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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.35
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.35

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

  “Nephew,” he said, and the single wet word was layered with enmity and triumph.

  Jael peered out between the shoulders of his soldiers at Akiva. Beast’s Bane, so-called, whose death he’d first argued for when the fire-eyed bastard was just a brat crying himself to sleep in the training camp. “Kill him,” he’d advised Joram then. He remembered the taste of those words in his mouth—keenly, because they’d been among the first he spoke when the bandages were removed from his face. The first he’d tried to speak, anyway, when it was agony, his mouth a red, wet wreck, and the revulsion he saw in his brother’s eyes—and everyone else’s—had still had the power to shame him. He had let a woman cut him. Never mind that he lived and she didn’t. He would wear her mark forever.

  “If you’re smart, you’ll kill him now,” he’d told his brother. Looking back, it was so clearly the wrong tactic. Joram was emperor, and did not respond well to commands.

  “What, still trying to punish her?” Joram had scoffed, dragging the specter of Festival between them. Both of them had tried and failed to humble the Stelian concubine; she might be dead, but she had never broken. “Killing her didn’t scratch the itch, you have to have the boy, too? What, do you think she’ll know it somehow, and suffer more?”

  “He’s her seed,” Jael had persisted. “She was a spore, drifted here. An infection. Nothing safe can grow of her.”

  “Safe? What use have I for a ‘safe’ warrior? He’s my seed, brother. Do you mean to suggest that my blood isn’t stronger than some feral whore’s?”

  And there was Joram for you: blind, incurious. The lady Festival of the Far Isles had been many things, but “whore” wasn’t one of them.

  “Prisoner” wasn’t, either.

  However she’d come to be in the emperor’s harem, and why ever she had chosen to stay, it could not believably have been against her will. She was Stelian, and though she’d never revealed it, Jael was certain that she’d had power. The design, he had always thought, must have been her own. So… why would a daughter of that mystical tribe have put herself in Joram’s bed?

  Slowly, Jael blinked at Akiva. Why indeed? You had only to look at the bastard to see whose blood was stronger. Black hair, tawny skin—not as dark as Festival’s had been, but closer to it than to Joram’s fair flesh. The eyes, of course, were purely hers, and sympathy for magic? In case there had still been doubt.

  Joram should have listened to his brother. He should have let him exercise his wrath in whatever way he saw fit, but instead he’d mocked him and banished him to eat his meals alone, saying he couldn’t bear the sucking sounds he made.

  Well, Jael could afford to laugh about it now, couldn’t he? And make all the sucking sounds he liked while doing so.

  “Beast’s Bane,” he said, stepping forward but not too far forward, keeping a thick barrier of his soldiers in place, two score Dominion between himself and the intruders, and ten of them wielding the very special weapons that had subdued Akiva so spectacularly before: bare hands.

  Not their own, of course. Withered and mummy-brown, some clawed, all inked with the devil’s eyes, they held them out before themselves, the severed hands of chimaera warriors.

  At the sight of them, the beast by Akiva’s side emitted a growl low in his throat. The ruff of spikes at his neck lifted, bristling, and opened like a deadly flower. He seemed to double in size right there, becoming a battlefield nightmare, all the more terrible for the stark contrast between himself and this ornate room he suddenly seemed to fill.

  It chilled Jael. Even safe behind his barricade of flesh and living fire, and even expecting it—thanks to the warning of that monstrous woman who was to be his human benefactor—the sight appalled him. Not the chimaera itself, but seraph and chimaera standing together? The beasts had been his brother’s crusade. Jael had his sights set on a new enemy, but nevertheless, the alliance he saw before him here marked a thousand years turned inside out—a cancer that must not be permitted to spread through Eretz.

  When he returned, he would crush any sign of it. The rest of the rebellion must be crushed already, he thought with satisfaction. Why else would these three come to him alone, without an army at their back? He wanted to laugh at them for fools, but he saw how narrow his salvation had been and a shudder stopped him cold. If not for the woman’s warning, he would have been asleep in that bed when they slipped through the window.

