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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.42
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.42

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

  “We haven’t been introduced.”

  Liraz’s heart gave a slam. She’d gotten used to the Wolf’s voice, but that didn’t mean she’d ever liked it. Even when Ziri had spoken to her as himself—the one time only, the two of them chest-deep in the strange soft water of the baths—there had been a roughness to it, like it could turn to a growl at the edge of a breath. It had been a match for his clawed hands, his fanged mouth. Latent brutality.

  This voice, though. It was as sonorous as the Kirin wind flutes, effortlessly rich and smooth.

  She knew her own part in this dialogue. Finding her voice, and wincing to hear it shake, she replied, “You know who I am, and I know who you are, and—”

  “—that won’t serve.” His voice twined with hers, changing the script. And in the lapse after their words, she heard him waiting. How can you hear waiting? She didn’t know, but you could. She did. He was waiting for her to turn around, and she couldn’t put it off any longer.

  She turned, and Ziri of the Kirin was before her, and Liraz could scarcely breathe.

  He was tall. She’d known that, having seen him fight in the midst of a cluster of Dominion who had looked undergrown beside him. But seeing it at a distance, and seeing it before you and having to tilt your head up are two different experiences. Liraz tilted her head up. And up, tracing the length of horns that stretched the effect of his height to extremes. They had to be the length of her arms at least, long and straight, black and gleaming. Intact, she noted, fleetingly—no broken point—and she wondered what had become of that token that had fit just so in her palm.

  He was lean, long-muscled, less broad than Akiva or most of the Misbegotten, but this served only to accentuate his height, and his shoulders were anything but narrow. Behind them, his wings were folded. Dark. Liraz could guess at their expansiveness, against the length of him. He was wearing white, and this seemed wrong, and he must have seen a wrinkle at her brow because he plucked at his shirt and said, “The Wolf’s. I didn’t have anything of… my own. Except”—he smiled and, with both hands, gestured to himself—“all the rest. I guess.”

  It was the smile. Ziri smiled, and Liraz saw him.

  Not hooves, not horns, which she’d been examining in pieces, but his self. He was just as he should be, and in every way striking and heart-stopping. His Kirin beauty was of a jagged, wild species. Sharp horns, sharp hooves, and the cut of his wings sharp, too. He was angles and darkness, her opposite—a moon-creature to her sun, a slicing shadow to her glow. But that was all silhouette. It was in his smile, and in his eyes, and in his waiting—he was still waiting—that she saw him, and knew him. Strength and grace and loneliness and longing.

  And hope.

  And hesitation.

  He was standing still to let himself be judged, and it shamed her. She saw it in his stillness. He was afraid that she would think him a beast, and how could she assure him of what she herself, five seconds before, had been uncertain? How could she tell him that he was magnificent, and she was humbled—speechless not with distaste but with awe.

  She tried. “I… You… It’s…”

  Nothing more came. No words. She was failing at this. It was beyond her skill. What had she thought, that she would be able to summon some warmth from within herself, when she’d spent her entire life stifling it? He would think she was disgusted by him, by the way she was acting, stiff as a board, and silent as the godforsaken stalagmites all around her. She had to try harder.

  She… nodded.

  Oh, great. Do that some more. At least it’s one up on the stalagmites.

  She folded one arm across her ribs, tight, and with the other reached up as though to stop herself from nodding, and ended up putting her hand over her mouth, as if to prevent herself even from talking.

  Really? Was this really the best she could do? He was watching her tie herself in a knot, hand over her mouth in a gesture that could so easily be misinterpreted, and there came a flicker of uncertainty into his wide, brown—sweet, brown—questioning eyes, which drove her to one final, monumental effort.

  “I like it,” she whispered, and her hand didn’t stop her from nodding like a fool, but it did muffle her words, so that Ziri didn’t understand.

  He inclined his head in query. “What?”

