- Days of Blood & Starlight
“Aura of weird,” Karou repeated, flat.
“Good-weird,” said Mik.
“So what kind?” Zuzana asked.
The question was so light, so offhand. Karou felt her palms go clammy. It was, after all, her tribe they were asking about, the family that had been ripped away from her so long ago. Flashes of the day besieged her, the long blood streaks on the floors where bodies had been dragged to the cave mouth and heaved over the drop. She breathed. They didn’t get it. Of course they didn’t. In their life it was not necessary to worry whether someone had been orphaned by slave raiders before you asked after their family.
Once upon a time she had had parents, a home, kin. Once upon a time, she had belonged somewhere, perfectly and without trying. “I was Kirin,” she said softly. I am Kirin, she thought, though everything Kirin had been taken from her: her tribe and her home by angels, her true flesh by the White Wolf, and now, maybe… Ziri. “I’ll show you,” she heard herself say.
She reached for her sketchbook and pencil and held them a moment, tight, wondering if she could do this. She had tried to draw Madrigal before, but found her hand deflecting her pencil into some other effort. She was afraid—of getting it wrong, of getting it right, of what she would feel at the sight of her former self. Would she feel like it was her true form, and long for it? Or would it be strange, as if she had never even been that long-ago girl? Either way, she couldn’t imagine it would make her happy.
Still, she thought it was time, and so she started to draw. A curved line. Another. Her horns took shape. Zuzana and Mik watched. Karou almost felt as if she were watching, too, rather than creating the image, and she was a little surprised by what emerged on the page. By who emerged.
“Um. You were a guy?” asked Zuzana.
Karou released her pent-up breath in a laugh. “No. Sorry. That’s not me; that’s Ziri. He’s…” It felt too brutal to say he was the last living member of her tribe, so she said only, “He’s Kirin, too.”
“Oh, phew. I don’t know why it would be freakier if you were a not-human guy in your previous body than a not-human girl, but it would.”
Mik asked, “Where is he? Is he here?”
“His team is overdue back from a mission in Eretz.”
Zuzana must have heard the anxiety in her voice. “What does that mean, overdue? Are they okay?”
“Maybe. I hope. They might just be late.”
Or they might be dead.
ASSASSINS AND SECRET LOVERS
Day passed to night, and Karou found herself faced with the undesirable task of explaining the toilet situation to Zuzana. That is, the lack-of-toilet situation.
To her surprise, Zuzana said only, “Well, that explains the smell.”
It seemed Karou really had neutralized their capacity for surprise. She decided the best course would be to go to the river so they could bathe and take care of immediate needs with some privacy. “Privacy,” in air quotes, as it were. Thiago met them on the way out, his courtly, overly solicitous manner stilted and old-fashioned as he insisted that Ten accompany them. “Just to be sure you’re safe,” he said.
Safe, thought Karou. Right. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not going to make a break for it.”
“Of course not,” he said, and she knew that she couldn’t if she tried. She wouldn’t be able to escape the creatures she had made. Winged, powerful, and with keen animal senses, they’d be on them in no time. Good going, me, she thought as, with the she-wolf trailing, she led her friends out the gate and down the slope to the river. With the heat of the day gone, the cold water was less than inviting—plus, Ten’s hunched presence on a rock was small inducement to shed clothes—so they didn’t bathe properly, but only splashed themselves, scrubbed their faces and necks, and lay out on a rock to dry.
“Star bathing,” said Karou.
“Seriously.” Zuzana reached up as if to brush the stars with her fingertips. “I always thought pictures of night skies like this were faked or enhanced or something.”
“Like those giant moon photos,” added Mik.
Karou turned to them. “Did I tell you there are two moons in Eretz? And one of them really is that big.”
“Yeah. The chimaera—we—worship them.” She didn’t, though, not anymore. Once upon a time she had believed there was a will at work in the cosmos, but if there had been, it had abandoned her at the temple of Ellai. “Nitid is the big one. She’s the goddess of just about everything.”
