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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.23
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.23

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

  The same words came into her head now. You will be my first string, she thought to the scarred and muscled back of the unknown magus before her. She reached out with her anima to perform the execution, and a horror washed through her, because she had meant it, just for a moment.

  “Take care what desires you mold your life and reign to, princess,” the aya had said to her beside the bath that day. “Even if the yoraya were real, only someone with many enemies could ever hope to achieve it, and that isn’t what we are anymore. We have more important work to do than fight.”

  Work, yes. The work that was the shape of their lives—and the thief of it. “Not that anyone thanks us,” Scarab had replied. She had been a small child then, and more intrigued by stories of warfare than the Stelians’ solemn duty.

  “Because no one knows. We don’t do it for thanks, or for the rest of Eretz, though they benefit as well. We do it for our own survival, and because no one else can.”

  She may have stuck her tongue out at her aya that day, but as she grew up, she had taken the words to heart. She had even, recently, declined a tempting invitation of enemyhood from the fool emperor Joram. She might have had a harp string of him, but instead she had only sent a basket of fruit, and now he was dead anyway—at this magus’s hand, if the stories were true—and… it was as it should be.

  She didn’t want enemies. She didn’t want a yoraya, or war. At least, so Scarab tried to convince herself, though in truth—and in secret—there was a voice within her that called out for those things.

  It filled her with dread, but it thrilled her, too, and her dark excitement was the most dreadful thing of all.

  Scarab did not perform ez vash. Realizing she was trying to prove herself to Carnassial, she rebelled against the idea—it was he who must prove himself to her—and besides, she wished to see this magus’s face and touch his life, to know who he was before she killed him. It was no small thing to draw down sirithar. It was no good thing, but it was without doubt a great thing, and she would know how he had done it when all knowledge of magic in the so-called Empire of Seraphim was lost.

  So instead of slashing the thread of his life, Scarab reached for it with her anima, and touched it.

  And gasped.

  It was a very small gasp, but it was enough to make him turn.

  —Scarab. Carnassial’s sending was sheathed in urgency. Do it.

  But she didn’t, because now she knew. She had touched his life and knew what he was before she even saw his face, and then she did see his face and so did Carnassial, and though he did not gasp, Scarab felt the ripples of his shock as they merged with her own.

  The magus called Beast’s Bane, who drew down sirithar and so could not be permitted to live, and who was a bastard and a warrior and a father-slayer, was also, impossibly, Stelian. His eyes were fire—they were searching the empty air where Scarab stood unseen—and that was enough to know for a certainty, but she knew something more about him, which she pushed, fumblingly, toward Carnassial in the simplest of sendings—no sense or feeling, just words.

  She sent it to the others, too, who were out in the caverns and passages trying to form an understanding of what was happening in this place. She sent it to Spectral and Reave, that is, but caught herself before releasing, so abruptly and inadequately, this news to Nightingale, to whom it would mean… very much.

  Scarab waited, breath held, as the magus scanned the air where she stood. And though she knew he couldn’t see her, she read his certainty of her presence in the steadiness of his gaze, and his reaction was another surprise in a layering of surprises.

  Confronted with the certainty of an invisible presence before him, he showed no alarm. His expression didn’t harden, but softened… and then—confounding Scarab to her core—he smiled. It was a smile of such pure pleasure and gladness, such breath-catching, unabashed happiness and light, that Scarab, who was a queen, young and beautiful, and had been smiled at by many a man, flushed to be the focus of it.

  Except, of course, that she wasn’t.

  When he spoke, his voice was low and sweet and rough with love. “Karou? Are you there?”

  Scarab flushed deeper and was glad of invisibility, and glad she’d pushed Carnassial back from her mind a moment earlier so that he couldn’t feel the flare of heat this stranger’s smile had sparked in her.

  His beauty—it was of the sort that made you fall very still and conserve your awe like a held breath. His power was part of it—the raw, wild musk of sirithar, forbidden and damning; just to breathe him in was an indulgence—but it was his happiness that pierced, so intense that she experienced it as much with her heart as with her eyes.

