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Strange the dreamer, p.27
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.27

           Laini Taylor

  What if he saw her again? What if he didn’t? Had it been a fluke? She wanted to know, but was afraid. Tonight, though, something had shifted. She was tired of hiding. She would find out if he could see her, and maybe even why. She was braced for it, ready for anything. At least she thought she was ready for anything.

  But really, nothing could have prepared her to enter the dream and find herself already there.

  Again, the streets of the magical city—Weep but not Weep. It was night, and the citadel was in the sky this time, but the moon shone down regardless, as though the dreamer wanted it both ways. And again there was unbelievable color, and gossamer wings and fruit and creatures out of fairy tales. There was the centaur with his lady. She walked by his side tonight, and Sarai felt almost restless until she saw them kiss. They were a fixture here; she’d have liked to talk to them and hear their story.

  Sarai had the idea that every single person and creature she saw here was but the beginning of another fantastical story, and she wanted to follow them all. But mostly, she was curious about the dreamer.

  She saw him up ahead, riding on a spectral. And here’s where things became completely surreal, because riding by his side, astride a creature with the body of a ravid and the head and wings of Wraith the white eagle was… Sarai.

  To be clear, Sarai herself—Sarai actual—was at a distance, where she had entered the dream at a street crossing. She saw them.

  Saw herself.

  Saw herself riding a mythical creature in the faranji’s dream.

  She stared. Her mouth opened and then closed again. How? She looked closer. Willed herself closer to see better, though she was careful to keep out of sight.

  The other Sarai, near as she could tell, looked just as she herself had on the night that he had seen her: with wild hair, and Isagol’s painted black mask. In other circumstances, at a glance, she would have thought she was seeing her mother, because the likeness between them was striking, and humans did dream of Isagol, whereas of course they never dreamed of her. But that wasn’t Isagol. Her mother, for all their similarities, had possessed a majesty she didn’t, and a cruelty, too. Isagol didn’t smile. This girl did. This blue girl had Sarai’s face, and she wasn’t wearing some gown of beetle wings and daggers, but the same lace-edged white slip Sarai had worn the first night.

  She was part of the dream.

  The faranji was dreaming Sarai. He was dreaming her, and… it was not a nightmare.

  Up in the citadel, her pacing feet faltered. Between the dreamer’s bare shoulder blades, the perched moth trembled. An ache rose in Sarai’s throat, like a sob without the grief. She looked across the street at herself—as seen, remembered, and conjured by the dreamer—and she didn’t see obscenity, or calamity, or godspawn. She saw a proud, smiling girl with beautiful blue skin. Because that was what he saw, and this was his mind.

  Of course, he also thought she was Isagol.

  “Forgive me for asking,” he was saying to her, “but why despair? Of all things to be goddess of.”

  “Don’t tell anyone,” Isagol answered. “I was goddess of the moon.” She whispered the rest like a secret. “But then I lost it.”

  “You lost the moon?” the dreamer asked, and peered up at the sky, where the moon was very much present.

  “Not that one,” she said. “The other one.”

  “There was another one?”

  “Oh yes. There’s always a spare, just in case.”

  “I didn’t know that. But… how do you lose a moon?”

  “It wasn’t my fault,” she said. “It was stolen.”

  The voice was neither Sarai’s nor Isagol’s, but just some imagined voice. The strangeness of it all dazed Sarai. There was her face, her body, with an unfamiliar voice coming out, speaking whimsical words that had nothing at all to do with her. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing another life reflected back at her.

  “We can go to the moon shop for another,” the dreamer offered. “If you like.”

  “Is there a moon shop? All right.”

  And so the dreamer and the goddess went shopping for a moon. It was like something out of a story. Well, it was like something out of a dream. Sarai followed them in a state of fascination, and they went into a tiny shop tucked under a bridge, leaving their creatures at the door. She stood outside the mullioned window, stroked the gryphon’s sleek feathered head, and suffered a pang of absurd envy. She wished it were she riding a gryphon and sorting through jeweler’s trays for just the right moon. There were crescents and quarters, gibbous and full, and they weren’t charms, they were moons—real miniature moons, cratered and luminous, as though lit by the rays of some distant star.

