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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.43
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.43

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

  And then he wasn’t.

  Time stuttered.

  “There is the past, and there is the future,” he had said to his brothers and sisters not long ago. “The present is never more than the single second dividing one from the other.”

  He’d been wrong. There was only the present, and it was infinite. The past and the future were just blinders we wore so that infinity wouldn’t drive us mad.

  What was happening to him?

  He had lost awareness of his body. He was inside that realm of mind, the private universe, the infinite sphere of himself where he went to work magic, but he hadn’t come here of his own accord, and couldn’t rise back out.

  Had he been put here?

  There was a sense of presence. A feeling that voices were passing just out of reach. He couldn’t hear them. He only felt them as ripples skimming at the surface of his awareness. As the drag of fingers on the far side of silk. They were in discord.

  Energies vied. Not his own.

  His own was coiled, clenched. This was what he knew, this was all he knew: He was not where he needed to be. Karou would come and he wouldn’t be there. Perhaps it had happened already. Time had come unspooled. Had it been ten minutes? Hours? It didn’t matter. Focus. There was only the present. You had only to open your eyes in the right direction to be whenever you wished.

  But there were an infinite number of directions and no compass, and it didn’t matter because Akiva couldn’t open his eyes. He was pressed deep. Contained. This was being done to him.

  He was not where he needed to be. He was taken. The impotence of it, and at a moment when his hope had been so full he couldn’t contain it. To be crushed down now and robbed of will, when Karou was waiting for him, when they had finally come to a moment that could be just theirs. It was unbearable.

  So Akiva didn’t bear it. He pushed.

  At once, the thunder. Thunder as a weapon, thunder in his head. He recoiled from it, but not for long. Thunder is sound, not barrier. If that was all that was holding him, then he wasn’t truly held. He gathered every fiber of his strength into a silent roar and pushed, and it exploded in him, merciless, but he was explosive, too, and unflinching.

  And he was through it, past it, into silence and the aftershock colors of his violent passage, and… his self. He felt himself. His edges where they pressed on rock. He was lying on the ground, and it was not into silence that he had spilled, but only into a pause between voices, the air taut with the tug of their discord.

  “It’s the wrong way.”

  It was a woman’s voice, strange to him, its inflections softer than the Seraphic he knew, though not altogether unfamiliar.

  “We’ve wasted enough time here.” Sharper, this voice, and younger. Also a woman. “Should I have let him keep his appointment? Do you think it would be easier for him to leave after having his taste of her?”

  “His taste? He’s in love, Scarab. You must let him choose.”

  “There is no choice.”

  “There is. You’re making it.”

  “By letting him live? I should think you’d be glad.”

  “I am.” A sigh. “But it must be his decision, can’t you see that? Or he’ll always be your enemy.”

  “Don’t tempt me, old woman. Do you know what I could do with an enemy like that?”

  Another silence fell and echoed, dissonant with shock. Akiva understood that they were speaking of him, but that was all he understood. What choice? What enemy?

  Scarab, the one was called. There was something there. Something he should know.

  When the other spoke, her voice was thin, rising out of the pit of her shock. “Make a harp string of him, is that what you mean? Is that what you would do with my grandson?”

  Grandson. Only for a moment, hearing this, did Akiva think, It isn’t me, then, that they’re discussing. He was no one’s grandson. He was a bastard. He was—

  “Only if I had to.”

  “How could you possibly have to?” This came out as a cry. “It’s a dark thing that you’ve begun, Scarab. You must end it. That isn’t who we are. We’re not warriors—”

  “We should be.”

  Concussions of shock.

  “We were,” continued Scarab. There was a tone of stubbornness in her, and the willfulness of youth clashing with age. “And we will be again.”

  “What are you saying?” Akiva’s defender—his… grandmother?—was aghast. Staggered. Akiva knew because he felt her turmoil enter him, and he understood. It entered him and became his own, just as he had pushed his despair into every soldier in the Kirin caves, and it had become theirs. This woman had called him grandson, and there was another vital piece to this puzzle. Scarab.

