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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.7
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.7

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

  “Hazael is dead.”

  There are breeds of silence. As there are breeds of chimaera. Chimaera essentially meant nothing more specific than “creature of mixed aspect, creature not seraph.” It was a term that took in every species with language and higher function that lived in these lands and was not an angel; it was a term that would never have existed if the seraphim had not, by their aggression, united the tribes against themselves.

  And the silence that preceded Akiva’s news, and the silence that followed it, were no more kin to each other than a Kirin to a Heth.

  The Misbegotten had, in the last year, been pared to a sliver of itself. They had lost so many brothers and sisters that those who remained could have drowned in the ashes of those who had died. They were bred to expect it, though this had never made it any easier, and in the last months of the war, when the body count crested to levels of hollow absurdity, a shift had occurred. Their fury had been growing—not merely over the losses but the expectation that they, being nothing but weapons, would not grieve. They grieved. And by any hallmark, Hazael had been a favorite.

  “He was killed by Dominion in the Tower of Conquest. It was a setup.” Speaking of it, Akiva was right back in it, seeing it, and the way that, in the extraordinary radiance of sirithar come to him too late, he had watched his brother die. He didn’t tell the rest: that Hazael had died defending Liraz from Jael’s unbearable plans for her. It was hard enough for her without it being known by all.

  “It’s true that I killed our father,” he said. “It’s what I went there to do, and I did it. Whatever you might have heard, I did not kill the crown prince, nor would I have. Nor the council, the bodyguards, the Silverswords, the bath attendants.” All that blood. “All of that was Jael’s doing, and all of it his plan. No matter how it fell out that day, he was going to lay it to me, and use it as pretext to exterminate us all.”

  Throughout the telling, the silence continued to evolve, and Akiva felt in it a loosening, as of fists relaxing their grips on sword hilts.

  Maybe it was news to them that their lives would have been forfeit no matter what Akiva did that day, and maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that wasn’t what mattered. These two names—Hazael and Jael—could have served as their poles of love and hatred, and together combined to make this real, all of it. The ascendancy of their uncle, their own exile, even the fact of their own freedom—still so alien to them, a language they’d never had opportunity to learn.

  They might do anything now. Even… ally with beasts?

  “Jael won’t expect it,” said Akiva. “It will anger him, to begin with. But more than that, it will unsettle him. He won’t know what to expect next, in a world where chimaera and Misbegotten join forces.”

  “And neither, I wager, will we.” In Elyon’s voice, Akiva thought, there was a tone of musing, as if the unknown beguiled as much as it alarmed him.

  “There’s something else,” said Akiva. “It’s true that the chimaera have a new resurrectionist. And you should know, before you decide anything, that she was willing to save Hazael.” His voice caught. “But it was too late.”

  They digested this. “What about Liraz?” asked Elyon, and a murmur went around. Liraz. She would be their touchstone. Someone said, “Surely she hasn’t agreed to this.”

  And Akiva said a blessing for his sister, because he knew that he had them now. “She’s with them, encamped and awaiting my word. And you can imagine—” He softened for the first time since arriving and calling them together; he allowed himself to smile. “That she would rather be here with you. There isn’t time to hash it over. Jael won’t wait.” He looked first to Elyon. “Well?”

  The soldier blinked several times, rapidly, like he was waking up. Furrowed his brow. “A détente,” he said, in a tone of warning, “can only be as strong as the least trustworthy on either side.”

  “Then let it not be our side,” said Akiva. “It’s the best we can do.”

  The look in Elyon’s eyes suggested he could think of better, and that it began and ended with swords, but he nodded.

  He nodded. Akiva’s relief felt like the passage of stormhunters reshaping the air.

  Elyon gave his promise, and the others did, too. It was simple, and slight, and as much as could be expected for now: that when the wind delivered up their enemies, they would not strike first. Thiago had made the same promise on behalf of his soldiers.

  Soon they would all learn what promises were worth.

  12

  A WARM IDEA

  “You know what I might do?” Zuzana asked, shivering.