  Sarai/Isagol—the imposter, as Sarai was beginning to think of her—couldn’t decide between them, and so she took them all. The dreamer paid for them out of a silly sort of green brocade purse, and in the next instant they were gleaming at her wrist like a charm bracelet. The pair left the shop and remounted their creatures, Isagol holding up her bracelet so the moons tinkled like bells.

  “Will they let you be a moon goddess again?” the dreamer inquired.

  What is this moon goddess nonsense? Sarai wondered with a spark of ire. Isagol had been nothing so benign.

  “Oh no,” said the goddess. “I’m dead.”

  “Yes, I know. I’m sorry.”

  “You shouldn’t be. I was terrible.”

  “You don’t seem terrible,” said the dreamer, and Sarai had to bite her lip. Because that’s not Isagol, she wanted to snap. It’s me. But it wasn’t her, either. It might have her face, but it was a phantasm—just a scrap of memory dancing on a string—and everything it said and did came from the dreamer’s own mind.

  His mind, where the goddess of despair dangled moons from a charm bracelet and “didn’t seem terrible.”

  Sarai could have shown him terrible. She was still the Muse of Nightmares after all, and there were visions of Isagol in her arsenal that would have woken him screaming. But waking him screaming was the last thing she wanted, so she did something else instead.

  She dissolved the phantasm like a moth at sunup, and slipped into its place.



  Lazlo blinked. One moment Isagol had black paint streaked across her eyes and the next she didn’t. One moment her hair was draped around her like a shawl and the next it was gleaming down her back like molten bronze. She was crowned with braids and vines and what he first took for butterflies but quickly saw were orchids, with a single long white feather at a jaunty angle. Instead of the slip, she was wearing a robe of cherry silk embroidered with blossoms of white and saffron.

  There was a new fragrance, too, rosemary and nectar, and there were other differences, subtler: a slight shift in her shade of blue, an adjustment to the tilt of her eyes. A sort of… sharpening of the lines of her, as though a diaphanous veil had been lifted. She felt more real than she had a moment ago.

  Also, she was no longer smiling.

  “Who are you?” she asked, and her voice had changed. It was richer, more complex—a chord as opposed to a note. It was darker, too, and with it, the whimsy of the moment ebbed away. There were no more moons on her wrist—and none visible in the sky, either. The world seemed to dim, and Lazlo, looking up, perceived the moonlight now only as a nimbus around the citadel’s edges.

  “Lazlo Strange,” he replied, growing serious. “At your service.”

  “Lazlo Strange,” she repeated, and the syllables were exotic on her tongue. Her gaze was piercing, unblinking. Her eyes were a paler blue than her skin, and it seemed to him that she was trying to fathom him. “But who are you?”

  It was the smallest and biggest of questions, and Lazlo didn’t know what to say. At the most fundamental level, he didn’t know who he was. He was a Strange, with all that that entailed—though the significance of his name would be meaningless to her, and anyway, he didn’t think she was inquiring into his pedigree. So then,
who was he?

  At that moment, as she had changed, so did their surroundings. Gone was the moon shop, and all of Weep with it. Gone the citadel and its shadow. Lazlo and the goddess, still astride their creatures, were transported right to the center of the Pavilion of Thought. Forty feet high, the shelves of books. The spines in their jewel tones, the glimmer of leaf. Librarians on ladders like specters in gray, and scholars in scarlet hunched at their tables. It was all as Lazlo had seen it that day seven years ago when the good fortune of bad fish had brought him to a new life.

  And so it would seem that this was his answer, or at least his first answer. His outermost layer of self, even after six months away. “I’m a librarian,” he said. “Or I was, until recently. At the Great Library of Zosma.”

  Sarai looked around, taking it all in, and momentarily forgot her hard line of questioning. What would Feral do in such a place? “So many books,” she said, awed. “I never knew there were this many books in all the world.”

  Her awe endeared her to Lazlo. She might be Isagol the Terrible, but one can’t be irredeemable who shows reverence for books. “That’s how I felt, the first time I saw it.”

