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Dreams of gods & monster.., p.30
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       Dreams of Gods & Monsters, p.30

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

  “Children of regret,” she said aloud. Well, she whispered it, and stole another look up at him. “Do you remember?”

  “How could I forget?” was Akiva’s answer, an ache in his heart and a scrape in his voice.

  She had told him the story—she, Madrigal—the night they fell in love. He remembered every word and touch of that night, every smile and gasp. Looking back at it was like peering down a dark tunnel—all his life since—at a bright place of light on the far side, where color and feeling were amplified. It seemed to him that that night was a place—the place—he’d kept all his happiness, bundled up and stowed away, like gear he’d never need again.

  “You told me it was a terrible story,” she said.

  It was the chimaera legend of how they’d come to be, and it was nothing less than a rape myth. Chimaera were sprung of the tears of the moon, and seraphim from the blood of the brutal sun. “It is terrible,” Akiva replied, hating it even more now than he had then, in light of what Karou had endured at Thiago’s hands.

  “It is,” Karou agreed. “And so is yours.” In the seraph myth, chimaera were shadows come to life, wrought by huge world-devouring monsters who swam in darkness. “But the tone is right,” she said. “I feel like both now: a thing of tears and shadow.”

  “If we’re going by the myths, then I would be a thing of blood.”

  “And of light,” she added, her voice so soft. They were almost whispering, as though Virko couldn’t hear every word, just on the other side of this glass partition. “You were kinder to yourselves in your legend than we were,” Karou continued. “We made ourselves out of grief. You made yourselves in your gods’ image, and with a noble purpose: to bring light to the worlds.”

  “A black job we’ve done of it,” he said.

  She smiled a little, and gave breath to a rueful laugh. “I won’t argue with that.”

  “The legend also says that we’ll be enemies until the end of the world,” he reminded her. When he’d told her that story, they’d been entwined, naked and supple after love—their first, their first lovemaking—and the end of the world had seemed as much a myth as the weeping moons had.

  But Akiva could almost feel it now, pressing down on them. It felt like hopelessness. At what point, he wondered, was there nothing left to save?

  “That’s why we made up our own myth,” said Karou.

  He remembered. “A paradise waiting for us to find it and fill it with our happiness. Do you still believe that?”

  He didn’t mean it the way it came out: harsh, as though it were nothing but the fool fantasy of new lovers tangled in each other’s arms. It was himself he wanted to chasten, because he had believed it, as recently as yesterday, when Liraz had accused him of being “preoccupied by bliss.” She’d been right. He’d been imagining bathing with Karou, hadn’t he? Holding her against him, her back to his chest, just holding her and watching her hair swirl on the surface of the water.

  Soon, he’d thought, it will be possible.

  Flying away from the caves this morning, seeing their armies mixed and moving in effortless flight together, he’d imagined a lot more than that. A place that was theirs. A… a home. Akiva had never had a home. Not even close. Barracks, campaign tents, and, before that, his too-brief childhood in the harem. He’d actually let himself picture this simple thing, as though it weren’t the biggest fantasy of all. A home. A rug, a table where he and Karou could eat meals together, chairs. Just the two of them, and candles flickering, and he could catch her hand across the table, just to hold it, and they could talk, and discover each other layer by layer. And there would be a door to shut out the world, and places to put things that would be theirs. Akiva could scarcely conjure what those things might be. He’d never owned anything but swords. It said so very much that, to flesh out his picture of domestic life, he had to draw from the old, rotted artifacts in the Kirin caves where once upon a time his people had destroyed hers.

  Plates and pipes, a comb, a kettle.

  And… a bed. A bed and a blanket to cover them, a blanket that was theirs together. There was something in the thought of this simple, simple thing that had crystallized all of Akiva’s hope and vulnerability and made him able to see and believe, truly, that he could be a… a person, after the war. It had seemed to him, this morning, in flight, almost within reach.

