- Days of Blood & Starlight
Light veiling fire.
A voice, out of the distant past. “You are not his.” It was her voice, a resonant vibrato, accented and full of power. It was that day. “You are not mine. You are your own.” She hadn’t wept. Festival. She hadn’t tried to hold on to him or grapple with the guards, and she hadn’t said good-bye. Good-byes tempt fate, as Jael had said.
Had she thought she might see him again?
“Did you kill her?”
He heard himself ask the question and was aware of many things at once: the sudden stillness of the counsel; the clench of Namais’s and Misorias’s fists on their hilts; a flare of interest from Japheth, who lost his urge to yawn. Behind him, he didn’t even have to see Hazael and Liraz to know that their muscles relaxed into readiness; he knew Liraz was already smiling her unnerving battle smile. “Did you kill my mother?”
And he saw his father’s eyes, unsurprised and full of contempt. “You have no mother. As you have no father. You are a link in a chain. You are a hand to swing a sword. A hull to dress in armor. Have you forgotten all of your training, soldier? You are a weapon. You are a thing.”
Those were the words. Akiva had heard them echo backward through the shimmer of sirithar. He already knew they were Joram’s last.
And so he dropped the glamour from his sword and drew it from his sheath. He was moving within the tide of time; it would be done before the witnesses could even register their shock. Namais and Misorias began to move, but they existed in another state of being. Akiva was fire veiled in light. They couldn’t hope to stop him. He crossed the space to the emperor in the time it took a blink of surprise to crease his cold eyes.
How could he not see the change in me? Akiva wondered, and he slid his blade through the silk of his father’s robe and into his heart.
It was Bast who came scratching at Karou’s window. The shutters were secured by their long brass latches, and across the room Mik’s planks were sunk in their floor gouges, jammed up under handles and hinges. Door and window were both shut tight, and Issa and Karou were within, uneasy. Karou paced. Issa twitched her tail. They were waiting for something to happen.
And something did.
The scratching at the shutters. A hoarse whisper. “Karou. Karou, open the window.”
Karou shrank back. “Who’s there?”
“It’s Bast. I’m on sentry duty, I shouldn’t be here.”
“Why are you?” Karou’s anger flared. If Bast had come across the court this morning, others might have, too. And… what if they had? Karou didn’t even know what she would have done. She was so out of her depth she wanted to curl up and cry. Oh, Brimstone, did you really think I could do this? Well, he couldn’t have known that the Wolf would live through the war to thwart her at every turn, could he?
“It’s… it’s the Wolf,” came Bast’s reply, and Karou felt as though the air were sucked out of the room. Here it was, the clatter of the other shoe dropping. What had he done? “He’s taken Amzallag and the sphinxes. I saw them from the tower.”
Taken? Karou and Issa exchanged a sharp look. Karou yanked the window open. Bast clung to the ledge, wings half-open and lightly fanning to keep her balanced on her too-narrow perch.
“Taken them where?” Karou demanded.
Bast looked stricken. “To the pit,” she whispered.
Afterward Karou would wonder if Bast had been Thiago’s pawn or his conspirator, but in that moment she didn’t suspect her. Her horror seemed real, and maybe it was. Maybe she was thinking how it could have been her making that walk, with how close she had come to taking Karou’s side. And maybe—probably—she was thinking that it was a mistake that would never again tempt her.
One does not side against the Wolf.
With shaking hands Karou buckled her knife belt back on and felt better with the weight of her crescent moons at her hips. The open window was before her. Issa was at her side, but couldn’t come through it with her. Karou turned to her.
“I’ll follow, sweet girl.” Issa moved the door, scales rippling. “Go. I’ll be right behind you.”
And Karou did go, out into the night. She was already away and over the rampart when Issa pulled up the planks and set them aside. She opened the door.
And came face-to-face with Ten.
LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR
The emperor dropped to his knees. His eyes died; the hate flickered out of them as life poured red from his chest. No one caught him, and he keeled over with a splash into the shallow channel of the bath. Water and lather bloomed pink.
A servant girl screamed.
