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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.33
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.33

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

  He let out a deep breath. His disappointment felt like loss. Karou came to him. She had a decanter of water, and poured out a glass. While he drank, she laid a cool hand to his brow and leaned on the arm of his chair, her hip to his shoulder. And this was an astonishing new threshold of normal—Karou leaning against him—and it lifted his spirits. She’d spoken of their happiness as though it were an undeniable fact, no matter what happened—apart from everything else and not subject to it. It was a new idea for him, that happiness wasn’t a mystical place to be reached or won—some bright terrain beyond the boundary of misery, a paradise waiting for them to find it—but something to carry doggedly with you through everything, as humble and ordinary as your gear and supplies. Food, weapons, happiness.

  With hope that the weapons could in time vanish from the picture.

  A new way of living.

  “She seems more peaceful,” Karou said, studying Eliza. “That’s something.”

  “Not enough.”

  She didn’t say, You can try again later, because they both knew there would be no later. Night was falling. They would leave—he and Karou and Virko—very soon, and they wouldn’t be coming back here. Eliza Jones, then, must remain lost, and, with her, the “Cataclysm” and all her secrets. The problem was, Akiva sensed a peril in letting it go. “I want to understand what she’s saying,” he said. “What’s happened to her.”

  “Could you tell anything?”

  “Chaos. Fear.” He shook his head. “I know nothing of magic, Karou. Not even basic principles. I have a sense that we have, each of us, a…” He groped for words. “A scheme of energies. I don’t know what to call it. It’s more than mind, and more than soul. Dimensions.” Still groping. “Geographies. But I don’t know the lay of it, or how to navigate it, or even how to see. It’s like feeling forward in darkness.”

  She smiled a little, and there was effortful lightness in her voice when she asked, “And how would you know what darkness is like?” Her hand brushed his feathers and they sparked to her touch. “You are your own light.”

  And Akiva almost said, I know what darkness is, because he did, in all the worst senses of the word, but he didn’t want Karou to think he was retreating to the bleak state she’d drawn him out of in Morocco. So he held his tongue and was glad he had when she added, so softly he nearly didn’t hear, “And mine.”

  And he looked at her and was filled with the sight of her, and felt, as he had so many times before in her presence—Madrigal and Karou—new life, new growth. Tendrils of sensation and emotion that he had never known before her and never would have without her, and they were something real. Roots branching and reaching, past every trapdoor and through any number of dark levels, and the “scheme of energies” that he had described so inadequately—the unknowable dimensions and geographies of self—was changed by it, like a dark quarter of space when a new star bursts into being. Akiva was made brighter. Fuller.

  Only love could do that. He caught Karou’s hand, small and cool, within his own, and held on to it as he held on to the sight of her. The happiness was there, ordinary equipment, stowed right alongside the worry and sorrow and resolve, and it didn’t solve anything, but it lightened it.

  “Ready?” he asked.

  It was time to go see his uncle.

  They said their good-byes without saying “good-bye,” because Akiva told them it was bad luck to do so, like tempting fate. Whatever words they used, there was a shadow over the lot of them, because it was to be no brief parting. Virko, in what would be his last language lesson for a while, taught Zuzana how to say, “I kiss your eyes and leave my heart in your hands,” which was an old chimaera farewell and of course led to Zuzana pantomiming a reaction to having a beating heart thrust into her hands.

  Esther fussed over them, grandmotherly again and something close to contrite. She made sure they had the map, and knew the way. She asked, concerned, what they intended to do against so many enemies, but Karou didn’t tell her. “Not much,” was her reply. “Just persuade them to go home.”

  Esther looked troubled, but didn’t press. “I’ll order champagne,” she said, “to celebrate your victory. I only wish you could be here to drink it with us.”

  Eliza, all the while, sat staring.

  “You’ll see to it she gets some help?” Karou asked Zuzana and Mik. “After we’re gone?”

  Zuzana’s face immediately took on a hard set and she wouldn’t meet Karou’s eyes, but Mik nodded. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You have enough to worry about.”

