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Strange the dreamer, p.34
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.34

           Laini Taylor
 

  “I don’t know,” he said. “It’s new to me. I mean, I had some lucidity in dreams before, but not predictably, and never like this. Only since you came.”

  “Really?” Sarai was surprised. “I wonder why.”

  “Isn’t it like this with other dreamers?”

  She let out a soft laugh. “Lazlo,” she said. “It isn’t anything like this with other dreamers. To start with, they can’t even see me.”

  “What do you mean, they can’t see you?”

  “Just that. It’s why I came right up and looked at you that first time, so shamelessly.” She wrinkled her nose, embarrassed. “Because I never imagined you’d be able to see me. With other dreamers I can scream right in their face and they’d never know it. Believe me, I’ve tried. I can do anything at all in a dream except exist.”

  “But… why would that be? What a bizarre sort of condition to your gift.”

  “A bizarre condition to a bizarre gift, then. Great Ellen—she’s our nurse, she’s a ghost—she never saw a gift like mine in all her years in the nursery.”

  The crease between Lazlo’s brows—the new one the Elmuthaleth sun had made for him—deepened. When Sarai spoke of the nursery, and the babies, and the gifts—years of them—questions lined up in his mind. More mysteries of Weep; how endless was the supply of them? But there was a more personal mystery confronting him now. “But why should I be able to see you if no one else can?”

  Sarai shrugged, as baffled as he was. “You said they call you Strange the dreamer. Clearly you’re better at dreams than other people.”

  “Oh, clearly,” he agreed, self-mocking and more than a little pleased. Much more than a little, as the idea sank in. All this while, from the moment Sarai appeared at the riverbank and squished her toes into the mud, the entire night had been so extraordinary he’d felt… effervescent. But how much more extraordinary was it, now that he knew it was extraordinary for her, too?

  She wasn’t quite looking effervescent, though, if he had to be honest with himself. She looked… tired.

  “You’re awake now?” he asked, still trying to grasp how it worked. “Up in the citadel, I mean.”

  She nodded. Her body was in her alcove. Even in that confined space, it was pacing—like a menagerie ravid, she thought—with just a whisper of her awareness left behind to guide it. She felt a stab of sympathy for it, abandoned not only by her kin, but by herself, left empty and alone while she was here, weeping her tears onto a stranger’s chest.

  No, not a stranger. The only one who saw her.

  “So, when I wake up,” he went on, “and the city wakes up, you’ll just be going to sleep?”

  Sarai experienced a thrum of fear at the thought of falling asleep. “That’s the usual practice,” she said. “But ‘usual’ is dead and gone.” She took a deep breath and let it out. She told him about lull, and how it didn’t work anymore, and how, as soon as her consciousness relaxed, it was as though the doors of all her captive terrors’ cages slid wide open.

  And, while most people might have a few terrors rattling their cages, she had… all of them.

  “I did it to myself,” she said. “I was so young when I began, and no one ever told me to consider the consequences. Of course, it seems so obvious now.”

  “But you can’t just banish them?” he asked her. “Or transform them?”

  She shook her head. “In other people’s dreams I have control, but when I’m asleep,” she said, “I’m powerless, just like any other dreamer.” She regarded him evenly. “Except you. You’re like no other dreamer.”

  “Sarai,” said Lazlo. He saw how she sagged against the window frame, and put out his arm to support her. “How long has it been since you’ve slept?”

  She hardly knew. “Four days? I’m not sure.” At his look of alarm, she forced a smile. “I sleep a little,” she said, “in between nightmares.”

  “But that’s mad. You know you can actually die of sleep deprivation.”

  Her answering laugh was grim. “I didn’t know that, no. You don’t happen to know how long it takes, do you? So I can plan my day?” She meant it as a joke, but there was an edge of desperation to the question.

