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Days of blood & starligh.., p.9
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       Days of Blood & Starlight, p.9

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

  How many chimaera would Karou have to resurrect before they accepted her?

  All of them. That was how many. Every last one who had died because of her. Hundreds of thousands. More.

  Which was, of course, impossible. Those souls had evanesced, including the ones dearest to her. They were lost. Was that it, then? No possibility of redemption?

  This was her life, and it was her nightmare, too, and sometimes the only way she could bear it was by telling herself it would end. If it was a nightmare, she would wake up and Brimstone would be alive; everyone would be alive. And if it wasn’t a nightmare? Well then, it would end in one of the very many ways that lives end. Sooner or later.

  She drew, and captured Razor’s snarl with awful vitality.

  You really want to know what I’m up to, Zuzana? Here it is. I’m trapped in a sandcastle with dead monsters, forced to resurrect them one after the next, all while trying to avoid getting eaten.

  It sounded like a pitch for a Japanese game show, and Karou couldn’t help laughing again, though only for a second, because Ten heard from the other side of the door and let out a soft snarl. Great. The she-wolf probably thought she was laughing at her.

  Enemy queue forms here, wrote Karou below her sketch.

  Oh, Zuze.

  She cast an eye over her tooth trays and damned them for being so full. She’d been too efficient on her collecting trip; it would be some time before she could plead the necessity of going out again. The faster she worked, though, the faster the time would come, and when it did, she would do more than e-mail Zuzana. She would find her. She would slouch down for tea and goulash with her and Mik at Poison Kitchen and tell them everything, then bask in their outrage on her behalf.

  They would agree with her that ungrateful Heth bone priests did not deserve regal lion heads but perhaps hamster next time, or maybe Pekingese.

  Or better yet, she imagined Zuzana saying in her sharp way, to hell with them all.

  I’m not doing it for them, Karou would reply. It was a practiced thought, one she clung to. It’s for Brimstone. And for all the chimaera the angels haven’t yet managed to murder. She had only to remember Loramendi to feel the desperation of her duty. There was no one else to do this work but her.

  From somewhere outside came the sentry’s call, a single short high whistle. Karou jumped up and was at the window in a stride. A patrol was returning, the first of the five. Unblinking, she leaned out her window and scanned the sky. There: from the direction of the mountains where the portal hung high and unseen in the thin air. They were still too distant to make out silhouettes and know which team it was, but, squinting, she could see that they were six. That was a reason to be glad; one team at least was intact.

  Nearer, nearer, and then she saw him: tall and straight, his horns like a pair of pikes. Ziri. A knot loosened in her chest that she hadn’t known was there. Ziri was okay. She could make out the others now, and soon enough they were circling over the kasbah and dropping into the court, half on wings of her creation, no two the same in size or form but all alike in menace: armed to kill, leathers black with blood and ash. She was glad to see Balieros, too, but her relief was really for Ziri.

  Ziri was Kirin; he was kin.

  When Karou looked at him, her Madrigal memories grew bright, and she remembered the men of her tribe as she hadn’t seen them in so long. She had been only seven years old when she was orphaned by angels. She was away from home that day, a free child in a wild world, and had returned to the aftermath of the slave raid and the end of life as she knew it. Death and silence, blood and absence, and, deep in the caves, huddled together: a handful of elders who had managed to save the very smallest of the babies.

  Ziri had been one of those babies, tiny and new as a kit with its eyes still shut. Karou had some small memories of him in Loramendi later: he used to follow her around blushing—her foster sister, Chiro, teased her that he had a crush on her. “Your little Kirin shadow,” she had called him.

  “It’s not a crush,” Madrigal had argued. “It’s kinship. It’s longing for what he never had.”

  She’d felt deeply for him, an orphan like her but with no memories of their home or their people to hold on to. There had been some elder Kirin left, and a few other orphans his age, but Madrigal was the only Kirin in her prime whom he had ever seen.

