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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.21
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.21

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

  Don’t do this, oh no, not this, he could have said. Or everyone will die.

  “And I might have,” he added in Seraphic, “if you had been kinder to this poor, broken thing.”

  36

  THE ONLY NON-IDIOT ON THE PLANET

  “Hello, King Morgan,” said Gabriel, popping his head into the lab. “And how is the planet’s only non-idiot on this fine day?”

  “Screw you,” replied Morgan, without turning from his computer.

  “Ah, excellent,” said Gabriel. “I’m having a lovely morning, too.” He came into the lab a few steps and looked around. “Have you seen Eliza? She hasn’t been home.”

  Morgan snerched. At least, that was the nearest phonetic case to be made for the sound he ejected from his nose: snerch. “Yeah, I’ve seen her. The sight of Eliza Jones asleep with her mouth open ruined my day.”

  “Oh,” said Gabriel, all helpful good cheer. “No, that probably wasn’t it. It was probably already ruined, when you woke up from a dream of having friends and being admired and realized you were still you.”

  Morgan finally turned around to favor him with a sour glare. “What do you want, Edinger?”

  “I thought I said. I’m looking for Eliza.”

  “Who is clearly not here,” said Morgan, swinging back around. He was on the very verge of saying, with all the considerable snideness in his arsenal, that she probably wasn’t even in the country, followed up with the charming assessment that her absence likely accounted for the unusual clarity of the air, when Gabriel spoke again.

  “I have her phone,” he said. “She hasn’t been home, and she’s gotten about a million messages. I honestly didn’t think it was possible to survive this long without one’s phone. Are you sure she’s all right?”

  And Morgan Toth’s expression changed. He was still faced away, and Gabriel might have caught the reflection of his look in his computer screen if he’d been paying attention, but he never paid very close attention to Morgan Toth.

  “She went somewhere with Dr. Chaudhary,” Morgan said, and his tone was unchanged, as sour as ever, but there was a slyness in his expression now, and a cool, malicious eagerness. “They’ll be right back, if you want to leave it.”

  Gabriel hesitated. He weighed the phone in his palm and looked around the room. He saw Eliza’s sweatshirt slung over a chair by one of the sequencers. “All right,” he said finally, walking a few steps to set the phone down next to it. “Would you tell her to text me when she gets it?”

  “Sure,” said Morgan, and for a second Gabriel hesitated in the doorway, suspicious that the little prig was suddenly being so accommodating. But then Morgan added, “Tell you what. Hold your breath until that happens,” and Gabriel just rolled his eyes and left.

  And Morgan Toth was remarkably restrained. He waited five minutes, five entire minutes—three hundred tiny stutters of the clock’s long hand—before he locked the door and picked up the phone.

  37

  PREOCCUPIED BY BLISS

  “Are you sure you can do this?” Akiva asked his sister, his brow creased with concern. They were in the entrance cavern where, just the day before, the armies had very nearly ended each other. The scene before them now was… quite different.

  “What, spend several days in the company of your paramour?” Liraz replied, looking up from making an adjustment to her sword belt. “It won’t be easy. If she tries to dress me in human clothes, I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”

  Akiva’s answering smile was humorless. There was nothing he wanted more right now than to be the one spending several days with Karou—even several such days as these would be, persuading their sadistic, warmongering uncle, quite contrary to his own desires, to go back home. “I’m holding you responsible for more than your actions,” he told Liraz. He meant it to sound light.

  It didn’t. Her eyes flashed angry. “What, don’t you trust me with your precious lady? Maybe you should assign an entire battalion to escort her.”

  Or just go myself, was what he wanted to say. He’d told Karou he wasn’t letting her out of his sight, but it turned out he would have to, one last time. They had all agreed to her plan, as bold as it was sly, and his own part, as it had evolved, was considerable, and crucial, but it would keep him in Eretz while Liraz accompanied Karou back to the human world.

