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Strange the dreamer, p.41
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.41

           Laini Taylor
 

  Lazlo squinted at him. “You should believe it. What other motive could there be?”

  “That’s what I want to know. You pulled me into this years ago, all the way back at the Chrysopoesium. Why, Strange? What’s your game?” He looked wild as well as ill, a sheen of sweat on his brow. “Who are you really?”

  The question took Lazlo aback. Thyon had known him since he was thirteen years old. He knew who he was, insofar as it was knowable. He was a Strange, with all that that implied. “What’s this about, Nero?”

  “Don’t even think about playing me for a fool, Strange—”

  Lazlo lost patience and cut him off, repeating, in a louder voice, “What’s this about, Nero?”

  The two young men stood on opposite sides of the open window, facing each other across the sill much as they had once faced each other across the Enquiries desk, except that now Lazlo was uncowed. Sarai watched them through her sentinels. She had awakened when Lazlo did, then collapsed back on her pillows, squeezing her eyes tight shut to block out the sight of the mesarthium walls and ceiling that hemmed her in. Hadn’t she said she didn’t want to come back here yet? She could have cried in her frustration. Her blood and spirit were coursing fast and her shoulder was hot as though from Lazlo’s real breath. The pink silk strap had even slipped down, just like in the dream. She traced it with her fingers, eyes closed, recalling the feeling of Lazlo’s lips and hands, the exquisite paths of sensation that came alive wherever he touched her. What did the faranji mean, coming here in the middle of the night?

  The two spoke in their own language, as meaningless to her as drums or birdsong. She didn’t know what they were saying, but she saw the wariness in their posture, the mistrust in their eyes, and it set her on edge. Lazlo pushed his hair back impatiently with one hand. A beat passed in silence. Then the other man reached into his pocket. The movement was quicksilver-sudden. Sarai glimpsed a glint of metal.

  Lazlo saw it, too. A knife. Flashing toward him.

  He jerked back. The bed was right behind him. He bumped against it and ended up sitting. In his mind’s eye, Ruza shook his head, despairing of ever making a warrior of him.

  Thyon gave him a scathing look. “I’m not going to kill you, Strange,” he said, and Lazlo saw that it was not a knife that lay across his open palm, but a long sliver of metal.

  His heartbeats stuttered. Not just metal. Mesarthium.

  Understanding flooded him and he surged back to his feet. For the moment, he forgot all his anger and Thyon’s cryptic insinuations and was simply overcome by the significance of the achievement. “You did it,” he said, breaking into a smile. “The alkahest worked. Nero, you did it!”

  Thyon’s scathing look was wiped away, replaced with uncertainty. He’d convinced himself this was part of some ploy, some trickery or treachery with Strange at its center, but suddenly he wasn’t sure. In Lazlo’s reaction was pure wonder, and even he could see it wasn’t feigned. He shook his head, not in denial, but more like he was shaking something off. It was the same feeling of disfaith he’d experienced at the anchor—of disbelief crashing against evidence. Lazlo wasn’t hiding anything. Whatever the meaning of this enigma, it was a mystery to him as well.

  “May I?” Lazlo asked, not waiting for an answer. The metal seemed to call out to him. He took it from Thyon’s hand and weighed it on his own. The ripple of glavelight on its satin-blue sheen was mesmerizing, its surface cool against his dream-fevered skin. “Have you told Eril-Fane?” he asked, and when Thyon didn’t answer, he pulled his gaze up from the metal. The scorn and suspicion were gone from the alchemist’s face, leaving him blank. Lazlo didn’t know exactly what this breakthrough would mean for Weep’s problem, which was far more complicated than Thyon knew, but there was no doubt that it was a major accomplishment. “Why aren’t you gloating, Nero?” he asked. There was no grudge in his voice when he said, “It’s a good episode for your legend, to be sure.”

  “Shut up, Strange,” said Thyon, though there was less rancor in the words than in all the ones that came before them. “Listen to me. It’s important.” His jaw clenched and unclenched. His gaze was sharp as claws. “Our world has a remarkable cohesion—a set of elements that make up everything in it. Everything in it. Leaf and beetle, tongue and teeth, iron and water, honey and gold. Azoth is…” He groped for a way to explain. “It’s the secret language they all understand. Do you see? It’s the skeleton key that unlocks every door.” He paused to let this sink in.

