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Strange the dreamer, p.28
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.28

           Laini Taylor

  “Nicely done, boy,” said Master Hyrrokkin, approving. Again, the stage whisper: “She could do with more cushioning, but I daresay she’s soft enough in the right places. You don’t want to be jabbed with bones when you—”

  “Please, Master Hyrrokkin,” Lazlo said, hastily cutting him off. His face flamed.

  The librarian chuckled. “What’s the point of being old if you can’t mortify the young? Well, I’ll leave you two in peace. Good day, young lady. It was a real pleasure.” He kissed her hand, then turned aside, nudging Lazlo with his elbow and loud-whispering, “What a perfectly delightful shade of blue,” as he took his leave.

  Lazlo turned back to the goddess. “My mentor,” he explained. “He has bad manners but good hearts.”

  “I wouldn’t know about either,” said Sarai, who had found no fault with the old man’s manners, and had to remind herself, in any case, that he had been just another figment of the dreamer’s mind. “You’ve got it wrong, boy,” the librarian had said. “Look at her.” Did that mean that on some level Lazlo saw through her disguise, and didn’t believe she was Isagol? She was pleased by this idea, and chided herself for caring. She turned back to the shelves, ran her finger along a row of spines. “All these books,” she said. “They’re about magic?” She was wondering if he were some sort of expert. If that was why the Godslayer had brought him along.

  “They’re myths and folktales mostly,” said Lazlo. “Anything dismissed by scholars as too fun to be important. They put it down here and forget it. Superstitions, songs, spells. Seraphim, omens, demons, fairies.” He pointed to one bookcase. “Those are all about Weep.”

  “Weep is too fun to be important?” she asked. “I rather think its citizens might disagree with you.”

  “It’s not my assessment, believe me. If I were a scholar, I could have made a case for it, but you see, I’m not important, either.”

  “No? And why is that?”

  Lazlo looked down at his feet, reluctant to explain his own insignificance. “I’m a foundling,” he said, looking up again. “I have no family, and no name.”

  “But you told me your name.”

  “All right. I have a name that tells the world I have no name. It’s like a sign around my neck that reads ‘No one.’”

  “Is it so important, a name?” Sarai asked.

  “I think the citizens of Weep would say it is.”

  Sarai had no answer for that.

  “They’ll never get it back, will they?” Lazlo asked. “The city’s true name? Do you remember it?”

  Sarai did not. She doubted she had ever known it. “When Letha took a memory,” she said, “she didn’t keep it in a drawer like a confiscated toy. She ate it and it was gone forever. That was her gift. Eradication.”

  “And your gift?” Lazlo asked.

  Sarai froze. The thought of explaining her gift to him brought an immediate flush of shame. Moths swarm out of my mouth, she imagined herself saying. So that I can maraud through human minds, like I’m doing right now in yours. But of course, he wasn’t asking about her gift. For a moment she’d forgotten who she was—or wasn’t. She wasn’t Sarai here, but this absurd tame phantasm of her mother.

  “Well, she was no moon goddess,” she said. “That’s all nonsense.”

  “She?” asked Lazlo, confused.

  “I,” said Sarai, though it stuck in her throat. It struck her with a pang of deep resentment, that this extraordinary, inexplicable thing should happen: A human could see her—and he was talking to her without hate, with something more like fascination and even wonder—and she had to hide behind this pretense. If she were Isagol, she would show him her gift. Like a malefic kitten with a ball of string, she would tangle his emotions until he lost all distinction between love and hate, joy and sorrow. Sarai didn’t want to play that part, not ever. She turned the questions back on him.

  “Why don’t you have a family?” she asked.

  “There was a war. I was a baby. I ended up on a cartload of orphans. That’s all I know.”

  “So you could be anyone,” she said. “A prince, even.”

  “In a tale, maybe.” He smiled. “I don’t believe there were any princes unaccounted for. But what about you? Do gods have families?”

