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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.16
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.16

         Part #3 of Daughter of Smoke & Bone series by Laini Taylor
 
And Liraz imagined telling Hazael she’d solved the puzzle of her recurring dream. How do you cut off both of your own arms?

  Easy. Give a chimaera an ax.

  Because there was no way she was winning this game.

  Ten looked to the big beast with the ax and beckoned him forward as she said to the Dracands, “Push up her sleeves.”

  They obeyed, and Liraz witnessed only the first gut-wrench of their stares—Ten actually flinched at the sight of her full tally revealed—and the rest was lost to crashing darkness, like an avalanche of ash, when the Dracands seized her bare arms with their hands. Four hamsas full against her flesh. It almost meant mercy. Liraz saw the nothingness she was to become. She tipped toward it. No seraph could sustain this. She would miss her own death and that wasn’t such a bad thing in the end—

  It cleared.

  No mercy, then. Ten must have ordered the Dracands to keep her conscious, because the avalanche abated and Liraz found herself staring, up close, at the ruined skin of the handprint she’d burned in the center of the she-wolf’s chest. It was blistered black and seeping, the char beginning to slough off and reveal the red meat beneath. Hideous.

  “Go ahead,” Ten commanded in a seethe of malevolence. “I’ll make it easier for you. Start at the end and go backward. Surely you remember the recent ones.”

  Liraz’s answering whisper was pathetic. “I don’t want to play your game,” she said. Something inside her was giving way. Her heartbeat felt like a child’s helpless fists. She wanted to be rescued. She wanted to be safe.

  “I don’t care what you want. And the stakes have changed. If you win, I’ll have Rark make a clean cut. If you lose…” She bared and snapped her long yellow fangs in an exaggerated grimace that left no doubt as to her meaning. “Less clean,” she said. “More fun.” And she seized Liraz’s hands and pulled her arms out taut. “Let’s start with me. Which one, pretty angel? Which mark is mine?”

  “None of them,” gasped Liraz.

  “Liar!”

  But it was true. If the Savvath kill were inked on her, it would be on her fingers, it was that long ago. But at the end of that day, Hazael had made a point of weighing the tattoo kit heavy in his hand and looking at her—a look too long and too flat for Haz, like she’d changed not just herself that day by what she’d done, but him as well—and then shoving it back into his pack before turning away from her.

  Liraz had heard it said that there was only one emotion which, in recollection, was capable of resurrecting the full immediacy and power of the original—one emotion that time could never fade, and that would drag you back any number of years into the pure, undiluted feeling, as if you were living it anew. It wasn’t love—not that she had any experience of that one—and it wasn’t hate, or anger, or happiness, or even grief. Memories of those were but echoes of the true feeling.

  It was shame. Shame never faded, and Liraz realized only now that this was the baseline of her emotions—her bitter, curdled “normal”—and that her soul was poisoned soil in which nothing good could grow.

  I can’t imagine you give apologies, Ten had said before, and she’d been right, but Liraz thought that she would now. She would apologize for Savvath. If her voice was her own. If it wasn’t reeling out of her, rising and falling in a sound that might have been laughter and might—if she weren’t Liraz and it weren’t unthinkable—have been sobbing.

  In truth, it was both. She was going to lose her arms, the clean way or the less clean, and here’s where the laughter came in: It was horrific, and it was sadistic, and it was also, literally, a dream come true.

  30

  NEARER AND TOUCHING

  First there was no one.

  Then the sense of her, nothing Akiva could pinpoint. He just knew he wasn’t alone anymore.

  Then the door creaked closed and the air gave her up. A glimmer and Karou stood before him like the fulfillment of a wish.

  Don’t hope, he warned himself. You don’t know why she’s come. But just being this near her, his skin felt alive, and his hands, his hands had their own memories—silk and pulse and flutter—and their own will. He clasped them behind his back to have something to do with them besides reach for her, which of course was out of the question. Just because she’d looked at him back in the cavern—it was the way she’d looked, he argued with himself, like she’d given up trying not to—didn’t mean that she wanted anything more from him than this temporary alliance.

