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Strange the dreamer, p.31
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.31

           Laini Taylor
 

  The Zeyyadin were all likewise in the dark. No panic. No awareness, that Sarai could tell, of the threat that lurked over their heads.

  Had Eril-Fane kept it secret? Why would he?

  If only she could ask him.

  In fact, at the same time that her moth was perched in the window casement watching sleep claim Lazlo Strange, Sarai was watching it not claim the Godslayer.

  She had found him. She hadn’t even been looking, just assuming he’d be missing as he had been all these nights Sarai had nightly called on Azareen and found her all alone.

  Really, she still was alone. She was in her bed, curled in a ball with her hands over her face, not asleep, as Eril-Fane was likewise not asleep in the small sitting room just outside the door, chairs pushed aside and a bedroll laid out on the floor. He wasn’t lying on it, though. His back was to the wall, and his face was in his hands. Two rooms, door closed between them. Two warriors with their faces in their hands. Sarai, watching them, could see that everything would be better if the faces and hands were to simply… switch places. That is, if Azareen were to hold Eril-Fane while he held her.

  How anguished they both were, and how still and quiet and determined to suffer alone. From Sarai’s vantage point, she beheld two private pools of suffering so close together they were nearly adjacent—like the connecting rooms with the shut door between them. Why not open the door, and open their arms, and close them again around each other? Did they not understand how, in the strange chemistry of human emotion, his suffering and hers, mingled together, could… countervail each other?

  At least for a time.

  Sarai wanted to feel scorn for them for being such fools, but she knew too much to ever scorn them. For years she’d seen Azareen’s love for Eril-Fane blasted in the bud like Sparrow’s orchids by one of Feral’s blizzards. And why? Because the great Godslayer was incapable of love.

  Because of what Isagol had done to him.

  And, as Sarai had slowly come to understand—or rather, for years refused to understand until finally there was no denying it—because of what he himself had done. What he had forced himself to do to ensure the future freedom of his people: killing children, and, with them, his own soul.

  That was what had finally broken through her blindness. Her father had saved his people and destroyed himself. As strong as he looked, inside he was a ruin, or perhaps a funeral pyre, like the Cusp—only instead of the melted bones of ijji, he was made up of the skeletons of babies and children, including, as he had always believed, his own child: her. This was his remorse. It choked him like weeds and rot and colonies of vermin, clogging and staining him, stagnant and fetid, so that nothing so noble as love, or—gods above—forgiveness, could ever claim space in him.

  He was even denied the relief of tears. Here was something else that Sarai knew better than anyone: The Godslayer was incapable of crying. The city’s name was a taunt. In all these years, he had been unable to weep. When Sarai was young and cruel, she had tried to make him, ever without success.

  Poor Azareen. To see her curled up like that and skinned of all her armor was like seeing a heart flayed from a body, laid raw on a slab, and labeled Grief.

  And Eril-Fane, savior of Weep, three years’ plaything of the goddess of despair? What label for him, but Shame.

  And so Grief and Shame abided in adjoining rooms with the door shut between them, holding their pain in their arms instead of each other. Sarai watched them, waiting for her father to fall asleep so that she might send her sentinel to him—if she dared—and know what he was hiding in his hearts as he hid his face in his great hands. She couldn’t forget his look of horror when he had seen her in the doorway, but nor could she understand why he’d kept her secret.

  Now that he knew she was alive, what did he plan to do about it?

  And so here were the four who had flown to the citadel and lived to tell the tale—though they apparently hadn’t told it. Sarai watched them all, the sleeping and the sleepless. She was many other places, too, but most of her focus was split between her father and the dreamer.

  When she was certain that Lazlo had at last subsided into dreams—and he had finally moved his arm so that she could see his face—she detached her moth from the casement and went to him. She couldn’t quite bring herself to touch him, though, and hovered in the air above him. It would be different now. That much she knew. Up in the citadel, pacing, she felt as jumpy as though she were really there in the room with him, ready to spook at his slightest movement.

