- Days of Blood & Starlight
It’s not what you think, she could have told Akiva.
But she said nothing. He would get no explanations or apologies from her. She forced herself to turn. To Thiago. She hadn’t set eyes on him since they returned from the pit. She made herself look at him now. If she couldn’t do that much, what chance was there for all that lay ahead?
The Wolf was the Wolf, imperious and breath-catching, a work of Brimstone’s highest art. He wasn’t his usual impeccable self, which was no surprise considering the past day and a half. His sleeves were pushed up, bunched and wrinkled over his tanned and muscled forearms, and Ten’s attention to her master’s hair appeared to have slipped. It had been gathered back by hasty hands and tied in a white knot. Some strands had escaped, and when he pushed them back it was with a flicker of impatience. As for that hated, handsome face, it bore scratches from Karou’s nails, but the wound where her blade had slid up under his chin, that was sealed and mended as if it had never been. It had been an easy fix, nothing like Ziri’s hands or even his smile; only a few layers of tissue to draw back together along a tiny slit. Karou could scarcely have killed him more cleanly if she’d planned to bring him back to life, and she’d had pain in plenty for the tithe.
It was his eyes, oh god, it was his eyes that were hardest to look at. Life in those pale eyes.
We’re all just vessels, after all.
Behind her own eyes came the sting of tears and she looked down. She didn’t know what to do with herself. She hugged her bruised arms to her body and cast wildly about for something to say. Angels in her room, one of them dead and one of them Akiva; here was a pretty predicament.
It had been only a space of seconds since the Wolf entered. His stillness and silence did not yet ring strange, but soon they would.
If Liraz hadn’t screamed, Karou would have helped the angels get away. She would have burned incense to cover their scent. She owed Akiva that much and more. No one would have needed to know they had ever been here. But it was too late for that. Now Thiago would have to do something about them, and—Karou had seen it in his eyes in that brief glance—he was at an even greater loss than she was.
His course of action should have been clear; he had dealt with Akiva before: tortured him, punished him not only for being a seraph but for being Madrigal’s choice, and everyone close to him knew how he hungered to finish what he had started. The White Wolf should have been laughing now; he should have been drunk on his bloody delight.
But he wasn’t.
Because, of course—of course, of course—he wasn’t really the White Wolf.
“So, is this what it looks like?” Thiago asked.
“What does it look like?” Akiva asked, hating to speak to the Wolf at all. They hadn’t been face-to-face since the dungeon in Loramendi, and now that they were, talking was not what Akiva wanted to do.
“It looks like a dead angel.” Indicating Hazael, Thiago turned from Akiva to Karou and back again with a contemptuous half laugh. “Did you come to pay a call on our resurrectionist? I’m sorry, but we don’t service your kind. Perhaps you are aware, we are at war.”
“The war is over,” snarled Liraz, with a passion Akiva knew she didn’t feel for their victory. “You lost.”
“Did we? I like to think that remains to be seen.”
Slowly, Akiva reached a restraining arm around his sister’s shoulder. If she launched at the Wolf the way she had at Karou, the serpent-woman would not be shoving her back to him alive. Maybe death was what Liraz wanted, or thought she wanted in her mourning, and maybe death was going to happen, here, tonight, no matter what they did, but Akiva would not court it further than he already had by coming here, and that had been pure desperation.
He looked to Karou, trying to guess what she was thinking. She would have helped Hazael; he had seen the truth of her sorrow. What now? Would she help them? Could she? Those bruises on her arms… She still held her arms cradled against herself, and though Akiva was fairly sure she was trying to conceal her bruises—why did she look so ashamed?—the effect was that he kept finding his eyes drawn to them. And… he had seen her tithe bruises when he came before; the memory had haunted him. These were different.
These bruises weren’t made by brass clamps, but by hands.
All at once, they were all he could see. A wave of fury overcame him and it was he who needed to be restrained. He was on his feet and it was only the insistent tug of darkness, the infuriating weakness, that made it so easy for Karou—Karou—when he lunged or staggered forward, to step between him and Thiago and shove him back. Her brow was drawn hard and her eyes were fierce; her look asked Are you mad?
