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Strange the dreamer, p.13
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.13

           Laini Taylor

  Orchid Witch. Cloud Thief. Bonfire. Their gifts had manifested effortlessly, naturally. The same could not be said for Sarai’s.

  While Feral, Ruby, and Sparrow couldn’t remember the time before their magic, she could. She remembered wondering what her gift would turn out to be, and hoping for a good one. The others hoped, too. Well, the girls were very small, but Feral and Minya were highly aware: Sarai’s gift was their last unknown. They were trapped in the citadel to scrape up a life for themselves however they could and for as long as they could, and there were gifts that might make that easier. As for Sarai, she didn’t just want to make it easier. That wasn’t enough. She wanted to save them.

  There was one gift, above all, that might have done that. It was Skathis’s gift, and though most likely to be inherited by his children, godspawn powers were unpredictable, and there was a chance that it could manifest in others. Sarai knew she didn’t have it, though. She’d been tested for it as a baby. They all were. Korako, goddess of secrets, had been the one to see to it, and to administer other tests to determine the more elusive godspawn abilities. Korako was dead now, along with Skathis and Isagol, Letha, Vanth, and Ikirok—the Mesarthim, all murdered by the Godslayer, Eril-Fane.

  The gift Sarai had most wished for wasn’t Skathis’s gift, anyway, but flight. There had been godspawn who could fly, according to Great Ellen, and she had imagined that one day she might just begin to rise, and rise, and rise to freedom. In her fantasies, she carried the others away with her, but they never reached a destination because she couldn’t imagine what place there could be in the world for the likes of them. There were good gifts to wish for, and there were bad ones to fear, and the more time passed, the more she worried that hers would be one of those. She was five years old, and nothing had happened. Six, and still nothing.

  And then… not nothing. Not something, either. Not yet, not quite. Just a feeling, growing inside her, and not a good one.

  At first, it had felt a little like holding in cruel words instead of speaking them—how they sit burning on the back of your tongue like a secret poison, ready to spew into the world. She held it in. She didn’t tell anyone. It grew stronger, heavier. She resisted it. From the very beginning, it felt wrong, and it only got worse. There was restlessness in her, an urgency to scream, and all this wrongness, this urgency… it only happened at night. By the light of day she was fine, and that seemed a further clue that it was a dark, bad thing inside her. Welling up, building up, rising, filling her—something in her that should not have been there, and every night that passed it was harder to resist its compulsions.

  Her throat wanted to scream. Her soul wanted it, too. She fought against it as though there were demons in her trying to claw their way out and ravage the world.

  Let them, Minya would have said. The world deserves ravaging.

  It was Minya who finally dragged it out of her—dragged them out, her hundred smithereens of darkness. “I see what you’re doing,” she’d accused Sarai one night, cornering her in the garden. That was the year they were the same age. Sarai had caught up to her, and would soon grow past her, while Minya stayed forever the same. “You think I can’t tell?” the little girl had demanded. “You’re hiding your gift. Well, it’s not yours to hide. Whatever it is, it belongs to all of us.”

  Sarai didn’t dispute that. They were in this together, and she’d had such hopes that her gift might set them free. But those hopes were all gone. “What if it’s bad?” she’d whispered, fearful.

  “Bad would be good,” Minya had said, fervent. “We need bad, Sarai. For vengeance.”

  She knew how to say the word, gritted teeth and spittle flying, all her hate bound up in it. Her own gift was what it was. She could punish the humans, but only once they were dead, and that did not satisfy. Sarai might have dreamed of flying and escape, but not Minya. She’d hoped Sarai’s magic would prove a weapon against their enemy. And the two little girls might have looked like equals that night in the garden—like playmates—but they weren’t. Minya was the fearsome elder sister who had saved all their lives, and they would do anything for her, even hate for her. That part was easy, really. Natural. They’d known nothing else. Ghosts, the citadel, and hating the humans who hated them.

  So Sarai gave in to the scream that night, and the dark things within her took wing. They came boiling out between her lips, and they weren’t demons after all, but moths.

  The horror of it. Insects emerging from her body.

  When it was finally over—that first emergence, five or ten seconds that felt like an eternity—she’d fallen to her knees and lost her supper between the roots of a plum tree. Minya had watched it all with wide eyes and sick fascination. The moths were frantic, because Sarai was frantic. They whipped and whirled through a desperate choreography. Sarai’s throat burned—from the vomit, not the moths. Later, she would come to understand that they didn’t actually boil up her throat. They weren’t really in her, not like that. They were of her—a dimension of her mind or soul that took form only as they emerged. Somewhere in the air of her scream they coalesced. She felt the brush of fur-soft wings against her lips, but that was all. She didn’t choke on them. She wasn’t a living hive with a bellyful of chrysalids that hatched at darkfall. Nothing so terrible. But it was terrible enough that first time, and wild and jarring and dizzying. She knelt between plum roots and reeled. Her mind felt peeled open, skinned and scattered. She clung to a knob of root as the world broke into pieces and spun.

