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Strange the dreamer, p.33
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.33

           Laini Taylor

  “Who would?”

  “Anyone would.”

  “No.” He shook his head, unwilling to believe it. “They’re good people. It will be a surprise, yes, but they couldn’t hate you just because of what your parents were.”

  Sarai stopped walking. “You think good people can’t hate?” she asked. “You think good people don’t kill?” Her breathing hitched, and she realized she’d crushed Lazlo’s flower in her hand. She dropped the petals into the water. “Good people do all the things bad people do, Lazlo. It’s just that when they do them, they call it justice.” She paused. Her voice grew heavy. “When they slaughter thirty babies in their cradles, they call it necessary.”

  Lazlo stared at her. He shook his head in disbelief.

  “That shock you saw on Eril-Fane’s face?” she went on. “It wasn’t because he didn’t know he had a child.” She took a breath. “It was because he thought he killed me fifteen years ago.” Her voice broke at the end. She swallowed hard. She felt, suddenly, as though her entire head were filled with tears and if she didn’t shed some of them it would explode. “When he killed all the godspawn, Lazlo,” she added, and wept.

  Not in the dream, not where Lazlo could see, but up in her room, hidden away. Tears sheeted down her cheeks the way the monsoon rains sheeted down the smooth contours of the citadel in summer, flooding in through all the open doors, a rolling deluge of rain across the slick floors and nothing to do but wait for it to stop.

  Eril-Fane had known that one of the babies in the nursery was his, but he didn’t know which one. He had seen Isagol’s belly swell with his child, of course, but after she was delivered of it, she had never mentioned it again. He’d asked. She’d shrugged. She’d done her duty; it was the nursery’s problem now. She hadn’t even known if it was a boy or a girl; it was nothing to her. And when he had walked, drenched in godsblood, into the nursery and looked about him at the squalling blue infants and toddlers, he had feared that he would see, and know: There. That one is mine.

  If he had seen Sarai, cinnamon-haired like her mother, he would have known her in an instant, but he hadn’t, because she wasn’t there. But he hadn’t known that; for all he knew her hair was dark like his own, like all the rest of the babies. They made a blur of blue and blood and screams.

  All innocent. All anathema.

  All dead.

  Lazlo’s eyes were dry but wide and unblinking. Babies. His mind rejected it, even as, under the surface, puzzle pieces were snapping together. All the dread, and the shame he’d seen in Eril-Fane. Everything about the meeting with the Zeyyadin, and… and the way Maldagha had laid her hands on her stomach. Suheyla, too. It was a maternal gesture. How stupid he’d been not to see it, but then how could he, when he’d spent his life among old men? All the things that hadn’t quite made sense now shifted just enough, and it was like tilting the angle of the sun so that instead of glancing off a window-pane and blinding you, it passed through it to illuminate all that was within.

  He knew Sarai was telling the truth.

  A great man, and also a good one. Is that what he had thought? But the man who had slain gods had also slain their babies, and Lazlo understood now what it was he’d feared to find in the citadel. “Some of us know better than others the… state… it was left in,” he had said. Not the skeletons of gods, but infants. Lazlo hunched over, feeling ill. He pressed a palm hard to his forehead. The village and the monster swans vanished. The river was no more. It all blinked out, and Lazlo and Sarai found themselves in his little room—the Godslayer’s little room. Lazlo’s sleeping body wasn’t stretched out on the bed. This was one more dream setting. In reality he was sleeping in the room, and in the dream he was standing in it. In reality a moth perched on his brow. In the dream the Muse of Nightmares stood beside him.

  The Muse of Nightmares, Sarai thought. As much as ever. She had, after all, brought nightmare to this dreamer to whom she had come seeking refuge. In his sleep, he murmured, “No.” His eyes and fists were squeezed tight shut. His breathing was quick, and so was his pulse. All the hallmarks of nightmare. How well Sarai knew them. All she’d done was tell the truth. She hadn’t even shown it to him. Knifeshine and spreading blood, and all the small blue bodies. Nothing would induce her to drag that festering memory into this beautiful mind. “I’m sorry,” she said.

