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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.39
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.39

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

  Once through the portal, Jael didn’t stay to oversee the tedious return of his army but flew straight on to camp in the center of a phalanx of guards, with archers wide at their flanks in case Akiva should make an appearance.

  The landscape here was much the same as the one they’d just left behind: dun-colored mountains and nothing to see. The camp was in the foothills, some half hour distant. In a field of grasses flattened by the wind, rows of tents stood orderly in a rough quadrangle with guard towers at its corners, manned by archers in case of aerial onslaught. It was a skeleton defense. Up here, there was nothing to defend against. The bulk of Jael’s forces were deployed south and east, hunting down the rebels.

  And how had they fared? He should know soon enough.

  Sooner even than expected.

  The camp was scarcely in his sights when saw what awaited him on the piked palisade.

  Karou saw it, too, though from a greater distance, and she couldn’t stifle her gasp. From the palisade, billowing in the wind, hung a banner that had been white and was now fouled with blood and ash. She knew it at once. Its slogan was clear, even if the wolf-head emblem in its center was… concealed. Victory and Vengeance, it read, in the chimaera tongue. It was the White Wolf’s gonfalon—not the copy he’d hung at the kasbah but the original, plundered as it must have been from Loramendi after the fall.

  But it wasn’t the gonfalon that had made Karou gasp. If the banner alone hung here, it might be interpreted as a sign that the White Wolf had conquered and overtaken this camp. But with what dangled in front of it, obscuring the wolf emblem, no such misconception was possible.

  Karou thought that she had managed her hope. She’d believed, flying back through the cut, that she was prepared for the possibility—the likelihood—of bad news.

  Delusion.

  Sometime since leaving their comrades behind, she had begun to believe, without admitting it to herself, that all would be well. Because it had to be. Didn’t it?

  But it wasn’t. All was not well.

  Also once white, and white no longer, by a noose around its neck, swung the stained and broken body of Thiago.

  And here was the answer, sooner than expected, to the question of what had happened when they left the battle raging in the Adelphas, and made the hard decision to complete their own vital mission before returning.

  Did I do enough? Karou had asked herself then, already knowing the answer. Did I do everything I could?

  No.

  And their comrades had lost. And died.

  Akiva caught her and held her, and they didn’t speak but watched, helpless, moving in the air with the steady tide of Akiva’s wingbeats, as Jael landed before the corpse of the White Wolf and laughed.

  71

  ABSENCE

  Karou went to the body, after Jael was gone. Just for a moment, just in case. Drawing close, she remembered the last time this flesh had bled out. Her own small knife had killed him then, and the neat wound was easily knit back up to prepare the vessel for Ziri’s soul.

  This wound was… not neat.

  Look away.

  This death had not been easy, and Karou’s mind screamed for the brown-eyed orphan who once upon a time had trailed her around Loramendi, shy and gangly as a fawn. Whom she’d kissed once on the forehead, and only remembered it because he’d told her. Blushing.

  Ziri. And she knew the feel of his soul from when she’d put it in this body, and hope, hope would just never learn.

  Of course his soul would be gone. It could never have survived this long in the open, or such a journey. Of course it had evanesced. But Karou still opened her senses to it, because she couldn’t not try. Did I do everything I could? And still she held her breath, as invisible tears tracked down her invisible cheeks. And still she hoped.

  Absence has presence, sometimes, and that was what she felt. Absence like crushed-dead grass where something has been and is no longer. Absence where a thread has been ripped, ragged, from a tapestry, leaving a gap that can never be mended.

  That was all she felt.

  72

  THE SEVERAL DAYS’ EMPEROR

  Mood incrementally improved, Jael bulled his way toward his pavilion, trailing his retinue of guards. The soldiers in the watchtowers had saluted him on approach, and one leapt down to glide up short and stride at his side.

  “Report,” Jael barked, removing his helmet and tossing it to him. “The rebels?”

  “We trapped them in the Adelphas, sir—”

  Jael whirled on him. “Sir?” he repeated. He didn’t recognize the soldier. “Am I not your emperor as well as your general?”

