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Strange the dreamer, p.21
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.21

           Laini Taylor
Lazlo didn’t ask any more questions. Everything he’d wondered about Eril-Fane and Azareen had taken on a much darker cast than he could ever have imagined, and so had the mysteries of Weep.

  “We were taken up to ‘serve,’” Suheyla went on, her pronoun shift reminding him that she had herself been one of these taken girls. “That’s what Skathis called it. He would come to the door, or the window.” Her hand trembled, and she clasped it tight over her stump. “They hadn’t brought any servants with them, so there was that. Serving at table, or in the kitchens. And there were chambermaids, gardeners, laundresses.”

  In this litany, it was somehow very clear that these jobs, they were the exceptions, and that “service” had mostly been of another kind.

  “Of course, we didn’t know any of this until later. When they brought us back—and they didn’t always, but usually, and usually within a year—we wouldn’t remember a thing. Gone for a year, a year gone from us.” She dropped her stump, and her hand fluttered briefly to her belly. “It was as though no time had passed. Letha would eat our memories, you see.” She looked up at Lazlo then. “She was the goddess of oblivion.”

  It made sense now—horrible sense—why Suheyla didn’t know what had become of her own hand.

  “And… Eril-Fane?” he asked, steeling himself.

  Suheyla looked back down at the teapot she was filling with steaming water from the kettle. “Oblivion was a mercy, it turns out. He remembers everything. Because he slew them, and there was no one left to take his memories away.”

  Lazlo understood what she was telling him, what she was saying without saying it, but it didn’t seem possible. Not Eril-Fane, who was power incarnate. He was a liberator, not a slave.

  “Three years,” said Suheyla. “That’s how long she had him. Isagol. Goddess of despair.” Her eyes lost focus. She seemed to slip into some great hollow place within her, and her voice sank to a whisper. “But then, if they’d never taken him, we would all of us still be slaves.”

  For that brief moment, Lazlo felt a tremor of the quaking grief within her: that she had not been able to keep her child safe. That was a simple and profound grief, but under it was a deeper, stranger one: that in some way she had to be glad of it, because if she had kept him safe, he couldn’t have saved his people. It mixed up gladness, grief, and guilt into an intolerable brew.

  “I’m so sorry,” said Lazlo, from the depths of both his hearts.

  Suheyla snapped out of whatever faraway, hollow place she was lost in. Her eyes sharpened back to smiling squints. “Ha,” she said. “Ten silver please.” And she held out her palm until he put the coin in it.



  Minya led Sarai and the others back inside, through Sarai’s chambers, and back up the corridor. All of their rooms were on the dexter side of the citadel. Sarai’s suite was at the extremity of the seraph’s right arm, and the others’ were along that same passage, except for Minya’s. What had been Skathis’s palace occupied the entire right shoulder. They passed it, and the entrance to the gallery, too, and Sarai and Feral exchanged a glance.

  The doors that led up or down, into the head or body of the citadel, were all closed, just as they had been when Skathis died. It wasn’t even possible to discern where they had been.

  The sinister arm—as it was called—was passable, though they rarely went there. It held the nursery, and none of them could bear the sight of the empty cribs, even if the blood was long since washed away. There were a lot of small cell-like rooms beyond with nothing but beds in them. Sarai knew what those were. She’d seen them in dreams, but only the dreams of the girls who’d occupied them last—like Azareen—whose memories had outlived Letha. Sarai could think of no reason that Minya would take them there.

  “Where are we going?” Feral asked.

  Minya didn’t reply, but they had their answer in the next moment when she didn’t turn toward the sinister arm, but toward another place they never went—if for different reasons.

  “The heart,” said Ruby.

  “But…” said Sparrow, then cut herself off with a look of realization.

  Sarai could guess both what she’d almost said and what had stopped her, because they had occurred to her at the same moment as Sparrow. But we can’t fit anymore. That was the thought. But Minya can. That was the realization. And Sarai knew then where Minya had been spending her time when the rest of them lost track of her. If they’d really wanted to know, they might have figured it out easily enough, but the truth was they’d just been glad she was elsewhere, so they’d never bothered to look for her.

