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Days of blood & starligh.., p.6
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.6

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

  A shout from above. “You there! What are you doing?”

  Akiva tilted back his head. The rays of the early sun lit his amber eyes, and the seraph in the air saw who he was and blanched. “Forgive me, sir. I… I wasn’t informed that you were here.”

  Akiva launched into the air to meet him, his brother and sister coming up behind him. “We’ve come with the reinforcements from Cape Armasin,” he said.

  The largest garrison in the former free holdings, Cape Armasin had sent soldiers to bolster the small southern contingent in response to these attacks.

  The young patrol leader, whose name was Noam, looked slightly dazed to find himself face-to-face with Beast’s Bane. “It’s good to have you, sir,” he said.

  For the second time: sir. Liraz made a noise in her throat. Akiva was no sir. Though fame afforded him a certain esteem, he was Misbegotten, and his rank was as it had ever been, and would ever be: low. “What have you learned?” he asked.

  The soldier was wide-eyed. “The fight was under the aqueduct, sir.” It stood just behind them, a massive, ancient span, trees enough sprouting from the cracks in its stones to make it a kind of aerial forest. It would have been built by seraphim, Akiva knew, in the early days of the Empire’s first expansion, many centuries gone by, when the angels had come to this wild land of primitive, hostile beast tribes and civilized it. Subdued it.

  Subdued. What a gentle word for the slave-making and spirit-crushing that had brought the chimaera under the Empire’s fist. The Warlord had destroyed that fist, but it was back, and now Akiva was a part of it.

  “An ambush,” Noam added. “They were killed in the underpassage, and strung up there.” He indicated the red message painted on the aqueduct’s soaring upper story.

  Arisen. Arisen.

  Akiva stared at the words. Who?

  Liraz spoke. “Could the villagers have done this?”

  Noam glanced at the dead. “It’s a Caprine village,” he stated simply, which Akiva understood to mean that the placid sheep-aspect beasts could never have committed such an act, let alone wrestled the corpses up the aqueduct.

  “Are there enemy dead?” he asked.

  “No, sir. Only our own, and no blood on their weapons.”

  So they hadn’t managed a single stroke in self-defense? And these had been seasoned soldiers who had survived the war itself.

  “And down there, sir.” Noam indicated the line of the road wending south through the hills. “The slave caravan was hit, too.”

  Akiva looked. The scene was pastoral: a softness of valleys, hills shading one behind the next like the shadows of shadows, all of it as tranquil as birdsong. And there, lingering just above the horizon, was Ellai. A ghost moon all but vanished by the dawn. I saw what happened here, she might have taunted. And I laughed.

  “The slaves?” he asked Noam.

  “Gone, sir. Into the woods. The slavers were… fed chain.”

  “Fed chain?” repeated Hazael.

  Noam nodded. “The slaves’ shackles.”

  Akiva watched his brother and sister for a reaction, but they gave away nothing. What would you do, he wished he could ask them, if someone put our people in chains?

  Slaves were held to be a necessary evil in the affairs of empire, but Akiva did not share that belief, and didn’t mourn the loss of slavers. Soldiers, though, were another matter, and here were eight more. The death toll was sharp and rising. There had been five attacks in all. In one furious night, at Duncrake, Spirit Veil, the Whispers, the Iximi Moors, and here, in the Marazel Hills, seraph “cleansing” patrols had been taken by surprise, killed, mutilated, and left as gruesome messages for the Empire.

  It was worse than war, he thought, to bleed out your life while your faraway folk danced hallelujah and raised their cups to the peace.

  Peace, indeed.

  Akiva looked down. The flames were halfway across the field by now, the first soldiers already swallowed up. Squalls swam in the rising heat, dropping down almost lazily to pick off the smoke-stunned grassjacks that fled in clouds ahead of the blaze.

  “Sir?” asked Noam. “Can you tell what did this?”

  Revenants, Akiva thought at once. He had seen enough dead-strewn battlefields to know that only the biggest, most monstrous and unnatural chimaera could have caused such rending of flesh. But the revenants were gone. “Probably some survivors of the war,” he said.

  “There’s talk,” said Noam, hesitating. “That the old monsters aren’t really dead.”

