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Strange the dreamer, p.32
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.32

           Laini Taylor
 

  42

  GOD OR MONSTER, MONSTER OR GOD

  Lazlo had only marginally more experience with cake than Sarai did, so this was one of the things they made up between them “however they liked.” It was a bit of a game. One would imagine the contents of a dish, and the other would uncover it with a small, dramatic flourish. They discovered that they could conjure splendid-looking confections, but were somewhat less successful when it came to flavor. Oh, the cakes weren’t bad. They were sweet at least—that much was easy. But it was a bland sweetness dreamed up by orphans who’d pressed their faces to sweetshop windows (metaphorically, at least), and never had a taste.

  “They’re all alike,” lamented Sarai, after sampling a small forkful of her latest creation. It was a marvel to behold: three tall tiers glazed in pink with sugared petals, far too tall to have fit beneath the cover it was under. “A magic trick,” Lazlo had said, when it had seemed to grow with the lifting of the lid.

  “Everything here is a magic trick,” Sarai had replied.

  But their recipes could use a bit less magic and more reality. The imagination, as Lazlo had previously noted, is tethered in some measure to the known, and they were both sadly ignorant in matters of cake. “These should be good at least,” said Lazlo, trying again. “Suheyla made them for me, and I think I remember the flavor pretty well.”

  It was better: a honeyed pastry filled with pale-green nuts and rose petal jelly. It wasn’t as good as the real thing, but at least it had a specificity the others lacked, and though they could easily have willed their fingers clean, that seemed a sad waste of imaginary honey, and both were inclined to lick them instead.

  “I don’t think we’d better attempt any dream banquets,” said Lazlo, when the next attempt proved once more uninspiring.

  “If we did, I could provide kimril soup,” said Sarai.

  “Kimril?” asked Lazlo. “What’s that?”

  “A virtuous vegetable,” she said. “It has no flavor to tempt one to overindulgence, but it will keep you alive.”

  There was a little pause as Lazlo considered the practicalities of life in the citadel. He was reluctant to abandon this sweet diversion and the lightness it had brought to his guest, but he couldn’t sit here with this vision of her and not wonder about the real her, whom he’d glimpsed so briefly and under such terrible circumstances. “Has it kept you alive?” he inquired.

  “It has,” she said. “You might say it’s a staple. The citadel gardens lack variety.”

  “I saw fruit trees,” Lazlo said.

  “Yes. We have plums, thank gardener.” Sarai smiled. In the citadel, when it came to food, they had been known to praise “gardener” as others might praise god. They owed an even greater debt to Wraith for that bundle of kimril tubers that had made all the difference. Such were their deities in the citadel of dead gods: an obscure human gardener and an antisocial bird. And, of course, none of it would have mattered without Sparrow’s and Feral’s gifts to nurture and water what little they had. How unassailable the citadel looked from below, she thought, and yet how tenuous their life was in it.

  Lazlo had not missed her plural pronoun. “We?” he asked casually, as though it weren’t a monumental question. Are you alone up there? Are there others like you?

  Evasive, Sarai turned her attention to the river. Right where she looked, a fish leapt up, rainbow iridescence shimmering on its scales. It splashed back down and sank out of sight. Did it make any difference, she wondered, if Lazlo and Eril-Fane found out there were more godspawn alive in the citadel? The Rule was broken. There was “evidence of life.” Did it matter how much life? It seemed to her that it did, and anyway, it felt like betrayal to give the others away, so she said, “The ghosts.”

  “Ghosts eat plums?”

  Having determined to lie, she did so baldly. “Voraciously.”

  Lazlo let it pass. He wanted to know about the ghosts, of course, and why they were armed with kitchen tools, viciously attacking their own kin, but he started with a slightly easier question, and asked simply how they came to be there.

  “I suppose everyone has to be somewhere,” Sarai said evasively.

  Lazlo agreed, thoughtful. “Though some have more control over the where than others.”

