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Strange the dreamer, p.15
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.15

           Laini Taylor
 

  “It stopped.” He dropped his hands. “The night fell dark. There was no moon, no stars. The people could see nothing, but they felt a change in the atmosphere, a pressure. And when the sun rose, they saw why. As you will see.”

  And with that, he turned his mount and led them through the gate. The path was carved deep through the demonglass, and narrow, so that they had to go in single file. It curved and rose, gradually widening. Onward and upward they rode. The sky grew larger, a deep and cloudless blue.

  And then, quite suddenly, they came to an edge and it was all before them.

  The Elmuthaleth had been high desert plateau, flat and sere. On this side of the Cusp, the world fell away into a deep canyon. It was long and curving, carved by a river—such a river as made the Eder look like a dribble, its catastrophic rush audible even from here. But no amazement could be spared for a river, no matter how epic. There just wasn’t enough amazement in the world.

  “The shadow of our dark time still haunts us,” the Godslayer had said. And Lazlo had fixed on dark time, and he had wondered at the word haunts, but he had never thought to consider shadow.

  It was a literal shadow.

  There was the city—fabled Weep, unseen no longer—and the day was bright, but it lay dark.

  Lazlo felt as though the top of his head were open and the universe had dropped a lit match in. He understood in that moment that he was smaller than he had ever known, and the realm of the unknowable was bigger. So much bigger. Because there could be no question:

  That which cast Weep in shadow was not of this world.

  “Strange,” said Calixte, and she didn’t mean the adjective strange, which fell immensely short of the sight before them. No, she was addressing Lazlo. She weighed the theory purse on her palm and said, in a bright, stunned whisper, “I think you win.”

  20

  DEAD MAN’S NEWS

  There were ghosts in the room. Sarai heard them whispering before she opened her eyes, and the golden daylight wavered—light, shadow, light, shadow—as they moved back and forth between the window and her bed. At first she thought it must be Less Ellen, along with perhaps Awyss and Feyzi, the chambermaids, and she felt a flicker of annoyance that they had entered unbidden. It wasn’t time yet to wake. She could feel it in the heaviness of her limbs and eyelids: The lull had not yet spent its thick gray spell.

  The whispers sharpened. “The hearts, go for the hearts.”

  “Not the hearts. You might hit a rib. The throat’s better.”

  “Here, let me.”

  Sarai’s eyes flew open. It was not Less Ellen or Awyss or Feyzi or any of the servants. It was a cluster of old women, and they startled and skittered back from the bedside, clinging together. “It’s awake!” one of them cried.

  “Do it now!” shrieked another.

  And before Sarai could process what was happening, one of the ghosts lunged toward her and raised a knife, her face savage with hate and intent, and Sarai couldn’t get out of the way. She just couldn’t move fast enough, not through the lull fog. The knife blade flashed and all her borrowed memories of the Carnage came spilling out—knifeshine and babies screaming—and she was screaming, and the old women were screaming, but not the one with the knife. She was sobbing with rage, and the knife was still upraised, her arm trembling wildly as it fought to complete the arc it had begun and bring the blade down on Sarai’s throat.

  “I can’t,” she keened with pure frustration. Tears streaked her face. She tried with all her will, but her arm would not obey her, and the knife fell from her grip to embed itself tip down in the mattress, just beside Sarai’s hip.

  Sarai was able to move then, finally. She rolled to her knees and backed away from the ghosts. Her heartbeats churned within her, sending trills of panic coursing through her body, even though she knew she was safe. The ghosts couldn’t hurt her. It was the first imperative of Minya’s binding: that the dead not harm the living. These ghosts didn’t know that, though. The one who had come forth was distraught. Sarai knew her, and hadn’t known she’d died. Her name was Yaselith, and her story was that of most of the women of her generation—and all the generations born and raised under Mesarthim rule, when Skathis went riding Rasalas, his great metal beast, and plucked girls and boys from their homes.

