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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.18
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.18

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

  Ziri faced straight ahead and didn’t lean or turn to try to breathe it in, but even so, walking in the darkness, dragging a corpse and carrying an angel who would probably gut him for touching her as soon as she recovered—if she recovered—that secret perfume made him conscious of the claws on his fingers, the fangs in his mouth, and all the ways he was not himself. He wore a monster’s skin, and it felt like a violation to even breathe a woman in through its senses, let alone touch her with its hands.

  Still he carried her, and still he breathed—because he couldn’t not—and he gave thanks to Nitid, goddess of life—and to Lisseth, whose intentions had been far less pure—for leading him to her in time. He only wished he could have gotten there sooner and spared her the unknown depths of damage the hamsas may have worked in her. Could she possibly be well enough to fly with the rest of them in a few hours’ time? Unlikely. If there was something he could do for her…

  Almost at the moment this thought formed, he reached a branching of the passages and realized where he was, and it was the completion of the thought. If there was something he could do for her, he would.

  And there was. And so he did.

  He turned and took a secondary passage, depositing the she-wolf’s corpse in the entrance to the thermal pools before carrying Liraz to the water’s edge. The healing waters—were they only good for scrapes and bruises? Ziri didn’t know. He had to shift the angel into both arms to carry her into the pool, and when he lowered her into the water, darkness closed in on him and he knew a moment’s panic, thinking that her wings had burned out.

  But no. A faint glow lit the water from below; her fire still burned, ember-dim. He eased his hold until he was barely touching her—just his arm beneath the nape of her neck to keep her face above the surface—and he waited, watching her lips and eyelids for some hint of movement. And… so gradually he didn’t at first notice it, the underwater glow brightened, so that by the time Liraz finally moved, Ziri could make out not just the chalk-green cast of the water and the pink of the hanging veils of moss, but the flush of the angel’s cheeks, and the dark gold of her lashes as they fluttered and slowly opened. And fixed on him.

  He remembered her words to him back at the kasbah. “We haven’t been introduced,” he had said, to which she’d replied, in hot rebuke, “You know who I am, and I know who you are, and that will serve.”

  She didn’t know, though. And he wanted her to.

  “We haven’t been introduced,” he said again, as she found her footing under the surface of the soft, dark water. “Not really.”

  32

  CAKE FOR LATER

  “If we live that long.”

  It wasn’t what Karou wanted to say. Not even close. In fact, she didn’t want to say anything. Akiva stood facing her from across the stone table, his eyes still full of forever, and all she wanted to do was climb up onto the slab and meet him in the middle. But since when did she get to have what she wanted? Akiva wanted to spend forever with her? It was… it was sun flares and thunderclaps inside her, but it was also like a piece of cake set aside for later. A taunt.

  Finish your dinner and you can have your cake.

  If you don’t die.

  “We’ll live that long,” he said, ardent and certain. “We’ll survive this. We’ll win this.”

  “I wish I could be as sure as you are,” she said, but she was thinking: armies angels portals weapons war.

  “Be sure. Karou, I won’t let anything happen to you. After everything, and… now… I’m not letting you out of my sight.” After a pause and in the midst of a sweet and bashful blush—as if he was still not certain he was reading her right, or that his now was what he hoped it was—Akiva added, “As long as you want me with you.”

  “I want me with you,” she said at once. She heard the mix-up of her words—me with you—but didn’t correct herself. It was exactly what she meant. “But I can’t be with you. Not yet. It’s already decided. Separate battalions, remember?”

  “I remember. But I have something to tell you, too. Or better, to show you. I think it might help.” And he sat on the table and swung his legs up, moving to the center and beckoning her to join him.

  She did, and felt the temperature rise with his nearness. No more barrier between them. She curled her legs beneath her—the stone was cool—and wondered what this was about. It was no echo of her wanting. He didn’t reach for her, but only regarded her with a half-hesitant intensity. “Karou, do you think the chimaera would consent to mixed battalions?” he asked.

