- Days of Blood & Starlight
Jael’s steward held the flap of the tent open and beheld the creature first. The fellow was stoic from years in his service and all that that entailed, so when Jael saw him blanch, he took notice.
Two soldiers dragged the thing by its armpits. Its body was a bloated ball, its arms were reedy and ropey, and its face…
Jael did not blanch. The things that disgusted others were a fascination to him. He rose from his chair. Went closer and knelt before the thing to peer at it, and when it looked at his face, it recoiled. This was funny—that such a monster could feel disgust—but Jael did not laugh.
“Please!” it cried. “I have been punished enough. I have come home at last. The blue lovely made me fly again, but she was wicked, oh, false girl, she tasted of fairy tales, but let her have her ash city, let her mourn her dead monsters, she cheated me. The wish ran out. How many times must I fall? It has been a thousand years. I have been punished enough!”
Jael understood that he was looking at a legend. “Fallen,” he said, amazed, and he took in the creature’s fine eyes, sunk in the bloat of its purple face. He looked at its dangling, useless legs and the splinters of bone jutting from its shoulder blades where, in a long-distant past—a past out of stories whose books had been burned and lost—its wings had been ripped from its body.
“So you’re real,” said Jael, and he felt no small awe that the thing could be alive after all that it had endured.
“I am Razgut, good brother, have pity. The other angel, he was cruel, oh, his fire eyes were bright, but he was a dead thing, he wouldn’t help me.”
Fire eyes. Suddenly, Jael found the creature’s gibberish as fascinating as his history.
With a flash of unexpected strength from those reed-thin arms, Razgut jerked free of the soldier holding him and seized Jael’s hand. “You who know what it is to be broken, brother, you will pity me.”
Jael smiled. It was when Jael smiled that he felt most keenly what his face was: a mask of scar tissue, a horror. He didn’t mind being a horror. He lived. The one who had cut him, well, she had lived long enough to rue her poor aim, and then long enough to rue having ever lived at all. Jael was ugly, and though his teeth were broken he was most avowedly not, and as for pity, it had never troubled him. Still, he let Razgut clutch at his hand. He waved the soldiers off when they tried to drag the creature back, and he ordered his steward to bring food.
“For our guest,” he said.
Our fascinating guest.
A TRUE SMILE
All of Karou’s careful hiding of her bruises was undone the moment she rolled up her sleeves and dumped her tool case out on her table. It was a small shock lost in larger shocks, though, and Zuzana said nothing. Karou didn’t look at her; she didn’t want to see her friend’s reaction. She focused on Ziri.
Thiago and Ten put him on her bed—so much for Zuzana and Mik sleeping there tonight—and Ten went for boiled water to wash his wounds. Ziri had not regained consciousness, which was a mercy since Karou had nothing to give him for the pain. Why would she? She wasn’t a healer.
But… she supposed she was; she could do what an ordinary healer could not—at least, in theory. The same magic used in conjuring flesh could also knit and heal it. It was even possible to repair a dead body and restore its soul to it, though this could only be done immediately after death before any decomposition began, and if the injuries were not too extensive. As soldiers tended not to die at the resurrectionist’s door, the gleaning of souls was the practical alternative. Also, Brimstone had said that it was usually easier to conjure a new form than restore a broken one.
He had compared it to mending a slice in knitted wool: the wool skein had been one continuous fiber in the original creation and was now fraught with interruptions, each its own snafu of loose ends and lost stitches. The interruptions could be put right, but it took maniacal craft, and the whole was unlikely to emerge quite as it had been before.
Karou knelt to examine Ziri’s injuries. As terrible as the smile looked, she felt sure she could manage. It had been sliced clean by a very sharp blade, and the muscles affected were on the large side, their configuration straightforward. There might be some scarring, but what of that?
Thiago leaned over her shoulder. “Is that… ash?” he asked.
Karou realized that it was. It was ash blackening Ziri’s mouth and lips. The inside of his mouth was black, too. “It looks like he ate it,” she said.
“Or was fed it,” replied Thiago darkly.
