- Days of Blood & Starlight
What an odd and terrible thing to know.
If Rath hadn’t scented the Caprine and followed them, caught up to them, and joined them, then this fraught silence would not exist at all; this same air would be pierced with bleating screams, and Lell would be crying, sweet small bundle, and all the others, too, instead of the aries.
“Aries!” said Hazael, laughing—laughing with relief, it seemed to Akiva—and he saw that in the gully were only aries: shaggy, curling-horned livestock, and no Caprine sheepfolk, no chimaera at all.
“You and you.” Kala pointed out two soldiers. “Kill them. The rest of you…” She turned in a half circle, surveying her team; she hung in the air, wings sweeping wide enough to brush the leaning trees at the gully’s edges and shed sparks. “Find their owners.”
Sveva heard the screams of the aries and pressed her face harder into Rath’s shoulder. Rath had persuaded the sheepfolk to drive off their flock and double back along the creek bed, climb out of that ravine and into another—this one—and take shelter. They were too many, all together, and the aries were too loud, too unruly to trust with their lives; they’d be seen, he’d said, and he’d been right.
Now the aries were dying.
Sveva clutched her sister’s hand; it was limp. The screams of the aries were terrible, even at a distance, but they didn’t last long, and when they finally trailed away she imagined she could feel the angels wheeling in the sky overhead. Angels, hunting. Hunting them. She clutched the hilt of her own stolen knife and it made her feel her smallness all the more, made as it was for an angel’s big brute fist.
Maybe she would stab one with it. What would that feel like? Oh, her hate was hot; she almost hoped she got the chance. She’d always hated angels, of course, but in a faraway, vague kind of way. They’d been monsters from bedtime tales. She’d never even seen one before she was captured. For centuries this land had been safe—the Warlord’s armies had kept it so. What ill luck, then, to live in the time of failed safety! Now, suddenly, seraphim were real: leering tormentors, beautiful in a way that made beauty hideous.
And then there was Rath, dreadful in a way that made dreadful… well, if not beautiful, then regal, at least. Proud. How curious, to take comfort in the bulk of a flesh-eater at her side, but she did. Again, Sveva felt herself scraping at her own shallows; since she was taken slave, her world had fallen open. She had beheld seraphim and revenants; she had seen death and smelled it, and today, just today, she had learned more of folk than in all her fourteen years together. First Rath, then the Caprine: sheepfolk she had called herdbeasts, and would have left to fend for themselves. Nur had made a poultice for Sarazal and given her some spice in water, hoping to break her fever. They had shared their food, and Lell, who smelled of grass, had taken to Sveva and ridden astride her back for a time, her little arms wrapped around Sveva’s waist where just days ago a great black shackle had been.
Sveva’s eyes were closed. Her face was against Rath’s shoulder, and her hip hard against Nur’s, and the silence held them together. It was the worst kind of silence, but a good kind of closeness. These weren’t her folk, but… they were, and maybe that meant that anyone could be anyone’s, which was a sort of nice thing to think, with the world falling apart. Sveva wondered if she would ever get home to her mother and father so she could tell them that.
She tried to pray, but she had only ever prayed at night, and it seemed to her that the moons made poor protectors when angels chose to hunt by day.
In the end, it wasn’t Lell who gave them away, but Sarazal.
She jolted awake, her limp hand suddenly clenching and pulling free of Sveva’s. The fever had come down; Nur’s spice and poultice had worked, and Sarazal’s big dark eyes, when they fluttered open, were much clearer than when Sveva had looked at them last. Only… they fluttered open to see Rath’s fearsome face mere inches from her own.
And Sarazal opened her mouth, and screamed.
THE DEVILS WILL STILL BE THERE IN THE MORNING
“Listen to this one,” said Zuzana. “She-devil sighting in southern Italy—”
“Blue hair?” asked Mik. It came out muffled. He had a pillow over his face and had been trying to sleep.
“Pink, actually. I guess the legions of Satan are exploring their color options.” She was sitting up in bed, reading off her laptop. “So, she scaled the side of this cathedral and hissed, at which point the witness was able to ascertain, at a distance of some hundred feet, that her tongue was forked.”
“Yeah.” She puffed out her cheeks and backpaged to her Google search screen. “What a bunch of morons.”