  What? “If Thiago commanded it, they would. But what does it matter? Your brothers and sisters won’t. They were pretty clear on that.”

  “I know,” he said. “Because of the hamsas. Because you have a weapon against which we have no defense.”

  She nodded. Her own hamsas were flat against the slab; it was becoming second nature to conceal the eyes in the presence of seraphim, to guard against accidental assault, but it was precarious. She said, “Our hands are enemies even if we aren’t,” and her tone was light but her heart was not. She didn’t want any part of herself to be Akiva’s enemy.

  “But what if they weren’t?” he persisted. “I think I could persuade the Misbegotten to integrate. It makes sense, Karou. One-on-one, the Dominion are no match for us, but it’s not one-on-one, and even without any unforeseen advantage they may have gained, our numbers are strained. Chimaera in our battalions would not only increase our strength, but decrease the enemy’s. And there’s the psychological advantage, too. It will throw them off balance to see us together.” He paused. “It’s the best use of our two armies.”

  Where was he going with this? “Maybe you should have told Elyon and Orit that,” she said.

  “I will tell them. If you agree, and… if it works.”

  “If what works?”

  Still looking at her with that half-hesitant intensity, Akiva reached out very slowly, and, with one fingertip light against her cheek, hooked a loose strand of her hair and pushed it behind her ear. The tiny touch sparked and blazed, but the spark and blaze were subsumed by a deeper, fuller fire when he brought the whole of his palm against her cheek. His gaze was vivid, hopeful, and searching, and the touch was whisper-light, and it was… a taste of the cake Karou couldn’t have. It was more than a taunt. It was a torment. She wanted to turn her face and press her lips to Akiva’s palm, and then his wrist, to follow the path of his pulse to its source.

  To his heart. His chest, his solidity. His arms around her, that’s what she wanted, and… she wanted movement that spoke to movement, skin to skin and sweat to heat to breath to gasp. Oh god. His touch made her foolish. It spliced her right out of real life with its drumbeat of armies angels portals weapons war and into that paradise they’d imagined long ago—the one that was like a jewel box waiting for them to find it and fill it with their happiness.

  Fantasy. Even if they made it to “forever,” it wouldn’t be paradise, but a war-ravaged world with much to learn and unlearn. Work to do and pain to tithe and… and… And cake, Karou thought with defiance. There could be life, around the edges. Akiva every day, in work and in pain, yes, but in love, too.

  Cake as a way of life.

  And she did turn her face, and she did press her lips to Akiva’s palm, and she felt a shudder go through him and knew that the distance between them was far less than this arm span of physical space. How easy to tip into it and lose herself in a small and temporary paradise…

  “Do you remember?” he asked, and his voice was hoarse. “This is the beginning.” And his touch traced down her cheek and down her neck, and it was fire and magic, kindling every atom of her. His fingertips stopped at her clavicle and his palm came down to rest, light as a shawl of hummingbird-moths, against her heart.

  “Of course I do,” she said, as hoarse as he was.

  “Then give me your hand.” He reached for it and she gave it. He drew it toward himself, and Karou’s eyes were on the V of his neckline, the triangle of his
chest, and already in her mind she was sliding her hand under the fabric to rest her palm against his heart.…

  Stop.

  Distantly, she recognized the danger and resisted, curling her hand into a fist. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

  “Trust me,” he said. His half-hesitation had melted away when her lips touched his palm, and now there was only the intensity, and the pull—as if, at this distance, their magnets had engaged and could only be wrenched apart by the most committed resistance. Karou’s resistance was not committed. She wanted to touch Akiva like she wanted to breathe. So she let him guide her hand, and when her knuckles brushed his collar, she took over her own part in reenacting the memory—“We are the beginning.”—uncurling her fingers and slipping them under the edge of the fabric to his chest. Akiva’s chest. Akiva’s skin. It was alive under her fingertips and she wanted to follow them with her lips. Her desire was mind-melting, and that was why it took her a long, delirious beat, her hand—her palm—full against his skin, to understand.

