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Days of blood & starligh.., p.7
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.7

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

  But the revenants had come—from where, the moons only knew, on wings such as she had never seen, more terrifying than anything out of a nightmare—and just in time. Sarazal could barely walk now, and they hadn’t gotten far, with Sveva too small to be much help supporting her.

  She sighed. No more sounds from the shadows, that was good, but the shadows were fading away. It was day. It was time to wake Sarazal. Reluctantly, Sveva touched her shoulder. Her skin was hot, and when she fluttered her eyes open they weren’t right—they had that shine and blear of sickness. Sveva’s guilt churned in her stomach like a live thing. She wanted to pull her sister’s head into her lap, comb out her tangled cinnamon-stick hair with her fingers, and sing to her, not the Warlord’s ballad but something sweet, with no one dying in it. But all she did was murmur, “It’s morning, Sara, time to get up.”

  A whimper. “I can’t.”

  “You can.” Sveva tried to sound cheerful, but a desperate panic was building in her. Sarazal was really sick. What if she… No. Sveva slammed the thought shut. That couldn’t happen. “Of course you can. Mama will be watching for us.”

  But Sarazal only whimpered again and tried to nestle deeper into the bracken, and Sveva didn’t know what to do. Her sister was always the one bossing and planning and coaxing. Maybe she should let her sleep a little longer, she thought, let the feversbane work.

  If it was feversbane. What if it wasn’t? What if it was doing more harm than good?

  That’s what Sveva was worrying over when the voice came from behind her. No snapping twigs gave warning—it was just there, almost in her ear, stabbing icy jolts of fright all through her. “You have to go.”

  Sveva whirled around, brandishing her too-big knife, and there was Rath. The Dashnag boy with his long white fangs, he was half in the shadow and half out, and for all that he was still a boy, he was just so big. Sveva’s gasp was long and unsteady, a reeling drag of terror. Rath gave her a long look, and Sveva could read no expression on his beast face. He had a tiger’s head and cat eyes that caught the light and silvered. He was a hunter, a stalker, an eater of flesh. She could outrun him easily, she knew that… except that she couldn’t, because if she were running, it would mean she had left Sarazal behind.

  “What are you doing here?” she cried. “Were you following us?”

  Rath’s voice came from low in his throat. “I was looking for the revenants,” he said. “But they’re gone, and I wouldn’t count on them saving you twice.”

  Was that a threat? “You leave us alone,” she said, putting herself in front of Sarazal.

  Rath made an impatient sound. “Not from me,” he said. “If you were watching the sky, you’d know.”

  “What?” Sveva’s heart drummed. “What do you mean?”

  “Angels are coming. Soldiers, not slavers. If you want to live, it’s time to go.”

  Angels. Sveva’s hatred kindled. “We’re hidden here,” she said. The leaf cover of the damsel canopy would be unbroken green from above, leagues and leagues of it. Two Dama girls were like two acorns. “They’ll never see us.”

  “They don’t need to see you to kill you,” said Rath. “Look for yourself.” He indicated an opening in the brush that Sveva knew gave way to a little rise and a ridge, with a view out onto the sweep of the hills. She glanced at Sarazal, who was sleeping again, her lips moving and eyelids fluttering with unhappy dreams. Rath made another impatient sound, and Sveva went. She moved sideways, her cloven hooves dancing and anxious, and when she was past him she burst into speed and leapt up the rise.

  She saw smoke.

  Across the valley, between themselves and their way home, some half-dozen plumes of ink-black smoke rose from the forest at intervals. Licks of vivid fire were discernible below, and above, shimmering in the air like heat mirages: seraphim.

  They were going to burn them out. Burn this land. Burn the world.

  Stunned, she came back to Rath. “Did you see?” he asked.

  “Yes,” she spat, angry. Angry with him, as if it were his fault. Anger was better than the panic that pulsed just beneath it. She stooped to gather her sister to her feet, but Sarazal resisted.

  “No,” she said, her voice small as a child’s. “I can’t, I can’t.”

  Sveva had never seen her sister like this. She tried to draw her upright. “Come on,” she said. “Sarazal. You can. You have to.”