  Through the moth’s senses she smelled his sandalwood and clean musk scent. His breathing was deep and even. She could tell that he was dreaming. His eyes moved under his lids, and his lashes, resting closed—as dense and glossy as the fur of rivercats—fluttered gently. Finally, she couldn’t stay out one moment more. With a feeling of surrender, and anticipation, and apprehension, she crossed the small distance to his brow, settled on his warm skin, and entered his world.

  He was waiting for her.

  He was right there, standing straight and expectant as though he’d known she would come.

  Her breath caught. No, she thought. Not as though he’d known. As though he’d hoped.

  Her moth spooked from him and broke contact. He was too near; she wasn’t prepared. But that single strobe of an instant caught the moment that his worry became relief.

  Relief. At the sight of her.

  It was only then, aflutter in the air above him, her hearts in her own far-off body drumming up a wild cadence, that Sarai realized she’d been braced for the worst, certain that today, finally, he must have learned proper disgust for her. But in that glimpse she had seen no sign of it. She took courage, and returned to his brow.

  There he still was, and she beheld again the transformation from worry to relief. “I’m sorry,” he said in his woodsmoke voice. He was farther away now. He hadn’t moved, exactly, but rather shifted the conception of space in the dream so as not to crowd her at its threshold. They weren’t in any version of Weep, she saw, or in the library, either. They were standing on the bank of a river, and it wasn’t the tumultuous Uzumark but a gentler stream. Not Weep nor the Cusp nor the citadel were visible, but a great deal of pale-rose sky, and, beneath it, this broad path of smooth green water plied by birds with long, curved necks. Along the banks, leaning out as though to catch their own reflections, were rows of rough stone houses with their shutters painted blue.

  “I frightened you,” said Lazlo. “Please stay.”

  It was funny, the notion that he could frighten her. The Muse of Nightmares, tormentor of Weep, spooked from a dream by a sweet librarian?

  “You only startled me,” she said, self-conscious. “I’m not used to being greeted.” She didn’t explain that she wasn’t used to being seen, that all this was new to her, or that her heartbeats were tangling together, falling in and out of rhythm like children learning how to dance.

  “I didn’t want to miss you, if you came,” said Lazlo. “I hoped you would.” There it was, the witchlight in his eyes, sparkling like sun on water. It does something to a person to be looked at like that—especially someone so accustomed to disgust. Sarai had a new, disconcerting awareness of herself, as though she’d never realized how many moving parts she had, all to be coordinated with some semblance of grace. It worked itself out so long as you didn’t think about it. Start worrying, though, and it all goes wrong. How had she gone her entire life without noticing the awkwardness of arms, the way they just hang there from your shoulders like links of meat in a shop window? She crossed them—artlessly, she felt, like some arm amateur taking the easy way out.

  “Why?” she asked him. “What do you want?”

  “I… I don’t want anything,” he rushed to say. Of course, it was an unfair question. After all, it was she trespassing in his dream, not the other way around. He had more right to ask what she wanted here. Instead, he said, “Well, I do want to know if you’re all right. What happened to you up there? Were you hurt?”
>
  Sarai blinked. Was she hurt? After what he had seen and survived, he was asking if she was all right? “I’m fine,” she said, a bit gruff due to an unaccountable ache in her throat. Up in her room she cradled her injured arm. No one in the citadel even cared that she was hurt. “You should have listened to me. I tried to warn you.”

  “Yes, well. I thought you were a dream. But apparently you’re not.” He paused, uncertain. “You’re not, are you? Though of course if you were, and told me you weren’t, how would I know?”

  “I’m not a dream,” said Sarai. There was bitterness in her voice. “I’m a nightmare.”

  Lazlo breathed out a small, incredulous laugh. “You’re not my idea of a nightmare,” he said, blushing a little. “I’m glad you’re real,” he added, blushing a lot. And they stood there for a moment, facing each other—though they weren’t looking at each other, but down at the pebbled stretch of riverbank between their two pairs of feet.

