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Strange the dreamer, p.29
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.29

           Laini Taylor

  They were coming. Disengaging from the city, leaving rooftops and spires and domes behind. The shape grew larger, steadily more distinct, and soon Sarai could make out four figures. Her hearts went on slamming.

  Her father. Of course he was one of the four. He was easy to discern at a distance for the size of him. Sarai swallowed hard. She had never seen him with her own eyes. A wave of emotion surged through her, and it wasn’t wrath, and it wasn’t hate. It was longing. To be someone’s child. Her throat felt thick. She bit her lip.

  And all too soon they were risen close enough that she could make out the other passengers. She recognized Azareen, and would have expected no less from the woman who had loved Eril-Fane for so long. The pilot was the older faranji woman, and the fourth passenger…

  The fourth passenger was Lazlo.

  His face was upturned. He was still too distant to make out clearly, but she knew it was him.

  Why hadn’t he listened to her? Why hadn’t he believed her?

  Well, he would believe soon enough. Waves of hot and cold flushed through her, chased by despair. Minya’s army was waiting just inside the open door in Sarai’s room, ready to ambush the humans the moment they landed. They would swarm over them with their knives and cleavers and meat hooks. The humans wouldn’t stand a chance. Minya stood there like the small general she was, intent and ready. “All right,” she said, fixing Sarai and Feral, Ruby and Sparrow with her cool, bright gaze. “Everyone get out of sight,” she ordered, and Sarai watched as the others obeyed.

  “Minya—” she began.

  “Now,” snapped Minya.

  Sarai didn’t know what to do. The humans were coming. Carnage was at hand. Numbly, she followed the others, wishing it were a nightmare from which she could awaken.

  It wasn’t like soaring. There was nothing of the bird in this steady ascension. They floated upward, rather, like a very large ulola blossom, with a bit more control than the wind-borne flowers had.

  Aside from the pontoons, which were sewn of specially treated red silk and contained ulola gas, there was another bladder, this one under the craft, filled with air by means of a foot-pedal bellows. It wasn’t for lift, but propulsion. By means of a number of outflow valves, Soulzeren could control thrust in different directions—forward, backward, side to side. There was a mast and sail, too, that worked just like a sailing ship if the winds were favorable. Lazlo had witnessed test flights in Thanagost, and the sight of the sleighs scudding across the skies under full sail had been magical.

  Looking down, he saw people in the streets and on terraces, growing steadily smaller until the sleigh had drifted so far above the city that it spread out like a map. They came even with the lowermost part of the citadel—the feet. Up and up, past the knees, the long, smooth thighs up to the torso, seeming draped in robes of gossamer—all mesarthium and solid but so cunningly shaped you could see the jut of hip bones as though through diaphanous cloth.

  Whatever else he had been, Skathis had also been an artist.

  In order to cast the greatest shadow, the wings were fanned out in an immense circle, with the scapular feathers touching in the back, the secondaries forming the middle of the ring, and the long, sleek primaries reaching all the way around to come parallel to the seraph’s outstretched arms. The silk sleigh rose up through the gap between the arms, coming even with the chest. As he squinted up at the underside of the chin, color caught Lazlo’s eyes. Green. Swaths of green below the collarbones, stretching from one shoulder to the other.

  They were the trees that dropped their plums on the district called Windfall, Lazlo thought. It occurred to him to wonder how, with so little rainfall, they were still alive.

  “Feral,” Sarai implored. “Please.”

  Feral’s jaw clenched. He didn’t look at her. If she were asking him not to do something, he wondered if it would be easier than to do something. He glanced at Minya.

  “This doesn’t have to happen,” Sarai went on. “If you call clouds right now, you can still force them back.”

  “Close your mouth,” said Minya, her voice like ice, and Sarai saw that it infuriated her that she couldn’t compel the living to obey her as easily as she did the dead.

  “Minya,” she pleaded, “so long as no one’s died, there’s hope of finding some other way.”

  “So long as no one’s died?” repeated Minya. She gave a high laugh. “Then I’d say it’s fifteen years too late for hope.”