“And the other one?”
“Ellai,” said Karou, remembering the temple, the hish-hish of the evangelines, the shush of the sacred stream. The blood. “She’s the goddess of assassins and secret lovers.”
“Cool,” said Zuzana. “That’s the one I’d worship.”
“Oh, really. And which are you, an assassin or a secret lover?”
“Well,” Zuzana said in a smarmy voice, “my love is no secret,” and rolled on her side to kiss Mik. “Guess that makes me an assassin. How about you?” She turned back to Karou.
Karou’s throat tightened. “Not an assassin,” she said, and instantly regretted it.
A pause came between them, and it was so full of Akiva that Karou imagined she could smell him. Stupid, she scolded herself for opening the subject; it was like she wanted to talk about him. The pause grew, and for a moment she thought Zuzana was going to let it pass, for which she was grateful. She did not want to talk about Akiva. She didn’t want to think about him. Hell, she wanted to unknow him, to go back in time to Bullfinch and turn another way on the battlefield as he bled out his life into the sand.
“I wish you’d tell me what happened,” said Zuzana.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Karou, you’re miserable. What good is having friends if they can’t help you?”
“Believe me, it’s not something you can help me with.”
Karou’s whole body was rigid. “Yeah? Okay,” she said, staring up into the stars. “Let’s see. You know how, at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet wakes up in the crypt and Romeo’s already dead? He thought she was dead so he killed himself right next to her?”
“Yeah. That was awesome.” A pause, followed by “Ow,” suggested elbow punctuation on the part of Mik.
Karou ignored it. “Well, imagine if she woke up and he was still alive, but…” She swallowed, waiting out a tremor in her voice. “But he had killed her whole family. And burned her city. And killed and enslaved her people.”
After a long pause, Zuzana said in a small voice, “Oh.”
“Yeah,” said Karou, and closed her eyes against the stars.
The sentry’s call came as they were walking back up the slope. A throat-deep rumble that Karou recognized as Amzallag’s, and at once she was rising into the air, squinting in the direction of the portal. At first she saw nothing. Was it more humans? No. Amzallag was pointing to the sky.
And then the stars shimmered. A figure was cutting across the night, visible first only as a canceling of stars. One figure, alone—one, only one?—and… its wingbeats were labored and uneven. It pitched, dropped, caught, pushed on, pain in every movement. And there were soldiers in the air going to meet him and help him—him, Karou saw that it was him. It was Ziri. Alive. She wanted to go, too, but there were her friends on the ground below, and anyway, she didn’t imagine Ziri could want to see her, not after the last thing she had said to him, so she dropped back down and said, “Come on. Hurry.”
Ten wanted to know what she’d seen, so she told her, and the she-wolf loped on ahead while Karou took her friends by the elbows and rushed them uphill, practically lifting them off the ground in her hurry.
“What?” Zuzana demanded. “Karou, what?”
“Just come,” she said, and by the time they got there, Nisk and Emylion were lowering Ziri to the ground before Thiago. His wings hung limp, and the Wolf knelt to support him, and Karou was there, a roaring in her ears as she searched for the source of the blood, the blood that was all over him. Where was it was coming from? Ziri was bent over, head down, arms pulled tight against his body, and… something was wrong with his hands. They were dark with blood and crooked stiff, like claws—oh god, what had happened to his hands?—and then he lifted his head, and his face…
Karou sucked a breath.
Behind her, she heard Zuzana cry out.
Ziri was as white as shock, and that was one thing Karou saw, but the rest was… it was confused, he was white but he was also gray, ash-gray—his chin, his mouth… his lips were black, clotted and crusted, and even that wasn’t the worst thing. Karou’s gaze skittered away and lost focus and she forced it back.
What had they done to him?