  What happened up in the citadel, none ever told. Before they were returned, Letha saw to them. Letha: goddess of oblivion, mistress of forgetting. She could blank a mind with a blink of her eye, and did, stealing whole years from the girls and boys of the city, so that when Skathis brought them back they had no recollection of their time with the gods. Their bodies, however, bore traces that could not so easily be erased, for more had been stolen from them than their memories.

  Yaselith’s eyes now were wet and red, her hair as white and weightless as a puff of smoke. She was shaking violently, her breath coming in little snatches, and when she spoke, her voice was as rough as the strike of a match. “Why?” she demanded. “Why can’t I kill you?”

  And Sarai, confronted with a would-be murderer in the person of an old dead woman, didn’t feel anger. Not at her, anyway. Minya was another story. What were new ghosts doing wandering the citadel?

  “It’s not your fault,” she said, almost gently. “But you can’t hurt me.”

  “Then you should hurt yourself,” hissed Yaselith, pointing to the knife. “Put Weep out of its misery. Kill yourself, girl. Have mercy on us all. Do it. Do it.”

  And then they were all hissing it, crowding in, pushing back the curtains of Isagol’s big bed to encircle Sarai on all sides. “Do it,” they urged her. “Have some decency. Do it.” There was savage glee in their eyes, and she knew them all, and she didn’t understand how they could be here because none of them were dead, and her panic surged and swelled as she watched her own hand reach out for the knife. Her first thought was that she was dead and Minya was making her do it, because she couldn’t stop herself. Her hand closed around the hilt and pulled it free from the bedding. Where the blade had been, up from the small slash in the fabric, blood pulsed in arterial spurts.

  And even that mad unreality failed to bring her to her senses. Beds might bleed. She was too steeped in the landscape of nightmare even to question it. Her hand turned itself, positioning the dagger point against her breast, and she searched the jeering faces of the old women of Weep, finding no end to them. Where there had been five or six now there were dozens, their faces thrust up against the gauzy bed-curtains so that their mouths and eye sockets looked like black pits, and even then, the thing that struck her wasn’t their faces but the curtains.

  What was she doing in her mother’s bed?

  That was her last thought before she plunged the knife into her own hearts and sat upright with a great raw gasp to find herself in her proper bed. Alone. No ghosts, no knife, no blood. No breath, either. There seemed no end to the gasp. She was choking on it and couldn’t exhale. Her hands were claws, every muscle rigid, a scream caught in her skull, scouring out all thought. On and on it all went until she thought she’d die of the simple failure to breathe, and then at last the gasp let her go and she doubled over, coughing out air as her body remembered what to do. She was long minutes curled around herself just breathing, her throat raw, eyes squeezed shut, before she could even face the truth.

  She’d had a dream.

  She started to tremble uncontrollably. A dream had gotten through. “Oh no,” she whispered, and curled up tighter as she grappled with what this meant. “Oh no.”

  The lull was supposed to keep her from dreaming. Had she forgotten to drink it? No, she could still taste its bitterness on the back of her tongue.

  Then how had she dreamed?

  She thought back to the time before lull, and the onslaught of nightmares that had prompted Great Ellen to start brewing it for her. It had felt, then, like being hunted by all the terrors she had collected over the years—her entire arsenal, turned against her. That was what the creeping gray nothing protected her from—
or was supposed to.

  Eventually she got out of bed. She’d have liked a bath, but that would mean going to the rain room and filling the tub, then calling for Ruby to heat it, and that was more trouble than she could face. So she poured out cold water from her pitcher and washed with that. She brushed and braided her hair, and changed into a fresh slip all before emerging into the main chamber, where her mother’s big bed stood untouched, its hangings free of ghost women and their haggard faces. Still, she shuddered and hurried past it, out through her door-curtain and down the corridor, where she met Less Ellen bringing her afternoon tray. This held tea—not true tea, which they’d run out of long ago, but an herbal infusion to help shake off the lull—and biscuits, since Sarai always slept through lunch.

  “You’re up early,” said the ghost, surprised, and Sarai strove to conceal her distress.

  “I don’t know that I’d call afternoon early,” she said with a frail smile.

  “Well, early for you. Did something wake you?”