Mik peered out from beneath the pillow. “It’s bright out there,” he said. “Come into my lair.”
“Lair. That’s some fancy lair you’ve got, mister.”
“It’s exactly the right size for my head.”
“Uh-huh,” Zuzana said vaguely. “Here’s one from yesterday, um, Bakersfield, California. Blue hair, cool coat, floating. Hurray! We’ve found Karou! What she’s doing in Bakersfield, California, stalking schoolchildren is unclear.” She gave a derisive snort and returned to the Google screen.
The world, it would seem, was overrun with blue-haired devils. The same message boards that reported angels among us were keeping abreast of the devil situation, too, and in a quirk of coincidence—ahem—ever since the widely televised showdown on the Charles Bridge, devils tended to have blue hair, black trench coats, and tattoos of eyes on the palms of their hands.
Karou was the face of the Apocalypse, which Zuzana happened to think was a pretty kick-ass brand of infamy. She had even made the cover of Time magazine with the headline “Is This What a Demon Looks Like?” There was this gorgeous picture someone had taken that day as she faced the angels, her hair wild, hamsas outthrust before her, a look on her face of fierce concentration with a hint of… wild delight. Zuzana remembered the wild delight. It had been a little freaky. Time had tried to interview her for the piece, and strangely enough had failed to print her expletive-riddled response. Kaz, of course, had not disappointed them.
“Come sleep,” Mik tried again. “The devils will still be there in the morning.”
“In a minute,” Zuzana said, but it wasn’t a minute. An hour later she had made a cup of tea and moved to the armchair beside the bed. The message boards weren’t getting her anywhere; that was where the crazies went to play. She narrowed her search. She’d already traced the IP address of Karou’s single e-mail to Morocco, which wasn’t a surprise. The last she’d heard from her friend she’d been in Morocco. This wasn’t Marrakesh, though, but a city called Ouarzazate—pronounced War-za-zat—in a region of palm oases, camels, and kasbahs at the fringes of the Sahara desert.
Dust and starlight? Why, yes. One would imagine.
Priestess of a sandcastle? Kasbahs did look extraordinarily like sandcastles. Too bad there were, like, fifty million of them scattered over hundreds of miles. Still, Zuzana was excited. This had to be right. She got that dorky song “Rock the Casbah” stuck in her head and hummed it as she drank tea and paged through dozens of sites that mostly came up as trek outfitters or “authentic nomad experience” kasbah hotels, all of them with these sparkling swimming pools that didn’t look terribly nomad-y to her.
And then she came across a travel blog a French guy had written about his trek in the Atlas Mountains. It was only a couple of days old and mostly it was just landscape pictures and camel shadows and dusty children selling jewelry at the roadside, but then there was this one shot that caused Zuzana to set her teacup aside and sit up. She zoomed in and leaned close. It was the night sky with a perfect half pie of a moon, and—obscure enough that she wouldn’t have noticed them if she weren’t looking—shapes. Six of them, with wings, they were visible mostly for the way they blotted out the stars. Hard to determine scale in a sky photo, it was the subtitle that got her.
Don’t tell the angel chasers, but they have some seriously big night birds down here.
A POOR JUDGE OF MONSTERS
Karou went to the river to bathe—feeling almost absurdly indulgent about shampooing her hair, and more so about the wastrel fifteen minutes she took to let it dry fanned out on a hot rock—and when she got back to the fortress, the crossbar was missing from her door.
“Where is it?” she demanded of Ten.
“How would I know? I was with you.”
Yes, she had been, never mind that Karou hadn’t wanted her. It wasn’t safe for her to go off alone, Thiago had said, even to the shallows of the river that spilled out of the mountains and passed just downhill of the kasbah, in plain sight of the sentry tower—with some large rocks that she valued for the hiding of nudity from keen eyes. The chimaera were as intrigued by her humanity as Issa and Yasri had always been, but were less kind about it.
“What a queer plain thing you are,” Ten had observed today, with an up-and-down look that took in Karou’s tailless, clawless, hoofless, and otherwise less self.
“Thanks,” Karou had said, sinking into the river. “I try.”
