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Strange the dreamer, p.40
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.40

           Laini Taylor

  “No,” he said. “I just love fish. Do you know why?”

  “Because they’re delicious?” she hazarded. “If they are. I’ve never tasted fish.”

  “Sky fish being hard to come by.”

  “Yes,” said Sarai.

  “They can be tasty,” he said, “but it’s actually spoiled fish to which I am indebted.”

  “Spoiled fish. You mean… rotten?”

  “Not quite rotten. Just gone off, so you wouldn’t yet notice, but eat it and get sick.”

  Sarai was bemused. “I see.”

  “You probably don’t,” said Lazlo, grinning.

  “Not in the slightest,” Sarai agreed.

  “If it weren’t for spoiled fish,” he said, like the telling of a secret, “I would be a monk.” Even though he’d been leading up to this disclosure in the spirit of silliness, when he got to it, it didn’t feel silly. It felt like the narrowest of escapes, being sent to the library that day so long ago. It felt like the moment the silk sleigh crossed some invisible barrier and the ghosts began to dissolve. “I would be a monk,” he said with deepening horror. He took Sarai by the shoulders and said, with resonant conviction, “I’m glad I’m not a monk.”

  She still didn’t know what he was talking about, but she sensed the shape of it. “I’m glad, too,” she said, hardly knowing whether to laugh, and if ever there was a status—non-monk—worth celebrating with a kiss, this was it.

  It was a good kiss, but not so fully committal as to require reconjuring the leaning tree. Sarai opened her eyes again, feeling dreamy and obscure, like a sentence half translated into a beautiful new language. The fish stall was gone, she saw. Something else was in its place. A black tent with gold lettering.

  WHY NOT FLY? she read. Why not fly? No reason she could think of.

  Why not fly?

  She turned to Lazlo, thrilled. Here was his surprise. “The wingsmiths!” she cried, kissing him again. Arm in arm, they entered the tent. In the way of dreams, they walked into a black tent but entered a large bright courtyard, open to the sky. There were balconies on all four sides, and everywhere were mannequins clad in outlandish garbs—feather suits, and dresses made of smoke and fog and glass. All were complete with goggles—like Soulzeren’s, but weirder, with luminous yellow lenses and mysterious clockwork gears. One even had a butterfly proboscis, curled up like a fiddlehead.

  And each mannequin, of course, was crowned by a glorious pair of wings.

  There were butterfly wings, to go with the proboscis. One pair was sunset orange, swallow-tailed, and scalloped in black. Another, an iridescent marvel of viridian and indigo with tawny spots like cats’ eyes. There were even moth wings, but they were pale as the moon, not dusk-dark like Sarai’s moths. Bird wings, bat wings, even flying fish wings. Sarai paused before a pair that was covered in soft orange fur. “What kind are these?” she asked, stroking them.

  “Fox wings,” Lazlo told her, as though she might have known.

  “Fox wings. Of course.” She lifted her chin and said with decision, “I’ll take the fox wings, please, good sir.”

  “An excellent choice, my lady,” said Lazlo. “Here, let’s try them on and see if they fit.”

  The harness was just like the ones in the silk sleigh. Lazlo buckled it for her, and picked out his own pair. “Dragon wings,” he said, and slipped into them like sleeves.

  WHY NOT FLY? the gold letters asked. No reason in the world. Or if there were ample reasons in the world—physics and anatomy and so on—there was at least no reason here.

  And so they flew.

  Sarai knew flying dreams, and this was better. It had been her wish when she was little, before her gift manifested and stole her last hope of it. Flying was freedom.

  But it was also fun—ridiculous, marvelous fun. And if there had been sunlight just moments ago, it suited them now to have stars, so they did. They were low enough to pick like berries from a branch, and string onto the bracelet with her moon.

  Everything was extraordinary.

  Lazlo caught Sarai’s hand in flight. Remembered the first time he’d caught it and felt the same unmistakable shock of the real. “Come down over here,” he said. “Onto the anchor.”

  “Not the anchor,” she demurred. It loomed suddenly below them, jutting up from the city. “Rasalas is there.”

  “I know,” said Lazlo. “I think we should go and visit him.”

