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Strange the dreamer, p.36
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.36

           Laini Taylor
 

  Except that the dragon in this case was a battalion of ghosts whom no sword could harm, and he didn’t have a sword anyway. At best he had a padded pole, a true hero’s weapon.

  This problem—by which he meant not the interrupted kiss, but this whole ungodly impasse of city and citadel—would not be solved by slaying. There had been too much of that already. How it would be solved, he didn’t know, but he knew this: The stakes were higher than anyone else realized. And the stakes, for him now, were personal.

  From the day the Godslayer rode through the gates in Zosma and issued his extraordinary invitation, throughout the recruitment of experts and all their endless speculation, to finally laying eyes on Weep, Lazlo had felt a certain freedom from expectation. Oh, he wanted to help. Badly. He’d daydreamed about it, but in all of that, no one was looking to him for solutions, and he hadn’t been looking to himself for them, either. He’d merely been wistful. “What could I do?” went the refrain. He was no alchemist, no builder, no expert on metals or magnets.

  But now the nature of the problem had changed. It wasn’t just metals and magnets anymore, but ghosts and gods and magic and vengeance, and while he wouldn’t call himself an expert in any of those things, he had more to recommend him than the others did, starting with an open mind.

  And open hearts.

  Sarai was up there. Her life was at stake. So Lazlo didn’t ask himself What could I do? that morning as the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon dawned in the city of Weep, but “What will I do?”

  It was a noble question, and if destiny had seen fit to reveal its staggering answer to him then, he would never have believed it.

  Eril-Fane and Azareen came for breakfast, and Lazlo saw them through the lens of everything he’d learned in the night, and his hearts ached for them. Suheyla set out steamed buns and boiled eggs and tea. They sat down, all four of them, on the cushions around the low stone table in the courtyard. Suheyla knew nothing yet but what she sensed: that something had happened, that something had changed. “So,” she asked. “What did you find up there, really? I take it that the story about the pontoon was a lie.”

  “Not exactly a lie,” said Lazlo. “The pontoon did spring a leak.” He took a sip of tea. “With some help from a meat hook.”

  Suheyla’s cup clattered onto her saucer. “A meat hook?” she repeated, eyes wide, then narrow. “How did the pontoon happen to encounter a meat hook?”

  The question was directed at Lazlo, since he seemed more inclined to speak than the other two. He turned to Eril-Fane and Azareen. It seemed their business to do it, not his.

  They began with the ghosts. In fact, they named a great many of them, beginning with Azareen’s grandmother. There were more than Lazlo realized. Uncles, neighbors, acquaintances. Suheyla wept in silence. Even a cousin who’d died a few days ago, a young man named Ari-Eil, had been seen. They were all pale and sick with the implications. The citizens of Weep, it would seem, were captive even in death.

  “Either we’ve all been damned and the citadel is our hell,” said Suheyla, shaking, “or there’s another explanation.” She fixed her son with a steady gaze. She wasn’t one to give credence to hell, and was braced for the truth.

  He cleared his throat and said, with enormous difficulty, “There is a… survivor… up there.”

  Suheyla paled. “A survivor?” She swallowed hard. “Godspawn?”

  “A girl,” said Eril-Fane. He had to clear his throat again. Every syllable seemed to fight him. “With red hair.” Five simple words—a girl with red hair—and what a torrent of emotion they unleashed. If silence could crash, it did. If it could break like a wave and flood a room with all the force of the ocean, it did. Azareen seemed carved of stone. Suheyla gripped the edge of the table. Lazlo reached out a hand to steady her.

  “Alive?” she gasped, and her gaze was pinned to her son. Lazlo could see the ricochet of feeling in her, the tentative surge of hope flinching back toward the firmer ground of dread. Her grandchild was alive. Her grandchild was godspawn. Her grandchild was alive. “Tell me,” she said, desperate to hear more.

  “I have nothing more to tell,” said Eril-Fane. “I only saw her for an instant.”

  “Did she attack you?” asked Suheyla.

