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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.40
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.40

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

  “I know.” Liraz’s voice was gruff. They didn’t speak again until they’d cut the ropes and lowered the body to the ground. They tore the gonfalon down, too. Those words—victory and vengeance—belonged to another time. Karou laid it over the body, a shroud to conceal the desecration of violent death.

  “Would you burn it?” she asked. It, not him, she said, because that’s all it was. An empty thing, as a shell left on a beach.

  Liraz nodded, and knelt beside it to touch fire to the broad, dead chest. Wisps of smoke curled up around her hand, and—

  “Wait,” said Karou, remembering something. She knelt, too, on his other side, and reached into the general’s pocket. What she withdrew was a small article the length of her little finger. It was black and smooth, coming to a point on one end. “From his true body,” she said, and handed it to Liraz. The tip of his horn. “That’s all.”

  Then, he burned. The fire reached high, clean and splendid and unnaturally hot, leaving only ash that the wind carried away even before the flames had died.

  Only then did Karou notice the silence that had fallen inside the camp, and turn to the gate to see the host clustered there, watching. Akiva stood in front, and so did Haxaya, and she looked at Liraz, and Liraz looked back, and there was no more enmity between them.

  “Come,” Akiva said, and he turned the watchers aside, and then it was just Karou and Liraz again. No corpse. Not even ash. Karou lingered. There was a question she wanted desperately to ask, but she fought against it.

  “I didn’t see him die,” said Liraz. She clasped the horn tip in her fist, tight against her ribs.

  Karou held her silence, and held a stillness with it, sensing that it was coming: the thing that she wanted greatly to know. “Coming back from the portal, it was chaos. Once, I saw him but couldn’t reach him, and when I looked again, he wasn’t there. After…” She looked troubled, cast Karou a sidelong glance, and said, plainly, “I don’t know how it happened. How we won. There is no explanation. I saw soldiers fall from the sky, no arrows, no injury, and no one near to have hurt them. Others fled. More fled, I think, than fell. I don’t know.” She shook her head as if to clear it.

  Karou had heard much this same account already, from Elyon’s initial report to Akiva, seconded by Balieros. A mysterious—an impossible—victory. What could it mean?

  “I found his body, finally. It had fallen into a ravine. Into a stream.” She cut Karou a glance, and everything about her was wary and on guard. She seemed to be waiting for Karou to say something.

  Did she think that Karou would blame her? “It’s not your fault,” Karou said.

  Whatever it was Liraz wanted her to say, that wasn’t it. She let out a short huff of impatience. “Water,” she said. “Does water, moving water, does it… hasten… evanescence?”

  Karou looked at Liraz as her words sank in. Her stillness deepened. She was caught between breaths. This was what she hadn’t been able to ask. Did she mean…? So clearly Karou remembered the devastation on Liraz’s face when she’d had to tell her, as gently as she could under the circumstances, that Hazael’s soul was lost. How, for nothing, she had hauled his corpse through two skies, and how, in the process of bringing him to a resurrectionist, instead cast his soul adrift.

  Surely that wasn’t why she’d dragged Thiago’s body all this way?

  Karou’s glance flickered to where the corpse had been, which did not go unnoticed by Liraz. “You think I didn’t learn?” the angel asked, incredulous.

  And with that, Karou almost dared to hope. “Did you?” she asked, and her voice was very small.

  Did you learn?

  Did you glean Ziri’s soul?

  Dear gods and stardust, did you?

  Liraz started to tremble. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know.” Her voice shattered, and just like that she was crying. She fumbled at her belt, and then she was holding something out to Karou with wildly shaking hands. It was her canteen.

  “It’s not a thurible, but it closes. I didn’t have incense, and I couldn’t find anyone, not nearby, and I thought it might be worse to wait, but then I couldn’t tell if anything happened. I couldn’t feel anything, or see anything, so I’m afraid… I’m afraid it was already gone.” Now rushing over words, now pulling back in a series of taut silences, and there was a war in her eyes between hope and caution. “I… I sang,” she whispered, “if that matters,” and Karou felt her heart pulled to pieces. This Misbegotten warrior, fiercest of them all, had crouched in an icy stream bed to sing a chimaera soul into her canteen, because she hadn’t known what else to do.

