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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.15
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.15

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

  Mik sat on a stone, head bent over his violin, and his song sounded different here than it had in the kasbah. There, it had floated up into the sky. Here, it echoed.

  Here, it was trapped, like Karou’s heartbeat.

  She felt Zuzana’s head settle on her shoulder. Issa was on her other side, placid and watchful, and the Wolf was stretched out before her, propped up on his elbows by the fire. He looked relaxed. Still elegant, still exquisite, but absent cruelty, absent menace, as if his stolen body’s default expressions were slowly being changed from within. Karou could see the first inklings of a greater beauty beginning to emerge, and she thought of Brimstone’s art meeting Ziri’s soul. It was nothing to do with Thiago now. That monster was gone forever, and if anyone could purge the taint of him, it was Ziri.

  He’d better be careful, though, and not relax too much. Karou took a quick survey of the encircling host, alert especially for Lisseth’s unblinking watchfulness. But she didn’t see Lisseth. There was Nisk, but not his partner, and Nisk was only staring into the fire.

  Karou felt the Wolf’s eyes on her, but didn’t return his look. Her gaze felt a magnetic pull—across the cavern to Akiva. Akiva, Akiva. One more time, she would let herself look. With held breath and, it seemed, a held heartbeat, she made herself pause. It was like an old childhood game of superstition when, exhaling, she thought: If he doesn’t look back this time, I’ve lost him.

  And the possibility brought on an echo of the earlier despair. A candle flame extinguished by a scream.

  She lifted her eyes and looked across the cavern. And…

  … living fire. That was what his eyes were like, greeting hers: a fuse that seared the air between them. He was looking at her. And as far away as he was, and with so much between them—chimaera, seraphim, all the living, all the dead—it felt like touch, that look.

  Like the rays of the sun.

  They looked at each other. They looked, and anyone might notice. Anyone might see. Angel-lover. Beast-lover.

  Let them see.

  It was madness and abandon, but after everything else, Karou couldn’t make herself care enough to look away. Akiva’s eyes were heat and light, and she wanted to stay there forever. Tomorrow, the apocalypse. Tonight, the sun.

  And finally it was Akiva who broke their gaze. He stood up and quietly spoke to the angels around him, and when he wove his way out of the cavern, lingering a moment in the tall, arched entrance, he didn’t look her way again, but Karou still understood. He wanted her to follow him.

  She couldn’t, of course. She’d be seen. The forward caves were Misbegotten domain, and though Lisseth might not be present—where was she?—there were plenty of other chimaera here keeping an eye on her.

  But she had to try. She couldn’t bear the thought of Akiva waiting for her and waiting for her. It felt like a last chance.

  “I’m going to get some sleep,” she said, rising, yawning—it started out fake and quickly became real—and left the cavern by the opposite door as Akiva, the one that led back down to the village.

  But as soon as she was out of view, she glamoured herself invisible and passed right back through the cavern, unseen and drifting in a quiet glide over the assembled heads of two armies, her heart pounding, to find Akiva.

  29

  A DREAM COME TRUE

  “Things can be different,” Karou had told Ziri just before the war council. “That’s the whole point.”

  Was that the point? To build a world in which she could have her lover? Seeing the look that passed between her and Akiva across the cavern, Ziri wondered if that was what he’d given up his own life for.

  “For all of us,” she’d said.

  For him, too? What could be different for him? He’d be free of this body someday, in resurrection or evanescence, one way or the other. There was always that to look forward to.

  He watched Akiva leave and was unsurprised when, a short while later, Karou left, too. Separately, and by different doors, but he had no doubt that they would find each other. He thought back to the Warlord’s ball, all those years ago, and what he’d witnessed then. He’d been just a boy, but it had been as plain as moonlight to him: the way Madrigal’s dancing body had curved away from the Wolf’s but toward the stranger’s. And even if the full, heady complexity of adult intrigues had been a mystery to him, he’d gotten a sense of it—his first, like a hint of fragrance, exotic, intoxicating… frightening.

