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Strange the dreamer, p.37
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.37

           Laini Taylor
 

  “Oh, thank goodness,” said Sarai. But when she looked at Great Ellen, she was disturbed by what she saw. It was the ghost’s beloved face, matronly and broad, with her round red “happiness cheeks,” but there was nothing happy to be found in her affect, as flat as all the ghosts in Minya’s army. And when she spoke, the rhythm of her voice was not her own, but recognizably Minya’s. “Even traitors must be fed,” she said, and then she dropped the hem of her apron and dumped the plums onto the floor.

  “What…?” asked Sarai, jumping back as they went rolling every way. As the ghost turned away, Sarai saw how her eyeballs strained to stay fixed for as long as possible on her, and she read pain in them, and apology.

  Her hands shook as she picked up the plums. The first few she ate still crouched there. Her mouth and throat were so dry. The juice was heavenly, but it was tainted by the manner of its delivery, and by the horror of Minya using Great Ellen in such a way. Sarai ate five plums, then crawled around on the floor until she had gathered up all the rest of them and shoved them into the pockets of her robe. She could have eaten more, but she didn’t know how long they’d have to last her.

  Yesterday, trapped alone in her room, she’d felt despair. Today, she didn’t reprise it. Instead, she got mad. At Minya, of course, but the others, too. The ghosts had no free will, but what about Feral and Ruby and Sparrow? Where were they? If it were one of them being punished, she wouldn’t just accept it and go about her day. She would fight for them, even against Minya.

  Did they really believe she had betrayed them? She hadn’t chosen humans over godspawn, but life over death—for all their sakes. Couldn’t they see that?

  Under the influence of lull, Sarai’s days had been nothing but dreamless gray moments between one night and the next. This day was the opposite. It would not end.

  She watched the squares of sunlight that her windows threw on the floor. They ought to have moved with the angle of the sun, but she was sure they were frozen in place. Of course today would be the day the sun got stuck in the sky. The gears of the heavens had gotten gummed up, and now it would be daytime forever.

  Why not nighttime forever?

  Lazlo and nighttime forever. Sarai’s belly fluttered, and she yearned for the escape that nightfall would bring—if indeed it ever came.

  Sleep would help pass the time, if she dared.

  She certainly needed it. The little rest she’d gotten, asleep in Lazlo’s dream, hadn’t even begun to allay her fatigue. These past days, hunted by nightmares, she’d felt their presence even while she was awake. She felt them now, too, and she was still afraid. She just wasn’t terrified anymore, and that was rather wonderful.

  She considered her options. She could pace, bitter and frantic and feeling every second of her deprivation and frustration as the sun dawdled its way across the sky.

  Or she could go to the door, stand in front of her ghost guards, and scream down the corridor until Minya came.

  And then what?

  Or she could fall asleep, and maybe fight nightmares—and maybe win—and hurry the day on its way.

  It wasn’t a choice, really. Sarai was tired and she wasn’t terrified, so she lay down in her bed, tucked her hands under her cheek, and slept.

  Lazlo looked up at the citadel and wondered, for the hundredth time that day, what Sarai was doing. Was she sleeping? If she was, was she fending off nightmares on her own? He stared at the metal angel and focused his mind, as though by doing so he could give her strength.

  Also for the hundredth time that day, he remembered the kiss.

  It might have been brief, but so much of a kiss—a first kiss, especially—is the moment before your lips touch, and before your eyes close, when you’re filled with the sight of each other, and with the compulsion, the pull, and it’s like… it’s like… finding a book inside another book. A small treasure of a book hidden inside a big common one—like… spells printed on dragonfly wings, discovered tucked inside a cookery book, right between the recipes for cabbages and corn. That’s what a kiss is like, he thought, no matter how brief: It’s a tiny, magical story, and a miraculous interruption of the mundane.

  Lazlo was more than ready for the mundane to be interrupted again. “What time is it?” he asked Ruza, glaring at the sky. Where it showed around the citadel’s edges, it was damnably bright and blue. He’d never felt anger at the sky before. Even the interminable days of the Elmuthaleth crossing had passed more quickly than this one.