  Godstars. She had never felt happiness like what she saw in him in that moment, and she was sure she’d never inspired it, either. Her first night with Carnassial in the spring, when the rituals and dance had ended and they had at last been left alone, she had felt his hunger and delight before he even touched her. It had felt like something real then, but, quite suddenly, it didn’t anymore.

  This look was so much more than that, and the pierce became an ache as Scarab wondered: Who was it for?

  Sendings pulsed back to her from Reave and Spectral, and from Carnassial, too—not Nightingale, whom she had still not told—and for an instant they overwhelmed her. Reave and Spectral were older, more practiced magi and telesthetes than she and Carnassial were, and one of their sendings—the two arrived together and tangled, so that Scarab couldn’t say which was whose—conveyed a reaction of staggering shock that actually made her blink and take a step back.

  He spoke again, his brow creasing in uncertainty as his smile faltered. “Karou? Is that you?”

  —Someone is coming.

  Carnassial’s words, and on the heels of his sending, Scarab heard footsteps in the passage and moved swiftly to one side, which brought her up against Carnassial in a corner of the chamber. She felt him stiffen at the contact and draw immediately away—afraid of angering her with unsolicited touch, she supposed—and she was sorry for the loss of his solidity in the depth and breadth of this stunning strangeness.

  Then a figure came into view.

  She was a girl of around Scarab’s own age. She was neither a seraph nor one of the chimaera the seraphim here mingled with.

  She was… alien. Not of this world. Scarab had never seen a human, and though she knew what they were, the actual sight of one was blinkingly curious. The girl had neither wings nor beast attributes, but instead of seeming like lack, this simplicity of form came across as a kind of stripped-down elegance. She was slender, and moved with the grace of a duskdeer drawing its first substance together out of midsummer shade, and her prettiness was of such a curious flavor that Scarab couldn’t say whether it was more pleasing or startling. She was cream-colored, and as black-eyed as a bird, and her hair was a shimmer of blue. Blue. Her face, like her lover’s, was flushed with joy, and dappled with the same sweet and tremulous shyness as his, as though this were something new between them.

  “Hi,” she said, and the word was a wisp, as soft as the brush of a butterfly’s wing.

  He didn’t answer in kind. “Were you just here?” he asked, looking past her and around her. “Glamoured?”

  And this clicked into place for Scarab. Sensing a presence, the magus had thought it was this girl, invisible, which meant that the human could do magic.

  “No,” was her answer. She looked tentative now. “Why?”

  His next move was very sudden. He took her arm and pulled her to him, placed her behind him, and faced outward, peering into the emptiness of the chamber that was, of course, not empty at all. “Is someone there?” he demanded, in Seraphic this time, and when his eyes raked Scarab now, they held only what she had expected to see before: suspicion and the low burn of ferocity. Protectiveness, too—for the pretty blue alien he sheltered with his body.

  With his body, Scarab noted with curiosity, but not with his mind. He put up no shield against anima but only stood there
, strong and fierce, as though that made any difference. As though his life thread and his lover’s weren’t as frail as gossamers glinting in the ether, as easily severed as spidersilk.

  —Are we going to kill him? came Carnassial’s sending, unadorned by any tone or sensory threads to hint at his own opinion on the matter.

  —Of course not, Scarab replied, and she found herself unaccountably angry at him, as though he’d done something wrong. Unless you’d like to explain to Nightingale that we found a scion of the line of Festival and severed his thread.

  As she almost had. She shuddered. To prove that she could kill, she had almost killed him.

  A scion of the line of Festival. These were the words she had sent to Carnassial and Reave and Spectral but not yet to Nightingale—Nightingale who had been First Magus to Scarab’s grandmother, the previous queen, and who had twice sat veyana in grief and survived. No one else in the Second Age had survived veyana twice, and Nightingale’s first sitting had been for Festival.