  But Sarazal shook her head. “Svee, please.” Her face crumpled; her eyes squeezed tight. “It hurts.” It was the first time she had admitted the pain, and her voice was a whisper from a deep place, long and pleading. “Go,” she said. “You know I can’t. I won’t blame you. No one will. Svee, Svee, maybe you are the fastest in the world.” She tried to smile. Svee was Sveva’s baby name; it cut her to the heart to hear it. “So run!” Sarazal cried.

  And Sveva shook her. “I’ll lie down and die with you, do you hear me? Is that what you want? Mama will be so mad at you!” Her voice sounded shrill, cruel. She just had to get her sister moving. “And don’t even try to say you would leave me. I know you wouldn’t, and I won’t, either!”

  And Sarazal did try to rise, but she cried out as soon as she put weight on her swollen leg, and sank back down. “I can’t,” she whispered. Her fevered eyes were wide with terror.

  Then Rath sprang. Sveva had half forgotten him. She didn’t see the start of the leap, only its finish, when he came down on the bracken before them, impossibly light for his bulk, and grabbed Sarazal up, one big arm hooked under her sleek deer belly, her human torso pulled tight to his shoulder. Sarazal gasped, going rigid with pain and fear, and Rath said nothing. Another leap and he was moving again, away from the oncoming fire and the shimmer of angels without even a backward glance at Sveva.

  After one numb pulse of surprise, she followed him.

  22

  THE TOOTH PHANTOM

  “But why teeth?” Mik asked Zuzana. “I don’t get it.”

  Zuzana, marching up the sidewalk ahead of him, stopped dead and whirled to face him. He was pulling her giant marionette on its wheeled cart and had to lurch to a halt to avoid running her over. She stood there tiny and imperious, a pout and a scowl vying for dominance of her expression. She said, “I don’t know why. That’s not the point. The point is that she was here. In Prague.”

  She left the rest unsaid, the pout winning out so that for a moment she looked unguardedly wounded. Karou—the “Tooth Phantom,” as they were calling her, little guessing that she and “the Girl on the Bridge” were one and the same—had apparently, at some point in her string of crimes, hit the National Museum. The local news had featured a curator shining a penlight into the jaws of a slightly moth-eaten Siberian tiger.

  “As you see, she didn’t take the fangs—only the molars,” the man had said, defensive. “That’s why we didn’t notice. We have no reason to look inside specimens’ mouths.”

  Clearly, the Phantom was Karou. Even if the glimpse of footage wasn’t enough to positively identify her, Zuzana had a resource that the various police forces of the world did not: her friend’s sketchbooks. They were piled in a corner of Mik’s room, all ninety of them. From the time Karou was old enough to hold a pencil, she had been drawing this story of monsters and mystical doorways and teeth. Always teeth.

  Mik’s question was a good one: Why? Well, Zuzana had no idea. Right now, however, that was not her primary concern.

  “How could she be here and not come see us?” she demanded. One eyebrow was up, cool and furious, and her scowl muscled her pout into submission. In her platform boots and vintage tutu, with her face upturned and fierce, in doll makeup with pink-dot cheeks and fluttery foil lashes, she looked every inch the “rabid fairy” that Karou had dubbed her.

  Mik reached out to cup her shoulders. “We don’t know what’s going on with her. Maybe she was in a hurry. Or she was being followed. I mean, it could be anything, right?”

  “That’s what pisses me off the most,” Zuzana said. “That it could be any
thing, and I know nothing. I’m her best friend. Why won’t she let me know what she’s doing?”

  “I don’t know, Zuze,” said Mik, his voice soft. “She said she feels happy. That’s good, right?”

  They were poised at the verge of the Charles Bridge on their way to stake out their spot for the day’s performances. They’d gotten a late start this morning and the medieval bridge was fast filling with artists and musicians, not to mention more than a fair share of the world’s apocalyptic weirdos. Anxiously, Mik watched an old-man jazz band trundle by carrying battered instrument cases.

  Zuzana was oblivious. “Ugh! Don’t get me started on that e-mail. I want to kill her a little bit. Was it a riddle? Monty Python references? Sandcastles? What the hell? And she didn’t even mention Akiva. What does that mean?”

