- Days of Blood & Starlight
When they had climbed the stairs back to her room, she picked up the necklace she had begun earlier, while Ten, impatient, spilled her case out on the table. Brass clamps clattered in all directions. Karou picked one up but didn’t put it on. She was in no state to conjure a body now.
What wasn’t she allowed to know?
“Do you want me to tithe?” Ten asked. Karou looked up at her. The she-wolf didn’t offer up her pain very often, and Karou surprised herself by saying, “No. Thanks.” It was only when she heard her own reply that she realized she was going to do something.
What am I going to do?
She toyed with the vise, twisting the screw tighter, looser. Did she even remember how? It was a long time ago.
What shall I do for pain?
Nothing. No pain for you. Only pleasure.
Still fidgeting with the vise, she said to Ten, “I don’t suppose you know the story of Bluebeard.”
“Bluebeard?” Ten eyed Karou’s hair. “A relative of yours?”
Karou shot her a wry smile. “I have no relatives, remember?”
“No one does anymore,” Ten said simply, and Karou realized it was true. Everyone here had lost… everyone. They were a people with nothing more to lose.
“Well,” she said, calmly fitting the vise over the web of flesh and muscle that connected her thumb and palm. It was a tender spot. “Bluebeard was this lord, and when he brought his new bride home to his castle, he gave her the keys to every door and told her she could go anywhere she wanted except this one little door down in the cellar. And there she must never go.” She tightened the screw, and her pain began to open like a flower.
“And I suppose that was the first place she went,” said Ten.
“The minute his back was turned.”
Ten had just turned to reach for the teapot. At Karou’s words, she spun back around, and cursed.
Karou knew by her reaction that it had worked; she had remembered Akiva’s invisibility manipulation after all. Funny, the pain had seemed like a big deal back then. Not anymore. It throbbed to the tune of her heartbeat and felt nearly as natural.
It didn’t occur to Ten that Karou might not have moved from her seat. She just thought she was out the window again, and so when she unfroze, she lunged toward it, and Karou slipped out the door. Ironically, the absence of the bar made it easier for her to get away. Holding the glamour in place, she whipped down the stairs and out to the court to hear whatever she could before Ten bolted down with the news of her vanishing.
It wasn’t much.
It wasn’t her shadow that gave her away. The glamour didn’t conceal shadows, so she kept to the shade and she didn’t make a sound. She was certain of that. She wasn’t even touching the ground. Still, she had been in the court only a couple of minutes, just long enough to learn the sickening nature of the “message” that the rebels had been sending to the seraphim, and… the emperor’s response—dear god, the sky dark and bright with Dominion, a merciless display of might, hopeless, hopeless—before Thiago cut off midsentence, pivoted on the pads of his wolf feet, and, lifting his head just slightly, nostrils flaring delicately, scented the air.
And looked at her.
She froze. She was already still, and she was yards away, but she stopped breathing and watched those colorless eyes with dread. They couldn’t quite fix on her, but they narrowed. Again he sniffed. He couldn’t see her, she knew that, and neither could the rest of the company, who followed his gaze. Still—stupid, stupid—they knew she was near the same way Thiago did.
They were creatures. They could smell her.
FEEL LIKE SMILING
She took the vise off at the river, let go of the magic, and watched herself flush visible again. Her hand was blue where the clamp had bitten. A bruise. Had anything ever been more insignificant than a bruise?
Would Thiago guess about the glamour? That had been stupid of her. If he suspected she could do that, he and his spy would never take their eyes off her again. Not to mention, if he suspected she could do that, he would want to know how. He would want all his soldiers to know how, and shouldn’t Karou want that, too, if it could help them?
Help them kill more angels in their sleep?
That was what Tangris and Bashees did. No one knew exactly how; they had a way of pulling the shadows around themselves to stalk unseen among the enemy, but glamour alone couldn’t account for the mass killings conducted in perfect silence. Who slept so deeply that they wouldn’t wake to gasp as their throat was cut? Yet these victims slept on as throat by throat they died and all breath was subtracted from the room until only the killers’ remained.
