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Strange the dreamer, p.45
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.45

           Laini Taylor
 
Lazlo didn’t feel the page turn. He felt the book slam shut. He felt it fall, like the one long ago that had shattered his nose, only this one shattered his life.

  He climbed the stone base of the gate and reached up for Sarai’s body. He placed one hand under the small of her back. The other still cradled her neck. As carefully as he could, he lifted her. Strangled sobs broke from him as he disengaged her slender frame from the finial that pinned it in place. When she came free, he stepped back down, folding her to his chest, at once gutted and filled with unspeakable tenderness. Here at last were her real arms, and they would never hold him. Her real lips, and they would never kiss him. He curled over her as though he could protect her, but it was far too late for that.

  How could it be that in his triumph he had saved everyone but her?

  In the furnace of his grief, rage kindled. When he turned around, holding the body of the girl he loved—so light, so brutally unalive—the blanket of shock that had muted the screaming was thrown off, and the sound came roaring at him, as deafening as any explosion, louder than the rending of the earth. He wanted to roar back. Those who hadn’t fled were pressing close. There was menace in their hate and fear, and when Lazlo saw it, the feeling inside him was like the blast of fire rising up a dragon’s throat. If he screamed, it would burn the city black. That was how it felt. That was the fury that was in him.

  “You do understand, don’t you,” Sarai had said, “that they would kill me on sight?”

  He understood now. He knew they hadn’t killed her, and he knew they would have, given the chance. And he knew that Weep, the city of his dreams, which he had just saved from devastation, was open to him no longer. He might have filled the place at the center of himself with the answer to who he was, but he had lost so much more. Weep and Sarai. The chance of home and the chance of love. Gone.

  He didn’t scream. Rasalas did. Lazlo wasn’t even touching him. He didn’t need to now; nearness was enough. Like a living thing, the beast of the anchor spun on the closing crowd, and the sound that rippled up and blasted from its metal throat wasn’t fury but anguish.

  The sound of it crashed against the screaming and overwhelmed it. It was like color drowning color. The hate was black and the fear was red, and the anguish, it was blue. Not the blue of cornflowers or dragonfly wings or skies, and not of tyranny, either, or murder waiting to happen. It was the color of bruised flesh and storm-dark seas, the bleak and hopeless blue of a dead girl’s eyes. It was suffering, and at the bottom of everything, like dregs in a cup, there was no deeper truth in the soul of Weep than that.

  The Godslayer and Azareen reached Windfall just as Rasalas screamed. They pushed through the crowd. The sound of pain carved them open even before they saw…

  They saw Lazlo and what he held in his arms—the slender, slack limbs, the wicking flowers of blood, the cinnamon spill of hair, and the truth that it betrayed. Eril-Fane staggered. His gasp was the rupture of the small, brave hope growing inside his shame, and when Lazlo mounted Rasalas with Sarai clutched to his chest, he dropped to his knees like a warrior felled in battle.

  Rasalas took flight. Its wingbeats stirred a storm of grit, and the crowd had to close its eyes. In the darkness behind their shut lids they all saw the same thing: no color at all, only loss like a hole torn in the world.

  Azareen knelt behind her husband. Trembling, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She curved herself against his back, laid her face to the side of his neck, and wept the tears that he could not. Eril-Fane shuddered as her tears seared his skin, and something inside him gave way. He pulled her arms tight against his chest and crushed his face into her hands. And then, and there, for everything lost and everything stolen, both from him and by him in all these long years, the Godslayer started to sob.

  Sarai saw everything, and could do nothing. When Lazlo lifted her body down, she couldn’t even follow. Some final invisible mooring line snapped, and she was cast adrift. At once, there was a sensation of… unraveling. She felt herself beginning to come apart. Here was her evanescence, and it was like dying all over again. She remembered the dream of the mahalath, when the mist unmade her and all sense of physical being vanished, but for one thing, one solid thing: Lazlo’s hand gripping hers.

  Not now. He took her body and left her soul. She cried out after him, but her screams were silent even to herself, and with a flash of metal and a swirl of smoke, he was gone.

