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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.11
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.11

         Part #3 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 

  A couple of months ago, if someone had told her she’d get excited about a few dried apricots, she’d have given them the eyebrow. Now she thought she could probably use them as currency, like cigarettes in prison.

  “We’re playing Three Wishes,” she told her friend. “Cake, hot bath, soft bed. How about you?”

  “World peace,” said Karou.

  Zuzana rolled her eyes. “Yes, Saint Karou.”

  “Cure for cancer,” Karou went on. “And unicorns for all.”

  “Bluh. Nothing ruins Three Wishes like altruism. It has to be something for yourself, and if it doesn’t include food, it’s a lie.”

  “I did include food. I said unicorns, didn’t I?”

  “Mmm. You’re craving unicorn, are you?” Zuzana’s brow furrowed. “Wait. Do they have those here?”

  “Alas, no.”

  “They did,” said Mik. “But Karou ate them all.”

  “I am a voracious unicorn predator.”

  “We’ll add that to your personals ad,” said Zuzana.

  Karou’s eyebrows shot up. “My personals ad?”

  “We might have been composing personals ads on the way here,” she allowed. “To pass the time.”

  “Of course you were. So what was mine?”

  “Well, we couldn’t write them down, obviously, but I think it was something like: Beautiful interspecies badass seeks, um… non–mortal enemy for uncomplicated courtship, long walks on the beach, and happily ever after?”

  Karou didn’t respond right away, and Zuzana saw that Mik was giving her a disapproving look. What? she replied by way of eyebrow. She’d left out the “genocidal angels need not apply” part, hadn’t she? But then her friend dropped her face into her hands. Her shoulders started shaking, and Zuzana couldn’t tell if it was from laughter or sobs. It had to be laughter, didn’t it? “Karou?” she asked, worried.

  Karou lifted her face back up, and there were no tears, but there wasn’t a whole lot of mirth, either. “Uncomplicated,” she said. “What’s that like?”

  Zuzana glanced at Mik. This was what uncomplicated was like. It was wonderful. Karou didn’t miss the glance. She smiled at them, wistful. “Just know how lucky you are,” she said.

  “I do,” said Mik.

  “I definitely do,” agreed Zuzana, quickly, and with a little more gusto than was really her style. She still felt so… off. Oh, hungry, dirty, and tired, most definitely—hence her three wishes—but this went way beyond that. For a minute there, back in the entrance cavern, she’d felt like she was staring at the end of the freaking world.

  What the hell was that?

  When she was a kid, she’d had this favorite doll—well, it was a duck, actually—and she had apparently rendered it quite vile with the depredations of her toddler adoration, including, as her brother Tomáš liked to remind her, her habit of sucking on its eyes. She’d found it comforting, the hard clicky smoothness of them against her tiny teeth.

  Less than comforting had been her parents’ campaign to persuade her that this could kill her. “You could choke, darling. You could stop breathing.”

  But what did that really mean to a toddler? It was Tomáš who had driven the message home. By… choking her. Just a little. Brothers, so helpful in matters of death demonstration. “You could die,” he’d said cheerfully, his hands around her throat. “Like this.”

  It had worked. She’d understood. Things can kill you. All kinds of things, like toys, or older brothers. And as she’d grown up, that list had just gotten longer and longer.

  But she’d never felt it this powerfully before. What was that Nietzsche quote that Goth poet-types love so much? When you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you? Well, the abyss had looked into her. No. It had gawked; it had glared. Zuzana was pretty sure it had left scorch marks on her soul, and it was hard to imagine ever feeling normal again.

  But she wasn’t going to go complaining to Karou about every fear and freak-out. She had wanted to come here. Karou had warned her it would be dangerous—and okay, the warning in the abstract was a little bit like telling a toddler about choking, minus the demonstration… but she was here now, and she didn’t want to be the crybaby in this gang.

  And as for lucky? “I’m lucky I’m even alive,” she announced. “When I was little, I sucked on duck eyeballs.”