Karou didn’t know why it bothered her so much. It was painless. And how many chimaera had those soldiers killed, and surely with less kindness.
Kindness? What an appalling thought.
Karou sat arguing with herself, wishing more desperately than ever for someone to talk to. There were conflicts in herself she just couldn’t settle. This brutality that she was a part of, she had been half pretending it was all a bad dream in an effort to get through her days, because she just couldn’t come to terms with it.
Her life as Karou had in no way prepared her for this. War was something from the news, and she didn’t even watch the news, it was too terrible. And if she’d thought that Madrigal could help her, as if her deeper self might enable her to accept this ugly reality, she was mistaken there, too. Why had Madrigal done what she’d done, conspiring with Akiva for peace? Because she’d had no stomach for war even when it was her life. She had always been a dreamer.
And what was happening in Eretz… The rebels had made it worse, so much worse. They had knocked down a hornet’s nest. The cut smiles, the cut throats, the blood scrawl. What had Thiago been thinking, taunting the Empire like that? And the emperor’s answer was swift and enormous. For the chimaera it would be cataclysmic. The full might of the Dominion, sent to crush civilians?
What had Thiago thought would happen? What had she thought?
She hadn’t thought; she hadn’t wanted to know, and now look.
I feel happy…. I feel happy….
Karou took off her shoes and put her feet in the cool water. Back at the kasbah they would be searching for her, and they should find her easily enough. She waited in plain sight, and at length she heard wings, and then a shadow fell over her. It was horned, and for an instant it aligned with her own shadow so the horns seemed hers.
Ziri had been the one on his patrol to do the cutting. His curved blades—just like her own—were suited to it; he had only to hook the corners of a corpse’s mouth and with a flick of his wrist it was done: smile rendered. And this is what has become of my little Kirin shadow. She turned to look up at him. The sun was behind him; she had to shade her eyes. Now that he’d found her, he didn’t seem to know what to do. She saw his gaze trail down her arms—bruises and tattoos intermingling—before returning to her face. “Are you… all right?” he asked, hesitant.
These were the first words he had spoken to her. If they had come earlier she would have been so glad. From her first frightened days with the rebels, she had hoped he might be a friend, an ally; she’d thought she recognized something in him—compassion? The sweetness of his younger self? Even now, she could see that boy in him, those round brown eyes, his gravity and bashfulness. But he had stayed away from her all these weeks, and now when he finally chose to speak to her, it didn’t matter at all.
“You seem…” He faltered, discomfited. “You don’t seem well.”
“No?” Karou could have laughed. “Imagine that.” She stood, brushed off her jeans, and picked up her shoes. She looked up at Ziri. He had grown so tall, she had to tilt her head back. On one of his horns there was a hack mark, several ridges shaved away, and you had only to look to see that the horn had saved his head from a killing blow. He was lucky. She’d heard the other chimaera say so. Lucky Ziri.
“Don’t worry about me,” Karou told him. “Next time I feel like smiling, I guess I know who to ask.”
He flinched like he’d been slapped, and she stepped around him, went up the dusty riverbank and toward the kasbah. She didn’t fly, but walked. She was in no hurry to get back.
The emperor’s brother looked cut in half. A scar ran from the top of his head right down the center of his face, hooking under his chin and stopping—unfortunately—just shy of his throat. And it was no thin tracery either, but a puckered, livid keloid that overcame what remained of his nose and split his lips aside to reveal broken teeth. No one knew how he’d gotten it. He claimed it was a battle scar, but whispers contradicted him—though so many and so varied that it was impossible to guess which, if any, might be true. Even Hazael, with his way of finding things out, had no idea.
Whatever its cause, the scar’s result was to make it almost unendurable to hear Jael eat, which he was doing now with sounds very like the gluckings of a dog licking its tenders.
Akiva kept his face impassive, as ever, though truly it felt like a feat. No one could tempt a lip curl quite like the Captain of the Dominion.
