- Days of Blood & Starlight
Melliel, though, said she was glad to go—glad to be free of the spider’s web that was Astrae. It was she who told them what else had happened at the Tower of Conquest while the Breakblades swung.
“A shrouded body was… released… through Tav Gate that same morning.” Tav was the last of the Tower’s gates. It was the gutter door, belowground and egress-only; it was where waste was flushed out to sea.
Akiva steeled himself. “Who?”
Melliel’s jaw worked. “There’s no way to know for certain, but… apparently no one thought to dismiss the harem escort. They waited two hours at Alef before a steward noticed and sent them away.”
Akiva felt the news in his gut first and his fists an instant later—a hot surge that made them clench so tight his forearms burned. From Liraz came a choked noise; Hazael’s breathing grew hoarse and he turned abruptly to pace away trailing sparks. Turned and paced back. His fair face was red. Liraz was shaking, her fists clenched as tight as Akiva’s.
The harem escort was the procession of Silverswords that marched the concubines to and from the emperor’s bed. “Parade duty,” they called it. Akiva’s mother had made that walk years ago, who knew how many times—on one return with himself beginning in her belly. Liraz’s and Hazael’s mothers, too, and Melliel’s, and untold other girls and women. And the morning of the hangings, it would seem, the concubine who should have emerged from Alef had been sent out Tav instead, along with the night’s refuse.
“Terrible what happened to her,” Akiva heard in his head—the cruel, goading voice of his father the first time he had ever deigned to speak to him. Had his mother’s body been sent out Tav Gate, too?
A wave of weariness took him. How could life be so unrelentingly ugly? The war was over, but both sides were still slaughtering civilians; the emperor casually killed concubines in his bedchamber and sent his bastards into the unknown to die drumming up more war. There was nothing good in the world, nothing at all. And now that even his memories of happiness were corrupted, Akiva found himself in freefall.
Had she meant it? Had she truly never trusted him? He wanted to deny it; he remembered. He remembered those days—those nights—more clearly than any others in his life, and how she had curled into him in sleep, and how, when she woke to the sight of him, her brown eyes had come alive with light. Even on the scaffold, and again in Marrakesh, after the wishbone was snapped but before she understood…
Before she knew what he had done.
Maybe he had seen only what he wanted to see. It didn’t matter now, anyway. There was no more light in her eyes, not for him and, worse: not at all.
In the morning, when Melliel departed with her troops, Akiva stood on the rampart with Liraz and Hazael and saw them off. A part of him wished he were going, too, mists and mysteries and vanished troops and all, to see the Far Isles, and maybe meet the one who had written such a mad message to the emperor.
But his place was here, on this side of the world. His challenge was here, and his penance: to do what he had told Karou he would, which was anything and everything.
What was anything? What was everything?
He knew, but it seemed to loom before him as huge and insurmountable as the mountains of the south.
With Madrigal, in the temple, everything had seemed possible. Was it? Would he find any sympathy in the ranks? There was a restiveness there, he knew, and a quiet desperation. He thought of Noam at the aqueduct, asking wildly when it would all end. There would be more like him, but there were those, too, who would claim women and children in their tally and laugh as the ink dried. That would always be true; there would always be both kinds of soldiers. How was he to find the good, recruit them, trust them to secrecy while he went about the slow and scraping work of building a rebellion?
Melliel’s troops were just a shimmer on the horizon now. The rocky swell of the cape headland blocked the view of the sea from here, but its clean scent was in the air, and the sky was great and endless. Finally, their Misbegotten brethren vanished into it.
“What now?” asked Liraz, turning to him.
He didn’t know what she meant. Liraz. He still didn’t know what to make of his sister. She had gone along with the bird summoning warily, and freeing the Kirin, but she had seemed more narrow-eyed and watchful than ever since his return from the rebel camp. With the news that the chimaera had taken to returning the civilian attacks, he feared that she would argue for giving up their location to their superiors.
