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Strange the dreamer, p.17
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.17

           Laini Taylor
“Move the anchors? Do you think that’s how to move the citadel?”

  Ruza shrugged. “Or what? Attach towlines to it and pull? All I know is it won’t be leaving the way it came. Not with Skathis dead.”


  The name was like a serpent’s hiss. Lazlo took it in, and the realization dawned that Ruza was talking. Well, he was always talking. The fine point was: The secrecy that had bound them all until now was apparently broken. Lazlo could ask questions. He turned to his friend.

  “Don’t look at me like that,” said Ruza.

  “Like what?”

  “Like I’m a beautiful book you’re about to open and plunder with your greedy mad eyes.”

  Lazlo laughed. “Greedy mad eyes? Plunder? Are you afraid of me, Ruza?”

  Ruza looked suddenly steely. “Do you know, Strange, that to ask a Tizerkane if he fears you is to challenge him to single combat?”

  “Well then,” said Lazlo, who knew better than to believe anything Ruza said. “I’m glad I only said it to you and not one of the fearsome warriors like Azareen or Tzara.”

  “Unkind,” said Ruza, wounded. His face crumpled. He pretended to weep. “I am fearsome,” he insisted. “I am.”

  “There, there,” Lazlo consoled. “You’re a very fierce warrior. Don’t cry. You’re terrifying.”

  “Really?” asked Ruza in a pitiful little hopeful voice. “You’re not just saying that?”

  “You two idiots,” said Azareen, and Lazlo felt a curious twinge of pride, to be called an idiot by her, with what might have been the tiniest edge of fondness. He exchanged a chastened glance with Ruza as Azareen passed them on the trail and took the lead.

  A short time ago, Lazlo had seen her arguing with Eril-Fane, and had heard just enough to understand that she’d wanted to stay with him at Fort Misrach. “Why must you face everything alone?” she had demanded before turning away and leaving him there. And when Lazlo last looked back to wave, the caravan starting down the trail and the Godslayer staying behind, he had seemed not only diminished, but haunted.

  If it was safe in the city, as he promised, then why did he look like that, and why did he not come with them?

  What happened here? Lazlo wondered. He didn’t ask any more questions. In silence, they rode the rest of the way down to Weep.

  Eril-Fane stood on the ridge and watched the caravan make its way to the city. It took them an hour to reach it, weaving in and out of view among stands of trees, and by the time they left the forest for good, they were too distant for him to make out who was who. He could tell spectral from camel, and that was all. It was getting dark, which didn’t help.

  Azareen would be leading. She would be straight-backed, face forward, and no one behind her would suspect the look on her face. The loneliness. The raw, bewildered mourning.

  He did that to her. Over and over.

  If she would only give up on him, he could stop destroying her. He could never be what she hoped for—what he had once been. Before he was a hero. Before he was even a man.

  Before he was the lover of the goddess of despair.

  Eril-Fane shuddered. Even after all these years, the thought of Isagol the Terrible stirred such a storm in him—of rancor and longing, desire and disgust, violence and even affection—all of it seething and bleeding and writhing, like a pit of rats eating one another alive. That was what his feelings were now, what Isagol had made of them. Nothing good or pure could survive in him. All was corruption and gore, suffocating in his self-loathing. How weak he was, how pitiful. He might have killed the goddess in the end, but he wasn’t free of her, and he never would be.

  If only Azareen would let him go. Every day that she waited for him to become who he had been, he bore the burden of her loneliness in addition to his own.

  His mother’s, too. At least he could send her Lazlo to take care of, and that would help. But he couldn’t very well send someone home with Azareen to take his place as… as her husband.

  Only she could make that choice, and she wouldn’t.

  Eril-Fane had told Lazlo he didn’t sleep well in Weep. Well, that rather downplayed the matter. It turned his blood cold to even think of closing his eyes in the city. Even from up here, where distance made a toy of it—a pretty glimmer of far-off glaves and old gold—he felt its atmosphere like tentacles waiting to drag him back in, and he couldn’t stop shaking. Better that no one should see him like this. If the Godslayer couldn’t keep his countenance, how could anyone else?

