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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.32
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.32

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

  “You will have to learn to enjoy money now, my dear,” said Esther, as though Karou were an initiate into this life of luxury, and she her guide. In addition to other Karou-related favors Esther had performed for Brimstone over the years—enrolling her in schools, faking identity documents for her, etcetera—she’d been instrumental in setting up her many bank accounts, and surely knew Karou’s net worth better than Karou did herself. “Lesson one: We don’t worry about how our fruit sculptures are built. We just eat them.”

  “I won’t have to learn, actually,” said Karou. “I’m not staying here.”

  Esther glanced around the room. “You don’t like the St. Regis?”

  Karou followed her glance. It was an assault on the senses, as though the designer had been charged to manifest the concept of “opulence” in four or five hundred square feet. High, coved ceiling trimmed in coffered gold. Red velvet drapes that belonged in a vampire’s boudoir, gilded everything, a grand piano with tiered silver dishes of biscotti set out on its gleaming lid. There was even an enormous tapestry of a coronation hanging on the wall, some king or other kneeling to receive his crown. “Well, no,” she admitted. “Not especially. But I mean Earth. I’m not staying.”

  Esther favored her with a slow blink, perhaps taking that instant to imagine leaving behind such a fortune as was Karou’s. “Indeed. Well. Considering the piece of paradise in there”—she nodded her head toward the adjacent sitting room—“I can’t say I blame you.” Esther was… impressed… with Akiva. “Oh my,” she’d whispered when Karou had introduced them. She said now, “Not that I would know, but I suppose one would give up a great deal for love.”

  Karou had said nothing about love, but she couldn’t say she was surprised to find out it was obvious. “I don’t feel like I’m giving anything up,” she said honestly. Her life in Prague was already as remote as a dream. She knew there would be days when she missed Earth, but for now, her mind and heart were wholly engaged in the affairs of Eretz, its shrouded present—Dear Nitid, or godstars, or anyone, please let our friends live—and its tenuous future. And yes, as Esther intimated, Akiva was a big part of it.

  “Well. You can enjoy wealth for now, at least,” said Esther. “Tell me the bath wasn’t lovely.”

  Karou conceded that it had been. The bathroom was larger than her entire Prague apartment, and every square inch of it marble. She’d just emerged; her hair was damp and fragrant on her shoulders.

  She took up the map, flattening it out on the couch between them. “So,” she said, “where are the angels being housed?”

  Karou’s plan was ultimately very simple, so there wasn’t much she needed to know beyond where to find Jael. Vatican City might be small as sovereign nations go, but it made for a hell of a scavenger hunt if you just showed up there and started going through rooms.

  Esther stabbed a bitten nail at the Papal Palace. “Here,” she said. “The lap of luxury.” She knew which windows would give the closest access to the Sala Clementina, the grand audience hall Jael had been given for his personal use, and she knew where the guards were likely to be stationed, both the Swiss Guards and the angels’ own contingent. Her finger dragged over to the Vatican Museum, too, where the bulk of the host were quartered in a wing of ancient sculpture where once upon a normal life, Karou had whiled away an afternoon sketching.

  “Thanks,” said Karou. “That’s a big help.”

  “Of course,” said Esther, settling back into the prissy sofa. “Anything for my favorite fake granddaughter. Now tell me, how is Brimstone, and when is he reopening the portals? I really miss the old monster.”

  Me, too, thought Karou, her heart instantly icing over. She’d been dreading this moment the whole journey here. On the phone, she hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell the truth. The manner of Esther’s greeting had been so unexpectedly effusive—“Oh thank god! Where have you been, child? I’ve been worried sick. Months, and no word from you at all. How could you not call me?”—that it had thrown Karou for a loop. She’d acted like a real grandmother, or at least how Karou imagined a real grandmother might act, spilling emotion willy-nilly, whereas before she’d always seemed to dole it out like allowance: on a schedule, and with some measure of reluctance.

  Karou had decided to tell her the hard news in person, but now that the time had come, suitable words failed to line themselves up in her brain. He’s dead.

  There was a massacre.

  He’s… dead.