  The soldier bowed his head, flustered. “Eminence?” he ventured. “My lord emperor? We cornered the rebels in the Adelphas. Misbegotten and revenants together, if you can credit it.”

  Oh, Jael could credit it. He gave out a hiss of a laugh.

  “I’m not lying, sir,” said the soldier, mistaking him. Again, sir.

  Jael’s eyes narrowed to slits. “And?”

  “They put up a valiant defense,” said the soldier, and Jael read the rest in his smirk. A valiant defense was a doomed defense. It was what he expected, especially after the sight of the White Wolf’s corpse, and it was all he needed to know for now. Jael’s blood was thrumming with pent-up frustration, and his muscles were rage-tense. He’d been meek as a rabbit—a neutered rabbit—for days in that infernal palace, not daring to injure his reputation by answering his own hungers. And all for what? To be chased away like a skulking dog? He hadn’t even dared slay the Fallen for fear of defying the bastard Akiva’s prohibition of bloodshed.

  He looked around for his steward. “Where is Mechel?”

  “I don’t know, my lord emperor. Can I assist you?”

  Jael gave a grudging grunt. “Send me a woman,” he said, and turned to go.

  “No need, sir. There’s one already in your tent, waiting for you.” Still that smirk. “A victory celebration.”

  Jael hauled off and backhanded the soldier, whose expression scarcely altered as the slap turned his head from east to west. A thread of blood appeared at his lip, and he did nothing to stanch it.

  “Do I look victorious to you?” Jael seethed at him. He held up his empty hands. “Do you see all my new weapons? I can scarcely carry them all! That’s my victory!” He felt his face empurpling and was reminded of his brother, whose rages had been famous, and murderous. Jael prided himself on being a creature of cunning, not temper, and cunning meant killing not in passion but in coolness.

  So he just shoved the soldier aside—fixing the smirk in his memory for a more considered punishment later—and marched into his pavilion, tearing at his ridiculous white pageant garb and giving a hiss of pain when he peeled at the place the scorched silk had hardened against the weeping flesh of his wound, reopening it.

  He cursed. The pain was a throbbing reminder of his failure and vulnerability. He needed to remember his own might. He needed to get his blood moving, his breath flowing, to prove who he—

  He stopped short. The bed was empty.

  His eyes narrowed. Where was the woman, then? Hiding? Cowering? Well. His heat rose. That would make a fine beginning.

  “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he rasped, turning in a slow circle.

  The pavilion was dim, the canvas walls hung with furs to keep out both wind and light. No lanterns were lit. The only illumination came from Jael’s own wings…

  … and the woman’s.

  There.

  She was not hiding. She was not cowering. She was at his desk. Jael bristled. The wench was sitting at his war desk, languid in his chair, all his campaign charts spread before her as she rolled a paperweight back and forth beneath her palm. Her other hand, he did not fail to note, rested on the hilt of a sword.

  “What are you doing?” he growled.

  “Waiting for you.”

  There was no fear in the voice, no coyness or humility. She was backlit by her own wings, and, besides, a
shadowy stillness seemed to cloak her, so that Jael could make out only the shape of her as he strode forward, ready to yank her out of his chair by her hair. And that was better than if she were hiding, better than cowering. Maybe she would even resist—

  He saw her face, and faltered to a stop.

  If he was slow to process the ramifications of this visit it was only because it was unthinkable. He had deployed four thousand Dominion to crush rebels numbering less than five hundred, and they had, and they had brought back the White Wolf’s body as proof, and besides, the guards—

  Behind him, the soldier he hadn’t recognized spoke from the doorway, having entered without summons or permission. “Oh, I should clarify,” he said, smirking away. “I didn’t mean a celebration of your victory. Sir. But of ours.”

  Jael sputtered.

  Drawing sword from sheath in one smooth motion, Liraz rose from her chair.

  “Karou,” said Akiva, as they moved silently through the camp.