  Sarai was alone in her final fading, her soul diffusing in the brimstone air.

  Like a cloud of breath in an orchard when there’s nothing left to say.

  67

  PEACE WITH THE IMPOSSIBLE

  The city saw the new god rise into the sky, and the citadel watched him come.

  The smooth gleam of Rasalas poured itself upward, wingbeat by wingbeat, out of the smoke that still churned, restless, around the rooftops of Weep. The moon was finally setting; soon the sun would rise.

  Ruby, Sparrow, and Feral were at the garden’s edge. Their faces were stricken, ashen, and so were their hearts. Their grief was inarticulate, still entangled in their shock. They were just beginning to grasp the task that lay ahead: the task of believing that it had really happened, that the citadel had really tilted.

  And Sarai had really fallen.

  Only Sparrow had seen her, and only out of the corner of her eye. “Like a falling star,” she had said, choking on sobs, when she and Ruby had finally unclenched their hands from the balustrade and the plum boughs that had saved them from sharing her fate. Ruby had shaken her head, denying it, rejecting it, and she was shaking it still, slowly and mechanically, as though she couldn’t stop. Feral held her against him. Their rasping, sob-raw breathing had settled into rhythm. He was watching Sarai’s terrace, and he kept expecting her to emerge. He kept willing her to. His plea of “Come on, come on,” was an unspoken chant, timed to the shaking of Ruby’s head. But deep down he knew that if there were any chance that she was there—that Sarai was still here—he would be marching down the corridor to prove it with his own eyes.

  But he wasn’t. He couldn’t. Because his gut already knew what his head refused to accept, and he didn’t want it proven.

  Only Minya didn’t dither with disbelief. Nor did she appear to be afflicted by grief, or any other feeling. She stood back by the arcade, just a few steps into the garden, her small body framed in an open archway. There was no expression on her face beyond a kind of remote… alertness.

  As though she was listening for something.

  Whatever it was, it wasn’t wingbeats. Those, when they came, drubbing at the air and peppered by the amazed cries of the others, brought her blinking out of her transfixion, and when she saw what revealed itself, rising up in the air in front of the garden, her shock was like a blow.

  For a moment, every ghost in the citadel felt their tethers fall slack. Immediately the feeling passed. Minya’s will was reasserted, the tethers once more drawn taut, but they all felt, to a one, a gasp of freedom too fleeing to exploit. What torment—like a cage door no sooner swinging open than it slammed shut again. It had never happened before. The Ellens could attest that in fifteen years, Minya’s will had never faltered, not even in her sleep.

  Such was her astonishment at the sight of man and creature surging over the heads of Ruby, Feral, and Sparrow to land, amid gusting wingbeats, in the patch of anadne blossoms in the center of the garden. White flowers whirled like snow and her draggled hair streamed back from her face as she squinted against the draft.

  Mesarthim. Mesarthium. Man and beast, strangers both, blue and blue. And before she knew who, and before she knew how, Minya grasped the full ramifications of Lazlo’s existence, and understood that this changed everything.

  What she felt, first and foremost, faced with the solution to her problem and Weep’s, wasn’t relief, but—slow and steady and devastating, like a leak that would steal all the air from her world—the certain loss of control.

  She held herself as still as a queen on a quell
board, her eyes cut as narrow as the heat pits on a viper, and watched them come.

  Lazlo dismounted. He’d seen the others first—their three stricken faces at the garden railing—and he was highly aware of the ghosts, but it was Minya he scanned for and fixed on, and her to whom he went with Sarai clasped to his chest.

  They all saw what he held, the unbearable broken form of her, the pink and red and cinnamon so brutally beautiful against the blue of her skin and his. It was Ruby who drew in a low, racking sob. Red glimmered in her hollow eyes. Her fingertips kindled into ten blue tapers and she didn’t even feel it. Sparrow’s sorrow was manifest in the withering of flowers around her feet. Her gift, which they had never even known worked in reverse, was leeching the life out of all the plants she touched. And nor did Feral consciously summon the sheaves of cloud that coalesced around them, blocking out the sky, the horizon, the Cusp, shrinking the world to here—this garden and this garden alone.