  “Do I look like a clock?” inquired the warrior. “Is my face round? Are there numbers on it?”

  “If your face were a clock,” Lazlo reasoned slowly, “I wouldn’t ask you what time it was. I’d just look at you.”

  “Fair point,” admitted Ruza.

  It was an ordinary day, if at least ten times longer than it ought to have been. Soulzeren and Ozwin did as asked and produced a credible reason to delay a second launch. No one questioned it. The citizens were relieved, while the faranji were simply occupied.

  Thyon Nero wasn’t the only one exhausting himself—though he was the only one siphoning off his own vital essence to do it. They were all deeply engaged, hard at work, and competitive. Well, they were all deeply engaged and competitive, and all with the exception of Drave were also hard at work—though, to be fair, this wasn’t his fault. He’d have liked nothing better than to blow something up, but it was clear to everyone, himself included, that he and his powder were on hand as a last resort.

  When all else fails: explosions.

  This did not sit well with him. “How am I supposed to win the reward if I’m not allowed to do anything?” he demanded of Lazlo that afternoon, waylaying him outside the Tizerkane guard station where he’d stopped to talk with Ruza and Tzara and some of the other warriors.

  Lazlo was unsympathetic. Drave was being compensated for his time, just like everyone else. And as for the reward, Drave’s personal fortune wasn’t high on his list of priorities. “I don’t know,” he answered. “You might come up with a solution to the problem that doesn’t involve destruction.”

  Drave scoffed. “Doesn’t involve destruction? That’s like me asking you not to be a mealy-mouthed poltroon.”

  Lazlo’s eyebrows shot up. “Poltroon?”

  “Look it up,” snapped Drave.

  Lazlo turned to Ruza. “Do you think I’m a poltroon?” he asked, the way a young girl might ask whether her dress was unflattering.

  “I don’t know what that is.”

  “I think it’s a kind of mushroom,” said Lazlo, who knew very well what poltroon meant. Really, he was surprised that Drave did.

  “You are absolutely a mushroom,” said Ruza.

  “It means ‘coward,’” said Drave.

  “Oh.” Lazlo turned to Ruza. “Do you think I’m a coward?”

  Ruza considered the matter. “More of a mushroom,” he decided. To Drave: “I think you were closer the first time.”

  “I never said he was a mushroom.”

  “Then I’m confused.”

  “I take it as a compliment,” Lazlo went on, purely for the infuriation of Drave. It was petty, but fun. “Mushrooms are fascinating. Did you know they aren’t even plants?”

  Ruza played along, all fascinated disbelief. “I did not know that. Please tell me more.”

  “It’s true. Fungi are as distinct from plants as animals are.”

  “I never said anything about mushrooms,” Drave said through gritted teeth.

  “Oh, I’m sorry. Drave, you wanted something.”

  But the explosionist had had enough of them. He flung out a hand in disgust and stalked off.

  “He’s bored, poor man,” said Tzara, with a flat lack of pity. “Nothing to destroy.”

  “We could at least give him a small neighborhood to demolish,” suggested Ruza. “What kind of hosts are we?”

  And Lazlo felt a… fizz of uneasiness. A bored explosionist was one thing. A bored, disgruntled explosionist was another. But then the conversation took
a turn that drove all thoughts of Drave from his head.

  “I can think of a way to keep him busy,” said Shimzen, one of the other warriors. “Send him up in a silk sleigh to blow the godspawn into blue stew.”

  Lazlo heard the words, but they were spoken so evenly, so casually, that it took him a moment to process them, and then he could only blink.

  Blue stew.

  “As long as I don’t have to clean it up,” said Ruza, just as casually.

  They had been briefed, earlier, on the… situation… in the citadel. Their blasé demeanor was certainly a cover for their deep disquiet, but that didn’t mean they weren’t absolutely in earnest. Tzara shook her head, and Lazlo thought she was going to chide the men for their callousness, but she said, “Where’s the fun in that? You wouldn’t even get to watch them die.”

