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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.36
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.36

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

  A caterwaul went up. It matched the roil of outrage in Jael’s head, but it wasn’t coming from his own lips. He didn’t dare scream, not with the press of the blade. It was the Fallen who screamed, writhing on the bed, still struggling with the girl.

  Three seconds.

  The blade bit. Jael thought his throat was slashed and he panicked, but he could still breathe. It stung—just a cut. “So sorry,” came a voice—a feminine whisper close to his ear. The blade was sharp and she was not careful with it. Another sting, another cut, and a laugh from over his shoulder. Throaty, amused.

  All that his men had had time to do was swing their heads around to stare. The space in between seconds was strung with their shock and clotted with Razgut’s cries. “No no no!” The fallen thing’s voice was dark with fury. “Kill them!” he raged. “Kill them!”

  As though following his command, one of the soldiers made a move toward Jael, raising his sword toward the chimaera who held him. Her arm tightened around Jael. Her claws sank into his side, through his clothing and into his flesh, and her knife sank a little deeper, too.

  “Stop!” he cried. To her, to his men. He was not pleased to hear that it sounded like a yelp. “Stand down!” And he was trying to think what to do—five seconds—but he had sent every soldier before him as a buffer and kept none behind. By pulling him into the doorway, his attacker gave herself the whole wall as barrier—and his body as barrier, too, and behind her there was nothing but an empty room. No one could get to her, and this was Jael’s own fault, for hiding behind a wall of soldiers.

  “How easily comes the blood,” she said. Her voice was animal, guttural. “I think it wants to be free. Even your own blood despises you.”

  “Haxaya,” said Akiva, warningly—and now Jael understood that the word was a name—“Our imperative was no blood.”

  It was too late for that. Jael’s neck was slick with it. “He squirms,” was Haxaya’s response.

  Razgut was still wailing. The girl was free of him now, standing at the bastard’s side, the three of them abreast: human, seraph, beast, the three he’d been alerted to expect, and what of this fourth he hadn’t looked for? How had it happened? How?

  When Akiva spoke again it was to Jael, casually, as if picking up a dropped thread of conversation. “Other factors,” he said, his voice damnably smooth and certain. Other factors may turn the tide, he had said a moment before. “Such as placing special value on one life above others. Your own, for example. If numbers were all that mattered, you could still win here. Not you personally. You would die. You would die first, but your men might take the day, if they decided not to care whether you lived.” He paused, let his gaze move over them, as though they were entities capable of choice, and not mere soldiers. “Is that what you want?”

  Who was he asking, him or them? The idea that they could answer, that they could choose his fate, appalled Jael. “No.” He found himself spitting out the word in haste, before they might venture another response.

  “You want to live,” Akiva clarified.

  Yes, he wanted to live. But it was unthinkable to Jael that his enemy would permit him to. “Don’t play games with me, Beast’s Bane. What do you want?”

  “First,” said Akiva. “I want your men to lay down their swords.”

  Karou had had enough of Razgut’s purring chuckle and his sweating hand clenched around her wrist, and so at the moment that Akiva pronounced Haxaya’s name, she dropped an elbow hard into the thing’s eye socket and pivoted, using the instant of his sharp surprise to wrench free. Even so, she almost didn’t break away. Sweat-slicked though it was, his grip had the crushing power of talons, and her skin, when she braced a foot against the bed frame and pulled with everything in her, came away gouged and bleeding. But it came away, blessedly, and she was free.

  Razgut was holding his eye and screaming—“No no no!”—and the other eye was open and wild, rolling and malevolent, as Karou paced backward, away from him, drawing her moon blades now as she took up a position by Akiva’s side. She on one side, Virko on the other, watching Haxaya subdue the monster Jael.

  Haxaya, alive again, and—thanks to teeth pilfered from the Museo Civico di Zoologia—in her proper fox aspect, lithe and very fast.

