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Strange the dreamer, p.19
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.19

           Laini Taylor
 

  She had to pay a call on the Godslayer.

  26

  BROKEN PEOPLE

  Sarai had come many times to this window. More than to any other in Weep. It was her father’s window, and rarely had she let a night pass without a visit to him.

  A visit to torment him—and herself, too, as she tried to imagine being the sort of child that a father could love instead of kill.

  The window was open. There was no obstacle to entering, but she hesitated and perched the moths on the window ledge to peer inside. There wasn’t much to the narrow room: a clothes cupboard, some shelves, and a bed of tidy, tightly packed feather mattresses covered with hand-embroidered quilts. There was just enough light through the window to give depth to the darkness, so she saw, in shades of black, the contour of a form. A shoulder, tapering downward. He was sleeping on his side, his back to the window.

  Up in her own body, Sarai’s hearts stammered. She was nervous, flustered even, as though it were some sort of reunion. A one-sided reunion, anyway. It had been two years since he went away, and it had been such a relief when he did—to be free of Minya’s constant harassment. Every day—every day—the little girl had demanded to know what he’d dreamed about, and what Sarai had unleashed on her father. Whatever the answer, she was never content. She had wanted Sarai to visit on him such a cataclysm of nightmares as would shatter his mind and leave him spinning through darkness forever. She had wanted Sarai to drive him mad.

  The Godslayer had always been a threat to them—the greatest threat. He was Weep’s beating heart, the liberator of his people, and their greatest hero. No one was more beloved, or possessed of more authority, and so no one was more dangerous. After the uprising and the liberation, the humans had been kept very busy. They’d had two centuries of tyranny to overcome, after all. They’d had to create a government from nothing, along with laws and a system of justice. They’d had to restore defenses, civil life, industry, and at least the hope of trade. An army, temples, guilds, schools—they’d had to rebuild it all. It had been the work of years, and through it all, the citadel had loomed over their heads, out of their reach. The people of Weep had had no choice but to work at what they could change and tolerate what they could not—which meant never feeling the sun on their faces, or teaching the constellations to their children, or picking fruit from their own garden trees. There had been talk of moving the city out from under the shadow, starting anew someplace else. A site had even been chosen downriver, but there was far too deep a history here to simply give up. This land had been won for them by angels. Shadowed or not, it was sacred.

  They had lacked the resources, then, to take on the citadel, but they were never going to tolerate it forever. Eventually, their resolve was going to focus upward. The Godslayer would not give up.

  “If you’re not the end of him,” Minya would say, “he’ll be the end of us.”

  And Sarai had been Minya’s willing weapon. With the Carnage red and bloody in her hearts, she had tried her best and done her worst. So many nights, she’d covered Eril-Fane in moths and unleashed every terror in her arsenal. Waves of horrors, ranks of monsters. His whole body would go rigid as a board. She’d heard teeth cracking with the clench of his jaw. Never had eyes been squeezed so tightly shut. It had seemed as though they must rupture. But she couldn’t break him; she couldn’t even make him cry. Eril-Fane had his own arsenal of horrors; he hardly needed hers. Fear was the least of it. Sarai hadn’t understood before that fear could be the lesser torment. It was shame that tore him apart. It was despair. There was no darkness she could send him to rival what he’d endured already. He had lived three years with Isagol the Terrible. He had survived too much to be driven mad by dreams.

  It was strange. Every night Sarai split her mind a hundred ways, her moths carrying pieces of her consciousness through the city, and when they came back to her, she was whole again. It was easy. But something began to happen, the more she tormented her father—a different kind of division within her, and one not so easily reconciled at night’s end.

  To Minya, there would only ever be the Carnage. But, in fact, there was so much more. There was before. Stolen girls, lost years, broken people. And always, there were the savage, merciless gods.

  Isagol, reaching into your soul and playing your emotions like a harp.

  Letha, dredging your mind, taking out memories and swallowing them whole.

  Skathis at the door, come for your daughter.

  Skathis at the door, bringing her back home.