  He didn’t mean the ghosts now. He cocked his head a little and looked intently at Sarai. She felt his question forming. She didn’t know what words he would use, but the gist of it boiled down to why. Why are you up there? Why are you trapped? Why is this your life? Why everything about you? And she wanted to tell him, but she felt her own return question burgeoning within her. It felt a little like the burgeoning of moths at darkfall, but it was something much more dangerous than moths. It was hope. It was: Can you help me? Can you save me? Can you save us?

  When she’d gone down to Weep to “meet” the Godslayer’s guests, she’d had no scope to imagine him. A… friend? An ally? A dreamer in whose mind the best version of the world grew like seed stock. If only it could be transplanted into reality, she thought, but it couldn’t. It couldn’t. Who knew better how poisonous the soil was in Weep than she who had been poisoning it for ten long years?

  So instead she cut off his almost-question and asked, “Speaking of where, what is this place?”

  Lazlo didn’t press her. He had patience for mysteries. All these years, though, the mysteries of Weep had never had the urgency of this one. This was life or death. It had almost been his death. But he had to earn her trust. He didn’t know how to do that, and so once again sought refuge in stories. “Ah, well. I’m glad you asked. This is a village called Zeltzin. Or at least this is how I imagine a village called Zeltzin might look. It’s an ordinary place. Pretty, if unexceptional. But it does have one distinction.”

  His eyes sparkled. Sarai found herself curious. She looked around her, wondering what that distinction might be.

  Earlier, while he was trying to fall asleep, Lazlo’s first thought was to make an elegant sort of parlor to receive her in if she came. It seemed the proper way to go about things, if a bit dull. For some reason, then, Calixte’s voice had come into his head. “Beautiful and full of monsters,” she’d said. “All the best stories are.” And she was right. “Any guesses?” he asked Sarai.

  She shook her head. Her eyes had a bit of a sparkle, too.

  “Well, I might as well tell you,” said Lazlo, enjoying himself. “There’s a mineshaft over there that’s an entrance to the underworld.”

  “The underworld?” Sarai repeated, craning her neck in the direction he pointed.

  “Yes. But that’s not the distinction.”

  She narrowed her eyes. “Then what is?”

  “I could also tell you that the children here are born with teeth and gnaw on bird bones in their cradles.”

  She winced. “That’s horrible.”

  “But that’s not the distinction, either.”

  “Won’t you tell me?” she asked, growing impatient.

  Lazlo shook his head. He was smiling. This was fun. “It’s quiet, don’t you think?” he asked, faintly teasing. “I wonder where everyone’s gone.”

  It was quiet. The insects had ceased their whirring. There was only the sound of the river now. Behind the village, sweet meadows climbed toward a ridge of hills that looked, from a distance, to be covered in dark fur. Hills that seemed, Sarai thought, to be holding their breath. She sensed it, a preternatural stillness, and held hers, too. And then… the hills exhaled, and so did she.

  “Ohhh,” she breathed. “Is it—?”

  “The mahalath,” said Lazlo.

  The fifty-year mist that made gods or monsters. It was coming. It was fog—tongues of white vapor extruding between the knuckles of the fur-dark hills—but it moved like a living thing, with a curious, hunting intelligence. At once light and dense, there was something lithe about it, almost serpentine. Unlike fog, it didn’t merely drift and settle, tumbling downward, heavier than the air. Here and there, tendrils of its curling white churn seemed to r
ise up and peer about before collapsing again into the tidal flow like whitecaps sucked back into the surf. It was pouring downward—pouring itself downward—in a glorious, relentless glissade over the meadow slopes on a straight path for the village.

  “Did you ever play make-believe?” Lazlo asked Sarai.

  She gave a laugh. “Not like this.” She was frightened and exhilarated.

  “Shall we flee?” he asked. “Or stay and take our chances?”

  The tea table had vanished, and the chairs and dishes, too. Without noticing the transition, the pair of them were standing, knee-deep in the river, watching the mahalath swallow the farthest houses of the village. Sarai had to remind herself that none of it was real. It was a game within a dream. But what were the rules? “Will it change us?” she asked. “Or do we change ourselves?”

  “I don’t know,” said Lazlo, to whom this was also new. “I think we could choose what we want to become, or we could choose to let the dream choose, if that makes sense.”