  Funny, now the tables were turned, and it was her looking to him and seeing what she had lost. He was grown now, and tall even before the antelope horns that added several more feet. His legs were human tapering to antelope, as her own had once been, and, coupled with his vast bat wings, gave him the same buoyant gait all the Kirin had possessed—a lightness as if the earth underfoot were incidental and he might at any instant go airborne and rise leagues above it all.

  Only there was no lightness in him now. His tread was heavy and his face grim, and as the patrol assembled in formation to await their general, he was the only one to give a glance up at Karou’s window. She half raised her hand to him, her bruised arm screaming at the simple gesture, which… he did not return. He lowered his head again as if she weren’t even there.

  Stung, Karou let her hand fall.

  Where were they coming from? What had they seen? What had they done?

  Go down and find out, came a whisper in the back of her mind, but she didn’t heed it. Whatever went on in the ashfall landscape and blood-crusted world of war where her creations went forth to do violence, it wasn’t her concern. She conjured the bodies; that was all.

  What more could she possibly do?

  26

  GRIEVOUS HARM

  The Wolf was in the window right below Karou’s. As soon as Ziri lifted his eyes to look for her, he saw white and dropped his head again. It was barely enough time to register the look of half hope on her face as she raised her hand to him, tentative. Lonely.

  And then he shunned her.

  The Wolf had told him he must have no contact with her. He had told them all, but Ziri thought those pale eyes had lingered on him when he said it, and that he was the one Thiago watched most closely. Because he was Kirin? Did he think that fact alone would bond them, or did he remember Ziri as a child? At the Warlord’s ball?

  At the execution.

  He had tried to save her. It would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic—how he had crouched in the crawl space under the tourney stands, getting up his courage, gripping his edgeless training swords as though they might deliver her. The stands had been erected in the agora so the folk could better watch her die; it was a spectacle. Madrigal, so still and straight, so beautiful, had made the stamping masses seem like animals, and he, a skinny boy of twelve, had thought he could storm the scaffold and… what? Cut her pinion, her manacles? The city itself was a cage; she would have had nowhere to go.

  It hadn’t mattered. He’d been laid out by the hilt of a soldier’s sword before his feet ever touched the platform. Madrigal never even saw his fool heroics. Her eyes had never left her lover.

  That was another lifetime. Ziri hadn’t understood her treason then, or where it could lead. Where it had led. But he wasn’t a lovestruck little boy anymore, and Karou was nothing to him.

  So why were his eyes drawn to her window? To her, on the rare occasions she came down?

  Was it pity? A glance was all it took to see how alone she was. In the first days, in Eretz, she had been pale, trembling, mute—clearly in shock. It had been harder then, not to go to her or speak even a word. She must have seen it—how something in him leapt to answer her grief, her loneliness, and now she sought him out with that look of half-hope whenever she saw him, as if he might be a friend.

  And he turned away from her. Thiago had been clear: The rebels needed her but couldn’t make the mistake of trusting her. She was treacherous and must be managed carefully—by him.

  And here he was now, come down to greet the patrol.

  “Well met,” said Thiago, striding out like the lord of the manor. Lord of the ruins, rather, but if this m
ud castle was a comedown for the great White Wolf, he claimed it as he had ever claimed anything—or everything: as his to do with as he wished until he seized the next and better thing. He would have the throne in Astrae before he was through, he claimed, and seraphim for slaves, and as ludicrous a claim as it seemed in light of their circumstances, Ziri would never underestimate the Wolf.

  Thiago was a soldier’s soldier. His troops worshipped him, and would do anything for him. He ate, drank, and breathed battle, never more at home than in a campaign tent strewn with maps, hashing strategy with his captains or, better yet, hurling himself at angels with his teeth bared and bloody.

  “Reckless,” the Warlord had fumed once, furious when his son had been killed and come back in a new body. “A general need not die at the front!” But Thiago had never been one to hang back in safety and send others forth to die. He led, and Ziri knew firsthand how his fearlessness spread like wildfire in the fray. It was what made him great.

