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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.34
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.34

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

  Okay, exactly that kind of devouring, but from the biscotti’s point of view.

  KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.

  It was alarming, the force of it. An StB knock—or Stasi, or Gestapo. Pick your secret police. It had a they come for you in the night weight to it—and… nobody sashays blithely to answer a they come for you in the night knock.

  Except that Esther did. She’d been in the bedroom in the back; they hadn’t seen much of her since the others left. She came forth now, still barefoot and striding calmly through the living room without a sideward glance. As she vanished down the corridor to the door, dogs flanking her, she said, “You should gather your things now, children.”

  Zuzana’s gaze flew to Mik, and his to her. Her heartbeat seemed to lurch to its feet with the same swiftness as the mastiffs had, and then she herself followed suit, jumping up. “What?” she asked at the same moment Mik said, “Jesus.”

  “Jesus what?”

  “Get your stuff,” he said. “Pack your bag.” And Zuzana still didn’t know what was happening, but then there were men coming in, two of them, large and in fine suits, and they had wireless com things hooked onto their big, dumb ears and Zuzana’s first thought was Holy, they really are secret police, but then she spotted the crest embroidered on their coat pockets, and her fear transformed to the first simmer of outrage.

  Hotel security. Esther was throwing them out.

  “All right,” said one of the men. “Let’s go. It’s time for you to leave.”

  “What do you mean?” Zuzana faced them down. “We’re guests.”

  “Not anymore you’re not,” said Esther from the doorway. “I tolerated you for Karou’s sake. And now that Karou… Well.”

  Zuzana swung toward her. The old woman was leaning there with her arms crossed and her dogs pacing around her. There was a look of predatory calculation in her eyes, and Zuzana’s immediate impression was that a snake had swallowed the downy-haired grandma and somehow become her. The liveried hotel thugs weren’t a step into the room before the weight of what this meant slammed down on Zuzana.

  Karou.

  “What have you done?” she demanded, because if Esther was throwing them out, it meant that she anticipated having no further contact with Karou—not just tonight, but ever.

  “Done? I’ve just alerted the management that I find myself overrun with uncouth young people. They knew at once who I meant. It seems you made quite an impression downstairs.”

  “I mean, what have you done to Karou?” She hurled the words and started to hurl herself, and in that moment she could have believed that she was a neek-neek, sting and all, and woe to lion-sized dogs and beefy bullies who stood in her way.

  She was a neek-neek that was easily captured in midair, however, the nearest bully hooking her wrist with a practiced grab and holding tight. “Let go of me!” she snarled at him, and tried to thrash her arm free.

  No luck there. His grip was ridiculous, like he spent all his spare time squeezing one of those stupid rubber balls, but then Mik lunged in and grabbed the hand that held her. “Let go of her,” he demanded, and, in an uneven match of violin player versus brute, he tried to peel back the thick ugly fingers from Zuzana’s wrist. No luck there, either; Zuzana was able to register, just barely, through her outrage, how humiliatingly un-samurai-like the pair of them were at this moment. With his free hand, the guard easily shoved Mik down the corridor to the front door—so much for getting their stuff—and Zuzana after him. Her wrist throbbed where he’d held her, but that was scarcely noteworthy in the tornado of rage and worry that had become her mind.

  Refusing to be herded, Zuzana broke aside, darting around the guard to come face-to-face with Traveler and Methuselah, barring the way to their mistress. The dogs regarded her. One of them lifted the lips from his teeth in a bored kind of growl, as if to say, See these here choppers?

  I’ve seen scarier, she wanted to tell them. Hell, she wanted to bare her teeth right back, but instead, she just held her ground and lifted her eyes to Esther. The look on the old woman’s face—stony apathy—was scarcely human. This wasn’t a person, Zuzana thought. This was greed wearing skin. “What did you do? What did you do, Esther? What. Did. You. Do.”

  Esther breathed out a sigh. “Are you an idiot? What do you think?”

  “I think you’re a backstabbing sociopath, that’s what I think.”

  Esther just shook her head, a blaze of scorn displacing her apathy. “Do you suppose I wanted it this way? I was happy with the way things were. It’s not my fault Brimstone is dead.”

  “What does that have to do with anything?” Zuzana demanded.