  The Warlord and Brimstone, he meant. “Believe me.” Akiva was besieged by memories of their last moments. “They’re dead and more than dead.”

  And what would this wide-eyed young soldier say if he knew how fervently the hero Beast’s Bane wished they weren’t?

  “But the message. We are arisen. What else could it mean but resurrection?”

  “It’s a rallying cry. That’s all.” The Warlord and Brimstone had gone beyond all retrieval. He had watched them die.

  But… he had watched Madrigal die, too.

  A sliver of doubt slid under his certainty. Was it possible? Akiva’s pulse gave a short, sharp spike. He thought of the thurible he had found, its small message scrawled in a bold hand: Karou. If there was another resurrectionist, maybe the word was not such a terrible taunt as he had believed.

  No. He couldn’t let himself hope. “There was only ever Brimstone,” he said, more harshly than he’d intended.

  Liraz was watching him, her eyes drawn ever so slightly narrow. Did she know what he was thinking? She knew about the thurible, of course. “No more secrets,” she had said, and there weren’t. Did a brief flare of hope count as a secret? If it did, it was one he felt justified in keeping.

  Noam nodded, accepting his word. With a light tone, as if he were repeating foolishness he himself did not believe, he said, “Others are saying it’s the ghosts.” His eyes, though, betrayed a real fear, and Akiva couldn’t blame him. Brimstone’s last words chilled him, too.

  He remembered how Joram’s voice had reverberated through the agora of Loramendi in the silence after all resistance was crushed. The Warlord and Brimstone had been on their knees; they had been kept alive to witness the deaths of everyone else.

  Everyone else.

  “You doomed them,” Joram had hissed in the Warlord’s ear. “You were never going to win. You are animals. Did you really think you could rule the world?”

  “That was not our dream,” the Warlord had said with quiet dignity.

  “Dream? Spare me your beast dreams. Do you know what my dream has been?” asked Joram, as if there were any who didn’t know he sought to dominate all Eretz.

  The Warlord’s stag antlers were broken, ragged. He had been beaten, and it seemed to cost him great effort to hold up his head. At his side, Brimstone wasn’t managing even that. He was hunched forward, his weight on one splayed hand, the other arm wrapped across his middle where he bled from a gash, and his great shoulders heaved as he tried to draw breath. He wasn’t long for life, but still he managed to raise his head and answer.

  That voice. It was the only time Akiva ever heard it, and the sound of it—the feel of it—would never leave him. Deep as the beat of a stormhunter’s wings, it had seemed to lodge in the base of his skull and live there.

  “Dead souls dream only of death,” the resurrectionist told the emperor. “Small dreams for small men. It is life that expands to fill worlds. Life is your master, or death is. Look at you. You are a lord of ashes, a lord of char. You are filthy with your victory. Enjoy it, Joram, for you will never know another. You are lord of a country of ghosts, and that is all that you will ever be.”

  It sounded like a curse, Akiva had thought, and it had pitched Joram into a fervor. “It shall be a country of ghosts, I promise you that. A country of corpses. No beast shall crawl but that it drags a weight of shackles and is so scored by the lash that it can hardly raise its head!”

  Anger was the emperor’s resting state. Seraphim wer
e beings of fire, but it was said that Joram burned hot, like the core of a star. It gave him enormous appetites—such an inferno to feed—and when it snapped into rage it was terrible, beyond all reach of reason or control.

  He killed Brimstone on the spot. One slash; surely he meant to sever his head, but Brimstone’s neck was thick and he failed, and as Brimstone collapsed in a torrent of blood, Joram wrenched up his sword and raised it for another try. With a bellow of rage, the Warlord, ancient creature, lowered that rack of broken antlers and launched himself at the emperor. It took two soldiers leaping in to put him down, but not before he speared Joram on one jagged prong and felled him, not killing him, not even seriously wounding him, but stealing his dignity on his day of triumph.

  And ever since, Joram had been delivering on the promise he had made: a country of ghosts, indeed.

  “If ghosts could pick up killing where the living left off,” Akiva told Noam, “we’d have wiped each other out long ago.”

  Again Noam nodded, accepting his words as wisdom. “Sir?” he asked. “Are there new orders?”

  Liraz finally couldn’t take it anymore. “You don’t have to call him sir,” she said. “You know what we are.” Misbegotten. Bastards. Nothing.