  She moved her hand away, and said, as clearly as she could—which wasn’t very—“I like it. You, I mean.” And then she put her hand right back over her mouth and reddened, and was about ready to call on that fell chimaera goddess of assassins to come and put her out of her misery when the flicker of uncertainty vanished from Ziri’s brown eyes.

  What his smile did then should have irritated her, because it splayed crooked in amusement—at her expense, at her extreme discomposure, and Liraz had never been able to bear teasing—but it didn’t stop there. It kept going, his smile, from amused to purely pleased to deeply relieved. It was so lovely that she felt it in her heart.

  “Good,” he said. “I like you, too.”

  And she blushed deeper, but he was blushing, too, now, so it wasn’t so bad.

  No, it was still bad. What now? Was she supposed to string more incoherent sentences together? Maybe she could list all the other things she liked, how she imagined a child might, except that—oh, well, she didn’t like many things, so the list would be short, and it would only kill a moment.

  She didn’t want to kill a moment. She wanted to live one. Live many.

  So how in the name of the godstars do you do that? Was it too late to learn?

  “Uh,” said Ziri. He moved his shoulders, rolling them, and shook open his wings. They flared, seeming in the close space as vast as a stormhunter’s, and he said, clearing his throat, “One of the worst things about being the Wolf was not being able to fly. I’m going to, now.” He was awkward, his voice halting, as he gestured out through the crescent opening where the time of purest blue had passed to black, and the stars were thick as sugar.

  Oh. Okay. Liraz was almost—almost—relieved to have this ended, so that she could slink away. Melt. Curse herself. Die a little.

  Ziri cleared his throat and looked at her. So earnest. So hopeful. “Do you… want to come?”

  Flying? That was something she could do. She didn’t even have to risk the syllable it would take to say yes. She just had to nod.

  78

  (BREATHE)

  Karou combed her hair. Calmly. Well, the calm was an exercise. (Breathe.) She laid down the comb. It was a Kirin relic that she’d found: carved bone with a crude silhouette of a stormhunter etched into the handle. She was going to keep it.

  (Breathe.)

  By the light of a flickering skohl torch, she looked down at herself. She was still in her Esther clothes. They were in a decent enough state, though she didn’t like knowing there was Razgut drool on her sleeve. She’d left a few things here in the caves when she went away, but they were dirtier still. She wondered if she would ever again know the simplicity of a closet full of clothes, and the pleasure of choosing an outfit—a clean outfit—in which to go and meet her… what? What could she call Akiva?

  Boyfriend sounded too Earth. Lover was affectation, intended to shock. “Have you met my lover? Isn’t he divine?” Nope. That is, yep, he was divine. Nope, she wasn’t go to call him that, even if she was dizzy with the urgency to make him that.

  (Breathe.)

  Partner? Too dry.

  Soul mate?

  A warmth spread through her. When had it ever been truer than it was for her and Akiva? And yet, as a word, it, too, rang with wan associations. “You like the Pixies? I swear, it’s like we’re soul mates!”

  Well, she didn’t have to call him anything right now. She just had to go to him, and she was pretty sure he wouldn’t care what she was wearing.

  One last breath. Her heartbeat kicked up a notch, getting wind that it was time, really and truly time, at last.

  Akiva had helped her conjure Ziri’s body. He’d tithed, at his insistence, and he didn’t need vises, w
hich was good, because she didn’t think she could have touched his bare skin to clamp them on without dissolving back into the state of tremulous hunger that had possessed her in the grand cavern. She’d sunk into her trance state knowing he was there, and then, when it was done—the new body wrought and stretched out on the floor, as yet inanimate—she had come back out of herself to the sight of Akiva watching her. He’d looked kind of dazed with happiness, and immediately the same feeling had bloomed in her.

  “That’s the longest I’ve ever been able to look at you,” he’d said.

  “I thought you were going to watch the resurrection.” She gestured to the new body, glorying in the sight of it. It looked almost exactly like Ziri’s true flesh had, and she thought that he could pass as his natural self. She’d even left off hamsas, in part because the true Ziri hadn’t had them, and in part because she wanted them to become obsolete.