  “Come now. I know you’re not the little doll you look like. Life is choices, and only fools choose their allies with their heart.”

  “Choose their allies? What is this, Survivor?” Zuzana was overcome with disgust of her own. Esther had “chosen” the angels, clearly. Because Brimstone was dead, and she was looking only to her own advantage. In that moment, and knowing what she did about Esther’s true age, she had a flash of insight about her. “You,” she said, and her disgust made a thick coating around the word. “I bet you were a Nazi collaborator, weren’t you?”

  To her surprise, Esther laughed. “You say that like it’s a bad thing. Anyone with sense would choose to live. Do you know what’s foolish? Dying for a belief. Look where we are. Rome. Think of the Christians fed to the lions because they wouldn’t renounce their faith. As if their god wouldn’t forgive them their desire to live? If you have no more self-preservation instinct than that, maybe you don’t deserve life.”

  “Are you kidding me? You’re going to blame the Christians, not the Romans? How about they just don’t throw them to the goddamn lions in the first place? Don’t delude yourself. You’re the monster here.”

  Esther, abruptly, had had enough. “It’s time for you to go now,” she said, brisk. “And you should know that upon her decease, all of Karou’s assets go to her next of kin.” A thin and joyless smile. “Her devoted grandmother, of course. So don’t bother trying to access those accounts.”

  Upon her decease, upon her decease. Zuzana wouldn’t hear it. Her mind batted the words away.

  Esther motioned to the hallway and the knob-knuckled paws of the security guards hoisted them toward it. “You can keep the clothes,” Esther added. “You’re welcome. Oh, and don’t forget the vegetable.”

  Vegetable.

  She meant Eliza. All this while, Eliza had remained quiet. She was catatonic, and Esther was going to throw her out on the street, and Mik and Zuzana, too, with nothing.

  Upon her decease. The tornado had gone from Zuzana’s mind, leaving whispers in its wake. What had happened? Could they be…?

  Shut up.

  “Let me get our bags, at least,” Mik asked, sounding so calm and reasonable that Zuzana was almost incensed. How dare he be calm and reasonable?

  “I gave you a chance,” said Esther. “You elected to stand here insulting me instead. As I said before, life is choices.”

  “Let me at least get my violin,” he pleaded. “We’ve got nothing, and no way to get home. At least I’ll be able to play in a piazza for train fare.”

  The mental image of them panhandling must have appealed to her sense of class stratification, not to mention degradation. “Fine.” She flicked her wrist, and Mik took off down the hall, fast. When he came back he was holding his violin case in his arms like a baby, not swinging it by its handle. “Thank you,” he actually said, as if Esther had done them a kindness. Zuzana glared at him.

  Had he lost his mind?

  “Get Eliza,” he said to her, and she did, and Eliza came along like a sleepwalker. Zuzana halted just once, to face Esther across the living room.

  “I’ve said this before, but I was always kidding.” She wasn’t kidding now. She’d never been more serious. “I will get you for this. I promise you.”

  Esther laughed. “That’s not how the world works, dear. But you can try, if it makes you
happy. Do your worst.”

  “Wait for it,” Zuzana seethed, and the security guard shoved, and she was propelled down the passage, Eliza at her side, and out into the grand hall to the elevator. Subsequently de-elevated. And, at last, frog-marched through that gleaming lobby, subject to stares and whispers and, most stingingly, the haughty amusement of her eyebrow challenger—who again dared, in light of this shift in circumstances, to raise one of her overplucked, starved-looking amateur brows in a crude but effective I told you so.

  The burn of mortification was like passing through a field of nettles—a thousand small pains merging into a haze—but it was nothing next to Zuzana’s heartsickness and panic at the thought of their friends, even now at the mercy of their enemies.

  What was happening to them?

  Esther must have warned the angels. What had they promised her? Zuzana wondered. And more important, how could she and Mik prevent her from getting it? How? They had nothing. Nothing but a violin.

  “I can’t believe you thanked her,” she muttered as they were shoved through the doors and out into the street. Rome came crashing in on them, its vitality and sultry air a marked change from the artificial calm and cool of the interior.