  “Hello,” she said. Her gaze dropped to the floor as a blush crept up her cheeks, and Akiva’s battle against hope was lost.

  She was blushing. If she was blushing…

  Godstars, she’s beautiful.

  “Hello,” he said, low and raw, and now his hope exceeded itself. Say it again, he willed her. If she did, maybe she remembered the temple of Ellai, when they’d removed their festival masks and seen each other’s faces for the first time since the battlefield at Bullfinch.

  Hello, they’d said then, like a whispered incantation. Hello, like a promise. Hello, breath to breath.

  The last breath before their first kiss.

  “Um,” she said now, darting a quick glance up to meet his eyes, then veering it wide again, flushing even deeper. “Hi.”

  Close enough, Akiva thought, a buoyancy cautiously rising in him as he watched her take a step and then another into this room he’d claimed for himself. They were alone, finally. They could talk, free of the watchful eyes of all their comrades. That she was here at all, it meant something. And with the blaze of the look they’d shared in the cavern, he couldn’t help but hope that it meant… everything.

  Having hope was like dangling himself over a chasm and putting the rope in her hands. She could annihilate him if she wanted to.

  She was looking around, though there wasn’t much to see. It was a small chamber, bare but for a long stone slab in its center and a few ledges holding very old candles. The slab was, Akiva supposed, unusual. It was cut more precisely than the rest of the rock surfaces here. It was smooth, its hard corners rare in a world of curves.

  “I remember this room,” Karou said in a remote voice. “This is where the dead were prepared for burial.”

  That was vaguely unsettling. Hours Akiva had lain here in his dreaming, in the place inside his pain. He had lain here like a corpse, where how many corpses had lain before him? “I didn’t know,” he answered, hoping it wasn’t offensive, him being here.

  She trailed her fingertips over the slab. She was faced away from him, and he watched her shoulders rise and fall with her breathing. Her hair hung in a braid, blue as the heart of a flame. It wasn’t neat. The soft hairs at her nape had all come unbound and tufted out like down. Longer loose strands of blue were tucked behind her ears, all except one stray that lay curved against her cheek.

  Akiva felt, in his fingers, the desire to brush it back for her. To brush it back and linger, and feel the warmth of her neck.

  “We’d dare one another to come in and lie here,” Karou said. “The kids, I mean.” She made a slow circle around the table, stopping to face him from the far side of it so it made a kind of barrier between them. She looked up at the ceiling. It was high, rising to a peak and funneling to a shaft in the center, like a chimney. “That’s for the souls,” she told him. “To release them to the sky so they wouldn’t be trapped in the mountain. We used to say that if you fell asleep in here, your soul would think you were dead, and up it would go.” Akiva heard the smile in her voice just before he saw it flicker over her face, fleet and fond. “So I pretended to fall asleep one time, and I acted like I lost my soul and I made all the other kids help me look for it. All day, all over the peaks.” She let the smile come out now, slow, extraordinary. “I caught an air elemental and pretended it was my soul. Poor thing. What a little savage I was.”

  Her face, this face, Akiva realized, was still a mysterious land to him, and the smile almost made her a stranger.

  If he’d known Madrigal for a month of nights, he’d known
Karou for… two nights? Or was it really one, through much of which he’d slept, and two days in scattered pieces? Their few fraught meetings since, all he’d seen of her was her rage, her devastation, her fear.

  This was something else entirely. Smiling, she was as radiant as moonstone.

  It struck him with force that he didn’t really know her. It wasn’t just her new face. He kept thinking of her as though she were Madrigal in a different body, but she was more than that. She’d lived another life since he knew her—in another world, no less. How might it have changed her? He couldn’t know.

  But he could learn.

  The pain of longing felt like a hole in the center of his chest. There was nothing in the worlds he wanted more than to start at the beginning and fall in love with Karou all over again.

  “That was a good day,” she said, still lost in her long-ago memory.

  “How do you act like you’ve lost your soul?” Akiva asked. He meant it as a lighthearted question about a children’s game, but when he heard himself say the words, he thought, Who knows better than I?