“Think of it as a hunting party,” Jael said casually when he had downed half a cold smoked songbird with a gulp of ale, not bothering to wipe at the dribble that spilled from his ruined mouth. “A very large hunting party. Do you hunt?” he inquired of Akiva.
“Of course not. Soldiers have no luxury for sport. Until the enemy becomes the quarry. I think you’ll enjoy it.”
Not likely, thought Akiva.
The full weight of the Dominion hung poised to fall on the fleeing folk of the southern continent, several thousand troops now staging to cut off their escape to the Hintermost and then move steadily northward, killing every living thing in their path.
“I said it was too soon to withdraw our main strength,” said Jael. “But my brother didn’t believe the south was a threat.”
“It wasn’t,” said Ormerod, the Second Legion commander who had, until now, been overseeing this sweep and who was, Akiva thought, unhappy at being displaced. They were at table in his pavilion—not Akiva’s usual place. Far from it. Bastards did not sit at high table or dine with their superiors. He was here, to his surprise and not delight, at the request of Jael.
“The Prince of Bastards,” the captain had cried, catching sight of him on his arrival. Akiva had had to work with him in the past, and even when their passions had aligned—the destruction of Loramendi, for example—he’d despised him, and had sensed the feeling was mutual. And yet: “What an honor,” Jael had said that morning. “I hadn’t thought to look for you here. You must join us for breakfast. I’m sure you have thoughts on our situation.”
Oh, Akiva did, but not such as he could share at this table.
“The south wasn’t a threat before and it isn’t now,” Ormerod continued, and Akiva admired his forthrightness.
He could go so far as to agree with that. “Whoever is striking at seraphim, it isn’t these common folk.”
“Yes, well. The rebels are hiding somewhere, aren’t they?” Jael sighed. “Rebels. My brother is put out. He just wants to plan his new war. Is that so much to ask? And here comes the old one, back from the dead.” He laughed at his own witticism, but Akiva wasn’t laughing.
New war? So soon? He wouldn’t ask. Curiosity was weakness, and both Joram and Jael enjoyed drawing it out and letting it fester unrewarded.
Ormerod apparently hadn’t learned that lesson. “What new war?”
Jael kept his eyes on Akiva, and his look was direct, amused, and personal. “It’s a surprise,” he said, smiling—if you could call it a smile, the way his mouth skewed wide, pulling his scarred lips white.
There is a smile a chimaera could improve upon, thought Akiva. But if Jael was trying to taunt him, he would have to do better than this. There was no surprise. Who else could Joram’s next target be but the renegade seraphim whose freedom and mystique had riled him for years?
To Akiva, his mother’s people were more phantoms than these rebels arisen from nowhere. He gave Jael no satisfaction. At the moment, his concern was the battle at hand, and these southern lands where seraph fire had yet to touch death to every green and growing thing, every flesh and breathing thing. And now? Despair moved through him, restless, refusing to settle. He thought of the folk he had spared and warned. They would be cut off, trapped, captured, killed. What could he do? Several thousand Dominion. There was nothing to do.
“To Joram it may be a bother, but to me it’s a boon, this rebellion,” Jael was saying. “We must have something to do. I believe that an idle soldier is an affront to nature. Don’t you agree, Prince?”
Prince. “I don’t imagine nature spares us a thought except to weep when she sees us coming.”
Jael smiled. “Quite right. The land burns, the beasts die, and the moons weep in the heavens to see it.”
“Be careful,” warned Akiva, finding a thin smile of his own. “The moon’s tears are what created chimaera in the first place.”
Jael gave him a cool and considering look. “Beast’s Bane, spouting beast myths. Do you talk to the monsters before you kill them?”
“One should know one’s enemy.”
“Yes. One should.” Again, that look: direct, amused, and personal. What did it mean? Akiva was nothing to Jael but one of his brother’s legion of bastards.
But when at last the meal came to an end, he had to wonder what more there was to it.