  He understood, if Zuzana didn’t, why things had to be this way. He had reminded her himself, several times, on the way here. “Remember how we’re not samurai in even the smallest way?” he’d asked. “We can’t help with this. We’d only weigh Virko down and get in the way. And if there’s more fighting…”

  He hadn’t elaborated.

  “Thank you,” Karou said, with one last, helpless look at Eliza. “I know it’s a lot to leave you with, but I showed you how to access money. Please, use it. For her, for you. Anything you need.”

  “Money,” Zuzana muttered, as though it were worse than useless, an insult.

  Karou turned to her. “If there’s anything for you to come back to,” she promised, hating the if as though the word itself were her enemy, “I’ll find a way to come get you.”

  “How? You’re going to close the portal.”

  “We have to, but there are more portals. I’ll find them.”

  “What, you’ll have time to be hunting for portals?”

  “I don’t know.” It was a refrain. I don’t know what we’ll find when we get back. I don’t know if there will be any hope left to work with in all the world. I don’t know how I’ll find another portal. I don’t know if I’ll be alive. I don’t know.

  Zuzana, her hard expression unchanged, tipped her head forward in a kind of slow-motion collision that Karou didn’t recognize for a hug until, at the last minute, her friend’s arms went around her. “Be safe,” Zuzana whispered. “No heroics. If you have to save yourself, do it, and come back here. Both of you. All three of you. We can make Virko a human body or something. Just promise me, if you get there and everyone’s…” She didn’t say it. Dead. “You’ll just keep out of sight and come back here and live.”

  Karou couldn’t promise that, as Zuzana must have known, because she didn’t give her a chance to answer, but plowed ahead with, “Good. Thank you. That’s all I wanted to hear,” as though a promise had been given. Karou returned her hug, hating good-byes like she’d hated the if, and then there was nothing left to do but go.

  56

  MY SWEET BARBARIAN

  Cleanliness, at last. Mik and Zuzana took turns in the bathroom, so that one of them could sit with Eliza, while also keeping a vigil for breaking angel news. The TV was on low, and Esther’s laptop was open with several feeds constantly refreshing, but nothing had happened yet, and wouldn’t be likely to for a while

  Karou, Zuzana knew, had a stop to make before the Vatican: the Museo Civico di Zoologia. It was a natural history museum, and there had been a calm defiance in her when she declared her intention to go there. It had half broken Zuzana’s heart, knowing what it was for—to replenish her store of teeth, in case souls had been saved, at least, in the battle—and that she wouldn’t be there to help, whatever it was they found when they got back to Eretz.

  Damned helplessness. Zuzana sensed a T-shirt design coming on.

  BE A SAMURAI.

  BECAUSE YOU JUST NEVER KNOW WHAT’S BEHIND

  THE FREAKING SKY.

  No one would understand it, but who cares? She’d just glare at them until they went away. That worked in almost any situation.

  No, she chided herself. It did not. Because if it did, there would be no need to be a samurai, would there?

  She looked at Eliza, beside her, and sighed. Eliza didn’t seem to need or register company, but the idea of leaving her alone in the corner like a piece of softly murmuring furnitu
re just didn’t sit right. Zuzana was no nurse, and had no instincts for it, but she was mindful that the young woman needed someone to take care of her basic human needs for her—food and drink just for starters—and she was more docile now, at least, whatever Akiva had done. Less agitated, and that made it easier.

  What they were going to do about her after today, Zuzana couldn’t think about right now. Tomorrow was soon enough. When all the tension of today was a thing of the past, and they’d had a full night’s sleep in an actual bed, and a meal that had never even been on the same continent as couscous.

  Tomorrow.

  But for now, it was good to be clean. It felt like rebirth—Venus emerging from a layer of crud—and the clothes Esther’s shopper had chosen were elegant and understated, of fine materials and nearly a perfect fit. Zuzana’s filthy stuff, zebra sneakers included, she’d stacked neatly and wrapped in several layers of plastic bags; it felt like a betrayal, especially after her old shoes sat next to her new ones on the floor and she got the idea that they were being forced to train their replacements. She scuffs a bit, they’d tell the new leather numbers, fond tears seeping from their rheumy old-shoe eyes. And she stands on tiptoe a lot, so be ready for that.