  “I meant to watch,” Akiva said, abashed, and scratched his fingers through his short, thick hair in that way he had. “I got distracted.”

  “Well, no fair. I didn’t get to look at you back.”

  “I promise to hold still for you later.” Later? After, he meant. After they’d had their fill of not holding still.

  (Breathe.)

  “I accept.”

  And then, and then, oh holy, at last: the smile.

  The smile that she had never yet seen with these eyes, but only remembered through Madrigal’s. Warm with wonderment, a smile so beautiful it ached. It crinkled his eyes, and shaped his beauty into another kind of astonishing, a better kind, because it was the astonishment of happiness, and that reshapes everything. It makes hearts whole and lives worth living. Karou felt it fill her, dizzy and delirious, and she fell a little deeper in love.

  He’d offered to leave her to finish the resurrection alone, and she’d accepted, because she wanted to have a moment with Ziri, as he’d guessed she must. And seeing Ziri’s new eyes open—brown, and not ice-blue, and with none of Thiago’s arrogance to overcome in letting himself shine through—had been the sweetest moment yet in her career as a resurrectionist. She’d hugged him, and held him, and told him it was all over, he didn’t have to hide anymore, and his relief had been so profound it had deepened her already very deep appreciation of what he’d put himself through for all their sakes.

  Between them they’d come up with the simplest explanation they could for his absence and return, and then he’d gone. Karou thought that he’d been so happy to be in Kirin form again that he’d just wanted to fly, though maybe he’d sensed her own distraction. Or it could have been the news of who’d been carrying his soul around in a canteen, and was out there in the caverns somewhere, waiting.

  Whatever the reason, he’d gone off quickly enough, and here she was, her last duty fulfilled, her time her own. She paused, took a breath. From the pocket of her bag she collected one small thing that she’d been been carrying since the sultan’s picnic on the floor of the desert hotel in Morocco, a couple of days past. A whim.

  A wishbone. Smiling, she closed it in her hand. From the first night, it had been their parting ritual at the temple of Ellai: to make a wish. She was ready for ritual again, but not the parting part. They’d had enough of that to last them lifetimes.

  She went. She walked, holding the wishbone to her heart. Or she started out walking but was soon enough gliding, skimming along, not touching the floor. One could get lazy, she thought, but she wasn’t especially worried about it. The passages twisted. Her torch flickered green, trailing long and threatening to go out when she went too fast. It was almost used up, but she wouldn’t need it, as soon as she was with Akiva.

  And she came to the entrance to the bath cavern. There was a laugh in her throat as she rounded the bend, ready to murmur, laughing, Finally, finally, I thought I might die, against his mouth, against his throat, hungry and laughing and eager and—

  She stopped short.

  Akiva wasn’t here.

  Of course, murmured a tiny, cold voice in her heart.

  She smothered it. Yet. Akiva wasn’t here yet. Which was odd, because he’d said he was coming directly. Well, okay. No reason for concern. Maybe he’d gotten lost. No. Karou had more respect for Akiva’s resourcefulness than to believe that. Maybe he’d gone to do something, thinking he could still make it back before she did. She had gotten here fast; Ziri hadn’t lingered.

  The water was pale green and steaming, the crystal growths glittered, and the curtains of darkmoss swayed where their longest tendrils trailed in the current. Karou considered slipping out of her clothes and into the water, but only briefly, and not seriously. A feeling of foreboding was working its knuckles into her shoulders. It was a more advanced feeling of foreboding than she was prepared for, and she realized when it hit that she’d been waiting for the other shoe to drop ever since they flew back through the Veskal portal. What other shoe? She didn’t know. That cold little of course voice didn’t know, either. It just knew—she just knew, on some level—that it had all been too easy.

  It was a sensation in the spine, like she’d gotten just before the Dominion ambush. There was something she was missing.

  Yes. Akiva. That’s what she was missing.

  He should be here.

  She tried to be reasonable. She’d only been here five seconds; he would come around the corner any second.