  Mik and Karou just looked at her, and Zuzana was glad to see Karou’s wistfulness give way to bemused concern. “That’s… interesting, Zuze,” she ventured.

  “I know. And I don’t even try. Some people are just interesting. You, though, with your drab, ordinary life. You should get out more. Try new things.”

  “Uh-huh,” said Karou, and Zuzana was rewarded with a glimpse of that elusive mirth. “You’re right. So dull. I’ll take up stamp collecting. That’s interesting, isn’t it?”

  “No. Unless you’re pasting them onto your body and wearing them as clothes.”

  “That sounds like someone’s semester project at school.”

  “It totally does!” Zuzana agreed. “Helen would do it. But she’d make it a performance. Start out naked with a big bowl of stamps so people could lick them and paste them on her.”

  Karou finally laughed outright, and Zuzana felt pride of accomplishment. Laugh achieved. Maybe she couldn’t make Karou’s life—or love—less complicated, and maybe she didn’t have any helpful hints when it came to, oh, angel invasions or dangerous deceptions or armies that clearly just wanted to start killing each other, but she could do this at least. She could make her friend laugh.

  “So what now?” she asked. “The angels throw a magnificent banquet in our honor?”

  Karou laughed again, but it was a dark sound. “Not exactly. Next is the war council.”

  “War council,” repeated Mik, sounding a little dazed, as Zuzana most definitely felt. Dazed and far, far out of her depth. She imagined that every hair on her body was still standing on end from the weird, electric horror of the past hour. Seeing Uthem die? That was a first for her. She’d had to walk through his blood, and while that hadn’t seemed to fuss the soldiers (as cool as if they waded through blood every morning to get to breakfast), it had fussed her, though she’d barely had time to process it. She’d been so… spun by her own paralyzed terror, and what she was now thinking of as “the abyss’s mad gawk.”

  Karou gave a hard exhale. “That is why we’re here.” On here, she made a quick scan of the room and added, “Strange as it is.”

  And Zuzana felt even more out of her depth, trying to imagine what it meant to her friend, being back here. She couldn’t, of course. This was the site of a massacre. Maybe it was the echo of the abyss that brought it on, but she imagined walking up to her own family’s house and finding it deserted, the beds decayed and no one there to greet her—ever—and she sucked in a little breath.

  “Are you all right?” Karou asked her.

  “I’m fine. More to the point, are you all right?”

  Karou nodded, smiled a little. “Yeah, I am, actually.” She raised her torch and looked around. “It’s weird. When I lived here, it was the world. I didn’t know that everyone didn’t live inside mountains.”

  “It’s pretty amazing,” Zuzana said.

  “It is. And you haven’t even seen the best part yet.” Karou looked sly.

  “Ooh, what? Please tell me it’s a cave where cupcakes grow like mushrooms.”

  Score another laugh for Zuzana.

  “No,” said Karou. “And I don’t have any cake, either, and I’m afraid the bed situation can’t be helped, but…” She paused, waiting for Zuzana to figure it out.

  Zuzana did. Could it be? “Don’t tease me.”

  Karou’s smile was pure; she was happy to give happiness. “Come on. I think we can spare a few minutes.”

  23

  THE WHOLE POINT

  The thermal pools were as Karou remembered, but also not at all as she remembered, because in her memories, there were Kirin here. Whole families, bathing
together. Old women gossiping. Children splashing. She could feel her mother’s hands working selen root into a lather on her head, and she even remembered its herbal smell, mingling with the sulfur odor of the springs.

  “It’s beautiful,” said Mik, and it was: the water a chalky pale green, the rocks like pastel drawings, rose and sea foam. It was intimate but not small, not one pool but a cluster of joined baths fed by a gentle cascade, and the ceiling seemed to ripple, ashimmer with growths of crystal and curtains of pale pink darkmoss, so named because it grew in the dark, not because it was.

  “Look over here,” said Karou, and held out her torch, leading the way to the place where the cavern wall was pure, polished hematite. A mirror.

