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Strange the dreamer, p.18
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.18

           Laini Taylor


  Sarai screamed her moths at Weep, and down and down they whirled. On a normal night they would split up and divide the city a hundred ways between them, but not tonight. She needed all her focus on the newcomers. Tonight, the citizens of Weep would not weep because of her.

  The ghost Ari-Eil had told them—or been compelled by Minya to tell them—that the faranji were to be housed at the Merchants’ Guildhall, where a wing had been outfitted as a hostelry just for them. Sarai had never gone there before. It wasn’t a residence, so she’d never looked there for sleepers, and it took her a few minutes to locate the right wing. The place was palatial, with a large central structure topped with a golden dome, and walls of the native honey stone. All was carved in the traditional style. Weep wasn’t a city that feared ornamentation. Centuries of carvers had embellished every stone surface with patterns and creatures and seraphim.

  Graceful open pavilions were connected by covered walkways to outbuildings capped in smaller domes. There were fountains, and once upon a time there had been gardens full of fruit and flowers, but those had all withered in the accursed shade.

  The whole city had been a garden once. Not anymore. Orchid Witch, Sarai thought in passing, could do a sight of good down here.

  If not for the fact that she would be murdered on sight.

  The moths tested the terrace doors first, but found most of them closed, and far too well made for any cracks that might admit them, so they flew down the chimneys instead. Inside, the rooms were sumptuous, as befitted the first foreign delegation ever welcomed beyond the Cusp. For centuries, the city had been famed the world over for its craftsmanship, and these chambers might have served as a showplace: the finest of carpets laid over floors of mosaic gold and lys, with embroidered bedcovers, frescoed walls, carved ceiling timbers, and marvelous objects on shelves and walls, every one a masterpiece.

  But Sarai wasn’t here for the art. Among eleven occupied rooms, she counted thirteen sleepers, one of whom was not a faranji but a Tizerkane warrior, Tzara, wrapped in the slender arms of a slight young woman with very short, soft hair. That made a dozen outsiders all told, most of whom were musty old men. There was only one other woman: less young, less slender, sleeping beside a stocky man. These were the only couples, and the only women; all the rest were men, and slept alone. More than half snored. Slightly less than half stank. It was easy to tell who had availed themselves of the baths drawn for them, because their tubs were coated in the brown scum of weeks of unwash. Those with clean tubs simply had not yet transferred the scum from their persons, and Sarai was loath to perch her moths on them. Up in the sky, her nose wrinkled as though she were experiencing the concentrated male stench firsthand.

  With all her moths divided among so few rooms, she was able to study each person from multiple vantage points and take in every detail of them. Two of the men looked so alike that she grew confused for a moment, thinking that two sets of moths were relaying her the same information. They weren’t; she realized the men were twins. One man was especially ill-favored. He had a sour, thin-lipped look even in sleep, and another resembled a reptile in molt, the skin of his face sloughing away in curls of dead skin. His knuckles were gnarled with burn scars, too, like melted candle wax, and he smelled like a dead animal. The young women were much pleasanter—smooth-skinned and sweet-smelling. Around Tzara’s navel, Sarai saw the elilith tattoo given to all girls of Weep when they become women. Tzara’s was a serpent swallowing its tail, which symbolized the cycle of destruction and rebirth and had become popular since the defeat of the gods. The older couple wore matching gold bands on their rough and callused ring fingers, and the man’s nails, like Sparrow’s, bore dark crescents from working with soil. The soil was in the room, too: The elegant table was covered with dozens of little canvas sacks filled with seedlings, and Sarai wondered how plants figured into the Godslayer’s plans to conquer the citadel.

  On one sleeper in particular, though, she found an undue portion of her attention fix, without her even meaning it to. It was an instinctive process, her focus flowing among her sentinels according to need. But this wasn’t need. This stranger didn’t seem more important than the others. He was simply more beautiful.

  He was golden.