Fed ash? By who? Karou reached for Ziri’s hands, gently curling them open. When she saw what had been done to him, a soft sound of anguish escaped her lips. His hands were pierced through, as if he had been crucified. The left one was torn entirely from the center of his palm out through the webbing between his third and fourth finger, as if he had wrenched it free of whatever had pinned it. The imagined pain brought a trembling white noise to her ears. She laid the hands back gently on Ziri’s chest.
“So. Can you heal them?” asked Thiago.
Karou heard skepticism in his voice, and didn’t blame him for it. Hands were ridiculously complex. She’d had to draw and label them in anatomy classes in art school: all twenty-nine bones, seventeen muscles just in the palm, and… over a hundred ligaments. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
“If you can’t, tell me now.”
She went cold. “Why?” she asked, though she knew the answer.
“If he can’t use his hands, this body is of no use to him—or to me.”
“But it’s his natural flesh.”
Thiago shook his head, not unsympathetic. “I know. And as rare a thing as that is, do you think he’ll thank you for salvaging it if he can’t hold his blades?”
Is that all that matters? Karou wondered, and the bleak answer was: yes.
She felt the Wolf looking at her, but she kept her eyes on Ziri. Broken, brutalized Ziri. Lovely, long-limbed Ziri, graceful echo of a dead people. What manner of monstrous body would Thiago ask for to replace this perfect one? It wouldn’t come to that. She would keep Ziri from the pit. She would. “I’ll heal him.”
Thiago began, “If it would be faster to make him a new—”
“I can do it,” Karou snapped, and the Wolf sat back.
When she turned to face him, he was giving her a considering look. “All right, then. Try. But first I need to question him.”
“What? Wake him?” Karou shook her head. “It’s better this way—”
“Karou, what do you think happened to him? He’s been tortured, and I need to know by who, and if he gave anything away.”
“Oh.” She saw the sense in that, and as much as she hated to wake Ziri to his pain, she did, as gently as she could.
It was terrible to see his eyes flutter open and cloud with agony. They sought her face, then flickered to the Wolf and back to her. Again she saw in them the urgency that had been there when he first arrived, and felt sure there was something he wanted to tell her.
Thiago was his best self as he knelt at his soldier’s side to question him. “Who did this?” he asked in a soothing tone, but it quickly became evident that Ziri couldn’t speak, not with the severed muscles in his cheeks. The Wolf had to settle for yes and no questions, which Ziri answered with nods and head shakes that clearly caused him pain.
“Did you tell them anything?” asked Thiago, who had learned no more than that “they” were seraphim.
Ziri gave a head shake, immediate and resolute.
“Well done. And… the rest of the team?”
Ziri shook his head again. Tears gathered in his lashes, and Karou understood that he meant they were dead. She had already supposed so, but the news still hit her like a punch. Five soldiers, dead. Balieros. Ixander. She remembered the unexpected softness of Ixander’s soul and how she’d wished to do better by him than that monstrous body.
“Were you able to glean their souls?” asked the Wolf, and Karou leaned forward, hoping.
Ziri hesitated. His eyes went to her. Despairing. Confused. He neither nodded nor shook his head. What did it mean? Thiago asked him again, but Ziri’s eyes fluttered shut, his lashes releasing tears to track down his ash-smudged face, and he moaned. He was lost in pain, and after a few more attempts, Thiago had to let it go with the reassurance that Ziri had not compromised their position. He stood. “Go ahead,” he told Karou, “and luck to you.”
She wished she could assert that luck had nothing to do with it, but the truth was she was praying for it herself. She was almost ready to ask Nitid for help. “Thank you,” she said, and as he went out, she reached for some vises from her table.
Ziri made an inarticulate sound and she looked to him to find him shaking his head, agitated. She didn’t understand at first, but then he hit himself on the chest with his mangled hands and she got it. He wanted her to use his pain.
“Oh, no. No. You’d have to stay conscious to tithe—”
He nodded, hit his chest again, and tried to speak. His face contorted and fresh blood pulsed from the slashes. “Stop,” Karou cried, reaching out to restrain his hands. Their fingers curled together and he held hers tight in spite of the agony it must be causing him. He nodded again.
