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Strange the dreamer, p.24
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.24

           Laini Taylor
 

  Her lips were still moving, whispering the same words over and over. “They were all I could carry. They were all I could carry.”

  There was no echo, no reverberation. If anything, the room ate sound. It swallowed her voice, her words, and her eternal, inadequate apology. But not her memories.

  She would never be rid of those.

  “They were all I could carry.

  “They were all I could carry.…”

  32

  THE SPACE BETWEEN NIGHTMARES

  Sarai woke up gagging on the feel of a hundred damp moths cramming themselves down her throat. It was so real, so real. She actually believed it was her moths, that she had to choke them down, cloying and clogging and alive. There was the taste of salt and soot—salt from the tears of dreamers, soot from the chimneys of Weep—and even after she caught her breath and knew the nightmare for what it was, she could still taste them.

  Thank you, Minya, for this fresh horror.

  It wasn’t the day’s first horror. Not even close. Her prayer to lull had gone unanswered. She’d hardly slept an hour altogether, and what little sleep she’d had was far from restful. She had dreamed her own death a half-dozen different ways, as though her mind were making up a list of choices. A menu, as it were, of ways to die.

  Poison.

  Drowning.

  Falling.

  Stabbing.

  Mauling.

  She was even burned alive by the citizens of Weep. And in between deaths, she was… what? She was a girl in a dark wood who has heard a twig snap. The space between nightmares was like the silence after the snap, when you know that whatever made it is holding itself still and watching you in the dark. There was no more seeping gray nothing. The lull fog had thinned to wisps.

  All her terrors were free.

  She lay on her back, her bedcovers kicked away, and stared up at the ceiling. Her body was limp, her mind numb. How could her lull have simply stopped working? In the pulse of her blood and spirit was a cadence of panic.

  What was she supposed to do now?

  Thirst and her bladder both urged her to get up, but the prospect of leaving her alcove was grim. She knew what she would find just around the corner, even inside her own room:

  Ghosts with knives.

  Just like the old women who’d surrounded her bed, despairing of their inability to murder her.

  She did get up, finally. She put on a robe and what she hoped passed for dignity, and emerged. There they were, arrayed between the door to the passage and the door out to the terrace: eight of them inside; she couldn’t be sure how many out on the hand itself. She steeled herself for their revulsion and walked across her room.

  Minya, it would seem, was holding her army under such tight control that they couldn’t form facial expressions like the disgust or fear Sarai knew so well, but their eyes remained their own, and it was amazing how much they could convey with just those. There was disgust and fear, yes, as Sarai passed them by, but mostly what she saw in them was pleading.

  Help us.

  Free us.

  “I can’t help you,” she wanted to say, but the thickness in her throat was more than just the phantom feel of moths. It was the conflict that tore her in two. These ghosts would kill her in a minute if they were free. She shouldn’t want to help them. What was wrong with her?

  She averted her eyes and hurried past, feeling as though she were still trapped in a nightmare. Who, she wondered, is going to help me?

  No one was in the gallery except for Minya. Well, Minya and the ranks of ghosts that now filled the arches of the arcade, crushing Sparrow’s vines beneath their dead feet. Ari-Eil stood at attendance behind Minya’s chair, looking like a handsome manservant, but for the set of his features. His face his mistress left free to reflect his feelings, and he did not disappoint. Sarai almost blanched at the vitriol there.

  “Hello,” said Minya. There were barbs of spite in her bright, childish voice when she asked, insincerely, “Sleep well?”

  “Like a baby,” Sarai said breezily—by which of course she meant that she had woken frequently crying, but she didn’t feel the need to clarify the point.

  “No nightmares?” probed Minya.

  Sarai’s jaw clenched. She couldn’t bear to show weakness, not now. “You know I don’t dream,” she said, wishing desperately that it were still true.

  “Really?” said Minya, with a skeptical lift of her eyebrows, and Sarai wondered, all of a sudden, why she was asking. She’d told no one but Great Ellen about her nightmare yesterday, but in that moment, she was certain that Minya knew.