  Sarai closed her eyes and opened them again. “I mean now. So long as no one’s died now.”

  “If it’s not today, then it’s tomorrow, or the next day. When there’s an unpleasant job to do, it’s best to get it over with. Putting it off won’t help.”

  “It might,” said Sarai.


  “I don’t know!”

  “Keep your voice down,” Minya hissed. “You do understand that a necessary condition for ambush is surprise?”

  Sarai stared at her face, so hard and uncompromising, and again saw Skathis in the set of her features, even the shape of them. If Minya had gotten Skathis’s power, she wondered, would she be any different from him, or would she willingly subjugate a whole population, and justify it all within the rigid parameters of justice. How had this small, damaged… child… ruled them for so long? It struck her now as ridiculous. Might there have been another way, from the very start? What if Sarai had never given a single nightmare? What if, from the beginning, she had soothed the fears of Weep instead of stoking them? Might she have defused all this hatred?

  No. Even she couldn’t believe that. For two hundred years it had been building. What could she have hoped to accomplish in fifteen?

  She would never know. She had never been given a choice, and now it was too late. These humans were going to die.

  And then?

  When the silk sleigh and its passengers failed to return? Would they send the other up after it, so more could die?

  And then?

  Who knows how much time it would buy them, how many more months or years they would have of this purgatorial existence before a bigger, bolder attack came—more crafts, Tizerkane leaping from ships like pirates boarding a vessel. Or the clever outsiders would come up with some grand plan to scuttle the citadel.

  Or suppose the humans simply cut their losses and abandoned Weep, leaving a ghost town for them to lord over. Sarai imagined it empty, all those mazy lanes and mussed-up beds deserted, and she felt, for a staggering moment, as though she were drowning in that emptiness. She imagined her moths drowning in silence, and it felt like the end of the world.

  Only one thing was sure, whatever happened: From this moment on, the five of them would be like ghosts pretending they were still alive.

  Sarai wanted to say all this, but it tangled up inside of her. She’d held her tongue for too long. It was too late. She caught a flash of red through the open door and knew it was the silk sleigh, though her first thought was of blood.

  Everyone will die.

  Minya’s expression was predatory, eager. Her grubby little hand was poised to give the signal, and—

  “No!” Sarai cried, shoving her aside and darting forward. She pushed through the throng of ghosts and they were as solid as living bodies, but with none of the warmth and give. She bumped against a knife held fast in a ghost’s grip. Its blade slid over her forearm as she thrust her way past. It was so sharp she felt it only as a line of heat. Blood flowed fast, and when a ghost grabbed for her wrist, the slickness made her hard to hold. She twisted free and darted into the doorway.

  The silk sleigh was there, maneuvering to a landing. They were already turned in her direction, and startled when she appeared. The pilot was busy with her levers, but the other three stared at her.

  Eril-Fane’s and Azareen’s hands sprang to the hilts of their hreshteks.

  Lazlo, amazed, said, “You.”

  And Sarai, with a sob, screamed, “Go!”


br />   Trees that should have been dead. Movement where there should have been stillness. A figure in the doorway of a long-abandoned citadel.

  Where there ought to have been naught but desertion and old death, there was… her.

  Lazlo’s first instinct was to doubt he was awake. The goddess of despair was dead and he was dreaming. But he knew the latter, at least, wasn’t true. He felt Eril-Fane’s sudden stillness, saw his great hand freeze on his hilt, his hreshtek but half drawn. Azareen’s wasn’t. It came free with a deadly shink!

  All this was periphery. Lazlo couldn’t turn aside to see. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from her.

  She had red flowers in her hair. Her eyes were wide and desperate. Her voice, it carved a tunnel through the air. It was rough and scouring, like rusty anchor chain reeling through a hawse. She was struggling. Hands caught at her from within. Whose hands? She gripped the sides of the doorway, but the mesarthium was smooth; there was no frame, nothing to give her purchase, and there were too many hands, grabbing at her arms and hair and shoulders. She had nothing to hold on to.

  Lazlo wanted to leap to her defense. Their eyes met. The look was like the scorch of lightning. Her scouring cry still echoed—Go!—and then she was gone, ripped back into the citadel.