There were tears in Karou’s eyes now. “Okay,” she said, wiping them away. “Okay.”
Ten returned with water and cloths, and Karou set about cleaning Ziri’s wounds. She had some antiseptic, and as she dabbed it on she felt Ziri’s pain amplify in the air around him, almost like currents of electricity. It was a terrible waste to let it all dissipate while she cleaned his wounds. She needed help. She turned to Ten, but one look at the she-wolf’s heavy, ungentle hands and she looked away again. She couldn’t entrust Ziri’s wounds to her. She looked over her shoulder. Zuzana and Mik were still in the room, standing against the far wall. Zuzana was wide-eyed, pale, and watching her intently. Surely this was not what she had meant when she had petitioned to be Igor, resurrectionist’s assistant, but she did have fine small hands and years of training at delicate work.
“Zuze, do you think you can help me? You don’t have to if you’re not comfortable—”
“What can I do?” She came at once to Karou’s side.
Ten tried to assert herself, but Karou waved her off and explained to Zuzana what she needed, and though her friend paled further, she took the clean gauze and water basin and antiseptic and turned to Ziri. “Hi,” she said. Aside to Karou: “How do you say hi in Chimaera?”
Karou told her, and she repeated it, and Ziri couldn’t say it back, but he nodded.
“This is the one you drew,” said Zuzana. “From your tribe.”
“Okay. Well. Let’s get started.”
Karou nodded encouragement and watched for a moment to make sure Zuzana would be all right, and then, with a deep breath, she sank into the slash-and-burn landscape of Ziri’s pain and began to gather it, and use it.
She didn’t know how long she was within herself, in that strange place where she worked at Brimstone’s magic. This wasn’t the continuous, meditative, and fluid feel of a conjuring, but a faltering, puzzling piecing-together and picking at loose ends, trying to reconstruct what had once been whole. It seemed to take a very long time; she existed in a curious sense of suspension, like she was underwater and should have to surface to take a breath, but didn’t, and when she finally did come up it was like rising from black water. She blinked, breathed. The sun had risen; the shutters were closed but light seeped in around the edges, and though the fortress walls kept out the worst of the heat, the coolness of night had gone; it felt like much of the day had gone with it.
“Karou.” It was Zuzana’s voice, hushed with reverence. “That was… amazing.”
What was? Karou tried to focus her eyes. They were dry, as if she hadn’t blinked in hours, which maybe she hadn’t. She looked around. Ten was gone. Zuzana was still at her side; Mik was on her other side, his arm around her, and she realized with a slumping weariness that he was pretty much all that was holding her upright. Her exhaustion felt like gravity, inexorable. Her head had never been so heavy.
Finally she looked at Ziri, who had kept conscious for hours as well, feeding her his pain, and she found him looking back. He smiled at her. It was a smile full of exhaustion, sorrow, and other unreadable things, but it was a true smile, and not an ugly message carved in flesh.
She had done it.
She drank in the sight of his face. She had mended him, and almost without a trace of scarring. And his hands? That was the true test. She reached for them, held them and looked, and at first her breath caught because the scarring was ugly, knotted, and she thought she had failed, but then he flexed his fingers and the movements were fluid, and she breathed again. She breathed out a laugh and tried to rise. Dizziness broke over her.
The room fell sideways.
And that was all there was for a while.
Zuzana perched on the edge of Karou’s bed. Her friend lay asleep, eyes closed, the skin around them deep blue. Her breathing was steady and deep. At her side lay Ziri, also sleeping, and their breathing had fallen into rhythm. Zuzana had bathed her friend’s face with cool water, and her hands and wrists, too, before laying them at her sides. “She needs rest,” she said to Mik. “And I need food. Tell me you’re not starving.”
In response, Mik flipped open his pack and dug something out. “Here,” he said.
Zuzana took it. It was—or had been—a bar of chocolate. “It melted on hell hike.”