  Adult intrigues weren’t a mystery to him anymore. They were still intoxicating, and still frightening, and watching Karou and Akiva leave, Ziri felt like a boy again. Left out. Left behind.

  Maybe he would he always feel that way with her, no matter the age of the bodies they wore.

  A figure appeared in the doorway—the one Karou had taken—and for an instant he thought it would be her returning, but it wasn’t. It was Lisseth.

  Ziri hadn’t realized that the Naja wasn’t here with the rest of them, and his first, half-formed thought was one of mild self-disparagement. The real Wolf would have known if any of his troops were unaccounted for. But that thought melted away when he caught the look on Lisseth’s face. It was an unpleasant face at the best of times, crude and broad and host to a limited repertoire of nasty expressions ranging from sly to vicious, but now she looked… stricken.

  The wings of her nostrils flared white, and her lips were pressed to a bloodless crease. Her eyes were unexpectedly unguarded, vulnerable, and there was a stony dignity in the lift of her shoulders, the jut of her blunt chin. She gave him a curt nod, and he rose, curious, and went to her.

  Nisk, the other Naja, saw it all, and joined them in the doorway.

  “What is it?” Ziri asked.

  Her words came out… pinched. She sounded affronted. “Sir, have I done something to displease you?”

  Yes, Ziri wanted to reply. Everything. But though he strongly suspected that she was the oath-breaker who’d raised hamsas to the Misbegotten, she had denied it, and he had no proof. “Not to my knowledge,” he said. “What’s this about?”

  “This command should have been mine. I’ve been waiting for this, and I have more tactical experience. I’m stronger, and when it comes to stealth there’s no contest. To not even be told what you were planning—”

  “What I was—? Soldier, what are you talking about?”

  Lisseth blinked, glanced from him to Nisk and back. “The attack on the seraph, sir. It’s under way now.”

  Did he blanch? Did they see him pale? It was the wrong response. He should have sharpened to cold fury and bared his fangs the instant he realized that his soldiers were, at this very moment, acting without his orders. “This is no plan of mine,” he said, and he saw her face transform. Her indignation vanished. With the understanding that he hadn’t slighted her, she was her vicious self again. “Take me there,” he ordered.

  “Yes, sir,” she said, turning, and, serpent-smooth, she led the way. Ziri followed, with Nisk coming behind.

  Who was it? Ziri asked himself. Lisseth herself with all her acid scrutiny would have been his first guess for a mutineer. Was she? Was this a trap?

  Maybe. And yet he had no choice but to follow. Belatedly it struck him that he should have summoned Ten, and it seemed strange to him that the she-wolf hadn’t followed of her own accord.

  They descended one of the cave system’s many down-wending passages, going beyond the ones he knew, deeper and deeper still. Every time they came around a corner with their torches, big pallid insects skittered away ahead of them, squeezing improbably into cracks in the walls. The caverns were pervaded by a heavy, wet-mineral smell, as oppressive a sensory cloak as the wind music was, but as they progressed, new odors filtered through it, traces teased from the darkness. Animal scents, musky and ripe. Chimaera, a group of them. And a cooked-meat scorch, complete with acrid burning hair, that cramped Ziri’s gut with foreboding. Any chimaera who had gone to battle against seraphim knew the tang of a burning body.

  Ziri’s sense of smell i
n this body was far better than his natural one had been, but he was still learning to unweave the information it gave him and identify the world’s many reeks. Its perfumes, too. More smells were bad than good, in his few days of experience, at least, but the good ones were better than he’d ever realized.

  Here was one now, weaving through the others like a single gold thread in a tapestry, wisp-thin but bell-bright. Spice, he thought. The kind that burns the tongue and leaves in its wake a kind of purity.

  Whoever it was—that it was seraph, he was certain—it was all but blotted out by the overwhelming fug of chimaera musks. Ziri experienced a tightening at the base of his skull. Dread. It was dread.

  What—and who—was he going to find up ahead?

