- Days of Blood & Starlight
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.
“Thanks,” Karou said. Thiago had brought her dinner several nights now so that her work would not be interrupted, and she had to admit it was easier than coming down to the dubious reception of her comrades—on top of which, the Wolf had tithed. His arms were almost as bruised as her own now, covered in blotches and blooms from the palest yellow to the deepest purple, overlapping and ever-changing.
“An art form all its own,” he had called them, and paid her the strangest—and ickiest—compliment of her life: “You make beautiful bruises.”
This evening, however, he had not come, and it was when she realized that she was waiting for him—waiting for the Wolf—that Karou had slammed to her feet and gone straight out the window.
She let Ten guide her to the table. The hall wasn’t crowded at this hour. A quick scan and she gauged that half the soldiers here were her own handiwork. It was easy to tell: wings, sheer size. There was Amzallag: hers; Oora: not. Nisk and Lisseth, both hers; Hvitha and Bast: not. Not yet, anyway. But there was a reason the hissed traitor had come behind Karou’s back: they all knew that in the days, weeks, possibly even hours to come, their souls would pass through her hands. One of them might even be walking to the pit with Thiago tonight; who knew? What they did know was that they were going to die; they were used to it.
They were not used to trusting a traitor with their resurrection.
“Nectar?” said Ten. A joke. She gestured to the big drum that held river water, and scooped Karou up a cup. After they were settled in their places, she said, “I saw Razor earlier.”
“Oh?” Karou was instantly wary. Razor was a Heth bone priest she had brought back that morning from the stash of thuribles. It had been a tricky resurrection, one of Thiago’s special requests.
Ten nodded. “He was perplexed by his head.”
“He’ll get used to it.”
“But a lion’s head, Karou? On a Heth?”
As if Karou didn’t know what kind of heads Heth had. They were fairly horrific, actually, with great compound eyes and scissoring ant mandibles that resembled crab claws. How had Brimstone handled that? Karou had no insect teeth in her supply, and she had never known him to have any, either. “Thiago wanted him. Lion was the best I could do on short notice.” And better than he deserves, she thought. Razor was a stranger to her, but she had sensed a dark character while she worked. Every soul made a unique impression on her mind, and his was… sticky. Why Thiago had made him a priority she didn’t know, and hadn’t asked, as she hadn’t asked about the others. She did her work and the Wolf did his.
“Well,” allowed Ten, “I suppose he is much prettier now.”
“Right?” said Karou. “I’m expecting his thank-you any day.”
“Yes, well, don’t sheathe your claws,” said Ten. It was a chimaera expression, roughly equivalent to don’t hold your breath, though more menacing, with the implied necessity of self-defense. Good advice, thought Karou.
Her mouth was full when Ten said, casually, “Thiago suggested that I help you.”
The couscous felt like Play-Doh on Karou’s tongue. She couldn’t answer, and struggled to swallow.
“Well,” said Ten. “It’s an enormous undertaking for one person, isn’t it?”
Karou finally swallowed her Play-Doh. Brimstone was one person, she thought, but she didn’t say it. She knew she didn’t fare well in that comparison. Besides, Brimstone had not been alone, had he?
“I would be your assistant,” Ten went on. “Like the Naja woman, what was her name?” At this blithe mention of Issa, Karou stiffened. Ten didn’t notice, and didn’t wait for a response. “I could take care of the menial things to leave you free for the part only you can do.”
“No,” said Karou, sharp as a bite. You’re not Issa. “Tell Thiago thank you, but—”
“Oh. I believe he meant for you to accept.”
Well, of course Thiago meant for her to accept; he meant for everyone to accept his will and enact it at once. And she did need help. But Ten? Karou couldn’t stand the thought of the she-wolf always at her elbow, watching her.
There was something savage about Ten, about most of the company, in fact, that Karou was having a hard time reconciling with her memories of her chimaera kindred—had they always been like this and she just couldn’t see it? There had been, for instance, the matter of the sweet arza tree, not long after she’d joined with them. Nothing sweet about it anymore, the tree was burned like everything else around Loramendi, huge and skeletal as a great bone hand clawing up from the earth. There had been charred orbs swaying in its boughs, and Karou hadn’t understood what they were until she’d heard some soldiers talking of using “the arza fruit” for archery practice.
She hadn’t even thought—stupid, stupid—before saying, “Oh, that’s fruit? It’s big.”
The way they’d looked at her. She couldn’t recall it without a scald of shame. It was Ten who had said, “They’re heads.”
Karou had blanched. “You’re shooting at heads?” All she could think was: But they’re ours. They must have been chimaera, and Ten had asked, “What else would we do with them?”
A beat passed in incredulity before Karou said, “We could bury them.”
To which Ten had replied, with vicious zeal, “I’d rather avenge them.”
It was a fearsome thing to say, and Karou had gotten a chill—and a small spark of admiration, she had to admit—but it kept coming back to her later, and her admiration didn’t last. Why not both? Bury the dead and avenge them. It was barbaric to leave corpses lying about, and she knew this wasn’t simply her human feeling.
She experienced a queer collision of reactions these days. Karou’s were foremost, and most immediate, but Madrigal’s were hers, too: her two selves, coming together with a strange kind of vibration. It wasn’t disharmony, exactly. Karou was Madrigal, but her reactions were informed by her human life and all the luxuries of peace, and things that might have been commonplace to Madrigal could still jar her at first. Burnt heads strung from a sweet arza tree? If Madrigal hadn’t seen exactly that, she had witnessed enough horror that it had no power to shock her.
But in Madrigal’s lifetime the chimaera had buried their dead, if they could. It wasn’t always possible; countless times they’d gleaned souls and left the bodies on the battlefield, but that was of necessity. This was… brutish. To take target practice at the dead? It wasn’t only Karou’s human self that shrank from that. What had the past eighteen years been like that the chimaera had given up such a basic hallmark of civilization as burial?