  “Sentimental of you,” Mik had commented when she came back into the sitting room and shoved the bundle into her backpack.

  “Not at all,” she’d airily declared. “I’m saving them for the Museum of Otherworldly Adventure that I’m going to found. Exhibit title: ‘What not to wear camping in freezing mountains while forging an alliance between enemy armies.’ ”

  “Uh-huh.”

  Mik, taking his turn in the bathroom, felt no such sentimentality for his dirty clothes. He was happy to drop them in the trash, though before he could do that, he fished furtively into the pocket of his old jeans and withdrew…

  … the ring.

  The maybe-silver, maybe-antique ring he’d been in the act of purchasing when the world went crazy. He turned it over in his fingers, looking at it closely for the first time since. Zuzana was always in proximity (and thank god for that); he hadn’t had a chance to take it out. It seemed to him a rough thing now, especially in the context of this ridiculous hotel. Back at Aït Benhaddou it had fit right in: primitive and tarnished, maybe a little lopsided. Here it looked like something that had fallen off a Visigoth’s pinkie during the Sack of Rome. Barbarian jewelry.

  Perfect.

  For my sweet barbarian, he thought, and as he went to tuck it into the pocket of his posh new Italian trousers, he fumbled and it spun from his fingers. It rang against the marble floor and rolled like it was trying to escape. Mik followed, thinking maybe it was real silver after all, because supposedly real silver makes that chime sound, and then it escaped into a three-finger gap beneath the marble vanity.

  “Come back here,” he whispered. “I have plans for you.”

  He dropped to his knees to grope for it as, in the sitting room, his sweet barbarian held water to Eliza Jones’s ever-murmuring lips to coax her to drink, and, in the smaller bedroom in the back of the suite, with the door closed and music playing to mask her voice, Esther Van de Vloet made a phone call.

  It wasn’t an easy phone call for her to make, but the most that could be said in her defense was that she had hoped not to make it. She hesitated for a fraction of a second, and though a shadow of her true age may have haunted her face, no indecision did. She forced out a harsh breath and got on with it.

  After all, power doesn’t maintain itself.

  Karou and her companions cut over the rooftops of Rome, their errand at the natural history museum behind them and only Jael ahead. The night air was thick with Italian summer, the cityscape below them a muted canvas of rooftops and monuments, lights and domes, cut by a snake of dark that was the Tiber River. Honking of horns filtered up as they flew, and traffic whistles, along with snatches of music, and—growing louder the nearer they drew to the Vatican—chanting. It was unintelligible, but followed the rhythm of liturgy.

  There was a stink, too—the unmistakable aroma of humans packed too close for too long. Judging by its acrid edge, Karou figured that once pilgrims achieved a spot near the barrier, they didn’t want to give it up for something so temporal as bodily function.

  Nice.

  The news had reported a public health crisis, as people were bringing elderly and infirm loved ones to the perimeter in the hope that the mere proximity of angels might cure their diseases—or, scarcely to be hoped, that the angels might actually come out to bless them. Claims of miracles had been made, and though they were unproven, they nevertheless overshadowed the documented number of deaths resulting from this practice.

  Miracles will do that.

  Seen from the sky, the Vatican was a wedge—if a lumpy wedge, like a collapsing slice of pie. Within the boundary, its vast circular plaza was its most visible feature, enclosed by Michelangelo’s famous curved colonnades. It was incongruously choked with military vehicles, tanks dozing like ugly beetles, jeeps coming and going, even troop transports.

  Just beyond the north colonnade lay their destination: the Papal Palace. Karou led the way.

  Esther had been able to provide them, thanks to her “pocket cardinal,” with the precise location of the chambers Jael had been given for his use, and the three of them swung in a broad circle above the cluster of buildings—the palace was not one, but several, grown together—scanning the rooftops for signs of seraph presence.