  Karou moved unseen through the passages of her ancestral home. She passed from chimaera domain into seraph. She didn’t know where to look for Akiva, but assumed he would make himself easy to find. If she was right, anyway, that he wanted her to find him.

  A shiver passed through her. She hoped she was right.

  The caverns grew cooler as she moved out toward the entrance hall, and soon she could see her breath cloud before her. One last seraph to get past—it was Elyon, looking weary and hopeless when he thought no one was watching—and she held her breath until he was out of sight so its cloud wouldn’t give her away.

  There were no other seraphim; they were all together, behind her now. There was only Akiva.

  An open door, and there he was. Waiting.

  For a moment Karou couldn’t move. This was the nearest she’d been to him—and the first time they’d been alone—since… since when? Since the day he came to her glamoured, beside the river in Morocco, and gave her the thurible that held Issa’s soul. She’d said terrible things to him that day—that she’d never trusted him, for a start, what a lie—and she had yet to unsay them.

  Still glamoured, she went through the door and saw him raise his head, aware of her. A flush crept up her neck as his searching look swept over her, even if he couldn’t see her. He was so beautiful, and so intent. She could feel the heat coming off him.

  She could feel the longing coming off him.

  “Karou?” he asked, very softly.

  She pushed the door closed and released her glamour.

  It was almost a relief to have her anger vindicated. Even on her knees, sick from the sustained assault of close-range hamsas, Liraz was able to think, without passion or triumph, that the world made sense again. This was why the beasts had left her alone that night in the open, when she’d stayed behind with them of her own free will. Because they’d been biding their time.

  There were four of them. Three stood with hamsas upheld, assaulting her with magic. The fourth hefted a big, double-sided ax.

  Of course, that didn’t include the three who lay dead between them—so freshly dead their hearts didn’t know it yet and their blood was still escaping in arterial spurts, like water from a hand pump.

  “You shouldn’t have done that,” said the leader of this little band of assassins, stepping over the corpses of her comrades, her wolfish grin unwavering.

  Ten.

  Liraz didn’t know why she should be surprised that Thiago’s she-wolf lieutenant was her attacker, but she was. Had she actually begun to believe that the White Wolf had found honor? What idiocy. She wondered where he was now, and why he was missing out on the fun. “Believe it or not,” drawled Ten, “we weren’t going to kill you.”

  “I have to go with or not on that.” They’d stalked her in the dark, and Liraz had no doubt that her life was at stake.

  “Ah, but it’s true. We just wanted to play your game.”

  For a beat, Liraz didn’t know what she was talking about. It was hard to think through the thrum and drub of magic, but then it came to her. Her getting-acquainted game. Which of us killed which of you in previous bodies. The sickness in her gut deepened, and it wasn’t just because of the hamsas. Of course, she thought. Wasn’t this exactly what she’d imagined would happen? This had been her point, imagining the game, which she’d certainly found no humor in. “Don’t tell me,” she said. “I killed you once. Or was it more than once?”

  “Once was enough,” said Ten.

  “So what now? Am I supposed to apologize?”

  Ten laughed. Her smile glittered. “You should. You really should. However, since I can’t imagine you give apologies, I’ll just have your trophies instead. You might still live a long and happy life without them. Probably not, but that’s your own affair.”

  Her hands, she meant. They were going to cut off her hands. Well, they were going to try.

  “So come do it,” said Liraz, spitting derision.

  “There’s no hurry,” was Ten’s reply.

  Not for them, maybe. Liraz was getting weaker with every second they held their hamsas out to her, and that was the point. Damned devil’s eyes. This was their coward plan: weaken her before they hacked her up.

  It wasn’t their original plan, but three dead in under a minute had prompted them to reconsider.

  Three bodies. A stupid, bloody waste. The sight of them made Liraz want to scream. Why did you make me do this?

  Ten closed in. Flanking her were two Dracands, lizard aspect, with great ruffs of scaled flesh flaring from their necks like grotesque courtier’s collars. Their hands were upheld, hamsas pounding misery into the base of Liraz’s skull, and it was taking all of her focus to keep her trembling from entirely overtaking her. She knew she wouldn’t be able to for very much longer. Soon, the magic would have her juddering like palsy.