  The singing wouldn’t have mattered, but she wasn’t going to tell Liraz that. If Ziri’s soul was in that canteen, Karou would happily learn whatever song Liraz had sung and make it part of her resurrection ritual forever, just so that the angel would never feel that she’d been foolish.

  And who knows? Karou thought, reaching for the canteen. Who really knows? Because I sure as hell don’t.

  And her hands were shaking, too, as she twisted the cap loose. She tried to still them against the jug’s metal neck, which should have been cool in the mountain air but was warm from resting against Liraz’s body.

  Then, as delicately as she could with her jittery fingers, she lifted the cap aside.

  She strained, listening with her senses. Reaching, hoping. It was like leaning forward and breathing deeply—without leaning, without breathing. Some unknowable part of herself shifted forward, unwound, reached. What had Akiva said? A scheme of energies, more than mind and more than soul. She reached with it, whatever it was, and felt…

  … home.

  That was what came to her. Her home and Ziri’s. Maybe all of theirs now. She would gladly share. They could be a big, crazy tribe, come one, come all, angels and devils at rest and in love, or arguing, or sparring, or learning the violin from Mik, or teaching their half-caste babies to fly on wings that were neither Kirin nor seraph, but some kind of feather-bat-fire wings. Or else it would be like eye color; you’d inherit one or the other. Was she thinking about babies? Karou was laughing, and nodding, and Liraz was sobbing and laughing, and they fell against each other, the canteen between them, its precious cap replaced, and their relief was a shared country, because against her senses Karou had felt the stir of stormhunters’ wings, and the high roaming wind of the Adelphas Mountains, the beautiful, mournful, eternal song of the wind flutes that filled their caves with music, and also: a note that she didn’t remember from before. It was fire, held in cupped hands, and she thought she knew what it meant.

  Liraz may have captured Ziri’s soul like a butterfly in a bottle, but that was only a formality. It was already hers.

  And, clearly, judging by the state of her, laugh-sobbing in Karou’s arms, hers was his, too.

  74

  CHAPTER ONE

  So. Jael was deposed, and the portals closed with no weapons brought through them to wreak new havoc. The Dominion were vanquished, leaving the Second Legion, or so-called common army, as the dominant force in the land. They were the largest army, and had always occupied a middle ground between the high-bred Dominion and the bastard Misbegotten, and if they had to choose—as they had found themselves in the unthinkable position of doing—they would side with the bastards.

  Under the auspices of a commander named Ormerod whom Akiva knew and respected, they had done so, de facto nullifying the Misbegotten death sentence and declaring an end to hostilities.

  Declaring an end and achieving an end were different animals, and aside from tensions that existed between the seraph armies, the Second Legion were a long way from considering their chimaera foes to be companions in arms. For now, they had grudgingly made the same promise that the Misbegotten had made days earlier, and Karou hoped it would not have to be tested in the same way. They would not strike first.

  A détente is not an alliance, but it’s a start.

  Elyon, it transpired, had—after the mystifying Adelphas victory—been the o
ne to go to Cape Armasin in Akiva’s stead and plead the rebel cause, and he had clearly done well. Now he and Ormerod would escort Jael back to Astrae to begin a new era in his life. From captain to emperor to… exhibit.

  The Several Days’ Emperor was going to star in his own zoo.

  No one would have faulted Liraz for killing him, and none would have mourned him. But as she stood over the writhing, screaming heap of him, she had discovered that she lacked the will for it. Not just for the sake of her tally, and to be done with killing, but also for the simple reason that he clearly wanted her to.

  In the Tower of Conquest, it had been she who’d courted death rather than face the fate he had picked out for her. “Kill me with my brothers, or you’ll wish you had,” she had spat at him, and he had feigned offense. “You would die with them, sooner than scrub my back?”