  “She let me get my violin,” he said with a shrug, still holding it to his chest like it was a baby or a puppy. He sounded… pleased. It was too much. Zuzana stopped walking—they had no destination but “away” anyway—and swung to face him. He didn’t just sound pleased. He looked it. Or keyed-up, at least. Practically vibrating.

  “What’s with you?” she asked him, at a loss and ready to just sit down and cry.

  “I’ll tell you in a minute. Come on. We can’t stay here.”

  “Yeah. I think that’s been established.”

  “No. I mean we can’t stay anywhere that she can find us, and she will come looking. Come on.” There was urgency in his voice now, puzzling her even more. He hooked his arm around her to steer her, and she drew Eliza along with them—a dreamlike figure who seemed, almost ethereally, to drift, and the crowd subsumed them, parade-thick and easy to get lost in. And so the human density that they’d earlier cursed became their refuge, and they escaped.

  58

  THE WRONG UGLINESS

  All was as it should be. The heavy window shutter was unlatched, as promised, and now Karou had only to get it open in silence. It wanted to creak; its resistance dared her to push it faster and let it squeal. It had been a while since she’d lamented the lack of the “nearly useless wishes” she used to take for granted—scuppies she’d plundered from a teacup in Brimstone’s shop and worn as a necklace—but she found herself wanting one now. A bead between her fingers, a wish for the window’s silence.

  There. She didn’t need it. It took patience to open a window with such excruciating slowness while her heart thundered, but she did it. The chamber was open to them, dark but for a rectangle of moonlight stretched out like a welcome mat.

  They passed inside one by one, their shapes cutting the moonspill to shards. It re-formed in its entirety as they stepped out of the way. They paused. There was a sense of letting the darkness settle, like water sinking beneath oil.

  One last breath before approach.

  The bed looked out of place. This was a reception hall, the most famous in the palace. The bed had been brought in, and you had to give them credit for finding a Baroque monstrosity that almost held its own in the fanciful chamber. It was a big four-poster, carved with saints and angels. Twisted blankets traced a form. The form breathed. On the bedside table sat the helm Jael wore to conceal his hideousness from humanity. He shifted slightly as they watched, turning. His breath sounded even and deep.

  Karou’s feet weren’t touching the floor. It wasn’t even conscious, this floating; her ability had become natural enough now that it was simply part and parcel of her stealth: Why touch the floor if you don’t have to?

  She moved forward, gliding. Akiva would go around to the far side of the bed, and be ready.

  This moment would be the most tenuous: waking Jael and keeping him silent while they offered up the “persuasion” that was the crux of Karou’s plan. If it went smoothly, they could be back out the window and away inside of two minutes. She held a wad of burlap in her hand to stifle any sounds he might make before they had a chance to convince him he’d do better to lie quiet. And, of course, after that, to muffle his sounds of pain.

  Bloodless didn’t mean painless.

  Karou had never seen Jael, though she thought she could imagine his unique brand of ugliness well enough from all the reports she’d heard of it. She was braced for it, when the sleeping angel stirred again and knocked his pillow askew. She was expecting ugliness, and ugliness was what she got.

  But it was the wrong ugliness.

  Eyes flew open from feigned sleep—fine eyes in a ravaged face, but there was no slash, no scar from brow to chin, only a bruise-colored bloat and depths of depravity deeper even than the emperor’s. “Blue lovely,” said the thing, with a throat-rattling purr.

  Karou never had a chance with the wad of burlap. She moved fast, but he had been lying in wait—expecting her—and she wasn’t yet near enough for her lunge to smother his cry.

  Razgut had time to shriek, “Our guests have arrived!” before she caught his foul face under the rough weave of the burlap and shut him up. He sputtered to silence but it didn’t matter. The alarm was sounded.

  The doors crashed open. Dominion flooded in.

  59

  SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY

  In the Royal Suite of the St. Regis, Esther Van de Vloet stood in the doorway to the bathroom, her pace arrested mid-step by the sight of… of a violin, lying in the tub.

  A violin, lying in the tub.

  A violin.

  …

  …

  …

  Her cry was guttural, a croak almost, as a toad in extremis. Her dogs flew to her, upset, but she shoved them violently away, threw herself to her knees, and reached, groping, up and into the hollowness beneath the marble vanity.

