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Days of blood & starligh.., p.37
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.37

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

  Good-bye. The word hurt. Good-bye was the last thing Akiva ever wanted to tell Karou. He thought of their first night together, how at the Warlord’s ball and later at the temple they had whispered “hello” to each other, again and again like a shared secret. It had been on his lips the first time he kissed her. That was what he would say to her if he could have what he wanted. Hello. “No,” he told Liraz, and reminded her it was bad luck to say good-bye.

  To which she replied, deadpan, “Bad luck? By all means, let’s not start having any of that.”

  It was neither “hello” nor “good-bye” that Akiva interrupted his escape to say, stealing glamoured again into Karou’s room to take her and Issa by surprise.

  The Wolf, bless the godstars, was not there, but when Karou shot to her feet she threw a quick, uncertain look to the door and it was another gut-stab to Akiva—a reminder that Thiago was near, and had full access to that door.

  “What are you doing here?” Karou asked, startled. Her peacock-blue hair was braided over one shoulder, and sleeves now hid the bruises on her arms. The swelling of her cheek had come down some, and her anger seemed to have gone, too. A flush spread up her neck, sudden color overtaking her pallor. “You were supposed to go.”

  Supposed to go. This wasn’t the surprise it might have been. Their imprisonment had been a sham. When Akiva had laid his hand to the door to burn it, it had sighed open. It wasn’t even locked. He’d let out a small breath of a laugh and peered through the crack to see an ugly little courtyard piled with rubble, and no guards.

  “We are going. But there’s something I have to tell you.” Akiva paused, seeing Karou tense. What did she think he was going to say? Was she afraid that he’d come to speak of love? He shook his head, wanting to assure her that those days were over, that she had no more such torment to fear from him. Tonight he brought a new torment. Again he was the bearer of an impossible choice. He said, “I am going to seal the portals.”

  Whatever she was braced for, it wasn’t that. Her voice was a gasp. “What?”

  “I’m sorry. I wanted to warn you,” he said, “so you could decide which side you’ll be on.”

  Which side: Eretz or the human world? Which life will you give up?

  “Which side?” She came out from behind her table. “You can’t. Not this portal. I need it. We need it.” What began as astonishment was becoming outrage, edged with panic. Issa moved to her side in a ripple. “Haven’t you burned enough? Why would you even try—?”

  “To save both worlds,” said Liraz, “from corrupting each other.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “Weapons,” said Akiva simply. He paused. He couldn’t begin to imagine compressing all that had happened in the Tower of Conquest into a neat explanation to offer her. “Jael. He may be dead, but if he’s not, he’ll be coming here for weapons. With the Dominion.”

  The whites of Karou’s eyes were rings around her black irises, and she put out a hand to steady herself on her table. “How could he even know about human weapons?” A flash of fury. “Did you tell him?”

  Another stab, that she could believe that Akiva would arm Jael, but it was no satisfaction to him to tell her the truth. He wished he could lie and spare her. “Razgut,” he said.

  She stayed frozen a moment in her stare, then shut her eyes. All the rose-flush that had colored her cheeks drained away, and she made a small, anguished moan. At her side, Issa whispered, “It is not your fault, sweet girl.”

  “It is,” she said, opening her eyes. “Whatever else isn’t, this is.”

  “And mine,” said Akiva. “I found a portal for the Empire.” The portals—and hence the human world—had been lost to seraphim for a millenium; Akiva had changed that. He had found one portal, the one in Central Asia, above Uzbekistan. Razgut had shown Karou the other. “They could come by either portal. Jael planned it as a pageant, to play on all that humans believe angels to be.”

  Karou was clutching Issa’s hand and taking long, shallow breaths. “Because things weren’t bad enough already,” she said, and began to laugh a broken laugh that Akiva could feel in his heart.

  He wanted to fold her in his arms and tell her it would be all right, but he couldn’t promise that, and, of course, he couldn’t touch her. “The portals must be closed,” he said. “If you need time to decide—”

  “To decide what? Which world I’ll be in?” She stared at him. “How can you ask that?”