  “You know I trust you,” he told his sister, which was almost true. He did trust her to protect Karou. When he’d asked if she was sure she could do this, he’d meant something else. “When it comes down to it, will you be able to keep from killing Jael?”

  “I said I would, didn’t I?”

  “Not convincingly,” Akiva replied.

  In the reconvened war council, Liraz had greeted Karou’s idea with a bark of incredulous laughter, and then stared around the table at each of them in turn, growing ever more appalled that they appeared to be considering it.

  Considering not killing Jael.

  Yet.

  And when, after much discussion, it had all been agreed, she had fallen into a suspect silence that Akiva interpreted to mean that, whatever she might say now, when she stood before their vile uncle, his sister would do exactly as she pleased.

  “I said I would,” she repeated with finality, and her look dared him to question her further.

  Let’s be clear, Lir, he imagined himself saying. You’re not planning to ruin everything, are you?

  He let it drop. “We will avenge Hazael,” he said. It wasn’t a consolation or a half truth. He wanted it as much as she did.

  She gave a sardonic half laugh. “Well. Those of us who aren’t preoccupied by bliss might.”

  Akiva felt a sting. Preoccupied by bliss. She made it sound frivolous and worse. Negligent. Was it a betrayal of Hazael’s memory to be in love? But all he could think, in answer to that, was what Karou had said earlier, about the darkness we do in the name of the dead, and whether it’s what they would want for us. He didn’t even have to wonder. He knew that Hazael wouldn’t grudge him his happiness. But Liraz clearly did.

  He didn’t respond to her jab. What could he even say? You had only to look around to see the non-frivolity of love. Here in this cavern, this uneasy intermingling of seraphim and chimaera was nothing short of a miracle, and it was their miracle, his and Karou’s. He wouldn’t claim it aloud, but in his heart, he knew it was.

  Of course, Liraz had her part in it, too, she and Thiago. That had been a sight to behold: the pair of them standing shoulder by shoulder, knitting their armies together by example. They had negotiated the scheme for mixed battalions, and made all of the assignments themselves. Akiva had marked all two hundred and ninety-six of his brothers and sisters with his new hamsa counter-sigil, and now, right now, before his eyes, the armies were testing their marks on each other.

  Pockets of soldiers on both sides held themselves back, but the majority, it seemed, were engaged in a kind of cautious… well, a getting-acquainted game, one far less vicious than Liraz had earlier been subject to.

  Akiva watched as his brother Xathanael willed a jackal-headed Sab to show him her palms. She was hesitant, and flicked a glance to the Wolf. He nodded encouragement, and so she did it. She lifted her hands, ink eyes raised right at Xathanael, and nothing happened.

  They were standing on the dark stain of Uthem’s blood, in the very spot where it had all come so close to breaking apart yesterday, and nothing happened. Xathanael had tensed, but he relaxed with a laugh and gave the Sab a clout on the shoulder heavy enough to seem like assault. His laugh was heavier, though, and the Sab didn’t take offense.

  A little beyond them, Akiva saw Issa accede to Elyon’s invitation to touch him, reaching out to lay a graceful hand atop his scarred and inked one.

  There was a potency in the image that Akiva wished he could distill into an elixir for the rest of Eretz. Some, and then more, he thought like a prayer.

  With that, he sought the glimmer of blue that he was always attuned to and his gaze found Karou, as
hers found him. A flash, a flare. One look and he felt drunk with light. She wasn’t near. Godstars, why wasn’t she near? Akiva was fed up with the volumes of air that continued to come between them. And soon it would be leagues and skies between them—

  “I’m sorry,” Liraz said quietly. “That wasn’t fair.”

  A warmth surged through him, and a proud, protective tenderness for his brittle sister, for whom apologies were no easy thing. “No, it wasn’t,” he said, striving for lightness. “And speaking of fair, you might have waited a few minutes before barging in earlier. I’m sure we were seconds from kissing.”

  Liraz snorted, caught off guard, and the tension between them ebbed away. “I’m sorry if my almost dying interrupted your almost kissing.”

