Days of Blood & Starlight, p.5Part #2 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
“I don’t need help.”
“It will help me, to have something to do.” With that, he moved forward so that she had to step aside or risk something like an embrace, and then he was past her. He was in her chamber, and it seemed to grow smaller around him.
It was a beautiful room, or had been once. The high ceiling glinted with mosaics, and faded silk panels lined the walls. A pair of windows with carved shutters stood open to the night, their ledges three feet deep, revealing the fortress thickness of the walls. It wasn’t very big; there were other rooms that would be more suitable to Karou’s work, but she had claimed this one because of the crossbar at the door and the feeling of safety it gave her—though a fat lot of good that did her now that Thiago was on the wrong side of it.
Stupid, she thought. Hanging back at the open door, she told him, “I’d rather work alone.”
He approached her worktable. Setting the tiger molar down with a click, he looked at her. “But you are not alone. We are in this together.” His intensity—his seeming sincerity—was piercing. “We are the inheritors, Karou. What my father and Brimstone were to our people, you and I are to those who remain.”
And what a heavy inheritance it was: no less than the fate of the chimaera races and all their hopes for survival.
The chimaera were barely clinging to the world. Thiago’s band of soldiers was all that remained of the chimaera army, and only through Karou’s collaboration did they have any hope of mounting a real opposition.
When she’d joined them they were hardly more than sixty: a handful of wounded survivors of the defense of Cape Armasin, who had escaped through the mine tunnels, along with others they had met as they moved across the ravaged land. They were mostly soldiers, with a few useful civilians such as the smith Aegir and a pair of farmwives to see to the cooking. And though sixty was a paltry number for a rebel force, they did have more hope than that.
They had thuribles. They had souls.
Karou’s best guess: Several hundred slain soldiers waited in stasis in the silver vessels, and it was up to her to bring them back to the fight.
“We are in this together,” Thiago had said. She looked at him hard and waited for the usual revulsion to rise, but it didn’t. Perhaps she was just too tired.
Or… perhaps Fate laid out your life for you like a dress on a bed, and you could either wear it or go naked.
Across the room, he had found her case of tools. It was a pretty thing, embossed leather the color of saffron, and looked like it might be a cosmetics case.
It was not.
He spilled its contents onto the table. There were some everyday objects—straight pins, a small blade, a hammer, pliers, of course—but mostly there were vises. They weren’t flashy: just plain brass screw clamps like the ones Brimstone had used. It was amazing the pain you could cause with such simple objects, if you knew what you were doing. Karou had had them handmade to order by a smith in the medina of Marrakesh who hadn’t asked questions but had guessed their purpose and smirked at her with a knowingness that had made her feel dirty. As if she enjoyed this.
“I’ll tithe,” said the Wolf, and Karou felt, in the void of her curiously absent revulsion, relief rush in.
“Of course. I would have before, if you had ever let me come in. Do you think I like knowing that you’re locked in here alone, suffering?”
Yes, she thought, but at the same moment she experienced a twinge of doubt for all her suspicion, and all the nights of barred doors. Thiago would give his pain to her magic so that she didn’t have to. How could she say no to that? Already he was stripping off his impeccable white shirt. “Come.” He smiled, and she saw in him a fatigue to mirror her own. “Let’s do it and be done.”
Karou gave in. She pushed the door closed with her foot and went to him.
THE PAIN TITHE
There is intimacy in pain. Anyone who has comforted a sufferer knows it—the helpless tenderness, the embrace and murmur and slow rocking together as two become one against the enemy, pain.
Karou did not comfort Thiago. She didn’t touch him more than she had to as the pain invaded his body. But she was alone with him in the candlelight, and he was half-clad and subdued, his handsome face grave with endurance, and while she certainly felt what she expected—a grim pleasure to give back some small measure of the anguish he had once caused her—it wasn’t all she felt.
There was gratitude, too. A new body lay on the floor behind them, freshly conjured from teeth and pain, and for a change, the pain had not been her own. “Thanks,” she said grudgingly.
“My pleasure,” replied Thiago.
“I hope not. That would be sick.”
He gave a tired laugh. “The pleasure is not in the pain. It’s in sparing you the pain.”
“How noble.” Karou was removing the vises and his arm was heavy in her hand, his muscle so dense that she’d had trouble fitting the clamps, and was having trouble again, wrenching them off. She cringed as she torqued his triceps out of shape, leaving an angry welt. He winced, and an apology slipped automatically from her lips. “Sorry,” she said, and wanted to bite it back. He had you beheaded, she reminded herself. “Actually, I’m not. You had that coming.”
“I suppose I did,” he agreed, rubbing his arm. With a hint of a smile, he added, “Now we’re even.”
A small bark of a laugh, almost but not entirely without mirth, burst from Karou. “You wish.”
“I do, Karou. Karou.”
The laugh died quickly; Thiago said her name too much. It was like he was claiming it. She started to draw away, her hands full of vises, but his voice stopped her. “I’ve had this thought that if I could tithe for you, I could… atone… for what I did to you.”