  Her daughter.

  Scarab might be queen, but she was eighteen years old, untried, and out of her depth. She’d come hunting a rogue magus, hoping to make her first kill, but what she’d found here was much bigger than that, and she would need the counsel of all her magi, Nightingale most of all, before she decided anything.

  —Then we should go, Carnassial sent, ignoring her last barbed message. Before he kills us.

  It was a good point. They really had no idea what he was capable of. So Scarab, taking a last deep breath of the electric musk of the stranger’s power, retreated.

  40

  ASSUME THE WORST

  In fascination, the Stelians watched the unfolding of the next hour in the caves, and they learned many things, but many more things remained baffling.

  The magus went by the name of Akiva. Nightingale scorned to call him by it, because it was an Empire name, and a bastard’s no less. She called him only “Festival’s child,” and kept her sendings uncharacteristically austere. She was one of the finest telesthetes in all the Far Isles, an artist, and her sendings were generally effortless layers of beauty, meaning, detail, and humor. The absence of all of it now told Scarab that Nightingale was overwhelmed with emotion and intent on keeping it to herself, and she couldn’t blame her, and since she couldn’t see her—the five of them maintained their glamours, of course—she couldn’t begin to tell how the older woman was grappling with the abrupt existence of this grandson.

  Or with what his existence suggested about the fate of Festival, so many years a mystery.

  It was within Scarab’s rights as queen to touch her subject’s minds, but she wouldn’t intrude in something like this. She only pushed a simple sending of warmth to Nightingale—an image of one hand holding another—and kept her focus on the activity around her.

  Preparations for war? What was this? A rebellion?

  It was very strange, drifting among these soldiers who had been for so long mere archetypes in the stories she was raised on. Warnings, really, was what they had been, these kin from the far side of the world. Locked in war, century after century, all their magic lost, they were a cautionary tale. We are not that had been the tone of Scarab’s education, with their fair-skinned cousins serving as example—at a distance—of everything they eschewed. The Stelians had ever held themselves apart, shunning all contact with the Empire, refusing to be drawn into their chaos, leaving them to burn off their noxious idiocy in their wars on the far side of the world.

  And if chimaera burned and bled for it from the Hintermost to the Adelphas? If an entire continent had become a mass grave? If the sons and daughters of a whole half world—seraphim included—knew no life but war, and had no hope of better?

  It is nothing to do with us.

  The Stelians shouldered their solemn duty, and it was as much as they could bear. Only the great rending drag on sirithar that had sucked at the skies of the world had drawn Scarab so far from her isles, because that was to do with them, in the deadliest way imaginable.

  Find the magus and kill him, restore balance and go home. That was the mission.

  And now? They couldn’t kill him, so they watched him, and he was a part of something very strange indeed, and so they watched that, too.

  And when the two rebel armies, uneasily intermingled, gathered into battalions and left the caves, the five unseen Stelians followed them. South over the mountains and with a westward veer they flew, and they were three hours in the sky before they set down in a kind of crater in the lee of a sharkfin peak.

  Three chimaera were waiting there—scouts, Scarab soon determined, making her silent way around the crowd to stand in the shadow of the wolf-aspect general called Thiago.

  “Where are the others?” he asked the scouts, who shook their heads, somber.

  “They haven’t come,” said one.

  At the general’s side—and this was curious—stood not a lieutenant of his own race, but a severe seraph soldier of more than common beauty, and it was she whom he looked to first to say, “We have to assume the worst until we know otherwise.”

  What worst? wondered Scarab, almost idly, because this was all so very abstract to her. She was a huntress and had marshaled stormhunters from the brink, and she was a magus and a queen and the Keeper of the Cataclysm, and she may have dreamt in childhood of scything the life threads of enemies to build a yoraya, but she had never been to war. Once her people had been warriors, but that was in another age, and when Scarab, from her place of isolation in the Far Isles, shrugged off the fates of millions with disdain for the foolishness of warmongers, she did so without ever having seen a death in battle.