  “What might you do?” inquired Mik, who was seated behind her, his arms wrapped all the way around her and his face tucked into the crook of her neck. That was the warmest part of her body right now: the crook of her neck, where Mik’s breath was making its own microclimate, a few lovely square inches of tropical.

  “You know that scene in Star Wars,” she said, “where Han Solo slits open that tauntaun’s belly and shoves Luke inside so he won’t freeze to death?”

  “Aw,” responded Mik, “that’s so sweet. You’re going to tuck me into a fresh, steaming carcass to warm me up?”

  “Not you. Me.”

  “Oh. Okay. Good. Because the thing I always think after that scene is that the guts are going to cool off fast, and personally, I’d rather be cold and not covered in wet tauntaun guts than—”

  “Okay then,” said Zuzana. “No need to get graphic.”

  “It’s called a Skywalker sleeping bag,” Mik continued. “A woman in America tried it in a horse.”

  Zuzana made a choking noise. “Stop now.”

  “Naked.”

  “Oh god.” She pulled forward so she could swing her face around to look at him. Immediately the microclimate of her neck began to drop in temperature. Good-bye, tiny tropics. “I did not need that in my mind.”

  “Sorry,” said Mik, contrite. “I have a better idea, anyway.”

  “A warm idea?”

  “Yeah. I was just working up my nerve when you distracted me with Star Wars.”

  The chimaera army, plus themselves and Liraz—Akiva having flown on ahead to get the high sign from his army, fingers crossed—was encamped in a sheltered valley in the mountains. Sheltered being a relative term, and valley, too. One thought of meadows and wildflowers and mirror lakes, but this looked like a moon crater. They were out of the worst of the wind, anyway; it was calm enough to get fires going, though they didn’t have a lot of fuel, and the wood that someone—Rark? Aegir?—had chopped with a battle-ax was a stingy burner, throwing off popping green sparks and smelling disagreeably like the decades of cabbage buildup in Zuzana’s aunt’s Prague flat.

  Seriously, that smell had no business existing in two worlds.

  Zuzana wondered what idea Mik might have that called for nerve. “Will it impress me?” she asked.

  “If it works? Yes. If it doesn’t, and I come right back here looking sheepish or… um, looking stabbed, don’t mock me, okay?”

  Looking stabbed? “I would never mock you,” Zuzana said, and she meant it in the moment. “Especially when there’s a stabbing risk. There’s not really, is there?”

  “I don’t think so. Humiliation, for sure.” He took a deep breath. “Here I go.” And then his body was gone from behind hers, leaving her fully exposed to the elements, and Zuzana realized that she hadn’t actually been cold before, but now she was. Like climbing out of a tauntaun, covered in wet—

  Ugh.

  “What’s Mik doing?” Karou asked, hopping down from the stone buttress that shielded them—sort of—from the wind. She’d been pacing up there, watching out for Akiva under the pretext of standing guard. The sun was going down, and Zuzana didn’t think they expected the seraph back for a while yet, but she hadn’t bothered pointing this out to her friend.

  “I don’t know,” she replied. “Something brave, to keep us from freezing to death.” Immediately she regretted the complaint.

  Karou wince
d. “I’m sorry we’re not better prepared, Zuze,” she said. “You should have stayed. It was so stupid of me to let you come.”

  “Shush. I’m not sorry, and I’m not actually freezing to death or I’d climb into the blanket pile with Issa.”

  There was a huddle around some of the colder-blooded members of the company, and all spare blankets—including Zuzana’s stinky neck-spike pad—had gone to that cause. Zuzana had a fleece on, at least, and Mik a sweater. They were lucky that they’d left all their things at the kasbah when they escaped, or they wouldn’t even have had those.

  “Where’s he going?” Karou asked. Mik had set off in the opposite direction from the resting chimaera. “He’s not… he wouldn’t… Oh. He is.” There was dread and awe in her tone.

  Zuzana shared both. “What’s he thinking?” she hissed. “Abort. Abort.” But it was too late.

  With his hands shoved deep into his jeans pockets and shuffling his feet like a terrified hobo, Mik approached… Liraz.