  “A thousand times,” she had choked out. And he? He had pressed a hand to his heart. “My dear. Don’t you see? Knowing that is what makes it sweet.”

  Now it was she who knew the sweetness of denying death rather than granting it. “I was thinking,” she had mused, standing over him, “that it would do the people good to see with their own eyes the tyranny they’ve been freed of. It’s one thing to hear about the horror of you, and another to experience it firsthand.”

  He’d stopped his writhing to stare up at her, aghast.

  “Come and see, this is what an emperor is,” she’d said, warming to her idea. Now she was remembering what she had witnessed in the Hintermost, when Jael had skewered Ziri’s palms through with swords and force-fed him the ashes of his comrades. “Come and take a peek, see what we’ve saved you from, and you’ll be down on your knees thanking us. And possibly vomiting.”

  To his savage response—a stream of spittle-flecked invectives and a series of facial contortions that achieved for him new heights of monstrosity—she had replied only, mildly, “Yes, that. Do exactly that when they come to look at you. Perfect.”

  As for true justice, the Empire had no system in place for it, and none knew how to undertake building one, not to mention a new system of governance to take the place of the wretched one they had just toppled. And then there was the work of freeing the slaves, as well as finding occupation for the many men and women who knew no livelihood but war.

  If there was one thing they did know on this night in the foothills of the Veskal Range, it was how much they did not know. In essence, they had written “Chapter One” on the first page of a new book, and everything—everything—remained to be written. Karou hoped that it would be a long book, and dull.

  “Dull?” Akiva repeated, skeptical. They sat together at the edge of the firelight, eating Dominion rations. Karou was intrigued to see Liraz between Tangris and Bashees on the far side, and she thought they were good company for one another.

  “Dull,” Karou affirmed. History conditioned you for epic-scale calamity. Once, when she was studying the death tolls of battles in World War I, she’d caught herself thinking, Only eight thousand men died here. Well, that’s not many. Because next to, say, the million who died at the Somme, it wasn’t. The stupendous numbers deadened you to the merely tragic, and history didn’t average in the tame days for balance. On this day, no one in the world was murdered. A lion gave birth. Ladybugs lunched on aphids. A girl in love daydreamed all morning, neglecting her chores, and wasn’t even scolded.

  What was more fantastical than a dull day?

  “Good-dull,” she clarified. “No wars to spice it up. No conquests or slave raids, only mending and building.”

  “And how is that dull?” asked Akiva, amused.

  “This is how,” said Karou, clearing her throat and assuming what she intended to be the stuffy voice of history. “Eleventh January, Year of the… Neek-Neek. The garrison at Cape Armasin is disassembled for timber. A town is plotted on the site. There is indecision as to the height of a proposed clock tower. Council meets, argues…” She paused for suspense, shifting her eyeballs from side to side. “Splits the difference. Clock tower duly built. Vegetables grown and eaten. Many sunsets admired.”

  Akiva laughed. “That,” he said, “is a willful failure of imagination. I’m sure a lot of interesting things happen in this imaginary town of yours.”

  “Okay then. You go.”

  “Okay.” He paused to think. When he spoke, he approximated Karou’s history voice. “Eleventh January, Year of the Neek-Neek. The garrison at Cape Armasin is disassembled for timber. The town plotted on the site is the first of mixed race in all of Eretz. Chimaera and seraphim live side by side as equals. Some even…” His words caught, and when he resumed talking, it was in his own voice, if a tender, careful version of it. “Some even live together.”

  Live together. Did he mean—?

  Yes. He meant. He held Karou’s gaze steady and warm. She had imagined it, or tried to. Living together. It always had the wordless, golden unreality of a dream.

  “Some,” he went on, “lie together under a shared blanket and breathe the scent of each other in their sleep. They dream of a temple lost in a requiem grove, and of the wishes that were made there… and came true.”

  She remembered the temple grove—every night, every moment, every wish. She remembered the pull of him, like a tide. The heat of him. The weight of him. But not with this body. To this body every sensation would be new. She flushed, but didn’t look away.