  They rounded a corner and came to the door.

  It couldn’t properly be called a door anymore. It was less than a foot wide: a tall, straight gap in the metal where, near as they could guess, a door hadn’t quite finished closing when Skathis died. By its height, which was some twenty feet, it was clear that it had been no ordinary door, though there was no way to gauge what its width might have been when open.

  Minya barely fit through it. She had to ease one shoulder in, then her face. It seemed for a moment that her ears would hang her up, but she pressed on and they were forced flat, and she had to work her head side to side to get it through, then exhale fully to narrow her chest enough for the rest of her body to pass. It was a near thing. Any bigger and she couldn’t have made it.

  “Minya, you know we can’t get in,” Sparrow called after her as she disappeared into the corridor on the other side.

  “Wait there,” she called back, and was gone.

  They all looked at one another. “What could she want to show us here?” Sarai asked.

  “Could she have found something in the heart?” Feral wondered.

  “If there was anything to find we’d have found it years ago.”

  Once, they’d all been small enough to get in. “How long has it been?” Feral asked, running his hand over the sleek edge of the opening.

  “Longer for you than for us,” said Sparrow.

  “That big head of yours,” added Ruby, giving him a little shove.

  Feral had outgrown it first, then Sarai, and the girls a year or so later. Minya obviously never had. When they were all small, it had been their favorite place to play, partly because the narrow opening made it feel forbidden, and partly because it was so strange.

  It was an enormous, echoing chamber, perfectly spherical, all smooth, curved metal, with a narrow walkway wrapping around its circumference. In diameter it was perhaps one hundred feet, and, suspended in its dead center was a smaller sphere of perhaps twenty feet diameter. That, too, was perfectly smooth, and, like the entirety of the citadel, it floated, held in place not by ropes or chains but some unfathomable force. The chamber occupied the place where hearts would go in a true body, so that was what they called it, but that was just their own term. They had no idea what its name or purpose had been. Even Great Ellen didn’t know. It was just a big metal ball floating in a bigger metal room.

  Oh, and there were monsters perched on the walls. Two of them.

  Sarai knew the beasts of the anchors, Rasalas and the others. She had seen them with her moths’ eyes, inert as they were now, but she had also seen them as they were before, through the dreams of the people of Weep. She had, in her arsenal, a seemingly infinite number of visions of Skathis mounted on Rasalas, carrying off young women and men no older than she was now. It had been her go-to terror, Weep’s worst collective memory, and she shuddered now to think how blithely she had inflicted it, not understanding, as a child, what it had meant. And the beasts of the anchors were big, make no mistake. But the monsters perched like statues on the walls of the citadel’s heart were bigger.

  They were wasplike, thorax and abdomen joined in narrow waists, wings like blades, and stingers longer than a child’s arm. Sarai and the others had climbed on them when they were children, and “ridden” them and pretended they were real, but if, in the reign of the gods, they had been anything more than statues, Sarai had no visi
ons to attest to it. These monsters, she was fairly sure, had never left the citadel. By their size, it was hard to imagine them even leaving this room.

  “Here she comes,” said Ruby, who’d been peering through the opening at the dark corridor beyond. She stepped out of the way, but the figure that emerged was not Minya. It didn’t have to pause and carefully fit any flesh-on-skeleton mass through the gap, but flowed out with the ease of a ghost, which was what it was.

  It was Ari-Eil. He glided past them without turning his head, and was followed immediately by another ghost. Sarai blinked. This one was familiar, but she couldn’t immediately place him, and then he was past and she had no time to search her memory because another was coming after him.

  And another.

  And another.

  … So many?

  Ghosts poured out of the citadel’s heart, one after the next, passing the four of them without acknowledgment to continue right on by, up the long doorless corridor that led toward the gallery and the garden terrace and their bedchambers. Sarai found herself flattened against the wall, trying to make sense of the flow of faces, and they were all familiar but not as familiar as they would be if she had seen them recently.