  She could see through the moths’ eyes. All hundred of them at once. That was the dizziness, the reeling and spinning. She could see what they could see, and hear what they could hear, and smell and taste what they could, too, and even feel whatever their wings and feet and feather antennae touched. This was her gift, grotesque and marvelous:

  Her consciousness had wings. She couldn’t fly, but it could. It was a kind of escape, but it mocked freedom. She was still a prisoner, a secret monster. But now she was a prisoner and secret monster who could spy on the life that she could never have.

  If that had been all, it would still have been useful: to have a window into Weep, at night at least, if not by day—the moths being strictly nocturnal—to see something of the enemy and know what they were doing. But it wasn’t all. It was only the beginning of her dark, strange ability.

  Tonight, a child no longer, Sarai did as she had done four thousand nights before. She stepped out onto her terrace, and screamed her moths at the sky. They descended on Weep, fanning out over the roof-tile topography as though it had been sectored on a map. They divvied it between them, dove down chimneys, squeezed through cracks in shutters. They were dark, small, and lovely—the exact purple of the lining of night, with the shot-silk shimmer of starlight on dark water. Their antennae were plumes fit to fan a tiny queen, their bodies like willow buds: compact, furred, marvelous.

  Up on her terrace, Sarai paced. Restless energy coursed through her. She could never be still when her moths were abroad. Her eyes were open but out of focus. She left just enough of her consciousness seated in her body to do that much: pace the length of her terrace and know if anyone came near her. The rest of her mind was in Weep, in a hundred places at once.

  She entered Ari-Eil’s house, among others. The window was open. Her moth flew right in. His corpse was laid out on the kitchen table. She didn’t touch him, but only looked. He was handsome even now, but his stillness was terrible, the gulf between sleep and death immense. It was strange to see his empty shell when his ghost had so recently been in the citadel. When humans died, their souls clung invisibly to their bodies for as long as they could—a day or two—and then they lost their grip and were claimed by the natural pull of evanescence. The sky took them. They rose up and returned to it, and were subsumed by it.

  Unless Minya caught them, of course, and kept them to play with.

  Ari-Eil had been unmarried; this was his family home, and his younger sister nodded at his side, asleep at her vigil. Her name
was Hayva; she was Sarai’s age, and Sarai couldn’t help thinking how different the girl’s life would be if the gods were still alive.

  At the same time that she was there, in Ari-Eil’s kitchen, she was entering other houses, watching other faces. Among them were women who hadn’t been as lucky as Hayva, but had been young when the gods ruled Weep. It hadn’t been Weep then, of course. That name came with the bloodshed, but it suited the two centuries of Mesarthim reign. If there had been anything in abundance in all those years, it had surely been tears.

  All these homes, all these people. Scattered toys and battered boots and everything so different than it was in the citadel. There was no mesarthium in these houses, but tile and wood and stone. Handmade quilts and woven rugs and cats curled right beside the humans in their mussed-up beds. Sarai went to them. The humans, not the cats. Her moths found the sleepers in their beds. Their touch was light. The sleepers never woke. Men and women, children and grandparents. The moths perched on their brows, or on the ridges of their cheekbones. There was intimacy in it. Sarai knew the scents of humans, and the rhythms of their breathing. She was a connoisseur of eyelashes—the way they rested, the way they fluttered. And the texture of skin around the eyes, how fragile it was, and earliest to wrinkle, and the dart and flicker of the orb beneath the lid. She could tell at a glance if a sleeper was dreaming or was in that restful state between dreams. No one who ever lived, she thought, knew more of shut eyes than she did.

  She saw her share of bare skin, too—brown, not blue—and watched the pulse of unprotected throats and tender, pale wrists. She saw people at their most vulnerable, both alone and together, sleeping or else doing the other things that are done in the dark. There were, it turned out, an untold number of ways that bodies could intertwine. That was an education. It used to be funny and shocking. She would tell the others about it first thing in the mornings, and they would gasp and giggle, but it wasn’t funny or shocking anymore. It had crept over her imperceptibly: a kind of stirring, an allure. Sarai understood Ruby’s hunger. She didn’t spy on such private moments anymore, but even the sight of a strong, bare arm crooked gently round a waist or shoulder could make her ache with the yearning to be held. To be one of a pair of bodies that knew that melting fusion. To reach and find. To be reached for and found. To belong to a mutual certainty.

  To wake up holding hands.

  Up in the citadel, Sarai’s throat constricted. Her hands clenched into fists. Such was not for the likes of her. “I kiss dozens of people every night,” she’d told Feral earlier that evening.

  “That’s not kissing,” he’d said, and he was right. Kissing was not what Sarai did to humans in their sleep. In fact, everything up to this point was preamble—the flight from the citadel, the squeezing down chimneys and perching on brows. Sight and feel, smell, taste and touch, they were just the threshold of her gift. Here was the fullness of it:

  When a moth made contact with a person, Sarai could step inside their dreams as easily as stepping through a door, and once she was there, she could do as she pleased.

