Days of Blood & Starlight(6)

By: Laini Taylor

So it went.

And went.

Time was upended in the whirlwind of nithilam and Akiva became an instinct-creature living inside the dice of blades.

Again and again the blows came, and he blocked and dodged but didn’t strike; there was no time or space for it. His brother and sister batted him between them, there was always a weapon coming, and when he did see a space—when a split-second gap in the onslaught was as good as a door swinging open to Hazael’s throat or Liraz’s hamstring—he let it pass.

Whatever they did, he would never hurt them.

Hazael roared in his throat and brought down a blow as heavy as a bull centaur’s that caught Akiva’s right sword and sent it spinning from his grip. The force of it ripped a red bolt of pain from his old shoulder injury, and he leapt back, not quickly enough to dodge as Liraz came in low with her poleax and swiped him off his feet. He landed on his back, wings sprawling open. His second sword skidded after the first and Liraz was over him, weapon raised to deal the deathblow.

She paused. A half second, which seemed an eon coming out of the chaos of nithilam, it was enough time for Akiva to think that she was really going to do it, and then that she wasn’t. And then… she heaved the poleax. It took all the air in her lungs and it was coming and there was no stopping it—the haft was too long; she couldn’t halt its fall if she wanted.

Akiva closed his eyes.

Heard it, felt it: the skirr of air, the shuddering impact. The force of it, but… not the bite. The instant passed and he opened his eyes. The ax blade was embedded in the hardpan next to his cheek and Liraz was already walking away.

He lay there, looking up at the stars and breathing, and as the air passed in and out of him, it settled on him with weight that he was alive.

It wasn’t some fractional surprise, or momentary gratitude for being spared an ax in the face. Well, there was that, too, but this was bigger, heavier. It was the understanding—and burden—that unlike those many dead because of him, he had life, and life wasn’t a default state—I am not dead, hence I must be alive—but a medium. For action, for effort. As long as he had life, who deserved it so little, he would use it, wield it, and do whatever he could in its name, even if it was not, was never, enough.

And even though Karou would never know.

Hazael appeared over him. Sweat beaded his brow. His face was flushed, but his expression remained mild. “Comfortable down there, are you?”

“I could sleep,” Akiva said, and felt the truth of it.

“You may recall, you have a bunk for that.”

“Do I?” He paused. “Still?”

“Once a bastard, always a bastard,” replied Hazael, which was a way of saying there was no way out of the Misbegotten. The emperor bred them for a purpose; they served until they died. Be that as it may, it didn’t mean his brother and sister had to forgive him. Akiva glanced at Liraz. Hazael followed his gaze. He said, “Windup soldier? Really?” He shook his head, and, in his way of delivering insults without rancor, added, “Idiot.”

“I didn’t mean it.”

“I know.” So simple. He knew. Never theatrics with Hazael. “If I thought you had, I wouldn’t be standing here.” The haft of the poleax was angled across Akiva’s body. Hazael grasped it, wrenched it free of the ground, and set it upright.

Akiva sat up. “Listen. On the bridge…” he began, but didn’t know what to say. How, exactly, do you apologize for betrayal?

Hazael didn’t make him grope for words. In his easy, lazy voice, he said, “On the bridge you protected a girl.” He shrugged. “Do you want to know something? It’s a relief to finally understand what happened to you.” He was talking about eighteen years ago, when Akiva had disappeared for a month and resurfaced changed. “We used to talk about it.” He gestured to Liraz. She was sorting the weapons in the rack, either not paying attention to them or pretending not to. “We used to wonder, but we stopped a long time ago. This was just who you were now, and I can’t say I liked you better, but you’re my brother. Right, Lir?”

Their sister didn’t reply, but when Hazael tossed her the poleax, she caught it neatly.