  “Wow,” breathed Zuzana, and the three regarded their reflections, side by side. They looked bedraggled and reverent. The curved surface warped them, and Karou had to move around to gauge what of the distortion of her face was from the funhouse mirror effect, and what was left over from her beating. The attack seemed ages ago, but her body knew differently. It had been two days, and her face was not recovered. Her psyche wasn’t, either. In fact, the mirror distortion struck her as fitting: an outward manifestation of the inner warp she was trying to keep hidden.

  They peeled off their clothes and slipped into the water, which was hot and very soft, so that within seconds of immersion, their limbs felt as smooth as doll porcelain, their hair like swansdown. Karou’s and Zuzana’s drifted like mermaid coils on the eddying surface.

  Karou closed her eyes and sank beneath the surface, head and all, and let the moving water draw the tension out of her. If she were to play Three Wishes honestly, she might wish she could drift off as if this were Lethe, the river of oblivion, and take a nice long break from armies and doom. Instead, she washed and rinsed and climbed out. Mik politely faced away as she dressed in clean clothes. “Clean,” that is, if dipped in a Moroccan river and dried on a dusty rooftop counted as clean.

  “You probably have an hour on the torch,” she told her friends, leaving them one and taking the other. “Can you find your way back?”

  They said they could, so Karou left the pair to their perfect, uncomplicated enjoyment of each other, and tried not to be too jealous as her feet carried her back up toward the humming enmity of the armies.

  “There you are.”

  She’d rounded a bend, nearing the hivelike center of the village, and there was Thiago. Ziri. When they saw each other, a flash of feeling transfigured him. He hid it quickly, but she saw it, and knew it. It was love inseparable from sadness, and it made her heart ache for him. “I’m with you,” she had told him back at the kasbah, so he wouldn’t feel so alone in his stolen body. But he was alone. She wasn’t with him, even when she was. And he knew it.

  She made herself smile. “I was just coming to find you.” That was true, in any case. “Has anything been decided?”

  He sighed and shook his head. He was unkempt, something the Wolf never was, except perhaps immediately after battle. His hair was in disarray, his brow dark with dried blood from his crash landing, and his knees and hands, scraped and bloodied, looked like meat. He cast a glance around and beckoned Karou through a doorway.

  Only for an instant did she stiffen and want to demur. He’s not the Wolf, she told herself, preceding him into the small chamber. It was dark, musty. Karou closed the door and made an arc with her sputtering torch to confirm that they were alone.

  Alone. Was this what Ziri had hoped for, back in the night, just this small sad slice of time to let his Wolf posture fall slack? He sagged against a wall, plainly exhausted. He said, “Lisseth proposed we choose a scapegoat for a show execution.”

  “What?” Karou cried. “That’s awful!”

  “Which is why I said no, unless she wished to volunteer herself.”

  “I wish.”

  “She declined.” He gave a wry, tired smile, then pitched his voice low. “They’re still waiting for this to make sense. For me to reveal the true plan, which must, of course, involve slaughter.”

  “Do you think they suspect anything?” Karou asked, anxious, her voice a secret murmur like his. She wished she could speak to him in Czech as she could to Zuzana and Mik, and not have to worry about being overheard.

  “Something, yes. But I don’t think they’re near the truth.”

  “They better not get near it.”

  “I’m acting like I have an endgame that I just haven’t shared with them, but I don’t know how long that will hold. I was never in his inner circle. What if he told them his plans, and this secrecy looks wrong to them? As for this problem…” He lifted his hands to his head and drew in a sharp breath at the contact of injury to injury. “What would the Wolf do? He would do nothing. He would give the seraphim no one, and stare them down for asking.”

  “You’re right.” The image came to Karou easily, of the contempt the Wolf would hold in his eyes, facing his foes. “Of course, he really would be orchestrating a slaughter.”

  “Yes. But this is our tactic, in all of this: to begin believably, where he would, but not follow where he would take it. I’m giving the angels no one, and no apology. It’s a chimaera matter, and that’s the end of it.”

  “And if it happens again?” Karou asked.

  “I’ll see that it doesn’t.” Simple, heavy, full of threat and regret.

