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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.31
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.31

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

  Morons.

  He needed a groupie, he thought. Or a girlfriend. Wide eyes and awe. “Morgan, you’re so bad,” she would coo. But bad in a good way. Bad in a very, very good way.

  The phone buzzed. It was Pavlovian at this point: Eliza’s phone buzzed and Morgan virtually salivated in anticipation of not-to-be-believed, someone-must-be-yanking-my-chain crazy-time. This message did not disappoint.

  Where are you, Elazael? The time for petty squabbles is past. Now you must see that you can’t run away from who you are. Our kin have come to Earth, as we have always known they would. We have made overtures. We have offered ourselves to them as helpmeets and handmaidens, in ecstasy and servitude. The day of Judgment draws nigh. Let the rest of this blighted world serve as fodder for the Beasts while we kneel at the feet of God. We need you.

  Gold. Pure gold. Ecstasy and servitude. Morgan laughed, because that pretty well summed up what he wanted in a girlfriend.

  He was tempted to write back. So far he had resisted, but the game was getting a little stale. He reread the message. How did you engage with insanity like this? They’d made overtures, it said. What did that mean? How had they managed to offer themselves to the angels? Morgan knew from previous texts that the sender—who he gathered was Eliza’s mother, a real piece of work—was in Rome. But as far as he knew, the Vatican was virtually keeping the Visitors prisoner, which was pretty hilarious. He imagined the Pope standing on the dome of St. Peter’s with a giant butterfly net: Caught me some angels!

  After much deliberation, he typed a reply.

  Hi, Ma! I’ve had a new vision. In it, we *were* kneeling at the feet of God, so that’s good. Phew! But… we were giving him a pedicure? Not sure what it means. Love, Eliza.

  He knew it was too much, but he couldn’t help himself. He hit send. In the ensuing silence he began to fear that he’d killed the joke, but he shouldn’t have worried. This was no fragile specimen of crazy he was dealing with. It was hearty.

  Your bitterness is an affront to God, Elazael. You have been given a great gift. How many of our ancestors perished without seeing the holy faces of our kin, and yet you can find it in you to laugh? Will you choose to stay and be devoured with the sinners when the rest of us rise to take our place in the—

  Morgan never got a chance to finish reading the message, let alone fire off another response.

  “Is that Eliza’s phone?”

  Gabriel. Morgan whirled around. How had the neuroscientist managed to sneak up on him? Had he forgotten to lock the door?

  “Jesus, it is,” said Gabriel, looking stunned and disgusted. Morgan did wonder about the stun. Edinger despised him. Why should this come as a surprise? And what could he say? Caught in the act. Nothing to do but lie.

  “She gets a new text message every thirty seconds. Someone’s obviously desperate to find her. I was just going to reply to whoever it is that she’s not here—”

  “Give it to me.”

  “No.”

  Gabriel didn’t ask again. He just kicked the leg of the stool Morgan was sitting on hard enough to swipe it right out from under him. Morgan windmilled and fell hard. What with all the impact and pain and fury, he didn’t even realize he’d relinquished the phone until he was back on his feet, batting his bangs out of his eyes.

  Damn. Edinger held the phone. His looked of stunned disgust had only deepened.

  “It was you, wasn’t it?” Gabriel said, suddenly realizing. “It was all you. Jesus Christ, and I gave you the means. I gave you her phone.”

  Morgan’s fury turned to fear. It was like antiseptic hitting pus: the seethe, the bubbling, the burn. “What are you talking about?” he asked, feigning ignorance, and feigning it poorly.

  Edinger slowly shook his head. “It was a game to you, and you’ve probably ruined her life.”

  “I didn’t do anything,” Morgan said, but he was unprepared to defend himself. He hadn’t thought… He hadn’t thought about getting caught.

  How could he not have thought?

  “Well. I can’t promise I’ll ruin your life,” Gabriel replied. “Honestly, that’s a bit of a commitment. But I can promise you this. I will make sure everyone knows what you’ve done.” He held up the phone. “And if it does ruin your life, I won’t be sorry about it.”

