- Days of Blood & Starlight
Akiva felt himself as stunned and fish-mouthed as the counselors.
As for Jael, he couldn’t have looked more pleased. He turned to Akiva and executed a mocking bow. “Thank you,” he said. “I was so hoping you would do that.”
From there, Akiva’s best-case scenario went very badly wrong.
By the time Karou reached the pit, it was already done.
Amzallag, Tangris, Bashees. They lay dead in the starlight and Thiago stood by their bodies, calm and shining in all his white, waiting. Waiting for her. Others stood by in a loose semi-circle, and Karou should have taken one look at the scene, spun right around in the air, and fled back to the questionable safety of her room. But she couldn’t, not with those bodies lying there, Amzallag and the sphinxes, their slashed throats still pumping blood into the scree and their souls anchored by failing tethers. Because they had taken her side.
This was to be the price? She would never have another ally. If she let this stand, she might as well abandon the chimaera cause right here and now.
She was dazed with disgust and fury as she dropped down, landing heavily before the Wolf. The blood spatter across his chest and sleeve read as black in the night. Behind him: mounds of earth from the excavation of the pit; a line of shovels standing upright like fence pickets; Karou could hear a low drone, as of a distant engine, but realized it was flies. Down in the dark. She was a moment surveying the terrible scene before she found her voice. Choking, she said, “And here stands the great hero of the chimaera, murderer of his own soldiers.”
“They weren’t my own soldiers, apparently,” he replied. “Their mistake.” And he turned to Amzallag’s body. It lay at the very verge of the pit. Thiago braced himself and, with one clawed wolf’s foot, dug in and gave a powerful shove so that the body rolled. It had to weigh five hundred pounds, but once the shoulders overbalanced the edge, their bulk dragged at the rest. It was slow, so slow… and then sudden. Amzallag’s body tipped into the pit and disappeared into that foul darkness.
Lisseth did the same to the sphinxes’ bodies, which were much lighter, and there was almost no sound, as if the landings were soft—Karou knew, and didn’t want to picture, what it was that cushioned them—but stench rose, and flies, flies by the hundreds. They rose in a buzz of black and seemed to carry the putrescence with them. She backed away, fighting her gag reflex. She could almost feel the air in her mouth, thick and choking, fume and liquid. She staggered back, looked aghast at Thiago.
“They aren’t all monsters like you,” she said. “Like the rest of you.” She scanned the captains assembled around them—Nisk, Lisseth, Virko, Rark, Sarsagon—and they met her eyes, blank and unashamed except for Virko, who looked down when she lit on him.
“Monsters, yes, we are monsters,” said Thiago. “I will give the angels their ‘beasts.’ I will give them nightmares to haunt their dreams long after I am gone.”
“Is that it, then?” she snapped. “That’s your objective, to leave a legacy of nightmares when you die? Why not? Why wouldn’t it be all about you? The great White Wolf, killer of angels, savior to no one.”
“Savior.” He laughed. “Is that what you want to be? What a lofty goal for a traitor.”
“I was never a traitor. If anyone is, it’s you. All of that today about excavating the cathedral? Was it all lies?”
“Karou, what do you think? What would we do with those thousands of souls? Our resurrectionist can barely build an army.”
Such contempt in his voice. Karou’s was its equal. “Yes, well, I’m done building your army, so I’ll need something to keep me busy.” She was practically spitting now, her head filled with the white noise of rage. She would get Amzallag’s soul, and the sphinxes’, too. Amzallag had not lived to have the hope of his family only to die now.
“Done, are you?” Thiago smiled. Killer, torturer, savage. He was in his element. “Do you really think this is a game you can win?” He shook his head. “Karou, Karou. Oh, your name does amuse me. That fool Brimstone. He named you hope because you rutted with an angel? He should have named you lust. He should have named you whore.”
There was no sting in the word. Nothing Thiago said could wound her. Looking at him now, she could scarcely understand how she had let herself be led for so long, doing his bidding, building monsters to ensure his nightmare legacy. She thought of Akiva, the night he had come to her at the river, the crushing pain and shame in his face, and love, still love—sorrow and love and hope—and she remembered the night of the Warlord’s ball, how Akiva had always been the right to Thiago’s wrong, the heat to the Wolf’s chill, the safety to this monster’s menace.