  It did. They could exert control, or relinquish it to their own unconscious minds. Either way, it wasn’t a mist remaking them, but themselves. God or monster, monster or god. Sarai had an ugly thought. “What if you’re already a monster?” she asked in a whisper.

  Lazlo looked over at her, and the witchlight in his eyes said that she was nothing of the sort. “Anything can happen,” he said. “That’s the whole point.”

  The mist poured forth. It swallowed the drifting swans one by one. “Stay or go?” Lazlo asked.

  Sarai faced the mahalath. She let it come. And as its first tendrils wrapped around her like arms, she reached for Lazlo’s hand, and held it tight.

  43

  A SINGULARLY UNHORRIBLE DEMON

  Inside a mist, inside a dream, a young man and woman were remade. But first they were unmade, their edges fading like the evanescent white bird, Wraith, as it phased through the skin of the sky. All sense of physical reality slipped away—except for one. Their hands, joined together, remained as real as bone and sinew. There was no world anymore, no riverbank or water, nothing beneath their feet—and anyway, no feet. There was only that one point of contact, and even as they let go of themselves, Lazlo and Sarai held on to each other.

  And when the mist passed on its way, and the remade swans lorded their magnificence over the humble green river, they turned to each other, fingers interlaced, and looked, and looked, and looked.

  Eyes wide and shining, eyes unchanged. His were still gray, hers were still blue. And her lashes were still honey red, and his as glossy black as the pelts of rivercats. His hair was still dark, and hers was still cinnamon, and his nose was the victim of velvet-bound fairy tales, and her mouth was damson-lush.

  They were both in every way unchanged, save one.

  Sarai’s skin was brown, and Lazlo’s was blue.

  They looked, and looked, and looked at each other, and they looked at their joined hands, the brown-and-blue pattern of their fingers reversed, and they looked at the surface of the water, which hadn’t been a mirror before but was now because they willed it so. And they gazed at themselves in it, side by side and hand in hand, and they beheld neither gods nor monsters. They were so nearly unchanged, and yet that one thing—the color of their skin—would, in the real world, change everything.

  Sarai looked at the rich earthen color of her arms, and she knew, though it was hidden, that she bore an elilith on her belly like a human girl. She wondered what the pattern was, and wished that she could take a peek. The other hand, the one joined with Lazlo’s, she gently withdrew. There seemed no further pretext for holding it, though it had been rather nice while it lasted.

  She looked at him. Blue. “Did you choose this?” she asked.

  Lazlo shook his head. “I left it to the mahalath,” he said.

  “And it did this.” She wondered why. Her own change was easier to understand. Here was her humanity externalized, and all her longing—for freedom, from disgust, from the confines of her metal cage. But why should he come to this? Maybe, she thought, it wasn’t longing but fear, and this was his idea of a monster. “Well, I wonder what gift it has given you,” she said.

  “Gift? You mean magic? Do you think I have one?”

  “All godspawn have gifts.”

  “Godspawn?”

  “That’s what they call us.”

  Us. Another collective pronoun. It glimmered between them, briefly, but Lazlo didn’t call attention this time. “Spawn, though,” he said, grimacing. “It doesn’t suit. That’s the offspring of fish or demons.”

  “The intent, I believe, is the latter.”

  “Well, you’re a singularly unhorrible demon, if I may say so.”

  “Thank you,” Sarai said with play sincerity, laying a modest hand across her breast. “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

  “Well, I have at least a hundred nicer things to say and am only prevented by embarrassment.”

  His mention of embarrassment magically conjured embarrassment. In her reflection, Sarai saw the way her brown cheeks went crimson instead of lavender, while Lazlo beheld the reverse in his own. “So, gifts,” he said, recovering, though Sarai wouldn’t have minded dwelling for a moment on his hundred nicer things. “And yours is… going into dreams?”

  She nodded. She saw no need to explain the mechanics of it. Ruby’s long-ago commiseration flashed through her mind. “Who would ever want to kiss a girl who eats moths?” The thought of kissing stirred a fluttering in her belly that was something like it might feel if her moths really did live inside of her. Wings, delicate and tickling.

