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Strange the dreamer, p.42
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.42

           Laini Taylor
 

  A fizz of shivers radiated out over Lazlo’s scalp and down his neck and spine.

  Gray as rain, you were, but your color came normal in time.

  In the silent street of the sleeping city, Lazlo’s feet slowed to a stop. He lifted the hand that had, moments ago, been holding the piece of mesarthium. The moth’s wings rose and fell, but he wasn’t looking at the moth. The discoloration was back—a grime-gray streak across his palm where he’d clutched the slender shard. He knew that it would fade, so long as he wasn’t touching mesarthium, and return as soon as he did. And all those years ago, his skin had been gray and had faded to normal.

  The sound of his heartbeats seemed to fill his head.

  What if he hadn’t been ill at all? What if he was… something much stranger than the name Strange was ever intended to signify?

  Another wave of shivers swept over him. He’d thought it was some property of the metal that it was reactive with skin, but he was the only one who had reacted to it.

  And now, according to Thyon, it had reacted to him.

  What did it mean? What did any of it mean? He started walking again, faster now, wishing Sarai were by his side. He wanted her hand clasped in his, not her moth perched on it. After the wonder and ease of flying in so real-seeming a dream, he felt heavy and trudging and trapped down here on the surface of the world. That was the curse of dreaming: One woke to pallid reality, with neither wings on one’s shoulders nor goddess in one’s arms.

  Well, he might never have wings in his waking life, but he would hold Sarai—not her phantom and not her moth, but her, flesh and blood and spirit. Somehow or other, he vowed, that much of his dream would come true.

  As Lazlo quickened his pace, so did Sarai. Her bare feet moved swiftly over the cool metal of the angel’s palm, as though she were trying to keep up. It was unconscious. As Ruby and Sparrow had said, she wasn’t really here, but had left just enough awareness in her body so that she knew when to turn in her pacing and not walk up the slope that edged the seraph’s hand and right over the edge.

  Most of her awareness was with Lazlo: perched on his wrist, and pressed against the closed door of his consciousness. She felt his quickened pulse, and the wave of shivers that prickled his flesh, and she experienced, simultaneously, a surge of emotion radiating out from him—and it was the kind of trembling, astonished awe one might feel in the presence of the sublime. Clear and strong as it was, though, she couldn’t grasp its cause. His feelings reached her in waves, like music heard through walls, but his thoughts stayed hidden inside.

  Her other ninety-nine moths had flown off and were spinning through the city in clusters, searching for some hint of activity. But she could find nothing amiss. Weep was quiet. Tizerkane guards were silent silhouettes in their watchtowers, and the golden faranji returned directly to his laboratory and locked himself inside. Eril-Fane and Azareen were sleeping—she in her bed, he on the floor, the door closed between them—and the silk sleighs were just as they’d been left.

  Sarai told herself that there was nothing to worry about, and then, hearing the words in her mind, gave a hard—if voiceless—laugh. Nothing to worry about? Nothing at all. What could there possibly be to worry about?

  Just discovery, carnage, and death.

  Those were the worries she’d grown up with, and they were dulled by familiarity. But there were new worries, because there was new hope, and desire, and… and love, and those were neither familiar nor dull. Until a few days ago, Sarai could hardly have said what there was to live for, but now her hearts were full of reasons. They were full and heavy and burdened with a fearsome urgency to live—because of Lazlo, and the world they built when their minds touched, and the belief, in spite of everything, that they could make it real. If only the others would let them.

  But they wouldn’t.

  Tonight she and Lazlo had sought solace in each other and found it, and they had hidden in it, blocking out reality and the hate they were powerless against. They had no solution and no hope, and so they’d reveled in what they did have—each other, at least in dreams—and tried to forget all the rest.

  But there was no forgetting.

  Sarai caught sight of Rasalas, perched on the anchor. She usually avoided the monster, but now she sent a cluster of her moths winging nearer. It had been beautiful in the dream. It might have served as a symbol of hope—if it could be remade, then anything could—but here it was as it had ever been: a symbol of nothing but brutality.

