- Days of Blood & Starlight
“Someone has to stop killing,” she implored Thiago. “Someone has to stop first.”
“Let it be them, then,” he said, so cold, his lips trembling with the effort not to fall into a full wolf snarl. His fury was palpable.
“We can only decide for ourselves. At least we can stop the assaults long enough to think of another way, instead of making it worse, always worse.”
“We are destroyed, Karou. It can’t get any worse.”
“It can. It has. The Hintermost? The Tane? What is Razor doing right now, and how will it be answered? It can get worse until there is no one left. Or maybe… maybe it can get better.” Again Akiva’s words came into her head, and again Karou spoke them, this time without blushing. “Eretz will have chimaera in it or not, depending on what we do now.”
And that was when the Shadows That Live spread their silent wings and lifted with the grace of dreams and nightmares to float over the heads of their comrades and land lightly at Karou’s side. They didn’t speak; they rarely did. Their stance was clear: elegant heads held high, eyes defiant. Karou was breathless with a sudden swell of emotion. Of power. Amzallag, Tangris, Bashees, Issa. Who else? She looked to the rest. Most seemed stunned. In more than a few pairs of eyes, though, Karou saw malice to match the Wolf’s, and knew that there were those among them whose hate would never again be touched by hope. In others, she saw fear.
In too many others. Bast would come, though; Karou willed her to take a step. She was on the verge. Emylion? Hvitha? Virko?
And Thiago? He stood staring at Karou, and she remembered the way he had looked down at her in the requiem grove in another life. She saw that savagery in him again, the flaring nostrils and wild eyes, but then… she saw him pull it back. She witnessed the moment that he mastered his fury, and, with calculation and cunning, and effort, put his mask back in place. It was worse than hate or fear, this lie of mildness. This huge, huge lie. “My lady Karou,” he said. “You make a powerful argument.”
Wait, Karou thought. No.
“I will take it under consideration,” he said. “Of course. We’ll consider all possibilities, including—as we now may, with glad hearts—how to glean the souls from the cathedral.”
Her new surge of power shrank to nothing. By giving her this small victory, the Wolf took away her chance for a greater one. Now none of the other soldiers need gather their courage to come to her side, and their relief was profound. She could see it in their posture, in their faces. They didn’t want to choose. They didn’t want to choose her. How much easier it was to let themselves be led by their general. Bast wouldn’t even look at her. Cowards, she thought, starting to shake as all of her pumped-up courage collapsed into frustration. Could they really believe that the White Wolf would consider ending—or even pausing—in his crusade? Victory and vengeance. He would have to tear his gonfalon down, make a new one. She thought with yearning of the Warlord’s symbol: antlers sprouting leaves. New growth. How perfect, and how out of reach.
And now, so quickly, the rest of these soldiers were out of her reach, too. Thiago was accustomed to wielding power, and she was so very not. Effortlessly he took back what little she had gained and turned the army’s energy to his plans.
His plans for gleaning the buried souls from the cathedral.
Amzallag himself was the first to volunteer. He went forward, avid, and others followed him. Karou stood rooted in place, all but forgotten. Issa took her hand and squeezed it, communicating her shared dismay, while the Shadows That Live melted away before she could even thank them, and soon the direct heat of the sun drove most of them from the court.
The day passed away in this atmosphere of new energy. Karou and Issa watched and listened, and Thiago did entirely appear to be doing what he had said he would: considering all possibilities, such as how they might conduct an excavation in enemy-patrolled territory, and even what they might do in the south to help more chimaera reach the Hintermost. It was exactly what Karou wanted, and she could barely breathe, because she knew it was just another move in the Wolf’s game. A feint. But what did it conceal? What was his true game?
Night fell, and she found out.
Akiva followed Byon through one last set of doors. Fragrance and humidity greeted them; a billow of steam obscured Akiva’s vision at the moment he crossed the threshold, and he heard his father’s voice before he saw him.
“Ah, Lord Bastard. You honor us with your presence.” It was a powerful voice, honed on bygone battlefields crying death to the beasts. Whatever he was now, Joram had been a warrior once.