  A jolt shot through her. It was the look in Minya’s eyes: cool, assessing, malicious. Just like that, Sarai understood: Minya didn’t just know about her nightmares. She was the cause of them.

  Her lull. Great Ellen brewed it. Great Ellen was a ghost, and thus subject to Minya’s control. Sarai felt sick—not just at the idea that Minya might be sabotaging her lull, but to think that she would manipulate Great Ellen, who was almost like a mother to them. It was too horrible.

  She swallowed. Minya was watching her closely, perhaps wondering if Sarai had worked it out. Sarai thought she wanted her to guess, so that she would understand her position clearly: If she wanted her gray fog back, she was going to have to earn it.

  She was glad, then, when Sparrow came in. She was able to produce a credible smile, and pretend—she hoped—that she was fine, while inside her very spirit hissed with outrage, and with shock that Minya would go so far.

  Sparrow kissed her cheek. Her own smile was tremulous and brave. Ruby and Feral came in a moment later. They were bickering about something, which made it easier to pretend that everything was normal.

  Dinner was served. A dove had been caught in a trap, and Great Ellen had put it in a stew. Dove stew. It sounded so wrong, like butterfly jam, or spectral steaks. Some creatures were too lovely to devour—not that that opinion was shared around the dining table. Feral and Ruby both ate with a gusto that spared no concern for the loveliness of the meat source, and if Minya had never been a big eater, it certainly had nothing to do with delicacy of feeling. She didn’t finish her stew, but she did fish out a tiny bone to pick her small white teeth with.

  Only Sparrow shared Sarai’s hesitation, though they both ate, because meat was rare and their bodies craved it. It didn’t matter if they had no appetite. They lived on bare-bones rations and were always hungry.

  As soon as Kem cleared away their bowls, Sparrow got up from the table. “I’ll be right back,” she said. “Don’t anyone leave.”

  They looked at one another. Ruby raised her eyebrows. Sparrow darted out into the garden and came back a moment later holding…

  “A cake!” cried Ruby, springing up. “How in the world did you—?”

  It was a dream of a cake, and they all stared at it, amazed: three tall, frosted layers, creamy white and patterned with blossoms like falling snow. “Don’t get too excited,” she cautioned them. “It’s not for eating.”

  They saw that the creamy white “frosting” was orchid petals scattered with anadne blossoms and the whole thing was made of flowers, right up to the torch ginger buds on top that looked, for all the world, like sixteen lit candles.

  Ruby screwed up her face. “Then what’s it for?”

  “For wishing on,” Sparrow told them. “It’s an early birthday cake.” She put it down in front of Ruby. “In case.”

  They all understood that she meant in case there were no more birthdays. “Well, that’s grim,” said Ruby.

  “Go on, make a wish.”

  Ruby did. And though the ginger already looked like little flames, she lit them on fire with her fingertips and blew them out properly, all in one go.

  “What did you wish for?” Sarai asked her.

  “For it to be real cake, of course,” said Ruby. “Did it come true?” She dug into it with her fingers, but of course there was no cake, only more flowers, but she pantomimed eating it without sharing.

/>   Night had fallen. Sarai got up to go. “Sarai,” called Minya, and she stopped but didn’t turn. She knew what was coming. Minya hadn’t given up. She never would. Somehow, by sheer force of will, the girl had frozen herself in time—not just her body but everything. Her fury, her vengeance, undiminished in all these years. You could never win against such a will. Her voice rang out its reminder: “A few minutes of disgust to save us all.”

  Sarai kept walking. To save us all. The words seemed to curl up in her belly—not moths now but snakes. She wanted to leave them behind her in the gallery, but as she passed through the gauntlet of ghost soldiers that lined the corridor to her room, their lips parted and they murmured all together, “To save us all, to save us all,” and after that, the words they’d only spoken with their eyes: Help us. Save us. They spoke them aloud. They pleaded at her passing. “Help us, save us,” and it was all Minya, playing to Sarai’s weakness.

  To her mercy.