  His breath erupted from him in a gust, as though he’d been punched in the gut. They all turned to him, quizzical. “What’s the matter with you?” asked Ruza, seeing his expression. “You look like someone served you blue stew for dinner.” He laughed, pleased with his joke, while Shimzen slapped him on the shoulder.

  Lazlo’s face went tight and hot. All he could see was Sarai, trapped and afraid. “How can you speak like that,” he asked, “when you’ve never even met them?”

  “Met them?” Ruza’s eyebrows went up. “You don’t meet monsters. You slay them.”

  Tzara must have seen Lazlo’s anger, his… stupefaction. “Trust me, Strange,” she told him. “If you knew anything about them, you’d be happy to drop the explosives yourself.”

  “If you knew anything about me,” he replied, “you wouldn’t think I’d be happy to kill anyone.”

  They all squinted at him, puzzled—and annoyed, too, that he was spoiling their amusement. Ruza said, “You’re thinking of them as people. That’s your problem. Imagine they’re threaves—”

  “We didn’t kill the threave.”

  “Well, that’s true.” Ruza screwed up his face. “Bad example. But would you have looked at me like that if I had?”

  “I don’t know. But they’re not threaves.”

  “No,” Ruza agreed. “They’re much more dangerous.”

  And that was true, but it missed the point. They were people, and you didn’t laugh about turning people into stew.

  Especially not Sarai.

  “You think good people can’t hate?” she’d asked Lazlo last night. “You think good people don’t kill?” How naïve he’d been, to imagine it was all a matter of understanding. If only they knew her, he’d told himself, they couldn’t want to hurt her. But it was so clear to him now: They could never know her. They’d never let themselves. Suheyla had tried to tell him: The hate was like a disease. He saw what she meant. But could there ever be a cure?

  Could the people of Weep ever accept the survivors in the citadel—or, like the threave in the desert, at least suffer them to live?

  51

  POLTROONS

  “There is a magnetic field between the anchors and the citadel,” Mouzaive, the natural philosopher, was telling Kether, artist of siege engines, in the guildhall dining room. “But it’s like nothing I’ve seen before.”

  Drave, who was irrationally furious to find mushrooms on his plate, sat at the next table. The sullen look on his face gave no hint that he was listening.

  Mouzaive had invented an instrument he called a cryptochromometer that used a protein extracted from birds’ eyes to detect the presence of magnetic fields. It sounded like a lot of flummery to Drave, but what did he know?

  “Magnetic anchors,” mused Kether, wondering how he might appropriate the technology for his own engine designs. “So if you could shut them off, the citadel would just… float away?”

  “That’s my best guess.”

  “How’s it floating, anyway, something that big?”

  “A technology we can’t begin to fathom,” said Mouzaive. “Not ulola gas, that’s for certain.”

  Kether, who was keen on appropriating that technology, too, said sagely, “If anything’s certain, it’s that nothing’s certain.”

  Drave rolled his eyes. “What’s making it?” he asked, gruff. “The magnetic field. Is there machinery inside the anchors or something?”

  Mouzaive shrugged. “Who knows. It could be a magical moon pearl for all I can tell. If we could get inside the damned things, we might find out.”

  They discussed the metallurgists’ progress, and Thyon Nero’s, speculating who would breach the metal hulls first. Drave didn’t say another word. He chewed. He even ate the mushrooms while phrases like “breach the hulls” rang in his mind like bells. He was supposed to sit back while the Fellerings and Nero vied for the reward? As though Nero even needed it, when he could just make gold any day of the week.

  He’d be damned if this bunch of poltroons were going to keep him from throwing his hat in the ring.

  Or more like blowing the damned ring up.

  52

  AMAZING, BUT SCORCHED

  Sparrow had, in fact, tried to visit Sarai, but ghosts blocked the corridor and wouldn’t let her through. The little girl ghost, Bahar, dripping with river water and dolor, told her solemnly, “Sarai can’t play right now,” which sent a chill up her spine. She went to the Ellens in the kitchen to see if they knew how she was, but she found them grim and silent, which sent another chill. They were never like this. It had to be Minya’s doing, but Minya had never oppressed the nurses as she did the other ghosts. Why now?