  “And you’re unlocking the doors,” said Lazlo, trying to guess where he was going with this.

  “Yes, I am. Not all of them, not yet. It’s the work of a lifetime—the Great Work. My great work, Strange. I’m not some gold maker to spend my days filling a queen’s coin purse. I am unlocking the mysteries of the world, one by one, and I haven’t come across a lock yet, so to speak, that my key will not fit. The world is my house. I am its master. Azoth is my key.”

  He paused again, with significance, and Lazlo, seeking to fill the silence, ventured a wary, “You’re welcome?”

  But whatever Thyon’s point was, it was apparently not gratitude for the part Lazlo had played in giving him his “key.” Aside from a narrowing of his eyes, he continued as though he hadn’t heard. “Mesarthium, now”—he paused before laying down his next words with great weight—“is not of this world.”

  He said it as though it were a great revelation, but Lazlo just raised his eyebrows. He knew that much already. Well, he might not know it the way that Thyon knew it, through experiments and empirical evidence. Still, he’d been sure of it since he first set eyes on the citadel. “Nero,” he said, “I should have thought that was obvious.”

  “And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it does not understand the secret language. The skeleton key does not fit.” In a voice that brooked no doubt, he said, “Azoth of this world does not affect mesarthium.”

  Lazlo’s brow furrowed. “But it did,” he said, holding up the shard of metal.

  “Not quite.” Thyon looked at him very hard. “Azoth distilled from my spirit had no effect on it at all. So I ask you again, Lazlo Strange… who are you?”

  58

  ONE-PLUM WRATH

  Sparrow leaned against the garden balustrade. The city lay below, cut by the avenue of light—moonlight now—that slipped between the great seraph’s wings. It looked like a path. At night especially, the cityscape was muted enough to lose its sense of scale. If you let your eyes go just out of focus, the avenue became a lane of light you might walk straight across, all the way to the Cusp and beyond. Why not?

  A breeze stirred the plum boughs, shivering leaves and Sparrow’s hair. She plucked a plum. It fit perfectly in her hand. She held it there a moment, looking out, looking down. Ruby had thrown one. Reckless Ruby. What would it feel like, Sparrow wondered, to be wild like her sister, and take what—and who—you wanted and do as you liked? She laughed inwardly. She would never know.

  Drifting down the corridor toward Feral’s room, she’d been daydreaming of a kiss—a single sweet kiss—only to discover…

  Well.

  She felt like a child. On top of everything else—her chest aching as though her hearts had been stomped on, and the shock that had her still gasping—she was embarrassed. She’d been thinking of a kiss, while they were doing… that. It was so far beyond anything she knew. Sarai used to tell them about the things humans did together, and it had been so scandalous, so remote. She’d never even imagined doing it herself, and for all of her sister’s fixation on kissing, she’d never imagined her doing it, either. Especially not with Feral. She squeezed her eyes closed and held her face in her hands. She felt so stupid, and betrayed, and… left behind.

  She weighed the plum in her hand, and for just a moment it seemed to represent everything she wasn’t—or perhaps every sweet, insipid thing she was.

  Ruby was fire—fire and wishes, like torch ginger—and she was… fruit? No, worse: She was kimril, sweet and nourishing an
d bland. She drew back her arm and hurled the plum as far out as she could. Instantly she regretted it. “Maybe I’ll hit one of them,” Ruby had said, but Sparrow didn’t want to hit anyone.

  Well, maybe Ruby and Feral.

  As though conjured by her thoughts, Ruby stepped out into the garden. Seeing her, Sparrow plucked another plum. She didn’t throw it at her, but held it, just in case. “What are you doing awake?” she asked.

  “I’m hungry,” said Ruby. For hungry children growing up in the citadel of the Mesarthim, there had never been a pantry worth raiding. There were only the plum trees Sparrow kept in perpetual fruit.

  “It’s no wonder,” she said. She weighed the plum in her palm. “You’ve been… active lately.”