  Her touch didn’t hurt him.

  With wonder in her voice, she asked, “Akiva… how?”

  His hand covered hers and held it against him, and she felt the heat in her hamsa as she always did in the presence of seraphim, a prickling sensation, but Akiva didn’t flinch or recoil or tremble. He smiled. The arm span between them had shortened—from the length of his arm to the length of hers, and he shortened it further, leaning toward her, bowing his head and twisting as he whispered, “Magic,” and showed her what he had done.

  On the back of his neck was a mark that Karou knew had not been there before. It was low, half-hidden by his collar, but she could see what it was: an eye. A closed eye. His own magic to counteract Brimstone’s. It wasn’t indigo like a hamsa; it wasn’t a tattoo, but a scar. “When did you do this?” she asked.

  “Tonight.”

  She traced the fine raised lines of flesh with her fingertip. “It’s already healed.”

  He nodded, settling back and raising his head again. And though Karou had begun to get an inkling of what Akiva might be capable of, it still astonished her. The fact that he had scarred and healed himself in a matter of hours was extraordinary, but it was nothing next to the magic it made. He had effectively negated the chimaera’s most powerful weapon—after resurrection, that is, if that could be counted a weapon. Maybe it should have terrified her, but right now, terror wasn’t what Karou was feeling.

  “I can touch you,” she marveled, and she couldn’t—or at least didn’t—resist the urge to further prove it by sliding her palm over the hot-smooth terrain of his chest until she felt as if she were holding his heartbeat in her hand.

  “As much as you want,” he said, and there was a trembling in him, but it wasn’t from pain.

  Skin and forever made for a potent combination, and the real reason Akiva had conjured this magic was as good as forgotten, and so was everything else outside the pulse of their two heartbeats—

  —until it turned up at the door.

  An unlikelier sight could scarcely have been imagined: shoulder-to-shoulder and dripping wet, stalking through passages with silent purpose and crossing from chimaera domain into seraph by way of a straight shot across the main cavern where nearly everyone was gathered… Thiago and Liraz, dragging the corpse of Ten behind them.

  Every voice ceased. Mik had set down his violin some time earlier and was lying with his head in Zuzana’s lap until her gasp served to lurch him upright.

  Issa had reared high on her coil and looked more than ever like a serpent goddess from some ancient temple, and all around them the chimaera host were rising or half rising, alert and ready to fight should they be called upon. But they weren’t. The pair marched past, eyes fixed ahead and expressions matching grim, and were gone again, passing by the seraph guard at the far door without a pause or a word of explanation.

  Finding Akiva’s door still closed, Liraz gave a chuff of derision and didn’t knock but only crashed it open and glared at the sight that greeted them. Akiva and Karou, eyes bleary with desire, facing each other on a stone slab and touching, hands to hearts.

  Some would say that Ellai—goddess of assassins and secret lovers—had been afoot this night, gliding through the passages, busy at mischief and narrow salvation. A few moments one side or the other and Liraz might be dead, or Karou and Akiva caught in a deeper compromise than a bleary-eyed desire fugue with their hands to each other’s hearts. Another moment, and they might have kissed.

  But Ellai was a fickle patroness and had failed them—spectacularly—before. Karou didn’t believe in gods anymore, and when the door crashed open, there were only Liraz and the Wolf to blame for it.

  “Well,” Liraz said, her voice as dry as the rest of her was not. “At least you still have your clothes on.”

  And thank god for that, thought Karou, snatching her hand out of Akiva’s shirt. Instantly she felt the chill of the chamber. How quickly her body adjusted to Akiva’s temperature and made everything else seem cold by contrast. It took a few blinks for her daze to clear, to register the details of wet clothing plastered to skin and the plink of drips, not to mention the waft of sulfur.