  Zuzana rose to her feet to watch. The angel stood by herself at the farthest edge of this rock trench from the chimaera, looking every bit as pissed off as she had back at the kasbah, and on the Charles Bridge, too. Maybe more pissed off. Or maybe that was just her face? Zuzana had yet to witness evidence that the angel could look any other way. In flight, she and Mik had amused each other by coming up with personals ads for members of the company, and Liraz’s had been something like: Hot, perpetually pissed-off angel seeks living pincushion for scowl practice and general stabbiness. No kissing.

  Mik was not going to be that pincushion. Zuzana realized it was the “hot” part—literally—that he was after. It was crazy. And doomed. No way was Liraz coming over here to keep the huddled masses warm with her wings. Her fiery, lovely, toasty wings.

  Mik was talking to her now. Gesturing. He made the universal sign of brrr, and then, right after, spread his arms like wings, and gestured back whence he’d come, putting his hands together in a plea. Liraz looked, saw Zuzana and Karou watching. Her eyes narrowed. She returned her attention to Mik, but only briefly, and looked at him—down at him; she was tall—with flat disinterest. She said nothing, didn’t even bother to shake her head, just turned her back on him like he wasn’t even there.

  How dare she? “I’ll tauntaun her,” Zuzana muttered.

  “What?” said Karou.

  “Nothing.”

  Mik was coming back, sheepish but not stabbed, and though his mission had failed—what had he thought, that Liraz could possibly care about their comfort?—it had been marvelously bold. The chimaera, for all their monstrosity, were more approachable than she was.

  “My hero,” Zuzana said without a hint of mockery, and, taking Mik’s hand, led him back over to the meager fire to set about conjuring up some more neck tropics.

  13

  TOGETHER

  The sun set. Nitid rose, followed by Ellai, and Karou enjoyed her friends’ wonder at their first sight of the sister moons, even if they were just slivers tonight. They were gifted another glimpse of stormhunters, too, though this one from more like the usual distance. The temperature dropped further, and the huddles of chilled creatures tightened. They cooked, ate. Oora told a story with a haunting, rhythmic refrain.

  Liraz still stood aloof, as far as she could get from the beast huddles, and as Karou tucked her fingers into her armpits for warmth, the waste of the angel’s wing heat seemed positively profligate, akin to pouring out water in the desert. She couldn’t exactly blame Liraz, though, after the hamsa flashes she had endured on the journey. Well, she could blame her for being rude to Mik; Mik didn’t have hamsas, and really: Who could be mean to Mik? Even the worst among the chimaera couldn’t manage that. And look at Zuzana! Not for nothing was her chimaera nickname neek-neek, and yet Mik turned her to honey. So far, Liraz alone had proven immune to the Mik effect.

  Liraz was special. Specially antisocial. Spectacularly, even. But Karou felt responsible for her, left in their midst as… what? An ambassador of sorts? No one could be worse suited to the role. There had been that moment before Akiva left, when his gaze had cut across the distance to Karou. No one could do that like Akiva could, burn a path across space, make you feel seen, set apart. They still hadn’t spoken since leaving the kasbah, or even stood near each other, and she’d been cautious with the direction of her glances, but that one look had said many things, and one of them was a plea to look after his sister.

  She didn’t take it lightly. As far as she’d been able to tell, no one was tormenting Liraz, and she hoped they wouldn’t be so stupid, with Akiva not here to hold her back.

  When will he get here?

  Down below, the fires popped their green sparks and belched their cabbage stinks, emitting paltry warmth, and Karou paced the ridge, keeping an eye over the chimaera on one side, scanning for Akiva on the other. Still no hint of wing-glimmer in the deepening darkness.

  How was he faring? What if he came back with bad news? Where would the chimaera go, if not to the Kirin caves? Back to the mine tunnels where they’d hidden before taking shelter in the human world? Karou shuddered at the thought.

  And at the thought of facing the enormity of the angel invasion alone.

  And of the loss of this chance.