  As others came pouring out.

  Soulzeren had, in the instant of the cry, reversed thrust on the sleigh, sending it scudding gently backward. “Gently” was its only speed, except under sail with a good stiff breeze. Lazlo stood rooted, experiencing the full meaning of useless as a wave of enemies hurtled toward them, moving with uncanny fluidity, flying at them as though launched. He had no sword to draw, and nothing to do but stand and watch. Eril-Fane and Azareen stood squarely before him and Soulzeren, guarding them from this impossible onslaught. Too many, too swift. They boiled like bees from a hive. He couldn’t understand what he was seeing. They were coming. They were fast.

  They were here.

  Steel on steel. The sound—a skreek—cut straight to his hearts. He couldn’t stand empty-handed—useless—in such a storm of steel. There were no extra weapons. There was nothing but the padded pole Soulzeren kept for pushing the sleigh clear of obstacles when maneuvering to a landing. He grabbed it and faced the fray.

  The attackers had knives, not swords—kitchen knives—and their shortened reach brought them well inside the warriors’ strike zone. If they were ordinary foes, it might have been possible to defend against them with great broad slashes that gutted two or three at a time. But they weren’t ordinary foes. It was plain to see they weren’t soldiers at all. They were men and women of all ages, some white-haired, and some not even yet adults.

  Eril-Fane and Azareen were deflecting blows, sending kitchen knives skittering over the metal surface of the terrace that was still beneath the sleigh. Azareen gasped at the sight of one old woman, and Lazlo noted the way her sword arm fell limp to her side. “Nana?” she said, stunned, and he watched, unblinking, horrified, as the woman raised a mallet—the studded metal sort for pounding cutlets—and brought it arcing down right at Azareen’s head.

  There was no conscious thought in it. Lazlo’s arms did the thinking. He brought the pole up, and just in time. The mallet smashed into it, and it smashed into Azareen. He couldn’t prevent it. The force of the blow—immense for an old woman!—was too great. But the pole was padded with batting and canvas, and it stopped Azareen’s skull from being staved in. Her sword arm jerked back to life. She knocked the pole away and shook her head to clear it, and Lazlo saw…

  He saw her blade cut right through the old woman’s arm—right through—and… nothing happened. The arm, her substance, it simply… rearranged itself around the weapon and became whole again after it had passed through. There wasn’t even blood.

  It all came clear. These enemies were not mortal, and they could not be harmed.

  The realization struck them all, just at the moment that the sleigh glided finally free of the terrace and back into open sky, widening the distance from the metal hand and the army of the dead it held.

  There was a feeling of escape, a moment to gasp for breath.

  But it was false. The attackers kept coming. They vaulted off the terrace, mindless of the distance. They leapt into the open sky and… failed to fall.

  There was no escape. The attackers crashed onto the sleigh. Ghosts poured from the angel’s huge metal hand, wielding knives and meat hooks, and the Tizerkane fought them off blow by blow. Lazlo stood between the warriors and Soulzeren, wielding the pole. An attacker slipped around the side—a man with a mustache—and Lazlo cut him in half with a swing, only to watch the halves of him re-form like something from a nightmare. The trick was the weapons, he thought, remembering the mallet. He struck again with the pole, aiming for the man’s hand, and knocked the knife from his grip. It clattered to the floor of the sleigh.

  This unnatural army was entirely untrained, but what did that matter? There was no end to them, and they could not die. What is skill in such a fight?

  The ghost with the mustache, unarmed now, launched at Soulzeren, and Lazlo thrust himself between them. The ghost grabbed for the pole. Lazlo held on. They grappled. Behind the figure he could see all the rest of them—the swarm of them with their blank faces and staring, harrowed eyes, and he couldn’t wrest the pole free. The ghost’s strength was unnatural. He wouldn’t tire. Lazlo was helpless when the next attacker slipped around the Tizerkane’s guard. A young woman with haunted eyes. A meat hook in her hands.

