- Days of Blood & Starlight
And ever since, Joram had been delivering on the promise he had made: a country of ghosts, indeed.
“If ghosts could pick up killing where the living left off,” Akiva told Noam, “we’d have wiped each other out long ago.”
Again Noam nodded, accepting his words as wisdom. “Sir?” he asked. “Are there new orders?”
Liraz finally couldn’t take it anymore. “You don’t have to call him sir,” she said. “You know what we are.” Misbegotten. Bastards. Nothing.
“I…” Noam stammered. “But he’s—”
“Never mind,” said Akiva. “No. No new orders. What are the standing orders?” They had just arrived; he didn’t know. “Are we to track the rebels?”
But Noam shook his head. “There’s nothing to track. They just vanished. We’re… we’re to answer them.”
“The messages, the smiles. The emperor…” He swallowed audibly; he was being careful, weighing his words for Akiva’s benefit, but they lacked conviction. “The emperor can send a message, too.”
Akiva was silent, taking this in. At Cape Armasin he had been lucky: in the north, there had been no one left to kill. Here it was another story. Fleeing villagers, freed slaves, chimaera trying to make their way to the Hintermost, where they believed they might find sanctuary, a way through the mountains to a new life. And now he was supposed to hunt them down? Make a message out of them?
Beast’s Bane. He should be good at it.
A mixture of desperation, fatigue, and helplessness overcame Akiva. He wanted no part of Joram’s message.
Corpse smoke gusted up from the field, and the angels beat their wings and backed away from it to come to rest atop the aqueduct. Noam noticed gore and broken feathers where the soldiers had been strung up, and emotion broke through his martial stolidness. “What is it all for?” he asked wildly—of the sky, of no one. “I can’t remember. I… I don’t think I ever knew.” He fixed abruptly on Akiva. “Sir,” he implored, Liraz’s scold forgotten. “When will it end?”
It won’t, thought Akiva. He looked into the eyes of this young soldier and knew that soon enough, whatever was in him that made him ask why would be dead, of necessity—another soul ripped out to make way for a monster. Armies need monsters, as the old hunchback had told him in Morocco, to do their terrible work. Who knew that better than Akiva? He looked at Hazael, Liraz. Was it too late for them? For himself?
Desperate and tired, helpless and besieged by the meat scent of burning comrades, he did something he had not done in a very long time, not since Madrigal was ripped na**d from his arms at the temple of Ellai.
He imagined two futures for Eretz: One as Joram would have it, the other as it might be.
A different sort of life.
Sveva woke with the thunderclap jolt and sick, scrambling lurch to consciousness of one who has fallen asleep on watch. Every particle of her body and mind slammed from dream to dread in the space of a twig’s snap and she was awake, looking, listening.
Blinking. It was dawn. Through the fringe of the trees, the sky was soft and pale. How long had she slept? And the twig snap—had she heard it or dreamt it?
She sat very still listening. All was quiet. After a few minutes, she relaxed. They were safe. Sarazal still slept; she didn’t need to know Sveva had fallen asleep; she scolded her enough as it was. With a sigh, Sveva uncurled her forelegs from beneath her. They were slim as a fawn’s, the fur still lightly speckled; she was the smaller of the two girls, the younger. She was the one used to getting away with things, not doing her share.
But that was before.
When they got back home, she would be perfect. No more dreaming days, or hiding from their mother’s call. Their mother. How worried she must be now, and the whole tribe; did they know it had been slavers who got them? They’d just gone out to run, the two of them, needing the wind in their hair after a day at their looms. It was Sveva, the fastest, who had kept them going, too far, too far. She’d given her sister no choice but to chase her. She couldn’t leave her—older sisters didn’t do things like that. This was Sveva’s fault.
Did the tribe think they were dead? It made her sick to imagine their grief. We’re okay, she thought; she thought it hard, willing the message to fly across the land and reach her mother’s mind. Mothers could sense things, couldn’t they?
We’re okay, Mama. We’re free. We were freed!
