- Days of Blood & Starlight
Ziri had been a watchful child, and had seen many things he was too young to understand. He’d had to watch Madrigal die, and he hadn’t understood the fervor—the ecstasy—of the crowd. He hadn’t understood why the only one who mourned her was the enemy, driven to his knees and bloody from torture. Ziri would never forget Akiva’s screams—absolute despair, rage, helplessness. It remained the worst thing he had ever heard.
He had seen Thiago that day, too, a chill white presence on the palace balcony, motionless and unmoved.
Ziri had begun to hate someone on that day, and it wasn’t Akiva.
“I don’t know why, Karou,” he said. “But I think the angel saved my life.”
“We should have killed him when we had the chance,” Liraz said under her breath as she and Hazael walked in step through the Dominion camp.
“We didn’t have the chance,” Hazael reminded her. “There were too many damn birds in the way.”
“Yes, well, I hoped he’d been suffocated or pecked to death or something,” she replied.
She was talking about Jael, who they were headed to see. For reasons yet mysterious, their charming uncle had asked to see them. “Couldn’t Akiva have made the birds kill him?”
Hazael shrugged. “Who knows what our brother can do. I don’t think he quite knows himself. And I don’t think he’d ever tried anything that big before. It cost him.”
It had. The effort of the summoning had left Akiva gasping and shaking, his eyes tight shut so that Hazael and Liraz had not seen until it was done how blood vessels had burst and turned them red.
“For the life of one chimaera,” said Liraz.
“For the life of one, yes, and the hope of more,” said Hazael.
“The hope of her,” said Liraz, not without bitterness. How could she not hate this phantom of a girl who was neither alive nor dead, human nor chimaera—what the hell was she, anyway? It was just so very far outside of everything, so deeply abnormal, and… Liraz knew that at the root of it was jealousy, and she hated that. Akiva was hers.
Oh, not in that way. He was her brother. But Hazael and Akiva were her people, her only people. They had hundreds of other brothers and sisters, but this was different. It had always been the three of them, and though she had come close to losing them in battle more than once, until recently she’d never had to worry about losing them in this way. Misbegotten didn’t love and marry. It was forbidden. And… it would be worse, she thought, because it would be their choice. They wouldn’t die, or be taken from her. They would go freely to make their life around another person and leave her behind.
She had said she didn’t feel fear, but it was a lie; this was her fear: being left alone. Because of one thing she was certain, and it was that she could never love, not like that. Trust a stranger with her flesh? The closeness, the quiet. She couldn’t imagine it. Breathing someone else’s breath as they breathed yours, touching someone, opening for them? The vulnerability of it made her flush. It would mean submission, letting down her guard, and she wouldn’t. Ever. Just the thought made her feel small and weak as a child—and Liraz did not like to feel small and weak. Her memories of childhood were not kind.
Only Hazael and Akiva had gotten her through it. She’d thought that she would do anything for them, but it had never occurred to her that “anything” might mean letting them go.
“I wonder if he’s found them,” she said now to Hazael. The rebels, she meant. She spoke low; they were nearing Jael’s pavilion. “We should have gone with him.”
“We have our part to play here,” he said, and Liraz only nodded. She hadn’t wanted to let Akiva go off alone again, but how could she stop him? The worst thing of all would be making him hate her. So they’d watched him struggle to glamour himself invisible—he had been so weary after the summoning—and follow the Kirin into the bird-torn sky, while she and Hazael had returned to the camp. To play their part, as they had before, and cover for him.
Never before, though, had they been summoned before the Captain of the Dominion to tell their lies and half-truths.
“Ready?” asked Hazael.
Liraz nodded and went first through the flap. The same flap Loriel had come through, was it just the day before? Liraz felt the brief contact of her brother’s fingertips at the small of her back and carried the connection with her as she faced Jael.
Loriel said she was fine. She said it was nothing—just a man, and men wash off.
