- Days of Blood & Starlight
Karou’s body was still flashing from hot to cold and back; she stood frozen in place, trying to make sense of the scene. It was Issa who moved slowly forward and bent over Hazael to touch his face. Karou only watched, a queer detachment settling over her—that old unreality returned, as if her life were a shadow play cast on a wall—and she expected the fierce sister to snarl and shove Issa away, but she didn’t. Liraz reached for Issa’s hand and gripped it. The serpents in Issa’s hair and around her neck grew still and taut, ready to strike if it came to that.
“Please.” Liraz’s voice was strangled. Her eyes shifted from Issa to Karou and they were wild. “Save him.”
Karou heard the words, but in her slowed-down state they seemed to drift in the air. Her gaze swung to Akiva. The way he was looking at her… it was like touch. She took an involuntary step back. His face was a silent plea; he was nearly as gray as the corpse of his brother, which they had laid down on the space of floor where Karou conjured bodies. The resurrection floor. They were all looking to her. Even Issa had turned to her.
They had come to her for help? After burning Brimstone’s portals—and Brimstone—after destroying her people, they had brought her their slain brother to resurrect?
How far had they carried him? They were racked with tremors from the effort. Akiva slumped against the wall. His arms hung at his sides. He looked more dead than alive, more dead even than when she had first seen him, bleeding on the battlefield at Bullfinch.
“What happened to you?”
It might have been her asking him that question, but it wasn’t. It was Akiva, and he was looking at her cheek, her lip, and her newly stitched earlobe. Self-consciously, she untucked her hair from behind her ear and concealed it. “Who did that to you?” he asked. Weak as his voice was, it burned with anger. “It was him, wasn’t it? It was the Wolf.”
He was not wrong, and all Karou could think of, seeing the fury on his face, was the living shawl he had made her once, the so-soft touch of moth wings on her shoulders. Once upon a time, Thiago had torn her dress, and, down from the false stars of the festival lanterns, Akiva had summoned a living shawl to cover her.
She had made a choice that night, and it had not been the wrong choice.
But that was then. So much had happened since.
She ignored his question, hating the physical evidence of her vulnerability, wishing her arms were covered, and wishing she had mended herself. What was a little more pain, after all? She must not show weakness, not now. She stepped forward, turning her attention to Hazael. Akiva had brought her his dead brother? Well, he had also brought her Issa. And he had given her Ziri back, she mustn’t forget that, whatever may have happened since. She lowered herself to her knees beside the body—slowly; everything hurt—and wondered that they had brought his body so far.
Bodies are only dead weight—we’re all just vessels, after all—but knowing that was one thing; leaving a body behind was another. Karou understood that well enough. It is bodies that make us real. What is a soul without eyes to look through, or hands to hold? Her own hands trembled and she clasped them to keep them still.
The wound was under Hazael’s left arm. His heart. It would have been a quick death.
“Please,” Liraz said again. “Save him. I’ll give you anything. Name your price.”
Price? Karou looked at her sharply, but there was no trace of the cruelty or severity she remembered, only anguish. “There is no price,” she said. She glanced at Akiva. Or if there is, she could have added, you’ve already paid it.
“You’ll do it?” Liraz’s words trembled with hope.
Would she? Karou knew she was their only hope—she whom they would have slain in Prague just for bearing the hamsas on her hands—and there was irony there, but she took no pleasure in it. She couldn’t bear the sight of Liraz’s hands—they were so black—but they were so tender on her brother’s neck, her fingers so soft on his dead cheek, and Karou knew she should not feel sympathy for this killer of her people, but she did. Who among them, after all, had clean hands? Not her. Oh, Ellai, my hands will never be clean again. She clenched them suddenly and her blisters burned from her work with the shovel. It felt to her as if to do this one thing, save this life… it might be a salve. Not just for these seraphim but for herself, after the horror of the pit and the shovel and what she had had to do, and… and the lie she was now forced to live. She wanted to do this. A tick on her knuckle for a life saved instead of taken.