  “What? Why?”

  “Because he’s turned over a new leaf,” he said. “He was tired of being a half-rotted monster, you know. He practically begged me for lips and eyeballs.”

  Sarai gave a laugh. “He did, did he?”

  “I solemnly swear,” said Lazlo, and they hooked their fingers together and descended to the anchor. Sarai alighted before the beast and stared. Lips and eyeballs indeed. It was still recognizably Skathis’s beast, but only just. It was Skathis’s beast as remade in Lazlo’s mind, and so what had been ugly was made beautiful. Gone was the carrion head with its knife-fang grin. The flesh that had been falling from the bones—mesarthium flesh, mesarthium bones—covered the skull now, and not just with flesh but fur, and the face had the delicate grace of a spectral mingled with the power of a ravid. Its horns were a more refined version of what they’d been, fluting out to tight spirals, and the eyes that filled the empty sockets were large and shining. The hump of its great shoulders had shrunk. All its proportions were made finer. Skathis might have been an artist, but he’d been a vile one. Strange the dreamer was an artist, too, and he was the antidote to vile.

  “What do you think?” Lazlo asked her.

  “He’s actually lovely,” she marveled. “He would be out of place in a nightmare now.”

  “I’m glad you like him.”

  “You do good work, dreamsmith.”

  “Dreamsmith. I like the sound of that. And you’re one, too, of course. We should set up a tent in the marketplace.”

  “Why not dream?” Sarai said, painting a logo onto the air. The letters glimmered gold, then faded, and she imagined a fairy-tale life in which she and Lazlo worked magic out of a striped market tent and kissed when there were no customers. She turned to him, shrugged the broad flare of her fox wings back from her shoulders, and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Have I told you that the moment I first stepped into your dreams I knew there was something special about you?”

  “I don’t believe you have, no,” said Lazlo, finding a place for his arms about her shoulders, wild windswept hair and wings and all. “Please go on.”

  “Even before you looked at me. Saw me, I mean, the first person who ever did. After that, of course I knew there was something, but even before, just seeing Weep in your mind’s eyes. It was so magical. I wanted it to be real, and I wanted to come down and bring Sparrow and Ruby and Feral and Minya and live in it, just the way you dreamed it.”

  “It was all the cake, wasn’t it? Goddess bait.”

  “It didn’t hurt,” she admitted, laughing.

  Lazlo sobered. “I wish I could make it all real for you.”

  Sarai’s laugh trailed away. “I know,” she said.

  The hopelessness didn’t come back to either of them, but the reasons for it did. “It was a bad day,” said Lazlo.

  “For me, too.”

  They told each other all of it, though Lazlo didn’t think it necessary to repeat the warriors’ actual words. “It made me think it was impossible,” he said. He traced her cheek with his finger. “But I’ve thought things were impossible before, and so far, none of them actually were. Besides, I know Eril-Fane doesn’t want any more killing. He wants to come up to the citadel,” he told her. “To meet you.”

  “He does?” The fragile hope in her voice broke Lazlo’s hearts.

  He nodded. “How could he not?” Tears came to her eyes. “I told him you could ask the others to call a truce. I can come, too. I’d rather like to meet you.”

  There had been a soft longing in Sarai’s eyes, but now Lazlo saw it ha
rden. “I’ve already asked,” she said.

  “And they said no?”

  “Only one of them did, and only her vote matters.”

  It was time to tell him about Minya. Sarai had described Ruby and Sparrow and Feral to him already, and even the Ellens, because they all fit in the loveliness here, and the sweetness of this night. Minya didn’t. Even the thought of her infected it.

  She told him first how Minya had saved the rest of them from the Carnage, which she had witnessed, and she told him the strange fact of her agelessness. Last, she told him of her gift. “The ghost army. It’s hers. When someone dies, their souls are pulled upward, up toward… I don’t know. The sky. They have no form, no ability to move. They can’t be seen or heard, except by her. She catches them and binds them to her. Gives them form. And makes them her slaves.”

  Lazlo shuddered at the thought. It was power over death, and it was every bit as grim a gift as the ones the Mesarthim had had. It cast a dark pall over his optimism.