  Now, though, with the chimaera hanging on to the frayed end of their existence, it seemed his father’s words had gotten through. When the patrols had gone out to Eretz, he’d stayed behind—with clear reluctance and even bad grace that put Ziri in mind of guardsmen who drew duty during the festival times. It was a heavy thing, to miss out. He had paced, wolf-restless, hungry, envious, and he came alive now at his soldiers’ return.

  He clasped them by the arm one by one before coming to a halt before Balieros.

  “I hope,” he said, with a grim smile to indicate he doubted it not, “that you have done grievous harm.”

  Grievous harm.

  The evidence of it painted them, splash and spatter. Blood: dried to a dull dark brown, black where it gathered in the creases of gauntlets and boot heels and hooves. Every edge and angle of Ziri’s crescent-moon blades was grimed with it; he couldn’t wait to clean them. Mutilating the dead. Perhaps it was a proud thing, these cut smiles that had been the Warlord’s message long ago. Ziri only knew that he felt foul, and wanted to go to the river and bathe. Even his horns were crusted with blood where they had impaled an angel who flew at him while he was grappling with another. The patrol had done grievous harm indeed.

  It had also protected Caprine farmfolk from an enemy sweep, freed a caravan of slaves, armed them, and sent them wide to spread word of what was coming. But Thiago didn’t ask about that. To hear him, he might have forgotten there were folk in the world who weren’t soldiers—enemy or own—or any cause left but killing.

  “Tell me,” he said, avid. “I want to know the looks on their faces. I want to hear how they screamed.”

  27

  GREAT WILD HEART

  Some time around midday, the Dashnag boy, Rath, still carrying Sarazal, led Sveva down a steep wooded slope into a ravine. It was narrow enough that the forest canopy was unbroken overhead, and Sveva thought that the pale damsel boughs arching upward to meet in the middle looked like the arms of maidens joined in dance. Sunlight reached through them, sometimes in bright spears and sometimes dappled lacework, green and gold and ever shifting. Small winged things drifted and hummed from the depths to the heights of this little ravine that was their entire world, and, down below, a creek could be heard, spry as music.

  All this will burn, thought Sveva, leaping a drift of vines and shying sideways down the slope behind Rath.

  The fires were still behind them, and with the wind from the south carrying the smoke away, they couldn’t even smell it, but they had come several times to hillocks and glimpsed the sky roiling black behind them.

  How could the angels do it? Was it so important to catch or kill a few chimaera that they would destroy the whole land? Why did they even want it, just to ravage it?

  Why can’t they just leave us alone? she wanted to scream, but she didn’t. She knew it was a childish thought, that the wars and hates of the world were too big for her to understand, and that she was no more important in the scheme of things than these moths and adderflies drifting in their shafts of light.

  I am important, though, she insisted to herself. And so was Sarazal, and so were the moths and the adderflies, and the slinking skotes, and the star tenzing blooms so small and perfect, and even the tiny biting skinwights, who, after all, were just trying to live.

  And Rath was important, too, even if his breath smelled like a lifetime of blood meals and bitten bones.

  He was helping them. When he had grabbed up Sarazal, Sveva hadn’t really believed he meant to drag her away and make a meal of her, but it was hard not to be afraid when her heartbeat skittered sideways at the mere sight of him. Dashnag ate flesh. It was what they were, same as skinwights were skinwights, but that didn’t mean she had to like them. Or him.

  “We don’t eat Dama,” he’d said without looking at her, after she’d caught up to him—which was easy, she was so much faster than he was, and he was encumbered by carrying Sarazal. “Or any other higher beasts. As I’m sure you know.”

  Sveva knew that this was supposedly the case, but it was a hard thing to take on faith. “Not even if you’re really hungry?” she had asked, skeptical and in some strange way wanting to believe the worst of him.