  The knocking, just at that moment, felt like providence. Karou leapt up. “Mik and Zuze,” she said, and jogged toward the door. The suite was so sprawling, you really had to jog in order to answer the door in a timely fashion. She did, throwing it open. “What took you so long?” she demanded, sweeping her friends together into a slightly smelly hug. Their smell, not hers.

  “Two hours to get here from the airport,” said Mik. “This city is mad.”

  Karou knew that it was. She’d had an aerial perspective of the great, pulsing ring of humanity that had collected around the closed-off perimeter of the Vatican. Even from the air, she’d heard their chanting, but couldn’t make out the words. From the air, it had reminded her, unsettlingly, of the way zombies in movies press in on human enclaves, trying to get in. And the rest of the city, while not quite as… zombic, was close. “I hope you at least got some more sleep in the cab,” she said.

  They had, all of them, gotten a few hours of much needed sleep on the plane. Karou had lain her head on Akiva’s shoulder, and drifted off to memories of his bare skin against her own. Her dreams had been… more energizing than restful.

  “A little,” replied Zuzana. “But what I really want is a bath.” She stepped back and gave Karou a quick scan. “Look at you. A couple of hours in Italy and you’re a fashionista. How’d you get new clothes already?”

  “That’s what happens here.” Karou led them inside. “When you get to Hawaii, they give you flower leis. In Italy, it’s perfect clothes and leather shoes.”

  “Well, ‘they’ must have been on break when we got here,” Zuzana returned, gesturing to herself. “To the horror of everyone down in the lobby.”

  “Yikes.” Karou cringed to imagine it. “Were they bad?” She’d been spared the scrutiny herself, having arrived glamoured, and by way of the sky and the balcony, not the street and the lobby.

  Mik said, “Zuze has been having glare duels.”

  Zuzana cocked an eyebrow. “You should see the other guy.”

  “I have no doubt,” said Karou. “And ‘they’ weren’t on break. They were just waiting for you here. Esther got us all new clothes.”

  As she said this, they stepped into the living room. “I sent a shopper out for them, in fact,” said Esther, in her singsong Flemish accent. “I hope everything fits.”

  She rose and came forward. “I’ve heard so much about you, dear,” she said warmly, reaching out to enfold Zuzana’s hands in her own. She was, in that moment, very much the picture of a grandmother.

  Esther Van de Vloet, however, was nobody’s grandmother. She had no children and next to no maternal instincts. Playing the role of “grandmother,” she’d been more of a political ally to Karou than an emotional one. In her life, the old woman had midwifed countless diamonds into the possession of the ultrarich, and into the possession of Brimstone, too, dauntlessly doing business with humans and non-humans alike—and subhumans, too, as she called the more nefarious of Brimstone’s traders, with whom she maintained a global information network. She traveled in elite circles as well as shadowy ones—she’d told Karou on the phone that she had a cardinal in one pocket and an arms dealer in the other, and no doubt she had more pockets besides. And she was revered as a nearly mystical figure, first for her mysterious preservation—she’d been tickled to hear a rumor that she’d sold her soul for immortality—as well as for several impossible favors she was rumored to have performed for highly placed people.

  Impossible, that is, unless you happened to have access to magic.<
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  “I’ve heard so much about you, too,” said Zuzana, and Karou saw the glint in her eye that was either a matador sizing up a bull or a bull sizing up a matador. She wasn’t sure which, but Esther had it, too. The look that passed between the two women was mutual regard for a worthy adversary, and Karou was glad they weren’t adversaries, and that they were both on her side.

  There was a brief spell of chitchat. The size of the dogs. Room service. The state of Rome. Angels.

  It was when Esther said, “I’m just glad Karou had the good sense to come to me,” that a slight nostril flare turned Zuzana’s expression more bull than matador.

  “She came to you once before,” Zuzana said, casual with an undercurrent of blame. Karou knew what she was getting at, and tried to intercede.

  “Zuze—” she began, but her friend talked over her.

  “And I’ve been curious ever since. When Karou came to you for wishes…” She tilted her head and gave the older woman a let’s be honest look. “You held out on her, didn’t you?”

  Esther’s smile winked out, her face going smooth and masklike and wary. Not so grandmotherly now.

