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Strange the dreamer, p.39
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.39

           Laini Taylor
 

  “Oh? I hope I was well behaved.”

  “Not too well behaved.” Coyly, she added, “No better than this morning, when the sun so rudely rose.”

  She meant the kiss; he understood. “The sun. I still haven’t forgiven it.” The space between them could only shrink, not grow. Lazlo’s voice was music—the most beautiful smoky music—when he caught Sarai up in his arms, and said, “I want to catch it in a jar and put it away with the fireflies.”

  “The moon on a bracelet and the sun in a jar,” said Sarai. “We really wreak havoc on the heavens, don’t we?”

  Lazlo’s voice sank deeper in his throat. Smokier. Hungrier. “I expect the heavens will survive,” he said, and then he kissed her.

  How had they survived a whole day on the merest touch that was last night’s kiss? If they’d known then what a kiss was, they couldn’t have. It would have been unbearable to come so close—to barely feel and almost taste and be snatched apart before… well, before this. But they hadn’t known.

  And now they did.

  Now, right now, they learned. Sarai leaned into Lazlo, her eyes closing in anticipation. His were slower. He wanted to see her. He didn’t want to miss even a second of her face. Her smooth cerulean loveliness held him spellbound. There was a dusting of nearly invisible freckles on the bridge of her nose. The glide of their faces was as slow as poured honey, and her lips. Ever so slightly, they parted. The bottom one, voluptuous as dew-bright fruit, parted from its fellow—for him—and it was the most enticing thing he’d ever seen. A blaze of desire surged through him and he leaned into the honey-slowness, pushing the hopelessness out of his way to take that sweet, soft lip between his own.

  The searing softness, the melt.

  When Lazlo had wished to discover, with Sarai, the realm of the unknowable, he had thought of great, huge mysteries like the origin and nature of gods. But right now, he’d have given it all up for this small mystery, this tiny, newest, and best mystery of Weep. This kiss.

  This exact kiss.

  Lips. The wonder of lips that could brush or press, part and close, and—parting, closing—catch the other’s lip in the sweetest of bites. Not a true bite. Not teeth. Ah, teeth were still a secret. But the tip of the tongue, well. Hopelessness had little chance against the discovery of the tip of the tongue. And the thing that was almost blinding, unfathomable, was this: Heady as it was—so heady he felt dizzy from it, tipsy—still he sensed that even this was only the threshold to another realm of the unknowable. A door pushed just ajar, and the thinnest sliver of light hinting at radiance beyond.

  He felt light and heavy at the same time. Burning, floating. He’d never suspected. He’d been aware of girls, of course, and had all the sorts of thoughts that young men have (the better ones, anyway; better young men and better thoughts) and of course he wasn’t ignorant of the… biology of things. But he’d never had any inkling of what he now sensed lay beyond that tantalizing door. It was a radiance that felt rich and deep and huge and close and secret and delirious and… sacred.

  It was his future with the girl he held in his arms, and whatever he had felt and feared on his walk home from the guard station, now he was certain: There would be a future.

  Hope was easy, after all. Here in this place, anyway.

  He drew her closer, his arms full around her waist, and lost himself in the marvel of her, of this. He breathed the scent and taste of her, and shivered when her fingers traced up his arms to the nape of his neck. She wove them through his hair and awakened more sensation, a fire of pleasure that radiated down his shoulders and up his scalp, nudging at that tantalizing door with all its luminous secrets. When he broke the kiss, finally, it was to press his face to hers. The ridge of his brow to hers, his cheekbone, rough, against hers, smooth.

  “Sarai,” he breathed against her cheek. He felt like a glass filled with splendor and luck. His lips curved into a smile. He whispered, “You have ruined my tongue for all other tastes,” and understood finally what that phrase meant.

  Sarai pulled back, just enough that they could look at each other. Her amazement mirrored his own, her gaze the equivalent of a whispered Oh, husky and astonished and awakened.