  “Yes?” she whispered. The deserted camp was eerie, but she knew it wouldn’t stay this way for long. The troops would arrive soon enough, and then it would be dangerous for them to stay. If they were going to move on Jael, they should do it now.

  To her shock, though, Akiva abruptly dropped his glamour.

  “What are you doing?” she whispered, alarmed. They were in full view of a guard tower, and Jael’s personal escort had scarcely dispersed. They could be anywhere. Why, then, didn’t Akiva look concerned?

  Why did he look… amazed?

  “That soldier,” he said, indicating the emperor’s pavilion, and the guard who had just slipped inside it behind Jael. “That was Xathanael.”

  Liraz. Jael had to blink because the queer cloak of darkness shifted and seemed to move with her as she came out from behind the desk. Long legs, long stride, no hurry. Liraz of the Misbegotten came forth with an escort of darkness, and her hands were ink-black with all the lives she had taken, and the darkness that cloaked her had taken as many or more. Moving like mercury, it resolved into forms by her sides.

  There were two of them: winged and feline, with the heads and necks of women. Sphinxes, and they were smiling.

  “Misbegotten and revenants together, if you can credit it,” said the soldier behind him.

  “My brother Xathanael,” said Liraz, in such a calm way as though she were a hostess here, to make polite introductions. “And do you know Tangris and Bashees? No? Perhaps by their popular name, then. The Shadows That Live?”

  This Jael could not credit, though he saw it with his own eyes: Liraz, as deadly as she was splendid, standing between The Shadows That Live. The Shadows That Live. In a camp like this one, during the chimaera campaigns, there had been no greater terror than these mysterious assassins.

  Ice cut through him. It was when he thought to call for his guards that the full realization descended on him, belatedly and like a cage: The camp was taken, and so was he, and by now his guards must be, too.

  His guards, maybe, but not his army. Jael’s hope rallied. They were his salvation, headed this way, and in numbers to easily overwhelm the paltry force here. Numbers. Let even Akiva strive against such numbers. Jael couldn’t fall into the same trap as last time, and let himself be taken as leverage. He eyed the sphinxes. One of them winked at him, and he shuddered.

  “A bravura strategy,” he said, stalling. “Enemies unite.”

  “It’s your own gift to Eretz,” Liraz replied, “and I’ll make sure you’re remembered for it. ‘The Several Days’ Emperor,’ you’ll be called, because that was all the time you had, and yet, in it, you not only dissolved the Empire, you accomplished the extraordinary feat of uniting mortal enemies in a lasting peace.”

  “Lasting,” he scoffed. “As soon as I’m dead, you’ll fall right back at each other’s throats.”

  Bad choice of words.

  “Dead?” Liraz regarded him with surprise. “Why, uncle. Are you unwell? Planning to die soon?” She had changed. This wasn’t the hissing, spitting cat he’d tried to take for his own in the Tower of Conquest. “There’s no ride in the world,” he’d said then, taunting, “like a storm in fury.” Here was no storm, no fury. There was some new quiet in her, but it didn’t shrink or wilt her. Rather, it seemed to enlarge her. She was no mere weapon as she was trained to be, but a woman in full command of her power, unbowed and unbroken, and that was a dangerous thing.

  Jael strained, listening for some sign that his army was drawing near. She must have noticed. She shook her head ruefully, as though she were sorry for him, then looked a question at the smirker, who nodded.

  “Good.” She turned back to Jael. “Come. There’s something you should see.”

  Jael didn’t wish to see anything she wanted to show him. He thought to draw his sword then, but the sphinx who had winked at him came at him in a blur half-cat, half-smoke, and wreathed around him. A daze overtook him—a sweet, soft stupor—and he missed his chance. Liraz disarmed him as though he were a child or a drunk, tossed his sword aside, and shoved him toward the door and out into the camp.

  Before anything else, he saw Beast’s Bane dead ahead. Instinctively, he flinched. Come to kill him as he said he would, and Jael’s guards were scattered and gone?

