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Strange the dreamer, p.35
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.35

           Laini Taylor
 

  She nodded, breaking into a wide, wondering smile that he could hardly help but mirror back at her. What a long, extraordinary night it had been. How many hours had passed since he had closed his eyes, hoping she would come. And now… in some way he couldn’t entirely wrap his mind around, she was… well… that was it, wasn’t it? He had entirely wrapped his mind around her.

  He held a goddess in his mind as one might cup a butterfly in one’s hands. Keeping it safe just long enough to set it free.

  Free. Could it be possible? Could she ever be free?

  Yes.

  Yes. Somehow.

  “Well then,” he said, feeling a scope of possibility as immense as oceans. “Now that you’re here, what shall we do?”

  It was a good question. With the infinite possibilities of dreaming, it wasn’t easy to narrow it down. “We could go anywhere,” said Lazlo. “The sea? We could sail a leviathan, and set it free. The amphion fields of Thanagost? Warlords and leashed wolves and drifting ulola blossoms like fleets of living bubbles. Or the Cloudspire. We might climb it and steal emeralds from the eyes of the sarcophagi, like Calixte. Do you fancy becoming a jewel thief, my lady?”

  Sarai’s eyes sparkled. “It does sound fun,” she said. It all sounded marvelous. “But you’ve only mentioned real places and things so far. Do you know what I’d like?”

  She was sitting on her knees on the bed, her shoulders straight and hands clasped in her lap. Her smile was a brilliant specimen and she wore the moon on her wrist. Lazlo was plain dazzled by the sight of her. “What?” he asked. Anything, he thought.

  “I’d like for the wingsmiths to come to town.”

  “The wingsmiths,” he repeated, and somewhere within him, as though with a whirr of gears and a ping of sprung locks, a previously unsuspected vault of delight spilled open.

  “Like you mentioned the other day,” said Sarai, girlish in her demure posture and childlike excitement. “I’d like to buy some wings and test them out, and after that perhaps we might try riding dragons and see which is more fun.”

  Lazlo had to laugh. The delight filled him up. He thought he’d never laughed like this before, from this new place in him where so much delight had been waiting in reserve. “You’ve just described my perfect day,” he said, and he held out his hand, and she took it.

  She rose to her knees and slid off the side of the bed, but at the moment that her feet touched the floor, a great concussion thoomed in the street. A tremor shook the room. Plaster rained from the ceiling, and all the excitement was stricken from Sarai’s face. “Oh gods,” she said, in a rasp of a whisper. “It’s happening.”

  “What is? What’s happening?”

  “The terrors, my nightmares. They’re here.”

  47

  THE TERRORS

  “Show me,” said Lazlo, who still wasn’t afraid. As he’d said before, if her terror spilled over, they’d take care of it.

  But Sarai shook her head, wild. “No. Not this. Close the shutters. Hurry!”

  “But what is it?” he asked. He moved toward the window, not to close the shutters but to look out. But before he could, they slammed before him with a crack and rattle, and the latch fell securely into place. Eyebrows raised, he turned to Sarai. “Well, it seems you’re not powerless here after all.”

  When she just looked at him blankly, he pointed to the shutters and said, “You did that, not me.”

  “I did?” she asked. He nodded. She stood up a little straighter, but she had no time to gather her courage, because outside the thoom came again, lower now and with subtler tremors, and then again and again in rhythmic repetition.

  Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.

  Sarai backed away from the window. “He’s coming,” she said, shaking.

  Lazlo followed her. He reached for her shoulders and held them gently. “It’s all right,” he said. “Remember, Sarai, it’s just a dream.”

  She couldn’t feel the truth of his words. All she felt was the approach, the closing-in, the dread, the dread that was as pure a distillation of fear as any emotion Isagol had ever made. Sarai’s hearts were wild with it, and with anguish, too. How could she have deployed this, again and again, into the dreams of the helpless sleepers of Weep? What kind of monster was she?

  It had been her most powerful weapon, because it was their most potent fear. And now it was stalking her.

  Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.

  Great, relentless footsteps, closer, louder.