She fixed Thiago with a narrow stare and said quietly, coolly, “It still eats at you, doesn’t it? That I chose him over you? You want to know something?” Love is an element. “It was no contest.” She hissed the last words, and a spasm of fury wracked Thiago’s cold, composed face. That beautiful vessel that Brimstone had made; it hid such a black, deadly thing within.
“Leave us.” He spoke through clenched teeth, and the others were shaking out their wings to obey before Karou had even a moment to regret her words. With the sound of wings and the great, dust-stirring gusts of their backbeats, the fanning fumes of rot, the sting of dirt on her bare arms, her face, she felt the phantom twitch of her own once-wings, so deep was her impulse to flee. Like the night of the Warlord’s ball, when she danced with Thiago and every second her wings had ached to carry her away from him.
Away, away. Get away from him. She gathered herself to leap, but before she could leave the ground, Thiago moved. Fast. His hand flashed out, clamped around her arm—her bruises screamed—and he held. Tight.
“It does eat at me, Karou. Is that what you want to hear? That you humiliated me? I punished you for it, but the punishment was… unsatisfying. It was impersonal. Your protector Brimstone made certain I was never alone with you. Did you know that? Well, he’s not here now, is he?”
Caught in his grip, Karou looked after the departing soldiers. Only Virko looked back. He didn’t stop, though, and all too soon the darkness gathered him and he was gone with the others, wingbeats fading, dust settling, and Karou was left alone with Thiago.
His hand on her arm was a vise; Karou knew how Brimstone had made the Wolf’s bodies. She knew the strength in him, and she didn’t hope to break his grip. “Let me go.”
“Wasn’t I kind? Wasn’t I gentle? I thought that was what you wanted. I thought it would be the best way with you. Coaxing and kindness. But I see I was wrong. And do you want to know? I’m glad. There are other means of persuasion.”
His free hand, suddenly, was at her waist, thrust under the edge of her shirt to clutch at her bare skin. Her own free hand flew to the crescent-moon blade sheathed at her hip, but Thiago batted it away and seized the weapon himself, flinging it into the pit. It was only seconds before the other followed it, and Karou was shoving uselessly at his chest in her struggle to get free of him.
It all happened so fast, and she was off her feet, hitting the scree so hard her vision went dark and her breath was driven from her lungs. She was gasping and Thiago was over her, heavy and far too strong, and the useless thought looping in her mind was, He can’t, he can’t hurt me, he needs me, and all the while he was laughing.
Laughing. His breath on her face; she turned away from it, struggled, every muscle straining against him, every gasped breath a lungful of stench from the pit.
She was strong, too. Her body was Brimstone’s work as much as his was, and it wasn’t empty strength, either—she had trained all her life. She got an arm free and twisted, wedged her shoulder between them, pulled up a knee and threw him off, rolled clear as he came lunging right back at her and she was up and reaching for the sky, for escape, when he tackled her from behind and she went down hard again. Her face in the scree this time and pain flaring through her and she was pinned, his weight so heavy on her shoulders she could get no purchase to throw him off, and then his voice was in her ear—“Whore,” he breathed—and his breath was hot, his lips were on her earlobe, and then the sharp points of his fangs.
He bit her. Tore her.
She screamed, but he slammed her head into the scree again and the scream choked off.
She couldn’t see him. He was holding her facedown in the dirt and rocks when she felt his clawed fingers dig under the waistband of her jeans and tug. For a second, her mind went blank.
The screaming wasn’t her voice. It was her mind, and it was the same foolish, outraged loop again: He can’t, he can’t.
But he could. He was.
The jeans stayed put, though, even when he yanked so hard it dragged her a foot across the ground, her cheek feeling every rock, and so he rolled her over again to get at the button and he was on her and he was smiling and her blood was on his lips, on his fangs, it dripped into her mouth and she tasted it. The stars were above him and it was when he let go of her arm to grab both sides of her jeans and try to lever them off that her fingers closed on a rock and she smashed his smile from his face.