  Only Minya was purposeful. As Lazlo drew nearer, so did her ghosts.

  There were a dozen positioned around the garden and many more inside the gallery, ever ready to repel invasion. And though Lazlo’s gaze didn’t waver from Minya, he felt them behind him. He saw them behind her, through the arcade, and as Weep’s dead answered Minya’s call, moving toward the arches that had for fifteen years stood open between garden and gallery, Lazlo closed them.

  Her will summoned the ghosts, and his barred their way. It was the opening exchange of a dialogue in power—no words spoken, only magic. The metal of the arches turned fluid and flowed closed, as they had not done since Skathis’s time, cutting Minya off from the bulk of her army. Her back was to the gallery, and the flow of the mesarthium made no sound, but she felt it in the muting of the souls on the ends of her tethers. Her jaw clenched. The ghosts in the garden glided into position, flanking Lazlo from behind. He didn’t turn to face them, but Rasalas did, a growl of warning rumbling up its metal throat.

  Ruby, Sparrow, and Feral watched it all with held breath.

  Lazlo and Minya faced each other, and they might have been strangers, but there was more between them than the corpse of Sarai. Minya understood it, even if Lazlo didn’t. This faranji could control mesarthium, which meant that he was Skathis’s son.

  And hence, her brother.

  Which revelation stirred no feeling of kinship, but only a burn of bitterness—that he should inherit the gift that should have been hers, but with none of the hardship that had made her so desperate for it.

  Where had he come from?

  He had to be the one Sarai had spoken of, and who had made her so defiant. “I know a human could stand the sight of me,” she had said, blazing with a boldness Minya had never seen. “Because there is one who can see me, and he stands the sight of me quite well.”

  Well, she’d been misinformed or lying. This was no human.

  Beast faced ghosts, as man faced girl. The seconds between them were fraught with challenge. Power bristled, barely held in check. In Minya, Lazlo saw the merciless child who had tried to kill him, and whose devotion to bloodshed had filled Sarai with despair. He saw an enemy, and so his fury found a focus.

  But. She was an enemy who caught ghosts like butterflies in a net, and he was a man with his dead love in his arms.

  He fell to his knees before her. Hunched over his burden, he sank down on his heels so that he was just her height. He looked her in the eyes and saw no empathy there, no glint of humanity, and braced himself for a struggle. “Her soul,” he said, and his voice had never been rougher—so raw it was practically bloody. He didn’t know how it worked or what it would mean. He only knew that some part of Sarai might yet be saved, and must be. “You have to catch it.”

  Someone else—almost anyone else—might have seen his heartbreak and forgiven his tone of command.

  But not Minya.

  She’d had every intention of catching Sarai’s soul. That was what she’d been listening for. From the moment she learned Sarai had fallen, she had stretched her senses to their limits, waiting, hardly breathing, alert to the telltale skim of passing ghosts. That was what it was like: straining to hear, but with her whole being. And like with listening, the subtle skim of a soul could be drowned out by a nearer, louder presence.

  Like an arrogant, trespassing man astride a winged metal beast.

  This stranger dared to come here and break her focus in order to command her to do what she was doing already?

  As though, if not for him, she would let Sarai drift away?

  “Who do you think you are?” she seethed through clenched teeth.

  Who did Lazlo think he was? Orphan, godspawn, librarian, hero? Maybe he was all of those things, but the only answer that came to him, and the only relevant context, was Sarai—what she was to him, and he to her. “I am… I’m Sarai’s…” he began but couldn’t finish. There wasn’t a word for what they were. Neither married nor promised—what time had there been for promises? Not yet lovers, but so much more than friends. So he faltered in his answer, leaving it unfinished, and it was, in its way, simply and perfectly true. He was Sarai’s.

  “Sarai’s what?” demanded Minya, her fury mounting. “Her protector? Against me?” It enraged her, the way he held her body—as though Sarai belonged to him, as if she could be more precious to him than to her own family. “Leave her and go,” she snarled, “if you want to live.”