  Their minds lay open to her—or at least, the surfaces did, and whatever bubbled up from beneath to paint them in streams of imagery, sensation, and emotion, endlessly combining and recombining in the ceaseless effort at making sense, at making self. For what was a person but the sum of all the scraps of their memory and experience: a finite set of components with an infinite array of expressions. When a moth perched on a sleeper’s brow, Sarai was plunged into their dream. What the dreamer was experiencing, she experienced, and not as some hapless spectator. As soon as she entered—an invisible marauder, unseen and unfelt—the dream was hers to control. In the realm of the real, she might have been just a girl, in hiding and in peril, but in the unconscious mind she was all-powerful: sorceress and storyteller, puppeteer and dark enthraller.

  Sarai was the Muse of Nightmares.

  Minya had given her the name, and the purpose that went with it. Minya had made her what she was. “We need bad, Sarai,” the little girl had said. “For vengeance.” And Sarai had become the weapon Minya wanted her to be, and punished humans in the only way she could: through their dreams. Fear was her medium, and nightmares her art. Every night, for years, she had tormented the sleepers of Weep. “Did you make anyone cry?” Minya would ask her in the morning. “Did you make anyone scream?”

  The answer was always yes.

  For a long time, this new, exciting thing had been the focus of their lives. The other four would come to her room at dawn to crowd into her bed with her as soon as her moths returned, and she would tell them everything: what and whom she had seen, what the homes were like in the city, what the people were like. Minya just wanted to know about the nightmares, but the others were more interested in Weep itself. She would tell them about parents who came to comfort their children when nightmares woke them, and they would all go still and quiet, listening with a terrible intensity. There was always, among them, such a stew of envy and longing. They hated the humans, but they also wanted to be them. They wanted to punish them, and they wanted to be embraced by them. To be accepted, honored, loved, like someone’s child. And since they couldn’t have any of it, it all took the form of spite. Anyone who has ever been excluded can understand what they felt, and no one has ever been quite so excluded as they.

  So they layered cynicism atop their longing, and it was something like laying laughter over the darkness—self-preservation of an uglier stripe. And thus did they harden themselves, by choosing to meet hate with hate.

  Sarai settled a moth on Hayva, Ari-Eil’s sister, and on other sleepers in other houses. All across the city, she sank into the dreams of Weep. Most were mundane, the mind’s rote bookkeeping. Some dreams stood out. One man was dancing with his neighbor’s wife. An old woman was hunting a ravid with nothing but a demonglass knife. A pregnant woman imagined her baby born blue, and hoped it were the blue of death sooner than the blue of gods.

  Hayva dreamed of her brother.

  Two children played in a courtyard. It was a simple snippet of memory. There was a dead tree, and Ari-Eil was holding Hayva on his shoulders so she could hang paper flowers on its branches. Like most of the trees in Weep, it would never bloom again. They were playing that it was still alive.

  Sarai stood by, invisible to them. Even if she’d wanted them to see her, they wouldn’t. This was the limit of her gift as she knew it from long experience. In the early days she’d tried everything to catch their attention. She’d hollered and hissed and they never heard her, pinched them and they never felt her. In the dreams of others, she was as a ghost, fated to never be seen.

  She was used to it now. She watched the two children decorate the dead branches with paper flowers, and wondered if that was the most that Weep could ever hope for. A pretense of life.

  Wasn’t that what she had, too?

  What was she doing here, in this home, in this dream? If she were trying to earn Minya’s praise, she wouldn’t hold back, but would use Hayva’s tenderness and grief against her. Sarai had an arsenal of terrors. She was an arsenal of terrors. All these years she’d been collecting them, and where could she keep them but within herself? She felt them at the core of her, every image and scene of fright and foreboding, of shame, shock, and misery, of bloodshed and agony. It was why she dared no longer dream: because in her own sleep she was like any dreamer, at the mercy of her unconscious. When she fell asleep, she was no sorceress or dark enthraller, but just a sleeping girl with no control over the terrors within her.

  When she was younger, she wouldn’t have hesitated to plague Hayva with dread visions of her dead brother. She might have had him die a hundred new ways, each more gruesome than the last. Or else she might have made the little boy in this sweet memory into a ravenous undead thing who would hurl his sister to the ground and sink his teeth into her scalp as she woke screaming.

  Once upon a time, Sarai would have imagined Minya’s delight, and done her worst.

  Not anymor

  Tonight, she imagined Hayva’s delight, and did her best. Channeling Sparrow, her sweet Orchid Witch, she willed the dead tree back to life and watched it set forth leaf and bud while the two memory-children danced around it, laughing. In the real room where the girl was slouched in a chair beside her dead brother’s body, her lips curved into a soft smile. The moth left her brow, and Sarai left the dream and flew back out into the night.

  It’s funny, how you can go years seeing only what you choose to see, and picking your outrage like you pick out a slip, leaving all the others hanging on their slim mesarthium dowel. If outrage were a slip, then for years Sarai had worn only the one: the Carnage.

  How well she knew it from dreams. Over and over she’d seen it play out in the minds of the men who’d done it—Eril-Fane’s most of all.

  Knifeshine and spreading blood. The Ellens dead on the floor so the men who’d slain them had to step over their bodies. The terror and pleading of little girls and boys old enough to understand what was happening. The wail and lamb bleat of babies too small to know, but infected by the terror of the others. All those screams: subtracted one by one as though silence were the goal.

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