  All disbelief, she groped and reached, too frantic even to curse, and when she cried out again, collapsing back on the marble floor, it was an inarticulate torrent of pure emotion that flowed from her.

  The emotion was unfamiliar to her. It was defeat.

  In under an hour, Zuzana had perfected the art of the angry sigh. The sky remained resoundingly empty, and that wasn’t a good sign. Enough time had passed since Karou, Akiva, and Virko left the St. Regis for them to have routed Jael, but there was no evidence of it, and Zuzana’s phone screen remained as blank as the sky. Of course she’d texted warnings, and had even tried calling, but the calls went straight to voice mail and it reminded her of the awful days after Karou left Prague—and left Earth—when Zuzana hadn’t known if she was alive or dead.

  “What are we going to do?”

  They’d ducked into a narrow alley, Mik acting strangely furtive, and Zuzana seated Eliza on a stoop before slumping down beside her. This was one of those intensely Italian nooks—tiny, as if once upon a time all people had been Zuzana’s size—where medieval nudged up against Renaissance on the bones of ancient. On top of which some knob had contributed twenty-first century to the party by way of sloppy graffiti enjoining them to “Apri gli occhi! Ribellati!”

  Open your eyes! Rebel!

  Why, Zuzana wondered, do anarchists always have such terrible handwriting?

  Mik knelt before her and laid his violin case on her lap. As soon as he released it, its weight sunk into her.

  Its… weight? “Mik, why does your violin case weigh fifty pounds?”

  “I was wondering,” he said, instead of answering. “In fairy tales, are the heroes, um, ever… thieves?”

  “Thieves?” Zuzana narrowed her eyes in suspicion. “I don’t know. Probably. Robin Hood?”

  “Not a fairy tale, but I’ll take it. A noble thief.”

  “Jack and the Beanstalk. He stole all that stuff from the giant.”
/>
  “Right. Less noble. I always felt bad for the giant.” He flicked open the clasp on the case. “But I don’t feel bad about this.” He paused. “I hope we can count this as one of my tasks. Retroactively.”

  And he flipped up the lid and the case was filled with… medallions. Filled. They varied in size from a quarter’s span to a saucer’s, in an array of patinas of bronze from brassy bright to dull dark brown. Some were entirely engulfed in verdigris, and all were roughly minted and graven with the same image: a ram’s head with thick coiled horns and knowing, slit-pupiled eyes.

  Brimstone.

  “So,” said Mik in a faux-lazy drawl, “when fake grandma said she didn’t have any more wishes? She lied. But look. Self-fulfilling prophecy. Now she really doesn’t.”

  60

  NO ONE DIES TODAY

  The doors crashed open. Dominion flooded in.

  Karou’s first impulse was to reach for pain to tithe for a glamour, and the pain was all too easy to find, because Razgut caught her wrist in his crushing grip and held her, so that it didn’t matter.

  Visible or not, she was caught.

  She flickered in and out, struggling with the Fallen. His chuckling sounded like a purr, and his grip was unbreakable. She had her crescent-moon blades to fall back on, but they had determined to shed blood only as a last resort, and so her hand paused on her hilt as she watched the soldiers, implacable and many, swords drawn and faces blank, file into the room. Once again, as had happened and happened over these past days, the turn of time went thick as resin. Viscous. Sluggish. How much can happen in a second? In three? In ten?

  How many seconds does it take to lose everything you care about?

  Esther, she thought, and in the midst of her frantic scuffle she was bitter but unsurprised. They had been expected here. This wasn’t the personal guard of six that Jael kept to guard his chamber. Here were thirty soldiers at least. Forty?

  And there. Through the open doors, unhurried, to take up a position behind a deep buffer of soldiers, sauntered Jael. Karou saw him before he saw her, because he was looking straight ahead, unwavering. His ugliness was all she’d heard and more: the knotty rope of scar tissue and the way the wings of his nostrils seemed to creep out from beneath it like they were trapped there—as trampled mushrooms going softly to rot. His mouth was its own disaster, collapsing in on scraps of teeth, his breath coming and going through it like the squelch of steps in mud. But that wasn’t the worst thing about the emperor of seraphim. His expression was. It was intricate with hate. Even his smile was party to it: as malicious as it was exultant.

 
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