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Strange the dreamer, p.23
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.23

           Laini Taylor
 

  So this was her, the monster who had kept him for three years in the citadel. There was so much feeling in the way he said her name, and it was hard to read because it wasn’t… pure. It was hate, but there was grief and shame mixed up in it, too. Lazlo tried to get a look at his face, but he was already walking away. Lazlo watched him go, and he took one last look at the haunting picture before following him. He stared at the daubs and streaks and runnels of red, and this newest mystery, it wasn’t a pathway of light burning lines through his mind. It was more like bloody footprints leading into the dark.

  How was it possible, he wondered, that he had dreamed the slain goddess before he had any way of knowing what she looked like?

  31

  DARLINGS AND VIPERS

  From the heart of the citadel, Sarai returned to her room. Minya’s “soldiers” were everywhere, armed with knives and other kitchen tools. Cleavers, ice picks. They’d even taken the meat hooks from the rain room. Somewhere there was an actual arsenal, but it was closed off behind successions of sealed mesarthium doors, and anyway, Minya thought knives appropriate tools for butchery. They were, after all, what the humans had used in the nursery.

  There was no escaping the army, especially not for Sarai, since her room gave onto the sunstruck silver-blue palm of the seraph. The ghosts were thickest there, and it made sense. The terrace was the perfect place for a craft to land, much better than the garden with its trees and vines. When the Godslayer came, he would come here, and Sarai would be the first to die.

  Should she be grateful, then, to Minya, for this protection? “Don’t you see?” Minya had said, revealing her army to them. “We’re safe!”

  But Sarai had never felt less safe. Her room was violated by captive ghosts, and she feared that what awaited her in sleep was worse. Her tray was at the foot of her bed: lull and plums, just like any morning, though usually by this time she’d be deep asleep and lost in Letha’s oblivion. Would the lull work today? There was an extra half dose, as Great Ellen had promised. Had it only been a fluke yesterday? Sarai wondered. Please, she thought, desperate for the bleak velvet of its nothingness. Terrors stirred within her, and she imagined she could hear a din of helpless screaming in the heads of all the ghosts. She wanted to scream, too. There was no feeling of safety, she thought, hugging a pillow to her chest.

  Her mind offered up an unlikely exception.

  The faranji’s dream. She had felt safe there.

  The memory kicked up a desperate fizz of… panic? Thrill? Whatever it was, it contradicted the very feeling of safety that had conjured the thought of him to start with. Yes, the dream had been sweet. But… he had seen her.

  The look on his face! The wonder in it, the witchlight. Her hearts raced at the thought, and her palms went clammy. It was no small thing to shed a lifetime of nonbeing and suddenly be seen.

  Who was he, anyway? Of all the faranji’s dreams, only his had given her no hint of why Eril-Fane might have brought him here.

  Exhausted, fearful, Sarai drank down her lull and laid herself on her bed. Please, she thought, fervent—a kind of prayer to the bitter brew itself. Please work.

  Please keep the nightmares away.

  Out in her garden, Sparrow kept her eyes down. As long as she fixed on leaves and blossoms, stems and seeds, she could pretend it was a normal day, and there weren’t ghosts standing guard under the arches of the arcade.

  She was making a birthday present for Ruby, who would be sixteen in a few months… if they were still alive by then.

  Considering Minya’s army, Sparrow thought their chances were good, but she didn’t want to consider Minya’s army. They made her feel safe and wretched at the same time, so she kept her eyes down and hummed, and tried to forget they were there.

  Another birthday to celebrate without cake. The options for presents were slim, too. Usually they unmade some hideous gown from their dressing rooms and turned it into something else. A scarf maybe. One year Sparrow had made a doll with real rubies for eyes. Her room had been Korako’s, so she had all her gowns and jewels to make use of, while Ruby had Letha’s. The goddesses weren’t their mothers, as Isagol was Sarai’s. They were both of them daughters of Ikirok, god of revelry, who had also served as executioner in his spare time. So they were half sisters, and the only ones of the five related by blood. Feral was the son of Vanth, god of storms—whose gift he had more or less inherited—and Minya was daughter of Skathis. Sarai was the only one whose Mesarthim blood came from the maternal side. Goddess births, according to Great Ellen, had been rare. A woman, of course, could make but one baby at a time, occasionally two. But a man could make as many as there were women to seed them in.