  “I…” Noam stammered. “But he’s—”

  “Never mind,” said Akiva. “No. No new orders. What are the standing orders?” They had just arrived; he didn’t know. “Are we to track the rebels?”

  But Noam shook his head. “There’s nothing to track. They just vanished. We’re… we’re to answer them.”

  “Answer them?”

  “The messages, the smiles. The emperor…” He swallowed audibly; he was being careful, weighing his words for Akiva’s benefit, but they lacked conviction. “The emperor can send a message, too.”

  Akiva was silent, taking this in. At Cape Armasin he had been lucky: in the north, there had been no one left to kill. Here it was another story. Fleeing villagers, freed slaves, chimaera trying to make their way to the Hintermost, where they believed they might find sanctuary, a way through the mountains to a new life. And now he was supposed to hunt them down? Make a message out of them?

  Beast’s Bane. He should be good at it.

  A mixture of desperation, fatigue, and helplessness overcame Akiva. He wanted no part of Joram’s message.

  Corpse smoke gusted up from the field, and the angels beat their wings and backed away from it to come to rest atop the aqueduct. Noam noticed gore and broken feathers where the soldiers had been strung up, and emotion broke through his martial stolidness. “What is it all for?” he asked wildly—of the sky, of no one. “I can’t remember. I… I don’t think I ever knew.” He fixed abruptly on Akiva. “Sir,” he implored, Liraz’s scold forgotten. “When will it end?”

  It won’t, thought Akiva. He looked into the eyes of this young soldier and knew that soon enough, whatever was in him that made him ask why would be dead, of necessity—another soul ripped out to make way for a monster. Armies need monsters, as the old hunchback had told him in Morocco, to do their terrible work. Who knew that better than Akiva? He looked at Hazael, Liraz. Was it too late for them? For himself?

  Desperate and tired, helpless and besieged by the meat scent of burning comrades, he did something he had not done in a very long time, not since Madrigal was ripped naked from his arms at the temple of Ellai.

  He imagined two futures for Eretz: One as Joram would have it, the other as it might be.

  A different sort of life.

  21

  SCARED ENOUGH

  Sveva woke with the thunderclap jolt and sick, scrambling lurch to consciousness of one who has fallen asleep on watch. Every particle of her body and mind slammed from dream to dread in the space of a twig’s snap and she was awake, looking, listening.

  Blinking. It was dawn. Through the fringe of the trees, the sky was soft and pale. How long had she slept? And the twig snap—had she heard it or dreamt it?

  She sat very still listening. All was quiet. After a few minutes, she relaxed. They were safe. Sarazal still slept; she didn’t need to know Sveva had fallen asleep; she scolded her enough as it was. With a sigh, Sveva uncurled her forelegs from beneath her. They were slim as a fawn’s, the fur still lightly speckled; she was the smaller of the two girls, the younger. She was the one used to getting away with things, not doing her share.

  But that was before.

  When they got back home, she would be perfect. No more dreaming days, or hiding from their mother’s call. Their mother. How worried she must be now, and the whole tribe; did they know it had been slavers who got them? They’d just gone out to run, the two of them, needing the wind in their hair after a day at their looms. It was Sveva, the fastest, who had kept them going, too far, too far. She’d given her sister no choice but to chase her. She couldn’t leave her—older sisters didn’t do things like that. This was Sveva’s fault.

  Did the tribe think they were dead? It made her sick to imagine their grief. We’re okay, she thought; she thought it hard, willing the message to fly across the land and reach her mother’s mind. Mothers could sense things, couldn’t they?

  We’re okay, Mama. We’re free. We were freed!

  She couldn’t wait to tell how it had been, the revenants come from the skies like vengeance made flesh. And what flesh! So huge, so terrible. Well, one of them had not been terrible: a tall one with long, spike horns had taken a knife off a dead angel and put it in her hand; he had been handsome.

