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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.47
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.47

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

  She was dressed already. This was not a life for pajamas, even if she’d had them. She alternated two sets of clothes, sleeping and waking in one set until it failed the sniff test—though, in all honesty, it was quite the lenient sniff test these days. It was a little funny to imagine the boutique in Rome where Esther’s shopper had purchased these, and under what conditions, say, the next shirt in the stack found itself on a normal day. Some Italian girl was wearing it on a moped, maybe, with a boy’s arms looped lightly around her waist. Give her an Audrey Hepburn haircut, because why not? Rome daydreams deserved Audrey Hepburn haircuts. One thing was sure: That imagined other girl’s shirt might have started out identical to Karou’s, but it could bear no resemblance to the ash-darkened, river-wash-roughened, sun-bleached, sweat-stiffened article that Karou wore now.

  “Okay,” she said, draining her tea and taking the bread from Carnassial to eat en route. “Tell me what’s happening in Astrae.”

  And he did, and the morning air was sweet around them, and there were sounds of laughter in the awakening camp—even children’s laughter, because refugees had begun to find them here—and at this time of day, when the land was bathed in the sherbet glow of dawn, you couldn’t really tell that the distant hills were colorless and dead. Karou could see all the way to the ridge where the temple of Ellai stood, a blackened ruin, though she couldn’t make out the ruin itself.

  She had been there to retrieve Yasri’s thurible. She’d gone alone, prepared to be cut to the bone by memories of that month of sweetest nights, but it hadn’t even looked like the same place. If the requiem grove had regrown since Thiago put it to the torch eighteen years ago, it had been burned again last year, along with everything else. There was no canopy of ancient trees, and no evangelines—the serpent-birds whose hish-hish had been the sound track to a month of love, and whose burning screams marked the end of it all.

  Well, but not the end. More chapters had been written since then, and more would be, and Karou didn’t think, after all, that they would be dull, as she had hoped aloud at the Dominion camp that night with Akiva. Not with nithilam out there, and a bold young queen gripping fate by the throat.

  Karou and Carnassial crested the rise that hid the ruined city from the view of the camp, and there it was before them, no longer quite as it had been when Karou had flown here from Earth months earlier to find it scraped free of all life, no souls to brush at her senses, and no hope. The bars of the cage lay just as they had then, like the bones of some great dead beast, but below them, figures moved. Teams of chitinous, many-legged myria-oxen strained before blocks of black stone that had made up the ramparts and towers of a hulking black fortress. Down under it all, Karou knew, there was beauty hidden. Brimstone’s cathedral had been a wonder of the world, a cavern of such splendor it was half the reason he and the Warlord chose to site their city here a thousand years ago.

  It was a mass grave now, but from the moment she found out what the people of Loramendi had done at the end of the siege, Karou hadn’t thought of it like that. She’d thought of it as Brimstone and the Warlord had intended it: as a thurible, and a dream.

  She spent her days here, helping with the excavation, but mostly roaming the dead landscape, senses attuned to the brush of souls, alert for the moment when the shifting of rubble would open a crack to what lay buried beneath their feet. No one else could feel them; only she. Well, she didn’t feel them yet, but she would, and she would glean them, every one, and not let a single one slip through her fingers. And then?

  And then.

  Karou took a deep breath and looked up. The sky would be blue today. Chimaera and seraphim would work beneath it, side by side. Word spread in the south that Loramendi was being rebuilt, and more refugees found them every day. Soon, freed slaves would be coming from the north, most of them born and raised there, in servitude. In Astrae, too, chimaera and seraphim were working together, at labor more suffocating than backbreaking. Making over an empire. What a thing. And on the far side of the world, where hundreds of green islands speckled the sea in queer formations, looking more like the crests of sea serpents than any inhabited land, fire-eyed folk prepared for a sweeter season.

  Well, Karou supposed they deserved it. She understood now what work shaped their lives, and what they fed of themselves to the veil that held Eretz intact. She didn’t know why they called it the “dream” season, but she closed her eyes and let herself imagine that she could meet Akiva there, if nowhere else, in that golden place inside her sleep, and share it with him.