She’d had a fleeting impulse to let the current carry her away under the water, just downstream a ways where she could be free of the she-wolf’s presence for, oh, a half hour? Ten had been quite the fixture over the past several days: her assistant and chaperone, overseer and shadow.
“What will you do when I have to go back out for teeth?” Karou had asked Thiago that morning. “Send her with me?”
“Ten? No. Not Ten,” he’d replied, in such a way that Karou had instantly taken his meaning.
“What, you? You’re going to come with me?”
“I admit, I’m curious to see this world. There must be more to it than this desert. You can show me.”
He was serious. Karou’s stomach had seized. She’d been joking about Ten, but him? “You couldn’t. You’re not human—you’d be seen. And you can’t fly.” And you’re vile, and I don’t want you.
“We’ll think of something.”
Will we, Karou had thought, imagining Thiago in Poison Kitchen with his wolf feet kicked up on a coffin, spooning goulash into his cruel, sensual mouth. She wondered if Zuzana would swoon over his beauty as she had Akiva’s, and immediately thought: No. Zuze would see right through him.
But there was a flaw in that. Zuzana hadn’t seen through Akiva, had she? And neither had she. Apparently Karou was a poor judge of monsters, which was most unfortunate considering her current situation.
“Who took it?” she demanded. Her heartbeat was out of whack, coming in little staccato bursts.
“What are you carrying on about? It’s only a piece of wood.”
“It’s only my safety.”
This was to be the cost of clean hair? How was she supposed to sleep when anyone could waltz right in? She slept poorly enough as it was. It struck her then, a swift little thought like the jab of a needle, that she had slept just fine with Akiva only a few feet away, that night in her flat in Prague. What was wrong with her sensors that she had felt safe with him? “This was your idea, wasn’t it? Because I locked you out the other day?” Even the wall brackets had been pried away, so she couldn’t just find another beam and slot it in place. “Do you want someone to kill me in my sleep?’
“Calm down, Karou,” said Ten. “No one wants to kill—”
“Oh, really. No one wants to, or no one will?”
Did she expect Ten to sugarcoat it? “Fine. No one will,” said the she-wolf. “You are under the White Wolf’s protection. That’s better than any piece of wood. Now, come. Let’s get back to work. There’s Emylion to finish, and Hvitha goes to the pit tonight.”
And that was that? She was just supposed to sidle meekly into her room and get back to work on the Wolf’s resurrection wish list? Like hell. Karou turned back toward the stairs, but Ten stood in her way, so she crossed the room to where the window stood open. If Thiago wanted her watched, she thought, he’d do better to assign a shadow who could fly.
Ten realized what she was about to do and said, “Karou…” just as she stepped into the air and, after floating there just long enough to throw a defiant glare Ten’s way, let herself fall. Fast. A great whoosh of air, and she pulled up short at the last second to land in a crouch four stories down.
Ow. Pulled up a little too short. The soles of her feet smarted, but it had surely looked dramatic. Ten’s head was out the window, and Karou fought the impulse to flip her off—the British V version, which was so much cooler than the American single-finger—but it was ridiculous either way. Don’t be such a human, she told herself, and went looking for the Wolf.
He was probably in the guardhouse, the half-razed structure where he held court with his captains, drawing maps in the dirt and then scuffing them away, pacing, ranting, planning. Karou started in that direction and passed Hvitha, who gave her a sharp nod and didn’t slow his steps. I guess I’ll see you later, thought Karou with a twist of pity. Hvitha hadn’t exactly been kind to her, but he hadn’t been unkind, either—he hadn’t been anything—and it couldn’t be very nice walking around knowing he was scheduled to have his throat slit in a few hours. Such a waste, it seemed, of Brimstone’s craftsmanship.
Not my call.
Karou passed clothes draped over a wall to dry in the sun, and it came to her that this place was beginning to feel downright inhabited—thanks to herself. Nine more soldiers in the past few days—her pace was improving with Ten’s help, but holy hell, her arms were a mess—and life seemed everywhere amplified. She could hear Aegir’s hammer and see smoke rising from the forge, smell the almost-but-not-quite-nothing smell of boiling couscous, and also the not-nearly-nothing-enough waft of rankness from the buttress that had become the default piss wall of soldiers who couldn’t bother to walk out of the kasbah—or, hello, fly.