  “Is that my tea?” Sarai asked, evading the question, and she took her cup from the tray in Less Ellen’s hands and filled it from the little teapot. The scent of mint filled the air. “Thank you, Ellen,” she said, and carried the cup with her on her way, leaving the ghost, bewildered, behind her.

  She bypassed the gallery and headed instead to the kitchen to talk to Great Ellen, whom she asked, in strict confidence, if it were possible to strengthen her lull.

  “Strengthen it?” repeated the woman, eyes going wide, then narrow. “What’s happened?” she demanded.

  “Nothing’s happened,” Sarai lied. “I just worry that it might become less effective, over time.” And she had worried about that, but… it hadn’t become less effective over time. It had stopped working overnight, and that wasn’t something she was prepared to deal with.

  “Well, has it? Don’t fib to me. You know I can tell.” Her voice was stern, and as Sarai looked into her eyes, Great Ellen morphed her face into a hawk’s, eyes yellow and severe beneath the sharp slant of feathered brow ridges, a deadly hooked beak where her nose should have been.

  “Don’t,” Sarai protested, laughing in spite of herself. “You know I can’t withstand the hawk.”

  “Look into my eyes and just try lying.”

  It was a game from when they were younger. Great Ellen had never tried forcing or commanding them to behave or obey. That would have gone ill, especially when their gifts were still volatile and not fully under their control. She’d used craftier methods, like this, and gotten better results. It was, in fact, quite difficult to lie to a hawk. “That’s not fair,” said Sarai, covering her eyes. “Can’t you just trust me, and help me?”

  “Of course I can, but I ought to know how urgent it is. I’ve wondered when you’d build up a tolerance.” When, not if. “Is it happening?”

  Sarai uncovered her eyes and found Great Ellen restored to human form, the excoriating hawk gaze replaced by a piercing but compassionate human one. In answer, she gave her the tiniest of nods, and was grateful when she didn’t probe deeper. “All right, then,” Great Ellen said, all competence, no fuss. “An extra half dose in the morning, and I’ll tinker with the next batch and see what can be done.”

  “Thank you,” said Sarai.

  Her relief must have been audible, because Great Ellen gave her a look that was hawk even without the transformation. She said, with caution, “It won’t work forever, you know. No matter what we do.”

  “Don’t worry about me,” said Sarai with feigned carelessness, but as she went out to the gallery she added, in an undertone only she could hear, “I don’t think we have to worry about forever.”

  She saw Sparrow first, kneeling among her orchids, her face dreamy and her hands full of vines, which were visibly growing, slowly cascading out between her fingers to twine through those already in place and fill in gaps where mesarthium still showed through. At the table, Minya and Feral were faced off across the quell board, deep in a game. It was evident from Feral’s glower that he was losing, while Minya looked half bored, and stifled a yawn before moving her piece.

  Sarai had never been so glad of the predictable monotony of life in the citadel as she was now. She would even welcome kimril soup in all its comforting dullness.

  This evening, however, was to be neither comforting nor dull.

  “Poor thing,” she heard Ruby croon, and, turning to look, saw her standing squarely in front of Ari-Eil. Sarai stopped in her tracks. It was jarring, seeing him again after seeing his corpse. Minya had promised to release him, but he was very much still with them, and if he had come to grips with the basic fact of his new existence—that they were alive and he was not—he had in no way softened in his attitude toward them. His confusion was gone, which only left more room in his expression for hostility. Minya had put him in the corner, the way one might lean a broom or umbrella when not using it, and he was, amazingly, still trying to resist her.

  Or not so amazingly, perhaps. As Sarai watched, he managed, with incredible effort, to slide his foot a few inches, which could only mean that Minya was still toying with him, holding him imperfectly to allow him false hope.

  Ruby was standing in front of him, demure—for her—in a knee-length black slip. Her hands were clasped behind her back, and one foot curled coyly around the ankle of the other. “I know it must be an awful shock,” she was saying to him. “But you’ll see we’re not really so bad. What happened before, none of that was us. We’re not like our parents.” She reached out to touch his cheek.

