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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.17
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.17

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

  “They wouldn’t follow anybody but Thiago, at least not yet,” she said. “That was clear. We needed him. This army did, and our people did, but… we needed a better him.”

  Better.

  And Akiva recalled his impression of the Wolf with whom he’d negotiated this alliance. Intelligent, powerful, and sane, that was what he’d thought at the time, never imagining the reason for it.

  Finally, the pieces snapped into place and he understood. Somehow, Karou had put a different soul into the Wolf’s body. “Who?” he asked. “Who is it?”

  A wave of grief passed over her face. “It’s Ziri,” she said, and when he didn’t react to the name, she added, “The Kirin whose life you saved.”

  The young Kirin, the last of the tribe. So he wasn’t dead, not exactly. “But… how?” Akiva asked, unable to imagine the chain of events that had created such a situation.

  Karou was silent a moment, and faraway. “Thiago attacked me,” she said, reaching up to touch the cheek that had been swollen and abraded when Akiva flew to her in Morocco, he and Liraz bearing Hazael’s body between them. She was nearly healed now. She looked like she might say more about it, but didn’t. The press of her lips stilled a trembling, and Akiva remembered his full fury at the sight of her brutalized. His fists remembered it, and his heart and gut remembered, too, the unfathomable look of tenderness that had passed between her and the Wolf that night at the kasbah, and it finally made sense.

  It didn’t comfort him, though.

  “He attacked me and I killed him,” she went on. “And I didn’t know what to do. I knew the others would make me resurrect him if they found us, and I couldn’t face it. If things had been bad before, what would they be like after that? I don’t know what I would’ve done.…” She trailed off.

  Then her eyes came clear again, focusing keenly on him. Improbably, she smiled. It wasn’t the radiant unfurling of her last smile, but another species entirely, small and sudden and surprised. “As much as I’ve thought about it,” she said, “I didn’t get it, until right now, how it all comes back to you.”

  “Me?” he asked with a jolt.

  “You brought me Issa and Ziri both,” she said. “If it weren’t for you, I would have had no allies, and no chance.”

  Again, the weight of her words—of her gratitude—stirred Akiva’s deepest shame. “If it weren’t for me, Karou, you’d have a lot more allies.” A lot more. How many corpses weighed in those words? Loramendi. Thousands upon thousands.

  “Stop doing that,” she said in frustration. “Akiva. I meant what I said, about forgiving. It’s the only way forward. When the Wolf was still the Wolf, I tried reasoning with him, that his way was death. He wouldn’t hear me. He couldn’t. He was too far gone. But I kept finding your words in my mouth while I argued with him, and I knew that however far you’d gone, you had come back. And… it helped bring me back.”

  His words? Akiva had none now. This was all so far from what he’d feared she was going to tell him that he couldn’t get his mind around it.

  “You said it depended on us, whether the future would have chimaera in it,” she told him. “And it wasn’t only words. You saved Ziri’s life. If you hadn’t, we couldn’t be here now. You would be dead, and I… I would be the Wolf’s…” She didn’t finish. Again, a shadow of horror darkened her look, leaving Akiva to imagine what exactly those simple words—Thiago attacked me—encompassed.

  The flare of his rage threatened to blind him. He had to force it aside and remind himself, breathing, that the object of it was gone. Thiago couldn’t be punished. If anything, this only made the rage hotter. “I wasn’t there to protect you,” he said. “I should never have left you there with him—”

  “I protected myself,” Karou cut in. “It was after that I needed help, and Ziri was there, and now we’re here, all of us. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

  The horror had left her; the brightness in her eyes was tears, and the curve of her lips was gratitude, and Akiva experienced a surge of self-loathing when he caught himself wondering who the brightness and gratitude were for.

  He saw again the look of tenderness that had passed between her and the impostor Wolf back at the kasbah, and saw again the way they’d stood together laughing just the day before.

  Godstars. He would be dead right now if the Wolf had been the Wolf, and yet he could stand here and worry whether this “intelligent, powerful, sane” Thiago, this heroic Kirin who was Karou’s closest ally, was a greater threat to his own hopes than a murdering, torturing maniac had been? There were armies poised to fly, and he was worried about who Karou might love?