Namais and Misorias were in motion. Akiva blocked their strikes; nothing had ever been easier.
He sensed the guards coming off their walls, their shock blunting the air. At least one got tangled in his own bell sleeve fumbling for his hilt, and cursed. As one, Hazael and Liraz unsheathed their swords.
The Silverswords might have believed they had the advantage from numbers alone—eight to two—but at the first crossing of blades their confidence evaporated. This was no exercise of parries and thrusts such as they were used to, no nice ching and chime of silver. Hazael and Liraz wielded their longswords two-handed, such power in their strikes as had rent the armor and hide of countless revenants. Decades of battle, hands black with their terrible tally, and their onslaught caught the guards like a force of nature.
They weren’t two fighting off eight. They were two cutting through eight. Slight as Liraz was, her first blow dislocated the shoulder of the guard who blocked it. His uff of pain was followed by a clatter as his sword flew from his hand; she didn’t finish him as he staggered back but spun toward another guard with a low lightning kick that took him out at the knee. His uff bit at the heels of his comrade’s, and he was down, too.
Hazael’s first strike shaved through his opponent’s blade, leaving the guard holding a pretty silver stub.
All of this transpired in the gasp between breaths—the Misbegotten schooling the swaggering Silverswords in the vital difference between a guard and a soldier—and the guards’ eyes flared wide in understanding. The posture of the remaining five changed from menacing confidence to a defensive hunch. Readjusting their grips, they formed a loose circle around the Misbegotten, and their volley of glances, one to another, was easy to interpret:
Go on, attack them.
You attack them.
They needn’t have worried. Liraz and Hazael didn’t wait. Waiting gave the enemy time to think. They themselves didn’t need to think any more than their swords did. They attacked. They were nithilam. The clangor was deafening, and the nickname “breakblades” proved well-founded as the guards’ flashing, brittle weapons shattered at the slash of steel. Across the room, one of the unknown counselors ducked just in time as a flying shard of silver sword embedded itself in the wall where seconds earlier his head had been.
The Breakblades were all disarmed, lightly injured, and when one made a halfhearted try for a sword, Liraz had only to grin and shake her head, and he halted like a guilty child.
“Just stand there,” she told them. “Demonstrate for us your great skill at standing there, and you’ll be fine.”
The others stood taking up space—so much space, such big bodies, and such poor training. Their lives had never been in danger before, and if Liraz and Hazael had wanted to kill them they’d have found it pitifully easy. But they didn’t want to kill them. They’d scarcely drawn blood. Joram had been one target, and he lay dead and unattended in shallow water that had deepened now from pink to red. Jael was the other.
But Jael was gone.
“Akiva,” said Liraz. “Jael.”
Akiva already knew. The three Misbegotten held the center of the room. It was quiet. All told maybe two minutes had passed since Akiva’s blade had entered his father’s heart. He had disarmed Namais and Misorias—they had put up a better fight, but not good enough—and had rendered them unconscious with the hilt of his sword to forestall any heroics that might force him to kill them. One had landed facedown, and in the moment it had taken Akiva to turn him over with his foot and prevent him from drowning in the shallow red water, Jael had vanished.
Where? If he had escaped through some secret door, he had failed to take his nephew along. Akiva took a long, level look at the crown prince. Japheth had pulled one of the serving girls against him as a living shield. She was frozen, crushed to his chest, her long braid caught in his fist where a better man would have held a sword.
And here is the new emperor, Akiva thought.
Wherever Jael had gone, he must now raise the cry. Akiva braced for the response that must come. He was surprised that it hadn’t already; he’d expected the guards at Samekh Gate to hear the ring of blades and come rushing in; it was then that he and Hazael and Liraz were to have glamoured themselves invisible and taken to their wings to find their way out under cover of chaos.
There was, however, no chaos.
Maybe, he thought, sound didn’t travel well through all these interlocking glass walls. In the eerie calm, Akiva’s newfound state of sirithar left him, like something that had come and gone of its own volition, and his senses were robbed of their newfound scope. In this dimness and diminishment, he surveyed the room. The gallery of flatterers sat pinned in place, aghast; mouths gulped fishlike at the humid air. His eyes skimmed over them. Hellas had lost his smugness.