“I can’t preserve this body,” she said. “It’s too late. And I can’t make him look the same, either.” Maybe Brimstone would have known how to conjure those fiery wings, but they were far beyond her. “He won’t be a seraph anymore.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Akiva said. She met his eyes, his red, red eyes, and she wanted to do this for him. “As long as he is himself,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
Yes, she told herself, and wanted to believe it as firmly as he did. Soul is what matters. Flesh is vessel. “Okay.” She took a deep breath and looked down at Hazael. “Give me the thurible.”
Her words were met with a silence that was like sinking.
Oh no. No. Karou stared at Hazael’s dead face, his open blue eyes, his laugh lines, and her upwelling sorrow overwhelmed her with its force. No. She bit her lip, willing it to stillness. She was rigid. She had to be. Her grief… if she let it out, it would be a magician’s scarf, one grief tied to another to another, it would never end. She didn’t want to look up again, to see the stricken faces frozen in that terrible silence.
“We didn’t… we didn’t have one.” Liraz. Whispering. “We brought him here. To you.”
Akiva was hoarse. “It’s only been a day. Karou. Please.” As if it were a matter of persuading her.
They didn’t understand. How could they? She had never told Akiva how it worked, how tenuous the soul’s connection grew after death, or how easily it could be cast adrift if it was not contained. She had never told him, and now there was nothing in the air or aura of this dead angel—soldier, killer, beloved brother—no impression of light or laughter to go along with those blue eyes and laugh lines, no stir of any kind to brush against her senses and tell her who he was because… he wasn’t.
She looked up. She forced herself to meet Akiva’s red eyes and Liraz’s so they would see and understand her sorrow.
And know that Hazael’s soul was lost.
It was her sorrow that undid Akiva. One look and he knew. Hazael was gone.
“No!” Liraz’s cry was choked, airless, nearly soundless, and she was in motion.
Akiva didn’t have the strength to restrain her. She couldn’t have much strength left, either. Even after the sickness of the hamsas, she had borne most of Hazael’s weight on the long journey here—and for what, all for nothing—and sometimes his weight, too, catching him by an arm and screaming at him to wake up when he would start to slide into the darkness. The darkness, the darkness. Even now it was lapping at him.
What had he done in Astrae?
He didn’t know. He had known only the thrum in his skull and the gathering, the pressure, the pressure, and he had grabbed Liraz and held her to him, fallen on Hazael and held him, too, and the blast when it came—from where?—had carried them clear. Far away, far, and not one dagger of all the glass of the shattered Sword—not one splinter—had touched them.
They had brought Hazael to a field and he was already dead. But what is death? Akiva had thought of Karou. Of course he had. Hope, he had told himself, on his knees in the grass, weak and dazed and numb. Her name means hope.
But not in their language, and not for them.
Liraz lunged at Karou and Akiva reached after her but he was too slow. She hit Karou and slammed her backward. There was a chair lying on its side. They went down. Karou cried out in pain.
Liraz found air. “You’re lying!” she screamed.
Akiva was moving, but it was like wading through darkness; the serpent-woman was faster—the serpent-woman was Issa, he knew her from Karou’s drawings. She must have been the one in the thurible. Thurible thurible thurible. Why hadn’t he had a thurible? But maybe the blast had torn away Hazael’s soul; maybe it was already gone when they laid him in the field, and there had never been a chance of saving him. They would never know. Hazael was gone, that was all that mattered.
And Liraz was screaming.
Whatever Karou might have decided to do with them, it was out of her hands now. “Just save him!” Liraz screamed at her and the sound was terrible, it was raw and so loud, and Akiva imagined eyes snapping open all over the kasbah.
Issa was strong where Liraz was weak and broken. The serpent-woman threw her off Karou, thrust her back to Akiva; she could have killed her, her serpents could have sunk fangs into his sister’s flesh, but they didn’t. Issa shoved her to Akiva and he caught her. Liraz struggled, but sobs broke her and she collapsed in his arms. “No no no,” she was saying over and over. “He can’t be gone, he can’t, not him.” He held her and sank with her back down beside their brother’s body, and he cradled her while she sobbed. Each sob was like a tempest racking her rigid form, seizing her, shaking her. Akiva had never even seen her cry before, and this was beyond crying. He held her, weeping, too, and looked over the top of her head to where Issa was helping Karou to the edge of the bed.