  She wasn’t part of the plan. Not initially. Back in the caves, when the idea had first taken shape in Karou’s mind, Haxaya’s corpse—or Ten’s corpse, most recently vacated by Haxaya’s soul—had been its inspiration, but Karou had not in any way intended her to play a part in its fulfillment. She had gleaned the soldier’s soul with the thought to decide later what to do with it. The thurible was a small one, and she’d hooked it to her belt and forgotten to place it with the others before leaving the caves. Serendipity? Fate? Who knew.

  Whichever it was, it was how, earlier this evening, after getting an unsettling vibe from Esther, Karou had thought to give the fox chimaera a chance to redeem herself.

  They had hoped not to need a shadow soldier here. They had hoped, even as they slipped through the window, fracturing the moonspill not three times but four, that the plan might play out its simplest variant. It hadn’t.

  But they weren’t so stupid as to have come unprepared.

  “Can we trust her?” the three of them had asked themselves. As Haxaya’s was the only soul in their keeping, she was the only candidate for the job.

  “It was personal,” Akiva had repeated Liraz’s words. The Battle of Savvath, and whatever Liraz had done there to take such vicious vengeance in her stride. When it came down to it, they thought that Haxaya would be able to appreciate the gravity of the mission they were on now, and the stakes, and play her part. And so, it seemed, she was—with the exception of scorning the no-blood imperative, though perhaps that was well played. Jael was white and wide-eyed, and his voice shook as he issued the command to his soldiers to lay down their swords.

  “Back up,” Akiva instructed them, and they did, parting warily to draw back against the walls of the chamber. It was hard to think of them as individuals, as mindful creatures with souls. Karou made herself look at their faces in turn, to try to see them as real, as citizens of her world who had been made and trained into what they were now and who might—if Akiva could, if Liraz could—unmake themselves, untrain themselves.

  She couldn’t see it. Not yet. But she could hope.

  Not for Jael. He could be no part of the future they were building. Akiva advanced toward him. Karou, blades drawn, guarded his right side, and Virko his left. They were nearly finished here.

  “Listen to me,” Akiva told the soldiers. “The age of wars is over. For those who return and shed no more blood, there will be amnesty.” He spoke as though he had the power to make such promises, and, listening, even knowing the full bleakness of their own uncertainty, Karou believed in him. Did the Dominion? She couldn’t tell. They were silent by training, and Jael was silenced by Haxaya’s knife. Razgut alone was unsilent.

  “The age of wars?” he parroted. He was at the edge of the bed, one useless leg dangling over the side, a limp curl of a thing. The eye that Karou had sunk her elbow into was swelling shut, but the other was still incongruously fine, almost pretty. There was madness in it, though. So very black. “And who are you to end an age?” he growled. “Were you chosen of all your people? Did you kneel before the magi and open your anima to their sharp fingers? Have you drowned stars like they were babies in a bath? I ended the First Age, and I’ll end the second, too.”

  And with that, he hefted a knife none had seen, and hurled it at Akiva. No one moved. Not in time.

  Not Karou, whose hand flew out too late, as though she might catch the knife out of the air or at least deflect it, but it had already passed her by.

  Not Virko, who stood on Akiva’s other side.

  And not Akiva. Not a hairsbreadth.

  And Razgut’s aim was true.

  The blade. What Karou saw was peripheral. If her hand couldn’t catch the blade, her head couldn’t turn fast enough to see it e
nter Akiva’s heart. His heart that she had pressed palm and cheek to, but not yet her own heart, not her own chest to his, or her lips to his, or her life to his, not yet. The heart that moved his blood, and that was the other half of her own. She saw from the corner of her eye, and it was enough. She saw.

  The blade entered Akiva’s heart.

  63

  AT THE EDGE OF A KNIFE

  Ice and ending. The instant froze, impossible. Unthinkable. True.

  Your entire being can become a scream. At the edge of a hurled knife, that fast. Karou’s did. She wasn’t flesh and blood in that instant but only air rushing in to gather for a scream that might never end.

  64

  PERSUASION

  An angel lay dying in the mist. Once upon a time.

  And the devil should have finished him off without a second thought.

  But she hadn’t. And if she had? Karou had wondered it a hundred different ways. She’d even wished for it, in her blackest grief at the kasbah, when all she could see was the death that had come of her mercy.

