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Strange the dreamer, p.38
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.38

           Laini Taylor
 
It felt like winning at quell, only much better. Feral laughed. He’d known Ruby all his life and been annoyed by her for half of it, but now he was simply amazed by the turn things could take between two people, and the feelings that could grow while you distracted yourself from the end of the world. He walked back over to her. “You’ve destroyed my bed,” he said, congenial. “I’ll have to sleep with you from now on.”

  “Oh really. Aren’t you afraid I’ll incinerate you?”

  He shrugged. “I’ll just have to be less amazing. To be on the safe side.”

  “Do that and I’ll kick you out.”

  “What a dilemma.” He sat on the edge of the bare bed frame. “Be less amazing, and stay alive. Or be amazing, and get scorched.” Mesarthium didn’t hold heat; it was already back to normal, but Ruby’s skin was not. It was hot—like a summer day or a really good kiss. Feral leaned toward her, intent upon the latter, and froze.

  At the same moment, they became aware of a movement in their peripheral vision. The curtain. It had been pushed aside, and Sparrow was standing there, stricken.

  53

  TARNISHED HEARTS

  Sarai’s dreams that day were not without their terrors, but, for a change, she was not without defenses. “We’ll chase them away,” Lazlo had said, “or else turn them into fireflies and catch them in jars.”

  She tried it, and it worked, and at some point in the evening, she found herself striding through a dark wood in a Tizerkane breastplate, carrying a jar full of fireflies that had recently been ravids and Rasalas and even her mother. She held up the jar to light her way, and it lit her smile, too, fierce with triumph.

  She didn’t meet Lazlo in the dream, not exactly. Perhaps her unconscious preferred to wait for the real thing. But she did relive the kiss, exactly as it had been—melting sweet and all too brief—and she woke exactly when she had before. She didn’t bolt upright in bed this time, but lay where she was, lazy and liquid with sleep and well-being. At dawn, solitude had greeted her, but not this time. Opening her eyes, she gave a start.

  Minya was standing at the foot of her bed.

  Now she did bolt upright. “Minya! Whatever happened to respecting the curtains?”

  “Oh, the curtains,” said Minya, dismissive. “Why worry about curtains, Sarai, unless you’ve something to hide?” She looked sly. “Ruby and Feral do, you know. But curtains, well, they don’t block out sounds very well.” She made exaggerated smooching noises and it reminded Sarai of how they would giggle and gasp when she told them about the things that humans did in their beds. It was a long time since she’d done that.

  Ruby and Feral, though? It didn’t really surprise her. While she’d been wrapped up in her own misery, life in the citadel had gone on. Poor Sparrow, she thought. “Well, I’m not hiding anything,” she lied.

  Minya didn’t believe her for a second. “No? Then why do you look like that?”

  “Like what?”

  Minya studied her, her flat gaze roving up and down so that Sarai felt stripped. Seen, but not in a good way. Minya pronounced, as though diagnosing a disease, “Happy.”

  Happy. What a notion. “Is that what this feeling is?” she said, not even trying to hide it. “I’d forgotten all about it.”

  “What do you have to be happy about?”

  “I was just having a good dream,” said Sarai. “That’s all.”

  Minya’s nostrils flared. Sarai wasn’t supposed to have good dreams. “How is that possible?”

  Sarai shrugged. “I closed my eyes, lay still, and—”

  Minya was furious. Her whole body was rigid. Her voice took on the spittle-flying hiss normally reserved for the word vengeance. “Have you no shame? Lying there all silky and wanton, having good dreams while our lives fall apart?”

  Sarai had plenty of shame. Minya might as well have demanded Have you no blood? or Have you no spirit? because shame as good as ran in her veins. But… not right now. “I think you’re a fairy tale.” Funny how light she felt without it. “I think you’re magical, and brave, and exquisite.”

  “I’m through with shame, Minya,” she said. “And I’m through with lull, and I’m through with nightmares, and I’m through with vengeance. Weep has suffered enough and so have we. We have to find another way.”

  “Don’t be stupid. There is no other way.”