  “Who is it?” Lazlo asked, still holding Sarai’s shoulders. Her panic, he found, was catching. It seemed to pass from her skin to his, moving up from his hands, up his arms in coursing vibrations of fear. “Who’s coming?”

  “Shhh,” she said, her eyes so wide they showed a full ring of white, and when she whispered it was breath shaped into words, and made no sound at all. “He’ll hear you.”

  Thoom.

  Sarai froze. It didn’t seem possible for her eyes to widen any further, but they did, and in that brief moment of silence when the footsteps ceased—that terrible pause that every household in Weep had dreaded for two hundred years—Sarai’s panic overpowered Lazlo’s reason, so that they were both in it, living it, when the shutters, without warning, were ripped from their hinges in a havoc of splintering wood and shattered glass. And there, just outside, was the creature whose footsteps shook the bones of Weep. It was no living thing, but moved as though it were, as sinuous as a ravid, and shining like poured mercury. It was all mesarthium, smooth bunched muscle shaped for crouching and leaping. The flanks of a great cat, the neck and heavy hump of a bull, wings as sharp and vicious as the wings of the great seraph, though on a smaller scale. And a head… a head that was made for nightmares.

  Its head was carrion.

  It was metal, of course, but like the relief on the walls of Sarai’s rooms—the songbirds and lilies so real they mocked the master carvers of Weep—it was utterly true to life. Or rather, true to death. It was a dead thing, a rotten thing, a skull with the flesh peeling off, revealing teeth to the roots in a grimace of fangs, and in the great black eye sockets were no eyes but only a terrible, all-seeing light. It had horns thick as arms, tapering to wicked points, and it pawed at the ground and tossed its head, a roar rumbling up its metal throat.

  It was Rasalas, the beast of the north anchor, and it wasn’t the true monster. The true monster was astride it:

  Skathis, god of beasts, master of metal, thief of sons and daughters, tormentor of Weep.

  Lazlo had only the crudely drawn mural to go on, but he beheld now the god who had stolen so much—not just sons and daughters, though that was the dark heart of it. Skathis had stolen the sky from the city, and the city from the world. What tremendous, insidious power that took, and here was the god himself.

  One might expect a presence to rival the Godslayer’s—a dark counterpart to his light, as two quell kings faced off across a game board.

  But no. He was nothing next to the Godslayer. Here was no dark majesty, no fell magnificence. He was of ordinary stature and his face was just a face. He was no demon-god from myth. But for his color—that extraordinary blue—there was nothing extraordinary about him besides the cruelty in his face. He was neither handsome nor ugly, distinguished only by the malice that burned in his gray eyes, and that serpent smile of cunning and venom.

  But he rode upon Rasalas, and that more than made up for any shortfall of godly grandeur, the beast an extension of his own psyche, every prowling, pawing step and toss of the head his own. Each growl that echoed up that metal throat was his as surely as if issued from his own flesh throat. His hair was of sullen brown, and he wore on it a crown of mesarthium shaped as a wreath of serpents swallowing each other by the tails. They moved about his brow in sinuous waves of devouring, round and round, relentless. He was clothed in a coat of velvet and diamond dust with long, fluttering tails in the shape of knife blades, and his boots were white spectral leather buckled with lys.

  It was an accursed thing to flay a sp
ectral and wear its skin. Those boots might almost have been of human leather, so deeply wrong were they.

  But none of the terrible details could account for the purity of dread that surged through the room—through the dream, though both Lazlo and Sarai had lost their grip on that fact, and were prey to the torrents of the unconscious. That pure dread, as Lazlo had witnessed again and again since arriving in Weep, was a collective horror that had been building for two full centuries. How many young men and women had been taken up in all that time, and returned with no memories after this moment—this moment at their door or window when the leering god came calling. Lazlo thought of Suheyla and Azareen and Eril-Fane, and so many others, taken just like this, no matter what their families did to keep them safe.

  Again the question beat at his mind. Why? All the stolen girls and boys, their memories taken and much more than that.

  The nursery, the babies. Why?

  On the one hand it was obvious, and certainly nothing new. If there has ever been a conqueror who did not exact this most devastating tithe from his subjects, he is unknown to history. The youth are the spoils of war. Chattel, labor. No one is safe. Tyrants have always taken who they wanted, and tyrants always will. The king of Syriza had a harem even now.