  Up in the citadel, she sobbed. She could never be free of the fester. Her own mind would always be an open grave.

  “Why are you sorry?” Lazlo asked her. There was sweetness in his voice, but the brightness had left it. It had gone dull somehow, like an old coin. “You’re the last person who should be sorry. He’s supposed to be a hero,” he said. “He let me believe it. But what kind of hero could do… that?”

  In Windfall, the “hero” in question was lying stretched out on the floor. He was as still as a sleeper but his eyes were open in the dark, and Sarai thought again how he was as much a ruin as he was a man. He was, she thought, like a cursed temple, still beautiful to look at—the shell of something sacred—but benighted within, and none but ghosts could ever cross the threshold.

  “What kind of hero?” Lazlo had asked. What kind, indeed. Sarai had never let herself rise to his defense. It was unthinkable, as though the bodies themselves were a barrier between her and forgiveness. Nevertheless, and not quite knowing what she was going to say, she told Lazlo, speaking softly, “For three years, Isagol… made him love her. That is… she didn’t inspire love. She didn’t strive to be worthy of it. She just reached into his mind… or his hearts or his soul… and played the note that would make him love her against everything that was in him. She was a very dark thing.” She shuddered to think how she herself had come from the body of this very dark thing. “She didn’t take away his conflicting emotions, although she could have. She didn’t make him not hate her. She left his hate there, right beside the love. She thought it was funny. And it wasn’t… it wasn’t dislike beside lust, or some trivial pale versions of hate and love. You see, it was hate.” She put everything she knew of hate into her voice—and not her own hate, but Eril-Fane’s and the rest of the victims of the Mesarthim. “It was the hate of the used and tormented, who are the children of the used and tormented, and whose own children will be used and tormented. And it was love,” she went on, and she put that into her voice, too, as well as she was able. Love that sets forth the soul like springtime and ripens it like summer. Love as rarely exists in reality, as if a master alchemist has taken it and distilled out all the impurities, every petty disenchantment, every unworthy thought, into a perfect elixir, sweet and deep and all-consuming. “He loved her so much,” she whispered. “It was all a lie. It was a violation. But it didn’t matter, did it, because when Isagol made you feel something, it became real. He hated her. And he loved her. And he killed her.”

  She sank onto the edge of Lazlo’s bed and let her gaze roam over the familiar walls. Memories can be trapped in a room, and this one still held all the years that she’d come in this window full of righteous malice. Lazlo sank down beside her. “Hate won,” she said. “Isagol left it there for her amusement, and for three years he fought a war within himself. The only way he could win was for his hate to surpass that vile, false, perfect love. And it did.” Her jaw clenched. She darted a glance at Lazlo. This story wasn’t hers to tell, but she thought he needed to know. “After Skathis brought Azareen up to the citadel.”

  Lazlo knew a little of the story already. “They got her later,” Suheyla had said. Sarai knew all of it. She alone knew of the tarnished silver band that Azareen put on her finger every night and took off first thing every morning. Theirs wasn’t the only love story ended by the gods, but it was the only one that ended the gods.

  Eril-Fane had been gone for more than two years by the time Skathis took Azareen, and she might have been the first girl in Weep who was glad to mount the monster Rasalas and fly up to her own enslavement. She would know, at least, if her husband was still alive.

  He was. And Azar
een had learned how you can be glad and devastated at the same time. She heard his laugh before she saw his face—Eril-Fane’s laugh, in that place, as alive as she had ever heard it—and she broke away from her guard to run toward it, skidding around a corner of the sleek metal corridor to the sight of him gazing at Isagol the Terrible with love.

  She knew it for what it was. He had looked at her like that, too. It wasn’t feigned but true, and so after more than two years of wondering what had become of him, Azareen found out. In addition to the misery of serving the gods’ “purpose,” it was her fate to watch her husband love the goddess of despair.

  And Eril-Fane, it was his fate to see his bride led down the sinister corridor—door after door of little rooms with nothing in them but beds—and finally, Isagol’s calculus failed. Love was no match for what burned in Eril-Fane when he heard Azareen’s first screams.