  You betray everything you believe in. You drown your grief in vengeance. You kill and keep killing until there’s no one left.

  His expression must have betrayed his thoughts, because Karou’s smile shrank away. She was quiet for a long moment, meeting his look. Akiva had a lot to learn about her eyes, too. Madrigal’s had been warm brown. Summer and earth. Karou’s were black. They were sky-dark and star-bright, and when she looked at him like this, piercing, they seemed all pupil. Nocturnal. Unnerving.

  She said, “I can tell you how you act when you get your soul back,” and he knew she wasn’t talking about a game now. “You save lives,” she said. “You let yourself dream again.” Her voice dropped to a wisp. “You forgive.”

  Silence. Held breath. Beating hearts. Was… was she talking about him? Akiva felt the tilt of the world trying to tip him forward: to be nearer to her—nearer and touching—as though that were the only state of rest, and every other action and movement were geared to achieving it.

  She looked down, shy again. “But you know better than I do. I’m just starting.”

  “You? You never lost your soul.”

  “I lost something. While you were saving chimaera, I was making monsters for Thiago. I didn’t know what I was doing. The same things I hated you for doing, but I couldn’t see it…”

  “It’s grief,” said Akiva. “It’s rage. It makes us into the thing we despise.” And he thought, And I was the thing you despised. Am I still? “It’s the fuel for everything our people have done to each other since the beginning. That’s what makes peace seem impossible. How can you blame someone for wanting to kill the killer of their loved ones? How can you fault people for what they do in grief?”

  As soon as he spoke the words, Akiva realized it sounded like he was excusing his own vicious grief spiral and its terrible toll on her people. Shame seized him. “I don’t mean… I don’t mean me. What I did, Karou, I know I can never atone for.”

  “Do you really believe that?” she asked. Her look was sharp, as though she were seeking through his shame for the truth.

  Did he really believe it? Or was he just too guilt-ridden to admit he hoped that someday, somehow, he could atone? That someday he could feel that he’d done more good than evil, and that by living he hadn’t brought his world lower than if he’d never been. Was that atonement, the tilt of the scales at the end of life?

  If it was, then it might be possible. Akiva might, if he lived many years and never stopped trying, save more lives than he had destroyed.

  But that wasn’t what he believed, he realized, faced with the sharpness of Karou’s question. “Yes,” he said. “I do. You can’t atone for taking one life by saving another. What good does that do the dead?”

  “The dead,” she said. “And we have plenty of dead between us, but the way we act, you’d think they were corpses hanging on to our ankles, rather than souls freed to the elements.” She looked up at the chimney overhead, as though she were imagining the souls it had conducted in its time. “They’re gone, they can’t be hurt anymore, but we drag their memory around with us, doing our worst in their name, like it’s what they’d want, for us to avenge them? I can’t speak for all the dead, but I know it’s not what I wanted for you, when I died. And I know it’s not what Brimstone wanted for me, or for Eretz.” Her gaze was still sharp, still piercing, nocturnal, black. It felt like recrimination—of course she’d wanted him to carry their dream forward, not find a way to destroy her people—so when she said, “Akiva, I never thanked you for bringing me Issa’s soul. I… I’m sorry for the things I said to you then—” it struck him with horror. The idea of her apologizing to him.

  “No.” He swallowed hard. “There was nothing you said that I didn’t deserve. And worse.”

  Was that pity in her eyes? Exasperation? “Are you determined to be unforgivable?” she asked.

  He shook his head. “Nothing I’m doing is for me, Karou, or for any hope I have for myself, of forgiveness or anything else.”

  And under that black-eyed scrutiny, he had to ask himself: Was this true?

  It was and wasn’t. No matter how much he tried not to hold out hope, hope surfaced, persistent. He had no more control over it than he did over the drone of the wind. But was it the reason he was doing any of this? For the chance of a reward? No. If he knew absolutely that Karou would never forgive him and never love him again, he would still do anything in his power—and beyond his power, it seemed, in the mind-bending light of sirithar—to rebuild the world for her.

