- Days of Blood & Starlight
Turning over these soldiers to him—these weapons—she did not forget for a second what he would use them for, and it sickened her, but open defiance would not serve. She saw the way the others watched him: with an avid mixture of awe and fear, hoping for his notice, and beaming when they received it. And she saw how he worked the crowd, winning his soldiers again and again, making them feel like his chosen hands, his strength at the end of the world.
She watched him pour the wine, and when she saw the orb shape of the bottle, she lost her taste for it. It wasn’t chimaera grasswine, so called for its pale greenish color, but a seraph vintage, rich and red; one of the soldiers must have brought it back from some town they’d sacked.
She sat back in her chair, stirring her couscous with her fork.
“No wine for you?” Thiago asked, taking the bench at her side.
“No, thank you.”
“Some believe it’s bad luck to refuse a toast,” he said. “That its blessing will pass you over.”
What, his toast to survival? “So if I don’t drink your wine, I won’t survive?”
He shrugged. “I’m not superstitious. But it is good wine.” He drank. “Our pleasures are so few in these times, and we agreed earlier, today is a good day. Five soldiers join the fight, Issa is come to us… somehow.” They both glanced at Issa, who sat farther down the table with Nisk and Lisseth, who were Naja—though Naja as reinterpreted by Karou. “And, of course, you have your friends.” He tipped his head in the direction of Zuzana and Mik.
The humans were sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle of soldiers, pointing at things and learning more Chimaera words: salt, rat, eat, which unfortunate combination led to Zuzana rejecting the meat on her plate.
“I think it’s chicken,” Mik said, taking a bite.
“I’m just saying there were a lot more rats around here earlier.”
“Circumstantial evidence.” Mik took another bite and said, in passable Chimaera and to guffaws of laughter, “Salty delicious rat.”
“It’s chicken,” insisted one of the Shadows That Live. Karou wasn’t sure which it was, but she was flapping her arms like wings, and even producing chicken bones to prove it. Now I’ve seen everything. The Shadows That Live, doing chicken impressions.
Her friends’ presence changed the tone of the kasbah so much, and so much for the better, and she had loved having their help today as much as she’d loved their company. But watching them from Thiago’s side and knowing what she now knew, she began to get a bad feeling.
“Yes,” she said, striving for a light tone. “I have my friends. But they’re just visiting. They’ll be leaving soon.”
“Oh? What a shame. They’ve been so useful. Surely they can be persuaded to stay.”
“I don’t think so. They have commitments back home.”
“But what could be more important than helping you?” Karou felt her field of vision narrowing like a lens, zeroing in on her friends. Here, then, was to be his new game. Thiago’s voice was velvet. “I would hate for you to lose them.”
Lose them? There was a rushing in Karou’s ears. Thiago’s threats were as clean and pristine as he was, but she had no doubt that what lay beneath them was blood. Her friends were a vulnerability. She cared about them. Clever fingers and math notwithstanding, Thiago would keep them here for one reason: as a means of controlling her. She dropped the pretense. “I’ll have Ten back instead,” she said softly. “Just let them leave.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Ten has many fine qualities, but I think we can agree they serve her better in compelling the resurrectionist than in being one herself.”
“I don’t need to be compelled. I’ve done everything you’ve asked.”
“Where did Issa come from?”
The question caught her off guard. Her hesitation was fractional, but it was there, and provoked a wan smile from him. “I already told you,” she said.
Karou felt turned to ice. She sat there watching as Zuzana fashioned the chicken bones into a rattly marionette. It had joints of twine and a chipped bowl for a head, but she somehow made that damn thing seem alive, sidling up to soldiers begging for scraps. The soldiers clapped and beat the drums Karou had brought, and Zuzana danced her marionette until its head fell off, after which they urged Mik to play for them.
“Try the wine,” Thiago said, getting up to go. “It’s very rich. You know what they say about angel wine? The bloodier the better.”