  The powerlessness was infuriating, and humiliating, and dire. Now, she told herself. If she was to have any chance of getting out of this, she had to act now. The magic of the three pairs of hamsas pulsed at her like sledgehammers.

  A single clear thought filtered through her pain: My hands are weapons, too.

  She lunged.

  Ten blocked, catching her by one wrist, and the magic, it shrieked into Liraz from the point of contact, screaming sickness into her sinews, her flesh and bone and mind. Relentless. Crashing waves of shuddering. White-hot as flaying. Weakness like a scouring wind. Godstars. Liraz thought it would eat her alive, reduce her to ashes or to nothingness.

  Ten held her wrist, but Liraz’s other hand made it through. She pressed her own palm flat to Ten’s chest, screaming back, a wordless roar right in the chimaera’s face as… the fire stoked. And smoked.

  And charred.

  The lank gray fur at the she-wolf’s chest caught fire. The smell was immediate and foul, and called Liraz straight back to the corpse bonfires in Loramendi. She almost lost her concentration, but managed to just hold on as her hand scorched through the chimaera’s fur and into her flesh.

  Ten’s grimace widened, and she let loose a roar to match Liraz’s. They were eye-to-eye and hands to flesh, roaring their fury and agony right in each other’s faces until another set of hands seized Liraz and ripped her away, throwing her so hard into a stone wall that she blinked in and out of darkness and found herself flat on her back, gasping.

  That was the end of her chance.

  In and out of darkness, she felt hands seize her arms before she glimpsed the faces bent over her—the two Dracands. Their mouths were open and hissing, deeply red and reeking, as they muscled her upright once more, the fabric of her long sleeves making a poor barrier between their palms and her flesh.

  Her inked flesh, her terrible hidden tally.

  Once again she was eye-to-eye with Ten. The she-wolf had lost her grin and was spectacular with hatred—her wolf muzzle ruched in a snarl that no human or seraph visage could ever match for viciousness. She said, “We’re not done with the game yet. So far I’m winning, and if you don’t have a turn, it’s hardly a game, is it? I remember you, angel, but do you remember me?”

  Liraz didn’t. All the kills she’d sliced into her arms with campfire soot and a hot knife—at the best of times they were a blur, and now was not the best of times. How
many wolf-aspect chimaera might Liraz have slain in the decades of her life? The godstars only knew. “I never said I’d be any good at the game,” she choked out.

  “I’ll give you a hint,” said Ten. The hint was a single word, riding a snarl of hate. It was a place.

  “Savvath.”

  The word sliced Liraz’s memory open, and blood spilled out. Savvath. It was a long time ago, but she hadn’t forgotten it—not the village, or what had happened just outside it. She’d just hidden it from herself, like a torn-out page—except that if it were a torn-out page, she’d have burned it.

  You couldn’t burn memories.

  There was the memory of what she’d done to a dying enemy long ago, and there was the memory of how her brothers had looked at her after. For a long time after.

  “That was you?” she heard herself ask, her voice hoarse. She hadn’t meant to speak. It was the sickness. Her defenses were down. And… it was Savvath. If the great bulk of the obscene hundreds of chimaera Liraz had slain in her life were a blur, that one wasn’t, and the simple word, Savvath, brought it all back.

  But something didn’t match. “It wasn’t you,” Liraz said, shaking her head to clear it. “That soldier was—”

  Fox aspect, she was going to say, but Ten cut her off. “That soldier was me. It was my first death, did you know that? It was my natural flesh you desecrated, and this, of course, is just a vessel. Your game favors us, angel. How could you know who we are by looking? You don’t stand a chance.”

  “You’re right,” agreed Liraz, and her head felt like a kaleidoscope of ground glass—churning, churning.

  “New game,” said Ten, taunting. “If you win, you keep your hands. All you have to do is tell me who every single one of your marks is for.”

 
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