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Strange the dreamer, p.30
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.30

           Laini Taylor
 

  “We can’t… we can’t simply do nothing,” said Azareen.

  “I know,” said Eril-Fane, ravaged. “But if we tell, there will be panic. And if we try to attack…” He swallowed. “Azareen, did you see?”

  “Of course I did,” she whispered. Her words were so raw. She hugged her arms around herself. Lazlo thought they should have been Eril-Fane’s arms. Even he could see that. But Eril-Fane was trapped in his own shock and grief, and kept his great arms to himself.

  “Who were they?” Soulzeren asked. “What were they?”

  Slowly, like a dancer dropping into a curtsy that keeps going all the way to the ground, Azareen sank down onto the grass. “All our dead,” she said. “Turned against us.” Her eyes were hard and bright.

  Lazlo turned to Eril-Fane. “Did you know?” he asked him. “When we were taking off, I asked if you were certain it was empty, and you said ‘Empty of the living.’”

  Eril-Fane closed his eyes. He rubbed them. “I didn’t mean… ghosts,” he said, stumbling on the word. “I meant bodies.” He seemed almost to be hiding his face in his hands, and Lazlo knew there were still secrets.

  “But the girl,” he said, tentative. “She was neither.”

  Eril-Fane dropped his hands from his eyes. “No.” With anguish and a stark glimmer of… something—redemption?—he whispered, “She’s alive.”

  PART IV

  sathaz (SAH·thahz) noun

  The desire to possess that which can never be yours.

  Archaic; from the Tale of Sathaz,

  who fell in love with the moon.

  40

  MERCY

  What had Sarai just done?

  After it was over and they had watched, all five of them, over the edge of the terrace as the silk sleigh escaped down to a far green meadow, Minya turned to her, unspeaking—unable to speak—and her silence was worse than screaming could have been. The little girl shook with ill-contained fury, and when the silence stretched on, Sarai forced herself to really look at Minya. What she saw wasn’t just fury. It was a wilderness of disbelief and betrayal.

  “That man killed us, Sarai,” she hissed when she finally found her voice. “You might forget that, but I never can.”

  “We aren’t dead.” At that moment, Sarai truly wasn’t sure that Minya knew that. Maybe all she knew was ghosts, and could make no distinction. “Minya,” she said, pleading, “we’re still alive.”

  “Because I saved us from him!” She was shrill. Her chest heaved. She was so thin inside her ragged garment. “So that you could save him from me? Is that how you thank me?”

  “No!” Sarai burst out. “I thanked you by doing everything you ever told me to do! I thanked you by being your wrath for you, every night for years, no matter what it did to me. But it was never enough. It will never be enough!”

  Minya looked incredulous. “Are you mad you had to keep us safe? I’m so sorry if it was hard for you. Perhaps we should have waited on you, and never made you use your nasty gift.”

  “That’s not what I’m saying. You twist everything.” Sarai was shaking. “There might have been another way. You made the choice. You chose nightmares. I was too young to know better. You used me like one of your ghosts.” She was choking on her own words, astonished at herself for speaking so. She saw Feral, stricken dumb, his mouth actually agape.

  “So in turn you betrayed me. You betrayed us all. I might have chosen for you once, Sarai, but today the choice was all yours.” Her chest rose and fell with animal breathing. Her shoulders were frail as bird bones. “And you. Chose. Them!” She shrieked the last part. Her face went red. Tears burst from her eyes. Sarai had never seen her cry before. Not ever. Even her tears were fierce and angry. No gentle, tragic trails like the ones that painted Ruby’s and Sparrow’s cheeks. Minya’s tears raged, practically leaping from her eyes in full, fat drops, like rain.

  Everyone was frozen. Sparrow, Ruby, Feral. They were stunned. They looked from Sarai to Minya, Minya to Sarai, and seemed to be holding their breath. And when Minya wheeled on them, pointed at the door, and commanded, “You three. Get out!” they hesitated, torn, but not for long. It was Minya they feared, her icy tantrums, her scalding disappointment, and her they were used to obeying. If Sarai had, in that moment, presented them with a choice, if she had stood proud and defended her actions, she might have won them to her. She didn’t, though. Her uncertainty was written all over her: in her too-wide eyes and trembling lip and the way she held her bloody arm limp against her middle.