  “No,” said Lazlo, feeling spectacularly helpless. What an impossible situation. She was up there alone, he was down here alone, and yet somehow they were together. She was inside his dream, sharing it with him. If he had her gift, he wondered, could he go into her dreams and help her to endure them? What would that mean? What terrors did she face? Fighting off ravids, witnessing the Carnage again and again? Whatever it was, the notion of her facing them alone gutted him.

  A thought came to him. It seemed to land as lightly as a moth. “Sarai,” he asked, speculative. “What would happen if you were to fall asleep right now?”

  Her eyes widened a little. “What, you mean here?” She glanced toward the bed.

  “No,” he said quickly, his face going hot. In his head it was clear: He wanted to give her a haven from her nightmares—to be a haven from them. “I mean, if you keep the moth where it is, on me, but fall asleep up there, could you… do you think that maybe you could stay here? With me?”

  When Sarai was silent, he was afraid the suggestion went too far. Was he not, in a way, inviting her to… spend the night with him? “I only mean,” he rushed to explain, “if you’re afraid of your own dreams, you’re welcome here in mine.”

  A light frisson of shivers went down Sarai’s arms. She wasn’t silent because she was offended or dismayed. Quite the opposite. She was overwhelmed. She was welcome. She was wanted. Lazlo didn’t know about the nights she’d trespassed without his invitation, tucking a little piece of her mind into a corner of his, so that the wonder and delight of it could help her to endure… everything else. She needed rest, badly, and though she joked with him about dying of sleep deprivation, she was, in fact, afraid.

  The idea that she could stay here, be safe here—with him… it was like a window swinging open, light and air rushing in. But fear, too. Fear of hope, because the instant she understood what he was proposing, Sarai wanted so badly for it to work, and when did she ever get what she wanted? “I’ve never tried it before,” she said, striving to keep her voice neutral. She was afraid of betraying her longing, in case it all should come to nothing. “Falling asleep might sever the tether,” she said, “and cut the moth loose.”

  “Do you want to try?” asked Lazlo, hopeful, and trying to disguise it.

  “There can’t be much time before sunrise.”

  “Not much,” he agreed. “But a little.”

  She had another thought. She was poking the idea for weaknesses, and so frightened of finding them. “What if it works, but my terrors come, too?”

  Lazlo shrugged. “We’ll chase them away, or else turn them into fireflies and catch them in jars.” He wasn’t afraid. Well. He was only afraid it wouldn’t work. Anything else they could handle, together. “What do you say?”

  For a moment Sarai didn’t trust her voice. As casual as they strove to seem, they both felt something momentous take shape between them, and—though she didn’t for a minute question his intentions—something intimate, too. To sleep inside his dream, when she wasn’t even certain she’d be aware it was a dream. Where she might not have control…

  “If it does work,” she whispered, “but I’m powerless…”

  She faltered, but he understood. “Do you trust me?” he asked.

  It wasn’t even a question. She felt safer here than she ever had anywhere. And anyway, she asked herself, what real risk was there? It’s just a dream, she answered, though of course it was so much more.

  She looked at Lazlo, bit her lip and let it go, and said, “All right.”

  45

  STRANGE AZOTH

  In the makeshift alchemical laboratory in the windowless attic of the crematorium, a small blue flame touched the curved glass base of a suspended flask. The liquid there heated and changed state, rising as vapor through the fractionating column
to catch in the condenser and trickle in droplets into the collection flask.

  The golden godson retrieved it and held it up to a glave to examine it.

  Clear fluid. It might have been water to look at it, but it wasn’t. It was azoth, a substance even more precious than the gold it could yield, because, unlike gold, it had multiple, wondrous applications and but a single source in all the world: himself—at least as long as its key component remained secret.

  A vial lay empty on the worktable. It was labeled SPIRIT OF LIBRARIAN, and Thyon felt a twinge of… distaste? Here was vital essence of the no-name peasant foundling who had the unforgivable habit of helping him for no good reason, all while looking guileless, as though it were a normal thing to do.

  Maybe it was distaste. Thyon pushed the empty vial aside to clear space for his next procedure. Or maybe it was discomfort. The whole world saw him the way he wanted to be seen: as an unassailable force, complete unto himself and in full command of the mysteries of the universe.