  She raised it. Brought it down…

  … on the starboard pontoon, puncturing it. The sleigh lurched. Soulzeren cried out. Gas hissed through the hole, and the sleigh began to spin.

  It was at just this moment, when it occurred to Lazlo that he was going to die—exactly as he had been warned, impossibly, in a dream—that the ghost he was grappling with… lost solidity. Lazlo saw his hands, one moment so hard and real on the wood of the pole, melt right through it. The same thing happened to the young woman. The meat hook fell from her grip, though she never loosed her hold on it. It fell right through her hand and into the sleigh. And then the strangest thing. A look of sweetest, purest relief came over her face, even as she began to fade from sight. Lazlo could see through her. She closed her eyes and smiled and was gone. The man with the mustache was next. An instant and his face lost its blankness, flushed with the delirium of release, and then he vanished, too. The ghosts were melting. They had gone beyond some boundary and been set free.

  Not all of them were so lucky. Most were sucked backward like kites on strings, reeled back to the metal hand to watch as the sleigh, spinning slowly, scudded farther and farther out of their reach.

  No time to wonder. The starboard pontoon was leaking gas. The sleigh was keeling over. “Lazlo,” barked Soulzeren, pushing her goggles up onto her forehead. “Shift your weight to port, and hold on.”

  He did as she commanded, his weight balancing the tilt of the craft as she slapped a patch onto the hissing hole the meat hook had made. The weapon still lay on the floor, dull and deadly, and the knife that had fallen there, too. Azareen and Eril-Fane were gasping for breath, their hreshteks still drawn, shoulders heaving. They checked each other frantically for injuries. Both were bleeding from cuts to their hands and arms, but that was all. Amazingly, no one had sustained a serious injury.

  Drawing a deep breath, Azareen turned to Lazlo. “You saved my life, faranji.”

  Lazlo almost said, “You’re welcome,” but she hadn’t actually thanked him, so he held it back and only nodded. He hoped it was a dignified nod, maybe even a little tough. He doubted it, though. His hands were shaking.

  His everything was shaking.

  The sleigh had stopped its spinning, but was still listing. They’d lost just enough gas for a slow descent. Soulzeren raised the sail and sheeted it, bringing the bow around and aiming for the meadows outside the city walls.

  That was good. It would give them time to catch their breath before the others could r
each them. The thought of the others, and all the questions they would ask, jolted Lazlo out of his survival euphoria and back into reality. Questions. Questions required answers. What were the answers? He looked to Eril-Fane. “What just happened?” he asked.

  The Godslayer stood a good while with his hands on the rail, leaning heavily, looking away. Lazlo couldn’t see his face, but he could read his shoulders. Something very heavy was pressing there. Very heavy indeed. He thought of the girl on the terrace, the girl from the dream, and asked, “Was that Isagol?”

  “No,” said Eril-Fane, sharp. “Isagol is dead.”

  Then… who? Lazlo might have asked more, but Azareen caught his eye and warned him off with a look. She was badly shaken.

  They were silent for the rest of the descent. The landing was soft as a whisper, the craft skimming over the tall grass until Soulzeren dropped the sail and they came at last to a halt. Lazlo helped her secure it, and they climbed back onto the surface of the world. They were out from under the citadel here. The sun was bright, and the crisp line of shadow, downhill, made a visible border.

  Against that harsh line where darkness began, Lazlo caught a glimpse of the white bird, wheeling and tilting. It was always there, he thought. Always watching.

  “They’ll get here soon, I reckon,” said Soulzeren. She pulled off her goggles and wiped her brow with her arm. “Ozwin won’t tarry.”

  The Godslayer nodded. He was silent another moment, collecting himself, before he picked up the dropped knife and meat hook from the floor of the silk sleigh and hurled them away. He drew a hard breath and spoke. “I won’t order you to lie,” he said slowly. “But I’m asking you to. I’m asking that we keep this to ourselves. Until I can think what to do about it.”

  It? The ghosts? The girl? This utter upending of what the citizens of Weep thought they knew about the citadel they already feared with such cold, debilitating dread? What manner of dread would this new truth inspire? Lazlo shuddered to think of it.

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