  And Akiva knew that Karou would choose Eretz. Of course, he had known it already. If he hadn’t, he thought that no magnitude of threat—worlds at stake and lives—could have induced him to close the doors between them and trap himself forever in a world where she was not. “You have a life here,” he said. “There may never be a way back.”

  “Back?” She cocked her head in that bird way that was pure Madrigal. She was bruised and shadowed, standing before him, breathing fast and summoning courage like a glamour. With her hair pulled back, the line of her neck was exaggerated, like an artist’s rendering of elegance. The planes of her face were also exaggerated—too thin—but they still vied with softness, and that interplay seemed the very essence of beauty. Her dark eyes drank the candlelight and shone like a creature’s, and there was no question in that moment that, whatever body it was sleeved in, her soul belonged to the great wild world of Eretz, terrible and beautiful, so much still unmapped and untamed, home to beasts and angels, stormhunters and sea serpents, its story still to be written.

  She said, in a voice that was hiss and purr and the rasp of the blade to the sharpening stone, “I am chimaera. My life is there.”

  Akiva felt something course through him, or many things: a tremor of love and a chill of awe, a wave of power and a surge of hope. Hope. Truly, hope was as unkillable as the great shield beetles that lay inert for years beneath the desert sands, waiting for prey to happen near. What possible grounds had he for hope?

  As long as you’re alive, he had told Liraz, only half believing it himself, there is always a chance.

  Well, he was alive, and so was Karou, and they would be in the same world. It was possibly the thinnest grounds for hope that he had ever heard of—we are alive and in the same world—but he clung to it as he told her his plan to fly to the Samarkand portal and burn it first, before doubling back for this one. He wanted to ask her where the rebels would go now, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t for him to know. They were enemies still, and once he left here, Karou would vanish from his life again, for long or forever, he couldn’t know.

  “How much time do you need?” he asked through the tightness in his throat. “To retreat?”

  Again she glanced toward the door, and Akiva felt the burn of fury and envy, knowing that she would go to the Wolf as soon as he was gone, and that they would plan their next move together, and that wherever the chimaera rebels went, Karou would still be with Thiago, and not—and never—with him. All his restraint broke. He took a heavy step toward her. “Karou, how…? After what he’s done to you?” He started to reach toward her, but she shrank back, gave a single sharp shake of her head.

  “Don’t.”

  His hand fell.

  “You don’t get to judge,” she said in a violent half whisper. Her eyes were wet and wide and desperately unhappy, and he saw her hand lift by old instinct to her throat, where once upon a time she had worn a wishbone on a cord. She had been wearing it their first night together; they had broken it when the sun threatened dawn and they knew they must part, and in the days that followed it had become their ritual. Always in parting. And if the wish had blossomed over the days and weeks to become their grand dream of a world remade, it had begun much more humbly. That first night, the wish had been simple: that they might see each other again.

  But Karou’s hand found nothing at her throat and fell away again, and she faced Akiva squarely and spoke coolly, and what she said was, “Good-bye.”

  It felt like a final tether snapping. As long as you’re alive, there is al
ways a chance. A chance of what? Akiva wondered, throwing a glamour over himself and his sister together, and pushing himself out into the night. That things will get better? How had the rest of the conversation gone, back at that grim battle camp?

  Or worse. That was it. Usually worse.

  84

  APOCALYPSE

  Karou felt Akiva’s departure as she always had: as cold. His warmth was like a gift given and snatched away, and she stood there with her back to the window, feeling chilled, bereft, and undone. And angry. It was a childish, cartoonish anger—facing Akiva, she had wanted to beat her fists at his chest and then fall against him and feel his arms close around her.

  As if he might be the place of safety that she was always seeking and never finding.