  By far, most of the babies in the nursery had been sired on human girls by the trinity of gods.

  Which meant that, somewhere down in Weep, Sparrow had a mother.

  When she was little, she’d been slow to understand or believe that her mother wouldn’t want her. “I could help her in the garden,” she’d told Great Ellen. “I could be a really big help, I know I could.”

  “I know you could, too, love,” Great Ellen had said. “But we need you here, pet. How could we live without you?”

  She had tried to be gentle, but Minya had suffered no such compunction. “If they found you in their garden, they’d bash your head in with the shovel and throw you out with the garbage. You’re godspawn, Sparrow. They’ll never want you.”

  “But I’m human, too,” she’d insisted. “Can they have forgotten that? That we’re their children, too?”

  “Don’t you see? They hate us more because we’re theirs.”

  And Sparrow hadn’t seen, not then, but eventually she learned—from a crude and unbelievable assertion of Minya’s, followed by a gentle and eye-opening explanation of Great Ellen’s—the… mechanics of begetting, and that changed everything. She knew now what the nature of her own begetting must have been, and even though the knowing was a blurry, shadowed thing, she felt the horror of it like the weight of an uninvited body and it made her gorge rise. Of course no mother could want her, not after such a beginning.

  She wondered how many of the ghosts in Minya’s army had been used that way by the gods. Plenty of them were women, most of them old. How many had borne half-caste babies they neither remembered nor wished to remember?

  Sparrow kept her eyes on her hands and worked on her present, humming softly to herself. She tried not to think about whether they’d all still be alive by Ruby’s birthday, or what kind of life it would be if they were. She just focused on her hands, and the soothing sensation of growth flowing out from them. She was making a cake out of flowers. Oh, it was nothing they could eat, but it was beautiful, and it reminded her of their early years when there had still been sugar in the citadel and some measure of innocence, too, before she understood her own atrocity.

  It even had torch ginger buds for little candles: sixteen of them. She’d give it to Ruby at dinner, she thought. She could light them with her own fire, make a wish, and blow them out.

  Feral was in his room, looking at his book. He turned the metal pages and traced the harsh, angular symbols with his fingertip.

  If he had to, he could replicate the whole book from memory—that was how well he knew it. Little good that did, since he couldn’t wring any meaning from it. Sometimes, when he stared at it long enough, his eyes sliding out of focus, he thought he could see into the metal and sense a pulsing, dormant potential. Like a wind vane waiting for a gust to come along and spin it round. Waiting, and also wanting it to come.

  The book wanted to be read, Feral thought. But what nature of “gust” could move these symbols? He didn’t know. He only knew—or at least strongly suspected—that, if he could read this cryptic alphabet, he could unlock the secrets of the citadel. He could protect the girls, instead of merely… well, keeping them hydrated.

  He knew that water was no small matter, and that they’d all have died without his gift, so he didn’t tend to waste much regret ove
r not having Skathis’s power. That particular bitterness was Minya’s, but sometimes he fell prey to wistfulness, too. Of course, if they could control mesarthium, they would be free, and safe, not to mention a force to be reckoned with. But they couldn’t, so there was no use wasting time wishing for it.

  If he could unlock his book, though, Feral felt certain he could do… something.

  “What are you up to in here?” came Ruby’s voice from the doorway.

  He looked up and scowled when he saw that she’d already poked her head inside. “Respect the curtain,” he intoned, and looked back down at his book.

  But Ruby did not respect the curtain. She just waltzed in on her expressive, blue, highly arched bare feet. Her toenails were painted red, and she was wearing red, and she was also wearing an expression of intent that would have alarmed him had he looked up—which he didn’t. He tensed a little. That was all.