  “I forgive you,” said Akiva. It was hard to joke about the horror so narrowly avoided, but it felt like what Hazael would do, and that was a guiding principle—what Hazael would do—that seemed always to come out right. “I forgive you this time,” he stressed. “Next time, please time your almost dying with more consideration. Better yet, no more almost dying.” Try almost kissing instead, he thought, or actual kissing, but didn’t say it, partly because it was impossible to imagine, and partly because he knew it would annoy her. He wished it for her, though—that Liraz might find herself, someday, preoccupied by bliss.

  “I’m going to go wash before we leave,” he told her, pushing off from the cavern wall where he’d been leaning. Several hours of uninterrupted magic had left his body feeling leaden. He rolled his shoulders, stretched his neck.

  “You should go to the thermal pools,” Liraz said. “They’re… fairly wonderful.”

  He halted mid-step and squinted at her. “Fairly wonderful?” he repeated. He didn’t think he’d ever heard Liraz use the word wonderful before, and… was that a hint of a flush rising to her cheeks?

  Interesting.

  “The healing water, of course,” she said, and her direct, unwavering gaze was too direct and unwavering; she was covering some other feeling with feigned cool, and she was overdoing it. On top of which, there was the flush.

  Very interesting.

  “Well. No time now,” Akiva said. There was water in an alcove just down the passage. “I’ll be right over here,” he told her, departing. He would have liked to go to the thermal pools—he would have liked to go there with Karou—but it was one more item for the wistful list of things to do once his life became his own.

  Bathe with Karou.

  Heat followed the thought, which, for a wonder, met with no instant barrier of guilt and self-denial. He was so accustomed to running into it that its absence was surreal. It was like rounding a corner one has rounded a thousand times, and finding, instead of the wall one knows is there, an open expanse of sky.

  Freedom.

  And if they weren’t there yet, Akiva was at least free now to dream, and that in itself was a very great thing.

  Karou forgave him.

  She loved him.

  And they were parting again, and he hadn’t kissed her, and neither of these things was all right. Even if they hadn’t had to hide their feelings from two armies, and even if they might yet have stolen a moment alone, Akiva had a soldier’s superstition about good-byes. You didn’t say them. They were bad luck, and a good-bye kiss was just another form of good-bye. A kiss of beginning shouldn’t be a kiss in parting. They would have to wait for it.

  The passage curved into an alcove, where a channel of frigid water spilled from the rough wall, running along at waist height for several meters in a trough before vanishing again into the rock. Like so many of the marvels of these caves, it seemed natural but probably wasn’t. Akiva shrugged out of his sword harness and hung it from a spur of rock, then stripped off his shirt.

  He cupped the cold water and brought it to his face. Handful after handful, to his face, neck, chest, and shoulders. He dunked his head into it and straightened, feeling it vaporize against the heat of his skin as it ran down in rivulets between the joints of his wings.

  He had agreed to Karou’s plan because it was sound. It was clever, and its risks were far less than the previous plan’s had been, and, if it worked, the threat of Jael to the human world truly would radically diminish, like a hurricane downgraded to a gust. There would still be Eretz to worry about, but there had always been Eretz to worry about, and they would have prevented their enemy from acquiring, as Karou termed them, “weapons of mass destruction.”

  Liraz may have mocked her in the first war council, suggesting they simply ask Jael to leave, but that, in essence, was the plan: to ask him to please take his army and go home, without what he came for, thank you, and good night.

  Of course, it was the inducement that was the crux of the plan. It was simple and brilliant—it was not “please”—and Akiva didn’t doubt that Karou and Liraz could pull it off. They were both formidable, but they were also the two people he cared most about in the world—worlds—and he just wanted to carry them safely forward to the future he imagined, in which no one’s life was at stake and the hardest decision of any given day might be what to eat for breakfast, or where to make love.

