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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.3
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.3

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

  Thiago’s broken doll.

  They could only work from the starting point they had, and that was the pit—gravel, blood, death, and lies—and she had no choice in this moment but to uphold the charade. She nodded her obedience to the Wolf, and it was acid in the pit of her belly to see Akiva’s eyes darken. By his side, Liraz was worse. Liraz was contemptuous.

  That was a little hard to take.

  The Wolf is dead! She wanted to scream. I killed him. Don’t look at me like that! But of course, she couldn’t. Right now, she had to be strong enough to look weak.

  “Come on,” Karou said, urging Issa, Zuzana, and Mik forward.

  But Akiva didn’t let it go so easily. “Wait.” He spoke in Seraphic, which none but Karou would understand. “It’s not him I came to talk to. I would have sought you alone to give you the choice if I could. I want to know what you want.”

  What I want? Karou quelled a ripple of hysteria that felt dangerously like laughter. As if this life bore any resemblance to what she wanted! But, given the circumstances, was it what she wanted? She’d scarcely considered what it might mean. An alliance. The chimaera rebels actually joining with Akiva’s bastard brethren to take on the Empire?

  Simply put, it was crazy. “Even united,” she said, “we would be massively outnumbered.”

  “An alliance means more than the number of swords,” Akiva said. And his voice was like a shadow from another life when he added, softly, “Some, and then more.”

  Karou stared at him for an unguarded second, then remembered herself and forced her eyes down. Some, and then more. It was the answer to the question of whether others could be brought around to their dream of peace. “This is the beginning,” Akiva had said moments earlier, his hand to his heart, before turning to Thiago. No one else knew what that meant, but Karou did, and she felt the heat of the dream stir in her own heart.

  We are the beginning.

  She’d said it to him long ago; he was the one saying it now. This was what his offer of alliance meant: the past, the future, penitence, rebirth. Hope.

  It meant everything.

  And Karou couldn’t acknowledge it. Not here. Nisk and Lisseth had halted on the hill to peer back at them: Karou the “angel-lover” and Akiva the very angel, speaking quietly in Seraphic while Thiago just stood there and let them? It was all wrong. The Wolf they knew would have had blood on his fangs by now.

  Every moment was a test of the deception; every syllable uttered made the Wolf’s forbearance less tenable. So Karou dropped her gaze to the baked, stony earth and rounded her shoulders like the broken doll she was supposed to be. “The choice is Thiago’s,” she said in Chimaera, and tried to act her role.

  She tried.

  But she couldn’t leave it at that. After everything, Akiva was still chasing the ghost of hope. Out of more blood and ash than they had ever even imagined in their days of love, he was trying to conjure it back to life. What other way forward was there? It was what she wanted.

  She had to give him some sign.

  Issa was holding her elbow. Karou leaned into her, turning so that the serpent woman’s body came between herself and the watching chimaera, and then, so quickly that she feared Akiva might miss it, she raised her hand and touched her heart.

  It pounded in her chest as she moved away. We are the beginning, she thought, and was overcome by the memory of belief. It came from Madrigal, her deeper self, who had died believing, and it was acute. She bent into Issa, hiding her face so that no one would see her flush.

  Issa’s voice was so faint it almost seemed like her own thought. “You see, child? Your heart is not wrong.”

  And for the first time in a long, long time, Karou felt the truth of it. Her heart was not wrong.

  Out of betrayal and desperation, amid hostile beasts and invading angels and a deception that felt like an explosion waiting to happen, somehow, here was a beginning.

  5

  GETTING-ACQUAINTED GAME

  Akiva didn’t miss it. He saw Karou’s fingertips brush her heart as she turned away, and in that instant it all became worth it. The risk, the gut-wrench of forcing himself to speak to the Wolf, even the seething disbelief of Liraz at his side.

  “You’re mad,” she said under her breath. “I have an army, too? You don’t have an army, Akiva. You’re part of an army. There’s a difference.”