  Ruby clung to Feral and turned away when he did. Sparrow was last to go. She cast a frightened glance back from the doorway and mouthed the words I’m sorry. Sarai watched her leave. Minya stood there a moment longer, looking at Sarai as though she were a stranger. When she spoke again, her voice had lost its shrillness, its fury. It was flat, and old. She said, “Whatever happens now, Sarai, it will be your fault.”

  And she spun on her heel and stalked through the door, leaving Sarai alone with the ghosts.

  All the anger was sucked away in her wake, and it left a void. What else was there, when you took away the anger, the hate? The ghosts stood frozen—those who remained, the ones Minya had yanked back from the brink of freedom while others crossed out of her reach and escaped her—and they couldn’t turn their heads to look at Sarai, but their eyes strained toward her, and she thought that she saw grace there, and gratitude.

  For her mercy.

  Mercy.

  Was it mercy or betrayal? Salvation or doom? Maybe it was all of those things flashing like a flipped coin, end over end—mercy betrayal salvation doom. And how would it come down? How would it all end? Heads, and the humans live. Tails, the godspawn die. The outcome had been rigged from the day they were born.

  A coldness seeped into Sarai’s hearts. Minya’s army appalled her, but what would have happened today if it hadn’t been here? If Eril-Fane had come, expecting to find skeletons, and found them instead?

  She was left with the desolate certainty that her father would have done again what he did fifteen years ago. His face was fixed in her mind: haunted to start with, just to be returning to this place of his torment. Then startled. Then stricken by the sight of her. She’d witnessed the precise moment when he understood. It was so very fast: the first blanch of shock, when he thought she was Isagol, and the second, when he realized she wasn’t.

  When he grasped who she was.

  Horror. That was what she had seen on his face, and nothing short of it. She had believed she had hardened herself to any further pain he could cause her, but she’d been wrong. This was the first time in her life that she had seen him with her own eyes—not filtered through moths’ senses or conjured in his own unconscious or Suheyla’s or Azareen’s, but him, the man whose blood was half her own, her father—and his horror at the sight of her had opened a new blossom of shame in her.

  Obscenity, calamity. Godspawn.

  And on the dreamer’s face? Shock, alarm? Sarai could hardly say. It had all happened in a blink, and all the while the ghosts were wrenching her out of the doorway, dragging her back inside. Her arm. It hurt. She looked down. Blood was crusted dark from her forearm to her fingers, and still oozing bright from the long line of the cut.

  There were bruises blooming, too, where the ghosts had gripped her. The pulsing pain made it feel like their hands were still on her. She wanted Great Ellen—her gentle touch to clean and wrap her wound, and her compassion. With resolve, she made to leave, but ghosts blocked her way. For a moment, she didn’t grasp what was happening. She’d grown accustomed to their presence, always steeling herself when she had to pass through a cluster of them, but they had never interfered with her before. Now, no sooner did she make for the door than they glided together, preventing her passing. She faltered to a stop. Their faces were impassive as ever. She knew better than to speak to them as though they were under their own control, but the words came out anyway. “What, am I not allowed to leave?”

  Of course t
hey didn’t answer. They had their orders and would obey them, and Sarai would not be going anywhere.

  All day long, nobody came. Ostracized, isolated, and wearier than she had ever been, she rinsed her arm with the last water from her pitcher, and bandaged it with a slip she tore into strips. She kept to her sleeping alcove, as though she were hiding from the ghost guards. Hot waves of panic crashed through her each time she remembered, afresh, the chaos of the morning and the choice that she had made.

  Whatever happens now, it will be your fault.

  She hadn’t meant to choose. In her hearts, she had never and could never make that choice—humans over her own kind. That wasn’t what she’d done. She wasn’t a traitor. But she wasn’t a murderer, either. Pacing, she felt as though her life had chased her down a dead-end corridor and trapped her there to taunt her.

  Trapped trapped trapped.