He saw the gingerness of her movements, the pain on her face, the cuts on her face, and the sorrow in her swan-black eyes when she looked at him, and silent tears slipping down her cheeks, but he couldn’t process any of it. Darkness was tilting and weaving around him, Liraz’s sobs were sending shudders straight to his heart, and Hazael was dead.
The cremation urn is full, he heard in his brother’s lazy, jovial voice. You have to live.
And here he was again: alive while others died. Oh, black fatigue. He just wanted to close his eyes.
And then, at the door, a knock. Karou snapped to face it. A guttural female voice demanded, “Karou? What’s happening in there?”
When Karou snapped back toward him there was still the sorrow in her eyes, but dismay was distorting it, and distress. She wiped away her tears with the back of her hand and struggled to her feet. Her face contorted with pain from the effort—what had he done to her, that… animal?—and she seemed to want to say something, but there was no time because the door was opening. Liraz lifted her head, her sobs trailing away as she came back to herself and realized what she had done.
She was alert, her face white around her wet, red eyes. She reached for Hazael’s rigid hand and gripped it. The grief left her face, resignation settling her features into an unnatural calm.
Akiva understood that she was ready to die.
He knew he had no right to be horrified—he’d been fighting the same feeling for so long—but he was horrified anyway, and he felt himself caught in a spiral of helplessness. At the tugging edge of blackness, trapped once more in the enemy stronghold, a profound new urgency arose. He was not ready.
He wanted to live. He wanted to finish what he had finally started, all these years too late. He wanted to remake the world. With Karou, with Karou.
But he didn’t think that was going to happen.
The first figure through the door was Thiago’s she-wolf lieutenant. Slinking bestial creature, she went into a hunch and growled at her first sight of the angels. But Akiva didn’t even look at her, because behind her, paused on the threshold, cheeks scored by scabbed gouges that confirmed his worst suspicions, was the White Wolf.
THE ANGEL AND THE WOLF
“Visitors, Karou? I didn’t know you were having a party.”
Oh, that voice, the calm and disdain, the hint of amusement. Karou couldn’t make herself look at him. Life in those pale eyes, strength in those clawed hands. It was wrong, so wrong. And she had done it. Her bile rose; she could have fallen to her knees to retch all over again.
“I didn’t, either.”
It was the only way, she told herself, but her trembling intensified as she struggled to stifle it. She fixed on a point behind him, but the shifting forms of Lisseth and Nisk filled the corridor, and she didn’t want to look at them, either. She would never forget or forgive the coldness of their faces when she had come limping back from the pit, blood-drenched and shaking, in shock, trailing behind Thiago.
As for Thiago himself…
He entered the room. She could hear the dig of his claws in the dirt floor and she could smell the musk scent of him, but she still couldn’t look at him. He was a blurred white presence in her peripheral vision, crossing the room to face the angels from her side. From her side, as if they were together in this.
And… they were.
She had made a choice. To deserve Brimstone’s belief in her and the name he had given her. To work for the salvation—and resurrection—of her people, by any means necessary, by any means. And Thiago was necessary. The chimaera followed him. This was the only way, but that didn’t make it any easier to stand beside him and feel the weight of Akiva’s stare, and when she turned to him—she had to look somewhere—to see the loathing and confusion on his face, and the incredulity. As if he couldn’t believe she would suffer the nearness of this monster.
I am a monster, too, she wanted to tell him. I am a chimaera, and I will do what I have to do for my people.
Such false courage. Her expression was defiance, but it was pinned in place. The fire of Akiva’s eyes had always been like a fuse that set the air alight between them. Now was no different. She burned, but it was with shame to be facing him from the Wolf’s side. The angel and the Wolf, together in a room. It seemed to her now that she had always been headed toward this moment, and here it was: The angel and the Wolf faced each other, and Akiva was red-eyed, gray-faced, broken and sick and grief-stricken, and she… she stood beside the Wolf, as if the pair of them were lord and lady of this bloody rebellion.