  “I know,” he said. The offer wasn’t his to make. Their Misbegotten brethren were waiting for them at the Kirin caves; this much was true. They were born to be weapons. Not sons and daughters, or even men and women, just weapons. Well, now they were weapons wielding themselves, and though they had rallied behind Akiva to oppose the Empire, an alliance with their mortal enemy was no part of this understanding.

  “I’ll convince them,” he said, and in his exhilaration—Karou had touched her heart—he believed it.

  “Start with me,” hissed his sister. “We came here to warn them, not to join them.”

  Akiva knew that if he could persuade Liraz, the rest would follow. Just how he was supposed to do that, he did not know, and the White Wolf’s approach forestalled him trying.

  With his she-wolf lieutenant by his side, he strode forward, and Akiva’s exhilaration withered. He flashed back to the first time he had ever seen the Wolf. It had been at Bath Kol, in the Shadow Offensive, when he himself was just a green soldier, fresh from the training camp. He’d seen the chimaera general fight, and more than any propaganda he’d been raised on, the sight had forged his hatred of the beasts. Sword in one hand, ax in the other, Thiago had surged through ranks of angels, ripping out throats with his teeth like it was instinct. Like he was hungry.

  The memory sickened Akiva. Everything about Thiago sickened him, not least the gouge marks on his face, made certainly by Karou in self-defense. When the general came to a halt before him, it was all Akiva could do not to palm his face and slam him to the ground. A sword to his heart, as had been Joram’s fate, and then they could have their new beginning, all the rest of them, free of the lords of death who had led their people against each other for so long.

  But that he could not do.

  Karou looked back once from the slope, worry flashing across her lovely face—still distorted by whatever violence she’d refused to divulge to him—and then she moved away and it was just Thiago and Ten facing Akiva and Liraz, the sun hot and high, sky blue, earth drab.

  “So,” said Thiago, “we may speak without an audience.”

  “I seem to recall that you like an audience,” said Akiva, his memories of torture as vivid as they had ever been. Thiago’s abuse of him had been performance: the White Wolf, star of his bloody show.

  A crease of confusion flickered and vanished at Thiago’s brow. “Let us leave the past, shall we? The present gives us more than enough to talk about, and then, of course, there is the future.”

  The future will not have you in it, thought Akiva. It was too perverse to think that if this somehow came to pass, this impossible dream, the White Wolf should ride it through to its fulfillment and still be there, still white, still smug, and still the one standing at Karou’s door after everything was fought and won.

  But no. That was wrong. Akiva’s jaw clenched and unclenched. Karou wasn’t a prize to win; that wasn’t why he was here. She was a woman and would choose her own life. He was here to do what he could, whatever he could, that she might have a life to choose, one day. Whoever and whatever that included was her own affair. So he gritted his teeth. He said, “So let’s talk of the present.”

  “You’ve put me in a difficult position, coming here,” said the Wolf. “My soldiers are waiting for me to kill you. What I need is a reason not to.”

  This riled Liraz. “You think you could kill us?” she demanded. “Try it, Wolf.”

  Thiago’s regard shifted to her, his calm unruffled. “We haven’t been introduced.”

  “You know who I am, and I know who you are, and that will serve.”

  Typical Liraz bluntn
ess.

  “As you prefer,” said Thiago.

  “You all look alike anyway,” drawled Ten.

  “Well then,” said Liraz. “That might make our getting-acquainted game more difficult for your side.”

  “What game is that?” inquired Ten.

  No, Lir, thought Akiva. In vain.

  “The one where we try to figure out which of us killed which of you in previous bodies. I’m sure some of you must remember me.” She held up her hands to show her kill tally, and Akiva caught the one nearest him, closed his own marked fist over it, and pushed it back down.

  “Don’t flaunt those here,” he said. What’s wrong with her? Did she truly want this to degenerate into a bloodbath—whatever “this” was, this tenuous and almost unthinkable pause in hostilities.

  Ten growled a laugh as Akiva pushed his sister’s hand back down to her side. “Don’t worry, Beast’s Bane. It’s not exactly a secret. I remember every angel who’s ever killed me, and yet here I stand, speaking to you. Can the same be said of the very many angels I’ve killed? Where are all the dead seraphim now? Where’s your brother?”