And there was Japheth, clutching the serving girl. Akiva supposed this display shouldn’t surprise him, but to hear someone is craven is one thing. To see it made so plain is another. But what was he to do? Their purpose here today must be made clear. It was the assassination of a warmonger, not mutiny against the Empire entire, and not a grasp for power for themselves.
So, holding the crown prince’s gaze, Akiva spoke the words of accession. “The emperor is dead. Long live the emperor.” In the atmosphere of steam-heat and shock, his voice was heavy, solemn. He crossed his arm over his chest, pressing the hilt of his sword to his heart, and gave Japheth a small nod. Behind him, Hazael and Liraz did the same.
Japheth’s terror gave way to confusion. He glanced aside, looking to the council for explanation as if this possibility had never occurred to him. The bath girl took advantage of his confusion and writhed free, darting for the door like a creature freed from a trap. Akiva let her go. The door slammed open as she blew through it and he thought surely now the guards must come flooding into the room.
And still they did not.
Bereft of his living shield, Japheth dropped to his knees and began to crawl slowly backward, trembling. Akiva turned away, disgusted. “We’re done here,” he said to his brother and sister. Whatever was going on outside this bath, it wouldn’t do to wait any longer. It would have been easier to go with chaos for cover—ten gates standing open as their guards rushed to respond—but they would make do, and fight if they had to. He was ready to be gone, to put Astrae and his own treachery behind him.
He made it as far as the door.
It was not Silverswords, with their heavy-booted incompetence and pretty, useless blades, who forced him back. It was Dominion. Not guards but soldiers: ready and calm and many. A score, more. Two score, crowding the room but bringing no chaos with them, no tide of easy escape. Only grim faces and swords already slick with blood.
And… they brought with them something else, something utterly unexpected, and at the first touch of that wave of debilitating and so-familiar nausea, Akiva understood. As the soldiers winched a tightening circle around him and his brother and sister, around the shamefaced disarmed Breakblades and the corpse of the emperor, they carried grisly… trophies… before them, and he knew that this had all been orchestrated. He had played a part written for him by Jael, and he had played it perfectly.
The Dominion were holding out hands. Dried, severed hands, marked with the devil’s eyes. Revenant hands, as powerful as they had ever been when upheld by their true owners: the chimaera rebels they had killed and burned in the Hintermost.
Akiva felt the assault of the magic as if it entered his bloodstream and curdled him from the inside. He tried to hold out against it, but it was no good. He began to shake and couldn’t stop.
“Thank the godstars,” he heard the counselors murmuring. “We are saved.” Fools. Did they not yet wonder what Dominion were doing inside the Tower of Conquest?
Their captain was with them. “Nephew,” he said. For a second Akiva thought Jael was addressing him, but he was looking at Japheth. “Allow me to be the first to offer my congratulations,” he said. He was flushed—from the heat, from fear?—his scar a long gnarl of white. He moved to Japheth, who remained on his knees, and told him, “This is no meet pose for the ruler of the Empire of Seraphim. Get up.”
He held out his hand.
Akiva understood what was going to happen, but the pulsing sickness of the hamsas met the dullness that had descended in the aftermath of sirithar, and he could do nothing to stop it.
Japheth reached for his uncle’s hand and Jael took it, but did not raise his nephew to his feet. He pivoted behind him. Japheth gave a gasp of pain as Jael crushed the prince’s soft hand in his swordsman’s grip and prevented him from rising. A glint of metal, a jerk of the arm, and it was done inside a second: Jael drew his dagger across his nephew’s throat and a fine red line appeared there.
Japheth’s eyes were wide and rolling. His mouth gaped and no sound came out but a gurgling. The red line grew less fine. A drip became a rivulet. A rivulet a rush.
“The emperor is dead,” Jael said before it was strictly true. He smiled and wiped his blade on Japheth’s sleeve before dropping him with a shove that sent his body to join Joram’s in the red water. “Long live the emperor.”