she-wolf, there just wasn’t the same level of physical aversion as with the Wolf. It was good to have Haxaya’s dark humor in the mix—even if one couldn’t quite tell when she was joking. When Karou had awakened her old friend in Ten’s body—Ten having fatally underestimated Issa and her usually docile bands of living jewelry—she had put it to her straight: the terrible situation, and what she must do or else be returned forthwith to her thurible.

  Haxaya’s answer, with a smile that seemed made for Ten’s wolf jaws, had been, “I’ve always wanted to be terrible.”

  “Can you be slightly less terrible?” she asked her now. “No eating the Naja, or any other comrades, even despised ones.” As an afterthought, she added, “Please.”

  “Fine. But if they do ask me—”

  “They’re not going to ask you to eat them. Ten.”

  “I suppose not,” she conceded with what sounded like true disappointment, and maybe it was.

  And here they were, Karou’s allies: Thiago, Ten, and Issa. And they were looking to her. Oh god, thought Karou, feeling tipsy with panic. What now?

  “The angels,” she said, willing her pulse to even itself out.

  “They escape,” said Issa. “Simple. He’s done it before.”

  Karou nodded. Of course, that was it. Get them gone, see the last of Akiva, finally and forever. That was what she wanted.

  So what was that ache in her chest?

  We dreamed together of the world remade, she kept thinking. It had been the most beautiful dream, and could only have arisen as it did: born of mercy and nurtured in love. And she couldn’t think of the future, and peace, without remembering Akiva’s hand to her heart and hers to his. “We are the beginning,” she had said then, in the temple, and everything had seemed possible with his hear
t beating under her hand.

  And now, his heart was beating right over there, in the dark, in the granary. So near, and yet so very far away. There was no way she could imagine, no collision of impossible events, that would bring his heartbeat under her hand ever again, or join the two of them back together in the dream that was theirs—not hers and Ziri’s, not even hers and Brimstone’s, but hers and Akiva’s.

  No way she could imagine.

  81

  VEINS OF CHANCE

  One world on its own is a strange enough seethe of coiling, unknowable veins of intention and chance, but two? Where two worlds mingle breath through rips in the sky, the strange becomes stranger, and many things may come to pass that few imaginations could encompass.

  82

  TOP THREE REASONS FOR LIVING

  Zuzana and Mik were at Aït Benhaddou when it began. It. The thing that would never be eclipsed, that would own the third-person singular, neuter pronoun “it” forever.

  Where were you the day it began?

  Aït Benhaddou was the most famous kasbah in Morocco, much bigger than monster castle, though lacking the zest of monsters. It had been restored by World Heritage funds and movie money—Russell Crowe had “gladiated” here—and it was sanitized and set-dressed for tourists. Shops in the lanes, rugs draped over walls, and at the main gate, camels batting their astonishing eyelashes as they posed for photographs—for a price, of course. Everything for a price, and don’t forget to bargain.

  Mik was bargaining. Zuzana was sketching in the shade while he, pretending to peruse a selection of kettles, purchased an antique silver ring that he suspected was not actually silver, and probably not antique, but indisputably a ring, which was the main thing. Not an engagement ring. He’d gotten the air-conditioning back on all right, but he wasn’t about to count that as one of his tasks, and never mind, ahem, curing Zuzana’s ennui. That was most certainly not a task. It was one of his top three reasons for living—the other two being the violin and holding Zuzana’s hand—and it was an activity he performed—participated in—with a feeling of deep gratitude to the universe.

  To win her hand, though, he required a challenge. Two more challenges.

  He felt a curious commitment to this whole task idea. Who got to do things like this? Monsters and angels and portals and invisibility—even if the last one was a little hard to enjoy on account of all the ouch. For that matter, how many people ever got to buy maybe-antique maybe-silver rings for their beautiful girlfriends in ancient mud cities in North Africa and eat dried dates out of a paper bag and see camel eyelashes, for god’s sake, and… hey, where are all the people going?

  There was a sudden tide of rushing in the narrow lane, and hollering in Arabic or Berber or some language that was not Czech or English or German or French, and Mik watched in perplexity. The locals were hollering and rushing and then doors were swallowing them up and the lanes were empty of all but tourists: tourists blinking at each other as the dust quite literally settled, and, behind the doors, the hubbub intensified.

  Mik pocketed the ring and returned to Zuzana, who was still sitting in the shade, but no longer sketching. She looked up at him, unsettled. “What’s going on?”

  “I don’t know.” He looked around. A few families still lived within the walls here; he caught a glimpse of a bright TV screen as a door swung open and shut. It was such an anachronism: a TV in this place… and then… and then the hollering turned to screaming. Such a pitch of screaming. It seemed to mingle joy and terror.

  Mik grabbed Zuzana’s hand—a top-three reason for living—and pulled her across the way to where the TV was, to see what in the hell—or in the heavens—was going on.

  83

  GOOD-BYE

  When Akiva awoke, Liraz was sleeping by his side and they were in darkness, though, of course, it is never true darkness where seraphim are. Their wings, even burning dull in exhausted sleep, cast a sly luminescence that reached to the high timbered ceiling over their heads, the sloping mud walls at their sides. It was a large space, and windowless; he couldn’t tell if it was night or day. How long had he slept?

