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Strange the dreamer, p.12
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.12

           Laini Taylor
 

  He caught sight of Mouzaive, the natural philosopher, standing over the cook, Madja, with his plate in his hand and a sour look on his face, and that was where his spark of inspiration came from.

  “The Second Coming of the seraphim. It may have begun with awe and reverence, but what do you suppose?” he said, first in Common Tongue and then in Unseen. “It turns out they make terrible guests. Extremely impressed with themselves. Never lift a finger. Expect to be waited on hand and foot. They won’t even put up their own tents, if you can credit it, or help with the camels. They just… lurk about, waiting to be fed.”

  Calixte wrote, biting her lip to keep from laughing. Some of the Tizerkane did laugh, as did Soulzeren and Ozwin, the married couple with the flying machines. They could laugh because the criticism wasn’t aimed at them. Accustomed to farming the Thanagost badlands, they weren’t the sort to sit idle, but helped out however they could. The same could not be said of the others, who were stiff with affront. “Is he suggesting we ought to perform labor?” asked Belabra, the mathematician, to a stir of astonished murmurs.

  “In short,” Lazlo concluded, “the purpose of this delegation is to persuade the seraphim to be on their way. Politely, of course. Failing that: forcible eviction.” He gestured to the delegates. “Explosions and catapults and so forth.”

  Soulzeren started clapping, so he bowed. He caught sight of Eril-Fane again, and saw that his wry amusement had sharpened to a kind of keen appraisal. Azareen was giving him the same frank look, which Lazlo met with an apologetic shrug. It was a ridiculous notion, as well as petty and impolitic, but he hadn’t been able to resist.

  Calixte filled the last page of the book, and he dug out his ten silver, which was more money than he’d ever held before receiving his first wage from Eril-Fane. “Farewell, good coin,” he bid it, surrendering it, “for I shall never see thee more.”

  “Don’t be glum, Strange. You might win,” said Calixte without conviction. She examined the coin and declared that it had “a damned triumphant look about it,” before shoving it into the overstuffed purse. The seams strained. It appeared as though one more coin might split it wide open. The last page in the book, the last space in the purse, and the theory game was ended.

  They had only now to wait until tomorrow and see who won.

  The temperature plummeted as the desert fell dark. Lazlo layered his woolen chaulnot over the linen one and put up his hood. The campfire burned against the deep blue night, and the travelers all gathered in its glow. Dinner was served, and Eril-Fane opened a bottle of spirits he’d saved for this night. Their last night of thirst and bland journey food and aching buttocks and saddle chafe and dry bathing and grit in every crease of cloth and flesh. The last night of lying on hard ground, and falling asleep to the murmured incantations of the shaman stirring his powders into the fire.

  The last night of wondering.

  Lazlo looked to the Cusp, subtle in the starlight. The mysteries of Weep had been music to his blood for as long as he could remember. This time tomorrow, they would be mysteries no longer.

  The end of wondering, he thought, but not of wonder. That was just beginning. He was certain of it.

  16

  A HUNDRED SMITHEREENS OF DARKNESS

  Sarai was out of sorts. After dinner, Feral ripped a snowstorm from some far-off sky and they had snow for dessert with plum jam stirred in, but she could scarcely enjoy it. Sparrow and Ruby threw snowballs at each other, their laughter a bit too sharp, their aim a bit too true, and Minya slipped away somewhere, promising to release the ghost, Ari-Eil, to his natural evanescence.

  Sarai hated it when Minya brought new ghosts into the citadel. Each one was like a mirror that reflected her monstrosity back at her.

  Lest you forget you are an abomination, here’s an old woman who’ll wail at the sight of you. Here’s a young man who’ll think he’s in hell.

  It did wonders for her sense of self.

  “Why must she do it?” she said aloud. It was only her and Feral in the gallery now, and he was bent over his book. It wasn’t paper, but sheets of thin mesarthium, etched all in symbols. If they were letters, they couldn’t have been more different from the fluid and beautiful alphabet of Weep, which Great Ellen had taught them to read and write. That had no angles, only curves. This had no curves, only angles. Sarai thought it looked brutal, somehow. She didn’t know how Feral could keep poring over it, when for years he’d had no luck deciphering it. He said he could almost sense the meaning, as though it were right there, waiting to resolve, like a kaleidoscope in need of turning.