And he looked it. Akiva bowed; he was rising as the steam cleared, and saw that they were in a bath, and that Joram was na**d. The emperor stood on the steaming tiles, hale and solid, his flesh rouged by heat, surrounded by the small army of servants apparently required to purify his royal person. A girl tipped a pitcher of water over his head and he closed his eyes. Another was on her knees, washing him with a lather as thick as whipped cream.
Akiva had envisioned this meeting many different ways, and in none of them had his father been na**d. He suspects nothing, he thought. If he did, he would meet me clothed and armed. “My lord emperor,” he said, “the honor is all mine.”
“Our honor, your honor,” drawled Joram. “Whatever shall we do with such an excess of honor?”
“We could always hang it from the Westway,” said another voice, and Akiva didn’t have to see that cut-in-half face to know whose it was. Sunk back on a tiled bath bench in a pose of informality that he alone would dare in the emperor’s presence, was Jael. Well, that was a convenience, as, of course, Jael could not be allowed to live any more than Joram could. He, blessedly, was fully clad. “If only there was room on the gibbet,” he said like a lament, and low laughter rumbled through the others assembled here. Akiva gave their faces a quick scan. None lounged like Jael, but all seemed enough at their ease that he took these bath-time councils to be a common occurrence.
Joram’s mouth carved a smile from his cruel face. “Room can always be made on the gibbet,” he said.
Was it a threat? Akiva didn’t think so. Joram wasn’t even looking at him; he closed his eyes and tipped back his head for another sluice from his attendant’s pitcher, after which he shook his head hard, spraying water. Namais and Misorias, standing near as ever, both blinked at the spray but elsewise moved not a muscle. Joram’s personal guards—brothers—were said to be deadly fighters. They were Akiva’s first concern. Silverswords were present, as well, two pairs each along facing walls: eight Breakblades with condensation fogging their silver armor, their plumes gone limp in the steam. He wasn’t worried about them.
In fact, as his father stepped out of the shallow pool of lather, away from the white-garbed girls and toward a servant holding a robe, Akiva found his worry draining away. He may not have envisioned a bath in his planning, but in all ways, here was his optimal scenario: a light guard presence in a contained environment, a limited number of witnesses whose word would be taken on faith, and, most important: the absence of suspicion.
Nothing in the eyes of these seraphim hinted at wariness.
There was Crown Prince Japheth, glassy-eyed with boredom. He was a blandly attractive seraph of around Akiva’s age, with some indefinable flaccidness about the set of his features that spoke of weakness. Akiva knew that Japheth was no paragon. He would be better than his father; that was what mattered. Beside him was white-haired Ur-Magus Hellas, head of the emperor’s circle of useless magi, said to have the emperor’s ear. His look of heavy, half-lidded condescension was all Akiva needed to see to know that his own magic remained his secret. A few other faces were unfamiliar, uniform in their haughtiness.
“Let me look at you,” commanded Joram.
“My lord,” replied Akiva, and stood where he was as his father centered himself before him and inspected him with a squint. He had put his robe on, but hadn’t closed it; Akiva wished he would. It seemed a strange intimacy to kill a na**d man. Joram was so near that Akiva could have reached out and tapped him on the breastbone. Or pierced him through the heart. He had the unwelcome thought that his father’s steam-pink breast would give like softened butter. He was aware of his own heartbeat pulsing in the tension of his hand. His hand, his arm, his body wanted to draw his sword and be done here, but his mind buzzed with questions.
What is this about?
And something else. Terrible what happened to her. If Akiva didn’t find out now, he never would.
He held his father’s stare. Or perhaps his father’s stare held him. Joram’s eyes were so like Liraz’s and Hazael’s: blue, down-tilting at the outer-corners, generously lashed in gold. Unlike theirs, though, their father’s were devoid of any trace of soul. His stare was infamous; it was said one saw one’s own death in it, or at least the utter worthlessness of one’s life. It brought seraphim to their knees; the unworthy were said to open their own throats for terror and shame.