  And then in her doorway, she had to pass a child. A child. Bahar, nine years old, who had fallen in the Uzumark three years ago and still wore the sodden clothes of her drowning. It was beyond the pale, even for Minya, to keep a dead child as a pet. The small ghost stood in Sarai’s way and Minya’s words issued from her lips. “If you don’t kill him, Sarai,” she said, mournful, “I’ll have to.”

  Sarai pressed her palms to her ears and darted past her. But even in her alcove, back where they couldn’t see her, she could hear them still whispering “Save us, help us,” until she thought she might go mad.

  She screamed her moths and curled up in the corner with her eyes tightly closed, wishing more than ever before that she could go with them. In that moment, if she could have poured her whole soul into them and left her body empty—even if she could never return to it—she might have done it, just to be free of the whispered pleas of the dead men and women—and children—of Weep.

  The living men and women and children of Weep were safe from her nightmares again tonight. She returned to the faranji in the guildhall, and to the Tizerkane in their barracks, and to Azareen alone in her rooms in Windfall.

  She didn’t know what she would do if she found Eril-Fane. The snakes that curled up in her belly had moved into her hearts. There was darkness in her, and treachery, that much she knew. But everything was so tangled up that she couldn’t tell if it was mercy not to kill him, or only cowardice.

  But she didn’t find him. The relief was tremendous, but quickly bled into something else: a heightened awareness of the stranger who was in his bed instead. Sarai perched on the pillow beside his sleeping face for a long time, full of fear and longing. Longing for the beauty of his dream. Fear of being seen again—and not with wonder this time, but for the nightmare that she was.

  In the end she compromised. She perched on his brow and slipped into his dream. It was Weep again, his own bright Weep that ill-deserved the name, but when she saw him at a distance, she didn’t follow. She only found a little place to curl up—just as her body was curled up in her room—to breathe in the sweet air, and watch the children in their feather cloaks, and feel safe, for at least a little while.

  33

  WE ARE ALL CHILDREN IN THE DARK

  Lazlo’s first days in Weep passed in a rush of activity and wonder. There was the city to discover, of course, and all that was sweet and bitter in it.

  It wasn’t the perfect place he had imagined as a boy. Of course it wasn’t. If it ever had been, it had gone through far too much to stay that way. There were no high wires or children in feather cloaks; as near as he could find out, there never had been. The women didn’t wear their hair long enough to trail behind them, and for good reason: The streets were as dirty as the streets of any city. There were no cakes set out on window ledges, either, but Lazlo had never really expected that. There was garbage, and vermin, too. Not a lot, but enough to keep a dreamer from idealizing the object of his long fascination. The withered gardens were a blight, and beggars lay as though dead, collecting coins on the hollows of their closed eyes, and there were altogether too many ruins.

  And yet there was such color and sound, such life: wren men with their caged birds, dream men blowing colored dust, children with their shoe harps making music just by running. There was light and there was darkness: The temples to the seraphim were more exquisite than all the churches in Zosma, Syriza, Maialen put together, and witnessing the worship there—the ecstatic dance of Thakra—was the most mystical experience of Lazlo’s life. But there were the butcher priests, too, performing divination of animal entrails, and the Doomsayers on their stilts, crying End Times from behind their skeleton masks.

  All this was contained in a cityscape of carved honey stone and gilded domes, the streets radiating out from an ancient amphitheater filled with colorful market stalls.

  This afternoon he had eaten lunch there with some of the Tizerkane, including Ruza, who taught him the phrase “You have ruined my tongue for all other tastes.” Ruza assured him that it was the highest possible compliment to the chef, but the merriness in everyone’s eyes suggested a more… prurient meaning. In the market, Lazlo bought himself a shirt and jacket in the local style, neither of them gray. The jacket was the green of far forests, and needed cuffs to catch the sleeves between biceps and deltoids. These came in every imaginable material. Eril-Fane wore gold. Lazlo chose the more economical and understated leather.

  He bought socks, too. He was beginning to understand the appeal of money. He bought four pair—a profligate quantity of socks—and not only were they not gray, no two pair were even the same color. One was pink, and another had stripes.

