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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.29
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.29

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

  gateau au chocolat

  torta di cioccolato

  pastel de chocolate

  schokoladenkuchen

  chocolate cake

  But then the waiter came to take their order, and when she said, “First we’ll have the chocolate cake, and we’ll just eat it while you’re making the rest, so bring that first, okay?” he told them—with what struck Zuzana as an entirely inadequate display of regret—that they’d run out.

  … white noise…

  But this was when Zuzana felt the nature of the change within herself for a certainty, because it wasn’t a big deal. Her lines of context had been redrawn, and the one for “Big Deal” had been scooted way the hell back. “Well, that’s a bummer,” she said. “But I guess I’ll survive.”

  Mik’s eyebrows lifted.

  They ordered and asked that the food be brought straight to their room—and the waiter triple-checked the quantity of kebabs and tagine, flat bread and omelettes, fruit and yogurt. “But it is enough for… twenty people,” he pointed out several times.

  Zuzana regarded him levelly. “I’m very hungry.”

  Eliza wasn’t laughing anymore. She was… speaking. Sort of.

  The driver was on his phone, shouting over the sound of her voice even as he sped down the long, straight highway. “Something’s wrong with her!” he yelled. “I don’t know! Can’t you hear her?” Twisting his arm around to hold the phone nearer to her raving, he lost his grip on the steering wheel momentarily, swerving onto the shoulder and back with a squeal of rubber.

  The girl in the backseat was sitting ramrod straight, eyes glazed and staring, speaking without cease. The driver didn’t recognize the language. It wasn’t Arabic or French or English, and he would have known German or Spanish or Italian to hear them, too. This was something other, and unutterably alien. It was fluting and susurrous and wind-borne, and this young woman, held rigid in the grip of some… fit… was spouting it like she was possessed, her hands moving back and forth in dreamlike underwater motions.

  “Do you hear that?” the driver shouted. “What should I do with her?”

  He was glancing manically back and forth between the road and the sight of her in his rearview mirror, and it took… three, four, five of these quick back-and-forths before he finally craned his head around in disbelief to confirm that he was really seeing what the rearview mirror was telling him.

  Eliza’s hands sculled lightly back and forth in the air as though she were floating.

  Because she was.

  He slammed on the brake.

  Eliza slammed into the seat backs in front of her and crumpled to the floor. Her voice cut off and the car fishtailed, humping up onto the shoulder with a violent jouncing that ricocheted Eliza’s inert body between the seats for a long, angry moment as the driver tried to wrest the vehicle back onto the road. He did, at last, and screamed to a halt, jumping out into the cloud of dust he’d made to wrench open her door.

  She was unconscious. He shook her leg, panicking. “Miss! Miss!” He was just a driver. He didn’t know what to do with madwomen, it was far beyond him, and now maybe he’d killed her—

  She stirred.

  “Alhamdulillah,” he breathed. Praise God.

  But his praise was short-lived. No sooner did Eliza push herself upright—blood was streaming from her nose, garish and slick, over her mouth and down her chin—than she lapsed straight back into that otherworldly raving, the sound of which, the driver would later claim, tore at his very soul.

  “Rome,” said Karou, as soon as Zuzana and Mik came back into the room. “The angels are in Vatican City.”

  “Well, that makes sense,” Zuzana replied, choosing not to give voice to her first thought, which had to do with the happy prevalence of chocolate in Italy. “And have they gotten hold of any weapons yet?”

  “No,” said Karou, but she looked worried. Well. Worried was one of the things she looked. Add to the list: overwhelmed, exhausted, demoralized, and… lonely. She had that “lost” posture again, her shoulders curled forward, head lowered, and Zuzana did not fail to note that she was turned away from Akiva.

  “The ambassadors and secretaries of state and whatever have all been talking each other to death,” Karou elaborated. “Some in favor of arming the angels, some opposed. Apparently he hasn’t made the greatest impression. Still, private groups are lining up to pledge their support, and their arsenals. They’re trying to get access to make offers, but have so far been denied—at least, officially. Who knows who might have bribed a Vatican insider to get word to Jael. One of the groups is this angel cult in Florida that apparently has a stockpile of weapons at the ready.” She paused, considering her words. “Which doesn’t sound scary at all.”