  The laughter reached them first—children’s laughter—and then the color. They broke their gaze to look around, and saw the city no longer holding its breath. There were swallowtail flags snapping on the domes, and the sky was a mosaic of kites. And the market stalls were no longer empty, but coming to life as though opening for the morning, with vendors in long aprons setting out their wares. Flocks of brilliant butterflies moved through like schools of fish, and the upper levels of the amphitheater were espaliered with jeweled fruit trees.

  “That’s better,” sighed Sarai. Up in the citadel, her tears dried on her cheeks. The clench of her fists and stomach relaxed.

  “Much better,” Lazlo agreed. “Do you think we just did that?”

  “I’m certain of it.”

  “Well done, us,” he said, then added, with exaggerated nonchalance, “I wonder what would happen if we kept kissing.”

  In a similar display of feigned indifference, Sarai shrugged and said, “Well, I guess we could find out.”

  They knew they had to talk about the day, and the future, and all the hate and despair and helplessness, but… not just yet. That place in their minds that had worked their mahalath transformations was coloring Dreamer’s Weep with their snatched and grabbed happiness. Everything else could wait. “Lazlo,” Sarai whispered, and she asked him a question to which he already knew the answer. “Do you still want me in your mind?”

  “Sarai,” he replied. “I want you…” His arms were already around her. He drew her even closer. “In my mind.”

  “Good.” She bit her lip, and the sight of her fine white teeth bearing down on that decadent, delicate lip planted at least an unconscious thought in his mind regarding the potential of teeth in kissing. “I’m going to go to sleep,” she told him. “I’m already lying in my bed.” She didn’t mean to sound seductive, but in her sudden shyness, her voice sank to a whisper, and Lazlo heard it like a purr.

  He swallowed hard. “Do you need to lie down here?” In the dream, he meant, because she had last time.

  “I don’t think so. Now that we know it works, I think it’ll be easy.” She touched the tip of her nose to the tip of his. Shaped by fairy tales, she thought, which made it better than every straight nose in the world. “But there is one thing you can do for me.”

  “What is it?” asked Lazlo. “Anything.”

  “You can kiss me some more,” she said.

  And he did.

  Up in the citadel, Sarai’s body fell asleep, and as soon as it did, she stopped being the girl lying on the bed, and she stopped being the moth perched on Lazlo’s brow, and became only—and gloriously—the girl in his arms.

  Kissing, it turned out, was one of those things that only got better the more of it one did, and became more… interesting… as one gained confidence. Oh, the ways that lips could know each other, and tongues, how they could tease and tingle. Tongues, how they could lick.

  Some things, thought Sarai, were too lovely to devour, while others were too lovely not to.

  And together they learned that kissing wasn’t just for mouths. That was a revelation. Well, one mouth was needed, of course. But that mouth might decide to take a small sojourn down to the soft place under the jaw, or the tender, exquisite spot just below the ear. Or the earlobe. Who knew? Or the neck. The entire neck! And here was a cunning quirk of physiology. Sarai found that she could kiss Lazlo’s neck while he kissed hers. Wasn’t that lucky? And it was immensely rewarding to feel his tremors when her lips found a place that felt particularly good. Almost as rewarding as when his found such a place on her. And if not his lips, oh.

  His teeth.

  Even up in the citadel, the teeth caused her to shiver.

  “I never knew about necks,” Sarai whispered between fast, hot kisses.

  “Neithe
r did I,” said Lazlo, breathless.

  “Or ears.”

  “I know. Who could have guessed about ears?”

  They were still, all this while, in the marketplace of Dreamer’s Weep. Sometime early in the kiss—if one could, with generosity, call it a kiss—a convenient tree grew up from a crack in the cobbles, tall and smooth and canted at just the right angle for leaning when the dizziness became too much. This was never going any farther than leaning. There was, even in their delectation of necks, an innocence born of perfect inexperience combined with… politeness. Their hands were hot, but they were hot in safe places, and their bodies were close but chaste.

  Well.

