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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.41
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.41

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

  And whether it was Liraz’s intervention, or the strength of that look, no one bothered arguing further. And under what chain of command did he fall, anyway? Who could tell Akiva what to do? He would, of course, accompany Karou.

  Once upon a time,

  there was only darkness.

  And there were monsters vast as worlds who swam in it.

  75

  WANT

  They were two score Misbegotten and as many chimaera. All the others—the joined force that had so darkened the skies of the Veskal Range—would fly south to introduce themselves to Astrae.

  “We’ll need thuribles and incense,” said Amzallag, who would lead the excavation of Brimstone’s cathedral. He had lost his family in Loramendi, and was eager to be off and begin. Shovels and picks, tents and food they liberated from the Dominion camp, but these more specialized supplies would be harder to come by, and so it was decided, for this reason and others, that they would fly first to the Kirin caves, which were, in any case, almost on the way.

  Karou was eager to see Issa, and she was conscious, too, that those left behind at the caves hadn’t had food to sustain them for long, nor—being wingless, for the most part—the means to leave and seek it.

  In addition, though she and Liraz and Akiva had kept this news contained among themselves for now, there was the question of Ziri. None but they—and Haxaya—knew that a soul had been gleaned from the White Wolf’s body, and so Karou had hope that the entire episode of the deception might be swept under the carpet of history. It was Thiago, the Warlord’s firstborn, fiercest enemy of seraphim, who had changed his heart and banded together with the Empire’s outcast bastards to forge a new way forward. Did that rob Ziri of the glory due him for his very great role in their victory?

  Maybe. But Karou thought it would sit just fine with him. Maybe, in time, the truth could even be told. As for the last son of the Kirin, Karou knew they would have to concoct some good story to explain his abrupt return to them, keeping it free of any association with the White Wolf’s death. But as his end had been a mystery—he had simply never returned from Thiago’s last mission of massacre—and none but Karou had ever seen his body, she thought it could be managed. It seemed right that he should make his reappearance among them at the home of his ancestors—and her own.

  Perhaps Karou would even find the time, now, to return to her own childhood village deep inside the mountain.

  And there was one more reason for her eagerness to return to the caves, of course—last but not least—and that was their dark and branching ways, where those with a will for it could easily slip away for an hour or three. Or seven.

  She had a will for it.

  Liraz had her own sharp hope. It dug at her heart like a spike, and she didn’t speak it aloud. She had the horn tip pressed deep in her pocket, but Karou carried the canteen now, and Liraz missed the weight of it at her hip. When would she resurrect him? Liraz wouldn’t ask her. It was just that they had never said, outright. At the time, outside the palisade, it hadn’t seemed in any way necessary. The tears and laughing! If anyone had tried telling her that she would ever sob into that blue hair… well. She would have given them a very icy look. No more than that, because that would be brutish.

  You wouldn’t want to be brutish, she imagined Hazael’s voice in her head, the lazy, laughing cadence of it. You’ll scare all your suitors away.

  It was a subject only he would have dared to broach. Liraz had never looked at a man—or a woman—not like… that. If he’d known that the very thought terrified her, he’d certainly never let on. Always, he had built up her strength.

  “Anyone who takes on my sister,” he had postured once, all puffed-out bravado, “will have to deal with… my sister.” And then he’d dived behind her and cowered.

  Haz. And what would he make of her now, pining for… for the air inside a canteen? Was that what this was, pining? She’d witnessed her brothers’ passions—so very different, the pair of them. Haz’s were mercurial things, frequent, and played for humor. The Misbegotten may have been forbidden the pleasures of the flesh, but it had never stopped him. He’d fallen in love like it was a hobby—and out of it the same way. Liraz supposed that meant it wasn’t love.

  Akiva, though. Once only, and forever.