Karou stared at him. The Wolf, atone?
He looked down. “I know. There’s no atoning for it.”
I can think of a way, thought Karou. “I’m… I’m surprised that you think you have anything to atone for.”
“Well.” He spoke softly. “Not for everything. You gave me no choice, Karou, you know that, but I might have done things differently, and I know that. The evanescence… it was beyond the pale.” He looked at her, beseeching. “I wasn’t myself, Karou. I was in love with you. And to see you with… him, like that. You drove me a little mad.”
Karou flushed and felt laid bare all over again. At least, she thought, struggling to maintain her composure, this human flesh had never been exposed to him the way her natural body had. Still, the way he was looking at her, she gathered that he’d forgotten nothing of that night in the requiem grove.
She fumbled with the vises, returning them to their case.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you, but I didn’t think you were ready to hear it.” A drop in his voice alarmed her. He sounded… confessional.
“I really should finish—” she tried to say, but he cut her off.
“It’s about Brimstone.”
The mention of Brimstone gripped Karou as it always did: like hands at her throat; a throttling, breathless assault of grief.
“He and I had our differences,” Thiago admitted. “That’s no secret. But when I found out that he had saved you, that your soul wasn’t lost… Perhaps you think I was furious that he had defied me, but nothing could be further from the truth. And now… Believe me when I say that every day I wake filled with gratitude for his mercy.” He paused. “Every time I look at you, I bless him.”
Look who’s become a fan of mercy, Karou thought. “Yes, well. It was good luck for you that a spare resurrectionist happened along.”
“I won’t lie. When I saw you in the ruins, I almost fell to my knees. But luck is too small a word for it, Karou. It was salvation. I had been praying to Nitid for hope, and when I opened my eyes and saw you there—you—like a beautiful hallucination, I thought she had answered me, and delivered to me the only person Brimstone ever trained.”
Karou wouldn’t have sa
Those moments were shining points of hope, brief and followed by crushing guilt, when she would admit to herself just how badly she wanted to hand Brimstone back this burden. Selfish.
In her deepest heart, she was glad he was free of it, finally at rest. Let someone else bear this weight. It was her turn—and who deserved it more than she did? The ugliness and misery, the wind-borne stench of the pit, the isolation and fatigue, the pain. And if Brimstone hadn’t exactly trained her, he had taught her enough to manage, if only just. She was getting better, faster—thinner, wearier—and with no help from gods or moons or anything else, thank you very much. She told Thiago, with a rough edge to her voice, “Nitid had nothing to do with it.”
“Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. I’m just trying to say thank you.” There was a tremulous pathos in his ice-blue eyes. Keenly the intimacy of the moment struck Karou—their aloneness in the flickering light, his bare skin—and her revulsion came flooding back, nasty as bile.
“You’re welcome,” she said. She pulled his shirt off the chair back and threw it at him. “Get dressed, would you?”
She turned away again, trying to mask her disquiet. The only sound was the ring of the thurible’s chain as she took it from the table and suspended it from a hook over Amzallag’s new body.
It lay before her, huge and inert. Monstrous. She couldn’t believe that Brimstone would be proud of her now, but, as Thiago had persuaded her, these were monstrous times, and the rebels needed to maximize the impact of their small force.
It at least bore a resemblance to Amzallag’s accustomed bodies, being stag and tiger with the torso of a man, but it was much bigger—the iron filings were for size and heft, and fittingly were scavenged from the cage of Loramendi. It was a hulking thing; no armor would fit it. Every muscle was bunched and pronounced, and the flesh had a grayish cast: The excess of iron did that. Its head was tiger, the fangs as long as kitchen knives. And then there were the wings.
Ah, the wings.
The wings were the reason that living soldiers needed new bodies at all. It was Karou’s own fault. It had been her idea to come… here. She glanced at the window and the singular moon that was framed in it. Was she crazy? Stupid? Maybe. It had just been too much, keeping always on the move in Eretz, hiding in ruins and mine tunnels and scanning the sky for seraph patrols. She’d have lost her mind and her nerve keeping on like that, and the chances were that if they’d stayed they’d have been discovered by now, but still, she had to admit she hadn’t thought out all the ramifications of the move.
The pit, chiefly.
The soldiers needed to be able to come and go through the portal in the sky. They needed wings. For the journey here, those who could fly had carried those who could not—multiple trips back and forth, and those too large to be lifted had been slain and gleaned and carried that way. That was a day Karou would never forget, and now that they were here, the wingless were relegated to guard duty until she was able to remake them, at which time they could join the incursions into Eretz.
It was that simple. Simple, ha. Karou shuddered just to look at the fearsome thing on her floor and know that Amzallag’s previous body—the last one of many that Brimstone had made for him—had been thrown away like an old suit of clothes, so that Amzallag could become this. For a moment, she could only see it as its prey would see it, the horror and the hopelessness of escape, those wings, which, unfolded, would quite blot out the sky. Her hands grew clammy. What am I doing?