  Too close. Only luck had given him the upper hand this time. He wouldn’t be so careless again.

  “Prince of Bastards,” he continued, feeling as though he were performing a rite many years delayed: the purging of Stelian infection, the eradication of Festival’s last trace and whatever she had meant by bringing it forth. “Seventh bearer of the cursed name Akiva.” Here he paused, speculative. “No Misbegotten ever bore that name to manhood before you. Did you know that? Old Byon the steward, he gave it out of spite. Wanted your mother to beg him not to. Any other woman in the harem would have, but not Festival. ‘Scribble whatever you like on your list, old man,’ she told him. ‘My son will not be tangled in your feeble fates.’ ”

  He studied Akiva closely, scanning for a reaction. “Brave words, no? And how many deaths have you eluded, all told? The curse of your name, and the several deaths I carved out for you. How many more?”

  It seemed to him that Beast’s Bane stiffened then. Jael sensed a wound. “Others die, but you live?” he probed. “Perhaps you’ve turned the curse outward. You don’t die. Everyone near you does instead.”

  Akiva’s jaw was hard-clenched. “It must be a terrible burden,” Jael pressed, shaking his head in mock pity. “Death looks for you and looks for you, but he can’t see you. Invisible to death, what a fate! Finally, he grows weary of the search and takes whoever is near at hand.” He paused, smiled, and tried to sound warm and genuine as he said, “Nephew, I have good news for you. Today we break the curse. Today, at last, you die.”

  Even braced for the sight of his uncle, Akiva was unprepared for the visceral assault of reliving this moment, and it caught him like a fist to the heart. It was an echo of the Tower of Conquest, when, just like this, Jael and his soldiers had seized control of the room.

  “Kill everyone,” Jael had said on that day, and, expressionless, his soldiers had complied, gutting counsellors, butchering the big brute Silverswords that Hazael and Liraz had taken such care to disarm without hurting. They had even cut down the bath attendants. It had been a literal bloodbath, emperor and heir discarded in a pool of red. Blood on the walls, blood on the floor, blood everywhere.

  The voice, the face, the number of soldiers. Akiva could guess, by the still-healing abrasions on their faces, that some of these men had been at the tower and survived its explosion. In addition to swords, they even leveled at him the same vile weapons that they had surprised him with on that bloody day.

  And Jael’s greeting was the same, too. Oh, that slurp of a voice. “Nephew.” He had said it then to Japheth, the witless crown prince, just before he slew him. Now it was all for Akiva, and was followed by a hissed litany of his many names.

  Beast’s Bane. The Prince of Bastards. Seventh bearer of the cursed name Akiva.

  Akiva listened in silence, hearing them all and wondering: Were any of them him? What had his mother meant, that he wouldn’t be tangled in their feeble fates? It made him feel as though even “Akiva” weren’t his true name, but just another Misbegotten accessory, like his armor or his sword. His name, like his training, was something imposed on him, and hearing Festival’s reaction to it, he wondered: Who else was he? What else?

  And the first answer that came to him was simple, as simple as what he had come here to do, as simple as his desires.

  I am alive.

  He remembered the moment—and it seemed very long ago but wasn’t—when he had lain on his back in the training theater at Cape Armasin, an ax—Liraz’s ax—embedded in the hardpan just inches from his cheek. He’d believed Karou was dead, and then and there, breathing hard a
nd looking up at the stars, he had accepted life as a medium for action. Something to wield like a tool. One’s own life: an instrument for the shaping of the world.

  And he remembered Karou’s plea from just the day before, when they were crushed into that tiny shower. “I don’t want you to be sorry,” she had said. “I want you to be… alive.”

  She’d meant something more than life as a tool. Something about the way she’d said it, Akiva had known that, to her, in that moment, life was hunger.