  The function of hate, as Sarai saw it, was to stamp out compassion—to close a door in one’s own self and forget it was ever there. If you had hate, then you could see suffering—and cause it—and feel nothing except perhaps a sordid vindication.

  But at some point… here in this room, Sarai thought… she had lost that capacity. Hate had failed her, and it was like losing a shield in battle. Once it was gone, all the suffering had risen up to overwhelm her. It was too much.

  It was then that her nightmares turned against her, and she started needing lull.

  With a deep breath, Sarai disengaged a moth from the ledge and spurred it forward, a single smithereen of darkness dispatched into the dim. In that one sentinel she focused her attention, and so she was as good as there, hovering just inches above the Godslayer’s shoulder.

  Except…

  She could hardly have said which sense first vibrated with a small shock of difference, but she understood at once:

  This was not the Godslayer.

  The bulk didn’t match. Nor did the scent of him. Whoever this was, he was slighter than Eril-Fane, and sank less deeply into the down. As she adjusted to the scant ambient light, she was able to make out dark hair spilled across the pillow, but little more than that.

  Who was this, asleep in the Godslayer’s bed? Where was Eril-Fane? Curiosity overtook her, and she did something she would never have considered in ordinary times. That is to say: in times of less certain doom.

  There was a glave on the bedside table, with a black knit cover drawn down over it. Sarai directed a score of moths to it to grasp the weave with their tiny feet and shift it back just enough to uncover a slice of light. If anyone were ever to witness the moths behaving in such a coordinated way, they would have to grow suspicious that these were no natural creatures. But such a fear seemed quaint to Sarai now, compared to her other concerns. With that small task accomplished, she studied the face that was illuminated by the sliver of glave.

  She beheld a young man with a crooked nose. His brows were black and heavy, his eyes deep-set. His cheeks were high and flat, and cut to his jaw with the abruptness of an ax chop. No finesse, no elegance. And the nose. It had clearly met with violence, and lent an aspect of violence to the whole. His hair was thick and dark, and where it gleamed in the glavelight the glints were warm reds, not cool blues. He was shirtless, and though mostly covered by the quilt, the arm that rested over it was corded with lean muscle. He was clean, and must just have shaved for the first time in weeks, as his jaw and chin were paler than the rest of his face and all but smooth—in that way that a man’s face is never truly smooth, even right after an encounter with a perfectly sharpened razor. This Sarai knew from years of perching on sleeping faces, and not from Feral who, though he had begun to shave, could go days between with no one the wiser. Not this man. He wasn’t, like Feral, almost all the way over the line into adulthood, but all the way over it: a man in no uncertain terms.

  He wasn’t handsome. He was certainly no museum piece. There was something of the brute about him with that broken nose, but Sarai found herself lingering longer in the appraisal of him than she had over any of the others, save the golden one. Because they were both young men, and she wasn’t so immaculate as to be free of the longings that Ruby expressed so openly, nor so detached that the physical presence of young men had no effect on her. She just kept it to herself, as she kept so many things to herself.

  Looking at his lashes resting closed
, she wondered what color his eyes were, and experienced a pang of alienation, that it should be her lot to see and never be seen, to pass in secret through the minds of others and leave no trace of herself but fear.

  She took quick stock of the sky. Better hurry. She wouldn’t have time to glean much of an impression from this one, but even a hint of who he was might prove useful. A stranger in Eril-Fane’s house. What did it mean?

  She drifted a moth onto his brow.

  And promptly fell into another world.

  27

  ANOTHER WORLD

  Every mind is its own world. Most occupy a vast middle ground of ordinary, while others are more distinct: pleasant, even beautiful, or sometimes slippery and unaccountably wrong-feeling. Sarai couldn’t even remember what her own had been like, back before she had made of it the zoo of terrors it was now—her own mind a place she was afraid to be caught out in after dark, so to speak, and had to shelter herself from by means of a drink that dulled her with its seeping gray nothing. The Godslayer’s dreams were a realm of horrors, too, uniquely his own, while Suheyla’s were as soft as a shawl that wraps a child against the cold. Sarai had trespassed in thousands of minds—tens of thousands—and she had sifted her invisible fingers through dreams beyond counting.