  “What’s in them all?” she asked.

  “In this room, they’re all philosophy.”

  “This room?” She turned to him. “There are more?”

  He smiled broadly. “So many more.”

  “All full of books?”

  He nodded, proud, as though he’d made them all himself. “Would you like to see my favorites?”

  “All right,” she said.

  Lazlo urged Lixxa forward, and the goddess kept pace with him on her gryphon. Side by side, as majestic as a pair of statues but far more fantastical, they rode right through the Pavilion of Thought. The gryphon’s wings brushed the shoulders of scholars. Lixxa’s antlers nearly toppled a ladder. And Lazlo might have been an accomplished dreamer—in several senses of the word—but right now he was like anyone else. He wasn’t conscious that this was a dream. He was simply in it. The logic that belonged to the real world had remained behind, like luggage on a dock. This world had a logic all its own, and it was fluid, generous, and deep. The secret stairs to his dusty sublevel were too narrow to accommodate great beasts like these, but they slipped down them easily. And he’d long since cleaned off the books with infinite love and care, but the dust was just as he had found it that very first day: a soft blanket of years, keeping all the best secrets.

  “No one but me has read any of these in at least a lifetime,” he told her.

  She took down a book and blew off the dust. It flurried around her like snowflakes as she flipped pages, but the words were in some strange alphabet and she couldn’t read them. “What’s in this one?” she asked Lazlo, passing it to him.

  “This is one of my favorites,” he said. “It’s the epic of the mahalath, a magic fog that comes every fifty years and blankets a village for three days and three nights. Every living thing in it is transformed, for either better or worse. The people know when it’s coming, and most flee and wait for it to pass. But there are always a few who stay and take the risk.”

  “And what happens to them?”

  “Some turn into monsters,” he said. “And some to gods.”

  “So that’s where gods come from,” she said, wry.

  “You would know better than me, my lady.”

  Not really, Sarai thought, because she had no more idea where the Mesarthim had come from than the humans did. She, of course, was conscious that this was a dream. She was too accustomed to dream logic to be surprised by any of the trappings, but not too jaded to find them beautiful. After the initial flurry, snow continued to fall in the alcove. It shone on the floor like spilled sugar, and when she slid from her gryphon’s back, it was cold under her bare feet. The thing that did surprise her, that she couldn’t get her mind around, even now, was that she was having a conversation with a stranger. However many dreams she had navigated, whatever chimerical fancies she had witnessed, she had never interacted. But here she was, talking—chatting, even. Almost like a real person.

  “What about this one?” she asked, picking up another book.

  He took it and read the spine. “Folktales from Vaire. That’s the small kingdom just south of Zosma.” He leafed pages and smiled. “You’ll like this one. It’s about a young man who falls in love with the moon. He tries to steal it. Perhaps he’s your culprit.”

  “And does he succeed?”

  “No,” said Lazlo. “He has to make peace with the impossible.”

  Sarai wrinkled her nose. “You mean he has to give up.”

  “Well, it is the moon.” In the story, the young man, Sathaz, was so enchanted by the moon’s reflection in the still, deep pool near his forest home that he would gaze at it, entranced, but whenever he reached for it, it broke into a thousand pieces and left him drenched, with empty arms. “But then,” Lazlo added, “if someone managed to steal it from you—” He looked to her bare wrist where no moon charms now hung.

  “Maybe it was him,” she said, “and the story got it wrong.”

  “Maybe,” allowed Lazlo. “And Sathaz and the moon are living happily together in a cave somewhere.”

  “And they’ve had thousands of children together, and that’s where glaves come from. The union of man and moon.” Sarai heard herself, and wondered what was wrong with her. Just moments ago she’d been annoyed at the moon nonsense that was coming out of her phantasm’s mouth, and now she was doing it. It was Lazlo, she thought. It was his mind. The rules were different here. The truth was different. It was… nicer.

  He was grinning broadly, and the sight set off a fluttering in Sarai’s belly. “What about that one?” she asked, turning quickly away to point at a big book on a higher shelf.