  Feeling like the world’s greatest coward, he turned away from his city, and his guests, and his wife, whom he could not love because he could not love, and he rode the short track back to Fort Misrach.

  Tomorrow, he told himself. Tomorrow he would face Weep, and his duty, and the nightmares that stalked him. Somehow, he would find the courage to finish what he had started fifteen years ago, and free his people from this last vestige of their long torment.

  Even if he could never free himself.



  “I told you we’d die before we ran out of dresses,” said Ruby, and all of her saucy bravado was gone. She might have been blithe about dying when it was abstraction, but she wasn’t now.

  “No one’s dying,” said Feral. “Nothing’s changed.”

  They all looked at him. “Nothing except the Godslayer’s back,” Ruby pointed out.

  “With clever men and women from the outside world,” Sparrow added.

  “Intent on destroying us,” Minya concluded.

  “Not destroying us,” argued Feral. “They don’t know we’re here.”

  “And what do you think they’ll do when they find us?” asked Minya. “Express polite surprise and apologize for barging into our home?”

  “It won’t come to that,” he said. “How would they get anywhere near us? It’s not as though they can fly. We’re safe up here.”

  He was dismissive, but Sarai could tell that he was worried, too. It was the outsiders. What did the five of them know of the rest of the world and the capabilities of its people? Nothing at all.

  They were on the garden terrace, which was at the top of the great seraph’s breast, stretching from shoulder to shoulder, and overlooked the city all the way to the Cusp. Helplessly, they watched the procession of specks move down the slope and disappear inside the city. Sarai was between plum trees, her hands trembling, resting on the balustrade. Over the edge was nothing but empty air—a straight drop far, far down to the rooftops. She was uneasy, standing so close. She made the descent every night through her moths’ senses, but that was different. The moths had wings. She did not. She took a careful step back and wrapped her hand around a strong branch.

  Ruby was reckless, though, leaning too far out. “Where do you suppose they are now?” she asked. She picked a plum and threw it out as hard as she could. Sparrow gasped. They watched the fruit arc out into air.

  “Ruby! What are you doing?” Sparrow demanded.

  “Maybe I’ll hit one of them.”

  “The Rule—”

  “The Rule,” Ruby repeated, rolling her eyes. “You think they don’t fall off the trees by themselves? Oh look, a plum!” She mimicked picking something up, examining it, then tilting back her head to gaze up. “Must be someone living up there! Let’s go kill them!”

  “I hardly think a plum would survive the fall,” Feral pointed out.

  Ruby gave him the flattest look that had, perhaps, ever been given in all of time. Then, unexpectedly, she began to laugh. She clutched her middle and doubled over. “I hardly think a plum would survive the fall,” she repeated, laughing harder. “And how about me?” she asked. She flung a leg over the balustrade, and Sarai’s stomach dropped. “Do you think I’d survive the fall? Now, that would be breaking The Rule.”

  Sparrow gasped. “Enough,” said Sarai, jerking Ruby back. “Don’t be stupid.” She could feel panic pulsing beneath the skin of the moment, and made an effort to smother it. “Feral’s right.
It’s too soon to worry.”

  “It’s never too soon to worry,” said Minya, who, unlike the rest of them, didn’t seem worried in the least. On the contrary, she seemed excited. “Worry spurs preparation.”

  “What kind of preparation?” Sparrow asked, a quaver slipping into her voice. She looked around at her garden, and at the graceful arches of the gallery, through which the dining table could be seen, and the ghost, Ari-Eil, still standing rigid where Minya had left him. A breeze stirred the drapery of vines that were the only thing standing between outside and in. “We can’t hide,” she said. “If we could just shut the doors—”

  “Doors” in the citadel were nothing like the hand-carved timber ones Sarai knew from the city. They didn’t swing open and shut. They didn’t latch or lock. They weren’t objects at all, but only apertures in the smooth mesarthium. The open ones were apertures, anyway. Closed, they weren’t doors at all, but only smooth expanses of wall, because back when the citadel was “alive,” the metal had simply melted open and shut, re-forming seamlessly.