  Which she had not.

  She picked out a face, then another. They were men, women, and children, though most were old. Names began to come to her. Thann, priestess of Thakra. Mazli, dead in childbirth with twins who died, too. Guldan, the tattoo master. The old woman had been famous in the city for inking the most beautiful elilith. All the girls had wanted her to do theirs. Sarai couldn’t remember exactly when she had passed away, but it was certainly before her own first bleeding, because her reaction to discovering the old woman’s death had been so foolish. It had been disappointment—that Guldan wouldn’t be able to do her elilith, when her time came. As though such a thing could ever have come to pass. What had she been, twelve? Thirteen? Behind her closed eyelids, she had imagined the skin of her tummy brown instead of blue, decorated with the old woman’s exquisite flourishes. And oh, the hot flush of shame that chased that picture. To have forgotten, even for an instant, what she was.

  As though a human would ever touch her for any reason other than to kill her.

  At least four years had passed since then. Four years. So how could Guldan be here now? It was the same with the others. And there were so many of them. They all stared straight ahead, expressionless, but Sarai caught the desperate plea in more than a few eyes as they flowed past her. They moved with ghostly ease, but also with a severe, martial intent. They moved like soldiers.

  Understanding came slowly and then all at once. Sarai’s hands flew to her mouth. Both hands, as though to hold in a wail. All this time. How was it possible? Tears sprang to her eyes. So many. So terribly many.

  All, she thought. Every man, woman, and child who had died in Weep since… since when?… and passed near enough the citadel in their evanescent journey for Minya to catch. It had been ten years since Sparrow and Ruby outgrew the entrance to the heart. Was that when she had begun this… collection?

  “Oh, Minya,” Sarai breathed from the depths of her horror.

  Her mind sought some other explanation but there was none. There was only this: For years, unbeknownst to the rest of them, Minya had been catching ghosts and… keeping them. Storing them. The heart of the citadel, that great spherical chamber where only Minya could still go, had served, all this time, as a… a vault. A closet. A lockbox.

  For an army of the dead.

  Finally, Minya emerged, easing herself slowly through the gap to stand defiant before Sarai and Feral, Sparrow and Ruby, all of whom were stunned into speechlessness. The procession of ghosts vanished around the corner.

  “Oh, Minya,” said Sarai. “What have you done?”

  “What do you mean, what have I done? Don’t you see? We’re safe. Let the Godslayer come, and all his new friends, too. I’ll teach them the meaning of ‘carnage.’”

  Sarai felt the blood leave her face. Did she think they didn’t know it already? “You of all people should have had enough carnage in your life.”

  Minya eternal, Minya unchanging. Evenly, she met Sarai’s gaze. “You’re wrong,” she said. “I’ll have had enough when I’ve paid it all back.”

  A tremor went through Sarai. Could this be a nightmare? A waking one, maybe. Her mind had finally broken and all the terrors were pouring out.

  But no. This was real. Minya was going to force a decade’s worth of the city’s dead to fight and kill their own kith and kin. It hit her with a wave of nausea that she had been wrong, all these years, to hide her empathy for humans and all that they’d endured. She’d been ashamed at first, and afraid that it was weakness on her part, to be unable to hate them as she should. She would imagine words coming out of her mouth, like They’re not monsters, you know, and she would imagine, too, what Minya’s response would be: Tell that to the other babies.

  The other babies.

  That was all she ever had to say. Nothing could trump the Carnage. Arguing for any redeeming quality in the people who had committed it was a kind of rank treason. But now Sarai thought she might have tried. In her cowardice, she had let the others go on with this simplicity of conviction: They had an enemy. They were an enemy. The world was carnage. You either suffered it or inflicted it. If she had told them what she saw in the warped memories of Weep, and what she felt and heard—the heartbreaking sobbing of fathers who couldn’t protect their daughters, the horror of girls returned with blank memories and violated bodies—maybe they would have seen that the humans were survivors, too.

  “There has to be some other way,” she said now.