  Perhaps she had always been a prisoner, but not like this. The walls closed in around her. She wanted to know what was happening down in Weep, and what nature of uproar had greeted the news of her existence. Eril-Fane must have told them by now. They would be gathering weapons, talking strategy. Would they come back up in greater numbers? Could they? How many silk sleighs did they have? She’d only seen two, but they looked easy to build. She supposed it was just a matter of time until they could field an invasion force.

  Did Minya think her army could hold them off forever? Sarai pictured a life in which they went on as before but under siege now, alert to attacks at all hours of the day or night, repelling warriors, pushing corpses off her terrace to plunge all the way down to the city below like so many windfall plums. Feral would call rain showers to rinse away the blood, and they would all sit down to dinner while Minya bound the day’s new batch of dead into her service.

  Sarai shuddered. She felt so helpless. The day was bright, and it went on and on. Her craving for lull was powerful, but there was no more gray waiting for her now, no matter how much lull she drank. She was so tired she felt… threadbare, like the soles of old slippers, but she didn’t dare close her eyes. Her terror of what awaited her just over the threshold of consciousness was more powerful still. She wasn’t well. Ghosts without, horrors within, and nowhere to turn. Her shining blue walls hemmed her in. She wept, waiting for nightfall, and finally it came. Never before had her silent scream been such a release. She screamed everything, and felt as though her very being broke apart in the soft scatter of wings.

  Translated into moths, Sarai surged out the windows and siphoned herself away. The sky was huge and there was freedom in it. The stars called to her like signal beacons burning on a vast black sea as she flung herself a hundredfold into the dizzy air. Escape, escape. She flew away from nightmares and privation and the turned backs of her kindred. She flew away from the dead-end corridor where her life had trapped and taunted her. She flew away from herself. A wild desire gripped her to fly as far as she could from Weep—a hundred moths, a hundred directions—to fly and fly till sunrise came and turned her to smoke and all her misery, too.

  “Kill yourself, girl,” the old woman had said. “Have mercy on us all.”

  Mercy.

  Mercy.

  Would it be mercy, to put an end to herself? Sarai knew those vicious words had come not from old ghost women but her own innermost self, guilt-poisoned from four thousands nights of dark dreams. She also knew that in all of the city and in the monstrous metal angel that had stolen the sky, she was the only one who knew the suffering of humans and godspawn both, and it came to her that her mercy was singular and precious. Today it had forestalled carnage, at least for a time. The future was blind, but she couldn’t feel, truly, that it would be better without her in it. She gathered herself from her wild scatter. She gave up the sky with its signal-fire stars, and flew instead down to Weep to find out what her mercy had set in motion.

  41

  WITCHLIGHT

  The goddess was real, and she was alive.

  Lazlo had dreamed her before he knew the Mesarthim were blue, and that had seemed uncanny enough. How much more now that he’d seen her alive, her lovely face an exact match to the one in his dreams. It was no coincidence.

  It could only be magic.

  When wagons arrived to retrieve the downed silk sleigh and its passengers, the four of them stuck to a simple story of mechanical failure, which was questioned by no one. They downplayed the event to such a degree that the day carried on as usual, though Lazlo felt as though he’d left “usual” behind forever. He processed everything as well as could be expected—considering that “everything” entailed near death at the hands of savage ghosts—and he found within himself, rising through all the consternation and fright, a strange bubble of gladness. The girl from his dreams wasn’t a figment, and she wasn’t the goddess of despair, and she wasn’t dead. All day long he kept tipping back his head to look up at the citadel with new eyes, knowing she was inside it. How was it possible?

  How was any of it possible? Who was she, and how had she come into his dreams? He was fretful as he laid himself down to sleep that night, hoping that she would return. Unlike the previous night, when he’d sprawled facedown on the bed, shirtless and unself-conscious, without even tying the drawstring of his breeches, tonight he was prey to a peculiar formality. He put on a shirt, tied his drawstring, tied back his hair. He even glanced at himself in the mirror—and felt foolish to be concerned for his appearance, as though she would somehow see him. He had no idea how it worked, this magic. She was up there and he was down here, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was expecting a visitor—which would have been a new experience for him in any setting, but was particularly, uh, provocative in this one. To be lying in bed, waiting for a goddess to pay him a call…

  He blushed. Of course it wasn’t like that. He stared at the ceiling, a tension in his limbs, and felt as though he were acting the part of a sleeper in a play. It wouldn’t do. He had to actually fall asleep in order to dream, and it wasn’t coming easily, with his mind racing from the mania of the day. There was a kind of euphoria, he had discovered, in nearly dying and then not. Add to that his anxiousness as to whether she would come. He was all nerves and fascination and bashfulness and a deep, stirring hope.