  Sarai thought first of Ruby and Sparrow, Feral and Minya, Great and Less Ellen, and the others: her family, if not by blood. Then she thought of her father, and hardened her hearts. But the dreamer was doing it again, turning the questions around on her. “We’re made by mist,” she said. “Remember? Every fifty years.”

  “The mahalath. Of course. So you were one who took the risk.”

  “Would you?” she asked. “If the mist were coming, would you stay and be transformed, not knowing what the result might be?”

  “I would,” he said at once.

  “That was fast. You would abandon your true nature with so little consideration?”

  He laughed at that. “You have no idea how much consideration I’ve given it. I lived seven years inside these books. My body may have been going about its duties in the library, but my mind was here. Do you know what they called me? Strange the dreamer. I was barely aware of my surroundings half the time.” He was amazed at himself, going on like this, and to the goddess of despair, no less. But her eyes were bright with curiosity—a mirror of his own curiosity about her, and he felt entirely at ease. Certainly despair was the last thing he thought of when he looked at her. “I walked around wondering what kind of wings I would buy if the wingsmiths came to town, and if I’d prefer to ride dragons or hunt them, and whether I’d stay when the mist came, and more than anything else by far, how in the world I was going to get to the Unseen City.”

  Sarai cocked her head. “The Unseen City?”

  “Weep,” he said. “I always hated the name, so I made up my own.”

  Sarai had been smiling in spite of herself, and wanting to ask which book the wingsmiths were in, and whether the dragons were vicious or not, but at this reminder of Weep, her smile slowly melted back to melancholy, and that wasn’t all that melted away. To her regret, the library did, too, and they were in Weep once more. But this time it wasn’t his Weep, but hers, and it might have been closer to the true city than his version, but it wasn’t accurate, either. It was still beautiful, certainly, but there was a forbidding quality to it, too. All the doors and windows were closed—and the sills, it went without saying, were empty of cake—and it was desolate with dead gardens and the telltale hunched hurry of a populace that feared the sky.

  There were so many things she wanted to ask Lazlo, who had been called “dreamer” even before she dubbed him that. Why can you see me? What would you do if you knew I was real? What wings would you choose if the wingsmiths came to town? Can we go back to the library, please, and stay awhile? But she couldn’t say any of that. “Why are you here?” she asked.

  He was taken aback by the sudden turn in mood. “It’s been my dream since I was a child.”

  “But why did the Godslayer bring you? What is your part in this? The others are scientists, builders. What does the Godslayer need with a librarian?”

  “Oh,” said Lazlo. “No. I’m not really one of them. Part of the delegation, I mean. I had to beg for a place in the party. I’m his secretary.”

  “You’re Eril-Fane’s secretary.”


  “Then you must know his plans.” Sarai’s pulse quickened. Another of her moths was fluttering in sight of the pavilion where the silk sleighs rested. “When will he come to the citadel?” she blurted out.

  It was the wrong question. She knew it as soon as she said it. Maybe it was the directness, or the sense of urgency, or maybe it was the slip of using come instead of go, but something shifted in his look, as though he were seeing her with new eyes.

  And he was. Dreams have their rhythms, their deeps and shallows, and he was caroming upward into a state of heightened lucidity. The left-behind logic of the real world came slanting down like shafts of sun
through the surface of the sea, and he began to grasp that none of this was real. Of course he hadn’t actually ridden Lixxa through the Pavilion of Thought. It was all fugitive, evanescent: a dream.

  Except for her.

  She was neither fugitive nor evanescent. Her presence had a weight, depth, and clarity that nothing else did—not even Lixxa, and there were few things Lazlo knew better these days than the physical reality of Lixxa. After six months of all-day riding, she felt almost like an extension of himself. But the spectral seemed suddenly insubstantial, and no sooner did this thought occur than she melted away. The gryphon, too. There was only himself and the goddess with her piercing gaze and nectar scent and… gravity.

  Not gravity in the sense of solemnity—though that, too—but gravity in the sense of a pull. He felt as though she were the center of this small, surreal galaxy—indeed, that it was she who was dreaming him, and not the other way around.

  He didn’t know what made him do it. It was so unlike him. He reached for her hand and caught it—lightly—and held it. It was small, smooth, and very real.

