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Strange the dreamer, p.20
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.20

           Laini Taylor
 

  There was no peril here, or desire for escape. On the contrary, she was drawn in closer. A decade of invisibility had done away with any hesitancy she might once have felt about such flagrant staring. She saw that his eyes were gray, and that his smile wore the same hint of shyness as his voice. And yes, there was the broken line of his nose. And yes, the cut of his cheeks to his jaw was harsh. But, to her surprise, his face, awake and animate, conveyed none of the brutality that had been her first impression. On the contrary.

  It was as sweet as the air in his dream.

  He turned his head her way, and Sarai was so accustomed to her own acute nonbeing that it didn’t even startle her. She only took it as an opportunity to see him better. She had seen so many closed eyes, and eyelids trembling with dreams, and lashes fluttering on cheeks, that she was transfixed by his open ones. They were so near. She could see, in this indulgence of sunlight, the patterns of his irises. They weren’t solid gray, but filaments of a hundred different grays and blues and pearls, and they looked like reflections of light wavering on water, with the softest sunburst of amber haloing his pupils.

  And… every bit as avidly as she was looking at him, he was looking at… No, not at her. He could only be looking through her. He had an air of one bewitched. There was a light in his eyes of absolute wonder. Witchlight, she thought, and she suffered a deep pang of envy for whoever or whatever it was behind her that enthralled him so completely. For just a moment, she let herself pretend that it was her.

  That he was looking at her in that rapt way.

  It was only pretend. An instant of self-indulgence—like a phantom that interposes itself between lovers to feel what it is to be alive. All of this happened in a flutter of seconds, three at the very most. She stood quiet inside the remarkable dream and pretended the dreamer was captivated by her. She tracked the movement of his pupils. They seemed to trace the lines of her face and the band of black she’d painted across it. They dropped, only to rise again at once from the sight of her slip-clad form and her immodest blue skin. He blushed, and sometime in those three seconds it had ceased being pretend. Sarai blushed, too. She fell back a step and the dreamer’s eyes followed her.

  His eyes followed her.

  There was no one behind her. There was no one else at all. The whole dream shrank to a sphere around the pair of them, and there could be no question that the witchlight was for her, or that it was her he meant when he whispered, with vivid and tender enthrallment, “Who are you?”

  Reality came slamming down. She was seen. She was seen. Up in the citadel Sarai jerked back. She snapped the tether of consciousness and cut the moth loose, losing the dream in an instant. All the focus she’d poured into the single sentinel was shunted back into her physical body, and she stumbled and fell, gasping, to her knees.

  It was impossible. In dreams, she was a phantom. He couldn’t have seen her.

  Yet there was no question in her mind that he had.

  Down in Weep, Lazlo woke with a start and sat up in bed just in time to witness ninety-nine smithereens of darkness spook from his window ledge and burst into the air, where, with one frantic eddy, they were sucked up and out of sight.

  He blinked. All was quiet and still. Dark, too. He might have doubted that he’d seen anything at all if, at that moment, the one-hundredth moth hadn’t tumbled off his brow to fall dead into his lap. Gently he scooped it into his palm. It was a delicate thing, its wings furred in plush the color of twilight.

  Half tangled in the remnants of his dream, Lazlo was still seeing the wide blue eyes of the beautiful blue girl, and he was frustrated to have wakened and lost her so abruptly. If he could get back to the dream, he wondered, might he find her again? He laid the dead moth on the bedside table and fell back to sleep.

  And he did find the dream, but not the girl. She was gone. In those next moments the sun rose. It seeped a pallid light into the citadel’s gloom and turned the moth to smoke on the table.

  When Lazlo woke again, a couple of hours later, he’d forgotten them both.

  28

  NO WAY TO LIVE

  Sarai fell to her knees. All she was seeing was the pure and potent focus of the dreamer’s eyes—on her—as Feral, Ruby, and Sparrow rushed out to her from the doorway where they’d been watching and waiting.