  And speaking of pink, he sampled blood candy in a tiny shop under a bridge. It was real, and it was awful. After fighting back the urge to gag, he told the confectioner, weakly, “You have ruined my tongue for all other tastes,” and saw her eyes flare wide. Her shock was chased by a blush, confirming his suspicions regarding the decency of the compliment.

  “Thank you for that,” Lazlo told Ruza as they walked away. “Her husband will probably challenge me to a duel.”

  “Probably,” agreed Ruza. “But everyone should fight at least one duel.”

  “One sounds just about right for me.”

  “Because you’d die,” Ruza clarified unnecessarily. “And not be alive to fight another.”

  “Yes,” said Lazlo. “That is what I meant.”

  Ruza clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’ll make a warrior of you yet. You know…” He eyed the green brocade purse that had belonged to Calixte’s grandmother. “For starters, you might buy a wallet while we’re here.”

  “What, you disapprove of my purse?” asked Lazlo, holding it up to show off its gaudy brooch to best advantage.

  “Yes, I rather do.”

  “But it’s so handy,” said Lazlo. “Look, I can wear it like this.” He demonstrated, dangling it from his wrist by its drawstrings and swinging it in circles, childlike.

  Ruza just shook his head and muttered, “Faranji.”

  But mostly, there was work to be done.

  Over those first few days, Lazlo had to see to it that all the Godslayer’s delegates were set up with workspace to accommodate their needs, as well as materials and, in some cases, assistants. And since most hadn’t bothered to learn any of their host language on the journey, they all needed interpreters. Some of the Tizerkane understood a little, but they had their duties to attend to. Calixte was nearly fluent by now, but she had no intention of spending her time helping “small-minded old men.” And so Lazlo found himself very busy.

  Some of the delegates were easier than others. Belabra, the mathematician, requested an office with high walls he might write his formulas upon and whitewash over as he saw fit. Kether, artist and designer of catapults and siege engines, needed only a drafting table brought into his room at the guildhall.

  Lazlo doubted that the engineers needed much more than that, but Ebliz Tod seemed to view it as a matter of distinction—that the mo
re “important” guests should ask for, and receive, the most. And so he dictated elaborate and specific demands that it was then Lazlo’s duty to fulfill, with the help of a number of locals Suheyla organized to assist him. The result was that Tod’s Weep workshop surpassed his Syriza office in grandeur, though he did indeed spend most of his time at the drafting table in the corner.

  Calixte asked for nothing at all, though Lazlo knew she was procuring, with Tzara’s assistance, an array of resins with which to concoct sticking pastes to aid in her climbing. Whether she would be called upon by Eril-Fane to do so was much in question—she herself suspected he’d invited her along more to rescue her from jail than from real need of her—but she was determined to win her bet with Tod in any case. “Any luck?” Lazlo asked her when he saw her coming back from a test at the anchor.

  “Luck has nothing to do with it,” she replied. “It’s all strength and cleverness.” She winked, flexing her hands like five-legged spiders. “And glue.”

  As she dropped her hands, it occurred to Lazlo that they bore no gray discoloration. He had discovered, after his own contact with the anchor, that the faint dirty tinge did not wash off, even with soap and water. It had faded, though, and was gone now. The mesarthium, he thought, must be reactive with skin the way some other metals were, such as copper. Not Calixte’s skin, though. She’d just been touching the anchor and bore no trace of it.

  The Fellerings, Mouzaive the magnetist, and Thyon Nero all needed laboratory space in which to unload the equipment they had brought with them from the west. The Fellerings and Mouzaive were content with converted stables next to the guildhall, but Thyon refused them, demanding to scout other sites. Lazlo had to go along as interpreter, and at first he couldn’t tell what it was the alchemist was looking for. He turned down some rooms as too big and others as too small, before settling on the attic story of a crematorium—a cavernous space larger than others he’d rejected as too big. It was also windowless, with a single great, heavy door. When he demanded no fewer than three locks for it, Lazlo understood: He’d chosen the place for privacy.

 
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