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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.8
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.8

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

  “Me, neither.” Karou attempted a brave face. “But we’ll think of something if we have to.”

  He nodded. “I am hoping to see… the place where I was born.”

  So hesitant in his words. He’d been a baby when they lost their tribe, and had no memories of life before Loramendi. “You can call it home,” Karou said. “At least, to me you can.”

  “Do you remember it?”

  She nodded. “I remember the caves. Faces are harder. My parents are blurs.”

  It hurt to admit this. Ziri had been a baby, but she’d been seven when it happened, and there was no one else left to remember. The Kirin existed only as long as her memory held on to them, and they were mostly gone already. She hunched around a pang of conscience. Would she forget Ziri’s face, too? The thought of his body in its shallow grave haunted her. The way the dirt had caught in his eyelashes, then her last glimpse of his brown eyes before she’d covered them over. The blisters on her hands still stung from her desperate burying; she couldn’t feel that pain without seeing his face slack in death. But soon enough, she knew, it would lose its clarity. She should draw him—alive—while she still could. But she couldn’t show him if she did. He had a way of reading too much into small gestures, and she didn’t want to give him hope. Not the hope he wanted, anyway.

  “Will you show me around, when—if—we get there?” he asked.

  “We won’t have much time,” she said.

  “I know. But I hope there’s some time to be alone, even for a little while.”

  Alone? Karou tensed. What did he think, that they would find themselves alone?

  But he tensed, too, on seeing her expression freeze. “I don’t mean alone with you. I mean, not that I wouldn’t… but I didn’t mean that. Just—” He took a deep breath, let it out hard. “I’m just tired, Karou. To not be watched, and not worry that I’m making some misstep, for just a little while. That’s all I meant.”

  Oh god, how selfish was she, thinking only of herself? The pressure on him was so great, crushing, and she couldn’t even stand the thought of being alone with him? Couldn’t even pretend to stand it?

  “I’m so sorry,” she said, miserable. “For all of this.”

  “Don’t be. Please. I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s worth it.” He looked and sounded so earnest. Again, the expression was utterly foreign to the Wolf’s face and voice, reshaping both, and managing even to tinge the general’s untouchable beauty with sweetness. Oh, Ziri. “For what we might accomplish,” he added. “Together.”

  Together.

  Karou’s heart mutinied, and if there had been a shadow of doubt remaining, it wouldn’t have survived this surge of clarity. Her heart was half of a different “together”—a dream begun in another body, and, contrary to the lie she’d been telling herself for months, apparently not ended in it.

  She forced a smile, because it wasn’t Ziri’s fault, and he deserved better from her, but she couldn’t make herself say the word—together.

  Not to him, anyway.

  Ziri saw the strain in Karou’s smile. He wanted to believe it was because she was forced to look at him through this body, but… he knew. Just like that. If he hadn’t known absolutely before this moment, it was his own fault, not hers, and it settled in him now.

  No hope here. No luck friction, not for him.

  He bid her good night, left her there pacing on the ledge—watching for the angel to return—and felt, as he walked away, the features of this face slip back into their habitual expression. There was a minor twist at the corners of the lips to convey amusement—the cruel kind. But it wasn’t Ziri’s. He was not amused. Karou was still in love with Akiva? The real Thiago would have been disgusted, furious. The fake Thiago was only heartbroken.

  He was also jealous, and it made him sick.

  He felt the loss of his body more keenly than ever, not because it would have made a difference to Karou, but because he wanted to fly—to be free even for a little while, to exhaust his wings and lungs, smash himself against the night and let his sorrow show on this face that wasn’t even his own—but he couldn’t even do that. He didn’t have wings. Just fangs. Just claws.

  I could howl at the moons, he thought with a scrape of despair, and where his hope had been, in that space of new cold, he placed another that did little to warm it.

  It had nothing to do with love; there was no use wasting hope on love. That was a matter of luck, and the only reason he’d ever had to call himself lucky was left to rot in a shallow grave in the human world. “Lucky Ziri”—what a joke.