  “Sarai! Are you all right?”

  “What is it? What’s wrong?”

  “Sarai!”

  Minya came behind them, but she didn’t rush to Sarai’s side. She held herself back, watching with keen interest as they took her elbows and helped her up.

  Sarai saw their distress and mastered her own, pushing the dreamer from her mind—for now. He had seen her. What could it mean? The others were peppering her with questions—questions she couldn’t answer because her moths hadn’t yet come back to her. They were in the sky now, racing the rising sun. If they didn’t make it back in time, she would be voiceless until dark fell and a new hundred were born in her. She didn’t know why it worked that way, but it did. She clutched her throat so the others would understand, and she tried to wave them inside so they wouldn’t see what happened next. She hated for anyone to see her moths come or go.

  But they only drew back, apprehension on their faces, and all she could do when the moths came frothing up over the edge of the terrace was turn away to hide her face as she opened her mouth wide to let them back in.

  Ninety-nine.

  In her shock, she’d severed the connection and left the moth on the dreamer’s brow. Her hearts gave a lurch. She reached out with her mind, fumbling for the cut tether, as though she might revive the moth and draw it back home, but it was lost to her. First she’d been seen by a human, and then she’d left a moth behind like a calling card. Was she coming undone?

  How had he seen her?

  She was pacing again, out of habit. The others came beside her, demanding to know what had happened. Minya still stood back, watching. Sarai reached the end of the palm, turned, and stopped. There were no railings on this terrace to prevent one from stepping off the edge. There was, instead, the subtle curve of the cupped hand—the metal flesh sloping gently upward to form a kind of great shallow bowl so that you couldn’t simply walk off the edge. Even at her most distracted, Sarai’s feet kept track of the slope, and knew to stay in the palm’s flat center.

  Now the panic of the others brought her back to herself.

  “Tell us, Sarai,” said Feral, holding his voice steady to show that he could take it. Ruby was on one side of him, Sparrow on the other. Sarai drank in the sight of their faces. She’d taken so little time over the past years simply to be with them. They lived by day and she by night, and they shared one meal in between. It was no way to live. But… it was living, and it was all they had.

  In a fragile whisper, she said, “They have flying machines,” and watched, desolate, as the understanding changed their three faces, bullying out the last defiant shred of hope, leaving nothing but despair.

  She felt like her mother’s daughter then.

  Sparrow’s hands flew to her mouth. “So that’s it, then,” said Ruby. They didn’t even question it. Somehow, in the night, they’d passed through panic to defeat.

  Not Minya. “Look at you all,” she said, scathing. “I swear, you look ready to fall to your knees and expose your throats to them.”

  Sarai turned to her. Minya’s excitement had brightened. It appalled her. “How can you be happy about this?”

  “It had to happen sooner or later,” was her answer. “Better to get it over with.”

  “Over with? What, our lives?”

  Minya scoffed. “Only if you’d sooner die than defend yourselves. I can’t stop you if you’re that set on dying, but it’s not what I’ll be doing.”

  A silence gathered. It occurred to Sarai, and perhaps to the other three at the same time, that yesterday, when Minya had scorned their varying levels of uselessness in a fight, she had made no mention of what her own part might be. Now, in the face of thei
r despair, she radiated eagerness. Zeal. It was so utterly wrong that Sarai couldn’t even take it in. “What’s wrong with you?” she demanded. “Why are you so pleased?”

  “I thought you’d never ask,” Minya said, with a grin that showed all her little teeth. “Come with me. I want to show you something.”

