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Strange the dreamer, p.8
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.8

           Laini Taylor
 

  I’m going to Weep, he thought, and could have laughed at the pun, but he kept his composure, and when the Tizerkane warriors rode out of the Great Library and out of Zosma, Strange the dreamer went with them.

  11

  TWELFTHMOON

  That was Sixthmoon, summer in the north.

  It was Twelfthmoon now, and winter in Zosma, the Eder frozen over, and young men perchance composing poems to girls they’d met ice-skating.

  Lazlo Strange was not among them. He was riding a spectral at the head of a long, undulating line of camels. Behind them lay all the emptiness of the known world: flat sky above, flat earth below, and between the two nothing at all for hundreds of miles save the name Elmuthaleth for parched lips to curse.

  The months of travel had altered him. His library pallor had burned and then browned. His muscles had hardened, his hands grown callused. He felt himself toughened, like meat hung to cure, and though he hadn’t seen his reflection for weeks, he had no doubt that Master Hyrrokkin would be satisfied.

  “A man should have squint lines from looking at the horizon,” the old librarian had said, “not just from reading in dim light.”

  Well, here was the horizon Lazlo had dreamed of since he was five years old. Ahead, at last, lay the desert’s hard and final edge: the Cusp. Jagged and glittering, it was a long, low-slung formation of blinding white rock, and a perfect natural battlement for that which lay beyond: Not yet visible and never before seen by faranji eyes, lay the city that had lost its name, and, within it, whatever problem the Godslayer sought help to solve.

  It was the first week of Twelfthmoon, on the far side of the Elmuthaleth, and Strange the dreamer—library stowaway and scholar of fairy tales—had never been thirstier, or more full of wonder.

  PART II

  thakrar (THAH·krahr) noun

  The precise point on the spectrum of awe at which wonder turns to dread, or dread to wonder.

  Archaic; from the ecstatic priestesses of

  Thakra, worshippers of the seraphim,

  whose ritual dance expressed the dualism

  of beauty and terror.

  12

  KISSING GHOSTS

  “You can kiss a ghost.”

  “I suppose you’d know.”

  “I do know. It’s just like kissing a person.”

  “Now, that’s something you wouldn’t know.”

  Sarai lingered in the half-light of the gallery, listening to the rhythms of Sparrow and Ruby arguing. It never grew very heated between them, but neither did it ever quite abate. She knew that as soon as she stepped out into the garden they would draw her into it, and she wasn’t awake enough for that. It was late afternoon; she’d only just risen, and it took her some time to shake off the effects of lull, the draught she drank to help her sleep.

  Well, she didn’t need help sleeping. Her nights were long and filled with dark work; she was exhausted by dawn, and drifted off as soon as she let her eyes shut. But she didn’t let them shut until she’d had her lull, because lull kept her from dreaming.

  Sarai didn’t dream. She didn’t dare.

  “I’ve kissed people,” said Ruby. “I’ve kissed you.”

  “Pecks on the cheek don’t count,” replied Sparrow.

  Sarai could see the pair of them, shimmering in the late-day sun. Sparrow had just turned sixteen, and Ruby would in a few more months. Like Sarai, they wore silk slips that would have been considered undergarments if there were anyone around to see them. Anyone alive, that is. They were picking plums, their two sets of bare arms reaching in among the whiplike boughs, their two dark heads turned away from her, one tidy, the other wild as wind. The wild one was Ruby. She refused to wear her hair in braids and then acted as though she were dying when they tried to brush out the tangles.

  Sarai gathered, from the tenor of the debate, that she had been kissing the ghosts. She sighed. It wasn’t a surprise, exactly. Of the five of them, Ruby was the most ardent, and the most prone to boredom. “It’s easy for you,” she’d told Sarai just the other evening. “You get to see people every night. You get to live. The rest of us are just stuck in here with the ghosts.”