  Karou breathed. She imagined she could feel him growing farther away and farther, and the distance hurt more with every phantom wingbeat. She took gulps of breath to fight back sobs. Issa’s arm was around her. Be your own place of safety, she told herself, straightening. No crossbar in the world could protect her from what lay ahead, and neither could a tiny knife tucked in her boot—though there her tiny knife would most certainly remain—and neither could a man, not even Akiva. She had to be her own strength, complete unto herself.

  Be who Brimstone believes you are, she told herself, willing the strength to suddenly well up from some unknown depth. Be who all those buried souls need you to be, and all the living, too.

  “Sweet girl,” said Issa. “It’s all right, you know.”

  “All right?” Karou stared at her. Which part? The threat of human weapons to Eretz, or the threat of seraphim here. The havoc the angels could cause to human society just by existing, let alone by soliciting guns for a war beyond human ken… What had she done now? How could she have turned Razgut loose on Eretz with his poisoned soul and such deadly knowledge as he possessed? How many more such mistakes did she have it in her to make, huge enough to destroy worlds? What, exactly, she wanted to demand of Issa, was “all right”?

  Issa said, “To love him,” and Karou felt a jolt go through her at the unexpectedness of it.

  “I don’t—” she tried to protest, out of habit of shame.

  “Please, child, do you think I don’t know you at all? I’m not going to say there is some easy future for you, or even any future at all. I only want you not to punish yourself. You’ve always felt the truth in him, then and now. Your heart is not wrong. Your heart is your strength. You don’t have to be ashamed.”

  Karou stared at her, blinking away the tears. Issa’s words—her permission?—hurt more than they helped. There was no way…. Surely Issa could see that. Why was she torturing her by talking as though there was? There wasn’t. There was not.

  Karou steeled herself. Be that cat, she remembered from a drawing in her lost sketchbook. The cat that stands out of reach on a high wall, needing no one. Not even Akiva. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s gone, and we have to go, too. We have to get everyone ready.” She looked around her room. Teeth, tools, thuribles, it would all have to go with them. As for the table, the bed, and the door, she felt a wave of regret. Rough as they were, they were so much more than she’d had on the run with the rebels before they came here. She swallowed, felt all the hollow horror of being shoved out a door into darkness.

  “Issa.” She started to tremble as the full dread of this new predicament took hold of her. “Where will we go?”

  Coiling, unknowable veins of intention and chance. Later, Karou would wonder where they might have gone, and how everything else would have fallen out differently, unknowably.

  If the Dominion had not already arrived.

  The chimaera host was gathered in the court and ready to fly when they heard a sound in the distance, a mundane sound with no place in this wasteland silence. It was the honking of a horn. The incessant, insistent honking of a horn, and the crunch of tires grinding over the trackless hill, careless with urgency and far too fast. More than a few of the soldiers broke formation to rise into the air and see over the wall. Karou was first.

  Her breath and heartbeat caught in her throat. Headlights on the slope. A van. Someone was hanging out the passenger window waving both arms, shouting, drowned out by the honking.

  That someone was Zuzana.

  The van skidded, fishtailed, stopped. Zuzana was out and running through the kicked-up dust, and Karou knew what she was screaming before the words came clear.

  And she knew that the blame for two worlds’ fates was on her shoulders now.

  “Angels! Angels! Angels!”

  Zuzana was sprinting. Karou dropped out of the air, catching her friend by the shoulders.

  “Angels,” Zuzana said, breathless and wide-eyed and white. “Holy hell, Karou. In the sky. Hundreds. Hundreds. The world. Is freaking. Out.”

  Mik came running around the van to Zuzana’s side, and lurched to a halt. Karou heard rushing on the hill like a landslide and knew the chimaera were gathered behind her.

  And then… she felt heat. Zuzana, looking past her, gasped.

  Heat.

  Karou spun around, and there was Akiva. For a long moment, he was all she saw. Even the Wolf was only a white blur, moving to take his place at her side. Akiva had come back, and his beautiful face was tense with remorse.

  “Too late,” she said softly, knowing that this world that had nurtured her in hiding, that had given her art and friends and a chance at normal life, would never be the same again, no matter what happened next.