  Minya was nowhere to be found, and neither were Ruby or Feral.

  Sometimes they all just needed a little time to themselves. That was what Sparrow told herself that afternoon in the citadel. But she needed the opposite. She needed her family. She hated not being able to go to Sarai, and she was furious that she couldn’t even find Minya to appeal to her. She went to the heart of the citadel and called out through the narrow opening that had once been a door. She was sure Minya must be inside, but she never answered.

  Even the garden couldn’t soothe her today. Her magic felt feeble, as though some river within herself were dry. She imagined herself weeping, and Feral holding her to comfort her. He would smooth her hair with his hands and murmur soothing things, and she would look up, and he would look down, and… and it wouldn’t be anything like when Ruby had kissed him, all sucking noise and storm clouds. It would be sweet, so sweet.

  It could happen, she thought. Now, with everything so fraught. Why not? The tears were easy enough to produce; she’d been holding them back all day. As for Feral, he could only be in his room. Sparrow wandered up the corridor, past her own room and Ruby’s, all silent behind their curtains.

  She would feel very stupid later for imagining that Ruby wanted time to herself. She never did. To Ruby, thoughts were pointless if there was no one to tell them to the instant you had them.

  She came to Feral’s door, and all was not silent behind his curtain.

  “How do I know you won’t burn me?” Feral had asked Ruby days earlier.

  “Oh, that could only happen if I completely lost track of myself,” she’d said. “You’d have to be really good. I’m not worried.”

  It had been something of a slap, and Feral had not forgotten it. It created a conundrum, however. How could he make her eat those words, without getting burned up for his trouble?

  These were dark days, and it was good to have a challenge to take his mind off ghosts and doom: make Ruby completely lose track of herself, while not ending up a pile of char. Feral applied himself. The learning curve was delicious. He was keenly attuned to Ruby’s pleasure, in part because it could kill him, and in part because… he liked it. He liked her pleasure; he’d never liked her better than when she was soft against him, breathing in surprised little gasps or looking up at him from under her lashes, her eyelids heavy with hedonic contentment.

  It was all very, very satisfying, and never so much as when, finally, she made a sound like the sighing of doves and violins, and… set fire to hi
s bed.

  The scent of smoke. A flash of heat. Her lips were parted and her eyes glowed like embers. Feral pushed himself away, already summoning a cloud; he had rehearsed emergency plans in his head. The air filled with vapor. The silk sheets, clenched in Ruby’s fists, burst into flame, and an instant later the cloud burst forth rain, severing the dove-and-violin sigh and dousing her before the rest of her bonfire could kindle.

  She gave a little shriek and came upright in an instant. Rain lashed down at her whilst Feral stood back safe and smug. To his credit, he kept the cloud no longer than strictly necessary, on top of which, it wasn’t even cold. It was a tropical cloud. He thought this quite a nice gesture, but the romance was lost on Ruby.

  “How… how… rude!” she exclaimed, shaking water from her arms. Her blue breasts glistened. Her hair sluiced rivers down her back and shoulders.

  “Rude?” Feral repeated. “So the polite thing would be to uncomplainingly burn up?”

  She glared at him. “Yes.”

  He surveyed the scene. “Look,” he pointed out. “You’ve scorched my sheets.”

  She had. There were sodden, black-edged holes where she’d clenched them in her fists. “Do you expect me to apologize?” Ruby asked.

  But Feral shook his head, grinning. He didn’t mean to rebuke her. On the contrary, he was gloating. “You lost track of yourself,” he said. “You know what that means, don’t you? It means I’m really good.”

  Her eyes narrowed. Still entangled in Feral’s sheets, she went full Bonfire, lighting up like a torch and taking the whole bed with her.

  Feral groaned, but could only watch as his sheets, pillows, mattress—everything that was not mesarthium—flamed and were eaten up, leaving nothing behind but hot metal and a smoking naked girl with her eyebrows raised as though to say, How’s that for scorched sheets? She didn’t really look mad, though. A grin tugged at one corner of her mouth. “I suppose you have improved,” she allowed.

 
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