  Sarai hadn’t argued. It would seem that way to the others, of course. She did see the people of Weep every night, but it made nothing easier. On the contrary. Every night she bore witness to what she could never have. It wasn’t living. It was torture.

  “Good, you’re awake,” said Feral, coming into the gallery. It was a long, vaulted arcade that overlooked the garden from the dexter arm of the citadel, and was where dinner would soon be laid out for the five of them. Here, the slick blue mesarthium of which the entire citadel was constructed was softened almost to an afterthought by Sparrow’s orchids. Hundreds of them, dozens of varieties, spiking, trailing, billowing, they dressed the colonnade in a forest of blooms. Vines wrapped the pillars, and epiphytes clung to the ceiling like anemones, or roosting butterflies. It was sumptuous, illusory. You could almost forget where you were. You could almost imagine yourself free, and walking in the world.

  Almost.

  As for Feral, he was Sarai’s ally and fellow acting parent to the other three. He was seventeen years old, like her, and had, this year, fallen almost all the way over the line into adulthood. He was tall, still lean from his fast growth, and had begun to shave—or, as Sparrow put it, to “abuse his poor face with knives.” It was true he hadn’t yet mastered the art, but he was getting better. Sarai saw no new wounds on him, only the healing pucker of an old one on the sharp edge of his jaw.

  She thought he looked tired. “Bad day?” she asked. The girls weren’t always easy to manage, and since Sarai was nocturnal by necessity, it mostly fell to Feral to see that they did their chores and obeyed The Rule.

  “Not bad,” said Feral. “Just long.”

  It was odd for Sarai to think of days being long. She slept through them all, from sunrise nearly till sunset, and it always felt as though she were opening her eyes only a moment after closing them. It was the lull. It ate her days in one gray gulp.

  “How about you?” he asked, his brown eyes soft with concern. “Bad night?”

  All of Sarai’s nights were bad. Bad seemed to her the very nature of night. “Just long,” she echoed with a rueful smile, laying one hand to her slender neck and rolling her head from side to side. She knew he couldn’t understand. He did his part to keep the five of them alive, and she did hers. There was no point complaining.

  “Where’s Minya?” she asked, noting the absence of the fifth member of their peculiar family.

  Feral shrugged. “I haven’t seen her since breakfast. Maybe she’s with Great Ellen.”

  Great Ellen had run the citadel nursery before the Carnage. Now she ran everything. Well, everything that was still running, which wasn’t much.

  “Ghost-kisser,” they heard from the garden. Sparrow’s soft voice curled with laughter, and was cut off by an “Ow!” as Ruby pelted her with a plum.

  “Who was it?” Sarai asked Feral. “Who did she aim her lips at?”

  Feral made a sound that was the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “Kem, I think.”

  “Really? Kem?” Sarai wrinkled her nose. Kem had been with them since the beginning. He’d been a footman before the Carnage, and still wore the livery he’d died in, which to Sarai’s mind suggested a distinct lack of imagination.

  “Why?” Feral asked Sarai, waggling his eyebrows. “Who would you kiss?”

  In a tone both arch and light, Sarai replied, “I kiss dozens of people every night.” And she touched a spot just above the outer curve of one cinnamon eyebrow. “Right here. Men and women, babies and grandparents. I kiss them and they shudder.” Her voice was like ice, and so were her hearts. “I kiss them and they grieve.”

  “That’s not kissing,” said Feral. He had been teasing, merry, and now he wasn’t.

  He was right, of course. It was not kissing, what Sarai did to people in the deep of night. “Maybe not,” she said, still arch, still
light, “but it’s as close as I’ll ever come to it.” She pushed down her shoulders and lifted her chin. End of discussion, her posture said.

  Feral looked like he might press the issue, but all of a sudden Ruby’s voice grew louder. “Well, let’s just see about it, shall we?” she said, followed shortly by a singsong call of, “Feral, where are you?”

  Feral froze like prey in a raptor’s shadow. “Oh no,” he said.