  She scowled at the top of his bowed head, as he had scowled at her in the doorway. It was an unpromising beginning. Stupid book, she thought. Stupid boy.

  But he was the only boy. He had warmer lips than the ghosts. Warmer everything, she supposed. More important, Feral wasn’t afraid of her, which would have to be more fun than draping herself over a half-paralyzed ghost and telling him what to do every few seconds. Put your hand here. Now here.

  So boring.

  “What do you want, Ruby?” Feral asked.

  She was close beside him now. “The thing about experiments,” she said, “is that they have to be repeated or else they’re worthless.”

  “What? What experiment?” He turned round to her. His brow was furrowed: half confusion, half irritation.

  “Kissing,” she said. She’d told him before, “That’s an experiment I won’t be repeating.” Well. In light of their acceleration toward doom, she had reconsidered.

  He hadn’t. “No,” he said, flat, and turned away again.

  “It’s possible I was wrong,” she said, with an air of great magnanimity. “I’ve decided to give you another chance.”

  Thick with sarcasm: “Thank you for your generosity, but I’ll pass.”

  Ruby’s hand came down on his book. “Hear me out.” She pushed it away and perched herself on the edge of his table. Her slip hiked up her thighs, her skin as smooth and frictionless as mesarthium, or nearly.

  Much softer, though.

  She rested her feet on the edge of his chair. “We’re probably going to die,” she said matter-of-factly. “And anyway, even if we don’t, we’re here. We’re alive. We have bodies. Mouths.” She paused and added teasingly, flicking hers over her teeth, “Tongues.”

  A blush crept up Feral’s neck. “Ruby—” he began in a tone of dismissal.

  She cut him off. “There’s not a lot to do up here. There’s nothing to read.” She gestured to his book. “The food’s boring. There’s no music. We’ve invented eight thousand games and outgrown them all, some of them literally. Why not grow into something?” Her voice was getting husky. “We’re not children anymore, and we have lips. Isn’t that reason enough?”

  A voice in Feral’s head assured him that it was not reason enough. That he did not wish to partake of any more of Ruby’s saliva. That he did not, in fact, wish to spend any more time with her than he did already. There might even have been a voice in there somewhere pointing out that if he were to… spend more time… with any of the girls, it wouldn’t be her. When he’d joked with Sarai about marrying them all, he’d pretended it wasn’t something he gave actual thought to, but he did. How could he not? He was a boy trapped with girls, and they might have been like sisters, but they weren’t sisters, and they were… well, they were pretty. Sarai first, then Sparrow, if he were choosing. Ruby would be last.

  But that voice seemed to be coming from some way off, and Sarai and Sparrow weren’t here right now, whereas Ruby was very near, and smelled very nice.

  And, as she said, they were probably going to die.

  The hem of her slip was fascinating. Red silk and blue flesh sang against each other, the colors seeming to vibrate. And the way her knees were slung together, one overlapping the other just a little, and the feel of her foot nudging under his knee. He couldn’t help but find her arguments… compelling.

  She leaned forward, just a little. All thoughts of Sarai and Sparrow vanished.

  He leaned back just the same amount. “You said I was terrible,” he reminded her, his own voice as husky as hers.

  “And you said I drowned you,” she replied, coming a fraction closer.

  “There was a lot of saliva,” he pointed out. Perhaps unwisely.

  “And you were about as sensuous as a dead fish,” she shot back, her expression darkening.

  It was touch and go for a moment there. “My darlings, my vipers,” Great Ellen had called them. Well, they were darlings and vipers, all of them. Or, perhaps Minya was all viper and Sparrow was all darling, but the rest of them were just… they were just flesh and spirit and youth and magic and hunger and yes, saliva, all bottled up with nowhere to go. Carnage behind them, carnage ahead, and ghosts everywhere.