  Accompanying the audacious basket of fruit the Stelians had sent to answer Joram’s declaration of war had been a note, unsigned but for a wax seal depicting a scarab beetle.

  Stelians.

  Akiva opened his eyes and came upright in one movement. They were in a cave, and it looked and felt like the Kirin caves, and sounded like them, too, eerie with wind flutes, and he registered relief in the back of his mind. He hadn’t been taken away, then. Karou wouldn’t be far off. He would be able to find her, and make things right.

  The two women were before him, and gave a start at his sudden lurch. It meant something that neither leapt back, nor even stepped back. Scarab’s eyes didn’t even widen, but only fixed on him and he was still again, held frozen in the act of rising to his feet, and suddenly intensely aware, as he had been before, when he felt an unseen presence in the cave, of the discrete entity that was his life.

  And of its fragility.

  They held him motionless and stared at him. All he could do, because he couldn’t move, and because it was all he wanted to do anyway, was stare back.

  He hadn’t seen a Stelian since he was five years old and had taken one last desperate look over his shoulder at his mother as he was dragged from her. Here were two women, and the older of them… Akiva couldn’t say that she looked like Festival, because he didn’t remember his mother’s face, but looking at this woman made him feel as though he did. Scarab had called her “old,” but she wasn’t, nor young, either. Cares had touched her, deepening the set of her eyes, etching the corners of her mouth. Her hair was a braid wound as a crown and shot through with silver bright enough to seem like ornament. In her eyes still echoed tremors of her recent shock, and a deep, a very deep pathos. Toward her, from first sight, Akiva felt kinship.

  The other, though.

  Her black hair was unbound and wild. She wore a storm-gray tunic that wrapped her slim form in slanting folds, fastening at her shoulder to leave bare her brown arms that were ringed wrist to shoulder with evenly spaced golden bands. Her face was severe. Not like Liraz’s, or Zuzana’s, made so by expression only, but sculpted for it from the start. Sharp, with the hard, hunting brow of a hawk, shadowing her eyes in a line. The way her cheekbones and jaw cut to edges seemed the work of a chisel, but her mouth was full and dark, her only softness.

  Until she smiled at him, that is, and he saw that her teeth were shaved to points.

  Akiva recoiled.

  He saw then, for the first time, that there were more besides the two women: another woman and two men, for five in all. The others had been silent and remained so, but watched them with burning intensity.

  “Clever you,” said Scarab, pulling Akiva’s attention back to her. And now he saw that her teeth were normal, white and straight. “We mustn’t underestimate you, I suppose.” She turned on the other woman. “Or did you release him, Nightingale?”

  Nightingale. She shook her head without once taking her eyes off Akiva. “I did not, Queen.” Queen? “But I won’t bind him again. This is where we grant him the dignity due his birth and talk to him.”

  “Talk to me about what?” he asked. “What do you want with me?”

  It was Scarab who answered, with a dark sideward glance to Nightingale. She was regal in her arrogance, so that Aki
va thought he would have known now, if he hadn’t already heard, that she was queen. “A choice has been made on your behalf. By me.”

  “And that is?”

  “Not to kill you.”

  It wasn’t a complete surprise, given what he had overheard, but there was a force to it, so bluntly spoken. “And what have I done to call my life into question?” Being certain of his own innocence, he didn’t expect the vehemence of her reply.

  “Much,” she snapped, biting a piece off the air. “Never doubt it, scion of Festival. By rights you’re dead already.”

  He tried to rise to his feet, but found himself still constrained. “Can you let me go?” he asked, and to his surprise, she did.

  “Because I don’t fear you,” she said.

  He stood. “Why should you? Why should I threaten you, even if I could? How many times have I wondered about the people of my mother’s blood? And never once with a thought to hurt you.”

  “And yet no one has come so close to destroying us in over a thousand years.”

  “What are you talking about?” he burst out. He’d never even been near the Far Isles, nor seen a Stelian. What could he have done?

  Nightingale cut in. “Scarab, don’t taunt him. He doesn’t know. How could he?”