  “She’ll kill anyone who comes,” Sarai said. “You mustn’t let Eril-Fane come. You mustn’t come. Please don’t doubt what she can and will and wants to do.”

  “Then what are we to do?” he asked, at a loss.

  There was, of course, no answer, not tonight at least. Sarai looked up at the citadel. By the light of the low-hanging stars, it looked like an enormous cage. “I don’t want to go back yet,” she said.

  Lazlo drew her closer. “It’s not morning yet,” he said. He waved his hand and the citadel vanished, as easily as that. He waved it again and the anchor vanished, too, right out from under their feet. They were in the sky again, flying. The city shone far below, glavelight and golden domes. The sky glimmered all around, starlight and infinity, and altogether too many seconds had passed since their last kiss. Lazlo thought, All of this is ours, even the infinity, and then he turned it. He turned gravity, because he could.

  Sarai wasn’t expecting it. Her wings were keeping her up, but then up became down and she tumbled, exactly as Lazlo had planned it, right into his arms. She gave a little gasp and then fell silent as he caught her full against him. He wrapped his wings around them and together they fell, not toward the ground but away, into the depths of the sky.

  They fell into the stars in a rush of air and ether. They breathed each other’s breath. They had never been this close. It was all velocity and dream physics—no more need to stand or lean or fly, but only fall. They were both already fallen. They would never finish falling. The universe was endless, and love had its own logic. Their bodies curved together, pressed, and found their perfect fit. Hearts, lips, navels, all their strings wound tight. Lazlo’s palm spread open on the small of Sarai’s back. He held her close against him. Her fingers twined through his long dark hair. Their mouths were soft and slow.

  Their kisses on the ground had been giddy. This one was different. It was reverent. It was a promise, and they trailed fire like a comet as they made it.

  He knew it wasn’t his will that brought them to their landing. Sarai was a dreamsmith, too, and this choice was all her own. Lazlo had given her the moon on her wrist, the stars that bedecked it, the sun in its jar on the shelf with the fireflies. He had even given her wings. But what she wanted most in that moment wasn’t the sky. It was the world and broken things, and hand-carved beams and tangled bedcovers, and a lovely tattoo round her navel, like a girl with the hope of a future. She wanted to know all the things that bodies are for, and all the things that hearts can feel. She wanted to sleep in Lazlo’s arms—and she wanted to not sleep in them.

  She wanted. She wanted.

  She wanted to wake up holding hands.

  Sarai wished and the dream obeyed. Lazlo’s room replaced the universe. Instead of stars: glaves. Instead of the cushion of endless air, there was, beneath her, the soft give of feathers. Her weight settled onto it, and Lazlo’s, onto her, and all with the ease—the rightness—of choreography meeting its music.

  Sarai’s robe was gone. Her slip was pink as petals, the straps gossamer-fine against the azure of her skin. Lazlo rose up on his elbow and gazed down at her in wonder. He traced the line of her neck, dizzy with this new topography. Here were her collarbones, as he had seen them that first night. He leaned down and kissed the warm dip between them. His fingertips traced up the length of her arm, and paused to roll the fine silk strap between them.

  Holding her gaze, he eased it aside. Her body rose against his, her head falling back to expose her throat. He covered it with his mouth, then kissed a path down to her bare shoulder. Her skin was hot—

  And his mouth was hot—

  And it was still all only a beginning.

  That was not what Thyon Nero saw when he came to peer in Lazlo’s window. Not lovers, and no beautiful blue maiden. Just Lazlo alone, dreaming, and somehow radiant. He was giving off… bliss, Thyon thought, the way a glave gives light.

  And… was that a moth perched on his brow? And…

  Thyon’s lip curled in disgust. On the wall above the bed, and on the ceiling beams: wings softly stirring. Moths. The room was infested with them. He knelt and picked up some pebbles, and weighed them on his palm. He took careful aim, drew back his hand, and threw.



  Lazlo shot upright, blinking. The moth spooked from his brow and all the others from the wall, to flutter up to the ceiling and beat around the beams. But he wasn’t thinking about the moths. He wasn’t thinking. The dream had pulled him down so deep that he was underneath thought, submerged in a place of pure feeling—and what feeling. Every feeling, and with the sense that they’d been stripped down to their essence, revealed for the first time in all their unspeakable beauty, their unbearable fragility. There was no part of him that knew he was dreaming—or, more to the point, that he was suddenly not dreaming.