He gave a grunt of pain, but his face stayed right there. His blood joined hers on his fangs and his smile came back. His laugh, too. It was obscene. His mouth was a grimace of red and he was still on her.
“No!” she cried, and the word felt like it pulled from her soul.
“Don’t act so pure, Karou,” he said. “We’re all just vessels, after all.” And when he yanked at her jeans this time they peeled down and caught on her boots, bunching around her calves. She felt rocks beneath her bare skin, gouging. The screaming in her head was deafening and useless, useless, as his knee came down between hers and wedged them apart. His snarl was pure animal and Karou fought. She fought. She didn’t fall still. Every muscle was in motion, working against him. His clawed fingertips lacerated her arms holding her, and the rocks tore at her back, at her legs, but the pain was so far away. She knew that she must not lie still, she must never lie still. He shifted his grip on her arms so he was holding both her wrists with one hand—to free his other hand, to free his other hand—but she tore out of his grip and reached for his eyes. He pulled back just in time and she missed and dug grooves in his cheeks instead.
He backhanded her.
She was blinking and the stars were swimming. She was shaking her head to clear it when she remembered her knife.
In her boot.
Her boot seemed such a very long way from her hands. He held her wrists so tightly she could barely feel her fingers, and when he paused and drew himself up again to fumble at his own clothes—not so white now, she heard herself think from very far away—he had to let one of hers go. She let it fall aside this time, limp. She closed her eyes. Outside the circle of their ragged breathing, the desert silence was like a void, eating sound, swallowing it. She wondered: If she screamed, would they even hear her at the kasbah? If they did, would anyone even come?
Issa. Issa should have been here by now.
What had they done to Issa?
Karou didn’t scream.
Thiago forgot her free hand as he lowered himself onto her, and she turned her head aside and squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t look at him. His breath came in wolfish pants now, and she shifted her h*ps and turned, twisted to deny him, and she didn’t look as she groped under the bunched denim of her jeans for the top of her boot. For her knife. That small hilt, it was cool in her hot hand. In the pain and breathlessness, the squeezed-shut blindness, the fug of rot and the buzz of flies, the scraping, shifting scree and the press and wrench of flesh, that hilt was everything.
She eased it free. Thiago was trying to push her h*ps flat. “Come, love,” he said in his purr of a voice. “Let me in.” Nothing had ever been as perverse as that soft voice, and Karou knew that if she looked at him she would find him smiling. So she didn’t look.
She sank her blade to the hilt in the soft hollow of his throat. It was a small knife, but it was big enough.
Heat poured over Karou and it was blood. Thiago’s hands abruptly forgot her hips. And when she did open her eyes, he wasn’t smiling anymore.
A SAD WASTE OF PAIN
“Kill everyone,” Jael commanded his soldiers with morbid good cheer.
Akiva still stood in the center of the bath, his brother and sister with him, and they still held their swords, though with the sick pulse of the devil’s marks, he knew they were in no condition to defend themselves against so many soldiers.
“Not everyone,” corrected Ur-Magus Hellas, who had moved to Jael’s side, and who, unlike the rest of the council members, was manifestly unshocked by all that had transpired. A conspirator.
“Of course,” said Jael, all lisping courtesy. “I misspoke.” To his soldiers: “Kill everyone but the Misbegotten.”
Hellas’s look of smug complacency vanished. “What?”
“Certainly. Traitors must have a public execution, must they not?” said Jael, deliberately not taking Hellas’s meaning. He turned to the bastards, still with that repulsive cheer. “As my brother said earlier, room can always be made on the gibbet.”
“My lord,” said Hellas, affronted and only just beginning to be afraid. “I mean myself.”
“Ah, well. I am sorry, old friend, but you have conspired in my brother’s death. How could I trust you not to betray me?”
“I?” Hellas went red. “I have conspired? With you—”
A cluck of the tongue, and Jael said, “You see? Already you are singing songs about me. Everyone knows it was Beast’s Bane who killed Joram and poor Japheth, too, his own blood. How could I let you leave this room, to go and spread lies about me?”