  “How did you find all this out?” Mik marveled.

  “My fake grandmother,” Karou answered, indicating her phone, plugged into the wall. “She’s very well connected.” Zuzana knew about Karou’s fake grandmother, a grand Belgian dame who’d had Brimstone’s trust for many years, and who was the only one of his associates with whom Karou had a real relationship. She was stupendously rich, and though Zuzana had never met her, she felt no warmth for her. She’d seen the Christmas cards she sent Karou, and they were about as personal as the ones from the bank—which was fine, whatever, except that Zuzana knew that her friend craved more, and so she wanted to neck-punch anyone who disappointed her.

  She only half listened while Karou told Mik about Esther. She watched Akiva instead. He was sitting up on the deep ledge of the window, the shutters drawn behind him, his wings visible, drooping and dim.

  He met her eyes, briefly, and after she got past the first jolt she always got from looking at Akiva—you had to battle your brain to convince it he was real; seriously, that’s what it was like, looking at Akiva; her brain wanted to be all Pshaw, he’s obviously Photoshopped, even when he was right in front of her—a dragging sadness seized her.

  Nothing could ever be easy for these two. Their courtship, if you could even call it that, was like trying to dance through a rain of bullets. Now that they’d finally come to the brink of an understanding, grief dragged a new curtain between them.

  You can’t drag the curtain back. Grief persists. But you can crash through it, can’t you? If they had to suffer, Zuzana wondered, couldn’t they at least suffer together?

  And when the knock came at the door—their food—she thought that maybe she could help. At least with physical proximity.

  “Just a minute,” she called out. “You three, into the bathroom. You don’t exist, remember?”

  There followed a brief whispered argument that they could simply glamour themselves, but Zuzana would hear none of it. “Where would they put the food, with an enormous chimaera taking up half the floor, an angel perched on the window ledge, and a girl on the bed? Even if you’re invisible, you still have mass. You still take up space. Like, all the space.”

  And so they went, and if the room was small, the bathroom was much more so, and Zuzana saw fit to arrange them within it as she chose, pushing Karou by the small of the back and then giving Akiva an imperious look and toss of her head that said, You next, and she pressed them together into the shower and shut them in. It was the only way Virko could fit into the room, too. It was all perfectly reasonable.

  She closed the bathroom door. They’d have to take it from there. She couldn’t do everything for them.

  49

  AN OFFER OF PATRONAGE

  “Patience, patience.”

  Thus had Razgut counseled Jael half a day earlier. Patience. Even then, he’d been feeling the pinch of impatience himself. Now, with two full days gone by since their arrival, it was more of a stab. He’d belittled Jael for his expectations, but secretly he was beginning to worry.

  Where were all their offers of patronage? Had he miscalculated? This was all his own plan. Only arrive in glory, he had said, and they will fall all over themselves to give you what you want. Oh, not the presidents, not the pri
me ministers, not even the Pope. They would roll out every red carpet, yes. There would be no shortage of bowing and scraping, but the powers that be would have to practice caution when it came to arming a mysterious legion. There would be scrutiny. Oversight.

  Committees.

  Oh, give me a half-mad butcher of a tyrant, thought Razgut, at his wit’s end. Only save me from committees!

  But while presidents, prime ministers, and popes entertained them, the quicker, darker currents of the world’s will should have been shaping themselves into action. Private groups, the crazy ones, the hellfire chasers, the doomsday gloaters. They should have been lining up, sending offers, paying bribes, getting word to the angels no matter what it cost them. Take us! Take us first! Burn the world, flay the sinners, only take us with you!

  The world was rife with them, even on a normal day, so where were they all? Had Razgut misjudged humanity’s love affair with the end of the world? Was it possible this pageant would not play out quite so easily as he had thought?