  His new hope was simply to be Kirin again, someday. To live through this—and not be found out, and not burned as a traitor for deceit, and not left to evanesce. He still counted it true, what he had told Karou just now: that it was worth it, his sacrifice, if it could help lead the chimaera toward a future free of the White Wolf’s savagery.

  But beyond that, Ziri’s hope was modest. He wanted to fly again, and be rid of this hateful body with its mouthful of fangs, its jagged claws.

  If anyone ever did love him, he thought bitterly, it might be nice to be able to touch her without drawing blood.

  14

  THE LONGEST FIVE MINUTES IN HISTORY

  Liraz felt… guilty.

  It was not her favorite feeling. Her favorite feeling was the absence of feeling; anything else led to turmoil. Right now, for example, she found herself angry at the source of her guilt, and, though aware that this was an improper emotional response, she could not seem to unfeel it. She was angry because she knew she was going to have to do something to… assuage the guilt.

  Damn it.

  It was the human with his damned imploring eyes and his shivering. What did he mean, asking her to keep him warm—and his girl—as if they were her responsibility? What were they even doing here, traveling with beasts? It wasn’t their world, and they weren’t her problem. This guilt was stupid enough, but oh, it got worse.

  It got stupider.

  Liraz was also angry at the chimaera, and not for the reason that would have made sense. They were not, for a miracle, aiming their hamsas at her. She hadn’t felt their magic drill its sick ache through her for the entire time that they’d been encamped here. And that was why she was angry. Because they weren’t giving her a reason to be angry.

  Feelings. Were. Stupid.

  Hurry up, Akiva, she thought to the night sky, as if her brother might rescue her from herself. Small chance of that. He was a wreck of feelings, and that was another reason for fury. Karou had done that to him. Liraz could imagine her fingers around the girl’s neck. No. She’d twist her ridiculous hair into a rope and strangle her with that.

  Except, of course, that she wouldn’t.

  She would give Akiva five more minutes to arrive, and if he still didn’t come, she would do it. Not strangle Karou. The other thing. The thing that she had to do to put a halt to this absurd spillage of feelings.

  Five minutes.

  It was her third five minutes already. And each “five minutes” was probably more like fifteen.

  Finally, heavily, Liraz started walking, inwardly cursing Akiva with every step. She’d given him the longest five minutes in history, and he still hadn’t arrived to put a stop to this. The camp was asleep, save for a griffon on guard duty, up on a pinnacle. He wouldn’t be able to tell what was happening from up there.

  The Wolf had come down from prowling the ledge a half hour ago, and retreated to one of the fires—fortunately, one of the farther ones. His eyes were closed. Everyone’s were. As far as Liraz had been able to determine, no one was awake.

  No one would even know what she’d done.

  She was silent, prowling slowly. She arrived at the proper… beast huddle… and surveyed it with distaste for a moment before stepping near. The fire was a sad thing, producing almost no heat. There was the pair of humans, sleeping curled into each other like twins in a womb. Fetal, she thought. Pathetic. She stared at them for a long moment. They were s
hivering.

  She looked around once, quickly.

  Then she knelt beside them and opened her wings. It was within a seraph’s basic power to burn low or high; a simple thought, and the heat intensified. Within seconds, the warmth spread to the whole huddle, but it took a while, Liraz noted, for the shivering to taper off. She herself had never known cold. It gave every appearance of unpleasantness. Weak, she thought, still watching the human pair, but there was another word lurking, defying it. Fearless.

  They slept with their faces touching.

  She couldn’t wrap her mind around it. Liraz had never been that close to another living soul. Her mother? Maybe. She didn’t remember. She knew that something in the sight made her want to cry, and so, she thought, she should hate it, and them. But she didn’t, and she wondered why, watching them and keeping them warm, and it was a while before she lifted her eyes to look around the fire. She had wondered something else: whether Akiva and Karou had shared… this? This fearless nearness. But where was Karou? There was Issa, the Naja, resting peacefully, it seemed, but to Liraz’s deep dismay, she saw that Karou was not among these sleepers.