  If she’d killed Akiva that day, or even just let him die, the war would have ground on unbroken. Another thousand years? Maybe. But she hadn’t, and it hadn’t. “The age of wars is over,” Akiva had just said, and even as Karou saw what she saw and no possibility of mistake, and even as her whole being gathered itself into a scream, her heart defied it. The age of wars was over, and Akiva would not die like this.

  The blade entered his heart.

  But Karou’s scream was never born. Another took its place, but first: a sound. A fraction of an instant after the knife sunk into Akiva’s chest… a thunk. It wasn’t a flesh sound. Karou’s head completed its turn and her gaze scribbled a wild pattern, taking in what she saw.

  There stood Akiva, unmoved.

  No stagger step, no blood, and no knife hilt protruding from his heart. Frantic, Karou blinked, and she wasn’t the only one, though none could experience the same despair she had felt an instant earlier or the joy that overtook her now when she spotted the blade, sunk into the wall beyond Akiva. None could know quite the same flavor of wonder as she did, either, as the truth took shape, but everyone in the chamber tasted some version of it.

  Haxaya spoke first. “Invisible to death,” she murmured, because there was no mistaking what had just happened. Akiva hadn’t moved, and the trajectory didn’t lie.

  The knife had passed through him.

  It was Karou’s gaze he held in that moment, and she saw that he was half-stunned, half-haunted. She wanted to ask him: Had he done this? He must have. No one knew, not even he, what he was capable of.

  Razgut had collapsed, wailing and beating his fists to his own brow. Two strides and Karou was to him, yanking him to the floor, checking the bedclothes for more weapons. The Fallen didn’t even seem to register her presence.

  The Dominion looked wary but wonderstruck, too, in the presence of Akiva, and Karou didn’t think she needed to worry about any strikes coming from them now. She didn’t relax, though. Akiva’s life had flashed through her peripheral vision in a streak. She was ready to be out of here, and all that remained was persuasion. Her plan, in all its simplicity.

  At last they came to it.

  Once more, Akiva faced his uncle. Jael was quiet, his face pinched and pale as his horrendous mouth quivered. In the face of such power, he had lost even the courage to sneer.

  Akiva had never even drawn his swords, and so his hands were free. He reached toward his uncle now and laid one flat upon his chest. The gesture looked almost friendly, and Jael’s eyes were swiveling in their sockets again, trying to grasp what was happening to him. It didn’t take long.

  Karou watched Akiva’s hand, and she remembered the moment, in Paris, when she had come to Brimstone’s doorway, out of sorts from dragging elephant tusks across the city, and had seen, for the first time, a handprint scorched into the wood. When she’d traced it with her finger, ash had flaked and fallen. And she remembered Kishmish charred and dying in her hands, his heartbeat slowing from panic into death, and how the wail of fire sirens had peeled her out of her grief—out of that grief and into a greater one, as she had raced from her apartment and through the streets to Brimstone’s door to find it engulfed in flame. Blue fire, infernal, and in its nimbus, the silhouette of wings.

  All around the world, at the same moment precisely, dozens of doors, all marked with black handprints, had been devoured by the same unnatural fire.

  Akiva had done it. All seraphim were creatures of fire, but igniting the marks from afar was a working of his own, and had made it possible for him to destroy every last one of Brimstone’s doorways in an instant, cutting his enemy off without warning.

  When Karou had seen the blistered skin on Ten’s corpse back at the Kirin caves, the mark of Liraz’s hand scorched clearly into her chest, this had been her thought.

  Smoke effused from beneath Akiva’s palm. Jael likely smelled it before he felt the heat eating through his clothing, though perhaps not, as he wore not armor but the pageant robes he’d dreamt up to awe humanity. Whatever it was, the heat or the smoke, Karou saw the understanding light his eyes, and the panic as he struggled to get out from under that pressing hand. She hoped Haxaya wouldn’t slit his throat by accident.

  His scream was a wavering wail, and Karou watched him as Akiva stepped back. There it was: burned into Jael’s chest, reeking and charred, the black already peeling away to reveal the raw meat beneath. A handprint in flesh.