  He hadn’t bothered dreaming of where this home would be, or what you would see when you walked out the door, but now when he imagined it, that was all he saw: what lay outside the quiet little “paradise” of his daydream.

  Corpses were strewn everywhere.

  “Not a paradise,” Karou said, faltering, and she flushed and briefly closed her eyes. Akiva, looking down at her, was caught by the sight of her lashes, dusky and trembling against the blue-tinged flesh around her eyes. And when she opened her eyes, there was the jolt of eye contact, the pupil-less black sheen of her gaze, depthless, and all her worry was there, and pain to match his own, but also strength.

  “I know there’s no paradise waiting for us,” she said. “But happiness has to go somewhere, doesn’t it? I think Eretz deserves some, and so…” She was shy. There was still the space between them. “I think we should put ours there, and not in some random paradise that doesn’t really need it.” She hesitated, looked up at him. Looked and looked, pouring herself out through her extraordinary eyes. For him. For him. “Don’t you?”

  “Happiness,” he said, his voice holding the word so gently, a tinge of disbelief in his tone, as though happiness itself were as much a myth as all their gods and monsters.

  “Don’t give up,” Karou whispered. “It isn’t wrong to be glad to be alive.”

  A silence, and she could feel him struggling to find words. “I keep getting second chances,” he said, “that aren’t rightly mine.”

  She didn’t answer right away. She knew what guilt he shouldered. The magnitude of Liraz’s sacrifice shook her to her core. After another long, deep breath, she whispered, hoping it wasn’t the wrong thing to say, “It was hers to give,” feeling that it was a gift not only to Akiva but to herself.

  And, if Brimstone was right, that hope was the only hope, and that the two of them were, somehow, hope made real, then it was a gift for Eretz as well.

  “Maybe,” he allowed. “You argued before that the dead don’t want to be avenged, and that may be right, sometimes, but when you’re the one left alive—”

  “We don’t know that they’re—” Karou broke in, but couldn’t even finish the sentence.

  “Life feels stolen.”

  “Given.”

  “And the only response that makes sense to the heart is vengeance,” he said.

  “I know. Believe me. But I’m hiding in a shower with you instead of trying to kill you, so it would seem that the heart can change its mind.”

  A ghost of a smile. That was something. Karou returned it, not a ghost but a real smile, remembering every beautiful smile of his, all those lost, radiant smiles, and making herself believe that they weren’t forever ended. People break. They can’t always be fixed. But not this time. Not that.

  “This isn’t the end of hope,” she said. “We don’t know about the others, but even if we did, and even if it was the worst… we’re still here, Akiva. And I’m not giving up as long as that much is true.” She was serious. Fervent, even, as if she could force him to believe her.

  And maybe it worked.

  There had always been, from the first—at Bullfinch, in the smoke and fog—an amazement in the way Akiva looked at her, his eyes held wide to take her all in. Afraid to blink, almost to breathe. Something of that amazement came back to him now, and his steeliness and the implacability of his rage surrendered to it. So much of expression is the muscles around the eyes, and Karou saw the tension there let go, and it triggered a relief in her that may have been vastly disproportionate to the small change that brought it about. Or maybe perfectly proportionate. This was no small thing. If only it were that easy to le
t go of hate. Just relax your face.

  “You’re right,” Akiva said. “I’m sorry.”

  “I don’t want you to be sorry. I want you to be… alive.”

  Alive. Heart-beating, blood-moving alive, yes, but more than that. She wanted him to be eyes-flashing alive. Hands-to-hearts and “we are the beginning” alive.

  “I am,” he said, and there was life in his voice, and promise.

  Karou was prey, still, to flashes of remembering him through Madrigal’s eyes. She had been taller in that body, so the sightline was different, but this moment still struck a direct link to memory: the requiem grove for the first time, just before their first kiss. The blaze of his look and the curve of his body toward her. That’s what struck the vibration between then and now, and time cast a loop that brought her heart back to its simpler self.