  Except for Strange, that is, who knew what he really was. His jaw clenched. If only, he thought, Lazlo would have the courtesy to… cease to exist… then perhaps he could be grateful to him. But not while he was there, always there, a benign presence laughing with warriors or doing, gladly, whatever needed to be done. He’d even formed the habit of helping the caravan’s cook scrub the big soup pot out with sand. What was he trying to prove?

  Thyon shook his head. He knew the answer, he just couldn’t understand it. Lazlo wasn’t trying to prove anything. Nothing was strategy with him. Nothing was deception. Strange was just Strange, and he’d offered up his spirit with no strings attached. Thyon was grateful, even if he was resentful in equal—or greater—measure. He had drawn too much of his own spirit, and that was a dangerous game. Lazlo’s jibe that it would make him ugly had not missed its mark, but that wasn’t his only concern. He had seen the spirit-dead. Most didn’t last long, either taking their own lives or wasting away from a lack of will even to eat. The will to live, it would seem, existed in this mysterious clear fluid that Strange had given of without a second thought.

  And Thyon was much restored, thanks to the reprieve. He was taking another stab at alkahest, using the Strange azoth this time. Usually he felt a stir of eagerness at this part of a chemical procedure—a thrill to create something no one else could, and alter the very structure of nature. Alkahest was a universal solvent, true to its name, and had never failed him before. He’d tested it tirelessly back at the Chrysopoesium, and it had dissolved every substance he’d touched it to, even diamond.

  But not mesarthium. The damnable metal frightened him in its unnaturalness, and he felt already the ignominy of defeat. But scientific method was Thyon’s religion, and it dictated the repeat of experiments—even of failures. So he cooked a new batch of chemicals, and took the alkahest over to the north anchor to test it again. It wasn’t in its final preparation, of course, or else it would eat through its container. He would make the final mixture at the last moment to activate it.

  And then, when nothing happened—as nothing would—he would apply the neutralizing compound to deactivate it so it didn’t just drip down the impervious metal and eat its way into the ground.

  He was going to take a nap after. That was what he was thinking about—beauty sleep, you Strange bastard—as he walked through the moonless city of Weep with a satchel of flasks slung over his shoulder. He was going to repeat his experiment and record its failure, and then he was going to bed.

  There wasn’t even a moment, not even a second, in which Thyon Nero considered that the experiment might not fail.

  46

  JUST A DREAM

  Sarai called the rest of her moths home early, leaving just the one on Lazlo’s brow. She hesitated only to recall the one watching over her father.

  Watching him, she corrected herself. Not watching over him. That wasn’t what she was doing.

  Here she’d finally found him, and she couldn’t even look into his mind.

  It was a relief, she admitted to herself, finally giving up and drawing the moth off the wall and out the window, back up into the air. She was afraid to know what she would find in his dreams now that he knew she was alive. Could it be that after everything there was still some capacity for hope in her—that he might be glad she wasn’t dead?

  She shook it off. Of course he wouldn’t be glad, but tonight she didn’t have to know it. She left him to his thoughts, whatever they might be.

  The journey from rooftops to terrace was long for such small fluttering scraps as moths, and she had never been so impatient as in those minutes while they rose through the heights of the air. When they finally arrived and fluttered back through the terrace door, she saw the ghosts standing guard and remembered with a start that she was a prisoner. She’d all but forgotten, and didn’t dwell on it now. Most of her awareness was with Lazlo. She was still in his room with him when, up in her own, she parted her lips to receive her moths home.

  She turned away from him in the dream, even though she knew he couldn’t see her real mouth, or the moths vanishing into it. Their wings brushed over her lips, soft as the ghost of a kiss, and all she could think was how the sight would disgust him.

  Who would ever want to kiss a girl who eats moths?

  I don’t “eat” them, she argued with herself.

  Your lips still taste of salt and soot.

  Stop thinking of kissing.