  “What if there was?” challenged Minya, cool. “What if there was another way, but you were too pathetic to do it?”

  Sarai bristled at the insult, and shrank from it, too. Too pathetic to do what? She didn’t want to know, but she had to ask. “What are you talking about?”

  Minya considered her, then shook her head. “No, I’m sure of it. You are too pathetic. You’d let us die first.”

  “What, Minya?” Sarai demanded.

  “Well, you’re the only one of us who can reach the city,” said the little girl. She really was a pretty child, but it was hard to see it—not so much because she was unkempt, but because of the queer, cold lack in her eyes. Had she always been like that? Sarai remembered laughing with her, long ago, when they had all properly been children, and she didn’t think she had been. When had she changed and become… this? “You couldn’t manage to drive the Godslayer mad,” she was saying.

  “He’s too strong,” Sarai protested. Even now she couldn’t bring herself to suggest—even to herself, really—that perhaps he didn’t deserve madness.

  “Oh, he’s strong,” agreed Minya, “but I daresay even the great Godslayer couldn’t manage to breathe if a hundred moths flew down his throat.”

  If a hundred moths flew down his…

  Sarai could only stare at her. Minya laughed at her blank shock. Did she understand what she was saying? Of course she did. She just didn’t care. The moths weren’t… they weren’t scraps of rag. They weren’t even trained insects. They were Sarai. They were her own consciousness spun out from her on long, invisible strings. What they experienced, she experienced, be it the heat of a sleeper’s brow or the red wet clog of a choking man’s throat. “And in the morning,” Minya went on, “when he’s found dead in his bed, the moths will have turned to smoke, and no one will even know what killed him.”

  She was triumphant—a child pleased with a clever plan. “You could only kill one person a night, I suppose. Maybe two. I wonder how many moths it would take to suffocate someone.” She shrugged. “Anyway, once a few faranji die without explanation, I think the others will lose heart.” She smiled, cocked her head. “Well, was I right? Are you too pathetic? Or can you endure a few minutes of disgust to save us all?”

  Sarai opened her mouth and closed it. A few minutes of disgust? How trivial she made it sound
. “It’s not about disgust,” she said. “God forbid a strong stomach should be all that stands between killing and not. There’s decency, Minya. Mercy.”

  “Decency,” spat the girl. “Mercy.”

  The way she said it. The word had no place in the citadel of the Mesarthim. Her eyes darkened as though her pupils had engulfed her irises, and Sarai felt it coming, the response that brooked no comeback: Tell that to the other babies.

  But that wasn’t what she said. “You make me sick, Sarai. You’re so soft.” And then she spoke words that she never had, not in all these fifteen years. In a low and deadly hiss, she said, “I should have saved a different baby.” And then she spun on her heel and stalked out behind her terrible, heartbreaking army.

  Sarai felt slapped. Ruby, Sparrow, and Feral surrounded her. “I’m glad she saved you,” said Sparrow, stroking her arms and hair.

  “Me too,” echoed Ruby.

  But Sarai was imagining a nursery full of godspawn—kindred little girls and boys with blue skin and magic yet unguessed—and humans in their midst with kitchen knives. Somehow, Minya had hidden the four of them away. Sarai had always felt the narrow stroke of luck—like an ax blow passing close enough to shave the tips from the down of her cheek—that Minya had saved her. That she had survived instead of one of the others.

  And once upon a time, survival had seemed like an end unto itself. But now… it began to feel like an expedient with no object.

  Survive for what?



  Lazlo didn’t stay at Suheyla’s house for breakfast. He thought that mother and son might like some time alone after two years’ separation. He waited to greet Eril-Fane—and tried hard to keep his new knowledge quiet in his eyes when he did. It was hard; his horror seemed to shout inside of him. Everything about the hero looked different now that he knew even this small sliver of what he had endured.

  He saddled Lixxa and rode through Weep, getting quite agreeably lost. “You look well rested,” he told Calixte, who was eating in the dining room of the guildhall when he finally found it.

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