She was older than most of the female soldiers, more worldly. She had volunteered—to spare some virgin being thrown to Jael, she said—and though Liraz had not been in danger, being Jael’s own blood, she thought it was an act of courage unlike any she had ever witnessed. Braver than taking the vanguard or doubling back for wounded comrades. Braver than facing a host of revenants. Liraz had done those other things, but she knew she could never have walked into this tent and out of it again, not like that.
“My lord,” she said now, with the appropriate deep bow. Drawing even with her, Hazael did the same.
“Niece, nephew,” he drawled. It was mockery, but Liraz was glad of it. And don’t forget it, she thought. She lifted her head and looked at him.
And really did not like what she saw on his face. It was aimed at her, cutting Hazael out, and it was… interest. Unmistakable and unsettling. “What is your name?” he asked her.
“My sister is Liraz,” Hazael spoke up. “And I am Hazael.”
But Jael repeated only, “Liraz.” He said it wetly, followed it with a heavy sigh. “Misbegotten. What a pity. You’re a fresher fruit than some others who’ve come my way. But my brother does have a way of… inserting himself.”
Hazael laughed. “I get it,” he said, and succeeded this time in drawing Jael’s eyes from her. “Inserting himself. That’s funny.”
Stop, Liraz willed him, but Jael only smiled. Hazael’s laughter sounded genuine. He had a gift for laughter.
Now that Jael troubled to look at Hazael, he saw what everyone did when the pair of them stood side by side, and looked back and forth between brother and sister. “Twins?” he asked. “No? The same mother, at least.”
But Hazael shook his head. “No, sir, only our father’s blood shining through.”
Liraz was stunned enough to turn her head and stare. To name Joram “father,” to Jael? She knew what he was doing, trying to keep the focus on himself. Stop it, she willed him again, but Jael didn’t take offense. Maybe because of the foolish good humor of Hazael’s manner, and maybe because his thoughts were elsewhere.
“Indeed,” said the captain. “Though that’s not the case with the Prince of Bastards, is it? I would say his Stelian taint rose to the top.”
Taint? It was true that Akiva looked nothing like Joram; more than that, Liraz couldn’t say. She didn’t remember her own mother, let alone Akiva’s. What did Jael want?
“I’m told that Akiva is not in camp. Is that right?”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.
“And I’m told that if anyone knows where he is, it’s you two.”
“He’s still out hunting, sir,” said Hazael. “For the rebels.”
Not even a lie, thought Liraz.
“Admirable. Our stalwart Beast’s Bane never rests. But you came back without him?”
“I was hungry, sir,” said Hazael, contrite.
“Well, I suppose we can’t all be heroes.”
His disdain snapped something in Liraz. “And did you catch any rebels?” she asked, with none of Hazael’s comic contrition. “Sir.”
His eyes swiveled back to her. A beat, and he answered firmly, “No.”
Liar, she thought, recalling the sight of him brutalizing the Kirin. He’d enjoyed himself. Feeding him the ashes of his comrades? It made her sick. Funny, how easy it had been to root for the enemy when the enemy was up against Jael. Well, the form and nature of the enemy had surely helped. Had he been Heth or Akko or some snarling, beast-aspect revenant, it would have been harder to take his side, Jael or not. But the Kirin, it had been thrilling watching him fight—Liraz had even thought for a moment that he might prevail and escape. He was so quick. She hadn’t seen a Kirin since she was a green soldier on her first forays and she had forgotten what they were like. So when Akiva had told them, in a quiet, choked voice, that Madrigal had been Kirin, too, the last of Liraz’s revulsion had loosened and evaporated.
In spite of the rebel’s creature elements, there had been a lean and elegant grace to him that was not animal. Not at all. She hadn’t wanted him to die.
The same couldn’t be said of Jael. No elegance, no grace. She would have been glad to see him choked with ash. How badly, she wondered, had he hurt that soldier? And how many others had he delighted in torturing in just that way? “No?” she heard herself say, goading him. “Maybe they really are ghosts.”