  He traced a symbol with his fingertip. “Why must who do what?” he asked.

  “Minya. Drag ghosts in here. Bring their hate into our home.” Sarai heard herself. How petty she sounded, complaining about the inconvenience to herself. She couldn’t say what she was really feeling, though. It was unspeakable that she should pity a human, ghost or living.

  “Well,” said Feral, distractedly. “At least we have you to bring our hate into their homes.”

  Sarai blinked a series of rapid blinks and looked down at her hands. There was no malice in Feral’s words, but they stung like a pinch. Maybe she was sensitive in the wake of Ruby’s certainty of doom, and the revelation that she herself shared it. And maybe it was her envy that Feral conjured snow and Sparrow grew flowers and Ruby made warmth and fireworks, while she… did what she did. “Is that what I do?” she asked, her voice coming out brittle. “It’s a wonder you don’t call me Hate Bringer.”

  Feral looked up from his book. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way,” he said.

  Sarai laughed without mirth. “Feral, how could hate ever not be bad?”

  “If it’s deserved. If it’s vengeance.”

  Vengeance. Sarai heard the way he said it, and she understood something. Vengeance ought to be spoken through gritted teeth, spittle flying, the cords of one’s soul so entangled in it that you can’t let it go, even if you try. If you feel it—if you really feel it—then you speak it like it’s a still-beating heart clenched in your fist and there’s blood running down your arm, dripping off your elbow, and you can’t let go. Feral didn’t speak it like that at all. It might have been any word. Dust or teacup or plum. There was no heat in it, no still-beating heart, no blood. Vengeance was just a word to him.

  The realization emboldened her. “What if it isn’t?” she asked, hesitant.

  “What if what isn’t what?”

  Sarai wasn’t even sure what she meant. If it wasn’t vengeance? If it wasn’t deserved? Or, still more primary: What if it wasn’t even hate she felt for humans, not anymore? What if everything had changed, so slowly she hadn’t even felt it while it was happening? “It’s not vengeance,” she said, rubbing her temples. “I spent that years ago.” She looked at him, trying to read him. “You don’t still feel it, do you? Not really? I’m sure Ruby and Sparrow don’t.”

  Feral looked uneasy. Sarai’s words were simple enough, but they challenged the basic tenet of their lives: that they had an enemy. That they were an enemy. She could tell there was no great hate left in him, but he wouldn’t admit it. It would be a kind of blasphemy. “Even if we didn’t,” he hedged, “Minya’s got enough for all of us.”

  He wasn’t wrong about that. Minya’s animus burned brighter than Ruby’s fire, and for good reason: She was the only one of them who actually remembered the Carnage. It had been fifteen years. Sarai and Feral were seventeen now; Sparrow was sixteen, and Ruby not quite. And Minya? Well. She might look like a six-year-old child, but she wasn’t one. In truth, she was the eldest of the five of them, and the one who had saved them fifteen years back when she really was six years old, and the rest of them only babies. None of them understood why, or how, but she hadn’t aged since that bloody day when the humans had celebrated their victory over the gods by executing the children they’d left behind.

  Only the five of them had survived, and only because of Minya. Sarai knew the Carnage from stolen dreams and memo
ries, but Minya remembered. She had burning coals for hearts, and her hate was as hot now as it had ever been.

  “I think that’s why she does it,” said Sarai. “Why she brings the ghosts, I mean. So we have to see how they look at us, and we can’t ever forget what we are.”

  “That’s good, though, isn’t it?” countered Feral. “If we did forget, we might slip up. Break The Rule. Give ourselves away.”

  “I suppose,” Sarai allowed. It was true that fear kept them careful. But what purpose did hate serve?

  She thought it was like the desert threave, a sand beast that could survive for years eating nothing but its own molted skin. Hate could do that, too—live off nothing but itself—but not forever. Like a threave, it was only sustaining itself until some richer meal came along. It was waiting for prey.

  What were they waiting for?

  Sarai could see that Feral wouldn’t share her conflict, and how could he? The only humans he ever saw were ghosts, still reeling with the first shock of death to find themselves here, in the theater of their nightmares, enslaved to a pitiless little girl as blue as their worst memories. It didn’t exactly bring out the best in them. But after four thousand nights among them—in their homes, on their skin—Sarai knew humans in a way the others couldn’t, and she’d lost that easy ability to hate. She let the matter drop.