  So where was she?

  Her heart slammed, and she just knew. Godstars. How could I have been so careless? Suffused with dread—oh, and dread made her angry—Liraz tipped back her head and looked up, and there, of course, was Karou, right above her, perched on the rocky ledge—How long has she been there?—knees tucked up to her chest, arms wrapped around them tight. Awake? Oh yes. Cold, clearly. Watching.

  Intrigued.

  At the moment that their eyes met, Karou cocked her head to one side, a sudden birdlike motion. She didn’t smile, but there was an open warmth in her look that seemed to reach out toward Liraz.

  Who wanted to send it right back at her on the end of an arrow.

  And then, simply, Karou tucked her face against her knees and settled in to sleep. Liraz didn’t know what to do with herself, caught in the act. Back away? Burn everyone?

  Well, maybe not that.

  In the end, she stayed where she was.

  But by the time the chimaera host was awakened and Akiva’s return made known—with good news: the Misbegotten promise was given—Liraz was up, and no one knew what she’d done but Karou. Liraz thought of warning her not to tell anyone, but feared that caring that much about it just broached a whole new level of vulnerability and gave Karou even more power over her, so she didn’t. But she did glare at her.

  “Thank you,” Akiva said quietly when they had a moment by themselves.

  “For what?” Liraz demanded, squinting at him as if he might somehow know how she’d passed the last hours.

  He shrugged. “For staying here. Keeping the peace. It couldn’t have been fun.”

  “It wasn’t,” she said, “and don’t thank me. I might be the first one to draw my sword, once I have backup.”

  Akiva wasn’t fooled. “Mm hmm,” he said, suppressing a smile. “Hamsas?”

  “No,” she grudgingly admitted. “Not a touch.”

  His brows went up in surprise. “Amazing.”

  It was amazing. Liraz grimaced, remembering her absurd anger about it—what did they mean, leaving her in peace like that? It was odd, though. It was off. But saying so would just sound foolish, and maybe it was. Akiva looked hopeful. Liraz hadn’t seen him look like that… ever. It squeezed her heart—a bad and good feeling. How could a feeling be both bad and good? Akiva was happy; that was the good. Hazael should be here; that was the bad.

  “Did you tell them?” she asked Akiva. “About Haz?” She was strumming at the bad ache in an effort to blot out the good.

  Akiva nodded, and she saw with a mixture of guilt and petty triumph—but mostly guilt—that she’d blotted out his hopeful look, too, lacing it with pain. “Can you imagine how much easier this would all be, if he were here?”

  Instead of me, thought Liraz, though she knew that wasn’t what Akiva meant. She meant it, though. Maybe she’d been acting on Hazael’s behalf in the night, sharing her fire, but it was feeble compared to what he would have brought to this bizarre communion of beasts and angels. Laughter and helpless grins, a swift breaking down of barriers. No one could hold out long against Haz. Her own gift, she thought with an inward shudder, was very different, and unwelcome in the future they were trying to build. All she was good at was killing.

  For so long it had been a source of pride and boasting, and though the pride was gone, she would wear her boasts forever. Her sleeves were pushed all the way down, as they always were now, hiding the truth of her tally—the awful truth that it wasn’t just her hands that were marked. She might have shoved her hands in the chimaera’s faces back at the kasbah, but she hadn’t flaunted the full and terrible truth.

  The campfire tattoos, the columns of five-counts—each one made up of four fine lines with a strike-through—were not confined to her hands. Up her arms they climbed, giving her flesh the look of black lace. No one else had a count like hers. No one.

  It ended at the elbows, frittering away in one incomplete count: two fine lines that were the last two kills she’d had the stomach to record. Before Loramendi.

  Loramendi.

  She’d been having a recurring dream since then, in which, possessed of the belief that they would grow back clean, she… cut her arms off.

  Just how she accomplished this, the dream never made clear. Oh, the first arm was easy, sure. The second was the puzzle her mind skipped blithely over.