Now, leaning forward, Ten told Karou, “Thiago needs more soldiers, and faster. It is critical.”
“It would slow things down more to try to teach you what to do.”
“Surely there’s something.”
Surely there was. Plenty of things. She could make and mold the incense, clean the teeth, tithe. But something in Karou clenched at the thought. Not Ten. For years Ten had been attached to the White Wolf—his personal guard, one of a pack that moved always in his shadow, in battle and out of it.
She had been in the requiem grove.
“A smith would be more helpful,” said Karou. “To band the teeth in silver for stringing.”
“Aegir is busy. Forging weapons.” Ten’s tone suggested that banding teeth was beneath the smith’s dignity.
“And what am I forging, jewelry?” Karou matched her tone. She met Ten’s eyes, which were golden-brown like a true wolf’s, unlike Thiago’s pale blue, a color never seen on the animal. He should be called the White Siberian Husky, Karou thought pettishly.
“Aegir can’t be spared.” Ten’s voice was getting tight.
“I’m surprised Thiago can spare you.” Who will brush his hair for him?
“He considers this very important.”
Ten’s words were hard and clipped now, and it began to dawn on Karou that she might not win this, and also that her arguments against Ten’s help weren’t sound. She could see Thiago’s point; she was no Brimstone, that was sure. The Wolf was trying to mount a rebellion, and there were still a score of flightless soldiers awaiting their walk to the pit, not to mention the landslide of thuribles in her room that had barely begun to diminish.
And the patrols had not yet returned from the first wave of the rebellion.
If anything had happened to them… Just the thought made Karou want to sag down and weep. Of those thirty soldiers, half were newly wrought—hard-earned flesh-and-blood bodies, her arms still blooming with bruises to show for them.
Of the rest, one was Ziri, the only chimaera in the company who, Karou was reasonably sure, had not cheered at her execution.
As Thiago said, it was early yet. Karou sighed and rubbed her temples, which Ten took as assent, her jaws doing their wolf version of a smile.
“Good,” she said. “We’ll start after dinner.”
What? No. Karou was trying to decide whether to retrieve the threads of the argument when, peripherally, she saw a large figure enter the room and stop hard. She knew that shape, even at the edge of sight. She should; she’d just made it.
It was Razor.
All talk in the hall ceased. Heads swung to look at Razor, poised on the threshold and staring straight at Karou.
Her gut twisted. This was the worst part, always. There were the ones like Amzallag who walked to the pit and woke knowing where they were, with whom, and all that had happened in Eretz. And then there were the souls from the thuribles: the soldiers who had died at Cape Armasin and didn’t even know that Loramendi had fallen, let alone that they were in another world.
Without exception they blinked at Karou dully, not recognizing her. How could they? A blue-haired girl without wings or horns? She was a stranger.
And, of course, she never heard what was said later, when they were told the truth. She liked to imagine someone speaking on her behalf—She’s one of us; she’s the resurrectionist; she brought you back, she brought us here, and look: food!—but thought it was more likely something along the lines of: We have no choice; we need her. Or even, in her darker moments: Much as we’d all love to, we can’t kill her. Yet.
Though, by the look of things, no one had given Razor that message.
“You,” he snarled.
Fast—faster than Ten, who stumbled—Karou was on her feet and clear of the table. Razor landed on it just where she’d been sitting. It gave way under his weight with a powerful crack, its two ends shooting up in the air as it collapsed in a V beneath him. The water drum tipped, spilled, hit the ground with the warp clamor of a gong, and bodies were in motion, everyone a blur but the Heth, who was poised, focused. Vicious.
“Angel-lover,” he spat, and shame lit Karou like a flare.
It was a term of utter degradation; in all Karou’s human languages, there was no insult so loaded with disgust and contempt, no single word that cast such a pall of filth. It was that bad even when it was figurative, a slur.
Never, before her, had it been literal.
A flick of his tail, and Razor spilled forward. That was what the motion looked like. His body was reptilian—Komodo dragon and cobra—and even big as he was, he moved like the wind over grass.
Karou had done that. She had given him that grace, that speed. Note to self, she thought, and leapt clear. She was graceful, too, and fast. She danced backward. Her crescent-moon blades were in her hands. She hadn’t been conscious of drawing them. In front of her, the lion face that had been so beautiful in its resting state on her floor was made grotesque by Razor’s hatred. He opened his jaws, and the voice that came out was scraping, bitter, an anguished roar.
“Do you know what I have lost because of you?”
She did not know, and didn’t want to. Because of you, because of you. She wanted to cover her ears, but her hands were occupied holding blades. “I’m sorry,” she said, and her voice sounded so slight after his, and unconvincing even to her own ears.
Ten was there, saying something low and urgent to him; whatever it was, it had no effect. Razor lunged past her. And past Bast, who made no move to intervene. Granted, she was half his size, but Amzallag could easily have stopped him, and he seemed uncertain, looking back and forth between the two. Karou danced away again. The others just stood there, and in her breast a spark of anger leapt and caught. Ungrateful assholes, she thought, which struck an unexpected nerve of humor. She and Zuzana used to call everything assholes—kids, pigeons, fragile old ladies who scowled at Karou’s hair—and it had never stopped being funny. Assholes, crannies, orifii. Now, in the path of this lion-dragon, sticky-souled thing, Karou felt her face crimped by the unlikeliest of expressions: a smile.
It was as sharp as her crescent-moon blades. And with-Razor’s next move, she held her ground and held her knives. Gritting her teeth, she dragged one curved edge hard across the other in a shriek of steel that got his attention for an instant—a pause just long enough for Karou to consider What now? Will I have to kill him? Can I?