  “If we could shut the doors,” Minya reminded her slowly, “that would mean we could control mesarthium. And if we could control mesarthium, we could do a lot more than shut the doors.” There was an acid edge to her voice. Minya, being Skathis’s daughter, had always had a festering bitterness at the core of her, that she hadn’t inherited his power—the one power that could have set them free. It was the rarest of gifts, and Korako had monitored the babies closely for any sign of it. In all of Great Ellen’s years in the nursery it had manifested only once, and Korako had taken the baby away on the spot.

  Mesarthium was no ordinary metal. It was perfectly adamant: impenetrable, unassailable. It could not be cut or pierced; no one had ever succeeded in making so much as a scratch in it. Nor did it melt. The hottest forge fire and the strongest blacksmith could make not the slightest dent in it. Even Ruby’s fire had no effect on it. At Skathis’s will, however, it had rippled, shifted, reshaping itself into new configurations with the fluidity of mercury. Hard and cool to the touch, it had, nevertheless, been molten to his mind, and the creatures who gave him his title—“god of beasts” instead of merely “god of metal”—had been, for all intents and purposes, living things.

  They were four mesarthium monsters, one to each of the huge metal blocks positioned at the perimeter of the city. Rasalas had been his favorite, and though the citizens of Weep had understood that the beast was only metal animated by Skathis’s mind, the understanding was buried under their terror. Their fear of him was its own entity, and Sarai understood why. Thousands upon thousands of times she’d seen him in their dreams, and it was hard even for her not to believe he had been alive. The citadel in the sky had seemed alive, too. Back then, anyone looking up at it was likely to find it looking back with its immense, inscrutable eyes.

  Such had been Skathis’s gift. If they’d had it, then the doors would be an afterthought. They could bring the whole citadel back to life and move it anywhere they wanted—though Sarai didn’t imagine there was anywhere in the world that would want them.

  “Well, we can’t, can we?” said Sparrow. “And we can’t fight—”

  “You can’t,” agreed Minya with scorn, as though Sparrow’s gift, which had kept them fed for years, had no worth because it had no dimension for violence. “And you,” she said to Feral with equal scorn. “If we wanted to frighten them with thunder, then you might be useful.” She had goaded him for years to learn to summon and aim lightning, with dismal results. It was beyond his control, and though this was due to the natural parameters of his gift and no personal failing, it didn’t spare him Minya’s judgment. Her eyes flicked to Sarai next, and here her gaze went beyond scorn to something more combative. Spite, frustration, venom. Sarai knew it all. She’d endured its sting ever since she stopped blindly doing everything Minya told her to do.

  “And then there’s Bonfire,” Minya said, moving on to Ruby without scorn so much as cool consideration.

  “What about me?” asked Ruby, wary.

  Minya’s gaze focused in on her. “Well, I suppose you might do more with your gift than heat bathwater and burn up your clothes.”

  Ruby paled to a bloodless cerulean. “You mean… burn people?”

  Minya let out a little laugh. “You’re the only one of the five of us who’s actually a weapon and you’ve never even considered—”

  Ruby cut her off. “I’m not a weapon.”

  Minya’s mirth vanished. She said coolly, “When it comes to the defense of the citadel and our five lives… yes, you are.”

  Sometimes you can glimpse a person’s soul in just a flicker of expression, and Sarai glimpsed Ruby’s then: the longing that was the core of her. Yesterday she’d had the thought that Ruby’s gift expressed her nature, and it did, but not the way Minya wanted it to. Ruby was heat and volatility, she was passion, but not violence. She wanted to kiss, not kill. It sounded silly but it wasn’t. She was fifteen years old and furiously alive, and in a glimmer of a moment, Sarai saw her hopes both exposed and destroyed, and felt in them the echo of her own. To be someone else.

  To not be… this.

  “Come on,” said Feral. “If it comes to fighting, what chance do you think we have? The Godslayer slew the Mesarthim, and they were far more powerful than we are.”

  “He had the advantage of surprise,” said Minya, all but baring her teeth. “He had the advantage of treachery. Now we have it.”