  His hair was such a color as she’d never seen. Her own red-brown was unusual enough in Weep where everyone had black hair, but his was the color of sunlight, long enough in the front and with just enough wave to make a curl you wanted to reach out and coax around your finger. Aside from the girl entwined with Tzara, he was the only one of the faranji who was young, though not so young as Sarai was herself. He was princely and broad-shouldered, and had nodded off propped up on cushions with a book open on his bare chest. Through the moths’ vision, Sarai saw that the cover was a picture of a spoonful of stars and creatures, but her attention was drawn to his face, which was every bit as fine an artwork as the room’s collection of marvels. There was such an elegance in the lines of it, such a perfect sculpt to every angle and curve that he was almost unreal. A museum piece.

  She reminded herself that she wasn’t here to be enraptured by this stranger’s beauty, but to discover who he was, and what nature of threat he posed, and the same with the rest whose humbler looks presented less distraction. She looked at them all and they were just sleeping humans, so vulnerable with their slack mouths and their long pale toes poking out from under the covers. With few exceptions, they were very nearly ridiculous. It seemed impossible that they might be the death of her.

  Enough. She wouldn’t learn anything about the Godslayer’s guests by looking at them. It was time to look in them.

  In eleven rooms, where thirteen humans slept—ten men and three women, one of whom was not an outsider and thus not a subject—moths that were perched on the walls and bedposts bestirred themselves and took to the air, fluttering the little distance to land on flesh. None of the humans felt the featherlight feet of winged creatures alighting on their brows and cheekbones, much less the smooth intrusion of the Muse of Nightmares into their minds.

  Invisible, incorporeal, insubstantial as a murmur, Sarai slipped into their dreams, and what she discovered there, in the hours that followed, proved that the strangers were far from ridiculous.

  And would indeed be the death of her.

  Azareen lived in a set of rooms above a bakery in Windfall—the district so named for the plums that fell on it from the trees of the gods. She walked up the back steps, from the courtyard where the bakery and adjacent tavern kept their waste bins. It stank, and there was that other smell, distinct to Windfall: ferment. Always, the plums were raining down, as though the trees were enchanted and would never die.

  Azareen hated plums.

  She put the key in the lock, pushed open the door, and went in. Two years’ worth of dust lay over everything. The blankets would be musty, the cupboards empty. Her mother or sisters would have kept the rooms fresh for her, but having them here would open the door to conversations she didn’t wish to have, such as why she still lived here, alone, when she might stay with any of them, or even marry, and have a family, before it was too late.

  “I’m already married,” she would tell them, and what could they say to that? It was true in its way, even if her husband had released her from the promise she’d made eighteen years ago, when she was only a girl. Sixteen years old, and Eril-Fane had been all of seventeen. How beautiful he’d been. They’d been too young to marry, but it hadn’t stopped them. In the shadow of the Mesarthim, all time had seemed borrowed, and they just couldn’t wait.

  Oh, the memories. They would surface from the wreckage, fast and sharp enough to impale her: of wanting him so much she didn’t know how she’d survive a night without him. And then, at last, not having to.

  Their wedding night. How young and smooth they’d been, and eager and tireless and burning. Five nights. That was what they’d had: five nights, eighteen years ago. That was her marriage. And then… what came afte

  Azareen dropped her pack on the floor and looked around. Small, stifling, and quiet, it made quite a change from the Elmuthaleth. She had a sitting room, a bedroom, and a small kitchen with a water closet. She’d stopped by her sister’s house to see her family after settling the faranji in at the guildhall, and she’d had some dinner there. She needed a bath, but that could wait until the morning. She went straight to her bed. Where, eighteen years ago, she had spent five eager, tireless, burning nights with her beautiful young husband before the gods stole him away.

  The quiet closed in. Azareen imagined she could feel the shadow, the weight and press of the citadel overhead. It was the weight and press of everything that had happened in it—and everything that had never happened because of it.

  She didn’t change her clothes, but just took off her boots and reached into her pack, into the little pocket she’d sewn into it to hold her most cherished possession.

  It was a ring of tarnished silver. She put it on, as she did always and only at night, tucked her hands under her cheek, and waited for sleep to take her.