And Akiva did see death in the emperor’s eyes, but not his own.
He felt a thickness in his throat. He knew what it was: It was emotion, but… for what? Not for Joram, not remorse for what he was going to do. Was it for the faceless, all-but-forgotten woman who’d given him her tiger’s eyes and stood aside as the guards took him? Or… for the face he had seen in silver that day, small and terrified and mirrored over and over in the shin plates of Silverswords. For himself. For all that he had lost and all that he had never had and never would have.
“Yes, you’ll do,” said Joram at last. “It’s lucky, after all, that I let you live. If I’d had you killed, who would I send to them?”
Send to them.
“They may choose to kill you; what do I know of Stelians? You should say your good-byes, just in case.”
From across the room, Jael spoke. “It’s bad luck for soldiers to say good-bye, brother. Have you forgotten? It tempts fate.”
Joram rolled his eyes, turning away from Akiva. “Then don’t say it. What do I care?” He walked out of easy reach; Namais and Misorias were right there. Akiva had let an opportunity go by. There would be another. He would make another. “Be ready to go in the morning.” Joram spared Hazael and Liraz a backward glance; if he noted their resemblance to himself, he gave no sign. “Alone.”
“Go where, my lord?” asked Akiva. He had already made his plans for the morning, of course—to vanish without a trace—but the loose thread of a mystery was here just waiting for him to pull it. His mother.
“To the Far Isles, of course. The Stelians believe that I have something of theirs, and they want her back. Jael, you’ll remember. I never bother with their names. What was she called?”
“I do remember,” said Jael. “She was called Festival.”
“Festival. A name like that and you’d expect her to be fun.” Joram shook his head. “Can they imagine I’d have kept her all this time?”
The name, it was like a key in a lock. Images. Perfume. Touch. Her face. For an instant Akiva remembered his mother’s face. Her voice. It was a long time ago—decades—they were fragments only, but the effect was immediate: it was focus and clarity, like light honed to a beam.
The effect was sirithar.
Akiva had thought he knew sirithar. It was a part of his training; he had done dawn katas for years, seeking the calm center of himself; it was elusive, but he had believed he knew what it was. This was different. This was true and instant and indelible. No wonder he hadn’t understood; no doubt none of his trainers had ever achieved it, either.
It was magic.
Not the magic he had discovered for himself, cobbled together out of guesswork and pain. He may as well have lived his life scraping and scratching in the dirt, only now lifting his head to see the sky and its infinite horizons, its unguessable fathoms. Whatever the source of power or the tithe, it wasn’t pain. In fact, the pain in his shoulder was gone. What is this? Light and lift and weightlessness, a depth of calm that made the world around him seem to slow and crystallize so that he saw everything—Japheth’s jaw straining to stifle a yawn, a flicker of a glance shared between Hellas and Jael, the sphygmic jump of Joram’s jugular. The heat and stir of breath and wings, every movement painted strokes of intention on the air. He knew the servant girl was going to rise from her crouch before she did: her light moved ahead of her, she seemed to follow it. Joram’s hands were going to lift; Akiva anticipated it and then they did. The emperor at last closed his robe, tied its sash. He was still speaking, each word as clear and real as a river stone. Akiva understood that what he heard in this state would be committed perfectly to memory.
That he would never forget his father’s last words.
And that he knew what his last words would be.
“You’ll go to them,” Joram was saying with the disengaged certitude of absolute autocracy. Akiva realized he need never have feared he was suspected. Joram was so swollen with his own legend it would not occur to him that he might be disobeyed. “Show them who you are. If they’ll hear you, give them my promise. If they surrender now and yield up their magi, I will not do to them as I have done to the beasts. The Stelians fare well enough snatching envoys out of the air, but what will they do against five thousand Dominion? Have they even an army? They think they can turn me aside so easily?”
You do not begin to understand how far they are beyond you. A part of Akiva wanted to turn in a circle and marvel at the rivers of light swimming through the layers and layers of glass of the Sword, to hold up his own hands and stare at them as if they had been remade, as if he himself were an entirely new creature built of those same rays of light.