She couldn’t wait to tell how it had been, the revenants come from the skies like vengeance made flesh. And what flesh! So huge, so terrible. Well, one of them had not been terrible: a tall one with long, spike horns had taken a knife off a dead angel and put it in her hand; he had been handsome.
Oh, who had ever had such a story to tell? She would tell it fast, before Sarazal could butt in. She was better at stories anyway; she remembered the good details, like how all the slaves had stood together singing. They were from all different tribes, but every one of them knew the words of the Warlord’s ballad. The sound of their mingled voices, Sveva thought, had been like the sound of the world itself: earth and air, leaf and stream, and tooth and claw, too. And snarl, and scream. Some of the other slaves had frightened her almost as much as the slavers, but they’d all gone their separate ways once their shackles were off. Most had fanned south, carrying whips and swords, going to warn anyone they could find. Sveva herself clutched her knife—it was in her fist now, too big for her small hand to grip properly—but they were headed north and west.
Home. We’re coming come.
Once Sarazal was better, anyway.
Sveva was chewing her cheek, worrying about her sister’s leg—she could smell the wound, even through the herb fragrance of her poultice—when she heard another snap. Her skin flashed cold and she stared into the thickness of the forest where night still clung in the shadows of the dense damsel trees.
It was probably just a skote, she told herself, or a tree creeper.
Her heart was pounding; she wished Sarazal would wake. Older sisters could be tiresome when you just wanted to dither away a day, but they were a comfort when you found yourself fugitive in a strange forest, prey to sounds and shadows and in need of someone to tell you it would be all right.
Silently, Sveva gathered herself upright, her deer legs extended before her, her sylph-slender human torso rising slowly. The Dama were the smallest of the centaurid tribes, slight, lithe deer centaurs known for their speed. Ah, their speed; they were the fastest of all the chimaera, and since Sveva was the fastest of the Dama, she liked to boast that she was the fastest creature in all the world. Sarazal said not necessarily, but true or not, Sveva loved to run, and longed to. They could have been halfway home by now, to the spiking ezerin forests and high moss plains of Aranzu where the Dama ranged, unfixed and wild.
They would have been halfway by now, if not for Sarazal’s leg.
Sarazal still hadn’t stirred. She lay curled in the fur-soft bracken, eyes closed, face relaxed and tranquil, and as much as Sveva wished she would wake, she couldn’t bring herself to rouse her. For days, Sarazal had had a hard time sleeping with the pain. All because of the shackle. Now that their ordeal was over, it was this that Sveva fixed her hatred on. It was interesting the way a small hate could grow inside a big hate and take it over. When she thought of the slavers now—dead though they were, she would hate them forever—it was Sarazal’s shackle more than anything else that made her chest and face feel tight with swallowed fury.
With chimaera being so many different shapes and sizes, the slavers carried all manner of shackles and used whatever fit—all sizes of iron bands and steel chains, on legs, waists, necks. Never arms, though. It was Rath, another slave—a fearsome Dashnag boy whose long white fangs made Sveva shrink up like a wilting flower—who had told them why.
“An arm you could cut off and get away,” he’d said. “An arm you could do without.”
“I couldn’t,” Sveva had replied with some superiority. Savages, she remembered thinking, as if perhaps it was a lack of finer feelings that made Dashnag so casual about their limbs.
“That’s because you don’t know what’s waiting for you.”
“And you do?” she’d snapped. She shouldn’t have. Rath could have eaten her face with a bite, but she couldn’t help it. Was he trying to scare her? As if she wasn’t scared enough.
Maybe, she thought, she hadn’t been scared enough. She was now, though. The sweet stink of infection was coming off her sister, and she knew that when she reached out to touch her, she would be hot with fever. The herbs weren’t working.
Sveva had found them—feversbane even. At least, she was almost sure it was feversbane. Half-sure at least. But she could see the wound, Sarazal’s leg lying delicate on its bracken pillow, and it didn’t look any better. She traced her own painful chafe marks with her fingertips and felt the guilty weight of luck she didn’t deserve.