  Liraz was right, Akiva thought. He was preoccupied by bliss. He wasn’t expecting to have another moment alone with Karou for some time, so when he heard a stir behind him—it sounded like a soft intake of breath—he spun, a surge in his pulse, expecting to see her.

  And saw no one.

  He smiled. He could feel a presence before him as surely as he had heard a breath. She had come glamoured again, and that meant she had come unobserved. Whatever he’d told himself just minutes ago—how a kiss of beginning should not being a kiss in parting—his resolve couldn’t survive the surge of hope. He needed it. It felt unfinished, the understanding that had passed between them, hands to hearts. He didn’t think he could feel sure of his happiness, or breathe at full depth again, until… and again, astonishingly, there was no barrier of guilt to greet the hope, but only the open expanse of possibilities before them… until he kissed her. Superstition be damned.

  “Karou?” he said, smiling. “Are you there?” He waited for her to materialize, ready to catch her in his arms the instant she did. He could do that now. At least, when no one was around.

  But she didn’t materialize.

  And then, abruptly, the presence—there was a presence—registered as unfamiliar, even hostile, and there was something else. A feeling came over him—came into him—and Akiva experienced an entirely newfound awareness of… of his own life as a discrete entity. A single shining tensity in a warp of many, tangible and… vulnerable. A chill gripped him.

  “Karou? Is that you?” he asked again, though he knew it was not.

  And then he heard footsteps out in the passage, and in a trice Karou did enter. She wasn’t glamoured, but plainly visible—and plainly radiant—and as she drew to a faltering halt, blushing to catch him half-dressed, he saw by her smile that she had indeed come with the same hope that had bloomed in him an instant earlier.

  “Hi,” she said, voice soft, eyes wide. Her hope was reaching for his, but Akiva felt something else reaching for it, too, and for his life. It was threat and menace. It was invisible.

  And it was in the alcove with them.

  38

  AN EXCELLENT ACCIDENT OF STARDUST

  In Morocco, Eliza woke with a start. She wasn’t screaming, or even on the verge of screaming. In fact, she wasn’t afraid at all, and that was rather a nice surprise. She had given in to sleep, knowing that she must—sleep deprivation can actually kill you—and had hoped that either a) the dream might, miraculously, leave her alone, or b) the walls of this place would prove thick enough to muffle her screams.

  It would seem that a had come through for her, which was a relief, as b would clearly have failed. She could hear dogs barking outside, and so it would seem that the walls, thick though they were, would have muffled nothing.

  What had woken her then, if not the dream? The dogs, maybe? No. There w
as something.…

  Not the dream, but a dream, something dancing away from her conscious mind, like shadows before the sweep of a flashlight beam. She lay where she was, and there was a moment when she felt she might have captured it, if she’d tried. Her mind was still tiptoeing along the boundary of consciousness, in that state of semi-waking that spins threads between dream and real, and for a moment she felt herself to be a girl who has come down off a porch to confront a great darkness with a tiny light.

  Which is a really, really dumb thing to do, so she sat up and shook her head. Shook it all away. Shoo, dreams. I welcome you not. There are spikes you can put on window ledges to keep pigeons from landing; she needed some for her mind, to keep dreams away. Psychic mind spikes. Excellent.

  In the absence of psychic mind spikes, however, she just didn’t go back to sleep. She doubted she’d have been able to anyway, and the four hours she’d gotten were probably enough to stave off death by sleep deprivation for a little while. She swung her feet out of bed and sat up. Her laptop was beside her. Earlier, she’d downloaded the first batch of photos, encrypting them before dispatching them to her secure museum e-mail and then deleting them from the camera.

  She and Dr. Chaudhary had started collecting tissue samples from the bodies that afternoon, and would return in the morning to continue. She guessed it would take them a couple of days. With the bizarre composition of the bodies, they needed samples from every body part. Flesh, fur, feather, scales, claws. The rest of their work would happen in the lab, and this brief sojourn would feel like a dream. So quick, so strange.

 
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