  Up in the citadel, Sarai gasped. She felt the warmth of his skin on hers. A blaze of connection—or collision, as though they had long been wandering in the same labyrinth and had finally rounded the corner that would bring them face-to-face. It was a feeling of being lost and alone and then suddenly neither. Sarai knew she ought to pull her hand free, but she didn’t. “You have to tell me,” she said. She could feel the dream shallowing, like a sleek ship beaching on a shoal. Soon he would wake. “The flying machines. When will they launch?”

  Lazlo knew it was a dream, and he knew it wasn’t a dream, and the two knowings chased circles in his mind, dizzying him. “What?” he asked. Her hand felt like a heartbeat wrapped within his own.

  “The flying machines,” she repeated. “When?”

  “Tomorrow,” he answered, hardly thinking.

  The word, like a scythe, cut the strings that were holding her upright. Lazlo thought that his hand around hers was all that was keeping her standing. “What is it?” he asked. “Are you all right?”

  She pulled away, grabbed back her hand. “Listen to me,” she said, and her face grew severe. The black band returned like a slash, and her eyes blazed all the brighter for the contrast. “They must not come,” she said, in a voice as unyielding as mesarthium. The vines and orchids disappeared from her hair, and then there was blood running out of it, streaming rivulets down her brow to collect in her eye sockets and fill them up until they were nothing but glassy red pools, and still the blood flowed, down over her lips and into her mouth, smearing as she spoke. “Do you understand?” she demanded. “If they do, everyone will die.”



  Everyone will die.

  Lazlo jolted awake and was astonished to find himself alone in the small bedroom. The words echoed in his head, and a vision of the goddess was imprinted in his mind: blood pooling in her eye sockets and dripping down to catch in her lush mouth. It had been so real that at first he almost couldn’t credit that it had been a dream. But of course it had been. Just a dream, what else? His mind was overflowing with new imagery since his arrival in Weep. Dreams were his brain’s way of processing them all, and now it was struggling to reconcile the girl from the dream with the one in the mural. Vibrant and sorrowful versus… bloody and unmourned.

  He had always been a vivid dreamer, but this was something altogether new. He could still feel the shape and weight of her hand in his, the warmth and softness of it. He tried to brush it all aside as he got on with the morning, but the image of her face kept intruding, and the haunting echo of her words: Everyone will die.

  Especially when Eril-Fane invited him to join the ascension to the citadel.

  “Me?” he asked, dumbfounded. They were in the pavilion, standing beside the silk sleighs. Ozwin was readying one of the two; to save on ulola gas, only one would go up today. Once they reached the citadel, they were to restore its defunct pulley system so that their future comings and goings would not be dependent on flight.

  It was how goods had been brought up from the city back in the days of the Mesarthim. It had a basket just big enough to carry a person or two—as they’d discovered after the liberation, when the freed had used it to get back down to the ground, one trip at a time. But in the wild hours of shock and celebration that greeted the news of the gods’ demise, they must have forgotten to secure the ropes properly. They’d slipped from the pulleys and fallen, rendering the citadel forever—or until now—inaccessible. Today they would reestablish the link.

  Soulzeren had said she could carry three passengers in addition to herself. Eril-Fane and Azareen made two, and Lazlo was offered the last place.

  “Are you sure?” he asked Eril-Fane. “But… one of the Tizerkane—?”

  “As you’ve no doubt observed,” said Eril-Fane, “the citadel is difficult for us.” We are all children in the dark, Lazlo remembered. “Any of them would come if I asked, but they’ll be glad to be spared. You needn’t come if you don’t wish.” A sly glint came into his eyes. “I can always ask Thyon Nero.”

  “Now, that’s uncalled for,” said Lazlo. “And anyway, he isn’t here.”

  Eril-Fane looked around. “No, he isn’t, is he?” Thyon was, in fact, the only delegate who hadn’t come to watch the launch. “Shall I send for him?”