  The chimaera host, bristling in the presence of the enemy, was watching Thiago for a sign that did not come. The pair of seraphim stood not a wingspan away, and their mythic, angelic perfection was everything the “beasts” were not. Karou saw them with her human eyes, this army she had rendered more monstrous than ever nature had, and she knew what the world would see in them if they flew to fight the Dominion: demons, nightmares, evil. The sight of the seraphim would be heralded as a miracle. But chimaera?

  The apocalypse.

  “No. It isn’t too late,” Akiva said. “This is the beginning.” He put his hand on his heart. Only Karou could know what he meant, and, oh, she did know—we are the beginning—and felt heat flare in her own heart, as if he had laid his hand there. “Come with us,” he said. He turned to Thiago, standing at her side. His voice scraped and his eyes burned hot, and Karou knew how hard it was for him to make himself address the Wolf, but he did.

  He said, “We can fight them together. I have an army, too.”

  EPILOGUE

  The Kirin caves. Two uneasy armies seethe and roil. Only the sprawl of the caverns keeps the peace, by keeping them apart.

  The Misbegotten claim to feel the sickness of hamsas even through stone. The revenants, enraged by the cold calculations writ black on the knuckles of their enemies, will not desist from pressing their palms against the walls that divide them. It is not a good beginning. Each army burns to hack off the others’ hands and hurl them over the drop into the ice chasms below.

  Akiva tells his brothers and sisters that the magic of the marks doesn’t penetrate stone, but they don’t want to admit it. Every hour he wishes Hazael were here. “He would have them all playing dice together by now,” he tells Liraz.

  “The music helps, at least,” she says.

  She doesn’t mean the music of the caverns. The wind flutes haunt them all, waking beast and angel both from nightmares more alike than they could ever imagine. The Misbegotten dream of a country of ghosts, the chimaera of a tomb filled with the souls of their loved ones. Only Karou is soothed by the wind music. It is the lullaby of her earliest life, and she has been surprised by deep and dreamless sleep these two nights they have spent here.

  Not tonight, though. It is the eve of battle, and they are gathered, several hundred altogether, in this largest of the caverns. Mik’s violin fills the space with a sonata from the other world, and they are all quiet, listening.

  Common enemy, their commanders have told them. Common caus
e.

  For now, anyway. It is implied or believed that soon this will change—revert—and they will be released to once more freely pursue their hate as they always have, chimaera against seraphim, seraphim against chimaera. The hope—Karou’s, the Wolf’s, Akiva’s, and even Liraz’s—is that their hate will turn to something else before that day comes.

  It feels like a test for the future of all Eretz.

  Zuzana’s head is on Karou’s shoulder, and Issa is on her other side. The Wolf isn’t far; Ziri has grown easier in his new body, and, lying back on his elbows beside the fire, he is elegant and exquisite, the former occupant’s cruelty absent from his face unless he remembers to try to put it there, and his smiles no longer seem learned from a book. Karou feels him looking at her, but she doesn’t look back. Her eyes are pulled elsewhere, across the cavern to where Akiva sits at another fire with his own soldiers around him.

  He is looking back at her.

  As ever when their eyes meet, it is like a lit fuse searing a path through the air between them. These past days, when this has happened, one or the other would turn quickly away, but this time they rest and let the fuse burn. They are filled with the sight of each other. Here in this cavern, this extraordinary gathering—this seethe of colliding hatreds, tamed temporarily by a shared hate—could be their long-ago dream seen through a warped mirror. This is not how it was meant to be. They are not side by side as they once imagined. They are not exultant, and they no longer feel themselves to be the instruments of some great intention. They are creatures grasping at life with stained hands. There is so much between them, all the living and all the dead, but for a moment everything falls away and the fuse burns brighter and nearer, so that Karou and Akiva almost feel as if they are touching.

  Tomorrow they will start the apocalypse.

  Tonight, they let themselves look at each other, for just a little while.

 
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