  And then: the unusual experience of lying down on her bed in full dark—her real body in her real bed—in the stillness of knowing both citadel and city were sleeping, and with a thread of her consciousness still stretched down into Weep. It had been years since she’d gone to bed before sunrise. As Lazlo had earlier lain stiffly, his very eagerness for sleep keeping sleep at bay, so did Sarai, a heightened awareness of her limbs giving rise to brief doubts as to how she arranged them when she wasn’t thinking about it. She achieved something like her natural sleep position—curled on her side, her hands tucked under one cheek. Her weary body and wearier mind, which had seemed, in her exhaustion, to be drifting away from each other like untethered boats, made some peace with the tides. Her hearts were beating too fast for sleep, though. Not with dread, but agitation lest it shouldn’t work, and… excitement—as wild and soft as a chaos of moth wings—lest it should.

  In the room down in the city, she stood by the window awhile and talked with Lazlo in a newly shy way, and that sense of the momentous did not die down. Sarai thought of Ruby’s envious laments about how she “got to live.” It had never felt true before, but now it did.

  Was it living, if it was a dream?

  Just a dream, she was reminded, but the words had little meaning when the knots of the hand-tied rug under her imaginary feet were more vivid than the smooth silk pillow beneath her actual cheek. When the company of this dreamer made her feel awake for the first time, even as she tried to sleep. She was unsettled, standing there with him. Her mind was unquiet. “I wonder if it might be easier to fall asleep,” she ventured finally, “if I’m not talking.”

  “Of course,” he said. “Do you want to lie down?” He blushed at his own suggestion. She did, too. “Please, be comfortable,” he said. “Can I get you anything?”

  “No, thank you,” said Sarai. And with a funny feeling of repeating herself, she lay down on the bed, here much as she had up above. She stayed close to the edge. It wasn’t a large bed. She didn’t think he would lie down, too, but she left room enough in case he did.

  He stayed by the window, and she saw him make as though to put his hands in his pockets, only to discover that his breeches didn’t have pockets. He looked awkward for a moment before remembering this was a dream. Then pockets appeared, and his hands went in.

  Sarai folded hers once more under her cheek. This bed was more comfortable than her own. The whole room was. She liked the stone walls and wood beams that had been shaped by human hands and tools instead of by the mind of Skathis. It was snug, but that
was nice, too. It was cozy. Nothing in the citadel was cozy, not even her alcove behind the dressing room, though that came closest. It struck her with fresh force that this was her father’s bed, as the bed in the alcove had been his before it was hers. How many times had she imagined him lying awake there, plotting murder and revolt? Now, as she lay here, she thought of him as a boy, dreading being stolen and spirited up to the citadel. Had he dreamed of being a hero, she wondered, and if he had, what had he imagined it would be like? Nothing like it was, she was sure. Nothing like a ruined temple that only ghosts could enter.

  And then, well… it wasn’t sudden, exactly. Rather, Sarai became aware that something was softly different, and she understood what it was: She was no longer in multiple places, but just one. She had misplaced her awareness of her true body reposed in her true bed, and of the moth on Lazlo’s brow. She was only here, and it felt all the more real for it.

  Oh. She sat up, the full realization hitting her. She was here. It had worked. The moth’s tether had not snapped. She was asleep—oh blessed rest—and instead of her own unconscious fraught with prowling terrors, she was safe in Lazlo’s. She laughed—a little incredulous, a little nervous, a little pleased. Okay, a lot pleased. Well, a lot nervous, too. A lot everything. She was asleep in Lazlo’s dream.

  He watched her, expectant. The sight of her there—her blue legs, bare to the knees, entangled in his rumpled blankets, and her hair mussed from his pillow—made for an aching-sweet vision. He was highly conscious of his hands, and it wasn’t from the awkwardness of not knowing what to do with them, but from knowing, rather, what he wished to do with them. It tingled along his palms: the aching urge to touch her. His hands felt wide awake. “Well?” he asked, anxious. “Did it work?”

 
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