  “No, Zuze,” Karou said, putting a hand on her friend’s back. They’d argued about this before. “She didn’t. She wouldn’t.” When the portals had burned, last winter, and she’d been desperate to find her chimaera family—desperate for gavriels that could carry her and the thing Razgut up to the sky portal and into Eretz—Karou had gone to Esther first. Esther had said that she had no wish stronger than a lucknow, and Karou had believed her, because why would she lie?

  “I did,” said Esther, solemn and… contrite? Karou stared at her.

  Did she mean that she had held out on her? “What?” she asked, confused.

  “Well, I’m sorry to say it, dear, of course, but I didn’t really believe that you would find him. I’m a greedy old woman. If they were the last wishes I was ever going to get, I had to guard them, didn’t I? I can’t tell you how happy I am that I was wrong.”

  Karou’s stomach turned over. “You weren’t,” she said.

  Esther cocked her head, puzzled. “I wasn’t what?”

  “You weren’t wrong. I didn’t find Brimstone. He’s dead.” She laid it out flat, no emotion in her voice, and watched Esther’s face drain of color.

  “No, oh no. No,” she murmured, her hand going to her mouth. “Oh, Karou. I didn’t want to believe it.” Her eyes filled up with tears.

  “You didn’t tell her yet?” Zuzana asked.

  Karou shook her head. So much for breaking it to her gently. Esther had lied to her. When the portals had just burned and she didn’t know anything, when she was battered and bruised from near-death encounters with both Akiva and Thiago, and no gentle treatment from Brimstone himself, she had gone to her for help. She’d been at the lowest point in her life so far, never mind that she was to sink steadily lower and oh so very much lower over the next months, she hadn’t known that then. She’d trusted Esther, only to find out now that Esther had lied to her face.

  She looked genuinely affected, though, and Karou felt some small remorse for telling her so harshly. “Issa’s well,” she said, to soften the blow, adding a silent prayer that it was so.

  “I’m glad to hear it.” Esther’s voice was tremulous. “And Yasri? Twiga?”

  There was no softening that. Twiga was dead. Yasri was, too, though Yasri’s soul, like Issa’s, had been preserved and left for Karou to find—another hope in a bottle, to relay Brimstone’s very important message. Karou hadn’t been able to go and retrieve her thurible yet, though she knew where it was: in the ruins of the temple of Ellai where she and Akiva had spent their month of sweet nights, a lifetime past.

  To Esther, she just gave a small head shake. Resurrection was more than she was willing to go into. Esther no more knew what Brimstone had used the teeth for—and the gems that had been her own trade with him—than Karou had known before she broke the wishbone, and she wasn’t feeling inclined to be forthcoming just now.

  “Very many are dead,” she said, trying and failing to keep the emotion out of her voice. “And very many more will die unless we stop these angels and close the portal.”

  “And you think you can do that?” asked Esther.

  I hope, thought Karou, but she said, simply, “Yes.”

  Zuzana spoke up again, and whether she was matador or bull, she was clear-eyed, fixed, and focused. “Some of those wishes wouldn’t be unwelcome now.”

  “Oh, well,” said Esther, flustered. “Now I truly don’t have any more. I’m so sorry. If I had only known, I might have conserved them better. Oh, my poor dear,” she said to Karou, clasping her hand.

  Zuzana’s mouth was a straight line. “Uh-huh,” was all she said.

  Perhaps feeling that some social grace was called for to spackle over Zuzana’s… lack thereof, Mik said, awkwardly, “Well, thanks for the, um, jet. And the hotel and everything.”

  “You’re welcome,” said Esther, and Karou felt that the time for introductions and pleasantries—and unpleasantries—had come to an end. There was work to be done.

  She turned to her friends. “The bathroom’s down the hall. It’s not too shabby. Clothes are in the big bedroom. Play dress-up.”

  Zuzana’s brow creased. “And the others?” She hesitated. “Eliza? Is she… any better?”