  Silent, suffering Akiva. Liraz thought that she had never felt a closer kinship with him than she did now. She knew it wasn’t because he had changed, but she had. It was curious. To feel longing like this, with all the fear that went with it. She should have hated it. And part of her did. Feelings are stupid, a voice in her still insisted, but it was a diminishing voice. The louder one she scarcely recognized as her own.

  I want, it said, and it seemed to come from deep within her, from a place, perhaps, where many things were patiently waiting to be discovered. Real laughter, for one. Haz’s kind: tumbling, easy, loose-muscled, and free. Touch, for another, though just the thought of it set her heart racing.

  She knew what Haz would say. He’d give her a smug look and say, “You see? There’s a much better way to get your blood moving than battle.” And he would add, she didn’t doubt, because he had said it enough times, “And please unbraid your hair. It hurts me just to look at it. What did it ever do to deserve such punishment?”

  Liraz laughed a little, imagining him, and she might have cried a little, too, missing him, but no one saw, and her tears froze before they hit the mountains, because they had climbed high into the Adelphas now, and she cast Karou a glance, just enough to catch the glint of silver at her hip where the canteen swayed.

  When? she wondered.

  And What then?

  Akiva, for the duration of the journey, felt divided in two.

  There was the memory of kissing Karou, and everything he’d said to her, and everything he’d thought but hadn’t said—which was the far greater portion—and every stir in him, when his eyes traced the lines of her in flight, his hands aching to trace them, too… She should have been all he could think of. They would spend a night at the Kirin caves to break their journey, and he knew that it would not be another night spent apart. They had come to the end of those, at last, and it felt like a bubble inside him, this great pressure in his chest: joy and hunger and a shout building, a wordless cry of gladness ready to burst from him and echo.

  He wanted only to set down in the entrance cavern, call hasty greetings to those who awaited them, drop his gear on the ice-rimed floor and let it lie there. Seize Karou’s hand, and draw her, running, away with him. Into the caves, and in, and in, and take her, and hold her, and laugh against her neck in disbelief that she was finally his, and that the world was finally theirs, and this was all he wanted.

  Or rather, it was all that he wanted to want.

  But there was an intrusion in his mind. It had been there for some time. Most recently: hearing the accounts of victory in the Adelphas, and seeing the vague puzzlement of those who did the telling. The dream logic of it, and how they all accepted it because it had happened. The way they accepted what had happened in the caves when they first faced one another, blooded, ready to kill and die—and hadn’t.

  But the intrusion had been there already. When he had reached for sirithar in the battle of the Adelphas and gotten thunder instead. And before that, when he had sensed a presence in the cave with him, or thought he had. And even before that, from his first attainment of true sirithar, a state of power his mind had no context for and that made him feel, in its aftermath, like an infinitesimal figure pulled along in the wake of some catastrophic force. A flood, or a hurricane. He couldn’t control it. Somehow, he could summon it, and that wasn’t the same thing at all.

  He had spoken to Karou of a “scheme of energies,” and that was real—a place that he had navigated, blind, since his first earliest fumblings with magic. He sensed the vastness that was in him, the limitlessness, and was humbled by it, but… this wasn’t that.

  This was what troubled him most: the suspicion that when he attained si
rithar—that is, this thing which he had chosen to call sirithar, because it was the only word he knew for a state of exceptional clarity—he was not reaching down within himself, but out. Beyond. And that what responded—the source of the power—it was not him, and not his.

  So… what was it?

  76

  WAITING FOR MAGIC

  They were watched for.

  Those left at the caves must have kept a sentry always posted to look out for their return, because by the time they drew nigh—cautious, in case anything had gone wrong in their absence—everyone had gathered in the entrance cavern to welcome them, and it felt good. Like coming home.

  Karou flew straight into Issa’s arms and stayed there long enough that a nest of serpents the Naja had called to herself for company—blind cave snakes from the muggy passages below—wound round her, too, pallid and glimmering, and joined them together.

  “Sweet girl,” whispered Issa, “all is well?”

  “And more than well,” Karou said, and flushed with emotion, knowing that this was as close as she would ever come to telling Brimstone that it was begun: the unlikeliest dream, and the sweetest.