  Another letter. The third. The same servant brought it, and Razgut knew by the envelope that it was from the same sender as the previous two. This time, he didn’t bother playing any games with Jael. As soon as the servant—Spivetti was his name—was gone, he seized it and ripped it open.

  He had taken special care crafting his last two replies. They had almost felt like love letters. Not that Razgut had ever written a love letter, mind.… Well, no, that wasn’t strictly true. He had, but that was in the Long Ago, and it may as well have been a different being entirely who had penned a sweet farewell to a honey-colored girl. He had looked like a different being, that was sure. He had still looked like a seraph, and his mind had still been a diamond without flaw, uncracked—and the pressure it takes to crack a diamond!—and unfurred by the molds and filths that claimed it now. It was so very long ago, but he remembered writing that letter. The girl’s name was lost to him, and her face, too. She was just a golden blur of no consequence, a hint of a life that might have been, had he not been Chosen.

  If I don’t return, he had penned in a fine but eager script, forward-tilting, before leaving for the capital, know that I will carry the memory of you with me through every veil, into the darkness of every tomorrow, and beyond the shadow of every horizon.

  Something like that. Razgut remembered the feeling that went into it, if not the precise words, and it wasn’t love, or even the most surface-skimming truth. He’d simply been hedging his bets. If he wasn’t chosen—and what were the chances that he would be, out of so many?—then he could have gone home and pretended relief, and the honey-colored girl would have consoled him in her silkiness, and maybe they even would have married and borne children and lived some kind of drab-happy life in the undertow of his failure.

  But he had been chosen.

  O glorious day. Razgut was one of twelve in the Long Ago, and glory had been his. The day of the Naming: such glory. So much light in the city as had dazed the night sky, and they couldn’t see the godstars but the godstars could see them, and that was what mattered—that the gods see them and know: They were chosen.

  The openers of doors, the lights in the darkness.

  Razgut never went back home, and he never saw the girl again, but look. He hadn’t lied to her, had he? He was remembering her now, beyond the shadow of a horizon, in the darkness of a tomorrow he could never have imagined.

  “What does she say?”

  She.

  Jael’s voice broke into Razgut’s reverie. This letter, it was from no silken girl but a woman whom he had never seen—though her name was not unknown to him—and there was no sweetness in her, none at all, and that was all right. Razgut’s tastes had matured. Sweetness was insipid. Let the butterflies and hummingbirds have it. Like a carrion beetle, he was called to sharper scents.

  Like gunpowder and decay.

  “Guns, explosives, ammunition,” Razgut translated for Jael. “She says that she can get you anything you need, and everything you want, as long as you agree to her condition.”

  “Condition!” Jael hiss-spat. “Who is she to name conditions?”

  He’d been like this since the first letter. Jael had no appreciation for a strong woman, except as something to break and keep breaking. The idea of a woman making demands? A woman whom he was in no position to humble? It infuriated him.

  “She’s your best option is who she is,” replied Razgut. It was one of many possible answers, and the only one Jael needed to hear. She’s a vulture. She’s fetid meat. She’s black powder waiting to ignite. “No one else has managed to bribe their way to you, so here is your choice, today: Keep courting these dour-mouthed heads of state and watch them mince through the minefield of public o
pinion, fearing their own people more than they fear you, or make this simple promise to a lady of means and have done with all of that. Your weapons are waiting for you, emperor. What’s one little condition next to that?”

  53

  EYEBROW MASTER CLASS

  When Mik and Zuzana stepped into the lobby of the St. Regis grand hotel in Rome, several conversations ceased, a bellhop did a double take, and an elegant matron with a silver bob and surgical cheekbones raised a hand to her pearls and scanned the lobby for security.

  Backpackers did not stay at the St. Regis.

  Ever.

  And these backpackers, they looked… well, it wasn’t easy to put into words. Someone extremely insightful might say they looked as though they had been living in caves, and then been through a battle, perhaps even ridden here astride a monster.