  Persuasion.

  “Go home,” said Akiva. “Or I will ignite it. Wherever you are, wherever I am. It doesn’t matter. Unless you do as I say, I will burn you to nothing. There won’t even be ash to show where you stood.”

  Haxaya let Jael go and stepped aside. Her knife wasn’t needed any longer, and she wiped the blade clean on the emperor’s own white sleeve. He slumped as if his legs couldn’t hold him, pain and rage and impotence congealing on his countenance. He seemed to be grappling with his situation, trying to understand all that he had lost. “And what then?” he finally burst out. “When I’m back in Eretz wearing your mark? You’ll just burn me then. Why should I do what you want now?”

  Akiva’s voice was steady. “I give you my word. Do this. Go home now. Take your army with you and nothing else. Make no chaos. Just go, and I will never ignite the mark. I promise you that.”

  Jael gave a disbelieving snort. “You promise. You’ll let me live, just like that.”

  Karou watched Akiva as he made his reply. He’d kept calm from the first moment Jael burst into the room, and had managed to conceal the depths of hatred this man stoked in him. “That’s not what I said.”

  Was he thinking of Hazael? Of Festival? Of a future they were in the process, even now, of averting, when guns would have reshaped Eretz into something even more brutal than its citizens had yet known?

  “I won’t burn you.” He let his opinion of his uncle show on his face. “That’s my only promise, and it doesn’t mean you get to live.” He let his uncle’s foul imagination do the work. “Maybe you’ll have a chance.” A thin smile. “Maybe you’ll see me coming.” He leaned into the silence and let it lengthen, and then, just like that, he vanished. “But probably not.”

  Karou followed his lead and vanished, too. Virko and Haxaya an instant later, as Akiva threw his glamour over the pair of them. Jael and the Dominion saw shadows move toward the window and then those were gone and there was nothing left here but a broken emperor’s raw breathing, a mad monster’s ragged sobbing, and two score soldiers standing quiet, not knowing quite what to do with themselves.

  65

  CHOSEN

  He was one of twelve in the Long Ago, and glory had been his.

  She was chosen one of twelve. Oh, glory.

  Out of thousands did they rise, candidates come from every reach of the realm, young and full of hope, full of pride, full of dreams. So beautiful they were, all of them, and strong and of every hue from palest pearl to blackest jet, and re
ds and creams and browns and even—from the Usko Remarroth, where it was ever twilight—blue. This was what seraphim were then: a world’s richest offering, as jewels shaken out on a tapestry. Some came clad in feathers and others in silk, some in dark metals and some in skins, and they wore gold, and they wore ink, and their hair was braids or it was curls, it was golden, black, or green, or it was scraped to the scalp in a pattern of flame.

  Razgut would not have been noted in the throng—not for his garb, which was fine but plain, or his color, which had never seemed drab to him until that day. Mid-beige, he was, and his hair and eyes were brown. He was beautiful, too, then, but they all were, and none more striking than Elazael.

  She was out of Chavisaery, whence the darkest tribes of seraphim hailed. Skin as black as a raven’s wing at the umbra of eclipse, and her hair was featherine, the soft rose of sunrise, and falling in pale shoals about her dark shoulders. A white stripe painted on each cheek, a dot above each eye, and her eyes themselves: They were brown, not black, lighter than the rest of her and startling. And the whites. There never fell a purer snow than the whites of Elazael’s eyes.

  Every tribe had sent their best.

  All but one. One hue was absent from that crowd: There were no fire eyes in that massing of their world’s brightest youth. The Stelians alone opposed this choosing and all it meant, but no one cared. Not then. That day they were forgotten, dismissed. Even shunned.

  Later, that would change.

  Oh godstars, would it change.

  Only the magi knew what they were looking for, and they didn’t tell. They tested, and the tests were arcane, and every day saw fewer candidates remaining—hope, pride, and dreams, sent back where they came from, no glory for them—but some lasted. Day by day, they rose while others fell, until they were twelve before the magi, and the magi, at last, smiled.

 
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