  And whatever his name, whatever his past or ancestry, Akiva was alive, and he was hungry, too. For the dream, for peace, for the feel of Karou’s body pressed against his, for the home they might share, somehow, somewhere, and for the changes they would see—and cause—in Eretz for decades to come.

  He was alive and intent on staying that way, so while his uncle taunted him, probing for a weak spot—it wasn’t enough to kill; he had to torment—Akiva heard what he said, but none of it touched him. It was like threatening darkness at the break of day.

  “Today we break the curse,” said Jael. “Today, at last, you die.”

  Akiva shook his head. Passingly he wondered if he should be pretending weakness he didn’t feel. In Joram’s bath, these gruesome hand “trophies” had given the Dominion the advantage they needed to subdue Akiva, Hazael, and Liraz. Tonight things were different. No rush of weakness assaulted him. He experienced only a sensation of awareness in the new scar at the back of his neck as his own magic met it and turned it aside. He remembered the feeling of Karou’s fingertips tracing the mark, so lightly, when he had shown it to her, and he remembered the press of her palm against his heart, no magic screaming into his blood, and no sickness, only what the touch itself intended.

  He was aware of her flickering glamour and her struggle with the thing Razgut. He wanted to surge toward her, smash the bloated purpled face and free her, even twist off that vile stringy arm if he had to. And he wanted to back the creature into a corner and fire questions at him, too. Fallen. What did it mean? He’d had the chance to ask him once before and had thrown it away, and now wasn’t the time, either. He knew Karou could manage the creature.

  His own true adversary stood before him. “Not today,” Akiva told Jael. The first words he’d spoken since coming into this room. “No one dies today.”

  Jael’s laugh was as nasty as ever. “Nephew, look around. Whatever you meant by creeping to my bedside in the night”—and here he diverted his attention for the first time from Akiva to glance at Karou, and an appreciative light came on in his eyes—“and I expect that it is not the more pleasant of several possible explanations.…” He paused. Smiled. “I would expect it to run counter to my own intentions.”

  He was enjoying himself. This was an echo of the Tower of Conquest for him, too, so much so that he was failing to notice the critical difference: Akiva wasn’t trembling under his assault of magic. “It does,” Akiva acknowledged. “Though I doubt it’s what you expect.”

  “What?” Mockery. Hand to his chest. “You mean you haven’t come to kill me?”

  He spoke it like a good joke. Why else, indeed, would they have come? Akiva’s reply was mild. “No. We haven’t. We’ve come to ask you to leave. Leave just as you came, with no blood spilled, and carrying nothing from this world back with you. Go home. All of you. That’s all.”

  “Oh, that’s all, is it?” More laughter, spit flying. “You make demands?”

  “It was a request. But I am prepared to demand.”

  Jael’s eyes narrowed, and Akiva saw the mockery transform first to incredulity and then to suspicion. Did he begin to sense that something was wrong? “Can you count, bastard?” Jael was trying to hold on to his mockery. He wanted this to be funny, but an edge to his voice betrayed him, and when his eyes swiveled suddenly like they were on casters, Akiva saw that he was doing an accounting of his own, and trying to believe in the strength of his position. “You are two against forty,” he said. Two. He discounted Karou. Well, Akiva wasn’t going to correct him. It wasn’t his uncle’s only error; it was only the most obvious. “However strong you are, however cunning, it’s numbers that matter in the end.”

  “Numbers do matter,” Akiva conceded, thinking of shadows chased by fire, and the tangled darkness of the ambush in the Adelphas. “But other factors sometimes turn the tide.”

  He didn’t wait for Jael to ask what those other factors might be. Only a fool would ask—what could the answer be, but a demonstration?—and Jael was not a fool. So before the monstrous emperor could command his soldiers to strike first, Akiva spoke. “Did you think,” he asked, “that you could ever surprise me again?”

  After that came one word only. It was a name, in fact, though Jael wouldn’t know it. And for an instant, his brow furrowed with confusion.

  An instant only. Then the tide turned.