  “So how do I know what it is, this gift?” Lazlo asked. “How does one find out?”

  “It’s always different,” she told him. “Sometimes it’s spontaneous and obvious, and other times it has to be teased out. When the Mesarthim were alive, it was Korako, the goddess of secrets, who did the teasing out. Or so I’m told. I must have known her, but I can’t remember.”

  The question “Told by whom?” was so palpable between them that, though Lazlo didn’t ask it—except, perhaps, with his eyebrows—Sarai nevertheless answered. “By the ghosts,” she said. Which happened, in this case, to be the truth.

  “Korako,” said Lazlo. He thought back on the mural, but he’d been so fixed on Isagol that the other goddesses were a blur. Suheyla had mentioned Letha, but not the other one. “I haven’t heard anything about her.”

  “No. You wouldn’t. She was the goddess of secrets, and her best-kept secret was herself. No one ever knew what her gift even was.”

  “Another mystery,” said Lazlo, and they talked of gods and gifts, walking by the river. Sarai kicked at the surface and watched the flying droplets shiver ephemeral rainbows. They pointed to the swans, which had been identical before but now were strange—one fanged and made of agates and moss, another seeming dipped in gold. One had even become a svytagor. It submerged and vanished beneath the opaque green water. Sarai told Lazlo some of the better gifts she knew from Great Ellen, and slipped in among them a girl who could make things grow and a boy who could bring rain. His own gift, if the mahalath had given him one, remained a mystery.

  “But what about you?” he asked her, pausing to pluck a flower that he had just willed to grow. It was an exotic bloom he’d seen in a shop window, and he would have been abashed to know it was called a passion flower. He offered it to Sarai. “If you were human, you would have to give up your gift, wouldn’t you?”

  He couldn’t know the curse that her gift was, or what the use of it had done to her and to Weep. “I suppose so,” she said, sniffing the flower, which smelled of rain.

  “But then you couldn’t be here with me.”

  It was true. If she were human, Sarai couldn’t be in Lazlo’s dream with him. But… she could be in his room with him. A heat flared through her, and it wasn’t shame or even embarrassment. It was a kind of longing, but not hearts’ longing. It was skin’s longing. To be touched. It was limbs’ longing. To
entwine. It was centered in her belly where her new elilith was, and she brushed her fingers over it again and shivered. Up in the citadel, pacing, her true body shivered in kind. “It’s a sacrifice I would be willing to make,” she said.

  Lazlo couldn’t fathom it, that a goddess would be willing to give up her magic. It wasn’t just the magic, either. He thought she would be beautiful in any color, but found he missed the true exquisite hue of her. “You wouldn’t really want to change, though, would you?” he persisted. “If this were real, and you had the choice?”

  Wouldn’t she? Why else had her unconscious—her inner mahalath—chosen this transformation? “If it meant having a life? Yes, I would.”

  He was puzzled. “But you’re alive already.” He felt a sudden stab of fear. “You are, aren’t you? You’re not a ghost like the ones—”

  “I’m not a ghost,” said Sarai, to his great relief. “But I am godspawn, and you must see that there’s a difference between being alive and having a life.”

  Lazlo did see that. At least, he thought he saw. He thought that what she meant was in some way comparable to being a foundling at Zemonan Abbey: alive, but not living a life. And because he had found his way from one to the other and had even seen his dream come true, he felt a certain qualification on the subject. But he was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. A crucial, bloody piece of the puzzle. Reasonably, and warmly, he sympathized. “It can’t be much of a life trapped up there. But now that we know about you, we can get you out.”

  “Get me out? What, down to Weep?” There was a twist of incredulous amusement in Sarai’s voice, and while she spoke, she reverted to her true color, her skin flushing back to blue. So much for human, she thought. The hard truth would brook no make-believe. As though her reversion had triggered an end to the fantasy, Lazlo reverted, too, and was himself again. Sarai was almost sorry. When he had looked like that, she could almost have believed a connection between them. Had she really wondered, wistfully, a short time earlier, if this dreamer could help her? Could save her? He had no clue. “You do understand, don’t you,” she said with undue harshness, “that they would kill me on sight.”

 
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