  She couldn’t bear the sight. Her moths broke apart and spun away, and that was when a sound caught her ear. From down below, in the shadow of the anchor, she heard footsteps, and something else. A sullen creak, low and repetitive. Flowing more of her attention into these dozen-some moths, she sent them down to investigate. They honed in on the sound and followed it into the alley that ran along the base of the anchor.

  Sarai knew the place, but not well. This district was abandoned. No one had lived here in all the time she’d been coming down to Weep, so there was no reason to send moths here. She’d all but forgotten the mural, and the sight arrested her: six dead gods, crudely blue and dripping red, and her father in the middle: hero, liberator, butcher.

  The creaking was louder now, and Sarai could make out the silhouette of a man. She couldn’t see his face, but she could smell him: the yellow stink of sulfur and stain.

  What’s he doing here? she wondered with distaste. Sight confirmed what her other senses told her. It was the peeling-faced one whose dreams had so disturbed her. Between his ugly mind and rancid hygiene, she hadn’t made contact with him since that second night, but only passed him by with wincing revulsion. She’d spent less time in his mind than in any of his fellows’, and so she had only a passing notion of his expertise, and even less of his thoughts and plans.

  Perhaps that had been a mistake.

  He was walking slowly, holding a sort of wheel in his hands—a spool from which he was unwinding a long string behind him. That was the rhythmic creaking: the wheel, rusty, groaning as it turned. She watched, perplexed. At the mouth of the alley, he peered out and looked around. Everything about him was furtive. When he was certain no one was near, he reached into his pocket, fumbled in the dark, and struck a match. The flame flared high and blue, then shrank to a little orange tongue no bigger than a fingertip.

  Bending down, he touched it to the string, which of course wasn’t a string, but a fuse.

  And then he ran.

  60

  SOMETHING ODD

  Thyon dropped the shard of mesarthium onto his worktable and dropped himself, heavily, onto his stool. With a sigh—frustration on top of deep weariness—he rested his brow on his hand and stared at the long sliver of alien metal. He’d gone looking for answers, and gotten none, and the mystery wouldn’t let him go.

  “What are you?” he asked the mesarthium, as though it might tell him what Strange had not. “Where did you come from?” His voice was low, accusatory.

  “Why aren’t you gloating?” Strange had asked him. “You did it.”

  But what, exactly, had he done? Or, more to the point, why had it worked? The vial labeled SPIRIT OF LIBRARIAN was lying just a few inches from the metal. Thyon sat like that, staring hard at the two things—the vial with its few remaining drops of vital essence, and the bit of metal the essence had enabled him to cut.

  And maybe it was because he was dazed with spirit loss, or maybe he was just tired and halfway to dreaming already, but though he looked with all the rigor of a scientist, his gaze was filtered by the shimmering veil of reverie—the same sense of wonder that attended him when he read his secret book of miracles. And so, when he noticed something odd, he considered all possibilities, including the ones that oughtn’t to have been possible at all.

  He reached for the metal and examined it more closely. The edges were uneven where the alkahest had eaten away at it, but one facet was as perfectly smooth as the surface of the anchor. Or it had been. He was certain.

 
It wasn’t anymore. Now, without a doubt, it bore the subtle indentations of… well, of fingers, where Lazlo Strange had clutched it in his hand.

  61

  HOT AND ROTTEN AND WRONG

  As Sarai had felt waves of Lazlo’s feelings even through the barriers of his consciousness, so did he feel the sudden blaze of hers.

  A fry of panic—no thoughts, no images, just a slap of feeling and he jerked to a halt, two blocks from the anchor, and then, flooding his senses: the tang of sulfur, hot and rotten and wrong.

  It was the stink of Drave, and it felt like a premonition, because just then Drave came into view at the top of the street, rounding the corner at a dead run. His eyes widened when he caught sight of Lazlo, but he didn’t slow. He just came pelting onward as though pursued by ravids. All in an instant: the panic, the tang, and the explosionist. Lazlo blinked.