  He remembered, marveling, how he had taken her hand last night and held it in his own, sensing the realness of it, and of her, and the connection that had blazed between them when he had. In reality he would never have dared to do such a bold thing. But he couldn’t quite convince himself that it wasn’t reality, in its way. It hadn’t occurred in the physical realm, that much was true. His hand had not touched her hand. But… his mind had touched her mind, and that seemed to him a deeper reality and even greater intimacy. She had gasped when he touched her, and her eyes had flown wide. It had been real to her, too, he thought. Her lashes, he recalled, were golden red, her eyes pellucid blue. And he remembered how she had looked at him as though transfixed, the first time, nights ago, and again last night. No one had ever looked at him like that before. It made him want to check the mirror again to see what she had seen—if perhaps his face had improved without his knowing it—and the impulse was so vain and unlike him that he flung an arm over his eyes and laughed at himself.

  His laughter subsided. He remembered, too, the welling blood and her warning—“Everyone will die”—and the furious way she had grappled in the doorway of the citadel, fighting to warn him yet again.

  He would be dead if it weren’t for her.

  “Go!” she had screamed as hands caught at her, reeling her back inside. How fierce and desperate she had looked. Was she all right? Had she been hurt? In what conditions did she exist? What was her life? There was so much he wanted to know. Everything. He wanted to know everything, and he wanted to help. Back in Zosma, when Eril-Fane had stood before the scholars and spoken with shadowed countenance of Weep’s “problem,” Lazlo had been overcome by this same deep desire: to help, as though someone like him had any chance of solving a problem like th
is.

  It struck him as he lay here with his arm slung across his eyes, that the girl was tied up in Weep’s problem in ways he could not yet understand. One thing was clear to him, though. She wasn’t safe, and she wasn’t free, and Weep’s problem had just grown much more complicated.

  Whom had she defied with that scream, he wondered, and what price might she have paid for it? Worrying about her redoubled his anxiety and pushed sleep even further away, so that he feared it would never come. He was anxious that he might miss her visit, as though his dreams were a door she might even now be knocking on, and finding no one at home. Wait, he thought. Please wait for me. And finally he calmed himself with what he thought of, self-mockingly, as “housekeeping concerns.” He’d never had a guest before, and he didn’t know how to go about it. How to receive her if she came, and where. If there were etiquette guidelines for hosting goddesses in one’s dreams, he had never found that book at the Great Library.

  It wasn’t simply a question of parlors and tea trays—though there was that, too. If she were coming in reality he would be limited by reality. But dreams were a different matter. He was Strange the dreamer. This was his realm, and there were no limits here.

  Sarai watched the dreamer fling his arm across his eyes. She heard him laugh. She took note of his unnatural stillness, recognizing it as restrained restlessness, and waited impatiently for it to soften into sleep. Her moth was perched in a shadowed corner of the window casement, and she waited there a long time after he fell still, trying to determine when he had truly crossed over. His arm was still crooked over his face, and without being able to see his eyes, she couldn’t tell if he might be faking. Ambush was on her mind, for obvious reasons, and she couldn’t reconcile the violence of the morning with the quiet of this night.

  She had found none of the panic or preparation that she had expected. The damaged silk sleigh had been hauled back to its pavilion, and there it lay forlorn, one pontoon deflated. The mechanist-pilot was asleep in her bed, her head on her husband’s shoulder, and though the earlier chaos flared through her dreams—and his, in smaller measure—the rest of the outsiders were untroubled. Sarai’s determination, from her moths’ gleanings of the night’s first crop of dreams, was that Soulzeren had told her husband but no one else of the… encounter… at the citadel.

 
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