  Ziri had taken Liraz to bathe at the thermal pools? Well, that was… weird. Fully clothed? Okay, that was less weird than the alternative, but it was all just too weird, and then the Wolf hefted something across the threshold and everything came into focus.

  A corpse. “The oath-breaker,” said the Wolf.

  Ten. Haxaya.

  What?

  Karou unfurled from her perch on the stone table and boosted off the edge to drop down beside the body. At once she saw the scorched handprint on the she-wolf’s chest and looked up at Liraz, who greeted her with a deader-even-than-usual stare.

  Akiva joined her beside the body, and in a matter of seconds the corridor was filled with seraphim and also chimaera who’d transgressed the boundary to see what was happening. It was almost funny, that an act of violence like this should in some way be the trigger for the armies’ freer intermingling. Almost funny, but so very not.

  It was another powder keg, a lit match poised to fall on it. The next few moments were a scramble of questions and answers. The Wolf told them what had happened, maintaining the deception in every detail. Ten had done this. And Ten had died. As for Haxaya, Karou tried to process the fact of her part in it. She had known her well. As Madrigal, she had fought beside her, and trusted her. She was wild but not unpredictable. Not stupid. In making her part of the deception, Karou had trusted all their lives to her. “Why would she do it?” she asked, and she didn’t expect an answer. She was asking the air, but it was Liraz who answered.

  “It was personal,” said the angel. She faced Akiva, and something in her dead stare gave way. The change in her in that instant, Karou thought, was like the change that Ziri brought to the Wolf’s face, though the reason could of course not be the same. It wasn’t somebody else looking out through Liraz’s eyes. It was the mask slipping, and that softer, almost girlish face that she revealed was herself. She said, “Savvath,” and Akiva, letting out a hard breath, nodded understanding.

  Karou knew the name. As in: Savvath, battle of. It was a village on the western shores of the Bay of Beasts, or it had been, once. It was before her time.

  To Thiago, her face angled toward him but her eyes downcast, Liraz said, “What you do with her soul is your affair, but you should know, I don’t blame her. I deserved her vengeance.”

  And Thiago made some reply, but Karou heard it in a state of distraction. Something was tickling at her mind. She kept looking from Ten’s body to Liraz, from the scorched black handprint on the she-wolf’s chest to the angel’s tally, all but concealed by her sleeves, pulled down over the heels of her hands.

  Our hands are enemies, even if we aren’t, recalled Karou.

  And the angels all went quietly home and no one died. The end.

  Her heart started to pound. An idea was taking shape. She didn’t give voice
to it, but let its traceries unfurl, following them and searching for defects, anticipating what the arguments would be against it. Could it be this simple? The voices around her muted to a murmur and ran soft under the layer of her thoughts. It could and should be this simple. The plan as it stood was worse than complicated. It was messy. She looked around at the gathered faces: Akiva, Liraz, and the Wolf in the room with her, Elyon and Issa in the doorway, and the shifting figures behind them visible only as a shuffle of fire feathers and furred haunches, black armor and red chitin, smooth flesh and rough, side by side.

  All ready to fly into battle, to enact for humanity the apocalypse of its dreams and nightmares.

  Or maybe not.

  It wasn’t Akiva or the Wolf who first noticed the change in Karou’s manner—the straightening of her posture, the brightness of her exhilaration. It was Liraz. “What’s come over you?” she asked, in a tone of chagrined curiosity.

  It was apt, that it was Liraz. “If you think of a better idea, I’m sure you’ll let us know,” she’d said at the end of the war council, scornful and dismissive. And now Karou fixed her with the strength of her own certainty. Her desperation had become conviction, and it felt like steel.

  “I’ve thought of a better idea,” she said. “Reconvene the council. Now.”

  Once upon a time,

  a girl went to see a monster menagerie

 
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