There was a restless energy in her, her wings kicking off sparks as she paced. “How does one begin?” she asked. Stopped, fixed him with a stare, and held up her hands. Her black hands. “You said one has only to begin. So how do we?”
Begin? Mercy breeds mercy, Akiva had told her. He hardly knew what to say. “Do you mean…?”
“Harmony with the beasts?” she supplied. “I don’t know. I know that I’m through taking orders from men like Jael and Joram. I know that every night a girl must cross the skybridge knowing that no one will help her. Those are our mothers.” Her voice was raw. “We’re swords, they tell us, and swords have no mother or father, but I did have one once, and I can’t even remember her name. I don’t want to be this anymore.” Again, she lifted her hands. “I’ve done things—” Her voice cracked.
Hazael drew her against him. “We all have, Lir.”
She shook her head. Her eyes were wide and bright. No tears, not Liraz. “Not like me. You couldn’t. You’re good. Both of you, you’re better than me. You were helping them, weren’t you? While I was… while I…” She trailed off.
Akiva took her hands in his, covered up the black marks so she didn’t have to look at them. He remembered what Madrigal had told him, years ago, with her hand on his heart and his on hers. “War is all we’ve been taught, Lir,” he told his sister now. “But we don’t have to be that anymore. We’ll still be us, just—”
“A better us?”
“How?” Her restlessness overcame her. She shook him off to pace again. “I need to do something. Now.”
Hazael spoke. “We start to gather others. That’s our first step. I know who to start with.” Yes, Akiva realized. He would.
“It’s too slow,” Liraz said fiercely.
And Akiva agreed. The idea of steps—of a careful progression of plans and recruitment and scheming and subterfuge—it was far too slow.
“Liraz is right. How many more would die while we whisper secrets?”
“What, then?” asked Hazael.
In the deep distance, the sky was cleaved by a line of stormhunters on the move. The massive birds were drawn by some inner compass to knots of gathering wind, to deluge and turmoil and churned seas, hail and shipwreck and knives of lightning; no one knew why, but right now, Akiva felt the same pull in himself—toward the center of his own brewing storm.
“It was always going to be the first step,” he said. “It’s just coming eighteen years late.” He’d known what he had to do then, and he knew it now. As long as Joram remained in power, their world would know war and nothing but war. Hazael and Liraz were furrow-browed, waiting.
Akiva said, “I’m going to kill our father.”
HONEY AND VENOM
The body lay on the floor. It was a near-perfect likeness to the one Karou mourned, and when she came out of her trance and saw it there, she gave a little sob and had to fight the urge to drop to her knees and bury her face in the crook of its neck. But it was just that: an it, still a shell, no soul yet animating it to return her embrace. She got a hold of herself, pulled the vises off her arms and hands quickly—too quickly. The sun was up, and Ten was sure to come sniffing around any minute. Karou hadn’t wanted to lose time unscrewing the clamps, and in one or two places they snagged her flesh coming off.
“Ack! Halt!” cried Zuzana. “Stop abusing yourself!”
Karou ignored her fluttering hands and said, “Hurry. Light the incense.”
“I think someone’s coming,” said Mik from the doorway.
Karou nodded. “Boards,” she said, and he closed the door and secured it. They hadn’t replaced the crossbar—it would have made too much noise to hammer those great iron nails back into the wall. Instead, Mik had come up with the idea of gouging a pair of grooves into the dirt floor, into which he now settled planks, propping them at an angle to the door, wedged under handle and hinges. Karou hoped it would hold.
Light pad of footsteps, soft scrape of claws on the stairs.
The incense was lit. Zuzana handed it to her, and Karou’s hand shook setting it on the brow of the body. Smoke made a fluting trail upward before dispersing on a puff of Karou’s breath. The scent of sulfur; this had given Brimstone his name. Karou wondered what it had been before he became the resurrectionist, when he was a thrall in the pain pits of the magi.
The door shuddered lightly as Ten tried pushing it open and met with unexpected resistance. An instant of startled silence, and then a fist thudded on the wood. “Karou?”
She looked up sharply. It wasn’t Ten. It was Thiago. Damn.
