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Strange the dreamer, p.26
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.26

           Laini Taylor



  Sarai felt… thinned out. To be so tired was like evaporating. Water to vapor. Flesh to ghost. Bit by bit, from the surface inward, you feel yourself begin to disappear, or at least to be translated into another state—from a tangible one, blood and spirit, to a kind of lost and drifting mist.

  How many days had passed in this way, living from nightmare to nightmare? It felt like dozens, but was probably only five or six.

  This is my life now, she thought, looking at her reflection in the polished mesarthium of the dressing room. She touched the skin around her eyes with her fingertips. It was almost damson, like the plums on the trees, and her eyes looked too big—as though, like Less Ellen, she had reimagined them so.

  If I were a ghost, she wondered, regarding herself like a stranger, what would I change about myself? The answer was too obvious to admit, and too pathetic. She traced a line around her navel where her elilith would be if she were a human girl. What was it about the tattoos that so beguiled her? They were beautiful, but it wasn’t just that. Maybe it was the ritual: the circle of women coming together to celebrate being alive—and being a woman, which is a magic all its own. Or maybe it was the future the mark portended. Marriage, motherhood, family, continuity.

  Being a person. With a life. And every expectation of a future. All things Sarai didn’t dare to dream about.

  Or… things she shouldn’t dare to dream about. Like nightmares, dreams were insidious things, and didn’t like being locked away.

  If she did have an elilith, she wouldn’t want a serpent swallowing its tail like Tzara and many of the younger women had who’d come of age after the liberation. She already felt like she had creatures inside her—moths and snakes and terrors—and wouldn’t want them on her, too. Azareen, fierce and stoic as she was, had one of the prettiest tattoos Sarai had seen—done by Guldan, of course, who was now a conscript in Minya’s wretched army. It was a delicate pattern of apple blossoms, which were a symbol of fertility.

  Sarai knew that Azareen hated the sight of it, and everything it mocked.

  The thing about eliliths. They were inked on girls’ bellies, which tended to be flat or only gently curved. And when in the course of time their promise of fertility was fulfilled, their bellies swelled, and their tattoos with them. They never really looked the same after. You could see the blurring of the fine ink lines where skin had stretched and then shrunk back again.

  The girls whom Skathis stole, their eliliths were pristine when he took them. Not so when he returned them. But since Letha ate their memories, that was all they knew of their time in the citadel—the vague blur of the ink on their bellies, and all that it implied.

  Except, that is, for the girls who were in the citadel on the day that Eril-Fane slew the gods. They’d had it worst. They’d had to come down like that, their bellies still full with godspawn and their minds with memories.

  Azareen had been one of them. And though she had once been a bride—and before that a girl squeezing the hands of a circle of women while blossoms were etched round her navel in ink—the only time her belly ever swelled was with godseed, and she remembered every second of it, from the rapes that began it to the searing pains that ended it.

  She’d never looked at the baby. She’d squeezed her eyes shut until they took it away. She’d heard its fragile cries, though, and heard them still.

  Sarai could hear them, too. She was awake, but the terrors were clinging. She shook her head as though she could shake them away.

  The things that had been done. By the gods, by the humans. Nothing could shake them away.

  She picked out a clean slip. Pale green, not that she noticed. She just reached out blindly and pulled one down. She put it on, and her robe over it, belted tight, and considered her face in the mirror: her huge haunted eyes and the tale they told of nightmares and sleepless days. One look at her and Minya would smile. “Sleep well?” she’d ask. She always did now, and Sarai always answered, “Like a baby,” and pretended everything was fine.

  There was no pretending away the bruises under her eyes. Briefly, she considered blacking them with her mother’s paint, but the effort seemed too great, and would fool no one.

  She stepped out of the dressing room. Eyes fixed forward, she passed the ghosts standing guard. They still whispered Minya’s words to her, but she had inured herself to them. Even to Bahar, nine years old and soaked to the skin, who followed her down the hall, whispering “Save us,” and left wet footprints that weren’t really there.

  All right, so she could never be inured to Bahar.

  “Sleep well?” Minya asked her as soon as she walked into the gallery.