  “Know what?” he asked, quieter now, because when they came from Scarab, in anger, the accusations seemed absurd, but from Nightingale, in sadness, they did not. The intrusion in his mind. The tide of power sweeping through him. The way he felt… discarded after, as though it had used him, and not the other way around. Faltering, he asked, “What have I done?”

  81

  THE WISH POLICE

  What Zuzana actually said, crying out from the stormhunter’s back, was, “Oh my god! All mountains look the same!”

  They were lost, though it was frankly astonishing that they’d made it this far, to say nothing of the style of the journey.

  The first was owing chiefly to the maps buried in Eliza’s mind, and the second to music, and Mik’s having charmed, with his violin—a new and better one than he’d left in Esther’s bathtub—a flying creature the size of a small ship. Zuzana had no problem claiming her share of the credit, though. She was confident that her enthusiasm throughout had been the true driving force in this endeavor.

  From the moment of Eliza’s revelation that she knew another portal—the one her many-greats grandmother had been exiled through a thousand years ago—Zuzana had been ready to go. Never mind that it was in Patagonia (wherever that was.… Oh. Hell. Really, really far. Seriously?), they had the means to get there.

  Wishes were fun.

  They were also rare, and irreplaceable, and sacred, having been made by Brimstone, and they were not to be spilled out like pocket change on a candy counter. Besides, Karou was likely to have far greater need of gavriels than they ever could, not that they would do her any good if they couldn’t get them to her, so the deal they had made amongst themselves was this: They would get them to her. Simple. And they would make every effort to do so without recourse to gavriels. Mik had joked about the “wish police” once, playing Three Wishes back at the caves, and now he teased Zuzana that she had become just that.

  “No samurai skills?” He’d made puppy-dog eyes. “Or perhaps some other, more cautiously phrased superpower request?”

  “We can get Virko or someone to teach us how to fight,” she’d said. “It’s a nonessential wish.”

  “It’s a lazy wish. That’s its appeal. Learning stuff is hard.”

  “Says the violinist to the artist.”

  “Right. Right.” He’d beamed. “We totally know how to learn stuff.” He’d turned to Eliza. “Scientist and smart fellow learner-of-stuff, want to do samurai-monster training with us? We intend to become dangerous.”

  “I’m in,” she’d said, that easy. Eliza Jones was what’s known in fruit parlance as: a peach.

  Really. If they weren’t tied together by a quirk of fate and a crazy shared purpose, Zuzana would still have wanted to be friends with her. That didn’t happen often, and she was really, really glad it was the case. If Eliza had been a whiner, or a prima donna, or some kind of loud chewer or something, this journey could have been a nightmare.

  What it had been, instead, was awesome.

  First, getting to Patagonia (which turned out to be in Argentina, mainly, with a slice of Chile thrown in; who knew?). That only required money, which they had no shortage of, on account of Karou’s accounts being perfectly in order, apparently unmolested by Evil Esther. In your face again, fake grandma. Zuzana had lamented not being able to gloat at least, or better yet make good on her threat, but Mik, for his part, had been sanguine.

  “Having to keep her own company for the rest of her life is vengeance enough,” he said.

  Little imagining.

  Eliza, it turned out, had a wicked yen for vengeance, too, which only made Zuzana like her more. She looked so sweet, with those big, beautiful eyes, but she knew how to nurse a grudge. She demurred from wasting a wish on her nemesis, though, who sounded like such a rancid little weenie, until Zuzana persuaded her that a shing—of which they had dozens, and which were far too modest to be of any real heroic value to Karou—could still wreak a satisfying morsel of revenge.

  She’d told her about Karou’s most excellent torment of Kaz, and had her and Mik both in helpless laughter describing the sight of his nude Adonis body doing a spastic itch-dance on the model stand. But it was the companion piece to that revenge—Svetla’s ever-grow eyebrows—that had been Eliza’s inspiration.

  She’d kissed the shing like lucky dice before pronouncing, “I wish that the hair just between Morgan Toth’s nose and upper lip will grow in at a rate of an inch per hour, beginning now, ending one month from now.”