  “A lot of things could happen,” Sarai had told Ruby, not believing it herself. That had been days ago. She believed it now. Things had happened. Unbelievable things. But where the citadel was concerned, nothing could happen unless Minya let it.

  Sarai had to persuade her to let it.

  For years she’d stifled her own empathy and kept it in for fear of Minya’s wrath. But now so much depended on it—not just her love, but all their lives. She took a deep breath. “Minya,” she said, “you have to listen to me. Please. I know you’re angry with me, but please try to open your mind.”

  “Why? So you can put things in it? I’m not forgiving your humans, if that’s what you think.”

  Your humans. And they were her humans, Sarai thought. Not just Eril-Fane and Lazlo, but all of them. Because her gift had forced her—and allowed her—to know them. “Please, Min,” she said. Her voice fluttered as though it were trying to fly away, as she herself wished she could do. “Eril-Fane didn’t tell anyone what happened yesterday. He didn’t tell them about me, or the ghosts.”

  “So you have seen him,” Minya said with vindication. “You used to be a terrible liar, you know. I could always tell. But you seem to be improving.”

  “I wasn’t lying,” said Sarai. “I hadn’t seen him, and now I have.”

  “And is he well, our great hero?”

  “No, Minya. He’s never been well. Not since Isagol.”

  “Oh stop,” protested Minya, pressing a hand to her chest. “You’re breaking my hearts.”

  “What hearts?” asked Sarai. “The hearts you tarnish with miserable ghosts so that you can hold on to your hate?”

  “The hearts I tarnish with miserable ghosts? That’s good, Sarai. That’s really poetic.”

  Sarai squeezed her eyes shut. Talking to Minya was like getting slapped in the face. “The point is, he didn’t tell anyone. What if he’s sick about what he did, and wants to make amends?”

  “If he can bring them all back to life, then I’ll certainly consider it.”

  “You know he can’t! But just because the past is blood doesn’t mean the future must be, too. Couldn’t we try talking to him? If we promise him safe conduct—”

  “Safe conduct! You’re worrying about his safety? Will Weep promise us safe conduct? Or don’t you need us anymore? Maybe we aren’t a good enough family for you now. You have to yearn for the man who killed our kind.”

  Sarai swallowed. Of course she needed them. Of course they were her real family and always would be. As for the rest, she wanted to deny it out of hand. When Minya put it like that, it appalled even her. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “This isn’t even about him. It’s about us, and our future.”

  “Do you really think he could ever love you?” the little girl asked. “Do you really think a human could ever stand the sight of you?”

  Until a week ago, Sarai would have said no. Or she wouldn’t have said anything, but only felt the no as shame, wilting and withering her like an unwatered flower. But the answer had changed, and it had changed her. “Yes,” she said, soft but resolute. “I know a human could stand the sight of me, Minya, because there is one who can see me.”

  The words were out. She couldn’t take them back. A flush spread up her chest and neck. “And he stands the sight of me quite well.”

  Minya stared. Sarai had never seen her gobsmacked before. For an instant, even her anger was wiped clean away.

  It came back. “Who?” she asked in a deadly seethe of a voice.

  Sarai felt a tremor of misgiving for having opened the door to her secret. But she didn’t see that Lazlo could be kept secret much longer, not if there was to be
any chance of the future that she hoped for. “He’s one of the faranji,” she said, trying to sound strong for his sake. Lazlo deserved to be spoken of with pride. “You’ve never seen such dreams, Min. The beauty he sees in the world, and in me. It can change things. I can feel it.”

  Did she think she could sway her? Did she imagine Minya would ever listen?

  “So that’s it,” said the girl. “A man makes eyes at you, and just like that you’re ready to turn your back on us and go play house in Weep. Are you so hungry for love? I might expect as much of Ruby, but not of you.”

  Oh, that bright little treacherous voice. “I’m not turning my back on anyone,” said Sarai. “The point is that humans don’t have to despise us. If we could just talk to them, then we would see if there might be a chance—a chance for us to live, and not merely exist. Minya, I can bring a message for Eril-Fane. He could come up tomorrow, and then we’d know—”

  “By all means,” said Minya. “Bring him, and your lover, too. Bring all the faranji, why don’t you. How convenient if we could take them all out at once. That would be a big help, actually. Thank you, Sarai.”