  But he didn’t.

  Of course, of course. Did you really think you could have happiness?

  Karou’s pulse hammered faster and her breathing shallowed, but it was panic barely contained, this time, not desire.

  Akiva didn’t come.

  Karou’s torch sputtered and died, and she had no seraph fire to light her passage back. She had to feel her way in darkness, clutching her unbroken wishbone to her heart.

  79

  LEGENDS

  “Look.”

  Ziri saw the stormhunter before Liraz did. He didn’t point, only breathed the word, not wanting to send it veering in the opposite direction. The creatures could sense the smallest movements from impossible distances. In fact, it was a marvel that it was flying this near them.

  It was flying toward them.

  Liraz did look, and Ziri was caught as much by the play of starlight over the fine planes and curves of her face as by the sight of a stormhunter on a direct path for them. More, in fact, and easily. He watched her watch it, and drew wonder from her wonder.

  Until she said, eyes narrowing, “Something’s wrong.”

  He turned, and saw that in the moment that he’d been looking at Liraz, the creature had veered aside, and was no longer on a course for them. It was still distant, and for a beat he didn’t see what it was that had alarmed Liraz. It was gliding, tilting on an updraft. It looked glorious.

  Ziri squinted. “Is that—?”

  “Yes.”

  Liraz’s voice was tense, and for good reason. This was an anomaly akin to… well, akin to a Kirin and a Misbegotten going for a starlight fly together. Strange, Ziri thought, was going to have to try harder in the future. Still, it was strange.

  It was the unmistakable shimmer of seraph wings.

  His first thought was that an angel was hunting it, somehow pursuing it. But nothing in the manner of its flight suggested distress. It was just flying, and an angel was flying alongside it.

  “Have you ever heard of that happening?” he asked.

  Liraz gave a small laugh, barely a breath. “No. I know Joram wanted one for his trophy room. It was a sport, for a while. Every lickspittle lord and lady in the Empire hoped to bring him one, with no luck, and some died trying, and finally he had to call in hunters, trappers. The best. And do you know how many they got?”

  It was the most she’d spoken since he found her in the entrance cavern, so disarmingly tongue-tied, and again Ziri found himself pulled to watch her, half forgetting the stormhunter and the mystery of a seraph flying at its side. “How many?” he asked.

  “None.”

  “I’m gl
ad.”

  “Me, too.”

  He realized, with a pang of deep sorrow, that though she was directly upwind of him, and the spice scent of her was as bright to his senses as a color, he could no longer detect the other—the secret perfume, so fragile, that hid within it. He had breathed it while carrying her in his arms, but his Kirin senses were duller than the Wolf’s had been, and it was lost to him now. Well, he would always remember that it was there. That was something. Being the Wolf had given him that, at least.

  They held their position and watched in silence as the stormhunter went on tilting and wheeling, the angel keeping pace with it, sometimes pulling ahead, sometimes falling behind.

  “Come on,” said Liraz, when it began to put distance between them, heading north. “Let’s follow them.”

  They did, and saw that their path was erratic, carrying them near to cliff faces where the wind funneled and charged, and then up to circle around a minor peak, threading through a terrain of clouds. Eventually they spun and headed, once more, toward Liraz and Ziri.

  They watched the stormhunter come, and it was very near before Ziri realized that the figure flying along with it was not its only company. There were figures riding it. He hadn’t noticed them before because, not being seraphim, they didn’t give off light.

  “Is that—?” he began, dumbfounded.

  “I think it is,” breathed Liraz.

  It was. And, catching sight of Liraz and Ziri, they gave sharp cries in their strange human language. Ziri could, of course, not understand what they said, but the note of victory was plain, as was the pure, delirious joy.

  And who could blame them for it? Mik and Zuzana had tamed a stormhunter. They were going to be legends.

  80

  A CHOICE

  Akiva didn’t know what was happening to him. He was in the bath cavern, heart pounding, waiting for Karou.

 
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