  “I am really hungry, and you’re still alive,” he’d replied. That was all. He kept going, and Sveva had a hard time staying afraid, because Sarazal was asleep with her head on his shoulder and he stayed upright, holding her, when it would have been easier for him to leave her and throw himself forward into the long, loping run the Dashnag used to take down prey. He hadn’t, though.

  He’d led them here, and now that they were well down in the ravine, Sveva could hear and smell what he had heard and smelled several miles back with his sharp predator’s senses: Caprine.

  Caprine? This was why he had cut east, to catch the trail of these slow, bobbing herdfolk, who, to judge from the smell, still had all their livestock with them?

  Rath stopped at the bottom of the slope, and when Sveva drew even with him, he said, “From the village, I think, the one by the aqueduct. You remember.”

  As if she could forget the place where the seraph soldiers were strung up with their red Warlord smiles. She would never forget it as long as she lived, the horror mingled with the hope of salvation. The village had been empty; she had supposed its occupants must be dead, and was glad now to know they weren’t, but she didn’t know why Rath was following them.

  “Caprine are slow,” she said.

  “So they’ll need help,” Rath replied, and Sveva felt a flush of shame. She’d been thinking only of their own escape.

  “They might have a healer, too,” Rath added, looking down at Sarazal, who rested against his chest, her eyes still closed, wounded leg curled gingerly in the crook of his arm. It was such an incongruous sight, the predator cradling the prey, that Sveva could only blink and feel that she’d hit the stony bottom of her own shallow depths.

  Did she know anything at all?

  This land was immense. It seemed to Akiva as though he could rise higher and higher into the air and it would keep unrolling in every direction, endless and green, forever. He knew that wasn’t the case. In the east the earth rose and stepped up a long, low crust of hills to become high desert for days, days into weeks of red clay and barbed plants, where venomous beetles as large as shields burrowed down and lay in wait for months, years, for prey to pass within reach. Some nomads were rumored to live around the sky islands, such as the jackal-headed Sab, but seraph patrols that went that way either reported no signs of life or vanished into the depths and never returned to report at all.

  To the west lay the Coast Range, and beyond that the Secret Coast, home to tidal villages and folk who could live in the water or out of it, and who slipped away fish-fast at the sight of the enemy, retreating to deepwater refuges until the danger had passed.

  And to the south: the formidable Hintermost, the highest mountains in Eretz as well as the broadest by triple the scope of any other mountain range in the world. They made an epic wall of gray ramparts and nat
ural crenels, gorges riddled through with rivers that cut into the heart of the rock and out again, and slopes glinting with waterfalls by the thousands. There were said to be passes—mazy ravines and tunnels—leading to green lands on the far side, impassable but with the guidance of the frog-fleshed native tribes who dwelt mostly in darkness. And in the highest reaches, ice formations looked like crystal cities from a distance, but proved desolate wind mazes up close, unnavigable but by the stormhunters who nested there, sitting their huge eggs and riding gales that would dash anything else to death in half a wingbeat.

  Such were the natural boundaries of this southern continent that the seraphim had long ago sought to tame, and the green earth that lay below Akiva now was its great wild heart, too huge to hold, even if every soldier in the Empire’s array of armies was sent to try. They could—and would—burn villages and fields, but more chimaera here were nomads than farmers, fleet and elusive, and the seraphim couldn’t burn it all, even if they were to try, which—contrary to these billows of black smoke—they were not.

  The fires were only to corral the fugitives south and east, to where the forests thinned and creeks filtered down to join the great Kir River, and they might be able to flush them out. And if they succeeded?

  Akiva hoped they wouldn’t. In truth he did more than hope: He put all his skills as a tracker to work at untracking. Wherever he gauged chimaera might be—where a crease in the canopy hinted at a creek, for example—he made efforts to lead the team a different way, and because he was Beast’s Bane, no one questioned him. Except maybe Hazael, and then only with his eyes.

 
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