  Oh, who had ever had such a story to tell? She would tell it fast, before Sarazal could butt in. She was better at stories anyway; she remembered the good details, like how all the slaves had stood together singing. They were from all different tribes, but every one of them knew the words of the Warlord’s ballad. The sound of their mingled voices, Sveva thought, had been like the sound of the world itself: earth and air, leaf and stream, and tooth and claw, too. And snarl, and scream. Some of the other slaves had frightened her almost as much as the slavers, but they’d all gone their separate ways once their shackles were off. Most had fanned south, carrying whips and swords, going to warn anyone they could find. Sveva herself clutched her knife—it was in her fist now, too big for her small hand to grip properly—but they were headed north and west.

  Home. We’re coming come.

  Once Sarazal was better, anyway.

  Sveva was chewing her cheek, worrying about her sister’s leg—she could smell the wound, even through the herb fragrance of her poultice—when she heard another snap. Her skin flashed cold and she stared into the thickness of the forest where night still clung in the shadows of the dense damsel trees.

  It was probably just a skote, she told herself, or a tree creeper.

  Right?

  Her heart was pounding; she wished Sarazal would wake. Older sisters could be tiresome when you just wanted to dither away a day, but they were a comfort when you found yourself fugitive in a strange forest, prey to sounds and shadows and in need of someone to tell you it would be all right.

  Silently, Sveva gathered herself upright, her deer legs extended before her, her sylph-slender human torso rising slowly. The Dama were the smallest of the centaurid tribes, slight, lithe deer centaurs known for their speed. Ah, their speed; they were the fastest of all the chimaera, and since Sveva was the fastest of the Dama, she liked to boast that she was the fastest creature in all the world. Sarazal said not necessarily, but true or not, Sveva loved to run, and longed to. They could have been halfway home by now, to the spiking ezerin forests and high moss plains of Aranzu where the Dama ranged, unfixed and wild.

  They would have been halfway by now, if not for Sarazal’s leg.

  Sarazal still hadn’t stirred. She lay curled in the fur-soft bracken, eyes closed, face relaxed and tranquil, and as much as Sveva wished she would wake, she couldn’t bring herself to rouse her. For days, Sarazal had had a hard time sleeping with the pain. All because of the shackle. Now that their ordeal was over, it was this that Sveva fi
xed her hatred on. It was interesting the way a small hate could grow inside a big hate and take it over. When she thought of the slavers now—dead though they were, she would hate them forever—it was Sarazal’s shackle more than anything else that made her chest and face feel tight with swallowed fury.

  With chimaera being so many different shapes and sizes, the slavers carried all manner of shackles and used whatever fit—all sizes of iron bands and steel chains, on legs, waists, necks. Never arms, though. It was Rath, another slave—a fearsome Dashnag boy whose long white fangs made Sveva shrink up like a wilting flower—who had told them why.

  “An arm you could cut off and get away,” he’d said. “An arm you could do without.”

  Oh.

  “I couldn’t,” Sveva had replied with some superiority. Savages, she remembered thinking, as if perhaps it was a lack of finer feelings that made Dashnag so casual about their limbs.

  “That’s because you don’t know what’s waiting for you.”

  “And you do?” she’d snapped. She shouldn’t have. Rath could have eaten her face with a bite, but she couldn’t help it. Was he trying to scare her? As if she wasn’t scared enough.

  Maybe, she thought, she hadn’t been scared enough. She was now, though. The sweet stink of infection was coming off her sister, and she knew that when she reached out to touch her, she would be hot with fever. The herbs weren’t working.

  Sveva had found them—feversbane even. At least, she was almost sure it was feversbane. Half-sure at least. But she could see the wound, Sarazal’s leg lying delicate on its bracken pillow, and it didn’t look any better. She traced her own painful chafe marks with her fingertips and felt the guilty weight of luck she didn’t deserve.

  The slavers had bound Sveva around her small waist with an iron manacle probably meant for some giant bull centaur’s legs, but when they’d gotten to Sarazal—she was last; it was only luck, bad luck—they’d found nothing to fit her, and made do with a scrap of iron tightened just above her left fore fetlock. The metal had cut, the cut had swollen, and then the makeshift shackle had done its real damage, slicing further into the swelling, biting deeper with every step. Sarazal’s limping had gotten so bad that the slavers would have had to leave her behind if the revenants hadn’t come. Rath said they would have sooner but that Dama were valuable, and Sveva didn’t need him to tell her that if they did leave Sarazal, or any of them, it wouldn’t be alive.

 
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