She didn’t drink it. Later, with Issa in the court, Karou watched him, but he only sat against a wall, alone, with his head tipped back and his eyes closed, listening to the music.
Other eyes were open, though. In heavy shadow, in the gallery, Ten paced. She was watching Karou, and didn’t try to disguise it, and didn’t shift her gaze even when she pivoted to change direction in her pacing. Back and forth, back and forth, untiring. She might have been the Wolf’s hostility made flesh—animal flesh, along with predator instinct and sharp teeth, hungry for the kill order she had been cheated out of.
Karou’s skin prickled all over and she scanned the assembled soldiers, all held rapt by Mik’s playing. Some eyes were closed and others were open and she didn’t know what she was even looking for. “I don’t think I did you a favor by resurrecting you,” she said softly to Issa. What was it Issa had said before, that stasis is kind? “You were safer in the thurible.”
Issa’s reply was equally soft. “My safety is not important.”
“What? It is to me.”
“You are important, Karou. And the message is important.”
The message. Karou was mute. A space hung between them—a silence that was deeper than the music, waiting for her to fill it with a question. What had Brimstone wanted her to know? It was time to ask. She would never again hear his voice, but there were his words at least, his message. “Is it good or bad?” she asked Issa. The wrong question, she knew. She just couldn’t help herself.
“It’s both, sweet girl,” said Issa. “Like everything.”
A LOT OF DEAD AKIVAS
“How did the Stelians get into the inner sanctum?” Hazael mused. “If Akiva could figure that out—”
Liraz cut him off. “Even if he could, we’re not assassins.”
“Not for lack of trying.”
In the wake of the basket of fruit, it was reported that Joram kept to the Tower of Conquest, and had even suspended his audience with citizens. There was no way to get to him. At least, none that they had figured out.
“You know what I mean. We’re not sneaks, and we’re not the Shadows That Live. Our father will see our faces before he dies.”
“I know. You prefer your victims to know who’s killing them.” Hazael recited this as if he’d heard it a hundred times.
Akiva spoke. “This time especially. And there must be witnesses.”
They looked over at him, surprised. He had been doing a kata, seeking sirithar, trying to find a place of calm wherein an answer might come to him. He had failed on both counts: no calm, and no answer.
“The people have to know that it was us,” he said, sheathing his swords. “Or they’ll just blame the Stelians or the Shadows That Live, and Japheth will have no choice but to take up his father’s wars.”
Japheth was the crown prince. He was the crown prince because his next-oldest brother had murdered his oldest brother, then been murdered himself in the temple that same night while praying to the godstars to shrive his sin. He was remembered as the Unshrived; the brother he had slain was the Avenged, and Japheth was just Japheth. He was no paragon; he was a soft skulkling, afraid to leave the Tower of Conquest even under full escort. He was a coward, but the right kind of coward—who would shrink from war even if he didn’t have to fight it himself. At least, that was Akiva’s hope.
“So the Misbegotten become the enemy,” said Hazael, melancholy.
“The citizens despise us anyway,” said Liraz. “They’ll be glad it’s us.”
“They will,” said Akiva. “They’ll say that Joram should have known, and that it was his own fault for putting so many bastards in the world. It will shock them, and it will end with us.”
“And by us, you mean…”
“All of us.” Akiva’s words were heavy. “All of our lives will be forfeit.”
“So we three decide the fate of three hundred?” asked Hazael.
“Yes,” said Akiva. He looked out to sea. Three hundred. Only three hundred. So many already lost. Akiva had decided their fates, hadn’t he? He had set this in motion. Oh, the war had been going on for years, but once the portals were burned it was over in months. With Brimstone hamstrung by his lost supply, Joram had hit the chimaera with every breathing body under his command, and all had sustained massive casualties: the Dominion, the Second Legion, even the scouts and the Empire’s navy, but the Misbegotten were hardest hit, being expendable, endlessly renewable. Being the smallest force to begin with, their loss ratio was staggering, with only one in four having made it through alive. “We’ll warn the others,” he said. “They’ll leave their regiments and join us. Can you think of anyone with less to lose?”