  There was always that moment of wondering if your wish exceeded the medallion’s power, but the shing vanished with her last syllable.

  “You do realize,” Mik had said, “that you just described a Hitler mustache?”

  By the glint in her eye, they gathered that she did. The revenge was not complete, however, if the subject didn’t know who was responsible, so she’d sent, to his work e-mail, a picture of herself, finger raised to her lip like a mustache. Subject line: Enjoy.

  “We have to do that to Esther, too,” Zuzana had declared. “Right now.”

  So they did, and began their journey in the best of all possible ways: imagining, in solidarity, the bewildered horror of their enemies.

  A long flight, some shopping for cold-weather gear and supplies, a long drive, a long hike—in the snow; damn, it was winter in the Southern Hemisphere—and they were there. Near enough to the portal to contemplate a couple of gavriels for flight. They almost did it, too, but it had become a matter of honor by this point, to preserve them, so Mik said, “Let’s just see what’s on the other side before we decide. Eliza can carry us.”

  She did, and that was how they found out what no one in all of Eretz knew:

  Where stormhunters nested.

  And what none could have guessed:

  They liked music.

  And it was official: Mik’s three fairy-tale tasks were accomplished. And the ring burning a hole in his pocket? The one that had seemed so crude in the light of the Royal Suite’s shining marble bathroom?

  It happened to look just perfect on stormhunter-back, with a northerly sea rolling beneath them, dotted with icebergs and breaching sea creatures that were not in any way whales. He couldn’t go down on one knee without risk of falling off, but that was entirely okay, under the circumstances. “Will you marry me?” he asked.

  The answer was yes.

  “Am I glad to see you,” Zuzana cried now, crowing at the sight of Liraz and Ziri. Ziri! Not the White Wolf, but Ziri! Oh. That meant he must have… But it was okay, wasn’t it, because here he was in Kirin form again, and he looked pretty nearly exactly the same as he had in his natural flesh. He was smiling broadly, so very handsome, and Liraz at his side was smiling broadly
, too, and beautiful, laughing in unbridled amazement, laughing. Laughing like a person who laughs. Liraz.

  That seemed almost more amazing than showing up on a freaking stormhunter. But wasn’t.

  Because nothing was as amazing as that.

  “Can you tell them,” Zuzana asked Eliza, after the initial jag of laughing and exclaiming in mutually non-understandable languages had begun to subside, “that we can’t find the caves?”

  Eliza spoke Seraphic, which was handy, but also mildly irritating, as it undercut any sound argument Zuzana might have made for spending a wish to acquire an Eretz language herself. It would have been Chimaera, though, because come on.

  “We’ll just have to learn that, too,” Mik had said with a sigh that didn’t fool her for a second. “Resurrection and invisibility and fighting and now non-human languages, too? What is this, school?”

  But Eliza wasn’t translating, and Zuzana realized she was staring at Ziri agog. Oh! Right. His body. She’d seen his body at the pit. That was going to take some explaining. “It’s him,” Zuzana confirmed. “We’ll tell you later.”

  And so translations were given—to Liraz, who in turn translated to Ziri in Chimaera—and then they were guiding them back south, asking things like where they’d come from and whether the stormhunter had a name, and when Zuzana spotted the crescent, she realized a flaw in her grand vision of sweeping in and bowling everyone over with amazement and tornado-force wingbeats.

  The stormhunter—who did not have a name—wasn’t going to fit through the crescent. Well, damn.

  She had to put a halt to small talk and make herself understood. “We need an audience. This needs to be witnessed, and spoken of far and wide. Sung. I want songs to be written about this. Do you mind? Could you go get everyone? And Karou?”

  At which point Ziri and Liraz both got all bashful and weird, and Mik suggested, delicately, that perhaps Karou and Akiva were… busy.

  Collision of emotions! Thrill at the thought that at last Karou and Akiva were “busy”! And injustice, that it should coincide with her own moment of glory. “We can interrupt them for this, though, right?” she begged. They were coasting in circles now, forestalling the moment they would have to disembark and enter the caves on foot.

 
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