  He felt… well, invigorated was a hard word under the circumstances, it sounded full of life, and he was not that, but he was a good deal better. He pushed himself up to sit.

  The first thing he saw was his brother. Hazael lay on Liraz’s other side; her body was curved toward his, and for a wild instant, hope leapt in Akiva that it was three of them again, that Karou had resurrected his brother, after all, and Hazael would sit up and start telling ridiculous stories about all he had seen and done while he was a disembodied soul. But that hope quickly went the way of most hopes: Acid bitterness devoured it, and Akiva felt like a fool. Of course, Hazael was dead, still and forever. There were beginning to be flies, and that couldn’t stand.

  He woke Liraz. It was time to honor their brother.

  The ceremony wasn’t much as ceremonies go, but then they never were: a soldier’s funeral, the corpse its own pyre. The official words were impersonal, so they changed them to fit Hazael.

  “He was always hungry,” said Liraz, “and he fell asleep sometimes on the watch. He saved himself a thousand times from discipline with his smile.”

  “He could make anyone talk to him,” said Akiva. “No secret was safe from him.”

  “Except yours,” murmured Liraz, and it stung, the truth of it.

  “He should have had a true life,” he said. “He would have filled it up. He would have tried everything.” He would have married, he thought. He could have had children. Akiva could almost see him—the Hazael that might have been, had the world been better.

  “No one has ever laughed more truly,” said Liraz. “He made laughing seem easy.”

  And laughing should be easy, Akiva thought, but it wasn’t. Look at the pair of them, black hands and splintered souls. He reached for his sister’s hand, and she took it and gripped it as tightly as a sword hilt, as if her life depended on it. It hurt, but it was a pain he could easily bear.

  Liraz was altered. Layers were stripped away—all her harshness and the tough veneer that even he had scarcely seen through since they were children. Hugging her knees, with her shoulders hunched and her firelit face soft with sadness, she looked vulnerable. Young. She looked almost like a different person.

  “He died defending me,” she said. “If I had gone with Jael, he would still be alive.”

  “No. He would have hanged,” Akiva told her. “You would still have been taken, and he would have died in misery for failing you. He would have chosen this.”

  “But if he had lived just a little longer, he could have gotten away with us.” She had been staring into the flames that consumed their brother, but she blinked away from them to fix on Akiva. “Akiva. What did you do?” She did not ask, “And why didn’t you do it in time?” but the ghost question hung there anyway.

  “I don’t know,” he said, to the asked question and the unasked, and he stared into the cremation fire as it burned fast and infernal, leaving only ash for an urn they didn’t have.

  What did he have in him, to have done such a thing, and why hadn’t it shown itself when he needed it most—not just in time to save Hazael’s life, but years ago, to save Madrigal’s? Had the years of devotion to sirithar honed his sympathy for magic? Or was it triggered by that sudden surge of memories of his mother?

  Liraz asked, “Do you think Jael is alive?”

  Akiva didn’t know what to say to that, either. He didn’t want to think about Jael, but it couldn’t very well be avoided. “He may be,” he allowed. “And if he is…”

  “I hope he is.”

  Akiva looked at his sister. The tough veneer had not returned. She still seemed vulnerable and young. She had spoken simply, quietly, and Akiva understood. A part of him hoped it, too. Jael deserved no such easy death as the explosion would have dealt him. But if he was alive, there were things to be done.

  He rose and looked around. Mud walls, wooden door, no g
uards with outstretched hamsas to keep them weak; this dark place couldn’t hold them. Where was the Wolf, and why had he allowed his prisoners to rest and regain their strength?

  And where was Karou? With Thiago? The idea brought gut pain, like a stab. Akiva couldn’t shake the memory of the look that had passed between them. That one look made him question everything he’d thought he knew about Karou. “I think it’s time to be going.” He held his hand out to his sister.

  Once, Liraz would have rolled her eyes and risen without help. Now, she let him pull her to her feet. But once she had risen, she stood rooted beside the remains of Hazael’s pyre, staring at it. “I feel like we’re leaving him here.”

  “I know,” said Akiva. To have flown so far bearing his weight, and to leave now with nothing? It seemed, in that moment, unthinkable. He looked around again, saw a jug inside the door.

  “Water,” Liraz told him. “The Naja woman left it.” Akiva went and got it, offered it to Liraz, and then drank deeply himself. It was sweet and good and much needed, and when it was gone, he carefully filled the jug with Hazael’s ashes. Maybe it was foolish or morbid to keep such physical residue, but it helped, somehow.

  “Okay,” he said.

  “To the caves? The others must be thinking we died in the blast.”

  The Kirin caves, where once upon a time he and Madrigal were to have met to begin their revolution. It was his Misbegotten brothers and sisters who awaited him there now, and with them a future that did not yet feel real. His sense of purpose was intact: to finish what he had started, end the killing, create—somehow—a new way of living. But without Karou by his side, the dream lay ahead of him with all the magic of a dusty path to a flat horizon.

  “Yes,” he said. “But there’s something we have to do first.”

  Liraz let out a long breath. “Please tell me it doesn’t involve saying good-bye.”

 
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