“Slaves,” said Hazael.
“We are slaves,” said Akiva. “But not for very much longer.”
Over the following days they began, cautiously, to feed warnings out to their bastard brethren; word of mouth only, as troops passed through Cape Armasin. Some all-night flights were needed, under glamour, to reach distant postings. The Misbegotten were scattered to the four corners of the Empire, a few with this regiment, a few with that. Akiva thought of Melliel and her team, but had no way of reaching them. He wondered what they had found over the curve of the horizon, if they were alive, if any of the troops they’d gone to find were alive, and whether they would make it back. None had yet, not of all of Joram’s envoys, scouts, and advance troops. No one who had flown toward the Far Isles had returned.
One might think this would cool the emperor’s ardor for this conquest, but rumors coming out of the capital suggested very much otherwise. Hazael squeezed every scrap of news out of anyone who passed through—and there were more and more travelers these days as nobles under army escort came across the water to survey their new holdings—and the scraps added up to a strange mosaic indeed.
“Is he planning an invasion?” Akiva wondered. “It makes no sense.”
“A thousand pure white surcoats,” Hazael had reported. This was the sort of gossip they had from lords and their servants. “He’s having a thousand pure white surcoats made, with matching standards.” Hazael paused. “For the Dominion.”
“The Dominion?” Less and less sense. For one thing, the Dominion color was red. White signified surrender, and Joram did not surrender. But the color was a mere detail compared to the salient issue of: What were they for? New surcoats and standards… to make an impression on the enemy? What sort of impression did white make? And what would embolden Joram to send more forces into that void, let alone the Dominion? Surely he wouldn’t risk vanishing his elite army into the mysteries. The Misbegotten maybe, but the Dominion?
“Jael himself is pushing for it,” said Hazael. “There’s a rumor that it’s his idea.”
Jael? The Captain of the Dominion was many monstrous things, but he was no fool. And then there was the matter of the harpers. Joram had called up the harpers from the monastery of Brightseeming to cease their devotions to the godstars and come to Astrae, where they were to be appareled in white to match the Dominion.
“There’s something going on,” said Akiva. “Something that hasn’t made its way into rumor. But what?”
“I think you’re going to find out.” It was Liraz, coming into the barracks with a scroll in her hand. She handed it over. It bore the Imperial seal. Akiva froze, knowing what it must be, and looked up at his brother and sister.
“Go on,” urged Hazael, tense.
So Akiva broke the seal and unrolled the scroll, and read the summons aloud. “To appear before His Eminence, Joram the Unconquered, First Citizen of the Empire of Seraphim, Protector of Eretz, Father of Legions, Prince of Light and Scourge of Darkness, Chosen of the Godstars, Lord of Ashes, Lord of Char, Lord of a Country of Ghosts—”
Hazael grabbed the scroll to see if the last three were really written there, which they were not, and it was he who continued reading. “In gratitude for heroic service to the realm, is summoned Blood Soldier of the Misbegotten, Akiva, Seventh Bearer of that Name…” Hazael stopped reading and looked up at Akiva. “You’re the seventh? That’s a lot of dead Akivas, my brother. Do you know what that means?” He was very grave.
“Tell me. What does it mean?” Akiva prepared himself for mocking doom. Six bastards had carried the name before him? It was a lot; too many. Some must have died in infancy, or at the training camp. Hazael was probably going to tell him the name was cursed.
But no. His brother said, “It means that the cremation urn is full, no room for your ashes. You have no choice.” He smiled his hapless, open smile. “You have to live.”
Heroic service to the realm.
For “heroic service to the realm,” Akiva was summoned to Astrae. If this had happened months ago, in the wake of Loramendi, it might have made sense. But medals had long since been pinned, spoils divvied. Akiva had been overlooked with the rest of the Misbegotten, so why was he summoned now?