- Days of Blood & Starlight
Jael pushed back his chair and stood. “Thank you for your hospitality, Commander,” he said to Ormerod. “We fly in an hour.” He turned to Akiva. “Nephew. Always charming to see you.” He turned to go, stopped, turned back. “You know, I probably shouldn’t admit it now that you’re a hero, but I argued for killing you. Back then. No hard feelings, I hope.”
Back when? Akiva regarded Jael evenly. When had his life been up for discussion?
Ormerod shifted uneasily and sputtered a few words, but neither Akiva nor Jael paid him any mind.
“The pollution of your blood, you know,” said Jael, as if it ought to be obvious. So. His mother, again. Akiva rewarded the quip with no more interest than he had shown earlier for the taunt about the new war. Of his mother he had only snatches of memory and the emperor’s cryptic taunt: Terrible what happened to her. What was Jael’s interest? “My brother had faith his blood would prove the stronger—blood is strength and all that—and now he says he was right. You were a test, and you passed, gloriously, and I suppose there’s no argument to be made against you now. Pity. One does so hate to be wrong about these things.”
With that, Jael of the Dominion, second-most powerful seraph in the Empire, turned to go, pausing just long enough to toss a command back at Ormerod—“Have a woman sent to my tent, would you?”—and kept walking.
Ormerod blanched. His mouth opened but no sound came out. It was Akiva who rose to his feet. Liraz’s words came back to him, and “all the other girls” she’d spoken of. It occurred to him only now that his sister had given voice to a fear. Not directly; she wouldn’t, but now he felt the fear for her, and for “all the other girls,” too. And not only fear. Fury. “We have no women here,” he said. “Only soldiers.”
Jael stopped. Sighed. “Well, one can hardly be choosy in a battle camp. One of them will have to do.”
A world away, the White Wolf readied his troops. He gathered them in the court at darkfall and sent them off in teams, every last one with wings. Nine teams of six, plus the sphinxes, ever their own team. Fifty-six chimaera. It had seemed like so many in the tithing, so many bruises, but Karou, watching from her window, pictured them against a sky full of Dominion and knew that they were nothing. She remembered the shine of the sun on armor, the flaming breadth of seraph wings, and the terrible sight of the enemy arrayed in force, and she felt numb. What did they hope for, going off like this? It was suicide.
They lifted, as squadrons, and flew.
Ziri did not look to her window.
It was not suicide.
The squadrons did not turn south when they passed through the portal. The fifty-six didn’t fly for the Hintermost to the aid of the creatures who peered up through the forest canopy to see why the sun faltered and what it was that the sky was delivering to them. Truly, what could fifty-six have done against so many? Suicide wasn’t in Thiago’s nature. It would have been a pointless exercise, a waste of soldiers.
The rebels didn’t witness the running and falling of desperate chimaera, the running and falling and pushing up again and clutching at babies and hoisting of elderly by elbows. They didn’t see the anguish of their kindred. They didn’t see them die by the scattered hundreds, chased from burning forests and cut down in sight of safety. And they didn’t die defending them, because they weren’t there.
They were in the Empire, causing anguish of their own.
“Our advantage now is twofold,” Thiago had said. “One, they don’t know where we are, they still don’t know who or what we are. We are ghosts. Second, we are now winged ghosts. Thanks to our new resurrectionist, we have freer movement than we have ever had before, and we can cover much greater distance. They won’t be looking for us to strike at them on their own terrain.” He had let a silence settle before adding, with the perverse gentleness that was his way, “The angels have homes, too. The angels have women and children.”
And now they would have fewer of them.
Only one team leader defied his order: Balieros. The stalwart bull centaur would not turn his back on his people. Once the teams separated to make for their assigned territories, he put it to his soldiers to choose, and they followed him proudly. Bear Ixander; griffon Minas; Viya and Azay, both Hartkind as the Warlord had been; and Ziri. They flew south, their wings churning clouds and pushing the long leagues behind them. As swiftly as they crossed the land they had once defended, it was an epic swath of country, and they were a day in flight before they saw the bastions of the Hintermost in the distance.