  He only knew that he was holding Sarai, the flesh of her shoulder hot and smooth against his mouth, and then he wasn’t.

  Twice before, the dream had broken and stolen her away, but those other times he’d understood what was happening. Not now. Now he experienced it as though Sarai herself—flesh and breath and hearts and hope—melted to nothing in his arms. He tried to hold on to her, but it was like trying to hold on to smoke or shadow, or—like Sathaz from the folktale—the reflection of the moon. Lazlo felt all of Sathaz’s helplessness. Even as he sat up in his bed in this room where Sarai had never been, the air seemed to cling to the curves of her, warm with traces of her scent and heat—but empty, forsaken. Devoid.

  Those other times he’d felt frustration. This was loss, and it tore something open inside him. “No,” he gasped, surfacing fast to be spilled back into reality like someone beached by the crash of a wave. The dream receded and left him there, in his bed, alone—stranded in the merciless intransigence of reality, and it was as bleak a truth to his soul as the nothingness of the Elmuthaleth.

  He exhaled with a shudder, his arms giving up on the sweet, lost phantom of Sarai. Even her fragrance was gone. He was awake, and he was alone. Well. He was awake.

  He heard a sound—a faint, incredulous chuff—and spun toward it. The shutters were open and the window ought to have been a square of dim cut from the dark, plain and empty against the night. Instead, a silhouette was blocked in it: a head and shoulders, glossed pale gold.

  “Now that,” drawled Thyon Nero, “looked like a really good dream.”

  Lazlo stared. Thyon Nero was standing at his window. He had been watching Lazlo sleep, watching him dream. Watching him dream that dream.

  Outrage coursed through him, and it was disproportionate to the moment—as though Thyon had been peering not just into the room but into the dream itself, witness to those perfect moments with Sarai.

  “Sorry to interrupt, whatever it was,” Thyon continued. “Though really you should thank me.” He tossed a spare pebble over his shoulder to skitter across the paving stones. “There are moths everywhere.” They were all still there, settling on the ce
iling beams. “There was even one on your face.”

  And Lazlo realized that the golden godson hadn’t just spied on him. He had actually awakened him. It wasn’t sunrise or a crushed moth that had broken this dream, but Thyon Nero pitching pebbles. Lazlo’s outrage transformed in an instant to rage—simpler, hotter—and he shot out of bed as fast as he had shot out of sleep.

  “What are you doing here?” he growled, looming in the space of the open window so that Thyon, surprised, stumbled back. He regarded Lazlo with narrow-eyed wariness. He’d never seen him angry before, let alone wrathful, and it made him seem bigger somehow, an altogether different and more dangerous species of Strange than the one he had known all these years.

  Which shouldn’t surprise him, considering why he’d come.

  “That’s a good question,” he said, and turned it back on Lazlo. “What am I doing here, Strange? Are you going to enlighten me?” His voice was hollow, and so were his eyes, his sunken cheeks. He was gaunt with spirit loss, his color sickly. He looked even worse than he had the day before.

  As for Lazlo, he was surprised at his own rage, which even now was ebbing away. It wasn’t an emotion he had much experience with—it didn’t fit him—and he knew it wasn’t really Thyon who had provoked it, but his own powerlessness to save Sarai. For an instant, just an instant, he had felt the searing anguish of losing her—but it wasn’t real. She wasn’t lost. Her moths were still here, up on the ceiling beams, and the night wasn’t over. As soon as he fell back to sleep she’d return to him.

  Of course, he had to get rid of the alchemist first. “Enlighten you?” he asked, confused. “What are you talking about, Nero?”

  Thyon shook his head, scornful. “You’ve always been good at that,” he said. “That hapless look. Those innocent eyes.” He spoke bitterly. “Yesterday, you almost had me convinced that you helped me because I needed it.” This he said as though it were the most absurd of propositions. “As though any man ever walked up to another and offered the spirit from his veins. But I couldn’t imagine what motive you could have, so I almost believed it.”

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