  A new tension clenched in Karou. What could she say about Eliza? Eliza Jones. What a strange business it was. They only knew her name because she had ID on her, not because she was capable of telling them. From there, a quick Google search had yielded startling results. Elazael, descended of an angel. As crazy as it all sounded—just the kind of thing Zuzana would, once upon a time, have made a T-shirt in mockery of—the fact that she was speaking fluent Seraphic did lend it an undeniable credibility.

  As for the things she had said in Seraphic, they were surpassingly creepy, and flowed out of her in some kind of fugue. And to Zuzana’s question: Was she any better? Karou didn’t know how to answer. She had tried, back in Morocco, to use her own gift of healing to mend her, but how could she, when she couldn’t begin to sense what was broken?

  Akiva was trying now, in some way of his own, and Karou had hope, leading her friends to the sitting room door, that she might open it and find the two of them just sitting there, deep in conversation.

  “In here,” she said, reaching for the doorknob. With a glance back at Esther, she made an effort to smile. She hated tension, and wished, not for the first time, that the older woman was a warmer fish. But she knew, as she had always known, that every time Esther had acted on her behalf—including the year she’d brought her home to Antwerp with her for Christmas, conjuring a magazine-worthy living room full of gifts, including a fantastical hand-carved rocking horse that Karou had had to leave there and had never seen again—she’d been compensated for her trouble.

  That wasn’t friendship, or family. It was business, and smiles weren’t required.

  But she smiled anyway, and Esther smiled back. There was sadness in her eyes, regret, maybe even penitence, and later Karou would remember thinking, Well, that’s something at least.

  And it was.

  Just not what she thought.

  55

  LUNATIC POETRY

  Akiva had descended, many times now, through dark levels of mind to the place where he worked magic, and he was no closer to understanding where it was—internal or external. How deep or distant, or how far it went.

  There was that sense—not exact, but near enough—of passing though a trapdoor to another realm, and as he had pushed farther and farther, never meeting any kind of boundary, he had begun to envision an ocean vastness, and then even that was insufficient. Space. Limitless.

  He did believe that it was his. That it was him. But it seemed to go on forever—a private universe, a dimension whose infinity transcended the notion of “mind” that he’d always held—of thoughts as existing within the sphere of his own head, a function of his brain.


  What hugeness was a mind? A spirit? A soul? And if it didn’t correlate to the physical space his body displaced, then where was it? It dizzied him. Each time he emerged, feeling vague and drained, it gnawed at him, his frustration with his own ignorance.

  And that was before he attempted entering another person’s mind.

  He sensed, at the threshold of Eliza’s mind, another trapdoor, another realm as expansive as his own, but distinct from it. Infinities are not for casual exploration. You could fall and keep falling. You could get lost. She had. Could he draw her back out? He wanted to try. For her, because the idea of such helplessness appalled him and he wanted to rescue her from it. And for himself, too, because of her ceaseless, plaintive streams of language. It was his language, curiously both familiar and exotic—Seraphic, but spoken in tones and patterns he had never heard, and… godstars, the things she was saying…

  Beasts and a blackening sky, the openers of doors and the lights in the darkness.

  Chosen. Fallen.

  Maps but I am lost. Skies but they are dead.

  Cataclysm.

  Meliz.

  “Lunatic poetry,” Zuzana had dubbed it, and it was both: poetic and lunatic, but it struck a resonance within Akiva, like a tuning fork that matched his own pitch. It meant something, something important, and so he crossed from his own infinity to hers. He didn’t know if this could be done—or, if it could, whether it should. It felt wrong, like transgressing a border. There was resistance, but he penetrated it. He searched for her but couldn’t find her. He called for her and she didn’t answer. The space around him felt different from his own. It was dense and turbid. Kinetic. Aching, uncalm, and afraid. There was wrongness and torment here, but it was beyond his understanding, and he didn’t dare go deeper.

  He couldn’t find her. He couldn’t bring her out. He couldn’t. But he tried, tithing his own pain, to soothe her chaos, at least.

  When he came back out and opened his eyes, it was with a feeling of reclaiming himself, and he saw that Karou was present, and Zuzana and Mik. Virko, too, though the chimaera had been here all along. And right before him, Eliza. Her manner had quieted, but Akiva saw with his eyes what he’d already known in his heart: that he hadn’t fixed her.

 
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