A mere six soldiers into a maelstrom of enemy wings—it was suicide, and could end in only one way.
They knew it, they flew toward it, hearts on fire and blood pounding, in their doom infinitely more alive than their comrades who went the other way with every expectation of survival.
“So,” said Hazael, coming quietly to Akiva’s side as they awaited the order to fly. They followed Ormerod today, their patrols combined to follow the Dominion, who had already gone. “What do we do now, brother? Do you suppose there will be many birds out today?”
Akiva turned to him. They had never spoken of the chimaera in the gully. “Must have been a bird,” they had agreed at the time, pretending not to see the huddled folk right in front of them.
“Not nearly enough, I think,” said Akiva.
“No, I suppose not.” Hazael put his hand on Akiva’s shoulder and let it weigh there for a moment. “Maybe some, though.” He turned away; Liraz was coming. He intercepted her, leaving Akiva to his thoughts.
Maybe some. His spirits lifted, just a little.
When the fly order came, he left his despair in camp and took instead only his sense of purpose. He didn’t deceive himself that it would be a day of heroics. It would be a day of death and terror, like so many other days, too many other days, and one—or was it two?—renegade seraphim couldn’t hope to save many lives.
Maybe some, though.
Rattle of thuribles, clatter of teeth.
Karou’s fingers were restless at her trays. Sift, string. Teeth, teeth. Human, bull. Jade chips, iron. Iguana teeth—little saw-blade nasties—bat bones. Sift, string. When she came to the antelope teeth, she sat back and stared at them.
“Who are those for?”
Karou startled, and clasped her fist around them. She’d forgotten Ten for a moment. Watching. The she-wolf was always watching.
“No one,” she said, and set them aside.
Ten shrugged, and returned to the task of mixing incense.
In London, at the Natural History Museum, Karou had hesitated beside the beautiful bull oryx for minutes, her hands tracing up its long, ridged horns, remembering what it was like to bear that weight on her own head.
“You could be Kirin again,” Ten had said, but the thought had never even occurred to Karou. The antelope teeth weren’t for her. They were for Ziri, and she hadn’t even wanted to take them. Superstitiously, it had seemed to her that the preparation invited his death—like digging a grave before someone died. Yes, death was expected, death was routine, but… not for Ziri.
Remarkably, he was still in his natural flesh. Through speed, skill—luck, he would be the first to say—he had never yet been killed. And, as foolish, as hypocritical as it was to care about his “purity,” Karou did. He was the last of her tribe, the last true flesh of her kind. There was something sacred in that, and when he had flown out on that first assault, a small, cold dread had crystallized in her and grown, only subsiding when she saw him return.
And now she was waiting again—just to see him, and know that the Kirin were not yet gone from the world—but this wasn’t like before. This time, she didn’t see how he could possibly come back. Her parting words to him—her only words to him—had been so cruel, as if he were to blame for any of it. Would she ever get the chance to unsay them?
Sift, string. Teeth, teeth.
The hours passed and her dread grew. The sun rose, dragging all the hours behind it, and never had a day in this place seemed so sluggish, so hot, so unending. Karou felt aged by the time it finally subsided to twilight. Again and again she found the antelope teeth in her palm.
In the end, that night in London, she had taken her pliers to the oryx’s mouth. It wasn’t an invitation to Ziri’s death, she had persuaded herself, but a way of preparing herself for its inevitability. All chimaera soldiers died. Maybe now his time had come. She tried to imagine him coming back in a thurible, his true flesh—the last Kirin body in all of Eretz—abandoned somewhere, broken or burned—and found that she could handle it.
So long as it kept her from considering the other possibility: that he might not come back at all.