  Lazlo saw that hers were bare and that she was curling her toes into the pebbles and the soft mud beneath them. He had been thinking about her all day, and he had little enough to go on, but she’d clearly been a surprise to Eril-Fane and Azareen, which led him to suppose that her entire life had been lived up in the citadel. Had she ever set foot on the world? With this is mind, the sight of her bare blue toes curling into the river mud struck him with a deep poignancy.

  After which the sight of her bare blue ankles and slender calves struck him with a deep allure, so that he blushed and looked away. And he thought that after all, in the midst of everything, it might be ridiculous to offer refreshment, but he didn’t know what else to do, so he ventured, “Would you… would you care for some tea?”

  Tea?

  Sarai noticed, for the first time, the table at the riverside. It was actually in the shallows, its feet lost in little foaming eddies that curled against the bank. There was a linen cloth on it and some covered dishes, along with a teapot and a pair of cups. A wisp of steam escaped the pot’s spout, and she found that she could smell it, spicy and floral amid the earthier scents of the river. What they called tea in the citadel was only herbs like mint and lemon balm. She had a distant memory of the taste of real tea, buried with her recollections of sugar and birthday cake. She fantasized about it sometimes—the drink itself, but this, too. The ritual of it, the setting up and sitting down that seemed to her, from outside of it, the simple heart of culture. Sharing tea and conversation (and, it was always to be hoped, cake). She looked from the incongruous setup to the landscape around it and then back to Lazlo, who’d caught a bit of his lower lip between his teeth and was watching her, anxious.

  And Sarai noticed, outside the dream, that his real lip was likewise caught between his real teeth. His nervousness was palpable, and it disarmed her. She saw that he wanted to please her. “This is for me?” she asked with half a voice.

  “I’m sorry if I’ve gotten anything wrong,” he said, abashed. “I’ve never had a guest before, and I’m not sure how to do it.”

  “A guest,” Sarai said faintly. That word. When she went into dreams, she went as a trespasser, a marauder. She had never been invited before. She had never been welcome. The feeling that came over her was all new—and extravagantly nice. “And I’ve never been a guest before,” she confessed. “So I know no more about it than you do.”

  “That’s a relief,” said Lazlo. “We can make it up between us, however we like.”

  He pulled out a chair for her. She moved to sit. Neither had ever performed this simple maneuver, on land let alone in water, and it struck them at the same moment that there was room for error. Push the chair in too quickly or too slowly, or else sit too soon or too heavily, and misadventure ensues, perhaps even an unintended baptism of the hindquarters. But they managed it all right, and Lazlo took the chair opposite, and just like that they were two people sitting at a table regarding each other shyly through a wisp of tea steam.

  Inside a dream.

  Within a lost city.

  In the shadow of an angel.

  At the brink of calamity.

  But all of that—city and angel and calamity—seemed worlds away right now. Swans swam past like elegant ships, and the village was all pastel with patches of blue shadow. The sky was the color of the blush on peaches, and insect language whirred in the sweet meadow grass.

  Lazlo considered the teapot. It seemed a lot to ask of his hands to steadily pour into such dainty cups as he’d conjured, so he had the tea pour itself, which task was accomplished admirably, as though by an invisible steward. Only one drop went astray, discoloring the linen cloth, which he promptly willed clean again.

  Imagine, he thought, having such power in life. And then it struck him as funny that it was the cleaning of a tablecloth that had given rise to this thought, and not the creation of an entire village and a river with birds on it, the hills in the distance, or the surprise they held in store.

  He had dreamed lucidly before, but never so lucidly as this. Ever since he came to Weep, his dreams had been exceptionally vivid. He wondered: Was it her influence that made this clarity possible? Or had his own attention and expectancy shifted him into this state of higher awareness?

  They picked up their cups. It was a relief to both of them to have something to do with their hands. Sarai tried her first sip, and couldn’t tell whether the flavor—smoke and flowers—was her own memory of tea, or if Lazlo was shaping the sensory experience within his dream. Did it work like that?