  “But even that’s not the end of it,” she said. “You brought me Issa, and you can’t imagine what else you brought with her, but… Akiva, it made the difference.” Her eyes were so bright, their black gloss like a mirror for the fire of his wings. “It’s Loramendi. It’s… it’s not redemption, not completely, but it’s a start. Or it will be, when we can get there.”

  And then she told him about the cathedral.

  The magnitude of the news… it struck Akiva dumb and erased all his petty worries.

  Brimstone had had a cathedral beneath the city—Akiva hadn’t found it when he walked in a daze through the ruins, because it had been buried, its entrances collapsed and disguised. And in it, in stasis, were souls. Souls uncounted. Children, women. The souls of thousands of chimaera who hadn’t yet gone beyond hope of retrieval.

  Akiva had told Karou, back in Morocco, that he would do anything—that he would die a death for every slain chimaera if it would bring them back. He’d said it in the bleakness of believing the words were hollow, that there was nothing he could ever do to prove that he meant them. But… there was.

  “Let me help you,” he said at once. “Karou… please. So many souls, you can’t do it alone.” She’d said it wasn’t quite redemption? It was so much closer than he’d ever thought he’d come to it. And if redemption was self-serving, coming as it did ribbon-tied to what he wanted most in life? For once, Akiva’s shame wouldn’t rise to the bait. He wanted what he’d always wanted, and he’d better just say it, his own worries and fears be damned. Whoever she loved, him or the Wolf or no one, he would find out. “It’s all I want, to be beside you, helping you. If it takes forever, all the better, if it’s forever with you.”

  And the stone table was between them, a barrier, but there could be no barrier to the smile that was her answer. It was another new species, and Akiva thought that he could spend a thousand years with her—please—and still be discovering new species of smiles. This one was unbearable, sweet as music and heavy as tears. It was all her tension, all her wariness and uncertainty, melting into light.

  It was her heart, this smile, and it was for him.

  “Okay,” she said. Her voice was small, but the word was bright and heavy, like something he could reach for, and hold.

  Okay. Okay, he could help her? Okay to forever?

  Okay.

  If that could have been the end of it. Or the beginning. If they could fly together now to Loramendi. Let forever begin now. But of course it couldn’t. Karou spoke again, and her voice was still small, still bright and heavy, but if her okay had been serene and sun-warmed and smooth as a stone, her next words had thorns.

  “If we live that long,” she said.

  31

  THE OPPOSITE OF SURVIVAL

  Ziri stood in the doorway. In a glance, he perceived the situation.

  Three of his soldiers were dead at his feet. Oora, Sihid, Ves. Wasted flesh, wasted pain, and more blood to walk through. Of those still living, Rark loomed largest, his great ax glinting in the dim, but Ziri’s eyes cut straight to Liraz. Her wingfire burned low—it burned dying low—but she was still the brightest thing in the room. She was shudder-wracked and waxen white, empty-eyed and hollowed out, and she was… laughing? Crying? A horrible sound. She was hemmed in by chimaera, held up by them, and only their grip could be keeping her upright in such a state
keeping her upright and killing her at the same time.

  Could a seraph die from the touch of hamsas? One sight of Liraz, and Ziri thought yes. But that wasn’t how they meant to kill her. They held her arms stretched out before her, and in that first glance, Ziri thought he understood.

  Rark. The ax. They were going to cut off her arms.

  But the ax was at rest against Rark’s thick shoulder, and… the truth came together out of shreds. Sound, sight, odor. The snarl. Slaver strung from yellow fangs, and the reek of triumph. Ten.

  That fact hit Ziri like a sucker punch, driving the breath from him. It was Ten. Oh Nitid, oh Ellai, no. Of all the soldiers under his command… his fellow trespasser, his co-conspirator. The one who knew his secret.

  She was poised to lunge. And though her body was more human than not, right now her back humped wolflike above her lowered head, fur bristling at the ridge of her shoulders, and the sound of her growl was animal and guttural—felt as much as heard. The room reeked of blood and bowels and burning, hot and close and dead. Corpses and vengeance and no turning back. And Ziri knew what Ten—Haxaya—meant to do.