  She realized how much, in so short a time, she had come to rely on the idea of this alliance, crazy as it was, and all that it meant for this company—for both meeting their basic needs and giving them purpose. The chimaera needed this. She needed it.

  Also, she was freezing her butt off in the open while the Misbegotten enjoyed the comforts of her ancestral home? Which, if she recalled correctly, had hot springs?

  Oh hell no.

  She heard the faint scritch of claws on stone, the only hint of the White Wolf’s gait, and turned to him. He carried tea, which she gratefully accepted, wrapping her fingers around the hot tin cup and holding it right up to her face to breathe the steam.

  “You don’t have to be up here in the wind,” he said. “Kasgar and Keita-Eiri have the watch.”

  “I know,” she said. “I can’t sit still. Thanks for the tea.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  “Where did you send the others?” she asked. From up here, she’d seen him talk with his lieutenants and then send four teams of two back the way they’d come.

  “To fan out around the eastern reaches of the bay,” he said. “Keep their eyes to the horizons. One from each pair will rendezvous here in twenty-four hours, and then at twelve-hour intervals after that, so we’ll know it’s clear before we leave the mountains.”

  She nodded. It was smart. The Bay of Beasts was seraph territory. Everywhere was seraph territory now, and they had no idea what the rest of the Empire’s forces were doing, or where they were doing it. The mountains provided some shelter, but to return to the human world, they’d have to be out in the open for as long as it took their combined numbers to file back through the portal one by one.

  “How do you think it’s going?” he asked, his voice very low.

  Karou glanced down toward the company, scattered below them against the edges of the broad rock hollow. Her anxiety was on high alert, but no one was looking at them, and anyway, distance and darkness must render them silhouettes, and the wind carry their voices away. “Good, I think,” she said. “You’re doing so well.” At being Thiago, she meant. “It’s a little eerie.”

  “Eerie,” he repeated.

  “Convincing. A few times I almost forgot—”

  He didn’t let her finish. “Don’t forget. Not ever. Not for a second.” He drew in breath. “Please.”

  So much behind that word. Please don’t forget I’m not a monster. Please don’t forget what I gave up. Please don’t forget me. Karou was ashamed for having voiced her thought. Had she meant it as a compliment? How could she imagine he would take it as one? You’re doing so well acting like the maniac I killed. It sounded like an accusation.

  “I won’t forget,” she told Ziri. She reca
lled her brief moment of worrying that wearing the Wolf’s skin might change him, but when she made herself look at him now, she knew there was no danger of that.

  His eyes weren’t Thiago’s, not now. They were too warm. Oh, they were still the Wolf’s pale eyes, of course, but more different than Karou would have thought they could be. It was unreal how two souls could look out through the same set of eyes in such drastically different fashion, seeming to reshape them entirely. Absent the Wolf’s hauteur, this face could actually look kind. Of course, that was dangerous. The Wolf never looked kind. Courtly, yes, and polite. Composed in a mimicry of kindness? Sure. But actual kind? No, and the difference was drastic.

  “I promise,” she said, dropping her voice low, so that it was almost inaudible beneath the coursing of the winds. “I could never forget who you are.”

  He had to lean nearer to catch her words, and didn’t move away after, but replied in the same secret tone, near enough that her ear felt the stir of his breath, “Thank you.” His tone was as warm and un-Thiago-like as his eyes, and laced with yearning.

  Karou turned abruptly back toward the darkness, buying herself some space. Even Ziri’s spirit couldn’t alter the Wolf’s physical presence enough that his nearness wouldn’t make her shudder. Her wounds still ached. Her ear throbbed where those teeth had torn it. And she didn’t even have to close her eyes to remember how it had felt, being trapped beneath that body’s weight.

  “How are you holding up?” he asked, after a silent moment.

  “I’m okay,” she said. “I’ll be better once we know.” She nodded into the night as if the sky held the future—which, she supposed, if Akiva was flying back to them, it did, one way or another. Her heart suddenly squeezed. How deep was the future? How far did it go?

  And who was in it with her?

  “Me, too,” said Ziri. “At least, I’ll be better if the news is good. I don’t know what to do if this plan fails.”

 
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