  Ruby appeared in an arch of the arcade, looking like one more orchid in the forest, her slim form a stem upholding a bloom of riotous hair. Feral tried to melt out of sight, but it was too late. She’d spotted him. “There you are. Oh, hello, Sarai, hope you slept well. Feral, I need you for a second.”

  Sparrow was right behind her. “You do not need him,” she said. “Leave him alone!”

  And the chain of events that followed was a perfect illustration of the minor chaos that passed for life in the citadel.

  Ruby seized Feral by his collar and yanked his face down to hers. He struggled. She held on, mashing her lips against his and doing something to his mouth that looked and sounded less like kissing than devouring.

  The temperature dropped. The air over their heads churned and darkened, a cloud coalescing out of nowhere, gray and dense and gravid with rain. Within a second the gallery was full of the wild tang of ozone and a fullness of moisture that made them feel they were inside a storm even before the first drops burst forth, fat and full and very cold, like the bottom dropping out of a bucket. Sarai felt the frigid spatter, but Ruby was the target, and the girl was soaked in an instant.

  Her gasp freed Feral’s lips from suction. He wrenched himself away and staggered back, glaring and wiping his mouth, which was undevoured but glistening with spit. Ruby tried to skitter clear of the cloud, but it pursued her.

  “Feral, call it off!” she cried, but he didn’t, so she charged straight toward him, cloud and all. He dodged and ducked behind Sarai, into whom Ruby caromed in a plash of sodden, icy silk.

  It was Sarai’s turn to gasp. The rain was arctic. “Feral!” she managed to croak. The cloud vanished as it had come, and Sarai pushed away from Ruby, shocked and streaming. Beneath her feet the floor had become a wide, shallow lake. The orchids glistened, rivulets of rain streaming from their fleshy petals. Her own slip was wet-dark and clinging to her body, and she was now thoroughly awake. “Thank you so much,” she said to Feral, who was still wiping the saliva off his face.

  “You’re welcome,” he replied, surly.

  When they were little, they’d thought he made the clouds, and why wouldn’t they? There was no one to explain it to them, or Sarai’s gift to her, or the girls’ gifts to them. The gods had died and left them to their own devices.

  Feral wished, and clouds appeared. Even before he’d known to wish for them, they’d come, tied to his moods and terribly inconvenient, to hear Great Ellen tell it. How many times had the nursery flooded because when this little boy was angry or excited, clouds filled the air around him? Now he could control it, more or less, and called them on purpose. Sometimes they were rain clouds, heavy and dark, and sometimes airy tufts of white that cast delicate shade and twisted into shapes like hunting ravids or castles in the air. There was snow from time to time, always a treat, and hail, less of a treat, and sometimes sultry, muggy vapors that smelled of growth and decay. Occasionally, perilously, there was lightning. Sarai and Feral were ten or eleven when a paper kite appeared with some fog, and they realized he didn’t make the clouds. He ripped them out of faraway skies. He stole them.

  Cloud Thief, they called him now, and this was his part to play in keeping them alive. The river was out of their reach and rain was seasonal. Their only source of water for much of the year was Feral’s clouds.

  Ruby’s riot of hair had gone otter-pelt sleek, still sluicing off the remnants of rain. Her white slip was plastered to her body and quite transparent, her small nipples and the divot of her navel plainly visible. She made no move to cover herself. Feral averted his eyes.

  Ruby turned to Sparrow and conceded, with evident surprise, “You know, you’re right. It’s not like kissing ghosts. It’s warmer. And… wetter.” She laughed and shook her head, fountaining spumes of rain from the ends of her hair. “A lot wetter.”

  Sparrow didn’t share her laughter. Stricken, the girl spun on one bare heel and darted back out to the garden.

  Ruby turned to Sarai. “What’s wrong with her?” she asked, perfectly oblivious to what had been clear to Sarai for months now: that Sparrow’s affection for Feral had changed from the sisterly feelings they all had for him into something… well, to use Ruby’s words… warmer. Sarai wasn’t going to explain it to Ruby—or to Feral, who was equally oblivious. It was just one of the ways life was getting more complicated as they grew up.