  “Stop.” It was the White Wolf’s voice, smooth and cold as iron, but it was underscored by a horror that was purely Ziri’s. This scene would not have horrified the Wolf, who had ripped apart angels with his own sharp teeth. And once the immediate threat was averted and Ten had swung around to face him, Ziri wasn’t sure why it horrified him as profoundly as it did. He didn’t kill with his teeth, but he’d fought alongside many chimaera who did—and with beaks and claws and horns and spiked tails, and any other weapon at their disposal. Against the superior might of the seraphim, it was a matter of survival.

  But this wasn’t. This was the opposite of survival.

  This was everything put at risk: the alliance, of course, but the deception, too. Because it was Ten.

  Because it was Ten, Ziri stood stiff and silent as Rark and the Dracands spun to face him, too, and Nisk and Lisseth drew up behind him. Because it was Ten, he didn’t know what to say. He felt Haxaya peering out at him through the she-wolf’s yellow eyes, and there was no fear in her, only a sly and roguish contempt.

  I dare you, she might well have said. Punish me, and I’ll punish you. Impostor.

  His heart was pounding. He fought to slow it. The Naja could read heat signatures, as serpents could; Nisk and Lisseth would be able to sense his turmoil, and Thiago simply did not fall prey to turmoil. Ziri forced his features to hold the Wolf’s default expression of cool, half-lidded appraisal.

  “What is the meaning of this, lieutenant?” he asked, low and deadly calm.

  Rark’s head gave a small jerk of surprise, and the Dracands, Wiwul and Agwilal, turned hooded looks on Ten. Clearly, she’d told them this was their general’s order, and they’d had no reason to doubt her. She was his second in command, his most trusted lieutenant.

  Not anymore.

  “It’s vengeance,” said Ten, omitting sir. It was stark disrespect, and, he knew, a warning. “This angel is a wicked one. Look at her arms.”

  He did look, and was sickened by what he saw—by her extraordinary tally, but by her anguish, too. He didn’t know Liraz, of course. She was beautiful, but what of that? Most seraphim were. She was also hostile and hot-tempered and at full strength she more than matched Ten for ferocity. But he had seen her broken and mourning, too, holding her dead brother in her arms, all that ferocity stripped away to reveal a raw girl. And he had seen something else in her.

  Back at the kasbah, to his surprise, she had asked after him—himself, Ziri—in such a way as made clear that… she had noticed his absence. That she had even been aware of his existence was a surprise to him, and then, when he’d told her the Kirin soldier was dead, he had seen—he was certain—a flicker of sorrow in her eyes, there and gone again, like something escaped and quickly recaptured.

  Of course, that wasn’t why he couldn’t allow his soldiers to kill or mutilate her in this remote cave—there were a lot bigger and less personal reasons for that. But it might be why a fury was rising in him, as cold as he imagined the real Wolf’s anger would be, and quick to extinguish his turmoil under a layer of implacable purpose. His heartbeat evened out to a calm and heavy hammerfall.

  “Release her,” he said, with a flick of his disinterested gaze in her direction. Her eyes were just whites now, rolling up under her fluttering lashes at the edge of consciousness—or life. “Or she’ll be dead before you can explain yourselves.”

  Wiwul and Agwilal let go of her at once, and she collapsed against the wall, but only partially, because Ten still held her wrists. A direct order ignored, in the presence of others. So she was going to challenge him. “Explain ourselves?” she asked, mock-innocent with an edge of acid. “What about you… sir?” This sir was worse than none, a bald affront that the Wolf would never abide. “Would you care to explain yourself?”

  He heard the intake of breath from behind him—Nisk or Lisseth, stunned by her insubordination. Rark was staring with tusks agape, and Ziri didn’t have to ponder what the real Wolf would do. He knew, and it felt like slipping in blood, to do what the Wolf would. One slip and down you go. The blood coats you. The blood is your life now. But what choice did he have?

  His awareness heightened—of the unnatural strength in his borrowed flesh, of the malice and mischief in Ten’s eyes, and of the weight of the future bearing down on all of them if she gave him away.

  How could she be so stupid?

  It felt like whip-crack, the sliver of an instant it took him to reach her. To lay hands to her head, one behind and one to her muzzle.

  And snap her neck.