  What does the body know of chastity? Only what the mind insists upon, and if Lazlo’s and Sarai’s minds insisted, it was not because their bodies failed to present a compelling argument. It was just that it was all so new and so sublime. It might take weeks, after all, just to master necks. Sarai’s fingertips did, at some point in the heedless flow of dream time, find themselves slipping under the hem of Lazlo’s shirt to play ever so lightly over the bare skin of his waist. She felt him shiver and she sensed—and he did, too—how very much remained to be discovered. She tickled him on purpose and the kiss became a laugh. He tickled back, his hands emboldened, and their laughter filled the air.

  They were lost inside the dream, no awareness of the real—of rooms or beds or moths or brows. And so it was that in the giddy, sultry world of their embrace, the real Lazlo—fast asleep in the city of Weep—turned over on his pillow, crushed the moth, and broke the dream.

  55

  DISFAITH

  In the real city, Thyon Nero walked to the anchor, his satchel slung over his shoulder. Last night, he had made the same walk with the same satchel. He had been weary then, and thinking about napping. He ought to have been wearier now, but he was not.

  His pulse was reedy. His spirit, depleted by his own depredations, pulsed too fast through his veins, twinning with a whirr and discordant jangle of… of disbelief crashing against evidence, producing a sensation of disfaith.

  He had stumbled onto something that refused to be believed. His mind was at war with itself. Alchemy and magic. The mystical and the material. Demons and angels, gods and men. What was the world? What was the cosmos? Up in the black, were there roads through the stars, traveled by impossible beings? What had he entered into, by coming across the world?

  He reached the anchor. There was the whole broad face of it, visible to any passerby—not that there were likely to be passersby at this late hour of night—and there was the alley with its mural depicting the wretched, bloody gods. The alley was where he’d been doing his testing, where no one would see him if they happened by. If he could have had a fragment of mesarthium to experiment on in his laboratory, he would have been spared these late-night outings, this risk of discovery. But no fragments existed, for the simplest of reasons: Mesarthium could not be cut. There were no scraps to be had. There was only this massive slab of it—and the other three identical ones at the southern, eastern, and western edges of the city.

  He returned to his site in the alley, and shifted the debris he had leaned there to screen it from view. And there, at the base of the impregnable anchor, where smooth mesarthium met the stones it had crushed two hundred years ago underneath its awful weight, was the solution to Weep’s problem.

  Thyon Nero had done it.

  So why hadn’t he sent at once for Eril-Fane, and earned himself the envy of all the other delegates and the gratitude of Weep? Well, he had to confirm the results first. Rigor, always. It might have been a fluke.

  It wasn’t. He knew that much. He didn’t understand it, and he didn’t believe it, but he knew.

  “Stories will be told about me.” That was what he had said to Strange back in Zosma—his reason for coming on this journey. It wasn’t his main reason, but never mind. That had been escape—from the queen and his father and the Chrysopoesium and the stifling box that was his life. Whatever his reason, he was here now and a story was unfurling before him. A legend was taking shape.

  He set down his satchel and opened it. More vials and flasks than last night, and a hand glave to see by. He had several tests to perform this time. The old alkahest and the new. The notes he took were habit and comfort, as though his tidy writing could transform mystery into sense.

  There was a gaping rent in the metal. It was knee-high, a foot wide at the bottom, and deep enough to reach your arm into. It looked like an ax chop, except that the edges weren’t sharp, but smooth, as though they had been melted.

  The new tests proved what Thyon already knew—not what he understood or believed, but what he knew, in the way that a man who falls on his face knows the ground.

  Mesarthium was conquered.

  There was a legend taking shape. But it wasn’t his.

  He packed up his satchel and leaned the debris back up against the anchor, to screen the rent from sight. He stood at the mouth of the alley, all reedy pulse and ravaged spirit, wondering what it all meant. Weep gave no answer. The night was silent. He slowly walked away.

  Across the street, Drave watched, and when the alchemist was gone, he disengaged from the shadows, crept to the mouth of the alley, and went in.