  “Take them all out,” she repeated, dull.

  “Was I not clear? Any human who sets foot in the citadel will die.”

  Tears of futility burned Sarai’s eyes. Minya’s mind, like her body, was immutable. Whatever accounted for the unnatural stasis that had kept her a child for fifteen years, it was beyond the reach of reason or persuasion. She would have her carnage and her vengeance and drag everyone into it with her.

  “You could give Minya a nice warm hug,” Sparrow had said to Ruby in the garden. She hadn’t meant it, and the poisonous thought—the shocking, inconceivable, unthinkable notion of the five of them doing harm to one another—had made Sarai ill. She felt ill now, too, looking into the burning eyes of the little girl who’d given her a life, and asking herself how… how she could just stand by and let her start a war.

  She wanted to scream.

  She wanted to scream her moths. “You were quite clear,” she spat. Her moths were burgeoning. They wanted out. She wanted out. The sun had set. The sky was not full dark, but it was dark enough. She faced the small tyrant, heir to Skathis in cruelty at least, if not in gift. Her fists clenched. Her teeth clenched. The scream built in her, as violent as the first one, years ago, that she’d held in for weeks, so certain it was bad.

  “Bad would be good,” Minya had said then. “We need bad.”

  And thus had the Muse of Nightmares been born, and Sarai’s fate decided in those few words.

  “Go on, then,” said Minya now. Her fists, too, were clenched, and her face was wild, half mad with rage and resentment. “I can see you want to. Go down to your humans if that’s all you care about! Your lover must be waiting. Go to him, Sarai.” She bared her small white teeth. “Tell him I can’t wait to meet him!”

  Sarai was trembling. Her arms were stiff at her sides. Leaning toward Minya, she opened her mouth, and screamed. No sound came out. Only moths. All at Minya, right at Minya. A torrent of darkness, frantic wings, and fury. They spewed at her. They poured at her. They flew in her face and she gave a cry, trying to duck out of their path. They dipped when she did. She couldn’t escape them. They beat their wings at her face and hair, the stream of them parting around her like a river around a rock. Past her, out of the alcove, over the heads of the ghosts standing guard, and out into the twilight.

  Sarai stood where she was, still screaming, and though no sound came out—her voice having gone—her lips shaped the words Get out! Get out! Get out! until Minya picked herself up from her cower, and, with a terrible look, turned and fled.

  Sarai collapsed onto her bed, heaving with silent sobs, and her moths winged down and down. They didn’t divide, because her mind would not divide. She thought only of Lazlo, so that was where they flew, straight to the house and the window she knew so well, into the room where she hoped to find him sleeping.

  But it was early yet. His bed was empty and his boots gone, so the moths, fluttering with agitation, had no choice but to settle down and wait.

  54

  TOO LOVELY NOT TO DEVOUR

  Lazlo didn’t want to talk to anyone except Sarai. He just didn’t think he could keep his composure through any more talk of the “godspawn,” be it well meant or ill. He half considered climbing in his window to avoid Suheyla, but he couldn’t do that, so he went in by the green door and found her in the courtyard. Supper was waiting. “Don’t worry,” she told him straightaway. “Just a light meal. I know you’re probably eager for sleep.”

  He was, and he could have done well enough without supper, but he made himself pause. Sarai was her grandchild, after all, her only one. He’d been angry that morning that she and Eril-Fane hadn’t met the news of her existence gladly, but in light of what the Tizerkane reaction had been, he saw that theirs had been generous, if honest. He tried to appreciate what this all meant for her.

  She set out bowls of soup and hung a fresh disc of bread from the big hook. It had seeds and petals baked into it in a pattern of overlapping circles—a light meal, maybe, but she must have spent hours on it. Usually she was effortlessly chatty, but not tonight. He saw a shy but shamefaced curiosity in her, and several times she’d seemed about to speak, and then think better of it.

  “The other day,” he said, “you told me just to ask. Now it’s my turn. It’s all right. You can ask.”