  After the greetings there was news to share, and much of it, though they kept it as brief as they could. There would have been no natural end to the speculation that followed, but that Issa intercepted a glance between Karou and Akiva.

  It was the lit-fuse look, the space between them fairly shimmering with heat, and Issa’s lips pressed into a smile. They didn’t see her notice it—they didn’t see anything but each other—and when she said, “Well, I imagine our travelers are weary,” and began to break up the gathering, they didn’t guess that it was on their behalf.

  Everyone seemed to share the sense of homecoming, even the Misbegotten, and the whole party moved off together, along with those who’d come out to greet them. And when they reached the grand cavern, where the chimaera might have gone on and down toward the village they had formerly occupied, they didn’t, but stayed with the angels to prepare a meal together, beneath the stalactites.

  Karou wasn’t hungry. Not for pilfered Dominion rations, anyway.

  A Christmas-morning feeling had come over her. Well, she’d had few enough Christmas mornings in her life. The one with Esther had felt more like a stage play—glittering and special, but as something she was meant to watch, rather than participate in. She’d had two with Zuzana’s family, and those were much better, and though they hadn’t exactly been children, they’d acted like it as much as possible. Holiday rituals in the Novak home were immutable, and even Zuzana’s older brother, who had tried so hard to impress Karou with his dubious manliness, had come scampering down the stairs at dawn on Christmas morning to see what magic had happened in the night.

  The feeling, it was the sense of waiting drawing to an end. Not dread waiting, but excited waiting of the best kind: waiting for magic.

  And the magic Karou was waiting for now, waiting for and reaching for—and she could feel it reaching right back, like a mirror image at the very instant before your fingertips touch their twins in the glass—was of the decidedly grown-up variety.

  She couldn’t stop looking at Akiva. And every time she did, either she found his gaze waiting, or else it sensed hers at once and came around to meet it. Every look was vivid and full and alive. There was laughter in the set of his mouth, because it had become funny, at last, at the tail end of waiting. Only funny because it was almost over, and everything that was… not them… was obstacle. It was a tease now, this lingering, a game, to see who could last another minute, and a dance. Their bodies—two in the midst of many—moved to the pull of the same magnet, no matter who stood between them.

  Karou felt as though her skin had been awakened. It had been dormant and she hadn’t even known it, but since the kiss in the sky—more exactly, when Akiva’s lips had touched the place beneath her ear—some switch had been flipped. Small, exquisite currents of electricity were coursing all over her, raising goose bumps, shivers, waves of heat. She couldn’t still her hands. The “love chemicals,” she knew from her school days: dopamine, norepinephrine. She remembered, in their reading, how one scientist had called them the “cocktail of love rapture” and how she and Zuzana couldn’t stop giggling about it. Well, she was flooded with them now. Flushed and trembling, her belly a riot of butterflies. Papilio stomachus. Her heartbeat was a tap dance and her breathing was shallow. She tried to draw deep breaths to settle herself, but every one felt like a buoy refusing to sink. The edge of hyperventilating, but in a good way—which sounded stupid but felt like the full spectrum of excitement, from trills of giddiness to the rich and languid bass note of anticipated pleasure, slow and sweet as syrup.

  All of which is to say: Karou was on fire.

  Akiva caught her eye again. There was the spark and flash. Light and heat, racing up a fuse. No more laughter. She saw that his hands at his sides could not find stillness. He curled them into fists. Uncurled them, but they would not be at peace until they were allowed to do what they wanted and touch her. His whole body was taut. So was hers. They were violin strings, the pair of them, ready to sing.

  A question in his eyes, in the tilt of his head, in the set of his shoulders. His whole being was this question.

  And the answer was so easy. Karou nodded, and the unknown switch apparently had a higher setting, because she shifted into it. Her skin practically hummed.

  Finally. Finally.