  But this stood apart. There was something systematic in the taking, something shrouded. That was what nudged at Lazlo’s mind—but briefly, only to be churned under by the overwhelming dread. Just a few minutes earlier he had thought, nonchalant, that he could catch Sarai’s terrors like fireflies in a jar. Now the enormity of them reached out to catch him.

  “Strange the dreamer,” said Skathis, extending one imperious hand. “Come with me.”

  “No!” cried Sarai. She grabbed at Lazlo’s arm and clutched it to herself.

  Skathis grinned. “Come now. You know there is no safety and no salvation. There is only surrender.”

  Only surrender. Only surrender.

  What flooded Sarai was the emotion of everyone ever left behind, every family member or fiancé, childhood sweetheart or best friend who could do nothing but surrender as their loved one was taken up. Rasalas reared up on its hind legs, its huge, clawed paws coming down hard on the window ledge, crumbling it away. Sarai and Lazlo stumbled backward. They clung together. “You can’t have him!” choked Sarai.

  “Don’t worry, child,” said Skathis, fixing her with his cold eyes. “I’m taking him for you.”

  She shook her head, hard, at the idea that this thing should be done in her name—as Isagol had taken Eril-Fane for her own, so would Skathis take Lazlo for her. But then… that very idea—the paradox of it, of Skathis taking Lazlo from her to bring him to her—split Sarai back into two people, the one in the citadel and the one in this room, and uncovered the border between dream and reality that had become lost in the fear. This was just a dream, and as long as she knew that, she wouldn’t be powerless in it.

  All the fear washed away like dust in a rainstorm. You are the Muse of Nightmares, Sarai told herself. You are their mistress, not their thrall.

  And she threw up one hand, not forming in her mind a precise attack, but—as with the mahalath—letting some deeper voice within herself decide.

  It decided, apparently, that Skathis was already dead.

  Before Sarai’s and Lazlo’s eyes, the god jerked, eyes widening in shock as a hreshtek suddenly burst out through his chest. His blood was red—as red as the paint in the mural, in which, it occurred to Lazlo, Skathis was depicted just like this: stabbed from behind, the sword slitting out right between his hearts. A red bubble appeared at his lips, and very quickly he was dead. Very quickly. This was no natural depiction of his death, but a clear reminder of it. You’re dead, stay dead, leave us alone. Rasalas the beast froze in place—all mesarthium dying with its master—while on its back the lord of the Mesarthim collapsed in on himself, withering, deflating, until nothing remained but a bloodless, spiritless husk of blue flesh to be carried off, with a terrific screech, in a flash of melting white, by the great bird, Wraith, appearing from nowhere and vanishing the same way.

  The room was quiet, but for quick breathing. The nightmare was over, and Lazlo and Sarai clung together, staring into the face of Rasalas, frozen in a snarl. Its great feet were still up on the window ledge, claws sunk into the stone. Lazlo reached out a shaking arm and yanked the curtain closed. The other arm he left in Sarai’s possession. She was still clinging to it, both of her own arms wrapped around it as though she meant to dig in her heels and wrestle Skathis for him. She’d done better than that. She had vanquished the god of beasts. Lazlo was sure he had done none of it.

  “Thank you,” he said, turning to her. They were so very near already, her body pressed against his arm. His turning brought them nearer, face-to-face, his tilted down, hers up, so that the space between them was hardly more than the wisp of tea steam that, earlier in the night, had drifted up between them at the riverbank tea table.

  It was new to both of them—this nearness that mingles breath and warmth—and they shared the sensation that they were absorbing each other, melting together in an exquisite crucible. It was an intimacy both had imagined, but never—they now knew—successfully. The truth was so much better than the fantasy. The wild, soft wings were in a frenzy. Sarai couldn’t think. She wanted only to keep on melting.

  But there was something in the way. She was still blinking away the afterimage of Rasalas’s gleaming teeth, and the knowledge that it was all her fault. “Don’t thank me,” she said, letting go of Lazlo’s arm and looking down, breaking the gaze. “I brought that here. You should throw me out. You don’t want me in your mind, Lazlo. I’ll just ruin it.”