  “Hate was his triumph,” Sarai told Lazlo. “It was who he became to save his wife, and all his people. So much blood on his hands, so much hate in his hearts. The gods had created their own undoing.” She sat there for a moment, mute, and felt an emptiness within her where for years her own sustaining hate had been. There was only a terrible sadness now. “And after they were slain and all their slaves were freed,” she said heavily, “there was still the nursery, and a future full of terrible, unguessable magic.”

  The tears that had, until now, flowed only down Sarai’s real cheeks, slipped down her dream ones, too. Lazlo reached for her hands and held them in both of his own.

  “It’s a violence that can never be forgiven,” she said, her voice husky with emotion. “Some things are too terrible to forgive. But I think… I think I can understand what they felt that day, and what they faced. What were they to do with children who would grow into a new generation of tormentors?”

  Lazlo reeled with the horror of it all, and with the incredible feeling that after all his own youth had been merciful. “But… if they’d been embraced instead, and raised with love,” he said, “they wouldn’t have become tormentors.”

  It sounded so simple, so clean. But what had the humans known of Mesarthim power besides how it could be used to punish and oppress, terrify and control? How could they even have imagined a Sparrow or a Feral when all they knew was the likes of Skathis and Isagol? Could one reach back in time and expect them to be as merciful as it was possible to be fifteen years later with a mind and body unviolated by gods?

  Sarai’s own empathy made her queasy. She’d said she could never forgive, but it would seem she already had, and she flushed with confused dismay. It was one thing not to hate, and another to forgive. She told Lazlo, “I feel a little like him sometimes, the love and hate side by side. It’s not easy having a paradox at the core of one’s own being.”

  “What do you mean? What paradox? Being human and godsp—” Lazlo couldn’t bring himself to call her spawn, even if she called herself that. “Human and Mesarthim?”

  “There’s that, too, but no. I mean the curse of knowledge. It was easy when we were the only victims.” We. She’d been looking down at their hands, still joined, hers curled inside his, but she glanced up now and didn’t retreat from the pronoun. “There are five of us,” she admitted. “And for the others there is only one truth: the Carnage.

  “But because of my gift—or curse—I’ve learned what it’s been like for the humans, before and since. I know the insides of their minds, why they did it, and how it changed them. And so when I see a memory of those babies being…” Her words choked off in a sob. “And I know that was my fate, too, I feel the same simple rage I always have, but now there’s… there’s outrage, too, on behalf of those young men and women who were plucked from their homes to serve the gods’ purpose, and desolation for what it did to them, and guilt… for what I’ve done to them.”

  She wept, and Lazlo drew her into an embrace as though it were the most natural thing in the world that he should draw a mournful goddess against his shoulder, enfold her in his arms, breathe the scent of the flowers in her hair, and even lightly stroke her temple with the edge of his thumb. And though there was a layer of his mind that knew this was a dream, it was momentarily shuffled under by other, more compelling layers, and he experienced the moment as though it were absolutely real. All the emotion, all the sensation. The texture of her skin, the scent of her hair, the heat of her breath through his linen shirt, and even the moisture of tears seeping through it. But far more intense was the utter, ineffable tenderness he felt, and the solemnity. As though he had been entrusted with something infinitely precious. As though he had taken an oath, and his very life stood surety to it. He would recognize this later as the moment his center of gravity shifted: from being one of one—a pillar alone, apart—to being half of something that would fall if either side were cut away.

  Three fears had gnawed at Lazlo, back in his old life. The first: that he would never see proof of magic. The second: that he would never find out what had happened in Weep. Those fears were gone; proof and answers were unfolding minute by minute. And the third? That he would always be alone?

  He didn’t grasp it yet—at least not consciously—but he no longer was, and he had a whole new set of fears to discover: the ones that come with cherishing someone you’re very likely to lose.

  “Sarai.” Sarai. Her name was calligraphy and honey. “What do you mean?” he asked her gently. “What is it you’ve done to them?”