  But she had never known anything like this.

  She blinked and looked around.

  Here was a street paved in lapis lazuli, the carved facades of buildings rising up on either side. And there were domes of gold, and the luster of the Cusp in the distance. All night long Sarai had sojourned in dreamscapes wholly alien to her. This wasn’t, and yet was. She spun slowly, taking in the curious twinning of familiarity and the strange that was stranger in its way than the wholly alien had been. Clearly this was Weep, but it was not the Weep she knew. The lapis was bluer, the gold brighter, the carvings unfamiliar. The domes—of which there were hundreds instead of merely dozens—weren’t quite the right shape. Nor were they of smooth gold leaf as in reality, but were patterned instead in fish-scale tiles of darker gold and brighter, so the sun didn’t merely glint on them. It played. It danced.

  The sun.

  The sun on Weep.

  There was no citadel, and no anchors. No mesarthium anywhere, and not a trace of lingering gloom or hint of bitterness. She was experiencing a version of Weep that existed only in this dreamer’s mind. She couldn’t know that it was born of tales told years ago by a monk slipping into senility, or that it had been fed ever since by every source Lazlo could get his hands on. That he knew everything that it was possible for an outsider to know about Weep, and this was the vision he’d built out of pieces. Sarai had entered into an idea of the city, and it was the most wonderful thing that she had ever seen. It danced over her senses the way the dream sun danced over the domes. Every color was deeper, richer than the real, and there were so many of them. If the weaver of the world itself had kept the snipped ends of every thread she’d ever used, her basket might look something like this. There were awnings over market stalls, and rows of spice shaped into cones. Rose and russet, scarlet and sienna. Old men blew colored smoke through long painted flutes, etching the air with soundless music. Saffron and vermilion, amaranth and coral. From each dome rose a needlelike spire, all of them snapping with swallowtail flags and interconnected by ribbons across which children ran laughing, clad in cloaks of colored feathers. Mulberry and citrine, celadon and chocolate. Their shadows kept pace with them down below in a way that could never happen in the true Weep, enshrouded as it was in one great shadow. The imaginary citizenry wore garments of simple loveliness, the women’s hair long and trailing behind them, or else held aloft by attendant songbirds that were their own sparks of color. Dandelion and chestnut, tangerine and goldenrod.

  Over the walls, vines grew, as they must have done in bygone days, before the shade. Fruits burgeoned, fat and glistening. Sunset and thistle, verdigris and violet. The air was redolent with their honey perfume and with another scent, one that transported Sarai back to childhood.

  When she was small, before the pantries of the citadel kitchens were emptied of irreplaceable provisions like sugar and white flour, Great Ellen used to make them a birthday cake each year: one to share, to stretch the sugar and white flour across as many years as possible. Sarai had been eight for the last one. The five of them had savored it, made a game of eating it with excruciating slowness, knowing it was the last cake they would ever taste.

  And here in this strange and lovely Weep were cakes set out on window ledges, their icing glittering with crystal sugar and flower petals, and passersby stopped to help themselves to a slice of this one or that one, and folks inside handed cups out through the windows, so that they might have something to wash it down with.

  Sarai drank it all in in a daze. This was the second time tonight she had been surprised by the stark dissonance between a face and a mind. The first had been the golden faranji. However fine his face, not so his dreams. They were as cramped and airless as coffins. He could barely breathe or move in them, and neither could she. And now this.

  That this rugged countenance with its air of violence should give her entrance into such a realm of wonder.