  And then the world went white.

  A bloom of light. Night became day—brighter than day, no darkness left alive. Stars shone pale against bleached-bone heavens, and all the shadows died. The moment wavered in tremulous silence, blinding, null, and numb.

  And then the blast.

  It hurled him. He didn’t know it. He only knew the flash. The world went white, and then it went black, and that was all there was to it.

  Not for Sarai. She was safe from the blast wave—at least her body was, up in the citadel. The moths near the anchor were incinerated in an instant. In the first second before her awareness could flow into her other sentinels, it was as though fire scorched away her sight in pieces, leaving ragged holes rimmed in cinders.

  Those moths were lost. She had some eighty others still on wing in the city, but the blast ripped outward so fast and far it seized them all in its undertow and swept them away. Her senses churned with their tumbling, end over end, no up, no down. She dropped to her knees on the terrace, head spinning as more moths died, more holes melting from her vision, and the rest kept on reeling, out of her control. It was seconds before she could pull her senses home to her body—most of them, at least. Enough to stop the spinning as her helpless smithereens scattered. Her mind and belly heaved, sick and dizzy and frantic. The worst was that she’d lost Lazlo. The moth on his hand had been peeled away and snuffed out of existence, and for all she knew, he had been, too.

  No.

  An explosion. She understood that much. The roar of the blast was curiously muted. She crawled toward the edge of the terrace and lay over it, her chest against the metal, and peered over the edge. She didn’t know what to expect to see down in Weep. Chaos—chaos to match the churn of her wind-scattered senses? But all she saw was a delicate blossom of fire from the district of the anchor, and fronds of smoke billowing in slow motion. It looked like a bonfire from up here.

  Ruby and Sparrow, peering over the balustrade in the garden, thought the same.

  It was… pretty.

  Maybe it wasn’t bad, Sarai thought—she prayed—as she reached back out for her remaining sentinels. Many were crushed or crippled, but several dozen could still fly, and she hurled them at the air, back toward the anchor, to where she’d lost Lazlo.

  Vision at street level was nothing like the calm view from overhead. It was almost unrecognizable as the landscape of a moment ago. A haze of dust and smoke hung over everything, lit lurid by the fire blazing at the blast sight. It didn’t look like a bonfire from down here, but a conflagration. Sarai searched with her dozens of eyes, and nothing quite made sense. She was almost sure this was where she’d lost Lazlo, but the topography had changed. Chunks of stone stood in the street where before no stones had been. They’d been hurled there by the blast.

  And under one was pinned a body.

  No, said Sarai’s soul. Sometimes that’s all there is: an infinite echo of the smallest of words. No no no no no forever.

  The stone was a chunk of wall, and not just any chunk. It was a fragment of the mural, hurled all this way. Isagol’s painted face gazed up from it, and the gash of her slit throat gaped like a smile.

  Sarai’s mind had emptied of everything but no. She heard a groan and her moths flurried to the body—

  —and as quickly away from it again.

  It wasn’t Lazlo, but Drave. He was facedown, caught while running from the chaos he had caused. His legs and pelvis were crushed under the stone. His arms scrabbled at the street as though to pull himself free, but his eyes were glazed, unseeing, and blood bubbled from his nostrils. Sarai didn’t stay to watch him die. Her mind, which had shrunk to the single word no, unfurled once more with hope. Her moths wheeled apart, cutting through the blowing smoke until they found another figure sprawled out flat and still.

  This was Lazlo. He was on his back, eyes closed, mouth slack, his face white with dust except where blood ran from his nose and ears. A sob welled up in Sarai’s throat and her moths slashed the air in their haste to reach him—to touch him and know if his spirit still flowed, if his skin was warm. One fluttered to his lips, others to his brow. As soon as they touched him, she fell into his mind, out of the dust and smoke of the fire-painted night and into… a place she’d never been.