  But Beast’s Bane wasn’t even looking at him. “Liraz!” he cried, and there was joy in his voice that should have burned Jael, but he scarcely noticed it, fixing instead on what Liraz had brought him out to see.

  Like a storm cloud overhead came the shadow of an army. It was tremendous, spanning the visible sky.

  And it wasn’t his.

  He stared up, head craned back and all else forgotten, trying furiously to calculate the number those ranks represented. They should have had no more than three hundred Misbegotten, even if they had all survived the attack in the Adelphas. Even if…

  The smirking soldier. “They put up a valiant defense,” he had said, and so it would seem. Of the troops hovering overhead, a fair swath were clad in Misbegotten black. And the rest? Chimaera were among them, yes. They didn’t keep the same steady formation as seraphim, but were just what could be expected of them: wild beasts, no uniformity in shape or size or dress. They were a bestiary shaken open, and godstars help the angels who allied with them.

  Godstars help the Second Legion, then, for Jael saw, through a haze of fury, that they made up the bulk of this sky-borne force, steel-clad and plain in their standard-issue armor, no colors, no standards, no crests or coats of arms. Only swords and shields. Oh so many swords and shields.

  And there, from up the mountains, came his own white-clad Dominion, overmatched, and caught off guard, and Jael had no choice but to stand on the ground and watch as the two forces faced each other across a gulf of sky. Emissaries ventured out from both sides to meet in the middle and Jael spat in the grass, laughing in the faces of bastards and beasts, and declared, “Dominion never surrender! It is our creed! I wrote it myself!”

  Let them fight, he willed now with a fervor that verged on prayer. Let them die, and whether they win or not, take traitors and rebels with them to their graves.

  They were too distant for him to see who spoke for them, let alone guess what was said, but the result became clear when the Dominion dropped low in the sky—beyond a rise in the swaying grass and out of his sight—and came to ground in the mode of… surrender.

  “Maybe they’re not surrendering,” said the smirking soldier in false consolation. “Maybe they all just really had to piss.”

  Jael didn’t see them lay down their swords. He didn’t have to. He knew he had lost.

  His Eminence, Jael Second-born, Jael Cut-in-Half—the Several Days’ Emperor—had lost his army and his empire. And surely now his life.

  “What are you waiting for?” he screamed, launching himself at Liraz. With a neat step and parry she sent him face-first into the ground, and with one well-placed kick turned him over, gasping, onto his back. “Kill me!” he coughed out, lying there. “I know you want to!”


  But she just shook her head and smiled, and Jael wanted to howl, because her smile had… plans in it, and in those plans, he saw, there would be no easy death.

  73

  A BUTTERFLY IN A BOTTLE

  Karou and Liraz met, without prearrangement, to take Thiago’s body off the palisade.

  There had been a great deal of activity in the camp since the Dominion surrender, and there just hadn’t been time to see to it earlier. Reunions and introductions, exclamations and explanations, logistics and strategies to debate and implement, and celebration, too—though cut with a fair portion of grief, because there had been losses in the Adelphas, many of them irretrievable.

  There were some thuribles, and Karou had opened every one of them and let the impression of souls brush against her senses, but in none of them had she found what she was looking for.

  She came with heavy steps to the body that she had such reason to hate, and found that she couldn’t. Was it all for Ziri, her grief, or was some small measure of it for the true Wolf, who, for all his great faults, had given so much—so many years, so many deaths, and so much pain—for his people?

  To her surprise, Liraz was there, facing the palisade and the corpse that dangled from it. “Oh,” said Karou, caught off guard. “Hi.”

  No hi in return. “I put him here,” said Liraz without turning her head. Her voice was tight.

  Karou understood that she mourned him—Ziri—and though she didn’t know how it had happened, how any feeling had had time to grow between them, she wasn’t surprised. Not by Liraz, not anymore.

  “It was for Jael, in case he was suspicious, coming into camp.” She cut Karou a tense look. “It wasn’t… disrespect.”

  “I know.”

  This seemed inadequate, so Karou added, softly, “It isn’t him. Not in any way.”

 
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