  61

  SUPERPOWERS WILLY-NILLY

  “Now, let’s not be hasty,” said Mik, holding one of the saucer-broad wishes in his hand. “What exactly is a samurai, really? Do you think that’s something we should know before we wish it?”

  “Good point.” Zuzana held a matching wish on her own palm. It dwarfed it, and weighed even more than it looked like it should. “It might turn us both into Japanese men.” She squinted at him. “Would you still love me if I were a Japanese man?”

  “Of course,” said Mik, without missing a beat. “However, as cool a word as samurai is, I don’t think it’s what we really mean. We just want to be able to kick ass, right?”

  “Well, definitely don’t phrase it that way. We’d probably just become highly skilled at kicking people in the ass. Don’t turn your back on them,” she intoned. “They never miss.”

  Wording was important when it came to wishing. Fairy tales could tell you that, even if Karou herself hadn’t, plenty of times. Zuzana had wished on scuppies before, but she’d never held a true wish in her hand, and the weight of it cowed her. What if she messed up? This was a gavriel. A mess-up could be severe.

  Wait. Back up. This was a gavriel.

  Of which there were four in Mik’s violin case.

  The case sat at Zuzana’s feet now. She was still in awe of Mik, swiping the mother lode of wish stashes right out from under Evil Esther’s nose. The sweetness. Had she noticed yet? How frenzied was she? And did revenge even count if you didn’t get to see your enemy’s anguish?

  It definitely counted as one of Mik’s tasks, anyway, though they were in disagreement as to which. Zuzana said it was the third and last, because she was still counting his getting the air conditioner working back in Ouarzazate. He said that didn’t count—not by a million miles, because it had been in his own self-interest, so that he could pounce on her—and he still had one task to go. Zuzana could only argue up to a point before it would begin to seem like she was begging him to just propose marriage already, so she let him have it his way. Besides, their hands were a little full right now: the sky still ominously empty, and her phone silent to match. They didn’t know what they could or should attempt. With flight and fighting skills, could they help? What could they do that Akiva, Virko, and Karou couldn’t? Zuzana didn’t suppose you could wish for battle experience and strategic good sense. Could you?

  And there was Eliza to think of, too. Even if they glutted themselves on wishes, gifting themselves superpowers willy-nilly and soaring off to save the day, they couldn’t just leave her sitting here, could they?

  Hey, wait.

  Zuzana looked at Eliza, then at Mik. She perked an eyebrow. Mik looked at Eliza, too. “Well, yeah. Of course,” he said at once.

  And so, quickly, feeling the press of time and need, they formulated the best words they could think of for the mending of a young woman whose ailment was a mystery to them. In a reverent hush, Zuzana spoke them to the gavriel in her hand. It felt almost as though she were talking to Brimstone.

  “I wish that Eliza Jones, born Elazael, will be granted full power over herself in mind and body, and be well.
Something possessed her to add at the end, “May she be her best possible self,” because it seemed, in that moment, to be the truest of all wishes—not a betrayal of self that came from coveting others, but a deepening of self. A ripening.

  When a wish exceeds the power of the medallion it’s made on, nothing happens. Like, if you held a scuppy and wished for a million dollars, the scuppy would just lie there. Mik and Zuzana didn’t know if what they were asking was within the realm of a gavriel’s power. So they watched Eliza closely for some small sign that it might be taking effect.

  There was no small sign.

  That is to say… the sign was not small.

  Not even a little bit.

  62

  THE AGE OF WARS

  The word that Akiva spoke was Haxaya, and Jael might have had no notion what it meant, or even that it was a name, but the result was clear enough.

  One second.

  The air beside him was empty and then it wasn’t, and the shape that filled it—a streak of fur and teeth—was in motion. He saw it and it hit him. Two halves of the same second. He was dragged swiftly backward.

  Two seconds.

  His soldiers were all before him. They only turned when he felt the steel against his flesh and gasped, and by the time their heads craned around, he was in the doorway on his knees, a blade to his throat and his attacker behind him, out of their reach.

 
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