  Jael had been in foul humor, pacing the suite of magnificent rooms, alternating cursing with icy silence. He kept the cursing low, to his credit, doing nothing “un-angelic” that might ruffle the feathers, so to speak, of their pious hosts. He played his part whenever called upon: the diplomatic posturing, the feasting, the dazzling. The Catholic Church seemed determined to match pageant with pageant, and certainly their costume collection won the day. If Razgut had to endure one more ceremony clinging to Jael’s back and listening to an old man in a fancy gown drone in Latin, he thought he might scream.

  Scream and let himself be seen, just to spice things up.

  So it was with a churning gutful of… hope… that he observed the curious shuffle-dance of faintheartedness being performed in the doorway by one of the Papal Palace servants.

  A step forward, a step back, arms aflutter, chickenlike. The man was one of the few approved to enter their chambers and see to their needs, and he had until now kept his eyes fixed on the floor in their “holy” presence. Razgut had thought, on several occasions, that he could probably release his glamour and not even be noticed. That was the level of discretion these servants displayed. They were very nearly ghosts, though the thought of such an afterlife made Razgut bilious.

  Or perhaps it was the prodigious output of the Papal Palace kitchens doing that.

  He had not indulged in so much rich food in many a century, and found it interesting that the discomfort of his overtaxed intestines had not yet induced him to reduce his intake. Perhaps soon.

  Or perhaps not.

  The servant cleared his throat. You could almost hear his heartbeat from across the room. The Dominion guards remained motionless as statues, and Jael was in his private chamber, resting. Razgut considered speaking up. Would a disembodied voice really be the oddest thing that happened to this man all day? But he didn’t have to. The man managed to summon some spine and mince forward, drawing an envelope from the pocket of his starched and immaculate coat and laying it down upon the floor.

  An envelope.

  Razgut’s field of vision narrowed in on it. He knew what it must be, and his hope sharpened.

  Finally.

  Jump forward one minute, though—the servant gone, Jael summoned, and Razgut visible, splayed across the refreshment table with the envelope in his hand—and he gave no hint of his own very deep relief and curiosity. He only peeled a slice of paper-thin prosciutto free of its fellows and made sure to give audible proof of his delectation.

  “Well, what does it say?”

  Jael was impatient. Jael was imperious. Jael was, thought Razgut, at his mercy.

  “I don’t know,” he replied casually, and also truthfully. He hadn’t opened it yet. “It’s probably a fan letter. Possibly an invitation to a christening. Or a proposal of marriage.”

  “Read it to me,” Jael commanded.

  Razgut paused as though he were thinking up a reply, and then he farted. Squinching up his face, he did so with effort. The reward was slight in resonance but grand in aroma, and the emperor was not amused. His scar went white in that way it had when he was extremely put out, and he spoke through clenched teeth, which, on a positive note, did help contain the flying spittle.

  “Read it to me,” he repeated in his deadly quiet voice, and Razgut judged himself to be one step removed from a beating. If he did as he was bid now, he might spare himself some hurt.

  “Make things easy for me,” Jael had said, “and I’ll make things easy for you.”

  But where was the fun in easy? Razgut crammed as much prosciutto into his mouth as he could while he still had the chance, and Jael, seeing what he was about, ordered the beating with a dull twitch of his head.

  They both knew it wouldn’t yield a result. This was just their routine now.

  And so the beating was given and received, and later, when Razgut’s new injuries were seeping a fluid that wasn’t quite blood onto the fine silk cushions of a five-hundred-year-old chair, Jael tried again.

  “When we get to the Far Isles,” he said, “and when the Stelians lie shattered in the streets but before we have crushed them utterly, I could demand a boon of them. Everyone grovels at the end.”

  Razgut’s smile was a diabolical thing. Until you come up against Stelians, perhaps, he thought, but did not disabuse the emperor of his fantasies.

  “If,” Jael continued, visibly struggling to maintain a semblance of grace—a mask that fit him very ill—“if… someone… were to make his best efforts to be accommodating between then and now, I might be persuaded to ask that boon on his behalf. It is not beyond Stelian arts, I wager, to… repair you.”

  “What?” Razgut sucked himself upright, his hands flying to his cheeks in his best impression of a beauty queen hearing her name called. “Me? Truly?”