  They expected guards. Human soldiers were concentrated on the ground—they could see soldiers patrolling with dogs—and certainly at the entrances to the building, both inside and out. But they still expected to find Dominion posted to the rooftop, too, because this was standard operating procedure in Eretz, where an attack was as likely to come from the sky as the ground.

  And there they were. Two.

  Easy.

  “Don’t harm them,” Karou reminded Akiva and Virko—needlessly, she hoped—and felt them move off. She watched the guards, and saw Akiva’s and Virko’s moon-cast shadows descend on them. Vividly she recalled the tidal wave of shadow chased by fire that had engulfed the company back in the Adelphas, and felt no pity as the soldiers, in unison, stiffened and then slumped.

  Quick blows to the head. They went limp but didn’t collapse. Their bodies seemed to drift in slow motion to the rooftop, as Akiva and Virko caught them and laid them quietly down. They’d have goose eggs and headaches later, but no more than that. It wasn’t a matter of whether they deserved mercy so much as the parameters of this mission: no blood.

  Swift and bloodless, that was the point. No carnage, no crime scene, just persuasion. They should be in and out before these two soldiers even woke up and rubbed their aching heads.

  Karou set down lightly and cast a brief glance at one of them. Unconscious, he looked like any number of the Misbegotten from the Kirin caves. Handsome, young, fair. Villain and victim both, she thought, and she recalled Liraz’s proposal that fingers be taken instead of lives, and wondered: Was it possible even Dominion soldiers could learn to live in the new world, if ever there was one? Did they deserve the choice? Looking at him like this, to all appearances asleep and innocent, it was easy to think: yes.

  Maybe when he woke, his eyes would fill with hate, and he would be beyond hope.

  This was a worry for another day. They were here. Jael’s windows were in sight. The chanting at the perimeter enclosed them like the roar of the sea, but the effect was a seeming sphere of quiet within.

  “I’ve thought of a better idea,” Karou had announced back at the Kirin caves, so certain that this was the way to avoid an apocalypse. A quick and quiet end to this drama. No clash, no weapons, no “monsters.”

  The angels just melt away.

  Simple.

  “Okay,” she said, pausing to text Zuzana before turning off her phone and tucking it away. “Let’s do it.”

  57

  FED TO THE LIONS

  There came a knock at the door of
the Royal Suite, and it was not casual. The dogs, Traveller and Methuselah, leapt to their feet, instantly alert.

  Zuzana and Mik didn’t leap up, but they, too, were instantly alert. They were at the window of the living room now, having transferred from the sitting room on account of the windows on this side facing toward the Vatican. Their eyes were wandering between the TV screen and the slice of sky they had revealed by cranking the red velvet curtains apart, as if something was going to play out on one or the other.

  And something would, as soon as Karou and Akiva were successful in their mission: The “heavenly host” would rise up into the sky and hightail it the hell back to Uzbekistan and the portal there. Don’t let the… uh, sky flap thing… hit you on the way out.

  Sky or TV. Where would they see it first?

  Zuzana’s phone lay on the arm of her chair so she would know at once if Karou called or texted. There had been one message so far.

  Arrived. Going in. *kiss/punch*.

  And so. It was happening. Zuzana couldn’t keep still. Sky—TV—phone—Mik, that was the circuit of her glances, with pauses on Eliza, too.

  The girl remained subdued and remote, her eyes glassy but not still, not entirely. They’d rest for a time, then flick back and forth, her pupils dilating and shrinking, even when the light was steady. It was as though her mind was participating in a different reality than her body, her eyes seeing different sights, her lips shaping the soft lunatic poetry that Zuzana was glad not to be able to understand. When Karou had translated some of it for her, it had been too eerie for comfort, some kind of horror movie with lots of devouring. And not the kind of devouring that went down between Zuzana and the plate of chocolate-dipped biscotti she liberated from atop the piano.

 
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