  But here all of a sudden was distraction, escape, novelty, sensation. The shift of Ruby’s knees was a kind of blue poetry, and when you’re that close to someone, you don’t see their movements so much as you feel the compression of air between you. The slip of flesh, the glide. Ruby twisted, and with a simple serpentine slink she was in Feral’s lap. Her lips found his. She was unsubtle with her tongue. Their hands joined the party, and there seemed dozens of them instead of four, and there were words, too, because Ruby and Feral hadn’t yet learned that you can’t really talk and kiss at the same time.

  So it took a moment to sort that out.

  “I guess I’ll give you another chance,” conceded a breathless Feral.

  “It’s me giving you another chance,” Ruby corrected, a string of the aforementioned saliva glistening between their lips when she drew back to speak.

  “How do I know you won’t burn me?” Feral asked, even as he slid his hand down over her hip.

  “Oh,” said Ruby, unconcerned. “That could only happen if I completely lost track of myself.” Tongues darted, collided. “You’d have to be really good.” Teeth clashed. Noses bumped. “I’m not worried.”

  Feral almost took offense, as well he might, but by then there were a number of rather agreeable things happening, and so he learned to hold his tongue, or rather, to put it to a more interesting purpose than arguing.

  You might think lips and tongues would run out of things to try, but they really don’t.

  “Put your hand here,” breathed Ruby, and he obeyed. “Now here,” she commanded, and he did not. To her satisfaction, Feral’s hands had a hundred ideas of their own, and none of them were boring.

  The heart of the citadel was empty of ghosts. For the first time in a decade, Minya had it to herself. She sat on the walkway that wound round the circumference of the big spherical room, her legs dangling over the edge—her very thin, very short legs. They weren’t swinging. There was nothing childlike or carefree in the pose. There was a very scarcity of life in the pose, except for a subtle rocking back and forth. She was rigid. Her eyes were open, her face blank. Her back was straight, and her dirty hands made fists so tight her knuckles looked ready to split.

  Her lips were moving. Barely. There was something she was whispering, over and over. She was back in time fifteen years, seeing this room on a different day.

  The day. The day to which she was eternally skewered, like a moth stuck through the thorax by a long, shining pin.

  That day, she had scooped two babies up and held them both with one arm. They hadn’t liked that, and neither had her arm, but she’d needed the other to drag the toddlers: their two little hands gripped in her one, slick and slippery with sweat. Two babies in one arm, two toddlers stumbling beside her.

  She’d brought them here, shoved them through the gap in the nearly closed door and turned to race back for more. But ther
e weren’t to be any more. She was halfway to the nursery when the screaming started.

  It felt, sometimes, as though she were frozen inside the moment that she’d skidded to a halt at the sound of those screams.

  She was the oldest child in the nursery by then. Kiska, who could read minds, had been the last led away by Korako, never to return. Before her it was Werran, whose scream sowed panic in the minds of all who heard it. As for Minya, she knew what her gift was. She’d known for months, but she wasn’t letting on. Once they found out, they took you away, so she kept a secret from the goddess of secrets, and stayed in the nursery as long as she could. And so she was still there the day the humans rose up and murdered their masters, and that would have been fine with her—she had no love for the gods—if they’d only stopped there.

  She was still in that hallway, hearing those screams and their terrible, bloody dwindle. She would always be there, and her arms would always be too small, just as they had been that day.

  In one vital way, though, she was different. She would never again allow weakness or softness, fear or ineptitude to hold her frozen. She hadn’t known yet what she was capable of. Her gift had been untested. Of course it had been. If she’d tested it, Korako would have found her out and taken her away. And so she hadn’t known the fullness of her power.

  She could have saved them all, if only she’d known.

  There was so much death in the citadel that day. She could have bound those ghosts—even the gods’ ghosts. Imagine.

  Imagine.

  She might have bound the gods themselves into her service, Skathis, too. If only she’d known what to do. She could have made an army then, and cut down the Godslayer and all the others before they ever reached the nursery.

  Instead, she had saved four, and so she would always be stuck in that hallway, hearing those screams cut away one by one.

  And doing nothing.

 
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