  Sarai gave her a wan smile. “Why wouldn’t I?” she asked for a change.

  “Oh, I don’t know, Sarai. Stubbornness?”

  Sarai understood her perfectly—that she had only to ask for her lull to be restored to her and Minya would see it done.

  Just as soon as Sarai did her bidding.

  They hadn’t openly acknowledged the situation—that Minya was sabotaging Sarai’s lull—but it was in every look they shared.

  A few minutes of disgust to save us all.

  If Sarai killed Eril-Fane, Minya would let her sleep again. Well? Would her father lose a blink of sleep to save her?

  It didn’t matter what he would or wouldn’t do. Sarai wasn’t going to kill anyone. She was stubborn, very, and she wasn’t about to surrender her decency or mercy for a sound day’s sleep. She wouldn’t beg Minya for lull. Whatever happened, she would never again serve Minya’s twisted will.

  Also, she still couldn’t find him. So there was that.

  Not that Minya believed her, but it was true, and she did look. She knew he was back in Weep, partly because Azareen would never have come back without him, and partly because he flickered through the dreams of all the others like a shimmering thread connecting them. But wherever he was sleeping, wherever he stayed at night, she never could find him.

  Sarai laughed. “Me, stubborn,” she said, raising her eyebrows. “Have you met yourself?”

  Minya made no denial. “I suppose the question is: Who’s more stubborn?”

  It sounded like a challenge. “I guess we’ll find out,” Sarai replied.

  Dinner was served and the others came in—Sparrow and Ruby from the garden; Feral, yawning, from the direction of his room. “Napping?” Sarai asked him. Everything had fallen to pieces lately. He used to at least attempt to oversee the girls during the day, and make sure they didn’t fall into chaos or break The Rule. Not that anything really mattered anymore.

  He only shrugged. “Anything interesting?” he asked her.

  He meant news from the night before. This was their routine now. It reminded her of their younger days, when she still told them all about her visits to the city and they all wanted to know different things: Sparrow, the glimpses of normal life; Ruby, the naughty bits; Minya, the screaming. Feral hadn’t really had a focus then, but he did now. He wanted to know everything about the faranji and their workshops—the diagrams on their drafting tables, the chemicals in their flasks, the dreams in their heads. Sarai told him what she could, and they tried to interpret the level of threat they posed. He claimed that his interest was defensive, but she saw a hunger in his eyes—for the books and papers she described, the instruments and bubbling beakers, the walls covered in a scrawl of numbers and symbols she couldn’t begin to make sense of.

  It was his sweetshop window, the life he was missing, and she did her best to make it vivid for him. She could give him that at least. This evening, though, she bore bleak tidings.

  “The flying machines,” she said. She’d been keeping an eye on them in a pavilion of the guildhall as they took shape in stages, day by day, until finally becoming the crafts she had seen in the faranji couple’s dreams. All her dread had at last caught up to her. “They seem to be ready.”

  This drew a sharp intake of breath from Ruby and Sparrow. “When wil
l they fly?” Minya asked coolly.

  “I don’t know. Soon.”

  “Well, I hope it’s soon. I’m getting bored. What’s the use of having an army if you don’t get to use it?”

  Sarai didn’t rise to her bait. She’d been thinking of what she was going to say, and how she was going to say it. “It needn’t come to that,” she said, and turned to Feral. “The woman, she worries about the weather. I’ve seen it in her dreams. Wind is a problem. She won’t fly into clouds. I think the crafts must not be terribly stable.” She tried to sound calm, rational—not defensive or combative. She was simply making a reasonable suggestion to avoid bloodshed. “If you summon a storm, we can keep them from even getting close.”

  Feral took this in, glancing with just his eyes toward Minya, who had her elbows on the table, chin in one hand, the other picking her kimril biscuit to bits. “Oh, Sarai,” she said. “What an idea.”

  “It’s a good idea,” said Sparrow. “Why fight if we can avoid it?”

  “Avoid it?” Minya snapped. “Do you think, if they knew we were here, they would be worrying about avoiding a fight?” She turned to Ari-Eil, standing behind her chair. “Well?” she asked him. “What do you think?”