  “It’s not promising,” Mik acknowledged.

  “I know. I mean, are they together? She would mention him, right?”

  “Well, yeah. Like you write her all about me, telling her all the funny things I say, and how every day I get more handsome and clever. And you use smileys—”

  Zuzana snorted. “Of course. And I sign everything Mrs. Mikolas Vavra, with a heart dotting the i.”

  Mik said, “Huh. I like the sound of that.”

  She punched his shoulder. “Please. If you ever did ask me to marry you, don’t even think I would identify myself as some addendum of you, like an old lady signing her rent check with perfect penmanship as Mrs. Husband Name—”

  “But you’d say yes, is that what you’re saying?” Mik’s blue eyes twinkled.

  “What?”

  “That sounded like the only quibble is what you’d call yourself, not whether or not you’d say yes.”

  Zuzana blushed. “I didn’t say that.”

  “So you wouldn’t marry me?”

  “Ridiculous question. I’m eighteen!”

  “Oh, it’s an age thing?” He frowned. “You don’t mean wild oats, do you? We’re not going to have to take some stupid break so you can experience other—”

  Zuzana put a hand over his mouth. “Gross. Don’t even say it.”

  Mollified, Mik kissed her palm. “Good.”

  She spun on her heel and walked on. Mik gave the huge puppet a tug to get it rolling again, and followed. “So,” he called to her back, “just out of curiosity, you know, purely conversation and all, at what age will you be entertaining offers of marriage?”

  “You think it’ll be so easy?” she called back over her shoulder. “No way. There will be tasks. Like in a fairy tale.”

  “That sounds dangerous.”

  “Very. So think twice.”

  “No need,” he said. “You’re worth it.” And Zuzana’s face warmed with pleasure.

  They managed to find a wedge of unclaimed space on the Old Town end of the bridge, where they parked the marionette. It towered there in its black trench coat like some sinister bridge guardian, a dark counterpoint to the clutch of white-robed figures beyond. Angel-cult rabble. They were loitering, lighting their vigil candles and chanting—at least until the next police sweep, which would temporarily scatter them. How unflagging they were in their belief that the angels would return here to the scene of their most dramatic sighting.

  You know nothing, Zuzana thought with scorn, but her superiority was wearing thin. So she had met one of the angels. So what? She was just as ignorant now as everyone else.

  Karou, Karou. What could it mean that she had been here and not even said hello? And that e-mail! Yes, it was absurd, mysterious to the point of clubbing her on the head, but… there was just something so off about it.

  It struck Zuzana then: a lightning flash of memory.

  I feel happy…. I feel happy….

  Karou did not feel happy. Zuzana was suddenly sick. She pulled out her phone to make sure she was right. The clip was easy to find online; it was a classic. “Don’t want to go on the cart!” That was the clue. Monty Python and the Holy Grail: She and Karou had gone through a phase when they were fifteen, they must have watched it twenty times. And there it was, at the end of the “Bring out your dead” scene.

  “I feel happy…. I feel happy….”

  Desperate singsong. It was what the old man said to convince them he was all right just before they clubbed him on the head and threw his body on the plague cart. Jesus. Leave it to Karou to communicate in Holy Grail. Was she trying to say that she was in danger? But what could Zuzana possibly do about it? Her heart was beating fast now.

  “Mik,” she called. He was tuning his violin. “Mik!”

  Priestess of a sandcastle? In a land of dust and starlight?

  Was that a clue, too?

  Did Karou want to be found?

  23

  PRIESTESS OF A SANDCASTLE

  The kasbah was a castle built of earth, one of the hundreds that studded these southern reaches of Morocco, where they had baked in the sun for centuries. Once, they had been home to warrior clans and all their retinue. They were primeval fortresses, proud and red and tall, with crenellations like the hooked teeth of vipers, and arcane Berber patterns etched on the high, smooth walls.

  In many of the kasbahs, small clutches of warriors’ descendants still eked out lives while time worked its ruin around them. But this place, when Karou found it, had been left to the storks and scorpions.