  And Sarai, remaining just as she was—tucked into his shoulder, her forehead resting against his jaw—told him. She told him what she was and what she did and even… though her voice went thin as paper… how she did it, moths and all. And when she was finished telling and was tense in the circle of his arms, she waited to see what he would say. Unlike him, she couldn’t forget that this was a dream. She was outside it and inside it at once. And though she didn’t dare look at him while she told him her truth, her moth watched his sleeping face for any flicker of expression that might betray disgust.

  There were none.

  Lazlo wasn’t thinking about the moths—though he did recollect, now, the one that had fallen dead from his brow on his first morning waking up in Weep. What really seized him was the implication of nightmares. It explained so much. It had seemed to him as though fear were a living thing here, because it was. Sarai kept it alive. She tended it like a fire and made sure it never went out.

  If there were such a goddess in a book of olden tales, she would be the villain, tormenting the innocent from her high castle. The people of Weep were innocent—most of them—and she did torment them, but… what choice did she have? She had inherited a story that was strewn with corpses and clotted with enmity, and was only trying to stay alive in it. Lazlo felt many things for her in that moment, feeling her tension as he held her, and none of them were disgust.

  He was under her spell and on her side. When it came to Sarai, even nightmares seemed like magic. “The Muse of Nightmares,” he said. “It sounds like a poem.”

  A poem? Sarai detected nothing mocking in his voice, but she had to see his face to confirm it, which meant sitting up and breaking the embrace. Regretfully, she did. She saw no mockery, but only… witchlight, still witchlight, and she wanted to live in it forever.

  She asked in a hesitant whisper, “Do you still think I’m a… a singularly unhorrible demon?”

  “No,” he said, smiling. “I think you’re a fairy tale. I think you’re magical, and brave, and exquisite. And…” His voice grew bashful. Only in a dream could he be so bold and speak such words. “I hope you’ll let me be in your story.”



  A poem? A fairy tale? Was that really how he saw her? Flustered, Sarai rose and went to the window. It wasn’t just her belly now that felt a flutter like wild soft wings, but her chest where her hearts were, and even her head. Yes, she wanted to say with shy delight. Please be in my story.

  But she didn’t. She looked out into the night, up at the citad
el in the sky, and asked, “Will there be a story? How can there be?”

  Lazlo joined her at the window. “We’ll find a way. I’ll talk to Eril-Fane tomorrow. Whatever he did then, he must want to atone for it. I can’t believe he means to hurt you. After all, he didn’t tell anyone what happened. You didn’t see how he was after, how he was…”

  “Broken?” supplied Sarai. “I did see him after. I’m looking at him right now. He’s on the floor of Azareen’s sitting room.”

  “Oh,” said Lazlo. It was something to wrap his head around, how she could have so many eyes in the world at once. And Eril-Fane on Azareen’s floor, that took some getting used to, too. Did they live together? Suheyla had said that it wasn’t a marriage anymore, whatever it was between them. As far as he knew, Eril-Fane still lived here.

  “He should come home,” he said. “I can sleep on the floor. This is his room, after all.”

  “It isn’t a good place for him,” she said, staring unseeing out the window. Her jaw clenched. Lazlo saw the muscle work. “He’s had a lot of nightmares in this room. Many of them were his own, but… I had a hand in plenty.”

  Lazlo shook his head in wonder. “You know, I thought it was foolish, that he was hiding from his nightmares. But he was right.”

  “He was hiding from me, even if he didn’t know it.” A great wave of weariness broke over Sarai. With a sigh, she closed her eyes and leaned against the window frame. She was as light-headed as she was heavy-limbed. What would she do once the sun rose and she couldn’t stay here, in the safety of this dream?

  She opened her eyes and studied Lazlo.

  In the real room, her moth took stock of real Lazlo, the relaxation of his face, and his long, easy limbs, loose in slumber. What she wouldn’t give for restful sleep like that, not to mention the degree of control he had within his dreams. She wondered at it. “How did you do that earlier?” she asked him. “The mahalath, the tea, all of it. How do you shape your dreams with such purpose?”

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