  She turned to slip away down the passage that led to the baths—the baths? Where did it come from, this notion? Her face went hot. It was a very fine notion—and, turning, she caught sight of Liraz.

  Liraz, standing apart, tall and still and always too damn straight, as though someone—Ellai maybe—had fastened a string to the top of her skull and wouldn’t just let her relax. There was her rigidity, and the look of agonized suspense on her face, and Karou’s switch, newly discovered, gave a twang. Power cut. Electrical currents nil, skin temperature normalizing, cocktail of love rapture neutralized. No more shivers, and her breath sank back into her like an anchor sliding into the sea.

  Jesus, what was wrong with her? She blinked. Ziri’s soul was hanging from her belt and she was about to…?

  She shook her head, hard, fast, and repossessed herself. Akiva, across the cavern, furrowed his brow. She gave him a helpless look, touched the canteen, and he understood. His gaze flickered to Liraz, who saw everything that passed between them and looked stricken.

  They came together at the very door Karou had been headed for, but for a different purpose now, and a different destination.

  “It won’t take long,” Karou said.

  “I’ll help you,” Akiva replied, and she nodded.

  She’d been ready for this since before Ziri ever cut his own throat to become the Wolf. When he’d been missing, when all the patrols had come back except his, she’d gathered what she would need, all the components to conjure a Kirin body as strong and true as she could make it. Human and antelope teeth, tubes of bat bone, iron and jade. Even diamonds, preciously hoarded for him alone. They were all tumbled together in a small velvet jewelry pouch with her resurrection gear, packed away down in the cave with the thuribles and incense.

  Ingredients for a Ziri.

  Well, the one essential ingredient for a Ziri was in the canteen. She wanted, though, to make this new body as close to his true Kirin flesh as possible. Her head snapped up with a thought. “Wait a second,” she said, and crossed the cavern to where Liraz stood alone.

  “You don’t have to, now—” Liraz began.

  Karou waved it off. “Do you have that piece of horn I gave you?”

  Liraz handed it over, hesitating as though she was sorry to part with it, and Karou found herself hoping, softly and deeply, that this angel’s feelings were shared, not just for her sake, but for Ziri’s, too, whose loneliness was even deeper than her own had once been. She, at least, had had Brimstone, and the memory of her parents and her tribe. Who had Ziri ev
er had?

  Let this be another improbable, glorious beginning, she thought. “Do you want to come?” she asked, but Liraz shook her head and so she left her there, outside the circle of soldiers, and went to do this one last thing.

  77

  WE HAVEN’T BEEN INTRODUCED

  Liraz couldn’t stay in the grand cavern. She felt too transparent, so she wandered and eventually found herself back in the entrance cave. One of the flightless chimaera was standing guard and she took over for him, settling herself on a ledge.

  The sun set in due course, and the crescent-moon opening was positioned to catch every ray of it. She watched, and it seemed to melt when it touched the far peaks, spreading molten and golden across the breadth of the horizon. Orange light glazed all the world between, from it to her, and reached behind her, far into the cavern, to light the skims of ice with a blinding shine.

  And then it paled and cooled, golds giving way to grays, and it was at that moment of the sky’s deepest blue, in the seconds before it eases to full black and sets forth stars, that she heard a tread behind her, and was afraid to turn.

  The tread was slow, a sharp clip, clip. The ring of hooves. That was her first awareness of him—hooves—and she couldn’t help herself, it was too long trained into her, and too deep: She felt a surge of misgiving, almost revulsion. He was a chimaera. What had come over her? Just because someone saved your life didn’t mean you had to fall in love with him.

  Love? Godstars. It was the first time the word had dared to form itself, and only this way, in the negation of it. Still, it hit her in the gut: fear and denial and the urge to flee.

  It was a struggle, staying still. She had done nothing, she had to remind herself. Said and encouraged nothing. Not before he died in his Wolf skin, not ever. There was nothing between them to regret or back away from, and no reason to flee. He was only a comrade, only a—

 
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