Oh, fool. Jael’s look of lazy interest sharpened and sparked. “They are animals,” he replied simply, in an offhand manner as if he couldn’t care less. He took another step toward her. “You know, you remind me of someone.” He was studying her face, her body. “Not in particulars. She was dark, not fair, but you have the same… fire… that she had.”
Had. Liraz forced her eyes to the floor. Don’t push him, don’t test him, he is Jael. Do you really think bastard blood will constrain him if you anger him?
“Can we relay a message to Akiva for you?” asked Hazael, trying again to draw their uncle’s attention away. “He should be back in a day or two.”
“No.” Jael stepped back. “No message. I’m returning to Astrae. But no doubt we’ll meet again.”
“I can’t believe you went downstairs without me,” Karou said, exasperated.
“What?” Zuzana was impenitent. “I was starving and our hostess was passed out on the bed with a hot monster boy.”
Hot monster boy? “God. That makes it sound…” Karou threw up her hands and shook her head. It was silly to be so retroactively anxious about something that hadn’t happened, but when she thought of what Zuzana and Mik had walked right into, it made her cold. When she had finally gone down to the court she’d found Zuzana sitting between, of all possible chimaera, Tangris and Bashees, having much the same sort of pointing-and-charades “conversation” one has anywhere while traveling and meeting people who don’t speak your language. Only… these weren’t “people.”
“You don’t understand.” Karou hadn’t wanted to freak her friends out before, but they were obviously not freaked out enough. “Do you know what they’re called? They’re the Shadows That Live, Zuze. They’re assassins.”
“Like me,” said Zuzana cheerfully.
Karou thought maybe she should hold her head so it didn’t come apart. “No, not like you. Not pretend assassins. Real assassins. They slit angels’ throats in their sleep.”
“Yikes.” Zuzana grimaced and grabbed her throat. “But the angels are the bad guys, right?”
Karou really didn’t know how to respond to that. None of it was real to Zuzana. “They’re just really creepy, okay?” she said, hearing how lame she sounded, then hesitated. How could she be sure of anything, in light of the fact that she’d been living in a theater of Thiago’s lies? “Aren’t they?”
Zuzana shrugged. “I don’t know. They were cool.”
Cool. The Shadows That Live were cool. “And I suppose Thiago is a peach, too.”
“Eww,” said Zuzana with a shudder. “No. Nonpeach. Wormy peach.”
Well, at least they agreed about that.
“You should get some sleep,” Karou said.
Mik was already stretched out on the bed, barely conscious, and Zuzana’s energy looked to finally be winding down. “I know.” She yawned. “I will. What about you?”
“I slept already,” Karou said. With Ziri. How strange. And now they were allies with a shared secret. Thiago didn’t suspect. They’d heard him coming and had time to pretend sleep before he walked in—in a less intimate arrangement than before, with Karou on the chair beside the bed. They had already decided that Ziri would tell the general about the gleaned souls, and that Karou would somehow manage the resurrections in private so that she could give Balieros and the others their cover story when they woke. If all went well, Thiago never needed to know that they had disobeyed orders. She wasn’t sure what she’d do with the extra soul Ziri warned her she might find: the Dashnag boy who’d fought and died with them. Stasis, she guessed.
Of course, this was all only the beginning of the problem. The large and looming issue was: What now? This terror campaign. Karou had believed—as far as she had peered out of her misery to really think about it—that the objective of the rebellion was the protection of chimaera. Thiago was protecting no one. Maybe it was true that he lacked the numbers to do any more than that, which he would say was her fault, but… had he given up on everything else?
“That can’t have been enough rest,” said Zuzana. “You can sleep here. I’ll scooch over.”
Karou shook her head. “Be comfortable. I wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway.” There was too much spinning in her mind. What to do? What to do? “I think I’m going to go for a walk while it’s still cool. In the morning it’s back to work.” Zuzana’s face brightened, and Karou said, “Yes, Igor. You can help. And thanks for earlier. You were awesome.”