  It was a tender gesture. Ruby was thoughtless, but she wasn’t toying with the ghost as Minya was. Sarai knew she meant to be consoling. The dead man was, however, in no mood for consolation. “Don’t touch me, godspawn,” he snarled, and snapped at her hand like an animal.

  Ruby snatched it back. “Rude,” she said, and turned to Minya. “You let him do that.”

  “No biting,” Minya told the ghost, though of course Ruby was right: He wouldn’t have been able to do it unless she’d let him. Knowing her, Sarai thought she probably made him do it. She used them like puppets sometimes. Sarai remembered her nightmare, and having no control over her own knife-wielding hand, and shuddered at the thought of being Minya’s toy.

  “Minya,” she said, remonstrating. “You promised you’d let him go.”

  Minya’s eyebrows shot up. “Did I? That doesn’t sound like me at all.”

  Nor did it. Minya was many things—perverse, capricious, and obstinate among them. She was like a wild creature, by turns furtive and barging, ever unwashed, and with the staring lack of empathy that belongs to murderers and small children. Attempts at civilizing her rolled right off her. She was invulnerable to praise, reason, and shame, which meant she couldn’t be coaxed or persuaded, and she was cunning, which made her hard to trick. She was ungovernable, flawlessly selfish, resentful, and sly. One thing she was not—ever—was obliging.

  “Well, you did,” Sarai persisted. “So… would you? Please?”

  “What, now? But I’m right in the middle of a game.”

  “I’m sure you’ll survive the inconvenience.”

  Feral had been studying the game board, chin sunk in hand, but he looked up now with just his eyeballs, surprised to hear Sarai arguing with Minya. As a rule, that was something they avoided, but Sarai’s anger made her careless. She was in no mood for tiptoeing around the little girl’s whims right now. After the dream she’d had, the last thing she needed was another baleful ghost glaring at her.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Minya asked. “I suppose you’re bleeding.”

  It took Sarai a moment to understand what she meant, because she thought of the blood spurting up from the wound in the bed, and of the phantom pressure of the knifepoint against her breast. But it was her monthly bleeding that Minya meant, and the suggestion only made her angrier. “No, Minya. Unlike you, the rest of us experience a normal range of emotion, including but not limited to distress when forced to endure
the disgust of the dead.” And it wasn’t Ari-Eil’s face in her mind when she said it, but the old women all crowded round her, and she knew that at least part of her anger at Minya was left over from the dream and was irrational—because Minya hadn’t actually turned old women loose to wander the citadel and attempt to murder her. But part of being irrational is not caring that you’re being irrational, and right now she just didn’t.

  “Is he bothering you so much?” Minya asked. “I can make him face the wall, if it helps.”

  “It doesn’t help,” said Sarai. “Just let him go.”

  The others were watching, breath all but held, eyes overlarge. Minya’s eyes were always large, and now they glittered. “Are you sure?” she asked, and it felt like a trap.

  But what kind of trap could it possibly be? “Of course I’m sure,” said Sarai.

  “All right,” said Minya in a lilting tone that signified it went against her better judgment. “But it is strange you don’t want to hear his news first.”

  News?

  Sarai tried to match Minya’s feigned calm. “What news?”

  “First you don’t want to hear and now you do.” She rolled her eyes. “Really, Sarai. Make up your mind.”

  “I never didn’t want to hear,” Sarai snapped. “You never said there was anything to hear.”

  “Touchy,” said Minya. “Are you sure you aren’t bleeding?”

  What would you know about that? Sarai wanted to demand. If you ever decide to grow up, then maybe we’ll talk about it. But she wasn’t nearly angry enough—or foolish enough—to speak the words grow up to Minya. She just gritted her teeth and waited.

  Minya turned to Ari-Eil. “Come over here,” she said, and he did, though she still asserted only partial control, allowing him to fight against her at every step so that he came lurching and stumbling. It was grotesque to watch, which was, of course, the point. She brought him to the opposite end of the long table from where she sat. “Go on, then,” she said. “Tell them what you told me.”

 
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