  A mile or so away, down a street paved in lapis lazuli just like in a mean old monk’s childhood tales, in a house much less grand than the Merchants’ Guildhall and far cozier than Azareen’s rooms, Lazlo was just getting to bed. The sun would rise in an hour. He hadn’t meant to stay up all night, but how could he help it?

  He was here.

  “There’s only one way to celebrate the end of such a journey,” his hostess had told him when she greeted him at the Merchants’ Guildhall and whisked him away home with her. “And that is with food, a bath, and a bed, in the order of your preference.”

  Suheyla was her name. Her hair was a cap of white, cropped short as a man’s, and her face was a perfect example of how someone can be beautiful without being beautiful. She shone with good nature and the same vitality that Eril-Fane radiated, but without the shadow that had grown over him as they drew nearer to Weep. There was gravity in her, but nothing grim or bleak. Her eyes were the same deep-set smiles as her son’s, with more extensive deltas of creases at the corners. She was short and vigorous, colorfully dressed in an embroidered tunic adorned with tassels and gathered in by a wide, patterned belt. Discs of hammered gold at her temples were connected by spans of fine chain across her brow. “You are most welcome here, young man,” she’d said with such heartfelt sincerity that Lazlo almost felt as if he’d come home.

  Home—about which he knew as little as he did about mothers. Before today, he had never set foot in a home. As to having a preference, that was new, too. You take what you’re given and you’re grateful for it. Once that message is well and truly ingrained in you, it feels like vainglory to imagine one’s own likes and dislikes could matter to other people. “Whatever order makes the most sense,” he had replied, almost like a question.

  “Sense be damned! You can eat in the bath if that’s what you wish. You’ve earned it.”

  And Lazlo had never had a bath he’d had any desire to linger in, bathing in the monastery having been characterized by shivering in buckets of well water, and at the library by quick, lukewarm pull showers. Still, feeling deeply that his filth was an unforgivable imposition, he’d chosen to bathe first, and thus had he discovered, at the age of twenty, the incomparable pleasure of submergence in hot water.

  Who knew?

  He had not elected to eat in the bath, however—or even to linger beyond the not inconsiderable time it took to get clean—being far too eager to continue talking with Suheyla. She had, on the walk from the guildhall, joined his admittedly short list of favorite people, along with Eril-Fane, Calixte, Ruza, and old Master Hyrrokkin. When he saw the quantity of food she’d laid out for him, though, his ingrained abnegation rose to the surface. There were small roast birds and pastries glistening with honey, cubes of meat in fragrant sauce, and curled crustaceans impaled on sticks. There was a salad of grains and another of greens, and a platter of fruit and a half-dozen small bowls of pastes and another half-dozen of salts, and the bread was a disc too big for the table, hanging instead from a hook that existed for this purpose, so that you might just reach up and tear some off. And there were sweets and peppers and tea and wine and… and it was all too much for him.

  “I’m so sorry to put you to such trouble,” he’d said, earning himself a sharp look.

  “Guests aren’t trouble,” Suheyla had replied. “They’re a blessing. Having no one to cook for, now, that’s a sadness. But a young man gaunt from the Elmuthaleth and in need of fattening? That’s a pleasure.”

  And what could he do but say thank you and eat his fill?

  Oh glory, he’d never had a better meal. And he’d never felt so full, or lingered at a table so long, or talked so much or been so comfortable with someone he’d only just met. And so his introduction to the world of homes and mothers was powerfully good, and though he had felt, on his first walk through the city of his dreams, that he would never be tired again, he was in fact very, very tired, which Suheyla couldn’t help but notice. “Come along,” she said. “I’ve kept you up too late.”

  Earlier, he had left his travel bag near the door. “Let me,” he said as she bent to pick it up.

  “Nonsense,” she replied, and in a flash of a glimpse he perceived that she had no right hand, only a smooth, tapering wrist, though it didn’t hinder her in the slightest as she hooked the strap of his bag with it and slung it over her shoulder. He wondered that he hadn’t noticed it earlier.