  She saw spectrals parading unattended, side by side like couples out for a stroll, and other such creatures as she recognized and didn’t. A ravid, its arm-long fangs festooned in beads and tassels, rose up on its hind legs to lick a cake with its long, rasping tongue. She saw a genteel centaur bearing a princess sidesaddle, and such was the atmosphere of magic that they weren’t out of place here. He turned his head and the pair shared a lingering kiss that brought warmth to Sarai’s cheeks. And there were small men with the feet of chickens, walking backward so their tracks would point the wrong way, and tiny old ladies racing about on saddled cats, and goat-horned boys ringing bells, and the flit and flutter of gossamer wings, and more and lovelier things everywhere she looked. She had been inside the dream for less than a minute—two mere spans of the great seraph’s hand, paced forth and back—when she realized that she had a smile on her face.

  A smile.

  Smiles were rare enough, given the nature of her work, but on such a night as this, with such discoveries, it was unthinkable. She pushed it flat with her hand, ashamed, and paced on. So this faranji was good at dreams? So what. None of this was useful to her. Who was this dreamer? What was he doing here? Hardening herself to wonder, she looked around again and saw, up ahead, the figure of a man with long dark hair.

  It was him.

  This was normal. People manifest in their own dreams more often than they don’t. He was walking away from her, and she willed herself nearer—no sooner wishing it than she was right behind him. This dream might be special, but it was still a dream and, as such, hers to control. She could, if she wished, vanquish all this color. She might turn it all to blood, smash the domes, send the feather-cloaked children tumbling to their deaths. She might drive that tame ravid with its tassels and beads to maul the lovely women with their long black hair. She could turn all this into nightmare. Such was her gift. Her vile, vile gift.

  She did none of that. It wasn’t why she’d come, for one thing, but even if it was, it was unthinkable that she should mangle this dream. It wasn’t just the colors and the fairy-tale creatures, the magic. It wasn’t even the cakes. There was such a feeling here of… of sweetness, and safety, and Sarai wished…

  She wished it were real, and she could live in it. If ravids could walk here side by side with men and women and even share their cakes, then maybe godspawn could, too.

  Real. Foolish, foolish thought. This was a stranger’s mind. Real was the other four waiting for her in an agony of wondering. Real was the truth she had to tell them, and real was the dawn glow creeping up the horizon. It was time to go. Sarai gathered up her moths. Those perched on the knitted glave cover released it and it eased back down, swallowing the slice of light and returning the dreamer to darkness. They fluttered to the window and waited there, but the one on his brow re
mained. Sarai was poised, ready to withdraw it, but she hesitated. She was so many places at once. She was on the flat of the seraph’s palm, barefoot, and she was hovering in the window of the Godslayer’s bedroom, and she was perched, light as a petal, on the dreamer’s brow.

  And she was inside his dream, standing right behind him. She had an unaccountable urge to see his face, here in this place of his creation, with his eyes open.

  He reached out to pluck a fruit from one of the vines.

  Sarai’s hand twitched at her side, wanting one, too. Wanting five, one for each of them. She thought of the godspawn girl who could bring things out of dreams, and wished she could return with her arms full of fruit. A cake balanced on her head. And riding the tame ravid that now had icing on its whiskers. As though, with gifts and whimsy, she might soften the blow of her news.

  Some children were climbing a trellis, and they paused to toss some more fruit down to the dreamer. He caught the yellow orbs and called back, “Thank you.”

  The timbre of his voice sent a thrill through Sarai. It was deep, low, and raw—a voice like woodsmoke, serrated blades, and boots breaking through snow. But for all its roughness, there was the most endearing hint of shyness in it, too. “I believed it when I was a little boy,” he told an old man standing nearby. “About the fruit free for the taking. But later I thought it had to be a fantasy dreamed up for hungry children.”

  Belatedly, it struck Sarai that he was speaking the language of Weep. All night long, in all those other strangers’ dreams, she’d heard scarcely a word she could understand, but this one was speaking it without even an accent. She drifted to one side, coming around finally to get a look at him.

  She went right up close, studying him—in profile—in the same shameless way that one might study a statue—or, indeed, in which a ghost might study the living. Earlier in the night, she had done the same with the golden faranji, standing right beside him while he did furious work in a laboratory of spurting flames and shattered glass. Everything had been jagged there, hot and full of peril, and it didn’t matter how beautiful he was. She’d been eager to get away.

 
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