  “Oh hello,” he said, reaching for it. He brought it down: a huge tome bound in pale-green velvet with a filigreed layer of silver scrollwork laid over it. “This,” he said, passing it to her, “is the villain that broke my nose.”

  When he released it into her hands, its weight almost made her drop it in the snow. “This?” she asked.

  “My first day as apprentice,” he said, rueful. “There was blood everywhere. I won’t disgust you by pointing out the stain on the spine.”

  “A book of fairy tales broke your nose,” she said, helpless not to smile at how wrong her first impression had been. “I supposed you were in a fight.”

  “More of an ambush, actually,” he said. “I was on tiptoe, trying to get it.” He touched his nose. “But it got me.”

  “You’re lucky it didn’t take your head off,” said Sarai, hefting it back to him.

  “Very lucky. I got enough grief for a broken nose. I’d never have heard the end of a lost head.”

  A small laugh escaped Sarai. “I don’t think you hear very much, if you lose your head.”

  Solemnly, he said, “I hope never to know.”

  Sarai studied his face, much as she had done the first time she saw him. In addition to thinking him some sort of brute, she had also thought him not handsome. Looking now, though, she thought that handsome was beside the point. He was striking, like the profile of a conqueror on a bronze coin. And that was better.

  Lazlo, feeling her scrutiny, blushed. His assumption as to her opinion of his looks was far less favorable than her actual thoughts on the subject. His opinion of her looks was simple. She was purely lovely. She had full cheeks and a sharp little chin and her mouth was damson-lush, lower lip like ripe fruit with a crease in the middle, and soft as apricot down. The corners of her smile, turned up in delight, were as neat as the tips of a crescent moon, and her brows were bright against the blue of her skin, as cinnamon as her hair. He kept forgetting that she was dead and then remembering, and he was sorrier about it every time he did. As to how she could be both dead and here, dream logic was untroubled by conundrums.

  “Dear god in heaven, Strange,” came a voice then, and Lazlo looked up to see old Master Hyrrokkin approaching
, pushing a library trolley. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”

  It was so good to see him. Lazlo enveloped him in a hug, which evidently constituted a surfeit of affection, because the old man pushed him off, incensed. “What’s gotten into you?” he demanded, straightening out his robes. “I suppose in Weep they just go around mauling one another like bear wrestlers.”

  “Exactly like bear wrestlers,” said Lazlo. “Without the bears. Or the wrestling.”

  But Master Hyrrokkin had caught sight of Lazlo’s companion. His eyes widened. “Now, who’s this?” he inquired, his voice rising an octave or so.

  Lazlo made an introduction. “Master Hyrrokkin, this is Isagol. Isagol, Master Hyrrokkin.”

  In a stage whisper, the old man asked, “Whyever is she blue?”

  “She’s the goddess of despair,” Lazlo answered, as though that explained everything.

  “No, she isn’t,” said Master Hyrrokkin at once. “You’ve got it wrong, boy. Look at her.”

  Lazlo did look at her, but more to offer an apologetic shrug than to consider Master Hyrrokkin’s assertion. He knew who she was. He’d seen the painting, and Eril-Fane had confirmed it.

  Of course, she looked less like her now, without the black paint across her eyes.

  “Did you do as I suggested, then?” asked Master Hyrrokkin. “Did you give her flowers?”

  Lazlo remembered his advice. “Pick flowers and find a girl to give them to.” He remembered the rest of his advice, too. “Kind eyes and wide hips.” He flushed at the memory. This girl was very slender, and Lazlo hardly expected the goddess of despair to have kind eyes. She did, though, he realized. “Flowers, no,” he said, awkward, wanting to head off any further exploration of the topic. He knew the old man’s lecherous tendencies, and was anxious to see him on his way before he said or did something untoward. “It’s not like that—”

  But Isagol surprised him by holding up her wrist, upon which the bracelet had reappeared. “He did give me the moon, though,” she said. There weren’t multiple charms on it now, but just one: a white-gold crescent, pallid and radiant, looking just as though it had been plucked down from the sky.

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