  In fact, they had flown by private jet from Marrakesh, but one could be excused for not guessing as much; leaving Tamnougalt in such a hurry, they hadn’t had a chance to take advantage of the shower, and they had no clean clothes between them, and it’s likely that neither had ever been quite this unsightly in their entire lives.

  It was presumed, by patrons and staff, that they were going to ask to use a restroom—as, every once in a while, this did happen, the underclasses being ill-educated in the rules—and then most likely filth it up by bathing themselves in the sink. Wasn’t that what these people did?

  The doorman who had admitted them kept his eyes fixed on the floor, aware that he had committed a cardinal sin in allowing hoi polloi to breach the perimeter. No doubt, in bygone days, guards had been put to death for just this offense. But what could he do? They claimed to be guests.

  Behind the reception desk, the clerks exchanged gladiatorial glances. Do you want to take them, or shall I?

  A champion stepped forth.

  “May I help you?”

  The words spoken may have been: May I help you, but the tone was something more along the lines of: It is my unbearable duty to interact with you, and I intend to punish you for it.

  Zuzana turned to meet her challenger. She saw before her a young Italian woman, mid-twenties, sleekly attractive and just as sleekly dressed. Unamused. Nay, unamusable. The woman’s eyes did a quick flick up and down, flaring with something like indignation when they arrived at Zuzana’s dust-caked zebra platform sneakers, and her mouth puckered into a little knob of distaste. She looked rather as though she were preparing to remove a live slug from her arugula.

  “You know,” observed Zuzana, in English, “you’d probably be a lot prettier if you didn’t make that face.”

  The face in question froze in place. A nostril-flare suggested that offense was taken. And then, as though in slow motion, one of the woman’s fine, plucked eyebrows ascended toward her hairline.

  Game. On.

  Zuzana Nováková was a pretty girl. She’d often been compared to a doll, or to a fairy, not just because of her slight stature but also her fine, small face—a happy blending of angles and arcs set under skin clear as porcelain. Delicate chin, rounded cheeks, wide glossy eyes, and, though she would annihilate anyone for suggesting it, somewhat of a Cupid’s bow mouth. All of this cuteness, it was one of nature’s great bait and switches, because… that wasn’t all there was to Zuzana Nováková. Not even a little bit.

  Deciding to take her on was akin to a fish deciding idly to gobble up that pretty light bobbing in the shadows and then—OH GOD THE TEETH THE HORROR!—meeting the anglerfish on the other side.

  Zuzana didn’t eat people. She withered them. And there in the sparkling marble, crystal, and gilded lobby of one of Rome’s most exclusive luxury hotels, in just under two seconds, Zuzana’s eyebrow taught a master class. Its rise was something to behold. The sweep of it, the arch. Contempt, amusement, amused contempt, confidence, judgment, mockery, even pity. It was all there, and more. Her eyebrow communicated directly with the Italian woman’s eyebrow, somehow telling it, We have not stumbled in here to bathe in your sink. You have miscalculated. Tread lightly.

  And the eyebrow conveyed the message to its owner, whose mouth promptly lost its slug-in-the-arugula pucker, and even before Mik interceded to say, mildly, almost apologetically, “We’re staying in the Royal Suite?” she was tasting the first sour hint of her mortification.

  “The… Royal Suite?”

  The Royal Suite at the St. Regis had hosted monarchs and rock legends, oil sheiks and opera divas. It cost nearly $20,000 a night during ordinary times, and these were not ordinary times. Rome was currently center of the world’s attention, filled to the rafters with pilgrims, journalists, foreign delegations, curiosity-seekers, and crazies, and there simply were no vacancies. Families were renting out balconies and cellars—even rooftops—at a premium, and the already overtaxed police were having a time breaking up pilgrim camps in the parks.