  He shook his head, seeming puzzled. It was Azareen who answered. “She warned us,” she said. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes haunted. “I don’t know why. But we would all be dead if it weren’t for her.”

  A brittle silence settled. They all traded looks across the table, so stunned and full of questions that Lazlo finally spoke.

  “Her name is Sarai,” he said, and their three heads swung to face him. He had been silent, set apart from the violence of their emotion. Those five words—“a girl with red hair”—created such an opposite effect in him. Tenderness, delight, desire. His voice carried all of it when he said her name, in an echo of the ravid’s purr in which he’d said it to her.

  “How could you know that?” asked Azareen, the first to recover from her surprise. Her tone was blunt and skeptical.

  “She told me,” Lazlo said. “She can go into dreams. It’s her gift. She came into mine.”

  They all considered this. “How do you know it was real?” Eril-Fane asked.

  “They’re not like any dreams I’ve had before,” Lazlo said. How could he put it into words, what it was like being with Sarai? “I know how it sounds. But I dreamed her before I ever saw her. Before I even saw the mural and knew the Mesarthim were blue. That was why I asked you that day. I thought she must be Isagol, because I didn’t know about the—” He hesitated. This was their secret shame, and it had been kept from him. The godspawn. The word was as terrible as the name Weep. “The children,” he said instead. “But I know now. I… I know all of it.”

  Eril-Fane stared at him, but it was the blind, unblinking stare of someone seeing into the past. “Then you know what I did.”

  Lazlo nodded. When he looked at Eril-Fane now, what did he see? A hero? A butcher? Did they cancel each other out, or would butcher always trump hero? Could they exist side by side, two such opposites, like the love and hate he’d borne for three long years?

  “I had to,” said the Godslayer. “We couldn’t suffer them to live, not with magic that would set them above us, to conquer us all over again when they grew up. The risk was too great.” It all had the ring of something oft repeated, and his look appealed to Lazlo to understand. Lazlo didn’t. When Sarai told him what Eril-Fane had done, he’d believed the Godslayer must repent of it now. But here he was, defending the slaughter.

  “They were innocent,” he said.

  The Godslayer seemed to shrink in on himself. “I know. Do you think I wanted to do it? There was no other way. There was no place for them in this world.”

  “And now?” Lazlo asked. He felt cold. This wasn’t the conversation he had expected to be having. They should have been figuring out a plan. Instead, his question was met with silence, the only possible interpretation of which was: There was still no place for them in this world. “She’s your daughter,” he said. “She’s not some monster. She’s afraid. She’s kind.”

  Eril-Fane shrank further. The two women closed ranks around him. Azareen flashed Lazlo a warning look, and Suheyla reached for her son’s hand. “And what of our dead, trapped up there?” she asked. “Is that kind?”

  “That isn’t her doing,” Lazlo said, not to dismiss the threat, but at least to exonerate Sarai. “It must be one of the others.”

  Eril-Fane flinched. “Others?”

  How deep and tangled the roots of hatred were, thought Lazlo, seeing how even now, with remorse and self-loathing like a fifteen years’ canker eating him from within, the Godslayer could hardly tell whether he wished the godspawn unslain or feared them so.

  As for Lazlo, he was uneasy with the information. He felt sick in the pit of his stomach to fear that he couldn’t trust Eril-Fane. “There are other survivors,” was all he said.

  Survivors. There was so much in that
word: strength, resilience, luck, along with the shadow of whatever crime or cruelty had been survived. In this case, Eril-Fane was that crime, that cruelty. They had survived him, and the shadow fell very dark on him.

  “Sarai saved us,” Lazlo said quietly. “Now we have to save her, and the others, too. You’re Eril-Fane. It’s up to you. The people will follow your lead.”

  “It isn’t that simple, Lazlo,” said Suheyla. “There’s no way you could understand the hate. It’s like a disease.”

  He was beginning to understand. How had Sarai put it? “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.”

  “So what are you saying? What do you mean to do?” He braced himself, and asked, “Kill them?”