  Whether she gave him leave to answer, or produced his answer herself, Sarai didn’t doubt the truth of it. “They’ll slaughter you all,” he hissed, and Minya gave Sparrow an I told you so look.

  “I can’t believe we’re even having this conversation,” she said. “When your enemy is coming, you don’t gather clouds. You gather knives.”

  Sarai looked to Feral, but he wouldn’t meet her eye. There wasn’t much more to be said after that. She was loath to return to her tiny alcove, which she couldn’t help feeling was stuffed with all the nightmares she’d had in it of late, so she went out into the garden with Sparrow and Ruby. There were ghosts all around, but the vines and billows of flowers made nooks you could almost hide in. In fact, Sparrow, sinking her hand into the soil and concentrating for a moment, grew some spikes of purple liriope tall enough to screen them from sight.

  “What will we do?” Sparrow asked in a low voice.

  “What can we do?” Ruby asked, resigned.

  “You could give Minya a nice warm hug,” suggested Sparrow with an unaccustomed edge to her voice. “What were her words?” she asked. “You might do more with your gift than heat bathwater and burn up your clothes?”

  It took both Ruby and Sarai a moment to understand her. They were dumbfounded. “Sparrow!” Ruby cried. “Are you suggesting that I”—she cut herself off, glanced toward the ghosts, and finished in a whisper—“burn up Minya?”

  “Of course not,” said Sparrow, though that was exactly what she’d meant. “I’m not her, am I? I don’t want anyone to die. Besides,” she said, proving that she’d actually given the matter some thought, “if Minya died, we’d lose the Ellens, too, and all the other ghosts.”

  “And have to do all our own chores,” said Ruby.

  Sparrow thwacked her shoulder. “That’s what you worry about?”

  “No,” said Ruby, defensive. “Of course I’d miss them, too. But, you know, who would do the cooking?”

  Sparrow shook her head and rubbed her face. “I’m not even certain Minya’s wrong,” she said. “Maybe it is the only way. But does she have to be so happy about it? It’s gruesome.”

  “She’s gruesome,” said Ruby. “But she’s gruesome for us. Would you ever want to be against her?”

  Ruby had been much preoccupied of late, and had not noticed the change in Sarai, let alone guessed its cause. Sparrow was a more empathetic soul. She looked at Sarai, taking in her drawn face and bruised eyes. “No,” she said softly. “I would not.”

  “So we let her have her way in everything?” Sarai asked. “Can’t you see where it leads? She’d have us be our parents all over again.”

  Ruby’s brow furrowed. “We could never be them.”

  “No?” countered Sarai. “And how many humans can we kill before we are? Is there a number? Five? Fifty? Once you start, there’s no stopping. Kill one—harm one—and there is no hope for any kind of life. Ever. You see that, don’t you?”

  Sarai knew Ruby didn’t want to harm anyone, either. But she parted the liriope spikes with her hands, revealing the ghosts that edged the garden. “What choice do we have, Sarai?”

  One by one the stars came out. Ruby claimed she was tired, though she didn’t look it, and went in early to bed. Sparrow found a feather that could only have been Wraith’s, and tucked it behind Sarai’s ear.

  She did Sarai’s hair for her, gently combing it out with her fingers and using her gift to make it lustrous. Sarai could feel it growing, and even sense it brightening, as though Sparrow were infusing it with light. She added inches; she made it full. She fixed her a crown of braids, leaving most of it tumbling long, and wove in vines and sprays of orchids, sprigs of fern, and the one white feather.

  And when Sarai saw herself in the mirror again before sending out her moths, she thought that she looked more like a wild forest spirit than the goddess of despair.



  Weep slept. Dreamers dreamed. A grand moon drifted, and the wings of the citadel cut the sky in two: light above, dark below.

  On the outheld hand of the colossal seraph, ghosts stood guard with cleavers, and some with meat hooks on chains. The moon shone bright on the edges of their blades, and sharp on the points of their terrible hooks, and luminous on their eyes, which were wide with horror. They were bathed in light, while down below, the city foundered in gloom.