  Akiva never knew if his sendings reached Karou, but he kept trying, as weeks turned into months. Nightingale had warned him that great distance required a level of finesse he was unlikely to achieve for years. She dispatched some messages on his behalf, but it was hard to know what to put into words. It was feelings he wanted to send—though he was told feelings were master-level telesthesia, and not to expect success—and those could only come from himself.

  The Far Isles were strewn across the equator, so the sun set in early evening, at the same hour all year round. It was at the gloaming that Akiva took some time to himself each day to try to send to Karou. For her, on the far side of the world, it would be the hour just before dawn, and he liked the idea that in some way he was waking up with her, even if he couldn’t experience it himself.

  Someday.

  “I thought I’d find you here.”

  Akiva turned. He’d come to the temple at the top of the island, as he did most evenings, for solitude. One hundred thirty-four days and counting, and this was the first time he’d encountered anyone besides one of the wizened elders who tended the eternal flame. The flame honored the godstars, and the elders refused to acknowledge that their deities did not exist. Scarab didn’t press the issue, and the flame continued to burn.

  But here was Akiva’s sister Melliel, whom he’d found imprisoned here on his arrival. She and the rest of her team had been freed that day, as had a number of Joram’s soldiers and emissaries who had been held in separate confinement. All had been given the option to stay or go, and the Misbegotten, having no families to return to, had remained, at least for now.

  A few of them, including Yav, the youngest, had powerful incentive in the form of the dream season, which would soon come to its end and quite likely see the introduction of blue eyes to the Stelian bloodline. For her part, Melliel claimed that her reason was the nithilam, and to be where the next war would stage. But Akiva thought she looked less martial every day, and he’d noticed that she spent more time singing than sparring. She’d always had a beautiful voice, and now her accent had softened to something close to the Stelians’ own, and she was learning old songs out of Meliz, with magic in them.

  He greeted her, and didn’t ask why she was looking for him. They would see each other at dinner in an hour, and so he thought that if she was seeking him now, it must be to speak in private. If there was something she wanted to say, though, she didn’t get to it right away.

  “Which one is it?” she asked him, standing by his shoulder and gazing outward with him over the vista. On a clear day, from up here, nearly two hundred islands were visible. Some ninety percent of them were uninhabited, and perhaps scarcely habitable, and Akiva had claimed one for himself. And for Karou, though he never spoke this aloud. He pointed out an island cluster to the west, the sun setting behind it.

  “The small one that looks like a turtle,” he said, and she made a noise like she had picked it out, though he thought it unlikely. It wasn’t one of the sharp-featured islands, all upthrust and ancient lava extrusions, and it wasn’t one of the calderas, either, with their perfect hidden lagoons.

  “Does it have fresh water?” Melliel asked.

  “Whenever it rains,” he said, and she laughed. It rained ruthlessly at this time of year—every few hours, a kind of downpour such as they’d never experienced in the north: brief but torrential. The waterfalls that descended from this peak would swell and turn from blue to brown in a matter o
f minutes, and then shrink back to normal almost as quickly. The air was heavy, and clouds drifted low and slow, burdened by bellies full of rain. One of the eeriest things Akiva had ever seen was the shadows of those clouds hunting across the surface of the sea, looking so much like the silhouettes of submerged sea creatures that at first he hadn’t believed they weren’t, and was still teased for it.

  “Look, a rorqual!” Eidolon would say, pointing at a cloud shadow bigger than half the islands, and laugh at the idea that there could ever be a leviathan so large.

  A nithilam is what it put Akiva in mind of. They were never very far from his thoughts.

  “And the house?” Melliel asked.

  He shot her a sideward glance. “It’s a stretch to call it that.”