  Karou knew that Ziri wanted no such responsibility, but she remembered his words in the air—“We will fight for our world to the last echo of our souls”—and the way he’d stood between two blooded armies and held them apart, and she didn’t doubt that he could rise to any occasion. “Okay,” she said, and that was the end of it.

  A silence unspooled between them, and with the matter decided, the quality of “alone” changed. They were two tired people standing in the flickering dark, a tangle of feelings and fears—love, trust, hesitation, sorrow.

  “We should get back,” Karou said, though she wished she could give Ziri his peace for a while longer. “The seraphim will be waiting.”

  He nodded, and followed her to the door. “Your hair is wet,” he said.

  “There are baths,” she told him, opening the door, remembering that he wouldn’t know that.

  “I can’t say that doesn’t sound good.” He indicated the blood-caked fur of his feet, his raw-meat hands. There was the wound where his head had smashed the cave floor, too. She stepped closer to him, reached up to touch it; he winced. A good goose egg had risen under the dark, crusted blood.

  “Ouch,” she said. “Are you having any dizziness?”

  “No. Just throbbing. It’s fine.” He was scrutinizing her face in return. “You’re looking a lot better.”

  She touched her cheek, realizing the pain had gone. The swelling, too. She touched her torn earlobe and found that the flesh had knit itself together. What?

  With a little gasp, she remembered. “The water,” she said. It came back to her like a dream fragment. “It has some healing properties.”

  “Really?” Ziri looked down at his raw hands again. “Can you show me the way?”

  “Um.” Karou paused awkwardly. “I would, but Zuzana and Mik are in there.” She blushed. It was possible that Zuzana and Mik were too tired to act like Zuzana and Mik, but with the restorative waters, it was likely that her friends would be making use of their hour of solitude, in, um, Zuzana-and-Mik fashion.

  Ziri was not slow to take her meaning. He blushed, too, and the humanity that flooded his cold, perfect features was extraordinary. Ziri wore this body so much more beautifully than Thiago had.

  “I’ll wait,” he said with a low, embarrassed laugh, avoiding Karou’s eyes, and she laughed, too.

  And there they were, in the doorway, blushing, laughing their embarrassed laughs, and standing too close—her hand drawn back from his brow but her body still curved toward his—when someone came around the bend in the passage and stopped dead.

  Dear gods and stardust, Karou wanted to yell. Are you kidding me?

/>   Because of course, of course, it was Akiva. The wind music had drowned out his footsteps. He was not ten feet away, and as skilled as he was at concealing those flares of sudden feeling, he did not entirely succeed in concealing this one.

  A jerk of disbelief in his halt, a creep of color across his cheeks. Even, Karou was sure, an unguarded intake of breath. On stoic Akiva, these small signs were equivalent to reeling from a slap.

  Karou stepped away from the Wolf, but she couldn’t undo the picture they had made in that second. She’d felt her own flare of feeling at the sight of Akiva, but doubted that he could have detected it in her laughing, blushing face, and now, to make matters worse, there was the guilt of discovery, as if she had been caught in some betrayal.

  Laughing and blushing with the White Wolf? As far as he knew, it was betrayal.

  Akiva. The pull to fly to him was its own kind of gravity, but it was only her heart that moved. Her feet stayed rooted, heavy and guilty.

  Akiva’s voice was cold and quick. “We’ve selected a representative council. You might do the same.” He paused, and on his face played the reverse process as that on the Wolf’s. As he stood looking at the pair of them, his humanity retreated, and he was as Karou had first seen him in Marrakesh: soul-dead. “We’re ready when you are.”

  Whenever you’re done blushing by torchlight with the White Wolf.

  And he turned on his heel and was gone before they could reply.

  “Wait,” said Karou, but her voice came out weak, and if he heard her over the wind music, he didn’t turn back. We could tell him, she thought. We could have told him the truth. But the opportunity was lost, and it was as though he took the air with him. For a long second, she couldn’t breathe, and when she did, she tried her best to make it sound measured and normal.

 
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