  Even if he had to stand back and watch her walk through it at the White Wolf’s side?

  Even then.

  But… he didn’t know absolutely that there was no hope. Not yet.

  I forgive you. I love you. I want you, at the end of all this. The dream, peace, and you.

  This is what Karou wished to say, and it’s what she wished to hear, too. She didn’t want to be told that Akiva had given up the hope of her, and that whatever his motivation was now, it was no longer the fullness of their dream, which had been not merely peace, but themselves together in it. Had he cut the dream up for kindling? Had she? Had it already been fed to the fire?

  “I believe you,” she said. No hope for himself. It was noble, and it was bleak, and it wasn’t the conduit her own unspoken words needed. They were heavy in her, and clinging. How do you just thrust “I love you” out into the air? It needs waiting arms to catch it. At least, right now, Karou’s unpracticed, unspoken “I love you” did. After months of its being crushed down into the recesses of her fury and warped out of all natural shape, she could no more blurt it out than she could grab Akiva’s face and kiss him.

  Kiss him. That felt a million miles from possible.

  Her eyes did their timid dance of glances again, taking him in in snapshots. A freeze-frame of his face, and then dropping her gaze again to the stone slab or her own hands, she held the glimpse in her mind. Akiva’s golden skin, his full lips, his taut, haunted expression and the… retreat in his eyes. Back in the cavern, his eyes had reached for her like the rays of the sun. Now they shrank from hers, reticent and guarded. Karou wanted to feel the sun again. But when she lifted her eyes from her restless hands, Akiva was staring down at the stone slab.

  Between the pair of them, you’d think this table was one fascinating artifact.

  Well. It wasn’t only “I love you” that she had come to say. She took a deep breath, and got on with the rest.

  “I need to tell you something.”

  Akiva looked up again. Instantly, something new in Karou’s tone set him on edge. Her hesitation, the catch in her voice. He didn’t have to struggle now to keep his hope at bay. Hope deserted him.

  What is she going to say?

  That she was with the Wolf now. The alliance was a mistake. The chimaera were leaving. He would never see her again.

  He wanted to blurt, I have something to tell you, too, a
nd keep her from saying whatever it was. He wanted to tell her of his new magic, as yet untested, and ask for her help with it. It’s what he’d hoped for, if she actually came here. He wanted to tell her what he’d made possible—for their armies, if not for themselves.

  Things change. They can be changed, by those with the will.

  Worlds, even. Maybe.

  “It’s about Thiago,” she said, and he felt the cool touch of finality. Of course it was the Wolf. When he’d seen them curved toward each other, laughing, he’d known, but a part of his mind had insisted on denying it—it was unthinkable—and then, when she’d looked across the cavern to him like that, to him, he’d hoped…

  “He’s not who you think,” Karou said, and Akiva knew what was coming next.

  He braced for it.

  “I killed him,” she whispered.

  …

  …

  …

  Wait.

  “What?”

  “I killed Thiago. This isn’t him. I mean, it’s not his soul.” She took a deep, dragging breath and rushed on. “His soul is gone. He’s gone. I’ve hated letting you think that I… and he… I could never have forgiven him, or…” A quicksilver glance, and, as if she’d read his thoughts: “Or laughed with him. And there could never have been peace while he was alive. And this alliance?” Emphatically, she shook her head. “Never. He’d have killed you and Liraz at the kasbah.”

  “Wait,” said Akiva, trying to catch up. “Wait.” What was she saying? Her words wouldn’t settle into sense. The Wolf was dead? The Wolf was dead, and whoever was walking around claiming that title… it wasn’t him. Akiva stared at Karou. The idea spun him. He didn’t even know what questions to ask.

  “I wanted to tell you before,” she said. “But I have to be careful. It’s all so fragile. No one knows. Only Issa and Ten… and Ten’s not really Ten, either… but if the rest of the chimaera found out, we’d lose them like that.” She snapped her fingers.

  Akiva was still trying to grasp the basic premise.

 
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