What am I making?
And… What have I brought into the human world?
It was like surfacing from a dream to glimpse cold reality for just an instant before sleep dragged her back down. Karou’s horror subsided. She was arming soldiers, that’s what she was doing. If she didn’t, who would make the seraphim pay for what they’d done?
As for bringing them into the human world, this place was remote and forgotten; the chance of encountering people was slim to none. And if a small voice in her head liked to whisper, That’s not good enough, Karou, she was getting used to tuning it out.
She took a deep breath. All that remained now was to guide Amzallag’s soul into his new skin, and that was a simple matter for incense. She reached for a cone and turned back to Thiago. He had put his shirt back on, she was glad to see. He looked very tired, his eyes heavy-lidded, but he mustered a smile.
“All ready?” he asked her.
She nodded and lit the incense.
She bristled at the words and the caressing tone in which he spoke them. Am I? she wondered as she sank to her knees to raise the dead.
Coming up on the silent village, the slave caravan thought nothing of a sky winged by blood daubs. The anomaly would have been an absence of blood daubs; in this work, carrion birds were a given. Usually, however, the carrion was of the beast variety.
Not so now.
The dead were strung up on the aqueduct: eight seraphim with their wings fanned wide. From a distance, they seemed to be smiling. Up close, it was an ugliness to shock even a slaver. Their faces…
“What did this?” someone choked out, though the answer was writ plain before them. In sweeping letters, in blood, a message was painted on a keystone of the aqueduct.
From the ashes, it read, we are arisen.
They panicked and dispatched messengers for Astrae. Being ill-defended, they didn’t delay to cut down their soldiers but hurried on, driving their chimaera chattel with whips. A marked change had come over the captives at the sight of the dead—a brightness, a keen and shifting eagerness. The blood scrawl was not the only message; the smiles were a message, too.
The corners of the dead angels’ mouths had been carefully slit, widened into rictus grins. The slavers knew exactly what it meant and so did the slaves, and all eyes grew sharp—some with fear; others, anticipation.
Night came and the caravan made camp, posted guards. The dark was pocked by small sounds: a scurry, a snap. The guards’ hands were hot on their hilts; their blood jumped, eyes darted.
And then the slaves began to sing.
This had not happened on any previous night. The slavers were accustomed to whimpers from the huddle of captives, not song, and they didn’t like it. The beasts’ voices were raw as wounds, forceful and primal and unafraid. When the seraphim tried to silence them, a tail lashed forth from the huddle and knocked a guard off his feet.
And then, between one leap of the campfire’s flame and the next, they came. Nightmares. Saviors. They came from above, and the slavers’ first confused thought was that reinforcements had arrived, but these were no seraphim. Wings and screaming, spike horns, antlers, lashing tails and hunched ursine shoulders. Bristles, claws.
Swords and teeth.
No angel survived.
Freed slaves melted away into the landscape, dragging the swords and axes—and yes, the whips—of their captors. They would be less easily subdued in the future.
All fell still. Here, too, a message was scribed in the blood of slaughter—the same words as would be found at many such scenes in the days to come.
We are arisen, it read. It is your turn to die.
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love and dared to imagine a new way of living—one without massacres and torn throats and bonfires of the fallen, without revenants or bastard armies or children ripped from their mothers’ arms to take their turn in the killing and dying.
Once, the lovers lay entwined in the moon’s secret temple and dreamed of a world that was lik
This was not that world.
A COUNTRY OF GHOSTS
Akiva, Hazael, and Liraz walked among the dead angels. They didn’t speak, only looked, and their silence was brittle with anger. These corpses, they were torn, as mice by cats. Akiva couldn’t tell if he had known them—the blood daubs had done their work—but on several of the faces there remained enough flesh to make out the mutilation. The obscene smiles had not been seen for generations, but all seraphim and chimaera knew them from graven memory. This was the Warlord’s signature.
It was what he had done to his seraph masters when he rose up from slavery a thousand years ago and changed the world. It was a powerful and unmistakable symbol of rebellion.
“Harmony with the beasts,” said Liraz under her breath, and Akiva tensed. His words, thrown back at him, and what could he say in response? That these same soldiers had left a string of burned villages in their wake and were no one’s idea of innocent? It would sound as though he thought they deserved this. He didn’t, but he couldn’t feel outrage, either, only sinking sadness. These soldiers had done what they had done, and been done unto in return. This was how it went.
In the cycle of slaughter, reprisal begat reprisal, forever. Now was not the time to philosophize, though, not with blood daubs circling overhead, skawing at them to be gone and leave them to their feasts. He kept his thoughts to himself.
The sun was rising. It touched the stalks of jess with a fairy glimmer, and the tassels fanned like wings in the breeze. Green-gold, gold-green, not yet ripe and never now to ripen. Soldiers were touching fire to the field’s edge, and the flames would spread fast in this tinder heat. Before the sun was fully up, the jess would be crackling, and so would the slain. Fire take the dead. There were no funerals for soldiers.
Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes