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Strange the dreamer, p.44
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.44

           Laini Taylor
 

  Lazlo Strange in a lunge, head bowed as he leaned into the anchor, arms extended, hands sunk to the wrists in fluid mesarthium, with the remade beast of the anchor perched above him. It was Skathis’s monster, shaped now not of nightmare, but grace. The scene… the scene was a marvel. It carried with it the hearts-in-throat abandon of Lazlo’s rush to the anchor, all the certainty of death, and hope like a small mad flame flaring in a dark, dark place as he had lifted his arms to hold up the world. If there was any justice, the scene would be carved into a monument of demonglass and placed here to commemorate the salvation of Weep.

  The second salvation of Weep, and its new hero.

  Few will ever witness an act destined to become legend. How does it happen, that the events of a day, or a night—or a life—are translated into story? There is a gap in between, where awe has carved a space that words have yet to fill. This was such a gap: the silence of aftermath, in the dark of the night on the second Sabbat of Twelfthmoon, at the melted north anchor of Weep.

  Lazlo had finished. The elegance of energies was restored. City and citadel were safe, and all was right. He was suffused with well-being. This was who he was. This was who he was. He might not know his true name, but the place at his center wasn’t empty anymore. Blood on his face, hair pale with the dust of collapsing ruins, he lifted his head. Perhaps because he hadn’t watched it all happen but felt it, or perhaps because… it had been easy, he didn’t grasp the magnitude, quite, of the moment. He didn’t know that here was a gap slowly filling with legend, much less that it was his legend. He didn’t feel like a hero, and, well… he didn’t feel like a monster, either.

  Nevertheless, in the space where his legend was gathering up words, monster was surely among them.

  He opened his eyes, coming slowly back to awareness of the world outside his mind, and found it echoing with silence. From behind him came footsteps, many and cautious. It seemed to him they gathered up the silence like a mantle and carried it along with them, step by step. There were no cheers, no sighs of relief. There was barely breath. Seeing his hands still sunk into the metal, he drew them out like pulling them out of water. And… he stared at them.

  Perhaps he ought not have been surprised by what he saw, but he was. It made him feel inside a dream, because it was only in a dream that his hands had looked like this. They were no longer the brown of desert-tanned skin, and neither were they the gray of grime and sickly babies.

  They were vivid azure blue.

  Blue as cornflowers, or dragonfly wings, or a spring—not summer—sky.

  Blue as tyranny, and thrall, and murder waiting to happen.

  Never had a color meant so much, so deeply. He turned to face the gathering crowd. Eril-Fane, Azareen, Ruza, Tzara, the other Tizerkane, even Calixte and Thyon Nero. They stared at him, at his face that was as blue as his hands, and they struggled—all save Thyon—with an overwhelming upsurge of cognitive dissonance. This young man whom they had found at a library in a distant land, whom they had taken into their hearts and into their homes, and whom they valued above any outsider they had ever known, was also, impossibly, godspawn.

  65

  WINDFALL

  They were all so still, so speechless and frozen, their expressions blank with shock. And so this was the mirror in which Lazlo knew himself: hero, monster. Godspawn.

  He saw, in their shock, a struggle to reconcile what they thought they knew of him with what they saw before them, not to mention what they had just seen him do, and what it meant as their gratitude vied with mistrust and betrayal.

  Under the circumstances—that is, their being alive—one might expect their acceptance, if not quite elation to match Lazlo’s own. But the roots of their hate and fear were too deep, and Lazlo saw hints of revulsion as their confusion smeared one feeling into the next. And he could offer them no explanation. He had no clarity, only a muddy swirl of his own, with streaks of every color and emotion.

  He fixed on Eril-Fane, who in particular looked dazed. “I didn’t know,” he told him. “I promise you.”

  “How?” gasped Eril-Fane. “How is it possible that you are… this?”

  What could Lazlo tell him? He wanted to know that himself. How had a child of the Mesarthim ended up on an orphan cart in Zosma? His only answer was a buried white feather, a distant memory of wings against the sky, and a feeling of weightlessness. “I don’t know.”

  Maybe the answer was up in the citadel. He tilted back his head and gazed at it, new elation blooming in him. He couldn’t wait to tell Sarai. To show her. He didn’t even have to wait for nightfall. He could fly. Right now. She was up there, real and warm, flesh and breath and laughter and teeth and bare feet and smooth blue calves and soft cinnamon hair, and he couldn’t wait to show her: The mahalath had been right, even if it hadn’t guessed his gift.

  His gift. He laughed out loud. Some of the Tizerkane flinched at the sound.

  “Don’t you see what this means?” he asked. His voice was rich and full of wonder, and all of them knew it so well. It was their storyteller’s voice, both rough and pure, their friend’s voice that repeated every fool phrase they threw at him in their language lessons. They knew him, blue or not. He wanted to push past this ugliness of age-old hates and soul-warping fears and start a new era. For the first time, it truly seemed possible. “I can move the citadel,” he said. He could free the city from its shadow now, and Sarai from her prison. What couldn’t he do in this version of the world in which he was hero and monster in one? He laughed again. “Don’t you see?” he demanded, losing patience with their suspicion and scrutiny and the unacceptable absence of celebration. “The problem,” he said, “is solved.”

  No cheers broke out. He didn’t expect any, but they might at least have looked glad not to be dead. Instead they were just overwhelmed, glancing at Eril-Fane to see what he would do.

  He came forward, his steps heavy. He might have been called the Godslayer for good reason, but Lazlo didn’t fear him. He looked him right in the eyes and saw a man who was great and good and human, who had done extraordinary things and terrible things and been broken and reassembled as a shell, only then to do the bravest thing of all: He had kept on living, though there are easier paths to take.

  Eril-Fane stared back at Lazlo, coming to terms with the new complexion of his familiar face. Time passed in heartbeats, and at last he held out his great hand. “You have saved our city and all our lives, Lazlo Strange. We are greatly in your debt.”

  Lazlo took his hand. “There is no debt,” he said. “It’s all I wanted—”

  But he broke off, because it was then, in the silence after the earth settled and the crackle of the fire died down, that the screams reached them, and, a moment later, carried by a terror-stricken rider, the news.

  A girl had fallen from the sky. She was blue.

  And she was dead.

  Sound and air were stolen, and joy and thought and purpose. Lazlo’s wonder became its own dark inverse: not even despair, but nothingness. For despair there would have to be acceptance, and that was impossible. There was only nothing, so much nothing that he couldn’t breathe.

  “Where?” he choked out.

  Windfall. Windfall, where ripe plums rain down from the gods’ trees and there is always the sweet smell of rot.

  The plummet, he recalled, sick with sudden memory. Had he seen her fall? No. No. He’d told himself then it couldn’t be her, and he had to believe it now. He would know if Sarai had…

  He couldn’t even form the word in his mind. He would feel her fear—the way he had just before the blast, when that urgency of feeling had hit him, along with Drave’s sulfur stink, like a premonition. That could only have come from her, by way of her moth.

  Her moth.

  Something pierced the nothingness, and the something was dread. Where were Sarai’s moths? Why weren’t they here? They had been, when he lay on the ground, unconscious. “You have to wake up now, my love.”

  My love.

 
My love.

  And they’d been with him when he staggered down the street toward the fire. When had they gone? And where?

  And why?

  He asked the question, but slammed the door on any answers. A girl was dead, and the girl was blue, but it couldn’t be Sarai. There were four girls in the citadel, after all. It felt filthy to hope it was one of the others, but he hoped it nonetheless. He was near enough to the melted remains of the anchor to reach back and touch it, and he did, instantly drawing on its power. And Rasalas—Rasalas remade—lifted its great horned head.

  It was like a creature awakening from sleep, and when it moved—sinuous, liquid—and shook open its massive wings, a bone-deep terror stirred in all the warriors. They drew their swords, though their swords were useless, and when Rasalas leapt down from its perch, they scattered, all but Eril-Fane, who was stricken by a terror closer to Lazlo’s own. A girl, fallen. A girl, dead. He was shaking his head. His hands balled into fists. Lazlo didn’t see him. He didn’t see anyone but Sarai, bright in his mind, laughing, beautiful, and alive—as though picturing her that way proved that she was.

  With a leap, he mounted Rasalas. His will flowed into the metal. Muscles bunched. The creature leapt, and they were airborne. Lazlo was flying, but there was no joy in it, only the detached recognition that this was the version of the world he had wished for just moments ago. It was staggering. He could reshape mesarthium and he could fly. That much had come to pass, but there was a piece missing, the most important piece: to hold Sarai in his arms. It was a part of the wish, and the rest had come true, so it had to, too. A stubborn, desperate voice inside of Lazlo bargained with whatever might be listening. If there was some providence or cosmic will, some scheme of energies or even some god or angel answering his prayers tonight, then they had to grant this part, too.

  And… it could be argued that they did.

  Rasalas descended on Windfall. It was a quiet neighborhood usually, but not now. Now it was chaos: wild-eyed citizens caught in a nightmare carnival in which there was but one attraction. All was hysteria. The horror of the averted cataclysm had all poured into it, mixing with old hate and helplessness, and as the beast descended from the sky, the fervor rose to a new pitch.

  Lazlo was barely aware of it. At the center of it all, in a pocket of stillness within the roiling nest of screams, was the girl. She was arched over a garden gate, head tilted back, arms loose around her face. She was graceful. Vivid. Her skin was blue and her slip was… it was pink, and her hair, spilling loose, was the orange-red of copper and persimmons, cinnamon and wildflower honey.

  And blood.

  Lazlo did hold Sarai in his arms that night, and she was real and flesh, blood and spirit, but not laughter. Not breath. Those had left her body forever.

  The Muse of Nightmares was dead.

  66

  GOD AND GHOST

  Of course it was a dream. All of it, another nightmare. The citadel’s sickening lurch, the helpless silk-on-mesarthium glide down the seraph’s slick palm, flailing wildly for something to hold on to and finding nothing, and then… falling. Sarai had dreamed of falling before. She had dreamed of dying any number of ways since her lull stopped working. Of course… those other times, she’d always awakened at the moment of death. The knife in the heart, the fangs in her throat, the instant of impact, and she’d bolt upright in her bed, gasping. But here she was: not awake, not asleep.

  Not alive.

  Disbelief came first, then surprise. In a dream, there were a hundred thousand ways that it might go, and many of them were beautiful. Fox wings, a flying carpet, falling forever into the stars.

  In reality, though, there was only the one way, and it wasn’t beautiful at all. It was sudden. Almost too sudden to hurt.

  Almost.

  White-hot, like tearing in half, and then nothing.

  Surrounded by ghosts as she had always been, Sarai had wondered what it was like at the last, and how much power a soul had, to leave the body or stay. She had imagined, as others had before her and would after, that it was somehow a matter of will. If you just clung tightly enough and refused to let go, you might… well, you might get to live.

  She wanted so badly to live.

  And yet when her time came, there was no clinging, and no choice. Here was what she hadn’t counted on: There was her body to hold on to, but nothing to hold on with. She slipped out of herself with the sensation of being shed—like a bird’s molted feather, or a plum dropped from a tree.

  The shock of it. She had no weight, no substance. She was in the air, and the dreamlike unreality of floating warred with the gruesome truth beneath her. Her body. She… it… had landed on a gate, and was curved over it backward, hair streaming long, ginger blossoms raining down from it like little flames. The column of her throat was smooth cerulean, her eyes glassy and staring. Her pink slip looked lewd to her here, hiked up her bare thighs—all the more so when a crowd began to gather.

  And scream.

  An iron finial had pierced through her breastbone, right in the center of her chest. Sarai focused on that small point of red-slick iron and… hovered there, over the husk of her body, while the men, women, and children of Weep pointed and clutched their throats and choked out their raw and reeling screams. Such vicious noise, such contorted faces, they were barely human in their horror. She wanted to scream back at them, but they wouldn’t hear her. They couldn’t see her, not her—a trembling ghost perched on the chest of her own fresh corpse. All they saw was calamity, obscenity. Godspawn.