  56

  THE DREAMSMITHS

  “No no no no no,” said Lazlo, bolting upright in his bed. The moth lay on his pillow like a scrap of sooty velvet. He prodded it with his finger and it didn’t move at all. It was dead. It was Sarai’s and he had killed it. The bizarre, tenuous nature of their connection struck him with new force—that a moth should be their only link. That they could be sharing such a moment and lose it in an instant because he rolled over on his pillow and crushed a moth. He cupped the poor thing on his palm, then set it gently on the night table. It would vanish at dawn, he knew, and be reborn at next nightfall. He’d killed nothing… besides his own ardor.

  It was funny, really. Absurd. Infuriating. And funny.

  He flopped back onto his pillows and looked up at the moths on his ceiling beam. They were stirring, and he knew that Sarai could see him through their eyes. With a mournful smile, we waved.

  Up in her room, Sarai laughed, voicelessly. The look on his face was priceless, and his body was limp with helpless vexation. Go back to sleep, she willed him. Now.

  He did. Well, it took ten hours—or perhaps ten minutes—and then Sarai was standing before him with her hands on her hips.

  “Moth killer,” she admonished him.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really loved that moth, too. That one was my favorite.”

  “Better keep your voice down. This one will get its feelings hurt and fly away.”

  “I mean this one’s my favorite,” he revised. “I promise not to smoosh it.”

  “Be sure that you don’t.”

  They were both smiling like fools. They were so full of happiness, and Dreamer’s Weep was colored by it. If only real Weep could be so easily set right. “It was probably for the best, though,” Lazlo ventured.

  “Oh?”

  “Mm. I wouldn’t have been able to stop kissing you otherwise. I’m sure I’d be kissing you still.”

  “That would be terrible,” she said, and took a prowling step closer, reaching up to trace a line down the center of his chest.

  “Wretched,” he agreed. She was lifting her face to his, ready to pick up where they’d left off, and he wanted to melt right back into her, breathe the nectar and rosemary of her, tease her neck with his teeth, and make her mouth curve into its feline curl.

  It thrilled him that he could make her smile, but he had the gallant notion that he should make best efforts, now, to do so in other ways. “I have a surprise for you,” he said before she could kiss him and undermine his good intentions.

  “A surprise?” she asked, skeptical. In Sarai’s experience, surprises were bad.

  “You’ll like it. I promise.”

  He took her hand and curled it through his arm, and they
walked through the marketplace of Dreamer’s Weep, where mixed among the commonplace items were wonderful ones like witch’s honey, supposed to give you a fine singing voice. They sampled it, and it did, but only for a few seconds. And there were beetles that could chew gemstones better than any jeweler could cut them, and silence trumpets that, when blown, blasted a blanket of quiet loud enough to smother thunder. There were mirrors that reflected the viewer’s aura, and they came with little cards to tell what the colors meant. Sarai’s and Lazlo’s auras were a matching shade of fuchsia that fell smack between pink for “lust” and red for “love,” and when they read it, Lazlo blushed almost the same hue, whereas Sarai went more to violet.

  They glimpsed the centaur and his lady; she held a parasol and he a string market bag, and they were just another couple out for a stroll, buying vegetables for their supper.

  And they saw the moon’s reflection displayed in a pail of water—never mind that it was daytime—and it wasn’t for sale but “free” for whoever was able to catch it. There were sugared flowers and ijji bones, trinkets of gold and carvings of lys. There was even a sly old woman with a barrel full of threave eggs. “To bury in your enemy’s garden,” she told them with a cackle.

  Lazlo shuddered. He told Sarai how he’d seen one in the desert. They stopped for sorbet, served in stemmed glasses, and she told him about Feral’s storms, and how they would eat the snow with spoonfuls of jam.

  They talked, walking along. She told him about Orchid Witch and Bonfire, who were like her younger sisters, and he told her of the abbey, and the orchard, where once he’d played Tizerkane warriors. He paused before a market stall that did not strike her as especially wonderful, but the way he beamed at it made her take a second look. “Fish?” she inquired. “That’s not my surprise, is it?”

 
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