  Jael was not so big a fool as to miss that he was being mocked, but neither was he fool enough to show his frustration to the Fallen thing. “Ah, my mistake. I thought that would interest you.”

  And it might have, but for one critical point. Well, two critical points, the first of which was really all that mattered: Jael was lying. But even if he hadn’t been, the Stelians would never grant a boon to an enemy. Razgut remembered them from the time before, and they were not foes to be taken lightly. If—and this was a difficult thing to picture, if simply because it had never happened—they ever found themselves overpowered, they would self-immolate before surrendering.

  “It’s not what I would wish for,” said Razgut.

  “What, then?”

  When Razgut had bartered with the blue lovely for a way back to Eretz, his wish had been simple. To fly? Yes, that was part of it. To be whole again. Not so simple, for more than his wings and legs had been ravaged and he knew that he was, in the most important ways, irreparable. But his true wish, his soul’s bedrock, was simple. “I want to go home,” he said. His voice was stripped of mockery and sarcasm and his usual nasty delight. Even to his own ears, he sounded like a child.

  Jael stared at him, blank. “Easily done,” he said, and for that, more than anything Jael had ever said or done to him, Razgut wanted to snap his neck. The void within him was so immense, the weight of it so obliterating, that it sometimes took his breath away to remember that Jael had no knowledge of it at all. No one did.

  “Not so easily,” he said. If there was one thing Razgut Thrice-Fallen knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, it was this: He could never go home.

  More to conceal his own distress than out of any desire to stop torturing the emperor, he unfolded the letter. What does it say? he wondered. Who is it from? What kind of offer?

  Is it almost time?

  It was a bittersweet thought. Razgut knew that Jael would kill him the second he no longer needed him, and life, even at its most wretched, does get its hooks in you. With maddening exactitude and the slowest movements he could produce with his shaking fingers, the exiled angel made a show of flattening out the pages.

  Confident script, he saw,
ink on good paper, in Latin. And then, finally, he read out Jael’s first offer of patronage.

  50

  HAPPINESS HAS TO GO SOMEWHERE

  They were very near, and the situation was absurd. Too absurd, when it came down to it. The shower knob was digging into Karou’s back, the feathers of Akiva’s wings were actually caught in the door, and Zuzana’s contrivance was clear. It was sweet but awkward—extremely awkward—and if it was meant to enflame anything, only Karou’s cheeks obliged. She blushed. The space was so small. The bulk of Akiva’s wings forced him to bend toward her, and by some maddening instinct, both obeyed the impulse to preserve the wisp of space between them.

  Like strangers in an elevator.

  And weren’t they strangers, really? Because the pull between them was so strong, it was easy to fall into thinking they knew each other. Karou, who had never believed in such things before, was willing to consider that in some way their souls did know each other—“Your soul sings to mine,” he had told her once, and she could swear that she had felt it—but they themselves did not. They had so much to learn, and she so badly wanted to learn it, but how do you do that, in times like these? They couldn’t sit on top of a cathedral, eating hot bread and watching sunrises.

  This wasn’t a time for falling in love.

  “Are you two all right in there?” asked Virko. His voice was cast low, not quite a whisper, and Karou imagined the hotel clerk hearing it and wondering who was hiding in the bathroom. With that, the scenario hit a new level of absurdity. In the midst of everything that was going on and the great weight of the mission they were on, they were squished into a bathroom, hiding from a hotel clerk.

  “Fine,” she said, sounding choked, and it was such a lie. She was anything but fine. It struck her that even to say so in that offhand way was… glib. Careless. She hazarded a glance at Akiva, afraid that he could think she meant it. Oh sure, fine, and nice weather we’re having. What’s new with you? And it was a fresh scrape of anguish to see, again, the pain in his eyes, and the anger. She had to look away. Akiva, Akiva. Back in the caves, when their eyes had at last met across the breadth of the great cavern—across all the soldiers between them, both sides, and the weight of their treacherous enmity, across the secrets they both carried, and the burdens—even at such a distance, their look had felt like touch. Not so now. A wisp of space between them only, and the meeting of their glances felt like… regret.

 
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