  “What Ruby said earlier,” she ventured. “Do you feel that way, too?”

  “Which part?” he asked. “About the soup being insipid, or hell being interesting?”

  Sarai shook her head, smiling. “You know which part I mean.”

  “Ah yes. How it’s all right to burn our clothes when the mood strikes us because we’re going to die young?”

  “That’s the one.” Sarai grew hesitant. “Feral, can you imagine us growing old?”

  “Of course I can,” he said without hesitation. “I’ll be a distinguished elderly gentleman with great long whiskers, three doting wives, a dozen children—”

  “Three wives?” Sarai cut in. “Who, us? You’re going to marry all of us, are you?”

  “Well, naturally. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel left out. Except Minya, and I don’t think she’ll mind.”

  “No, I think you’re right about that,” said Sarai, amused. “She’s not exactly wifely.”

  “Whereas you…”

  “Oh yes. So wifely. But how will it work? Will you rotate between us on a schedule, or choose as the mood strikes you?”

  “A schedule does seem more fair,” he said, solemn. “I know it won’t be easy, you all having to share me, but we must make the best of an imperfect situation.” He was fighting to keep his mouth composed in its line of earnest gravity, but he couldn’t keep the humor from his eyes.

  “An imperfect situation,” Sarai repeated. “Is that what we have here?” She gestured all around. The gallery. The citadel. Their precarious, doomed existence.

  “A bit on the imperfect side, yes,” said Feral with regret, and they just couldn’t maintain their seriousness in the face of such an understatement. Sarai cracked first, tipping into helpless laughter, and Feral followed, and mirth worked its mundane magic, leaching the tension from Sarai’s spine and relieving the cold dread that had been pressing on her all evening.

  And that’s how you go on. You lay laughter over the dark parts. The more dark parts, the more you have to laugh. With defiance, with abandon, with hysteria, any way you can. Sarai suspected that her mother, the goddess of despair, would not have approved.

  She would have loved her daughter’s gift, though.

  The night grew late. The others went to their rooms. Sarai went, too, but not to sleep. Her day was just beginning.

  Her rooms had been her mother’s, and were second in size and splendor only to Minya’s, which were a full palace in their own right, enclosed within the body of the citadel, and had been the domain of her father: Skathis, god of beasts and high lord of the Mesarthim, most monstrous of them all.

  Sarai’s were at the extremity of the dexter arm—which was a way of saying right, as sinister was a way of saying left—down the long, curved corridor from the gallery. Her door didn’t close. Every door in the citadel—every thing in the citadel—was frozen as it had been at the moment of Skathis’s death. Doors that had been open remained resolutely open. Doors that had been closed were permanently impassable. Vast sectors of the citadel were, in fact, sealed off, their contents a mystery. When the five of them were younger, they had liked to imagine other children surviving in those closed-off wings, leading parallel lives, and they had played at imagining who they might be, and what gifts they had to make their cloistered existence bearable.

  Great Ellen had told them of children she had known in her years in the nursery. A girl who could project illusions with her mind. A boy who could mimic others’ faces. Another whose tears could heal any hurt—a beautiful gift, but he was destined to spend his whole life crying.

  Most enviable to them back then had been the girl who could bring things out of dreams. If she could dream it, she could carry it out with her. Toys and harps and kittens, cakes and crowns and butterflies. They’d loved imagining all the things they’d get if they had that gift: seed packets for Sparrow to grow a real garden, and books for Feral, who longed to learn more than what the ghosts could teach. For Sarai: a doll she coveted from down in Weep, that she’d seen hugged in a sleeping girl’s arms during one of her nocturnal visits. An army for Minya, who had always been grim. For Ruby, a whole jar of honey to eat without sharing.

  “You should have that gift instead,” she had told Sarai. “It’s much nicer than yours.”

  “Nice enough until you have a nightmare,” Sarai had replied, grudging.

  “What if she dreamed a ravid,” said Minya, grinning, “and when she woke up it bit off her head?”

  They understood now that if anyone had been locked away in other sectors of the citadel they would have died within days. The five of them were the only living beings here.

  Sarai couldn’t close her door, but she drew the curtain she’d fixed to cover it. They were supposed to respect one another’s curtains, but it was an imperfect system, especially where Minya was concerned. An imperfect situation, Sarai recalled, but the fizz of laughter had gone flat.