  “I don’t know your name,” he said to her.

  Sarai had never, in all her life, been asked her name or told it. She had never met anyone before. Everyone she knew, she had always known—except for captured ghosts, who weren’t exactly keen on pleasantries. “It’s Sarai,” she said.

  “Sarai,” he repeated, as though he were tasting it. Sarai. It tasted, he thought—but did not say—like tea—complex and fine and not too sweet. He looked at her, really looked. He wouldn’t, in the world, ever look at a young woman with such directness and intensity, but it was somehow all right here, as though they had met with the tacit intent to know each other. “Will you tell me?” he asked. “About yourself?”

  Sarai held her cup in both hands. She breathed the hot steam while cold water swirled around her feet. “What did Eril-Fane tell you?” she asked, wary. Through another moth’s eyes, she observed that her father was no longer sitting against the wall, but had moved to the open window of Azareen’s sitting room and was leaning out, staring up at the citadel. Was he imagining her up there? And, if so, what was he thinking? If he would sleep, she might be able to tell. She couldn’t see it on his face, which was like a death mask: grim and lifeless with hollows for eyes.

  “He only said that you aren’t Isagol,” Lazlo relayed. He paused. “Are you… her daughter?”

  Sarai lifted her gaze to him. “Did he say that?”

  Lazlo shook his head. “I guessed,” he said. “Your hair.” He had guessed something else, too. Hesitant, he said, “Suheyla told me that Eril-Fane was Isagol’s consort.”

  Sarai said nothing, but truth was in her silence, and in her proud effort to show no pain.

  “Didn’t he know about you?” Lazlo asked, sitting forward. “If he’d known he had a child—”

  “He knew,” Sarai said shortly. A half mile away, the man in question rubbed his eyes with infinite weariness, yet still he didn’t close them. “And now he knows I’m still alive. Did he say what he intends to do?”

  Lazlo shook his head. “He didn’t say very much. He asked that we not tell anyone what happened up there. About you or any of it.”

  Sarai had assumed as much. What she wanted to know was why, and what next, but Lazlo couldn’t tell her that and Eril-Fane was still awake. Azareen had drifted off, finally, and Sarai landed a soft sentinel on the curve of her tearstained cheek.

  She found no answers, though. Instead, she was plunged into the violence of the morning. She heard her own echoing cry of “Go!” and fel
t the terror bearing down, cleavers and meat hooks and the face of her own grandmother—Azareen’s grandmother—twisted in unfamiliar hatred. It replayed itself over and over, relentless, and with one terrible difference: In the dream, Azareen’s blades were as heavy as anchors, weighing down her arms as she strove to defend against the onslaught pouring from the angel’s hand. She was too slow. It was all frantic, sluggish panic and roiling, invincible foes, and the outcome was not so lucky as it had been that morning.

  In Azareen’s dream, they all died, just as Sarai had told Lazlo they would.

  She grew quiet at the riverside, her attention drawn away. Lazlo, observing that the cerulean hue of her face had gone a little ashen, asked, “Are you all right?”

  She nodded, too quickly. I just watched you die, she did not say, but she had a hard time pushing the image from her mind. The warmth of his brow beneath her moth reassured her, and the sight of him across the table. Real Lazlo, dream Lazlo, alive because of her. It sank in that she was seeing a vision of the murders she had averted, and whatever shame she might have felt at Minya’s tirade earlier, she didn’t feel it anymore.

  Deftly, she took control of Azareen’s nightmare. She lightened the warrior’s weapons and slowed the onslaught while the silk sleigh drifted out of range. Finally, she evanesced the ghosts, starting with Azareen’s grandmother, infusing the dream with their sighs of release. The dead were free and the living were safe, and there was an end to the dream.

  Sarai had finished her tea. The pot refilled her cup. She thanked it as though it were alive, and then her gaze lingered on the covered dishes. “So,” she inquired, flashing a glance Lazlo’s way. “What’s under there?”

 
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