Of course. Of course they had done this. They had cut him as he had cut them, but he was still alive, wearing that terrible smile. He was… carved. Bleeding, white with shock and blood loss. His eyes searched for her and found her and focused with a snap—a whiptail snap when their eyes met—and her own jumped wider and he was telling her things with his look, but she couldn’t understand, the words were missing, there was only the urgency.
Then he pitched forward and Thiago caught him, but not before one of his long horns hit the flagstone, snapping off the tip with a crack like a gunshot. Ten lunged forward and took his other arm, and he hung limp between the two as they lifted him and carried him away. Karou grabbed the piece of horn—she didn’t know why—and went in quick short steps in their wake, gesturing for Zuzana and Mik to follow.
“Wait,” she said, when Thiago and Ten came to the door of the keep where the soldiers slept. “Take him to my room. I think… I think I might be able to heal him.”
Thiago gave a nod and changed direction. Ten followed his lead, and Karou, behind them, felt a sudden prickling at the back of her neck and turned. She scanned the path behind her. It was strewn with detritus; the wall beyond was high and the stars were bright, but there was nothing else.
She turned back and hurried up the path.
Akiva fell to his knees. He hadn’t breathed since he saw her. He gasped now and his glamour failed, and if Karou had still been looking back she would have seen the shape of him cut in and out of the air, wings limned in fire and sparks like bursting embers. He was not twenty feet from her.
She was alive.
Soon, everything else would come rushing at him. Like the ground to a falling man, it would come rushing up and hit him all at once—the place, the company, her words; one implication would lead to another and shatter him—but around that intake of breath the world hung silent and bright, so bright, and Akiva knew only this one thing, and held on to it and wanted to live inside of it and stay there forever.
Karou was alive.
Once upon a time, a girl lived in a sandcastle,
making monsters to send through a hole in the sky.
“Captain, we’ve found… something. Sir.”
Jael favored the scout with the baleful look his soldiers knew well. The Captain of the Dominion was not hot-tempered like his brother. His anger was a cool, intentional thing, but just as brutal—arguably more so, as he had full control when he committed his worst acts, and was more able to enjoy himself. “Am I to understand,” he said softly, “that by ‘something’ you don’t mean the rebel?”
“No, sir, not him.” The scout stared past Jael’s head at the silk wall of the pavilion. It was night and the breeze was up. The folds of the tent flapped in a light breeze, and the glow of lanterns painted its ripples crimson and fire, ever-shifting, mesmerizing. Jael knew; he’d been staring at it himself until his steward showed the scout in, but he didn’t imagine the scout was mesmerized. He imagined he just didn’t like to look at his captain’s face.
“Well, what then?” he asked, impatient. It was the rebel he wanted—the Kirin who, unbelievably, had slipped through his fingers—and he could little imagine that anything else would hold his attention at the moment.
He was wrong.
“We’re not sure what it is, sir,” said the scout. He sounded bewildered. He looked repulsed. Jael was used to that look; he got it enough. They tried to hide it, but there was always a tell: a tic, a sliding away of the eyes, a subtle pursing of the lips. Sometimes it irritated him enough that he gave them something to take their mind off their revulsion. Like agony, for example. But if Jael were to punish everyone who was disgusted by his face, he would be kept very busy indeed. And anyway, this particular revulsion wasn’t for him. When he realized that, his curiosity stirred.
“We found… it… hiding in the ruins of Arch Carnival. It had a fire.”
“It?” prompted Jael. “A beast?”
“No, sir. It’s like no beast I’ve seen. It says… It says it’s a seraph.”
Jael let out a spray of laughter. “And you can’t tell? What manner of fools surround me that can’t recognize our own kind?”
The scout looked acutely uncomfortable. “I’m sorry, sir. At first I thought it was impossible, but there’s something about the thing. If what it says is true—”
“Bring it here,” said Jael.
And they did.
He heard it before he saw it. It spoke the tongue of seraphim and it was moaning. “Brothers, cousins,” it implored, “be gentle with this poor broken thing, take pity!”