  Ruby shrugged, unrepentant. She walked the herb path and scents rose up around her. She was wild-haired as ever—or even more so, from her recent exertions—and had put on a slip with a robe, unbelted, its ties flittering behind her like silky kitten tails.

  Ruby lolled against the balustrade. She picked a plum and ate it. Juice dripped down her fingers. She licked them clean and gazed out at the Cusp. “Are you in love with him?” she asked.

  “What?” Sparrow scowled. “No.”

  She might have made no answer at all, Ruby ignored it so completely. “I didn’t know, you know. You could have told me.”

  “What, and ruin your fun?”

  “Martyr,” said Ruby, mild. “It was just something to do, and he was someone to do it with. The only boy alive.”

  “How romantic.”

  “Well, if it’s romance you want, don’t expect too much from our Feral.”

  “I don’t expect anything from him,” said Sparrow, annoyed. “I don’t want him now.”

  “Why not? Because I’ve had my way with him? Don’t tell me it’s like when we used to lick the spoons to claim our place at table.”

  Sparrow tossed up the plum and caught it. “It is a little like that, yes.”

  “Well then. The spoons were always fair game again after a wash. The same ought to go for boys.”

  “Ruby, really.”

  “What?” Ruby demanded, and Sparrow couldn’t tell if she was joking, or truly saw no difference between licked spoons and licked boys.

  “It’s not about the licking. It’s obvious who Feral wants.”

  “No, it’s not. It’s just because I was there,” she said. “If you’d gone to him, then it would be you.”

  Sparrow scowled. “If that’s true, then I really don’t want him. I only want someone who wants only me.”

  Ruby thought it was true, and to her surprise, it bothered her. When Sparrow put it like that, she rather thought that she, too, would like someone who wanted only her. She experienced an utterly irrational flare of pique toward Feral. And then she remembered what he’d said right before they both looked up and saw Sparrow in the door. “I’ll have to sleep with you from now on.”

  Her cheeks warmed as she considered this. At first blush, it was anything but romantic. “I’ll have to” made it sound as though there was no other choice, but of course there was. There was spare bedding; he only had to ask the chambermaids for it. If he preferred to come to her, well. Until now, she had always gone to him. And he’d said “from now on.” It sounded like… a promise. Had he meant it? Did she want it?

  She reached out and took a windblown curl of Sparrow’s hair into her plum-sticky hand. She gave it a gentle tug. A wistful air came over her, the closest she could come to remorse. “I just wanted to know what it was like,” she said, “in case it was my last chance. I never wanted to take him away from you.”

  “You didn’t. It’s not like you tied him down and forced him.” Sparrow paused, considering. “You didn’t, did you?”

  “Practically. But he didn’t scream for help, so…”

  Sparrow launched the plum. It was close range, and hit Ruby on her collarbone. She said, “Ow!” though it hadn’t really hurt. Rubbing at the place of impact, she glared at Sparrow. “Is that it, then? Have you spent your wrath?”

  “Yes,” said Sparrow, dusting off her palms. “It was one-plum wrath.”

  “How sad for Feral. He was only worth one plum. Won’t he mope when we tell him.”

  “We needn’t tell him,” said Sparrow.

  “Of course we need,” said Ruby. “Right now he probably thinks we’re both in love with him. We can’t let that stand.” She paused at the railing. “Look, there’s Sarai.”

  Sparrow looked. From the garden, they could see Sarai’s terrace and Sarai on it. It was far; they could really only make out the shape of her, pacing. They waved, but she didn’t wave back.

  “She doesn’t see us,” said Sparrow, dropping her hand. “Anyway, she’s not really there.”

  Ruby knew what she meant. “I know. She’s down in the city.” She sighed, wistful, and rested her chin in her hand, gazing down to where people lived and danced and loved and gossiped and didn’t ever eat kimril if they didn’t want to. “What I wouldn’t give to see it just once.”

  59

  GRAY AS RAIN

  Sarai hadn’t been out on her terrace since the attack on the silk sleigh. She’d kept to her alcove since then, trying to preserve some privacy while under heavy guard, but she couldn’t take it anymore. She needed air, and she needed to move. She was always restless when her moths were out, and now her confusion was compounding it.

  What was this about?