  The Godslayer’s family home was a modest example of the traditional Weep yeldez, or courtyard house. From the outside, it presented a stone facade carved in a pattern of lizards and pomegranates. The door was stout, and painted green; it gave access to a passage straight through to a courtyard. This was open, and was the home’s central and primary room, used for cooking, dining, gathering. Weep’s mild climate meant that most living happened out of doors. It also meant that, once upon a time, the sky had been their ceiling, and now the citadel was. Only the bedrooms, water closet, and winter parlor were fully enclosed. They surrounded the courtyard in a U and opened onto it through four green doors. The kitchen was recessed into a covered alcove, and a pergola around the dining area would once have been covered with climbing vines for shade. There would have been trees, and an herb garden. Those were gone now. A scrub of pallid shrubs survived, and there were some pots of delicate forest flowers that could grow without much sun, but they were no match for the lush picture in Lazlo’s mind.

  When he stepped out of his room in the morning, he found Suheyla pulling a fish trap out of the well. This was less strange than it might seem, as it wasn’t really a well, but a shaft cut down to the river that flowed beneath the city.

  The Uzumark wasn’t a single, massive subterranean channel, but an intricate network of waterways that carved their way through the valley bedrock. When the city was built, the brilliant early engineers had adapted these to a system of natural plumbing. Some streams were for freshwater, some for waste disposal. Others, larger, were glave-lit subterranean canals plied by long, narrow boats. From east to west, there was no faster way to traverse the long oval of the city than by underground boat. There was even rumor of a great buried lake, deeper than everything, in which a prehistoric svytagor was trapped by its immense size and lived like a goldfish in a bowl, feeding on eels that bred in the cool springwater. They called it the kalisma, which meant “eel god,” as it would, to the eels, certainly seem that way.

  “Good morning,” said Lazlo, coming into the courtyard.

  “Ah, you’re up,” returned Suheyla, merry. She opened the trap and the small fish flickered green and gold as she spilled them into a bucket. “Slept well, I hope?”

  “Too well,” he said. “And too late. I hate to be a layabout. I’m sorry.”

  “Nonsense. If ever there’s a time for sleeping in, I’d say it’s the morning after crossing the Elmuthaleth. And my son hasn’t turned up yet, so you haven’t missed anything.”

  Lazlo caught sight of the breakfast that was set out on the low stone table. It was almost equal to the dinner spread from the night before, which made sense, since it was Suheyla’s first opportunity to feed Eril-Fane in over two years. “Can I help you?” he asked.

  “Put the cover back on the well?”

  He did as she asked, then followed her to the open fire, where he watched as she cleaned the fish with a few deft flicks of a knife, dunked them in oil, dredged them in spices, and laid them on the grill. He could hardly imagine her being more dexterous if she’d had two hands instead of just the one.

  She saw him looking. More to the point, she saw him look away when caught looking. She held up the smooth, tapered stump of her wrist and said, “I don’t mind. Have an ogle.”

  He blushed, abashed. “I’m sorry.”

  “I’m going to impose a fine on apologies,” she said. “I didn’t like to mention it last night, but today is your new beginning. Ten silver every time you say you’re sorry.”

  Lazlo laughed, and had to bite his tongue before apologizing for apologizing. “It was trained into me,” he said. “I’m helpless.”

  “I accept the challenge of retraining you. Henceforth you are only allowed to apologize if you tread on someone’s foot while dancing.”

  “Only then? I don’t even dance.”

  “What? Well, we’ll work on that, too.”

  She flipped the fish on the grill. The smoke was fragrant with spice.

  “I’ve spent all my life in the company of old men,” Lazlo told her. “If you’re hoping to make me fit for society, you’ll have your hands full—”

  The words were out before he could consider them. His face flamed, and it was only her holding up a warning finger that prevented him from apologizing. “Don’t say it,” she said. Her affect was stern but her eyes danced. “You mustn’t worry about offending me, young man. I’m quite impervious. As for this…” She held up her wrist. “I almost think they did me a favor. Ten seems an excessive number of fingers to keep track of. And so many nails to pare!”

  Her grin infected Lazlo, and he grinned, too. “I never thought of that. You know, there’s a goddess with six arms in Maialen myth. Think of her.”

  “Poor dear. But then she probably has priestesses to groom her.”

  “That’s true.”

