Home > Dreams of Gods & Monsters(5)

Dreams of Gods & Monsters(5)
Author: Laini Taylor

The White Wolf would die a thousand deaths before he would treat with angels. He would tear the world down around him. He would see the end of everything. He would be the end of everything before he would consider such an offer.

So Karou was as astonished as the rest—though for a different reason—when Thiago… nodded.

A hiss of surprise came from either Nisk or Lisseth, his Naja lieutenants. Aside from some pebbles discharged downhill by the lashing of a tail, that was the only sound from the soldiers. In Karou’s ears, blood pounded. What was he doing? She hoped he knew, because she really didn’t.

She stole a glance at Akiva. None of the grief or disgust, the dismay or the love that had shown on his face the night before was in evidence now; his mask was in place, and so was her own. All her turmoil had to stay hidden, and there was plenty of it to hide.

Akiva had come back here. Can no one stay escaped from this damned kasbah? It was brave; he had always been that, and reckless. But it wasn’t only himself he jeopardized now. It was everything she was trying to achieve. The position he was putting the Wolf in: to come up with yet another plausible excuse not to kill him?

And then there was her own position. Maybe that was what flustered her the most.

Here was Akiva, this enemy whom she had fallen in love with twice, in two separate lives, with a power that felt like the design of the universe and maybe even was, and it didn’t matter. She stood at Thiago’s side. This was the place she had made for herself, for the sake of her people: at Thiago’s side.

Moreover—though Akiva didn’t know this—this was the Thiago she had made for herself: one she could bear to stand with. The White Wolf was… not himself these days. She had sealed a better soul into the body she despised—oh, Ziri—and she prayed to everything in the infinite array of gods of two worlds that no one would figure it out. It was a wrenching secret, and felt every moment like a grenade in her hand. Her heartbeat slipped in and out of rhythm. Her palms were clammy.

The deception was massive, and it was fragile, and it fell most heavily by far to Ziri to pull it off. To dupe all these soldiers? Most of them had served for decades with the general, some few for centuries, through multiple incarnations, and they knew his every gesture, every inflection. Ziri had to be the Wolf, in manner and cadence and in chill, suppressed brutality—to be him, but, paradoxically, a better him, one who could guide their people toward survival instead of dead-end vengeance.

That could only happen by degrees. The White Wolf wouldn’t just wake up one morning, yawn and stretch and decide to ally with his mortal enemy.

But that was exactly what Ziri was doing right now.

“Jael must be stopped,” he stated as a matter of fact. “If he succeeds in procuring human weapons and support, there will be no hope for any of us. In that, at least, we have common cause.” He kept his voice low, conveying absolute authority and not a second’s concern with how his decision would be received. It was the Wolf’s way, and Ziri’s impersonation was flawless. “How many are they?”

“A thousand,” replied Akiva. “In this world. There will, no doubt, be a heavy troop presence on the other side of the portal.”

“This portal?” asked Thiago with a jerk of his head toward the Atlas Mountains.

“They entered by the other,” said Akiva. “But this one could be compromised, too. They have the means to discover it.”

He didn’t look at Karou when he said this, but she felt a flare of blame. Because of her, the abomination Razgut was a free agent, and he could easily have shown the Dominion this portal, as he had shown it to her. The chimaera could be trapped here, cut off from their retreat to their own world while their seraph enemies closed in on them from both sides. This safe haven she had led them to could so easily become their grave.

Thiago took it in stride. “Well. Let’s find out.”

He looked to his soldiers, and they looked back, wary, parsing his every move. What is he up to? they would be wondering, because it simply couldn’t be what it seemed. Soon he would order the angels killed. This was all part of some strategy. Surely.

“Oora, Sarsagon,” he commanded, “choose teams for speed and stealth. I want to know if there are Dominion at our door. If there are, keep them out. Hold the portal. Let no angel through alive.” A wolfish smile conveyed pleasure at the thought of dead angels, and Karou saw some of the wariness leave the soldiers’ faces. This made sense to them, if the rest didn’t: the Wolf, relishing the prospect of seraph blood. “Send a messenger once you’re certain. Go,” he said, and they did, Oora and Sarsagon picking their teams with quick, decisive gestures as they moved through the gathering. Bast, Keita-Eiri, the griffons Vazra and Ashtra, Lilivett, Helget, Emylion.

“Everyone else, back to the court. Be ready to leave if the report is favorable.” The general paused. “And ready to fight if it isn’t.” Again he managed, with no more than the shadow of a smile, to hint that he would prefer the bloodier outcome.

It was well done, and a little hope wicked into Karou’s anxiety. Action was best, orders given and followed. The response was immediate and unfaltering. The host turned and moved back up the hill. If Ziri could maintain this unassailable demeanor of command, even the surliest of the troops would hustle to meet his approval.

Except, well, not quite everyone was hustling. There was Issa, moving defiantly against the tide of soldiers to come down the hill, and then there was the matter of Thiago’s lieutenants. Except for Sarsagon, who had been given a direct order, the Wolf’s entourage remained clustered around him. Ten, Nisk, Lisseth, Rark, and Virko. These were the same chimaera who had conspired to get Karou alone at the pit with Thiago—with the exception of Ten, who had made the mistake of taking on Issa and was now as much Ten as Thiago was Thiago—and she hated them. She had no doubt they’d have held her down for him if he’d asked, and could only be glad that he hadn’t thought it necessary.

Now their lingering was ominous. They hadn’t followed Thiago’s order because they believed themselves exempt from it. Because they expected to be given other orders. And the way they were regarding Akiva and Liraz left no doubt what they assumed those would be.

“Karou,” whispered Zuzana, at Karou’s shoulder. “What the hell is going on?”

What the hell wasn’t going on? All the collisions Karou thought she’d averted in the past days had boomeranged around to crash into one another right here. “Everything,” she said, through gritted teeth. “Everything is going on.”

   
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