  “You ruin nothing,” he said, and his woodsmoke voice had never been sweeter. “I might be asleep, but this has still been the best night of my life.” Marveling, he gazed at her eyes, her cinnamon brows, the perfect curve of her blue cheek, and that luscious lip with the crease in the center, sweet as a slice of ripe fruit. He dragged his eyes up from it, back to hers. “Sarai,” he said, and if ravids purred it might sound something like the way he said her name. “You must see. I want you in my mind.”

  And he wanted her in his arms. He wanted her in his life. He wanted her not trapped in the sky, not hunted by humans, not hopeless, and not besieged by nightmares whenever she closed her eyes. He wanted to bring her to a real riverbank and let her sink her toes into the mud. He wanted to curl up with her in a real library, and smell the books and open them and read them to each other. He wanted to buy them both wings from the wingsmiths so that they could fly away, with a stash of blood candy in a little treasure chest, so that they could live forever. He’d learned, the moment he glimpsed what lay beyond the Cusp, that the realm of the unknowable was so much bigger than he’d guessed. He wanted to discover how much bigger. With her.

  But first… first he just really, really, really wanted to kiss her.

  He searched her eyes for acquiescence and found it. Freely she gave it. It was like a thread of light passing from one to the other, and it was more than acquiescence. It was complicity, and desire. Her breathing shallowed. She stepped in, closing that little space. There was a limit to their melting, and they found it, and defied it. His chest was hard against hers. Hers was soft against his. His hands closed on her waist. Her arms came round his neck. The walls gave forth a shimmer like sunrise on fierce water. Countless tiny stars spent themselves in radiance, and neither Sarai nor Lazlo knew which of them was making it. Perhaps they both were, and there was such brilliance in the endless careless diamonds of light, but there was awareness, too, and urgency. Under the skin of dreaming, they both knew that dawn was near, and that their embrace could not survive it.

  So Sarai rose to her toes, erasing the last little gap between their flushed faces. Their lashes fluttered shut, honey red and rivercat, and their mouths, soft and hungry, found each other and had just time to touch, and press, and sweetly, sweetly open before the first wan morning light seeped in at the wind
ow, touched the dusky wing of the moth on Lazlo’s brow, and—in a puff of indigo smoke—annihilated it.

  48

  NO PLACE IN THE WORLD

  Sarai vanished from Lazlo’s arms, and Lazlo vanished from Sarai’s. The shared dream ripped right down the middle and spilled them both out. Sarai woke in her bed in the citadel with the warmth of his lips still on hers, and Lazlo woke in the city, a moth-shaped puff of smoke diffusing on his brow. They sat up at the same moment, and for both, the sudden absence was the powerful inverse of the presence they’d felt just an instant before. Not mere physical presence—the heat of a body against one’s own (though that, too)—but something more profound.

  This was not the frustration one feels at waking from a sweet dream. It was the desolation of having found the place that fits, the one true place, and experiencing the first heady sigh of rightness before being torn away and cast back into random, lonely scatter.

  The place was each other, and the irony was sharp, since they couldn’t be in the same place, and had come no closer to each other in physical reality than her screaming at him across her terrace while ghosts clawed and tore at her.

  But even knowing that was true—that they hadn’t been in the same place all this long night through, but practically on different planes of existence, him on the ground, her in the sky—Sarai could not accept that they hadn’t been together. She collapsed back on her bed, and her fingers reached wonderingly to trace her own lips, where a moment before his had been.

  Not really, perhaps, but truly. That is to say, they might not have really kissed, but they had truly kissed. Everything about this night was true in a way that transcended their bodies.

  But that didn’t mean their bodies wanted to be transcended.

  The ache.

  Lazlo fell back on his pillows, too, raised fists to his eyes and pressed. Breath hissed out between his clenched teeth. To have been granted so tiny a taste of the nectar of her mouth, and so brief a brush with the velvet of her lips was unspeakable cruelty. He felt set on fire. He had to convince himself that liberating a silk sleigh and flying forthwith to the citadel was not a viable option. That would be like the prince charging up to the maiden’s tower, so mad with desire that he forgets his sword and is slain by the dragon before even getting near her.

 
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