  Zuzana and Mik didn’t know how much this was costing Karou—or her fake grandmother, Esther, or whoever was footing the bill. Ordinarily, such extravagance would have made them feel awkward and small, peasants in the presence of gentry. Indeed, it would make them feel exactly as this woman had intended them to feel. But not today. In light of recent experience, these insulated, rarified people put Zuzana in mind of expensive shoes kept in their box the three hundred and sixty-two days of the year when they weren’t being worn. Wrapped in tissue, safe from harm, and all they knew of life was gala events and the inside of the box. How dull. How dumb. By contrast, the grime of her journey, the outré inappropriateness of the state of her, it felt like armor.

  I earned this dirt.

  Respect. The dirt.

  “That’s right,” she said. “The Royal Suite. You’ll be expecting us.” She shrugged her backpack off and let it fall to the floor, its pores emitting a satisfying puff of dirt on impact. “It would be great if you could take care of that,” she said, yawning. She raised her arms straight up in the air to stretch out her shoulders, less because they needed it than because this would reveal her pit stains in their full glory. There were, she knew, actual concentric circles stained into them from multiple sweatings. They looked like tree rings and were queerly meaningful to her. She had produced them by living through a dark fairy tale that… that others may not have lived through.

  This shirt would never be washed.

  “Of course,” said the woman, and her voice was the shed hull of a voice now. It was funny, watching her struggle against her overwhelming facial impulses to purse her lips or frown, wrinkle her nose or practice that half-lidded, steely I judge you and find you wanting look that chic Italian women so excel at. She was diminished. Her amateur eyebrow had slunk back to its resting place, where it stayed during the remainder of their transaction, an apostrophe humbled to a comma. In next to no time, Mik and Zuzana were being led to an elevator. Subsequently elevated. Ushered down a preposterously plush hallway. To be reunited with the rest of their party.

  54

  FAKE GRANDMOTHER

  For practical purposes, they had parted at Ciampino Airport on the outskirts of Rome, where the jet chartered by Esther had set them down. Zuzana and Mik had disembarked from the flight—the only passengers on the manifest—and gone through the Customs and Immigration lines like human beings while the others did a vanishing act right out the door of the plane. They’d headed straight for the hotel as the crow flies, while Mik and Zuze took a cab to meet them there.

  In the living room of the suite, awaiting their arrival, Karou was tucked up on a sofa of embroidered lime floral silk. On the gilded table before her rested a map of Vatican City, an open laptop, and a towering sculpture of real fruit, pineapple included—as if you could just pick that up and take a bite. Karou kept eyeing the grapes, but was afraid of touching them and toppling the whole extravaganza.

  “Take them if you want them,” said her fake grandmother, Esther Van de Vloet, who sat beside her, stroking, with one bare foot, the muscled back of the massive dog stretched out before her.

  Esther, though
magnificently wealthy, was not of the breed of magnificently wealthy older women to preserve their youth by way of a doctor’s knife, or keep a joyless diet for the sake of bony elegance, or wear stiff designer clothes better suited to mannequins.

  She was dressed in jeans with a tunic dress she’d picked up at a street market, while her white hair was secured in a slightly messy chignon. She was no ascetic, as was evidenced by the pastry in her hand and the comfortable curvature of hips and breasts. Her youth—or, more accurately, her seeming age of seventy, when she was, in fact, well into her thirteenth decade—was preserved not by surgery or diet but by way of a wish.

  A bruxis, that most powerful of wishes, dearly paid for, and only once in a lifetime. And what most of Brimstone’s traders spent their bruxes on was just this: long life. It was not known precisely how long was long. Karou knew one Malay hunter who had been going on a spry two hundred last she’d seen him. It seemed to come down to a matter of will. Most people grew tired of outliving everyone. For Esther’s part, she said she didn’t know how many more generations of dogs she could bear to bury.

  The current iteration were still young and in the prime of health. They were called Traveller and Methuselah, for the horses, respectively, of generals Lee and Grant. All of Esther’s mastiffs were named after warhorses. This was her sixth pair, and she had finally deigned to honor the Americans.

  Karou eyed the fruit tower. “But it probably took someone hours to build that thing.”

  “And we’ve paid well for their labors. Eat.”

  Karou took some grapes and was glad that the sculpture didn’t topple.

 
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