  There wasn’t even time for surprise. With the sound—it wasn’t a snap but a grinding and giving way punctuated by a string of firecracker pops—her eyes went void. No more malice, no more mischief, no more threat, and though the moment before her muscles fell slack felt long, it couldn’t have been more than a second. She fell, and falling, dropped Liraz’s wrists at last, and Liraz fell, too, leading with her cheek to the floor as if she’d long ago lost sense of up and down. Ziri absorbed his own flinch at the impact of her landing, and made himself ignore her as she lay there, her wingfire burning ever dimmer and her trembling the only sign that she still lived.

  He faced his soldiers and said, as though there had been no interruption to the conversation, “No, I would not care to explain myself.” His look dared them to be the next to demand it.

  Rark was the first to speak. “Sir, we… Ten said it was your order. We would never—”

  “I believe you, soldier,” he cut in. Rark looked relieved.

  It was too soon for relief.

  “I believe that you did, in fact, think that I would be this stupid.” Ziri breathed the last through clenched teeth. “Mere hours until we’re to fly, desperately outnumbered, into battle, and you believe that I would rob my army of strength at the time of greatest need.” He flung a hand out to the dead he’d stepped over in the doorway. “That I would waste bodies that others paid for with their pain. That I would risk every plan I have put in place, and for what? For one angel? You think that I’m stupid enough to cast everything away, rather than wait… a few hours… to engage the thousand angels who are the true and immediate threat. Is this supposed to make me feel better?”

  No one answered him, and he shook his head in slow disgust. “The order you followed countermanded every order that you have heard from my own lips, and if you had been able to think further than the jut of your own teeth, you would have questioned it. You did this because you wanted to. Maybe we all want to, but some of us are masters of our desires, and some are slaves, and I had thought you wiser than this.”

  Lest Lisseth feel herself clear of his excoriation, he turned to her. “It’s a small grace that Ten didn’t see fit to invite you on her crusade, as you’ve left me in no doubt that you would have complied with eagerness. You’re spared the sentence of your comrades, but we both know it was only circ
umstance that saved you, not wisdom.”

  At the mention of a sentence, Rark, Wiwul, and Agwilal stiffened, and Ziri drew out an uncomfortable silence before putting them out of their misery. “You have lost my confidence,” he said, “and are stripped of rank. You will fight in the coming battle, and if you survive, you will tithe pain to the resurrection of your comrades until such a time as I deem your sins purged. Do you accept this?”

  “Yes, sir,” they said, Nisk and Lisseth, too, five voices blending into one.

  “Then get out of my sight, and take those three with you.” Oora, Sihid, Ves. “Glean their souls and dispose of their bodies, then wait for me at the resurrection chamber. Tell no one what has happened here. Am I clear?”

  Again, a chorus of yes, sirs.

  Ziri arranged his face in a look of resignation, a subtle lip curl hinting at distaste. “I will take care of these two.” Ten and Liraz, one living, one dead. He said it darkly, and let the others imagine what they would. He grabbed Ten by the furred scruff of the neck, and Liraz by one arm, roughly—though he kept her bunched sleeve between his hamsa and her skin—as though both were corpses to be dragged down the passageway like cargo. He wouldn’t be able to hold a torch, but with the dim flame of Liraz’s wings, he didn’t need one.

  If she died, he would be in darkness.

  And darkness would be the least of his worries.

  “Go!” he snarled, and the soldiers went, scrambling for the dead, grabbing them and hauling them, leaving blood streaks in their wake, and it was only after they were gone that Ziri readjusted his hold on Liraz, lifting her easily—and gently—with one arm. It felt wrong and far too intimate to rest her body against his own—Not my own, he thought with a shudder—so he kept a space between them, even though it proved awkward as he maneuvered toward the door, all the more so for trying not to hurt her further with his own hamsas.

  When he shifted his grip on Ten to navigate the turning, Liraz’s head tipped and fell heavily against his, her brow to his jaw, and Ziri felt the fever heat of a seraph’s skin for the first time before he eased it away, and he breathed up close the scent that he had followed from afar. The spice note was bright, and like a burst of heat it seared a path for something much more subtle and unexpected—the most secret of perfumes, natural, he had no doubt, and so faint his Kirin nose could never have detected it, not even as close as this. It was barely there at all, but in the hint of its existence it was as fragile as night blossoms—not too sweet but just enough, like the dew on a requiem bud in the palest hour of dawn.

 
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