  She showed him to one of the green painted doors that opened off the courtyard. “This was my son’s room,” she said, gesturing for him to enter.

  “Oh. But won’t he be wanting it?”

  “I don’t think so,” she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice. “Tell me, how does he sleep… out there?” She made a vague gesture to the west, indicating, Lazlo supposed, the whole rest of the world.

  “I don’t know,” he answered, surprised. “Well enough.” How inadequate an offering to a worried mother. Well enough. And how would Lazlo know? It had never crossed his mind that Eril-Fane might have vulnerabilities. He realized that all this time he’d been looking to the Godslayer as a hero, not a man, but that heroes, whatever else they are, are also men—and women—and prey to human troubles just like anybody else.

  “That’s good,” said Suheyla. “Perhaps it’s gotten better, with his being away from here.”

  “It?” asked Lazlo, remembering the way Eril-Fane had averted his eyes and said he didn’t sleep well in Weep.

  “Oh, nightmares.” Suheyla waved away the subject and laid her hand to Lazlo’s cheek. “It’s very good to have you here, young man. Do sleep well.”

  Moths effused from the chimneys of the Merchants’ Guildhall.

  It was the hour before dawn. Some in the city were waking. The bakers were already at work, and carts rolled quietly toward the market square, bringing their daily burdens of produce from the valley farms. Sarai hadn’t meant to stay so long in the outsiders’ dreams, but she’d found in them such an alien world, so full of visions she had no context for, that she had barely felt time passing.

  The ocean: a vastness unspeakable. Leviathans as big as palaces, harnessed to pontoons to keep them from submerging to their freedom. Glave mines like buried sunlight. Towers like tusks. Men with leashed wolves patrolling dazzling blue fields. Such images spoke of a world beyond her ken, and, scattered throughout them—strange among strange and as difficult to separate from the wild vagaries of dreams as snowflakes from a basket of lace—were the answers she had been seeking.

  Who were these strangers and what nature of threat did they pose?

  As to the first, they were men and women driven by ideas and powered by intelligence and rare skills. Some had families, some did not. Some were kind, some were not. She couldn’t possibly know them in one night of trespass. She’d formed impressions; that was all. But as to the second question…

  Sarai was reeling with visions of explosions an
d contraptions and impossibly tall towers—and girls climbing impossibly tall towers—and magnets and saws and bridges and flasks of miraculous chemicals and… and… and flying machines.

  “It’s not as though they can fly,” Feral had said, but it would seem that he was wrong. When Sarai first glimpsed the craft in the dreams of the older of the two faranji women, she had dismissed it as fantasy. Dreams are full of flying. It hadn’t worried her. But when she saw the same craft in the husband’s mind, she had to take notice. The thing was sleek and simple in design and far too specific to occur by coincidence in two people’s dreams, no matter that they lay side by side, touching. Dreams didn’t transfer from one sleeper to another. And there was something else that made Sarai believe. She lived in the sky. She knew the world from above in a way that humans didn’t, and most dreams of flying just didn’t get it right—the reflection of the setting sun on the tops of clouds, the tidal ebb and flow of winds, the look of the world from on high. But this couple with their rough hands, they knew what it was like. No question about it: They’d been there.

  So how long before their flying machines were in the air, delivering invaders to the garden terrace and to the flat of the seraph’s palm, right where Sarai now stood?

  “Tomorrow we’ll know if we need to have this conversation or not,” she had told the others last evening, when Minya was rattling them all with her talk of fighting. Well, they would have to have it, and quickly, little good it would do. Sarai felt sick.

  Up in the citadel, she turned in her relentless pacing. Her eyes were open, her surroundings a blur. No one was nearby, but she knew the others must be waiting. If they’d slept at all they’d have risen early to meet her as soon as her moths returned, and hear what she had to tell. Were they just on the other side of her curtain, even now? She hoped they would stay there until she was ready for them.

  She considered calling her moths back. Already the eastern horizon was paling and they would fall dead at the first appearance of the sun. But there was something she still had to do. She’d been putting it off all night.

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