  It was something, though. Hope kept Akiva sane, and the thought of Karou kept him working, day by day, at foundational lessons in the anima that was the proper name for his “scheme of energies,” and which was the root not only of magic but of mind, soul, and life itself. Only when it was certain he was master of himself and his terrifying ability to drain sirithar would he be free to go where he wished. As for whether Karou might come here and see what he busied himself with in his spare hours, her own duty would keep her away for a long time to come. It was some consolation to him to know that Ziri, Liraz, Zuzana, and Mik were with her, to make sure she took care of herself. And Carnassial, too, who had promised to tutor her in a finer tithe method than pain.

  Though somehow the thought of Karou in daily lessons with the Stelian magus was less than pure consolation to Akiva.

  “It’s coming along, though?” Melliel asked.

  He shrugged. He didn’t want to tell her that the house was ready, that it had been ready, that every morning when he woke in the longhouse he shared with his Misbegotten brothers and sisters, he lay still for a moment with his eyes closed, imagining morning as it might be, rather than as it was.

  “Is there anything you need for it? Sylph gave me a beautiful kettle, and I haven’t used it once. You could have it.”

  It was a simple offer, but it caused Akiva to cut Melliel a suspicious glance. He didn’t have a kettle, or much of anything else, but he didn’t know how she could know this. “All right, thank you,” he said, with an effort to be gracious. Kind as the offer was, it felt intrusive. For the most part, Akiva’s life since coming here had been an open book. His routine, his training, his progress, even his moods seemed to be up for general discussion at any time. One of the magi—most often Nightingale—kept contact with his anima at all times, a monitoring process that had been compared to holding a thumb to his pulse. His grandmother assured him that no one was reading his thoughts, and he hoped this was true, and he also hoped that in his inexperience he wasn’t scattering his attempted sendings like confetti over the entire population.

  Because that would be embarrassing.

  Anyway, what with feeling like the communal project of the Stelians, he wanted to keep this to himself. He never spoke of it—the island, the house, his hopes—though apparently they knew everything anyway. And of course he had never taken anyone there. Karou would be the first. Someday. It was a mantra: someday.

  “Good,” said Melliel, and Akiva waited a moment to see if she would say whatever she might have come here for, but she was quiet, and the look she gave him was almost tender. “I’ll see you at dinner,” she said finally, and touched his arm in parting. It was an odd interaction, but he put it out of his mind and focused on shaping the day’s sending for Karou. It was only later, when he descended the peak, returning to the longhouse on his way to dinner, that the oddness struck a chord, because more oddness awaited him there, in the thatched-roofed gallery that ran the length of the structure.

  He saw the kettle first, and so he understood the rest were offerings, too. He mounted the steps and looked over all these things that hadn’t been here an hour earlier. An embroidered stool, a pair of brass lanterns, a large bowl of polished wood full of the mixed fruits of the island. There were lengths of diaphanous white cloth, neatly folded, a clay pitcher, a mirror. He was examining it all in puzzlement when he heard an arrival on wing behind him and turned to see his grandmother descending. She held a wrapped parcel.

  “You, too?” he asked her, mildly accusing.

  She smiled, and her tenderness was a match for Melliel’s. What are the women up to? Akiva wondered, as Nightingale mounted the steps and handed him her gift. “Perhaps you should take them over to the island directly,” she said.

  For a moment, Akiva just looked at her. If he was slow in grasping her meaning, it was only because he kept his hope as carefully contained as his unruly magic. And when he did think he understood her, he didn’t speak a word. He only pushed a sending at her that exited his mind like a shout. It was nothing but question, the essence of question, and it hit her with a force that made her blink, and then laugh.

  “Well,” she said. “I think your telesthesia is coming along.”

  “Nightingale,” he said, tense, his voice little more than breath and urgency.

  And she nodded. She smiled. And she sent to his mind a glimpse of figures in a sky. A stormhunter. A Kirin. A half-dozen seraphim and an equal number of chimaera. And with them one who flew wingless, gliding, her hair a whip of blue against the twilight sky.