  Sarai dispatched her moths to the guildhall, where most of the delegates were sleeping soundly, and to the homes of city leaders, and some of the Tizerkane, too. Tzara’s lover was with her, and they were… not sleeping… so Sarai whisked her moth immediately away. Over in Windfall, Azareen was alone. Sarai watched her unbraid her hair, put on her ring, and lie down to go to sleep. She didn’t stay for her dreams, though. Azareen’s dreams were… difficult. Sarai couldn’t help feeling that she played a part in stealing the life Azareen should have had—as though she existed instead of a beloved child that the couple should have had together. It might not have been her fault, but she couldn’t feel innocent of it.

  She saw the golden faranji—looking unwell—still awake and working. And she saw the ill-favored one, whose sun-ravaged skin was healing in the citadel’s shade—though he was no more appealing for it. He was awake, too, out for a stagger with a bottle in his hand. It was as well. She couldn’t abide his mind. All the women he dreamed were bruised, and she hadn’t stayed long enough to find out how they got that way. She hadn’t made herself visit him since the second night.

  Every moth, every wingbeat carried the oppressive burden of the ghost army, and of vengeance, and the weight of another Carnage. With the occupation of her terrace, she stayed inside, turning five times oftener in her pacing than she had out on the hand. She craved the moonlight and the wind. She wanted to feel the infinite depth of space above and around her, not this metal cage. She remembered what Sparrow had said, how dreaming was like the garden: You could step out of prison for a little while and feel the sky around you.

  And Sarai had argued that the citadel was prison but sanctuary, too. Only a week ago, it had been, and so had lull, and look at her now.

  She was so terribly tired.

  Lazlo was tired, too. It had been a long day, and giving away his spirit hadn’t helped. He ate with Suheyla—and complimented the food without mention of ruined tongues—and took another bath, and though he soaked this time until the water began to cool, the gray didn’t fade from his hands. In his state of fatigue, his thoughts dipped like hummingbirds from this to that, always coming round to the fear—the fear of the citadel and all that had happened in it. How haunted they all were by the past, Eril-Fane no less than the rest.

  With that, two faces found their way into Lazlo’s mind. One from a painting of a dead goddess, the other from
a dream: both blue, with red-brown hair and a band of black paint across their eyes. Blue, black, and cinnamon, he saw, and wondered again how he had happened to dream her before ever seeing a likeness of her.

  And why, if he’d somehow glimpsed a stray vision of Isagol the Terrible, had she been so… unterrible?

  He stepped from the bath and dried off, pulled on a pair of laundered linen breeches, and was too tired even to tie the drawstring. Back in his room, he tipped onto the bed, prone atop the quilts, and was asleep halfway through his second breath.

  And that was how Sarai found him: lying on his stomach with his head cradled in his arms.

  The long, smooth triangle of his back rose and fell with deep, even breathing as her moth fluttered above him, looking for a place to settle. The way he was lying, his brow wasn’t an option. There was the rugged edge of his cheekbone, but even as she watched, he nestled his head deeper into his arms, and that landing spot shrank and vanished. There was his back, though.

  He’d fallen asleep with the glave uncovered, and the low angle of the light threw small shadows over every ripple of muscle, and deep ones under the wings of his shoulder blades and down the channel of his spine. It was a lunar landscape to the moth. Sarai floated it softly into the dark valley of his shoulder blades and as soon as it touched skin, she slipped into his dream.

  She was wary, as always. A string of nights now she’d come here since the first time, and each time she’d slipped in as silently as a thief. A thief of what, though? She wasn’t stealing his dreams from him, or even altering them in any way. She was just… enjoying them, as one might enjoy music freely played.

  A sonata drifting over a garden wall.

  Inevitably, though, listening to beautiful music night after night, one grows curious about the player. Oh, she knew who he was. She was, after all, perched on his brow all this while—until tonight, and this new experience of his back—and there was a strange intimacy in that. She knew his eyelashes by heart, and the male scent of him, sandalwood and clean musk. She’d even grown used to his crooked, ruffian nose. But inside the dreams, she’d kept her distance.

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