  She paced. Ghosts were all around her, but she was barely aware of them. She could still make no sense of Lazlo’s exchange with the faranji, though it clearly had something to do with mesarthium. Lazlo was tense, that much she understood. He handed back the piece of metal. The other man left—finally—and she expected Lazlo to go back to sleep. To come back to her.

  Instead, he put on his boots. Dismay sparked through her. She wasn’t thinking now of exquisite paths of sensation or the heat of his lips on her shoulder. That had all been driven out by a thrum of unease. Where was he going at this time of night? He was distracted, a million miles away. She watched him pull on a vest over his loose linen nightshirt. The impulse to reach for him was so strong, but she couldn’t, and her mouth was alive with questions that she had no way to ask. A moth fluttered around his head, its path a scribble.

  He saw it and blinked back into focus. “I’m sorry,” he said, uncertain whether she could hear him, and put out his hand.

  Sarai hesitated before perching on it. It had been a long time since she’d tried contact with a waking person, but she knew what to expect. She did not expect to slip into a dreamspace where she could see and talk to him, and indeed she didn’t.

  The unconscious mind is open terrain—no walls or barriers, for better or worse. Thoughts and feelings are free to wander, like characters leaving their books to taste life in other stories. Terrors roam, and so do yearnings. Secrets are turned out like pockets, and old memories meet new. They dance and leave their scents on each other, like perfume transferred between lovers. Thus is meaning made. The mind builds itself like a sirrah’s nest with whatever is at hand: silk threads and stolen hair and the feathers of dead kin. The only rule is that there are no rules. In that space, Sarai went where she wanted and did as she pleased. Nothing was closed to her.

  The conscious mind was a different story. There was no mingling, no roaming. Secrets melted into the dark, and all the doors slammed shut. Into this guarded world, she could not enter. As long as Lazlo was awake, she was locked out on the doorstep of his mind. She knew this already, but he didn’t. When the moth made contact, he expected her to manifest in his mind, but she didn’t. He spoke her name—first aloud in the room and then louder in his mind. “Sarai?”

  Sarai?

  No response, only a vague sense that she was near—locked on the far side of a door he didn’t know how to open. He gathered that he’d have to fall asleep if he wanted to talk to her, but that was impossible right now. His mind was buzzing with Thyon’s question.

 
Who are you?

  He imagined that other people had a place in the center of themselves—right in the center of themselves—where the answer to that question resided. Himself, he had only an empty space. “You know I don’t know,” he had told Thyon, uncomfortable. “What are you suggesting?”

  “I am suggesting,” the golden godson had replied, “that you are no orphan peasant from Zosma.”

  Then who?

  Then what?

  Azoth of this world. That was what Thyon had said. Azoth of this world did not affect mesarthium. Azoth distilled from the alchemist’s own spirit had no effect on it at all. And yet he had cut a shard off the anchor, and that was proof enough: Something had affected mesarthium, and that something, according to Thyon, was Lazlo.

  He told himself Nero was mocking him, that it was all a prank. Maybe Drave was hiding just out of sight, chuckling like a schoolboy.

  But what sort of prank? An elaborate ruse to make him think there was something special about him? He couldn’t believe that Nero would go to the trouble, particularly not now, when he was so obsessed with the challenge at hand. Thyon Nero was many things, but frivolous just wasn’t one of them.

  But then, maybe Lazlo just wanted it to be true. For there to be something special about him.

  He didn’t know what to think. Mesarthium was at the center of this mystery, so that was where he was going—to the anchor, as though Mouzaive’s invisible magnetic fields were pulling him there. He left the house, Sarai’s moth still perched on his hand. He didn’t know what to tell her, if she could even hear him. His mind was awhirl with thoughts and memories, and, at the center of everything: the mystery of himself.

  “So you could be anyone,” Sarai had said when he told her about the cartload of orphans and not knowing his name.

  He thought of the abbey, the monks, the rows of cribs, the wailing babies, and himself, silent in their midst.

  “Unnatural,” Brother Argos had called him. The word echoed through Lazlo’s thoughts. Unnatural. He’d only meant Lazlo’s silence, hadn’t he? “Thought sure you’d die,” the monk had said, too. “Gray as rain, you were.”

 
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