  Later, Akiva would think that it was Nightingale who’d come to give him the news in case, in his joy, he unknowingly tapped sirithar. He didn’t. They were training him to recognize the boundaries of his own anima and hold himself within them, and he did. His soul lit up like the fireworks that had burst over Loramendi long years past, when Madrigal had taken him by the hand and led him forward into a new life, one lived by night, for love.

  Now night was coming, and, unwatched for, serendipitous, and sooner than he’d let himself dream, so was love.

  It was Carnassial who had sent ahead to tell of their approach, but the women arranged everything else. Yav and Stivan of the Misbegotten, and even Reave and Wraith of the Stelians, argued that it was cruel to send Akiva away when they did, but the women didn’t listen. They only gathered on the terrace of Scarab’s modest cliff-face palace, and waited. By then night was upon them, and one of the quick squalls of ruthless rain was, too, so that the newcomers were landing even before the wing-glimmer of the seraphim among them could be seen in the storm.

  They were received without fanfare. The men were separated out like wheat chaff and left where they stood. Carnassial and Reave shared a look of long-suffering solidarity before leading Mik and Ziri, along with Virko, Rath, Ixander, and a few wide-eyed Misbegotten, out of the downpour.

  Scarab, Eliza, and Nightingale, meanwhile, guided Karou, Zuzana, Liraz, Issa, and the Shadows That Live through the queen’s own chambers and into the palace bath, where fragrant steam enveloped them in what they all agreed was the best of all possible welcomes.

  Well, except for one. Karou had scanned for Akiva in those seconds between landing and being spirited away, and she hadn’t seen him. Nightingale had squeezed her hand and smiled, and there was some comfort in that, though nothing would be true comfort until she saw him and felt the connection between them unbroken.

  She believed it was. Unbroken. Every morning she woke with the certainty of it, almost as though she had been with him in her sleep.

  “How is it you’ve come?” Scarab asked, when they had all disrobed and settled into the frothy water, earthen goblets of some strange liquor in all their hands, its cooling properties offsetting the almost unbearable heat of the bath. “Have you already finished your work?”

  Karou was grateful to Issa for answering. She didn’t feel up to faking her way through any normal social interaction.

  Where is he?

  “The gleaning is done,” said Issa. “The souls are gathered and safe. But the winter is expected to be difficult, and more refugees arrive every day. It was deemed best to wait until a fairer season to begin the resurrections.”

  It was a nice way of s
aying that they’d chosen not to bring the dead of Loramendi back to life just so they could huddle and hunger through a gray season of ice rain and ash mud. There wasn’t enough food to go around as it was, or shelter, either. It wasn’t what Brimstone and the Warlord had envisioned when they crushed the long spiral stair that led down into the earth, trapping their people belowground. And it wasn’t what those who stayed above had sacrificed themselves for, either—that others might one day know life in a better time.

  The day had not yet come. The time was insufficiently better.

  It was the right decision, Karou knew, but because it freed her to do what she most wanted, she had held herself out of all debate and left the decision to others. She couldn’t help but view her own desires as selfish, and all of her hoarded hope as a bounty she had no business carrying away with her around the curve of the world, to spend on just one soul, while so many others lay in stasis.

  As though sensing the conflict in her, Scarab said, “It was a brave choice, and I imagine not an easy one. But all will come well. Cities can be rebuilt. It’s a matter of muscle, will, and time.”

  “And on the subject of time,” said Nightingale, “how long will you stay?”

  Liraz replied, “Most of us only a couple of weeks, but it has been decided”—she gave Karou a stern look—“that Karou should stay with you until spring.”

  This was Karou’s deepest conflict. As much as she wanted it—the whole winter here with Akiva—she couldn’t help thinking of the bleak conditions the others would endure. When the going gets tough, she thought, the tough do not go on vacation.

  “The health of your anima is of paramount importance to your people,” said Scarab. “Never forget that. You need to heal and rest.”

  Nightingale added, “As pain makes for a crude tithe, so does misery yield crude power.”

 
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