  Some things are always simple. Magnets, for example.

  It took hardly any movement at all. It wasn’t the requiem grove, and it wasn’t a kiss. Karou’s cheek was just of a height to let it rest against Akiva’s chest, and she did, finally, and the rest of her body followed her cheek’s good example. The damned wisp of space was abolished. Akiva’s heart beat against her temple, and his arms came around to hold her; he was warm as summer, and she felt the sigh that moved through him, loosening him so that he could meld more fully to her, and she sighed her own loosening sigh and met his meld. It felt so good. No air between us, thought Karou, and no more shame. Nothing more between us.

  It felt so good.

  She traveled her hands around him so that she could hold him even closer, even tighter. Every breath she took was the heat and scent of him, remembered and rediscovered, as she remembered and rediscovered his solidity, too—the realness that somehow came as a shock, because the impression of him was so… unearthly. Elemental. Love is an element, Karou remembered from a long, long time ago, and she felt like she was floating. To the eye Akiva was fire and air. But to the touch, so there. Real enough to hold on to forever.

  Akiva’s hand was moving down the length of her hair, again and again, and she could feel the press of his lips to the top of her head, and what filled her wasn’t desire, but tenderness, and a profound gratitude that he lived, and she did, too. That he had found her, and that he had found her again. And… dear gods and stardust… yet again. Let that be the last time he ever needed to come looking for her.

  I’ll make it easy for you, she thought, her face pressed to his heartbeat. I’ll be right here.

  Almost as if he heard—and approved—he tightened his arms around her.

  When Zuzana opened the bathroom door and called out, “Soup’s on!” they slowly disengaged and shared a look that was… gratitude and promise and communion. A barrier was broken. Not by a kiss—not that, not yet—but touch, at least. They belonged to each other to hold. Karou carried the heat of Akiva on her body as she stepped out of the shower. She caught sight of the pair of them in the mirror, framed there together, and thought, Yes. This is right.

  One last look passed between them in the mirror glass—soft and glad and pure, if far from free of their sorrow and pain—and they followed Virko into the bedroom, where an astonishing wealth of food was spread over the floor like a sultan’s picnic.

  They ate. Karou and Akiva kept within easy touching distance of each other, which Zuzana noted with an approving and ever-so-slightly smug eyebrow.

  They had just begun to make a dent in the array of dishes when they heard the shouting, coming from outside.

  Car doors slammed, and two male voices vied with each other, angry. It could have been anything, just some private dispute, and would not have caused the five of them to rise to their feet—Akiva first of all—and move en masse to the window. It was the third voice that did that. It was female, melodic, and distressed. It was caught up in the hostility of the other two like a bird in a net.

  And it was speaking Seraphic.

  51

  ABSCOND

  They had no view of the commotion from their window, so Karou and Akiva glamoured themselves and went out. Mik and Zuzana followed, visible, leaving Virko in the room.

  The argument was under way in the front court—the dusty domain of kasbah children who pushed one another around in a wheelbarrow and glared at hotel guests—and there was no mistaking the source of the conflict. A young woman sat half in and half out of the open door of a car, and she seemed to have little awareness of herself or her surroundings.

  Her face was blank and bloodied. Her lips were full. She was deep brown and smooth-skinned, and her eyes were unnerving: pretty and too light, too wide open, and the whites so very white. Her arms slack in her lap, she rested on the seat’s edge, head tilted back as impossible streams of language flowed from her bloodied mouth.

  It took the mind a moment to sort it out. The blood, the woman, and the two languages, loud and at cross-purposes. The men were arguing in Arabic. One of them had apparently brought the woman here and was keen to ditch her. The other was a hotel employee, who, understandably, was having none of it.

  “You can’t just dump her here. What happened to her? What’s she saying?”

  “How should I know? Some Americans will be coming for her soon. Let them worry.”

  “Fine, and in the meantime? She needs care. Look at her. What’s wrong with her?”