“Yes?” she called.
“I’ve just come up to see if you need anything. How is the door blocked?”
How indeed, thought Karou, who had never had the opportunity to ask after her crossbar. He thought he had taken care of her irritating need for privacy? Well, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Or a wolf. She said only, “Just a second.”
A further pause, Karou fumbling with the thurible—she winced when the chain rattled, afraid he would somehow guess what she was doing—and then his fist came down on the door again. “Karou?”
“Juuust a minute,” she sang, her voice covering the scrape of the thurible twisting open.
She dropped to her knees beside the body. Watched, waited.
The soul effused from the vessel, overwhelming her with its presence. It was fireflies in a garden. It was eyes shining from shadows. It was flicker and fork, honey and venom, slit pupils and smooth, sun-warmed enamel.
It was Issa.
Karou was conscious of the beats of her own heart, one, two, three; distinct, almost painful pulses. Four, five, and the serpent-woman opened her new eyes and blinked.
Karou held in a sob; time hung still, the sob expanded within her. Thiago hit the door harder. “Let me in,” he said, his voice cloaked in calm that didn’t manage to hide its spiking anger. Karou didn’t answer. She held Issa’s gaze.
What has she been through? How did she die? What does she know? What will she say?
Down the length of the new body, flesh that had been inert came slowly alive. The subtle contraction of muscles, twitch of fingers, the beat of a heart. Issa’s chest rose with the intake of her first breath. Her lips parted, and her first exhalation—her very first—carried the words Sweet girl.
Karou’s sob escaped and her face found the place it wanted, against Issa’s neck where human flesh transitioned to cobra hood—the odd mix of warm and cool that Karou had known since she was a child and Issa had held her on one hip, rocked her to sleep, played with her, taught her to speak and sing, loved her and been half a mother to her. Yasri had been the other half; between them the two chimaera women had raised her. Twiga had never taken much of a role, and Brimstone…
Brimstone. The instant Karou had touched Issa’s soul back at the river she had known her, and had felt the queerest split decision of emotions: elation and defeat, love and disappointment, joy and savage despair. Neither side had overtipped the other. Even now the emotions were a balanced scale. Issa was not Brimstone, but… Issa was Issa, and Karou held her and felt her arms, shaky and uncertain and new, climb up and wrap around her in return.
“You found me,” Issa whispered, and from her queer balance of happy and sad, the words tipped Karou into confusion. Because she hadn’t found her.
But there was no time to think about that now. Karou sat up and back, in the process giving the serpent-woman a clear view of her surroundings. When she saw Mik and Zuzana, her eyes went wide. She smiled, and, oh, her face was so lovely—it was not the face that Karou had known and loved, but it was similar in its quiet Madonna beauty, its flawless skin and sweetness—and her delight was so instant and pure. She knew Zuzana the same way Zuzana knew her: from Karou’s sketchbooks; Mik had not been in the picture yet when the portals burned. Zuze gave a dopey smile and half wave, and Issa let out a rusty little laugh.
Softly, Karou said, “Issa, I have a lot to tell you, as I hope you have a lot to tell me, but that’s Thiago—” She gestured to the door just as it juddered from a low kick.
Issa’s eyes clouded at the mention of the Wolf. “He lives,” she said.
“Yeah. And he’s going to be very surprised to see you.” Hello, understatement. It was imperative that Thiago not find out how Issa came to be here; Karou said as much, and helped Issa to a semisitting position. Then she motioned to Mik to take hold of one of the wood planks while she took the other.
“Karou,” said Thiago, and his false calm had all rubbed off. “Open this door. Please.”
Karou nodded to Mik, and they wordlessly pulled away the boards and stood back so that Thiago’s next kick blasted it open, startling him—and Ten behind him—with its gunshot report.
“Good morning?” said Karou, making it a query as she looked with puzzled innocence at the blasted-open door. “Sorry. I was finishing a resurrection. I didn’t want to be interrupted halfway.” She looked to Ten. “You know how I am about that.”