  Her voice was timorous. “Does… does she hate us very much?”

  “No,” he said, “she doesn’t hate you at all,” and he felt confident that it was true. She’d talked of the paradox at the core of her being, and the curse of knowing one’s enemies too well to be able to hate them. “Maybe she used to, but not anymore.” He wanted to tell her that Sarai understood, but that absolution could come only from Sarai.

  He ate fast, and Suheyla made him tea. He declined it at first, eager to go, but she said it would help him fall asleep faster.

  “Oh. Then that would be wonderful.”

  He drained it in a gulp, thanked her, paused to press her hand, and went at last to his room. He opened the door and… halted on the threshold.

  Moths.

  Moths were perched on the wooden headboard and the pillows and the wall behind the bed, and when the door opened, they lifted into the air like leaves stirred by a wind.

  Sarai, he thought. He didn’t know what to make of their numbers. They overwhelmed him, not with fear—or, gods forbid, disgust—but with awe, and a prickle of dread.

  Maybe he brought all the dread with him from the guard station and the brutal, bloody words of his friends, and maybe the moths brought some of it on their furred twilight wings. He understood one thing in the swirl of creatures: Sarai was waiting for him.

  He closed the door. He would have washed and shaved his face, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair, changed. He blushed at the thought of taking off his shirt, though he knew she’d seen him sleeping that way before. He settled for brushing his teeth and taking off his boots, and then he lay down. Overhead, moths clustered on the ceiling beam like a branch in dark bloom.

  He realized, once he was settled, that he’d left enough room on the bed for Sarai—on the side she’d chosen in the dream—though all that was needed was his brow for her moths to perch on. Some other time it might have made him laugh at himself, but not tonight. Tonight he only felt her absence from a world that didn’t want her.

  He didn’t move over, but closed his eyes, feeling the moths all around him—Sarai all around him. He was breathless for sleep to come so that he could be with her, and tonight there was no euphoria keeping him awake. There was only a slow sinking, and soon enough—

  The moth, the brow.

  The threshold of the dream.

  Sarai found herself in the amphitheater market. She craved the color and sweetness of Dreamer’s Weep, as she thought of it, but here were neither. The place was empty. A wind scoured through, blowing scraps of refuse past her
ankles, and a terrible pit of fear opened in her. Where was all the color? There should have been silks fluttering, music in the air, and laughter drifting down from the children on their high wires. There were no children on the high wires, and all the market stalls were bare. Some even looked burned, and there wasn’t a sound to be heard.

  The city had stopped breathing.

  Sarai stopped breathing, too. Had she made this place, to reflect her despair, or was it Lazlo’s creation? That seemed impossible. Her soul needed Dreamer’s Weep, and she needed him.

  There he was, right there, his long hair wild in the wind. His face was somber, the easy joy gone from it, but there was still—Sarai breathed again—such witchlight in his eyes. She had witchlight in her own. She felt it go out from her like something that could touch him. She stepped forward, following in its path. He stepped forward, too.

  They came to stand face-to-face—arm’s reach without reaching. The three strings that joined them wound them ever nearer. Hearts, lips, navels. Closer, still not touching. The air between them was a dead place, as though both of them were carrying their hopelessness before them, hoping for the other to dash it away. They held everything they had to say, every desperate thing, and they didn’t want to say any of it. They just wanted it to vanish—here, at least, in this place that was theirs.

  “Well,” remarked Sarai. “That was a long day.”

  This earned a surprised laugh from Lazlo. “The longest,” he agreed. “Were you able to sleep at all?”

  “I was,” she reported, finding a small smile. “I turned my nightmares into fireflies and caught them in a jar.”

  “That’s good,” Lazlo breathed. “I was worried.” He blushed. “I may have thought about you a few times today.”

  “Only a few?” she teased, blushing, too.

  “Maybe more,” he admitted. He reached for her hand. It was hot, and so was his. The edges of their hopelessness dissolved, just a little.

  “I thought about you, too,” said Sarai, lacing their fingers together. Brown and blue, blue and brown. She was transfixed by the sight of them. She murmured, “And it’s only fair to tell you that I dreamed of you.”

 
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