The slavers had bound Sveva around her small waist with an iron manacle probably meant for some giant bull centaur’s legs, but when they’d gotten to Sarazal—she was last; it was only luck, bad luck—they’d found nothing to fit her, and made do with a scrap of iron tightened just above her left fore fetlock. The metal had cut, the cut had swollen, and then the makeshift shackle had done its real damage, slicing further into the swelling, biting deeper with every step. Sarazal’s limping had gotten so bad that the slavers would have had to leave her behind if the revenants hadn’t come. Rath said they would have sooner but that Dama were valuable, and Sveva didn’t need him to tell her that if they did leave Sarazal, or any of them, it wouldn’t be alive.
But the revenants had come—from where, the moons only knew, on wings such as she had never seen, more terrifying than anything out of a nightmare—and just in time. Sarazal could barely walk now, and they hadn’t gotten far, with Sveva too small to be much help supporting her.
She sighed. No more sounds from the shadows, that was good, but the shadows were fading away. It was day. It was time to wake Sarazal. Reluctantly, Sveva touched her shoulder. Her skin was hot, and when she fluttered her eyes open they weren’t right—they had that shine and blear of sickness. Sveva’s guilt churned in her stomach like a live thing. She wanted to pull her sister’s head into her lap, comb out her tangled cinnamon-stick hair with her fingers, and sing to her, not the Warlord’s ballad but something sweet, with no one dying in it. But all she did was murmur, “It’s morning, Sara, time to get up.”
A whimper. “I can’t.”
“You can.” Sveva tried to sound cheerful, but a desperate panic was building in her. Sarazal was really sick. What if she… No. Sveva slammed the thought shut. That couldn’t happen. “Of course you can. Mama will be watching for us.”
But Sarazal only whimpered again and tried to nestle deeper into the bracken, and Sveva didn’t know what to do. Her sister was always the one bossing and planning and coaxing. Maybe she should let her sleep a little longer, she thought, let the feversbane work.
If it was feversbane. What if it wasn’t? What if it was doing more harm than good?
That’s what Sveva was worrying over when the voice came from behind her. No snapping twigs gave warning—it was just there, almost in her ear, stabbing icy jolts of fright all through her. “You have to go.”
Sveva whirled around, brandishing her too-big knife, and there was Rath. The Dashnag boy with his long white fangs, he was half in the shadow and half out, and for all that he was still a boy, he was just so big. Sveva’s gasp was long and unsteady, a reeling drag of terror. Rath gave her a long look, and Sveva could read no expression on his beast face. He had a tiger’s head and cat eyes that caught the light and silvered. He was a hunter, a stalker, an eater of flesh. She could outrun him easily, she knew that… except that she couldn’t, because if she were running, it would mean she had left Sarazal behind.
“What are you doing here?” she cried. “Were you following us?”
Rath’s voice came from low in his throat. “I was looking for the revenants,” he said. “But they’re gone, and I wouldn’t count on them saving you twice.”
Was that a threat? “You leave us alone,” she said, putting herself in front of Sarazal.
Rath made an impatient sound. “Not from me,” he said. “If you were watching the sky, you’d know.”
“What?” Sveva’s heart drummed. “What do you mean?”
“Angels are coming. Soldiers, not slavers. If you want to live, it’s time to go.”
Angels. Sveva’s hatred kindled. “We’re hidden here,” she said. The leaf cover of the damsel canopy would be unbroken green from above, leagues and leagues of it. Two Dama girls were like two acorns. “They’ll never see us.”
“They don’t need to see you to kill you,” said Rath. “Look for yourself.” He indicated an opening in the brush that Sveva knew gave way to a little rise and a ridge, with a view out onto the sweep of the hills. She glanced at Sarazal, who was sleeping again, her lips moving and eyelids fluttering with unhappy dreams. Rath made another impatient sound, and Sveva went. She moved sideways, her cloven hooves dancing and anxious, and when she was past him she burst into speed and leapt up the rise.
She saw smoke.
Across the valley, between themselves and their way home, some half-dozen plumes of ink-black smoke rose from the forest at intervals. Licks of vivid fire were discernible below, and above, shimmering in the air like heat mirages: seraphim.