  “No,” said Eril-Fane. “No.” It was an answer to the question, but it came out as though he were warding off a nightmare or a blow, as though even the idea was an assault, and he couldn’t bear it. He put his face in his hand, head bowed. Azareen sat apart, watching him, her eyes dark and liquid and so full of pain that she might have been made of it. Suheyla, eyes brimming with tears, laid her one good hand on her son’s shoulder.

  “I’ll take the second silk sleigh,” he had said, lifting his head, and while the women’s eyes were wet, his were dry. “I’ll go up and meet with them.”

  Azareen and Suheyla immediately objected. “And offer yourself as sacrifice?” demanded Azareen. “What would that accomplish?”

  “It seems to me you barely escaped with your lives,” Suheyla pointed out more gently.

  He looked to Lazlo, and there was a helplessness in him, as though he wanted Lazlo to tell him what to do. “I’ll talk to Sarai tonight,” he volunteered. “I’ll ask if she can persuade the others to call a truce.”

  “How do you know she’ll come again?”

  Lazlo blushed, and worried they could see it all written on his face. “She said she would,” he lied. They’d run out of time to make plans, but she didn’t need to say it. Night couldn’t come soon enough, and he was sure she felt the same. And next time he wouldn’t wait until the precise strike of dawn before drawing her close. He cleared his throat. “If she says it’s safe, we can go up tomorrow.”

  “We?” said Eril-Fane. “No. Not you. I’ll risk no one but myself.”

  Azareen looked sharply away at that, and in the bleakness of her eyes, Lazlo saw a shade of the anguish of loving someone who doesn’t love himself.

  “Oh, I’m going with you,” Lazlo said, not with force but simple resolve. He was imagining disembarking from the sleigh onto the seraph’s palm, and Sarai standing before him, as real as his own flesh and blood. He had to be there. Whatever look these musings produced upon his face, Eril-Fane didn’t try to argue him out of it. As for Azareen, neither would she be left behind. But first, the five up in the citadel had to agree to it, and that couldn’t happen until tomorrow.

  Meanwhile, there was today to deal with. Lazlo was to go to the Merchants’ Guildhall this morning and ask Soulzeren and Ozwin, privately, to conjure some likely excuse for delaying the launch of the second silk sleigh. Everyone would be expecting them to follow up yesterday’s failed ascension with a success, which of course they couldn’t do, at least not yet.

  As for the secret, it would be kept from the citizens. Eril-Fane considered keeping it from the Tizerkane, too, for fear that it would cause them too much turmoil and prove too difficult to hide. But Azareen was staunch on their behalf, and argued that they needed to be ready for anything that happened. “They can bear it,” she said, adding softly, “They don’t need to know all of it yet.”

  She meant Sarai, Lazlo understood, and whose child she was.

  “There’s something I don’t understand,” he said as he prepared to take his leave. It seemed to him it was the mystery at the center of everything to do with the godspawn. “Sarai said there were thirty of them in the nursery that day.”

  Eril-Fane looked sharply down at his hands. The muscles in his jaw clenched. Lazlo was uncomfortable pressing onward in this bloody line of inquiry—and he was far from certain he really wanted an answer—but it felt too important not to delve deeper. “And though that’s… no small number, it’s got to be just a fraction.” He was imagining the nursery as a row of identical cribs. Because he hadn’t been in the citadel and seen how everything was mesarthium, he substituted rough wooden cribs—little more than open crates—like the ones the monks kept infant orphans in at the abbey.

  Here was the thing that nagged at Lazlo like a missing tooth. He himself had been an infant in a row of identical cribs, and he shared a name with countless other foundlings to show for it. There had been a lot of them—a lot of Stranges—and… there were still a lot of them. “What about all the others?” he asked, looking from Eril-Fane to Azareen, and lastly to Suheyla, who, he suspected, had been delivered of one herself. “The ones who weren’t babies anymore? If the Mesarthim were doing this all along…” This? He shuddered at his own craven circumlocution, using so meaningless a word to obscure so hideous a truth. Breeding. That was what they’d been doing. Hadn’t they?