  A little sob escaped from Sparrow. Whatever calm they’d been pretending, it was slipping away. No, Minya was tearing it away deliberately. What’s wrong with you? Sarai wanted to demand, but she knew she would get no satisfaction. Instead, she said, with all the authority she could muster, “We don’t know anything yet. Feral’s right. It’s too soon to worry. I’ll find out what I can tonight, and tomorrow we’ll know if we need to have this conversation or not. For now, it’s dinnertime.”

  “I’m not hungry,” said Ruby.

  Neither was Sarai, but she thought if they could act normal, they might feel normal. A little bit, anyway. Though it was hard to feel normal with a ghost glaring at you from the head of the table. “Minya…” she said. It pained her to be gracious, but she forced herself. “Would you please send Ari-Eil away so that we can eat in peace?” She didn’t ask her to release him. She understood that Minya meant to keep him around, if only to torment Sarai.

  “Certainly I will, since you ask so nicely,” said Minya, matching her gracious tone with just an edge of mockery. She gave no visible signal, but in the dining room, the ghost unfroze and pivoted toward the interior door. Minya was done toying with him, apparently, because he didn’t shuffle his steps or fight against her now, but virtually glided from their sight.

  “Thank you,” said Sarai, and they went inside.

  Dinner was not kimril soup, though Sarai doubted Ruby would have voiced any objection to it tonight. She was uncharacteristically silent, and Sarai could imagine the tenor of her thoughts. Her own were grim enough, and she wasn’t faced with the notion of burning people alive. What Feral said was true. They could never win a battle. Once they were discovered, there simply was no scenario in which life went on.

  She didn’t linger in the gallery after dinner, but asked Ruby to heat a bath for her.

  Their suites all had bathrooms with deep mesarthium pools in them, but water no longer came from the pipes, so they used a copper tub in the rain room instead. The “rain room” was the chamber off the kitchens they’d designated for Feral’s cloud summoning. They’d fitted it with barrels, and a channel in the floor caught runoff and funneled it out to the gardens. Kem, the ghost footman, said it had been the butchering room before, and the channel was for blood and the big hooks on the ceiling were for hanging meat. No trace of blood remained, though, just as none remained in the nursery or the corridors. One of Minya’s first commands to the ghosts in the aftermath of the Carnage had been to clean up all the blood.

  Sarai scooped water in
to the tub with a bucket, and Ruby put her hands on the side and ignited them. Just her hands, like she was holding fireballs. The copper conducted the heat beautifully, and soon the water was steaming and Ruby left. Sarai submerged herself and soaked, and washed her hair with the soap Great Ellen made them from the herbs in the garden, and all the while she had the peculiar sense that she was preparing herself—as though her body would be going out from the citadel and not merely her senses. She was even nervous, as if she were about to meet new people. Meet them, ha. She was about to spy on new people and violate their minds. What did it matter if her hair was clean? They wouldn’t see her, or have any awareness of her presence. They never did. In Weep it was she who was the ghost, and an unbound one, invisible, incorporeal, insubstantial as a murmur.

  Back in her dressing room, she put on a slip. Staring at herself in the mirror, she found that she’d lost the ability to see herself through her own eyes. She saw only what humans would see. Not a girl or a woman or someone in between. They wouldn’t see her loneliness or fear or courage, let alone her humanity. They would see only obscenity. Calamity.


  Something took hold of her. A surge of defiance. Her eyes swept the dressing room. Past the slips to the terrible gowns, the headdresses and fans and pots of her mother’s face paint and all the macabre accoutrements of the goddess of despair. And when she emerged, Less Ellen, who had brought her tea, did a double take and nearly dropped her tray. “Oh, Sarai, you gave me a fright.”

  “It’s just me,” said Sarai, though she didn’t feel quite herself. She’d never desired to be anything like her mother before, but tonight she craved a little goddess ferocity, so she’d painted Isagol’s black band across her eyes from temple to temple and mussed her cinnamon-red hair as wild as she could make it.

  She turned to the terrace—which was the outstretched right hand of the huge metal seraph—and went out to meet the night and the newcomers.


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