By Laura Schiller
Based on: Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Copyright: Laini Taylor
By the time Akiva finished his confession, Karou's head was reeling. She felt as if she had died again, hovering above her own headless body, disoriented, disbelieving.
Akiva – her own tiger-eyed, fire-winged Akiva, love of two lifetimes, standing right in front of her with the face of a condemned prisoner – had burned Brimstone's portals. Had paved the way for the seraphim to destroy the chimaera once and for all. My people, insisted the side of her that was Madrigal. My home. She could picture it, Loramendi in ashes, the agora and the Serpentine piled high with bodies, their souls drifting away like smoke on the wind.
Karou had never known war, had been so childishly intrigued by the gas masks at the Poison Kitchen that she'd almost forgotten what they represented. But Madrigal knew.
"Just tell me one thing," she managed to whisper, through the horror that choked her throat. "Brimstone … my family … did they survive?"
Akiva shook his head slowly, making her fear the worst, until he answered: "I don't know."
Her eyes were drawn to her crescent moon blades on the table. No wonder she'd had to buy them from Madame Vezerizac. She'd used a pair just like these, forged in honor of the sister moons of Eretz, to slaughter angels on the battlefield.
"See? I told you would need them," he said tonelessly, following her gaze.
"What do you mean?"
He gave her one long look, the red-golden fire of his eyes burning low. It was the same look he had worn in the Warlord's prison: hopeless, soulless. He raised his chin high, baring his throat.
"You have the right to revenge," he said simply. "I give you my life, Madrigal. You saved it for me three times … now do with it what you will."
Three times. First, tying his tourniquet at Bullfinch; second, refusing to unmask him at the ball and keeping him secret all those weeks; third, freeing him from the dungeon. So much she had done for him, and he'd repaid her by bringing ruin to her world. For a moment, a fraction of a second, her hands actually did itch to pick up the blades – but then she locked them behind her back, disgusted with herself as much as him.
"Don't be ridiculous," she snapped. "I'm not going to kill you. What good would that do?"
He lowered his eyes to the floor.
"What, do you want to die?"
"What I want," he snarled back with sudden vehemence, "Is obviously to undo what I've done. I want to back to the Temple of Ellai, snap a wishbone and drink to peace between our races as if none of this had ever happened. And since that's impossible, obviously, all I want is to find some way, any way, to atone. And if that involves my death, so be it."
The Temple of Ellai. Where he had kissed the sugar off her skin and she had absolved him for the death marks on his fingers. Where they had shared each other's stories and dreamed of a shared future. He could not have said anything more certain to shock her out of her disbelieving numbness if he had tried. She burst into tears.
Even now, he instinctively reached out to comfort her, but drew back as if the air around her burned him.
She was crying for a memory of Madrigal's, one bittersweet memory that stood out among all the rest. War is all we've been taught, but it's not everything there is. We could invent a new way of living. And in another body, only minutes ago: Whatever happens, we don't have to be enemies. It's up to us, isn't it? … I love you … promise me you'll remember.
Whatever happens … did that include genocide? To end the war, he had said. She glanced at her own knives again. Did she even have the right to judge him? She had been a killer too.
But Brimstone, grim and aloof but never uncaring; sweet, motherly Issa and Yasri; absent-minded Twiga buried in his work. What if they were dead? What if Akiva was responsible for their deaths? How could she possibly forgive that?
"Get out of here," she sobbed. "I just … I can't think straight, with you here. I can't make sense of this. Just get out."
Akiva turned to leave, but looked over his shoulder by the door. Even through her tears, she saw the spark of longing in his eyes.
"Madrigal … "
"Don't call me that. My name is Karou." She felt absurd, calling herself Hope in the language of a people for whom all hope might well be lost, but right now, the name she had known for the past seventeen years felt like the only anchor in a turbulent sea of grief.
"Karou … will I ever see you again?"
He knew. He must feel exactly like she did right now, irrationally missing him as if he were miles away, wanting nothing more than to hold him, to be folded in his arms and shaded by his fiery wings one last time. Was it sick, to still want him at a time like this?
"I don't know," she told him truthfully. "I can't answer that. Please go away."
He clicked his heels and bowed to her, a soldier taking leave, but his eyes as he raised them to her face shone with a lover's sorrow.
"Goodbye," she whispered to the closing door.
She sat in silence for a long time, letting her tears dry to tracks of salt on her face. She was reminded, faintly, as if she had lived that life long before Madrigal's, of her breakup with Kazimir. She had believed she was as heartbroken as a girl could be, but she was wrong.
God, what was wrong with her? Was she so pathetically lonely, she'd give her heart to anyone who asked? Was Akiva just a more intense version of Kaz, a beautiful boy who made her lose all her common sense along with her heart?
Even as she asked herself these questions, however, she knew she was wrong. Her relationship with Kaz had only ever been based on physical beauty; he had cared nothing for her except as one of several pretty admirers to gratify his vanity. Akiva, however … beyond his appearance, stunning as it was, she had fallen in love with him through his actions. As Madrigal, it was when he'd risked his life at the masquerade just to thank her for saving him – and, while he was at it, show her more courtesy, kindness and humor with one dance than Thiago had during their entire acquaintance. As Karou, it was when he'd chosen to end their second fight by surrendering to her hamsas instead of killing her – an obviously hardened warrior showing mercy, even at the expense of his own pain. She had been jolted rapidly from anger to confusion to pity, and as he told her the story of his childhood, from pity to a deep, soul-aching sympathy with the idea of being alone in the world.
Loving Akira had been more vivid, more real, than she had ever imagined love could be. No wonder it hurt so much to let him go.
But Akiva was not the only one she loved.
Sorting her emotions could wait; right now, her first priority was to Brimstone, Issa and her other guardians. She shuddered at having to travel with Razgut after all, but there was no help for it. She had to search for them, at all costs.
Madrigal of the Kirin, alias Karou, picked herself up, sheathed her knives and pulled her rucksack out from under the bed. She had a lot of packing to do.