  Liraz flinched. Akiva felt the words like a punch to a wound—the specter of Hazael raised casually, viciously—and when the heat around them surged, he knew it wasn’t only his sister’s temper but his own.

  Here it was, then, a restoration to the natural order: hostility.

  Or… not.

  “But it wasn’t a chimaera who slew your brother,” said Thiago. “It was Jael. Which brings us to the point.” Akiva found himself the focus of his enemy’s pale eyes. There was no taunt in them, no subtle snarl, and none of the cold amusement with which he had regarded Akiva in the torture chamber, all those years ago. There was only a strange intensity. “I’ve no doubt we’re all accomplished killers,” he said softly. “It was my understanding we stood here for a different reason.”

  Akiva’s first feeling was shame—to be schooled in cool-headedness by Thiago?—and his next was anger. “Yes. And it wasn’t to argue for our lives. You need a reason not to kill us? How about this: Do you have somewhere better to go?”

  “No. We don’t.” Simple. Honest. “And so I’m listening. This was, after all, your idea.”

  Yes, it was. His mad idea, to offer peace to the White Wolf. Now that he stood face-to-face with him, and Karou nowhere near, he saw the absurdity of it. He had been blinded by his desperation to stay near her, to not lose her to the vastness of Eretz, enemies forever. So he had made this offer, and it was only now, belatedly, that he saw how truly strange it was that the Wolf was considering it.

  That the Wolf was looking for a reason not to kill him?

  It had felt like aggression, that statement, like provocation. But was it, possibly, candor? Could it be the truth, that he wanted this peace but needed to justify it to his soldiers?

  “The Misbegotten have withdrawn to a safe location,” Akiva said. “In the eyes of the Empire, we are traitors. I am patricide and regicide, and my guilt stains us all.” He considered his next words. “If you seriously mean to consider this—”

  “This is no ruse on my part,” Thiago broke in. “I give you my word.”

  “Your word.” This from Liraz, served on a bare crust of a laugh. “You’ll have to do better than that, Wolf. We’ve no reason to trust you.”

  “I wouldn’t go that far. You’re alive, aren’t you? I don’t ask thanks for it, but I hope it’s perfectly clear that it’s no matter of chance. You came to us half-dead. If I’d wanted to finish the job, I would have.”

  There could be no arguing with that. Indisputably, Thiago had let them live. He had let them escape.

  Why?

  For Karou’s sake? Had she pled for their lives? Not…

  … bargained for them?

  Akiva looked up the slope where she had gone. She stood in the arched entrance to the kasbah, watching them, too distant to read. He turned to Thiago, and saw that his expression was still devoid of cruelty or duplicity or even his customary coldness. His eyes were open, not heavy-lidded with arrogance or disdain. It made a marked change in him. What could account for it?

  One explanation occurred to Akiva, and he hated it. In the torture chamber, Thiago’s rage had been that of a rival—a losing rival. Beneath the age-old hatred of their races had burned the more personal wrath of an alpha for a challenger. The humiliation of the one not chosen. Vengeance for Madrigal’s love of Akiva.

  But that was absent now—as absent as the reasons for it. Akiva was no longer his rival, no longer a threat. Because Karou had made a different choice this time.

  As soon as this idea came to Akiva, Thiago’s lack of malice seemed hard proof of it. The White Wolf was sure enough of his place that he didn’t need to kill Akiva. Karou, oh godstars. Karou.

  If it weren’t for their bloody history, if Akiva didn’t know what lurked in Thiago’s true heart, it would seem an obvious match: the general and the resurrectionist, lord and lady of the chimaera’s last hope. But he did know Thiago’s true heart, and so did Karou.

  It wasn’t old history, either, Thiago’s violence. Karou’s downcast eyes, her tremulous uncertainty. Bruises, gouges. And yet the creature standing before Akiva now seemed the White Wolf’s best self: intelligent, powerful, and sane. A worthy ally. Looking at him, Akiva didn’t even know what he should hope for. If Thiago was this, then an alliance stood a chance, and Akiva would be able to be in Karou’s life, if only at the edges of it. He would be able to see her, at least, and know that she was well. He would be able to atone for his sins and have her know it. Not to mention, they might stand a chance of stopping Jael.