  Her moths found her, those that remained. She’d always thought they would die when she did, but some vestige of life was in them yet—the last tatters of her own, till sunrise could turn them to smoke. Frantic, they fluttered at her dead face and plucked wildly at her bloody hair—as though they could lift her up and carry her back home.

  They could not. A dirty wind purled them away and there was only the screaming, the hateful twisted faces, and… the truth.

  It was all real.

  Sarai was dead. And though she had gone beyond breathing, the realization choked her, like when she woke from a nightmare and couldn’t get air. The sight of her poor body… like this, exposed to them. She wanted to gather herself into her own arms. And her body… it was only the beginning of loss. Her soul would go, too. The world would resorb it. Energy was never lost, but she would be lost, and her memories with her, and all her longing, and all her love. Her love.

  Lazlo.

  Everything came rushing back. The blast, and what came after. Dying had distracted her. With a gasp she looked up, braced for the sight of the citadel plunging from the sky. Instead she saw… the sky—moonlight shafting through smoke, and even the glimmer of stars. She blinked. The citadel wasn’t falling. The seraph’s wings were folded.

  Truth skittered away again. What was real?

  The frenzy around her, already unbearable, grew wilder. She wouldn’t have believed the screams could get any louder, but they did, and when she saw why, her hearts—or the memory of them—gave a lurch of savage hope.

  Rasalas was in the sky, and Lazlo was astride him. Oh glory, the sight! The creature was remade, and… Lazlo was, too. He was Lazlo of the mahalath, as blue as skies and opals, and he took Sarai’s breath away. His long dark hair streamed in the gusts of wingbeats as Rasalas came down to land, and Sarai was overcome with the wild joy of reprieve. If Rasalas was flying, if Lazlo was blue, then it was, after all, just a dream.

  Oh gods.

  Lazlo slid from Rasalas’s back and stood before her, and if her despair was grim before that surge of joy, how wretched it was after. Her hope could not survive the grief she saw in him. He swayed on his feet. He couldn’t get his breath. His beautiful dreamer’s eyes were like burnt-out holes, and the worst thing was: He wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the body arched over the gate, dripping blood from the ends of its cinnamon hair, and that was what he reached for. Not her, but it.

  Sarai saw his hand trem
ble. She watched him trace the slim pink strap hanging limp from her dead shoulder, and remembered the feel of his hand there, easing the same strap aside, the heat of his mouth on her skin and the exquisite paths of sensation, in every way as though it had really happened—as though their bodies had come together, and not just their minds. The cruelty of it was a knife to her soul. Lazlo had never touched her, and now he was, and she couldn’t feel a thing.

  He eased the strap back into place. Tears streaked down his cheeks. The gate was tall. Sarai’s dead face, upside down, was higher than his upturned one. He gathered her hair to him as though it were something worth holding. Blood wicked into his shirt and smeared over his neck and jaw. He cupped the back of her neck. How gently he held the dead thing that had been her. Sarai reached down to touch his face, but her hands passed right through him.

  The first time she ever went into his dream, she had stood right in front of him, secure in her invisibility, and wistful, wishing this strange dreamer might fix his sweet gray eyes on her.

  And then he had. Only him. He had seen her, and his seeing had given her being, as though the witchlight of his wonder were the magic that made her real. She had lived more in the past nights than in all the dreams that came before, much less her real days and nights, and all because he saw her.

  But not anymore. There was no more witchlight and no more wonder—only despair worthy of Isagol at her worst. “Lazlo!” she cried. At least, she shaped the name, but she had no breath or tongue or teeth to give it sound. She had nothing. The mahalath had come and remade them both. He was a god, and she was a ghost. A page had turned. A new story was beginning. You had only to look at Lazlo to know it would be brilliant.

  And Sarai could not be in it.

 
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