  Live? Lazlo felt a laugh rise up his throat. His new power surged in him. It felt like a storm ready to burst through his skin. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said, his fury matching hers, and to Minya, it was a challenge to her family and her home—everything she’d spent herself on and poured herself into, every moment of every day, since gods’ blood spurted and she saved who she could carry.

  But saving them had only been the beginning. She’d had to keep them alive—four babies in her care, inside a crime scene of corpses and ghosts, and herself just a traumatized child. Her mind was formed in the desperate, keep-alive pattern of those early weeks and months as she spent herself out and burned herself up. She didn’t know any other way. There was nothing left over, nothing, not even enough to grow. Through sheer, savage will, Minya poured even her life force into the colossal expenditure of magic necessary to hold on to her ghosts and keep her charges safe—and not just safe but loved. In Great Ellen, she had given them a mother, as best she could. And in the effort of it all, she had stunted herself, blighted herself, whittled herself to a bone of a thing. She wasn’t a child. She was barely a person. She was a purpose, and she hadn’t done it all and given everything just to lose control now.

  Power flared from her. Ruby, Feral, and Sparrow cried out as the dozen ghosts who remained in the garden—Great Ellen among them—unfurled and flew at Lazlo with their knives and meat hooks, and Great Ellen with her bare hands shaping themselves into claws as her teeth grew into fangs to shame even Skathis’s Rasalas.

  Lazlo didn’t even think. From the towering wall of metal that was backdrop to the garden—and made up the seraph’s shoulders and the column of its neck—a great wave of liquid metal peeled itself away and came pouring down, flashing with the first rays of the rising sun, to freeze into a barrier between himself and the chief onslaught. At the same moment, Rasalas leapt. The creature didn’t bother itself with ghosts but knocked Minya to the ground like a toy to a kitten, and pinned her there, one metal hoof pressing on her chest.

  It was so swift—a blur of metal and she was down. The breath was knocked out of her, and… the fury was knocked out of Lazlo. Whatever she was, this cruel little girl—his own would-be murderer, not least—the sight of her sprawled out like that at Rasalas’s mercy shamed him. Her legs were so impossibly thin, her clothes as tattered as the beggars in the Grin. She didn’t give up. Still her ghosts came at him, but the metal moved with them, flowing to block them, catching their weapons and freezing around them. They couldn’t get near.

  He went and knelt by Minya. She struggled, and Rasalas increased the pressu
re of its elegant hoof against her chest. Just enough to hold her, not enough to hurt. Her eyes burned black. She hated the pity she saw in Lazlo’s. It was a thousand times worse than the fury had been. She gritted her teeth, ceased her ghosts’ attack, and spat out, “Do you want me to save her or not?”

  He did. Rasalas lifted its hoof and Minya slid out from beneath it, rubbing the place on her chest where it had pinned her. How she hated Lazlo then. In compelling her by force to do what she’d been planning anyway, it felt as though he’d won something, and she’d lost.

  Lost what?

  Control.

  The queen was vulnerable on the quell board with no pawns to protect her. This new adversary possessed the gift she’d always craved, and up against it, she was nothing. His power swept hers aside like a hand brushing crumbs from a table. His control of mesarthium gave them their freedom in every way they’d ever daydreamed—but Minya didn’t even know if she would be counted among them, or would be swept aside just like her power and her ghosts. They could leave her behind if they wanted, if they decided they didn’t trust her—or simply didn’t like her—and what could she do? And what of the humans, and the Godslayer, and revenge?

  It seemed to her the citadel swayed beneath her, but it was steady. It was her world that swayed, and only she could feel it.

  She rose to her feet. Her pulse beat in her temples. She closed her eyes. Lazlo watched her. He felt an ache of tenderness for her, though he couldn’t have said why. Maybe it was simply because with her eyes closed she really looked like a six-year-old child, and it brought home that once upon a time she had been: just a six-year-old child with a crushing burden.

  When she settled into a stillness of deep concentration, he let himself hope what he had so far only wondered: that it might be possible Sarai was not lost to him.

  That she was, even now, adrift—like an ulola flower borne by the wind. Where was she? The very air felt alive with possibility, charged with souls and magic.

 
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