TASK NUMBER ONE
On an unpaved road in southern Morocco, a car crunched to a stop, disgorging two passengers and their backpacks before pulling away with a backdraft of dust and Berber shouts for luck. Zuzana and Mik shielded their faces, coughing. The drone of the engine grew faint, and as the air cleared and they could look around, they found themselves at the edge of a vast emptiness.
Zuzana tilted back her head. “Holy. Mik. What are the creepy lights?”
Mik looked up. “Where?”
She gestured to the sky—the entire sky—and he shuttled his gaze back and forth twice before settling on her and asking, “You mean… the stars?”
“No way. I’ve seen stars. They’re, like, these faraway specks in space. Those are right there.”
What by the light of day was an austere land the unrelieved color of dust became, in the dark, a midnight tapestry ludicrous with stars. Mik laughed, and Zuzana laughed, too, and they cursed and marveled, their necks craned all the way back. “You could pick those bastards like fruit,” Zuzana said, reaching up and waggling her fingers at them.
They soon fell silent and stood looking out over the rough and rugged crust that was this land. It was like something out of a documentary—and not the feel-good kind. His voice bright, Mik said, “We’re not going to die out there, are we?”
“No.” Zuzana was firm. “That only happens in movies.”
“Right. In real life, fool city folk never die in the desert and turn into bleached skeletons—”
“To be crushed under the hooves of camels,” added Zuzana.
“I don’t think camels have hooves,” said Mik, sounding less than certain.
“Well, whatever they have, I would kiss a camel right about now. We probably should have gotten some camels.”
“You’re right,” he agreed. “Let’s go back.”
Zuzana snorted. “Really, intrepid desert explorer. We’ve been here less than five minutes.”
“Right, and where is here, exactly? How do you know this is the right spot? It all looks the same.”
She held up a map. Overscribbled in red ink and fluttering with Post-its, it was not an object to inspire confidence. “Here-here. Don’t you trust me?”
He hesitated. “Of course I do. I know how much work you’ve put into this, but… it’s not exactly our area of expertise.”
“Please. I’m an expert now,” she said. She would have aced any quiz on southern Morocco after the research she’d done, and thought she should qualify as an honorary nomad for her efforts. “I know this is where she is. I’m sure of it. Come on, I even learned how to use a compass. We have water. We have food. We have a phone—” She looked at her phone. “Which doesn’t get a signal. Well. We have water. We have food. And we told people where we’re going. Sort of. What’s the risk?”
“You mean, besides… the monsters?”
“Oh, monsters.” Zuzana was dismissive. “You’ve seen Karou’s sketchbooks. They’re nice monsters.”
“Nice monsters,” Mik repeated, staring out at the stark starlit wilds.
Zuzana wrapped her arms around his waist. “We’ve come all this way,” she cajoled. “It can be one of your tasks.”
He perked up at that. “You mean the fairy-tale tasks?”
“Well, okay then. In that case, we’d better get moving.” He hoisted his backpack on and held hers up as she slipped her arms through the straps.
They stepped off the road, and all lay before them.
“Maybe I should have asked before,” said Mik. “But how many tasks are there?”
“There are always three. Now come on. It should be about twelve miles.” She grimaced. “Uphill.”
“Twelve miles? My love, have you ever walked twelve miles?”
“Sure,” said Zuzana. “Cumulatively.”
Mik laughed and shook his head. “Good thing you left your platforms behind.”
“As if. They’re in your pack.”
“My—?” Mik heaved his shoulders up and down, jouncing his pack and the attached violin case with it. “I thought it felt heavier.”
Zuzana looked innocent. On her feet were her approximation of sensible shoes. They were sneakers, but their foam soles were thicker than was strictly necessary, not to mention zebra-striped. She gave Mik’s hand a tug and plunged into the desert. They were both alive with the thrill of adventure, but it was Zuzana who practically gave off a hum, so tightly wound was her excitement. She was going to see her friend again.
Not to mention a giant sandcastle.
Full of monsters.
Another night crawled above the kasbah, the stars never so slow in their arc as when lives were in question.