  How, exactly, does one cut off both of her own arms?

  The point was, they didn’t grow back. Or at least, she always woke up before they could. She would lie there blinking, and she could never get back to sleep until she imagined an ending, one in which the fountaining blood from her stumps arranged itself into growth—bone, flesh, fingers—solidifying until she was whole again. Whole, and also unmarked.

  A clean start.

  A fantasy.

  She’d never told anyone but Hazael, who had diverted her for a half hour after by trying to solve the puzzle of dual self-arm-severing, ending up sprawled on his back and declaring it impossible. She hadn’t told Akiva because, well, he wasn’t there. After Loramendi, he had left them, and even though he’d come back, he was in a world of his own. Take right now, for example. He was looking past Liraz, and she didn’t have to follow his gaze to know at whom. He was staring; she snapped her fingers in front of his eyes.

  “A little subtlety, brother? The chimaera will take it out on her if they think there’s still something between you two. Haven’t you heard what they call her?”

  “What?” He looked genuinely surprised. “No. What do they call her?”

  “Angel-lover.”

  She saw his eyes brighten, and rolled her own. “Don’t look happy. It doesn’t mean she loves you. It only means they don’t trust her.” She was scolding him as if she were the one who understood these things—or cared. What little Liraz knew of feelings was more than enough, thank you, but… well, she wasn’t going to go talking about it or anything, but there was something in the good half of this ache in her heart that made her want to curl her wings around it and guard it from the cold.

  ARRIVAL + 18 HOURS

  15

  FAMILIAR TERROR

  Eliza didn’t sleep the night of the Arrival. She could feel the dream perched on her shoulder, and knew what would happen if she did, but that wasn’t the primary reason. No one was sleeping. The world had been stirred by a hot poker, and sparks of crazy were flying. The news in the wake of the angel’s address was a horror show of riots and sectarian violence, Rapture cult vigils and mass baptisms, looting and suicide pacts and—oh hell—animal sacrifice. There were also, of course, the all-night Armageddon theme parties, the drunk frat boys in demon costumes pissing off rooftops, the women offering themselves up to have the angels’ babies.

  Predictable human idiocy.

  There were ecstasy and fury, and there were desperate pleas for reason, and there were fires,
so many fires. Madness, thrill, gloating, panic, noise. The NMNH was on the National Mall, and right outside, thousands were passing by, marching on the White House, not so much united in a message to the president as just wanting to be part of something on this momentous night. What kind of something remained to be seen. Some carried votives, others megaphones; a few wore crowns of thorns and dragged enormous crosses, and more than a few guns were tucked into pockets or waistbands.

  Eliza stayed in.

  She didn’t go home, for fear that someone would be waiting for her there. If her family had her phone number, no doubt they also knew where she lived. And where she worked, too, but there was security at the museum. Security was good.

  “I’m going to stay here,” she told Gabriel. “I have some work to catch up on.” It wasn’t entirely a lie. She had DNA to extract from a number of butterfly specimens on loan from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. The clock was ticking on her dissertation, but she didn’t imagine anyone would fault her for taking the day off, under the circumstances. She wondered if anyone in the world had gotten anything done today—besides Morgan Toth, anyway. He’d stalked off in disgust after the angel delivered his message, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the lab, as if he could prove, by contrast to his own calm, what fools the seven-odd-billion other humans on the planet were.

  He’d finally left, though, to Eliza’s relief, and she had the lab to herself. She locked herself in, kicked off her shoes, and tried to focus her thoughts.

  What did it mean? What did it all mean?

  There was a thrum at the base of her skull that felt like caged panic and the onset of a headache. She popped some Tylenol and curled up on the sofa with her laptop to watch the speech again. Again, the angel made her skin crawl before he even opened his mouth and slurred out his wet words. Not that you could see his mouth when he did. Why the helmet? It was so odd. You could see most of his face, but that central piece cut it in half, and the effect was jarring—combined with the fact that his eyes weren’t exactly pools of warmth. They were startlingly blue, flat and cruel.

 
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