  A few weeks ago, when she came back into this world to collect teeth, she had been, well, reluctant to return to Eretz. Not that she doubted for a second that she would; it was just that returning to that place was so hard. To that world in general with its waft of death, and the mine tunnel in particular. The echoes and the eerie, fluting cries of cherub bats, the dirt, the darkness, the pale tuber roots that pulsed like veins, no privacy, gruff “comrades,” always eyes on her, and… no doors. That was the worst part, not being able to close a door and feel safe, ever, especially while she was working—because in magic she went to a place inside of herself and was entirely vulnerable. And forget about sleep. She’d had to find an alternative.

  It was no small matter secreting a growing army of chimaera in the human world. They needed a place that was big, isolated, and within range of the Atlas portal Razgut had shown her, so that they could come and go between worlds. Electricity and running water would have been nice, too, but she hadn’t expected to find a place that fit even the critical needs.

  The kasbah did, perfectly.

  It looked for all the world as Karou had described it in her one brief e-mail to Zuzana: like a sandcastle, a very big sandcastle. It was monumental: an entire town, really—lanes and plazas, neighborhoods, a caravansary, granary, and palace—all of it echoing empty. Its creators had dreamed on a legendary scale, and to stand in its flagstone court, mud walls and peaked roofs jutting overhead, was to feel shrunk to the size of a songbird.

  It was gorgeous: embellished with scrollwork iron window grilles and carved wood, jewel mosaics and soaring Moorish arches, jade-green roof tiles, and the white plaster lacework of long-dead craftsmen.

  And it was collapsing into ruin. In some quarters the roofs had fallen in entirely, and several towers were reduced to a single standing corner with the rest melted clean away. Staircases led nowhere; doors opened onto four-story plunges; towering arches loomed precarious, riven with cracks.

  Above and behind it, slopes scraped north, where the teeth of the Atlas Mountains bit off the sky. Before and below, the earth rolled down a slope of scree and scrub toward the distant Sahara. It was a bleak vista, so still that it seemed the twitch of a scorpion’s tail for miles around should draw the eye.

  All this Karou could see from her room at the highest point in the palace. A wide, walled court lay below. Several chimaera stood in the arcaded gallery that faced the main gate, and they fell silent when she drifted down before them. She had gone out her window—the lanes were in terrible repair and walking was treacherous, on top of which: Why walk when you can fly?—and her silent flight, no stirring of wings, always unsettled them. The
y stared at her now with the colored eyes of raptors and oxen and lizards, and made no greeting as she passed.

  The heat of the day was as powerful as a hand pressing on her head, but still she had put on a sleeved tunic to cover her bruised arms, and she’d slung her knife belt on over that. Her crescent-moon blades hung at her hips, a reassurance that she wished she didn’t need. All the chimaera were armed at all times, so she didn’t stand out; her “comrades” didn’t need to know it was them that she feared.

  Almost as soon as she entered the great hall, someone whispered, “Traitor.”

  It came behind her back, a hiss too toneless to place. It pierced her, though she gave no outward sign, continuing on and hearing holes gape open in conversations. It might have come from Hvitha, who was serving himself food, or Lisseth or Nisk, who were already at the table. But Karou’s money was on Ten, for no better reason than that Ten, a wolf-aspect female and the lone surviving member of Thiago’s retinue, was friendlier to her face than most. Which of course made her totally suspect.

  I love my life, thought Karou.

  If it had been Ten, though, the she-wolf was all innocence as she hailed Karou and offered her a plate. “I was just going to bring it up to you,” she said.

  Karou gave her a suspicious look that took in the plate, as well.

  Ten didn’t miss it. “You think I’d poison you? Well. Wouldn’t I be sorry next time I died?” She laughed, a husky sound from her wolf jaws. “Thiago asked me to,” she explained. “He’s meeting with his captains or I’m sure he would have done it himself.”

  Karou took the plate of couscous and vegetables. That was another benefit of being here: In Eretz food had been hard to come by; they had subsisted mainly on boiled jess, which had the mouthfeel of modeling clay and not much more flavor. Here, a battered truck served Karou for occasional trips to buy bulk bags of grain, dates, and vegetables in the nearest towns, and behind the great hall a dynasty of stringy chickens now ruled over a small courtyard.

 
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