  An antechamber led into the bedroom. Unlike the austere walls of the corridor, this room mimicked the architecture of Weep, with columns supporting an ornamental entablature and soaring, fan-vaulted ceiling. Down in the city, the buildings were stone, intricately carved with scenes from the natural world and the mythic one. Among the loveliest was the Temple of Thakra, at which a dozen master sculptors had labored for forty years, two of them going blind in the process. The frieze alone boasted a thousand sparrows so lifelike that real birds had been known to while away their lives romancing them in vain. Here in these chambers were twice as many songbirds, mingling with seraphim and lilies, spectrals and vines, and though the work was likely accomplished in a mere hour or two, they were even more perfect than the ones on the temple. They were wrought in mesarthium, not stone, and had been neither carved nor cast. That wasn’t how mesarthium worked.

  The curtained bed occupied a dais in the center of the chamber. Sarai didn’t sleep in it. It was too big—like a stage. There was another, more reasonable bed tucked in an alcove behind the dressing room. When she was younger, she’d supposed it had belonged to a maid, but at some point she came to understand that it had been for Isagol’s consorts, paramours, whatever you chose to call them. Sarai’s own father would have slept in this bed when Isagol didn’t want him in hers. Her father. When she’d realized that, it had felt like a violation of her own safe place, to imagine him here, taking solace in this little bit of privacy while he lay awake, plotting the slaughter of the gods.

  It was Sarai’s bed now, but she wouldn’t need it yet for hours. She crossed to the terrace door, barefoot, and stepped out into the moonlight.

  Sarai was seventeen years old, a goddess and a girl. Hal
f her blood was human, but it counted for nothing. She was blue. She was godspawn. She was anathema. She was young. She was lovely. She was afraid. She had russet hair and a slender neck, and wore a robe that had belonged to the goddess of despair. It was too long, and trailed behind her, its hem worn to a sheen from dragging over the floor, back and forth, back and forth. Pacing this terrace, Sarai might have walked as far as the moon and back.

  Except, of course, that if she could walk to the moon, she wouldn’t come back.

  It was time. She closed her eyes. She closed them tight. Her gift was ugly. She never let anyone see her call it forth. She could teach Ari-Eil a thing or two yet about revulsion, she thought. She took a deep breath. She could feel it burgeoning within her, welling up like tears. She held it in a moment longer. There was always that impulse: to keep it inside, this part of herself. To hide it. But she didn’t have that luxury. She had work to do, so she opened her mouth.

  And screamed.

  It was clearly a scream—the rictus tension in her face, head thrust forward, throat stretched taut—but no sound came out. Sarai didn’t scream sound. She screamed something else. It issued forth: a soft, boiling darkness. It looked like a cloud.

  It wasn’t a cloud.

  Five seconds, ten. She screamed her silent scream. She screamed an exodus.

  Streaming forth into the night, the darkness fractured into a hundred fluttering bits like windblown scraps of velvet. A hundred smithereens of darkness, they broke apart and re-formed and siphoned themselves into a little typhoon that swept down toward the rooftops of Weep, whirling and wheeling on soft twilight wings.

  Sarai screamed moths. Moths and her own mind, pulled into a hundred pieces and flung out into the world.

  17

  THE MUSE OF NIGHTMARES

  All the godspawn had magical gifts, though some of their abilities deserved the term gift more than others. There was no predicting what they would be, and each manifested in its own time, in its own way. Some, like Feral’s and Ruby’s, made themselves known spontaneously—and vividly—while they were still babies. Storms and fires in the nursery. Snowdrifts and lightning strikes, or bedclothes burned away, leaving nothing but an angry, naked baby steaming in a mesarthium bassinet. Other abilities took longer to discover, and depended on environment and circumstance—like Sparrow’s, which needed a garden, or at the very least a seed, in order to show itself. She’d still been crawling when it had. Great Ellen loved to tell the story: how small Sparrow had beelined across the gallery on chubby hands and knees to the orchids that hadn’t bloomed since the Carnage. They’d looked like potted sticks, and Great Ellen hadn’t stopped the little girl from grabbing at them. There was little enough to play with in the citadel, and the orchids were past hope. She’d been distracted—probably by Ruby—and when next she looked, it wasn’t potted sticks she saw, but Sparrow’s small, upturned face transfixed by the sight of a bloom unfurling from the dead wood she clutched in her tiny hands.

 
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