And he was. He was also pathetic. He stumbled over Hazael and it was Liraz this time who caught him. They were both so weak, so debilitated and demoralized, that they just sank together to the dirt floor beside their brother’s body. This without the chimaera even having to flash a hamsa in their direction. They were just so done, so painfully, obviously, pitifully done.
“Just do it,” hissed Liraz, and Akiva couldn’t even bring himself to argue. “Kill us.”
Karou regarded them with that hardness she’d shown when she shoved him—it was anger, Akiva thought, that he had again forced her to decide his fate. She had changed so much in just a few months. The sharpness, the bleakness. He remembered how she had been back in Prague and Marrakesh, in the little time they’d spent together before the wishbone: the softness and mobility of her expressions; the shy, incongruous smiles; and the rapid-flare flushes that had spread up her fair neck. Even her anger had been a flashing, vital thing, and he hated this new carved-mask hardness, and he hated his part in bringing it about. But at that moment, if he was given the choice, he would still have said he wanted to live.
It was only in the next moment that this conviction was shaken.
Karou turned to Thiago—to Thiago, of all living creatures in two wide worlds—and shared a look with him that was brief and secret, unguarded and full of pain—but it was shared pain and it was… tender. It was so profane, that tenderness, and so unbearable, that Akiva forgot everything else. All his dwindling vitality gathered in a last-gasp burst of strength and he flew at Thiago.
And Thiago caught him by the throat with one clawed hand. He held him at arm’s length; he made it seem easy. Their eyes met, and as Akiva felt his throat crush closed in the Wolf’s vise grip, he saw a trace of that perverse tenderness lingering in his enemy’s gaze. With that, he just let go. His eyes rolled back. His head fell.
He let the darkness have him, and there was a part of him that hoped it would decide to keep him.
When Akiva collapsed, the Wolf’s relief was as profound as his abhorrence for the words he had forced himself to speak, and for the sound of them issuing from this throat that was Thiago’s throat, as this voice was Thiago’s voice. And these hands that were a dead match for Karou’s bruises? They were Thiago’s, too.
But the nightmare? That was all Ziri’s.
He wanted to ease the angel down to the floor, but he made himself thrust him roughly back to the other seraph, the beautiful female who looked as lost as she did savage. She caught Akiva, staggering under the dead weight of him—but no, not dead weight. Akiva wasn’t dead. The Wolf wouldn’t let Beast’s Bane die so painlessly. As for Ziri… he wouldn’t let him die at all, if he could help it.
That the first test of this deception should be to decide the fate of the seraph who had saved his life, it was… unfair. He wasn’t ready to be tested. The skin still fit too ill, or he wore it poorly. It wasn’t the physical fit. As a vessel it was strong, graceful; it had a suppleness and tensile power that felt enhanced, and he knew it was a thing of beauty to behold, but he couldn’t overcome his revulsion for it. When he had taken possession of it… Oh, Nitid, the taste of Karou’s blood had still been in its mouth.
That was gone now, but his revulsion lingered, and the worst part: So did hers. And how could it not? Ziri had seen the state of Thiago at the pit; he knew what he had done to her—or tried to do, he hoped only tried to do, but he hadn’t asked, how could he ask her that? She had been drenched with blood when he found her, and shaking with a violence that was like shivering in killing cold, and even now she could barely bring herself to look at him.
How many days past had he been gripped by the hope that she could see him for who he was—not a child anymore but a man grown, a man and… maybe a flint of luck to strike, his flint to her steel and his luck to hers. A man she might love. And now he was this?
If there was a will at work in the cosmos, the stars were ringing with laughter now. He could almost laugh himself. Had ever a hope been so annihilated?
But if it was unfair, at least it was his own doing. He had seen what needed to be done, and he had done it.
For her. For the chimaera, and for Eretz, yes, but it was her he had thought of when he dragged his blade across his own throat. He hadn’t even known whom to pray to, the goddess of life or of assassins. What a foul gift he had given Karou: his sacrifice. His body to bury. The enormity of this deception to carry forward.