  Why?

  “Over two centuries,” he pressed, “there had to have been thousands of children.”

  Their three faces all wore the same bleak look. He saw that they understood him. They might have stepped in and saved him coming out with it, but they didn’t, so he put it bluntly. “What happened to all the rest?”

  Suheyla answered. Her voice was lifeless. “We don’t know,” she said. “We don’t know what the gods did with them.”

  49

  VEIL OF REVERIE

  There was no beauty sleep for Thyon Nero. Quite the opposite.

  “It might not kill you,” Strange had said. “But it will make you ugly.” Thyon recalled the jest—the easy teasing tone of it—as he drew another long, ill-advised syringeful of spirit from his own overtaxed veins. It couldn’t be helped. He had to make more azoth at once. A control batch, as it were, after the… inexplicable… results of last night’s test.

  He had washed all his glassware and instruments carefully. He might have requested an assistant to do such menial chores, but he was too jealous of his secret to let anyone into his laboratory. Anyway, even if he’d had an assistant, he would have washed these flasks himself. It was the only way to be certain that there were no impurities in the equation, and no unknown factor that might affect the results.

  He had always eschewed the mystical side of alchemy and focused on pure science. Such was the basis of his success. Empirical reality. Results—repeatable, verifiable. The solidity of truth you could hold in your hands. Even as he read the stories in Miracles for Breakfast, he was mining it for clues. It was science he was after—traces of science, anyway, like dust shaken from a tapestry of wonder.

  And when he reread the stories, still it was research.

  When he read them to fall asleep—a habit that was as deep a secret as the recipe for azoth—it was possible that he might drift into a kind of reverie that felt more mystical than material, but they were fairy tales, after all, and it was only in those moments when his mind shut off its rigor. Whatever it was, it was gone by morning.

  But morning had come. He might have no windows to attest to it, but he had a watch, ticking steadily. The sun had risen, and Thyon Nero wasn’t reading fairy tales now. He was distilling azoth, as he had done hundreds of times before. So why had that shimmering veil of reverie been drawn over him now?

  He shook it off. Whatever accounted for the results of his experiments, it wasn’t mystical, and neither was mesarthium itself, and neither was spirit. There was a scientific explanation for everything.

  Even “gods.”

  50

  THE WHOLE DAY TO GET THROUGH

  In the citadel and in the city, Sarai and Lazlo each felt the tug of the other, like a string fixed between their hearts. Another between their lips, where their kiss had barely begun. And a third fr
om the pit of her belly to his, where new enticements stirred. Soft, insistent, delirious, the tug. If only they could gather up the strings and wind themselves nearer, nearer, until finally meeting in the middle.

  But there was the whole day to get through before it was time, again, for dreams.

  Waking from her first kiss, still flush with the magic of the extraordinary night, Sarai had been buoyant, and alive with new hope. The world seemed more beautiful, less brutal—and so did the future—because Lazlo was in it. She lay warm in her bed, her fingers playing over her own smile as though encountering it for the first time. She felt new to herself—not an obscene thing that made ghosts recoil, but a poem. A fairy tale.

  In the wake of the dream, anything seemed possible. Even freedom.

  Even love.

  But it was hard to hold on to that feeling as reality reasserted itself.

  She was still a prisoner, for starters, with Minya’s army preventing her from leaving her room. When she tried to shoulder through them to the door, they gripped her arms—right over the bruises they’d made the day before—and hauled her back. Less Ellen never came with her morning tray, nor did Feyzi or Awyss with the fresh pitcher of water they always brought first thing. Sarai had used the last of her water yesterday to clean the wound on her arm, and woke dehydrated—no doubt her weeping in the night hadn’t helped—with nothing to drink.

  She was thirsty. She was hungry. Did Minya mean to starve her?

  She had nothing at all until Great Ellen came in sometime in early afternoon with her apron full of plums.

 
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