  It was an orchard. The trees were bare and black. “Lazlo?” she called, and her breath made a cloud. It streamed from her and vanished. Everything was still. She took a step, and frost crackled beneath her bare feet. It was very cold. She called for him again. Another breath cloud formed and faded, and there was no answer. She seemed to be alone here. Fear coiled in her gut. She was in his mind, which meant he was alive—and her moth that was perched on his lips could feel the faint stir of breath—but where was he? Where was she? What was this place? She wandered among the trees, parting the whip boughs with her hands, walking faster and faster, growing more and more anxious. What did it mean if he wasn’t here?

  “Lazlo!” she called. “Lazlo!”

  And then she came into a clearing and he was there—on his knees, digging in the dirt with his hands. “Lazlo!”

  He looked up. His eyes were dazed, but they brightened at the sight of her. “Sarai? What are you doing here?”

  “Looking for you,” she said, and rushed forward to throw her arms around him. She kissed his face. She breathed him in. “But what are you doing?” She took his hands in hers. They were caked with black dirt, his nails cracked and broken from scraping at the frozen earth.

  “I’m looking for something.”

  “For what?”

  “My name,” he said, with uncertainty. “The truth.”

  Gently, she touched his brow, swallowing the fear that wanted to choke her. Being thrown like that, he had to have hit his head. What if he was injured? What if he was… damaged? She took his head in her hands, wishing savagely that she were down in Weep, to hold his real head in her lap and stroke his face and be there when he woke, because of course he would wake. Of course he was fine. Of course. “And… you think it’s here?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.

  “There’s something here. I know there is,” he said, and… something was.

  It was caked in dirt, but when he pulled it out, the soil fell away and it glimmered white as pearl. It was… a feather? Not just any feather. Its edges met the air in that melting way, as though it might dissolve. “Wraith,” said Sarai, surprised.

  “The white bird,” said Lazlo. He stared at the feather, turning it over in his hand. Fragmented images flittered at the edge of memory. Glimpses of white feathers, of wings etched against stars. His brow furrowed. Trying to catch the memories was like trying to catch a reflection. As soon as he reached for them, they warped and vanished.

  For her part, Sarai wondered what a feather from Wraith was doing here, buried in the earth of Lazlo’s unconscious mind. But it was a dream—from a blow to the head, no less—and likely meant nothing at all.

  “Lazlo,” she said, licking her lips, fear hot and tight in her throat and her chest. “Do you know what’s happened? Do you know where you are?”

  He looked around. “This is the abbey orchard. I
used to play here as a boy.”

  “No,” she said. “This is a dream. Do you know where you are?”

  His brow furrowed. “I… I was walking,” he said. “To the north anchor.”

  Sarai nodded. She stroked his face, marveling at what it had come to mean to her in so short a span of time—this crooked nose, these rough-cut cheeks, these rivercat lashes and dreamer’s eyes. She wanted to stay with him, that was all she wanted—even here, in this austere place. Give them half a minute and they could turn it into paradise—frost flowers blooming on the bare black trees, and a little house with a potbellied stove, a fleece rug in front of it just right for making love.

  The last thing she wanted to do—the very last thing—was push him out a door where she couldn’t follow. But she kissed his lips, and kissed his eyelids, and whispered the words that would do just that. She said, “Lazlo. You have to wake up now, my love.”

  And he did.

  From the quiet of the orchard and Sarai’s caress, Lazlo woke to… quiet that wasn’t silence, but sound pulled inside out. His head was stuffed with it, bursting, and he couldn’t hear a thing. He was deaf, and he was choking. The air was thick and he couldn’t breathe. Dust. Smoke. Why…? Why was he lying down?

  He tried to sit up. Failed.

  He lay there, blinking, and shapes began to resolve from the dim. Overhead, he saw a shred of sky. No, not sky. Weep’s sky: the citadel. He could see the outline of its wings.

  The outline of wings. Yes. For an instant, he captured the memory—white wings against stars—just a glimpse, accompanied by a sensation of weightlessness that was the antithesis of what he was feeling now, sprawled out on the street, staring up at the citadel. Sarai was up there. Sarai. Her words were still in his mind, her hands still on his face. She had just been with him.…

 
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