  On the other hand, if Thiago was this—intelligent, powerful, and sane—and he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Karou to shape the destiny of their people, what place was there for Akiva in that? And more to the point, could he bear to stand by and see it?

  “And there is something else,” said Thiago. “Something I owe you. I understand that I have you to thank for the souls of some of my own.”

  Akiva narrowed his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

  “In the Hintermost. You intervened in the torture of a chimaera soldier. He escaped, and returned to us with the souls of his team.”

  Ah. The Kirin. But how could anybody know that Akiva had done that? He hadn’t let himself be seen. He’d summoned birds, every bird for miles around. He just shook his head now, prepared to deny it.

  But Liraz surprised him. “Where is he?” she asked Thiago. “I didn’t see him with the others.”

  Had she been looking? Akiva flickered a glance her way. Thiago’s glance more than flickered. It sharpened, and settled on her. “He’s dead,” he said after a pause.

  Dead. The young Kirin, last of Madrigal’s tribe. Liraz made no reply. “I’m sorry to hear it,” Akiva said.

  Thiago’s gaze shifted back to him. “But thanks to you, his team will live again. And to return to our purpose, was not his torturer the very angel we now must oppose?”

  Akiva nodded. “Jael. Captain of the Dominion. Now emperor. We’re standing here while he gathers his strength, and while your word means nothing to me, I’ll trust one thing: that you would stop him. So if you believe your soldiers can distinguish one angel from another long enough to fight Dominion beside Misbegotten, come with us, and we’ll see what happens.”

  Liraz, to Ten, added coldly, “We wear black, and they wear white. If that helps.”

  “It all tastes the same,” was the she-wolf’s laconic reply.

  “Ten, please,” said Thiago in a warning voice, and then, to Akiva, “Yes, we will see.” He nodded a promise, holding Akiva’s eyes, and the sanity was still there, the cruelty still absent, yet Akiva couldn’t help remembering him ripping out throats, and he felt himself at the precipice of a very bad decision.

  Revenant soldiers and Misbegotten, together. At best, it would be miserable. At worst, devastating.

  But in spite of his misgivings, it w
as as if there was a brightness beckoning to him—the future, rich with light, calling him toward it. No promises made, only hope. And it wasn’t just the hope kindled by Karou’s subtle gesture. At least, he didn’t think so. He thought that this was what he had to do, and that it wasn’t stupid, but bold.

  Only time would tell.

  6

  BEAST EXODUS

  Karou had overseen one transfer of this small army from world to world already, and it had not been the best of times. Then, with a preponderance of wingless soldiers and no way to transport them from Eretz, they’d had to take multiple trips, and still Thiago had opted to “release” many of them, gleaning souls and bringing them along in thuribles. “Deadweight,” he had deemed the bodies—exempting of course his own and Ten’s, and some other of his lieutenants, who had ridden astride larger, flying revenants.

  This time, Karou was relieved to line everyone up in the court and determine that what “deadweight” remained could be managed by the rest, and no releasing would be required.

  The pit had been fed its last body.

  She saw it from the air one last time as the company took flight, and it had a kind of magnetic hold on her gaze. It looked so small from up here, down its winding path from the kasbah. Just a dark indentation in the rolling dust-colored earth, with some mounds of excavated dirt standing near, shovels stuck in them like pickets. She imagined she could see scuff marks where Thiago had attacked her, and even dark patches that could be blood. And on the far side of the mounds, discernible to no one save herself, was another disturbance in the dirt: Ziri’s grave.

  It was shallow, and she’d blistered her hands on the shovel doing even that much, but nothing could have made her tip the last natural Kirin flesh into the pit with its flies and putrescence. She hadn’t escaped the flies and putrescence so easily, though. She’d had to lean over the edge of that soupy, crawling darkness with Ziri’s gleaning staff to gather the souls of Amzallag and the Shadows That Live, murdered by the Wolf and his cronies for the crime of taking her side.

 
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