  “Some,” he said, soft now, “don’t have much longer to wait.”

  She swallowed, finding her voice. “You’re right,” she allowed, practically whispering. “That’s not dull.”

  Not much longer to wait. “Not much” was still longer, though, and for the most part it was tolerable.

  Not tolerable: the two nights they spent at the Dominion camp, when Elyon, Ormerod, and a cluster of others, including the bull centaur Balieros—stepping into Thiago’s command—kept them engaged in planning until dawn so that Karou, who had determined to steal Akiva somehow into one of the empty campaign tents, never got the chance.

  Tolerable: the third morning, leaving—finally—because they were leaving together.

  There was some consternation about it. Ormerod held that Akiva would be needed in the capital, which had yet to be brought, gently or otherwise, into this new post-Empire era. Akiva replied that they would be better off without the hysteria his presence would ignite. “Besides,” he said, “I have a prior commitment.”

  When his expression softened then, with a look to Karou, the nature of his “commitment” was easily misconstrued.

  “Surely it can wait,” protested Ormerod, incredulous.

  Karou blushed, seeing what they all thought—and they weren’t wrong to think it. Will it ever be time for cake? Having kissed Akiva at last didn’t make the waiting any easier, but had just served to stoke her hunger for him. But that wasn’t the commitment Akiva was referring to, anyway. “Let me help you,” he had pled back at the caves, when Karou had told him what work lay ahead for her. “It’s all I want, to be beside you, helping you. If it takes forever, all the better, if it’s forever with you.”

  It had seemed so far off then, but here they were. Work to do and pain to tithe and cake around the edges.

  The edges, she pledged, would be ample. Hadn’t they earned it?

  Liraz settled the matter by declaring that the chimaera needed a seraph escort anyway in this critical time, when they were still so far from anything like an easy peace, and their mission was one of such importance. She spoke in the same quiet and unnerving way as she had in the war council, and with the same effect: Liraz spoke, and truth was born.

  It was a power, Karou thought, looking at her with ever-increasing respect, that the angel hadn’t begun to explore. And she liked it a lot better when it was used for her, not against her.

  And it couldn’t be only the sway Liraz held over them, that once the seraphim were made to understand just what mission of importance the chimaera now undertook, they tried to volunteer for it.
r />   It was then, looking around at their faces, that Karou knew her first draught of easy hope for the future of Eretz. As it had before, when Liraz admitting singing Ziri’s soul into her canteen, her heart felt pulled to pieces.

  Every Misbegotten within earshot volunteered to go to Loramendi, and help with the excavation of souls.

  They were all of them warriors; each had their haunting memories, and most, their shames. None had ever had the chance to… unmassacre a city before. In some sense, that was what they would do, unearthing the souls buried in Brimstone’s cathedral—those hidden thousands who had chosen their death that day for its hope of rebirth. Brimstone’s hope, and the Warlord’s: that a girl raised human, with no memory of her true identity and no knowledge of the magic she contained, might somehow, someday, find her way to them and bring them out.

  And the heavier hope still: that there could be a world worth bringing them out to.

  It seemed crazy now, on this side of things, that it could have come to pass, and though Karou stood in the midst of several hundred soldiers of both sides who had had their role in it, it was as though a gleam drew her gaze to Akiva, without whom it never could have. The wishbone. Ziri’s life. Issa’s thurible. The offer of alliance. All of it. Every step of the way, he had been there. But before, long before, there had been the dream. A “life wish,” as he had said once. For a different sort of life.

  Every once in a while, back in her human life as an artist, it had happened that Karou would do a drawing that was so much better than anything she’d done before that it would stun her. When that happened, she wouldn’t be able to stop looking at it. She’d come back to it all day long, and even wake in the middle of the night just to gaze at it, with wonder and pride.

  It was like that looking at Akiva, too.

  He was as fixed on her as she was on him, and there was hunger where their eyes met. It wasn’t passion, simply, or desire, but something bigger that contained those things and many others. It was hunger and satiety at once—“wanting” and “having” meeting, and neither extinguishing the other.

 
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