  “I don’t know.” The driver was surly. Afraid. “She’s not my responsibility.”

  “And she’s mine?”

  They went on in this vein while the woman went on in… quite a different one. “Devouring and devouring and fast and huge, and hunting,” she said—cried, in Seraphic—and her voice was mournful and sweet and drenched in pain, like an otherworldly fado. A soul-deep, life-shaping lament for what is lost and can never return. “The beasts, the beasts, the Cataclysm! Skies blossomed then blackened and nothing could hold them. They were peeled apart and it wasn’t our fault. We were the openers of doors, the lights in the darkness. It was never supposed to happen! I was chosen one of twelve, but I fell all alone. There are maps in me but I am lost, and there are skies in me but they are dead. Dead and dead and dead forever, oh godstars!”

  Hairs raised on Karou’s neck. Akiva was beside her. “What’s happening to her?” she asked him. “Do you know what she’s talking about?”

  “No.”

  “Is she a seraph?”

  He hesitated before again saying no. “She’s human. She has no flame. But there’s something.…”

  Karou felt it, too, and couldn’t name it, either. Who was this woman? And how was she speaking Seraphic?

  “Meliz is lost!” she keened, and the hairs stood up on Karou’s arms. “Even Meliz, first and last, Meliz eternal, Meliz is devoured.”

  “Do you know who that is?” Karou asked Akiva. “Meliz?”

  “No.”

  “What is going on here?”

  Karou snapped around at the sound of Zuzana’s voice and beheld her, most excellent rabid fairy, cutting to the chase. She marched right up to the men, who blinked down at her, probably trying to reconcile her steely tone to the tiny girl before them—at least until they got a healthy dose of her neek-neek look. They broke off arguing.

  “She’s bleeding,” Zuzana said—in French, which, due to Morocco’s colonial past, was the European language most readily understood here, even before English. “Did you do this to her?”

  Her voice held a glint of outrage, like a knife not yet fully unsheathed, and both men hastily proclaimed their innocence.

  Zuzana was unmoved. “What’s wrong with you, just standing here? Can’t you see she needs help?”

  They had no good answer for that, and no time to make one anyway, because Zuzana—with Mik’s assistance—was already taking charge of the young woman. Each at an elbow, they eased her up to a stand, and the men only watched, silenced and chastened, as they led her away between them. There was no break in her flood of Seraphic—“I am Fallen, all alone, I break me on the rock and I will never again be w
hole.…”—and no flicker of focus in her striking eyes, but her feet moved and she made no protest, and neither did the men, so Zuzana and Mik just took her.

  And a couple of hours later, when the Americans in dark suits came to claim her, the hotel clerk led them first to Eliza’s room and then—finding it emptied of both person and possessions—to the rooms of the small fierce girl and her boyfriend who had, between them, ordered half the food in the kitchen. They knocked on the door but got no answer, and heard no movement within, and when they let themselves in, it wasn’t really a surprise to find the occupants gone.

  No one had seen them leave, not even the kasbah kids playing in the courtyard that was the only way to reach the road.

  Come to think of it… no one had seem them arrive, either.

  They’d left nothing behind but thoroughly empty dishes and—this would be one for the conspiracy theorists—several long blue hairs in the shower where an angel’s hand had stroked a devil’s head, locked in a long—and so very long-awaited—embrace.

  Once upon a time…

  A journey began,

  that would stitch all the worlds together with light.

  ARRIVAL + 60 HOURS

  52

  GUNPOWDER AND DECAY

  It was like Christmas for Morgan Toth—in the greed-and-presents sense of the holiday, not the birth-of-Christ sense, of course. Because really.

  The text messages on Eliza’s phone were getting crazier and more desperate by the hour. It was some kind of nutjob extravaganza delivered right to him, and he wished, almost, for a partner in crime—someone to marvel, with him, that there were such people in the world! But there was no one he could think of who, if he told them what he’d done, would not quail in self-righteous horror and probably call the police.

 
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