  “No,” said Lazlo. “Of course I want to come.” In truth, though, he was less certain after his macabre dream. Just a dream, he told himself, glancing up at the citadel. The angle of the climbing sun snuck a slash of rays under the edges of its wings, shining a jagged shimmer along the sharp tips of the huge metal feathers.

  Everyone will die.

  “Are you sure it’s empty?” he blurted out, trying and failing to sound casual.

  “I’m sure,” said Eril-Fane with grim finality. He softened a little. “If you’re afraid, just know that you’re in good company. It’s all right if you prefer to stay.”

  “No, I’m fine,” Lazlo insisted.

  And so it was that he found himself stepping aboard a silk sleigh a scant hour later. In spite of the chill that didn’t quite leave him, he was well able to marvel at this latest unfolding of his life. He, Strange the dreamer, was going to fly. He was going to fly in the world’s first functional airship, along with two Tizerkane warriors and a badlander mechanist who used to make firearms for amphion warlords, up to a citadel of alien blue metal floating above the city of his dreams.

  In addition to the faranji, citizens were gathered to see them off, Suheyla included, and all were marked by the same trepidation as the Zeyyadin the previous evening. No one looked up. Lazlo found their fear more unsettling than ever, and was glad to be distracted by Calixte.

  She came over and whispered, “Bring me a souvenir.” She winked. “You owe me.”

  “I’m not going to loot the citadel for you,” he said, prim. And then, “What kind of souvenir?” His mind went at once to the god corpses they expected to find, including Isagol’s. He shuddered. How long did it take for a corpse to become a skeleton? Less than fifteen years, surely. But he wouldn’t be breaking off any pinkie bones for Calixte. Besides, Eril-Fane said that Lazlo and Soulzeren would wait outside while he and Azareen did a thorough search to make sure it was safe.

  “I thought you were certain it was empty,” Lazlo pointed out.

  “Empty of the living,” was his comforting reply.

  And then they were boarding. Soulzeren put on goggles that made her look like a dragonfly. Ozwin gave her a kiss and loosened the mooring lines that kept the big silk pontoons firmly on the ground. They had to cast them all off at once if they wanted to rise straight and not “yaw about like drunken camels,” as Ozwin put it. There were safety lines that hooked to harnesses Soulzeren had given them to wear—all but Eril-Fane, whose shoulders were far too big for them.

  “Hook it on your belt, then,” said Soulzeren with a frown. She peered up, squintin
g at the underside of the vast metal wings, and the soles of the great angel’s feet, and the sky she could see around the edges. “No wind, anyway. Should be fine.”

  Then they were counting down and casting off.

  And just like that… they were flying.

  The five in the citadel gathered on Sarai’s terrace, watching, watching, watching the city. If you stared at it long enough, it became an abstract pattern: the circle of the amphitheater dead center in the oval formed by the outer walls, which were broken by the four hulking monoliths of the anchors. The streets were mazy. They tempted you to trace pathways with your eyes, finding routes between this place and that. All the godspawn had done it, save Minya, who alone never yearned to see it closer.

  “Maybe they aren’t coming,” said Feral, hoping. Ever since Sarai told him about the silk sleighs’ vulnerability, he’d been thinking about it, wondering what he would do if—when—it came down to it. Would he defy Minya, or disappoint Sarai? Which was the safer course? Even now he was uncertain. If only they wouldn’t come, he wouldn’t have to choose.

  Choosing wasn’t Feral’s strong suit.

  “There.” Sparrow pointed, her hand trembling. She still held the flowers she’d been weaving into Sarai’s hair—torch ginger blossoms, like the ones she’d put on Ruby’s cake—“for wishing”—except that these weren’t buds. They were open blooms, as gorgeous as fireworks. She’d already done Ruby’s hair, and Ruby had done hers. All three of them wore wishes in their hair today.

  Now Sarai’s hearts lurched. They seemed to slam together. She leaned forward, resting against the slope of the angel’s hand to peer over the edge and follow the line of Sparrow’s finger down to the rooftops. No no no, she said inside her head, but she saw it: a flicker of red, rising from the pavilion of the guildhall.

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