  That was about to change.

  “But why is Liraz coming with us? Why not Akiva?” Zuzana asked. Again.

  “You know why,” replied Karou. Also again.

  “Yes, but I don’t care about any of those reasons. I only care that I’ll have to spend time with her. She looks at me like she’s planning to yank my soul out through my ear.”

  “Liraz couldn’t yank your soul out, silly,” said Karou, to assuage her friend’s fear. “Your brain, maybe, but not your soul.”

  “Oh, well then.”

  Karou considered telling her how Liraz had kept her and Mik warm the other night in their sleep, but thought that if it got back to Liraz, she actually might yank out some brains. So instead she said, “Do you think I wouldn’t rather be with Akiva, too?” and this time maybe a little bit of her own frustration sounded in her voice.

  “Well, it’s nice to hear you finally admit it,” said Zuzana. “But a little Machiavellian maneuvering would not go amiss here.”

  “Excuse me? I think I’ve been pretty damn Machiavellian,” said Karou, as though it were an insult not to be borne. “There is the matter of hijacking an entire rebellion.”

  “You’re right,” Zuzana allowed. “You are a conniving, deceitful hussy. I stand in awe.”

  “You’re sitting.”

  “I sit in awe.”

  Here they were, back at the crater where they’d spent their cold night. They’d just arrived and soon they would be on their way again, toward the Bay of Beasts and the portal. At least, a few of them would, and Akiva was not part of that few. Karou had been trying to be cool about it, but it was hard. When her plan had come clear to her—when she was back in Akiva’s chamber with Ten dead at her feet, and her mind had raced through the scenario—it had been Akiva she imagined by her side, not Liraz.

  But once she’d presented the idea to the council, she’d begun to realize that her plan was really only one slice in the much greater strategic pie, and that if they went forward with it, Akiva, as Beast’s Bane, would be needed here.

  Damn it.

  And so it was: Liraz would accompany her instead of Akiva, and it was just as well. The chimaera would have questioned Thiago sending Karou off through the portal with Akiva, and there was still the deception to manage. There was too much to manage, blast it.

  At least once
she got through the portal, Karou told herself, she wouldn’t have the entire chimaera army watching her every move.

  Of course, in the absence of Akiva, there would be no moves to worry about them watching.

  “We all have our parts to play,” she told Zuzana and Mik, by way of reminding herself. “Getting Jael out is just the beginning. Quick and clean and apocalypse-free. Hopefully. Once he’s back in Eretz, he still has to be defeated. And, you know, the odds aren’t exactly in our favor.”

  That was putting it mildly.

  “Do you think they can do it?” asked Mik. He was looking at the soldiers coming in to land in the crater, chimaera and seraphim together. They’d made for an arresting sight in the sky, bat wings mixed with flame ones, all of them moving in the same smooth rhythms of flight.

  “We,” Karou corrected. “And yes, I think we can.” We have to. “We will.”

  We will defeat Jael. And even that was just a beginning, really. How many damned beginnings did they have to get through before they made it to the dream?

  A different sort of life. Harmony between the races.

  Peace.

  “Daughter of my heart,” Issa had told her, back at the caves. With the exception of a few, such as Thiago, those of the chimaera who couldn’t fly had stayed behind, and, in parting, Issa had recited Brimstone’s final message for Karou. “Twice-daughter, my joy. Your dream is my dream, and your name is true. You are all of our hope.”

  Your dream is my dream.

  Yes, well. Karou imagined that Brimstone’s vision of “harmony between the races” probably involved less kissing than hers did.

  Stop mooning about kissing. There are worlds at stake. Cake for later; emphasis: later.

  It should have happened when she’d followed Akiva into the alcove—dear gods and stardust, the sight of his bare chest had brought back very… warm… memories—but it hadn’t happened, because he’d become agitated, insisting there was someone or something there with them, unseen, and had proceeded to search for it with a sword in his hand.

 
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