  Suheyla forked the cooked fish into a dish, which she handed to him, gesturing toward the table. He carried it over and found a spot for it. Her words were stuck in his head, though: “I almost think they did me a favor.” Who was they? “Forgive me, but—”

  “Ten silver.”

  “What?”

  “You apologized again. I warned you.”

  “I didn’t,” Lazlo argued, laughing. “‘Forgive me’ is a command. I command that you forgive me. It’s not an apology at all.”

  “Fine,” allowed Suheyla. “But next time, no qualifiers. Just ask.”

  “All right,” said Lazlo. “But… never mind. It’s none of my business.”

  “Just ask.”

  “You said they did you a favor. I was just wondering who you meant.”

  “Ah. Well, that would be the gods.”

  For all the floating citadel overhead, Lazlo had as yet no clear context for what life had been under the gods. “They… cut off your hand?”

  “I assume so,” she said. “Of course I don’t remember. They may have made me do it myself. All I know is I had two hands before they took me, and one after.”

  All of this was spoken like ordinary morning conversation. “Took you,” Lazlo repeated. “Up there?”

  Suheyla’s brow furrowed, as though she were perplexed by his ignorance. “Hasn’t he told you anything?”

  He gathered that she meant Eril-Fane. “Until we stood on the Cusp yesterday, we didn’t even know why we’d come.”

  She chuffed with surprise. “Well, aren’t you the trusting things, to come all this way for a mystery.”

  “Nothing could have kept me from coming,” Lazlo confessed. “I’ve been obsessed with the mystery of Weep all my life.”

  “Really? I had no idea the world even remembered us.”

  Lazlo’s mouth skewed to one side. “The world doesn’t really. Just me.”

  “Well, that shows character,” said Suheyla. “And what do you think, now that you’re here?” All the while she’d been chopping fruit, and she made a broad gesture with her knife. “Are you satisfied with the resolution of your mystery?”

  “Resolution?” he repeated with a helpless laugh, and looked up at the citadel. “I have a hundred times more questions than I did yesterday.”

  Suheyla followed his glance, but no sooner did she lift her eyes than she lowered them again and shuddered. Like the Tizerkane on the Cusp, she couldn’t bear the sight of it. “That’s to be expected,” she said, “if my son hasn’t prepared you.” She laid down her knife and swept the chopped fruit into a bowl, which she passed to Lazlo. “He never could talk about it.” He’d started to turn away to carry the bowl to the table when she added, quietly, “They took him longer than anyone, you know.”

  He turned back to her. No, he really did not know. He wasn’t sure ho
w to form his thoughts into a question, and before he could, Suheyla, busying herself wiping up the cutting board, went on in the same quiet way.

  “Mostly they took girls,” she said. “Raising a daughter in Weep—and, well, being a daughter in Weep—was… very hard in those years. Every time the ground shook, you knew it was Skathis, coming to your door.” Skathis. Ruza had said that name. “But sometimes they took our sons, too.” She scooped tea into a strainer.

  “They took children?”

  “One’s child is always one’s child, of course, but technically—or, physically, at least—he waited until they were… of age.”

  Of age.

  Those words. Lazlo swallowed a rising sensation of nausea. Those words were like… they were like seeing a bloody knife. You didn’t need to have witnessed the stabbing to understand what it meant.

  “I worried for Azareen more than for Eril-Fane. For her, it was only a matter of time. They knew it, of course. That’s why they married so young. She… she said she wanted to be his before she was theirs. And she was. For five days. But it wasn’t her they took. It was him. Well. They got her later.”

  This was… it was unspeakable, all of it. Azareen. Eril-Fane. The routine nature of atrocity. But… “They’re married?” was what Lazlo asked.

  “Oh.” Suheyla looked rueful. “You didn’t know. Well, no secret’s safe with me, is it?”

  “But why should it be a secret?”

  “It’s not that it’s a secret,” she said carefully. “It’s more that it’s… not a marriage anymore. Not after…” She tipped her head up toward the citadel without looking at it.

 
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