And… the chance to change the course of the rebellion and claim the future. That was enormous, too, but right now the deception felt like everything.
What was already done—the dying—was the easy part. Now he had to be Thiago. If this was going to work, he had to be convincing, starting right here with these seraphim. Which was why he was so immeasurably relieved when Akiva lost consciousness and he could put a quick end to the encounter, at least forestall the inevitable and try to think what to do.
“Take them to the granary,” he told Ten, with what he hoped was the Wolf’s gentle and authoritative contempt. And after she obeyed, with Issa assisting the female seraph with Akiva’s body, and Nisk and Lisseth carrying the dead one between them, he closed the door behind them and fell back against it, squeezed his eyes shut and raised his hands to his face. But oh, how he hated the touch of them. He let them fall. He hated the touch of his own hands. His hands? He held them apart from his body—his body?—and in the tension of his misery they were rigid as rigor mortis, like the hands of the angel whose death he had made himself mock.
There was no escape from the vileness, because the vileness was him.
“I am Thiago,” he heard himself say in low, choked horror. “I am the White Wolf.”
And then, first at one hated hand, then both, Ziri felt a light touch and opened his eyes. Karou was right before him, pale and weeping, bruised and shaking, black-eyed and blue-haired and beautiful and very near, and she was looking at him—into him, to him—and holding both his hands in both of hers.
“I know who you are,” she said in a fierce sweet whisper. “I know. And I’m with you. Ziri, Ziri. I see you.”
And then she laid her head on his chest and let him hold her in his murderer’s arms. She smelled of the river and trembled like a breeze on a butterfly’s wing, and Ziri cradled her as if she were their world’s last hope.
And maybe she was.
A sound and it was near and it was wings.
Karou had been sure it must be Thiago’s cohorts returning, and she had neither fled nor hidden. She had frozen like a prey thing, on her knees in the dirt and rocks and blood and vomit and flies and horror, waiting to be found.
And when she saw who it was, when he dropped down before her, his Kirin hooves scattering stones, there had been no room in her shock to be glad—Ziri was alive and he was here—because the undone way he stared at her only sharpened her shock. He looked to the Wolf and back at her. His jaw was loose with disbelief; he actually took a halting step backward, and Karou saw the grotesque tableau as he was seeing it. The indignity of the Wolf’s pose, clothes twisted and wrenched asunder in an unmistakable display, and the little knife lying where he’d dropped it, looking like a letter opener, or a toy.
And her. Shaking. Bloody. Guilty.
She had killed the White Wolf. If she had been thinking at all, she wouldn’t have believed that it could get any worse than that.
But, oh, it had.
Now, in her room, she laid her head on his chest and felt his heart beating against her cheek—fast and faster; she knew it was Ziri’s heart now, not Thiago’s, and she knew, too, that its rushing was for her—and she tried to quell her revulsion for his sake.
She had hoped that her little Kirin shadow might prove an ally, but she had never imagined… this.
After that first instant of slack astonishment he had lunged to her side and he had been so careful with her, so present and good and unfaltering—none of his shyness now; he was all focus and strength. He had held her shoulders, carefully but firmly, and made her look at him.
“You’re all right,” he had told her when he was sure that the blood that painted her wasn’t her own. “Karou. Look at me. You’re all right. He can’t hurt you anymore.”
“He can, he will,” she had said, near hysteria. “He can’t be dead, it can’t stand. They’ll make me bring him back. He’s the White Wolf. He’s the White Wolf.”
That was it, all there was to say. Ziri knew it, too; they didn’t have to talk what-ifs. It was Ziri who saw what to do and who did it. Karou grasped his intent when he drew his crescent-moon blade; she gasped, tried to stop him. He said he was sorry. “But not for myself. That part’s all right. I’m just sorry to leave you alone, for the time between.”
Between. Between bodies.
“No! No!” No no no no no no no. “We’ll think of something else. Ziri, you can’t do this—”