  She slapped at her wet slip and sighed. At least hers was dark gray, and so hadn’t gone see-through like Ruby’s, but she would still have to change. “It’s almost dinnertime,” she said to Ruby. “I suggest you get dry.”

  Ruby looked down at herself, then back up at Sarai. “All right,” she said, and Sarai saw the telltale spark in her eye.

  “Not like that—” she said, but it was too late.

  Ruby burst into flames. Sarai had to lurch back from the blast of heat as Ruby was engulfed in a crackling, deep-orange column of fire. It kindled in an instant, like lamp oil kissed by a spark, but died more slowly, the flames receding until her form was visible within them, her flesh absorbing each lick of fire one by one. Her eyes were the last reservoir of flame, burning as red as her name so that she looked, for a second, like a temple icon to an evil goddess, and then she was just herself again—herself and only herself, nary a shred or ashen tatter remaining of her dress.

  They called her Bonfire, for obvious reasons. While a baby Feral might have caused inconvenience, a baby Ruby had had a more dangerous effect, compounded by the volatility of her nature. It was a good thing, then, that their nursemaids had been dead already. Ghosts were not combustible, and neither was mesarthium, so there had been no risk of her setting the citadel alight.

  “All dry,” said the girl, and so she was. Her hair, unburned, was wild once more, still crackling with the fire’s kinesis, and Sarai knew that if she touched it, it would feel like a bed of coals, and so would her bare skin. She shook her head, glad Sparrow had missed this display.

  Feral was still standing with his back turned. “Tell me when it’s safe to look,” he said, bored.

  Sarai told Ruby, “That was a waste of a dress.”

  Ruby shrugged. “What does it matter? We won’t live long enough to run out of dresses.”

  Her voice was so casual, so matter-of-fact, that her words swept past all of Sarai’s defenses and pierced her. It was more of a shock than the rain.

  Won’t live long enough…

  “Ruby!” said Sarai.

  Feral, equally shocked, turned back around, naked girl or not. “Is that really what you think?” he asked her.

  “What, you don’t?” Ruby looked genuinely amazed, standing there fire-dried and beautiful, naked, at ease with herself, and blue. Blue as opals, pale blue. Blue as cornflowers, or dragonfly wings, or a spring—not summer—sky. Just like the rest of them.

  Blue as five murders waiting to happen.

  “You think we’re going to grow old here?” she asked, looking back and forth between them, gesturing to the walls around them. “You must be joking. Is that really a future you can picture?”

  Sarai blinked. It wasn’t a question she allowed herself to ask. They did their best. They obeyed The Rule. Sometimes she almost believed it would be enough. “A lot of things could happen,” she said, and heard how half her voice was carved away by uncertainty, and how utterly weak she sounded.

  “Like what?” Ruby asked. “Besides dying, I mean.”

  And Sarai couldn’t think of a single thing.

  13

  PURGATORY SOUP

  Sarai stepped out of her clammy,
wet slip and let it fall to the floor of her dressing room. Puddled gray silk on the blue metal floor. Blue toes, blue legs, blue self reflected in the blue mirror, which wasn’t glass but only more mesarthium, polished to a high gloss. The only thing that wasn’t blue was her hair—which was the red-brown of cinnamon—and the whites of her eyes. The whites of her teeth, too, if she were smiling, but she very much wasn’t.

  “We won’t live long enough to run out of dresses,” Ruby had said.

  Sarai regarded the row of slips hanging from the slim mesarthium dowel. There were so many, and all so fine. And yes, they were underclothes, but she and Ruby and Sparrow preferred them to the alternative: the gowns.

  The only clothes they had or would ever have—like the only life they had or would ever have—was what the citadel provided, and the citadel provided the garments of dead goddesses.

  The dressing room was as large as a lounge. There were dozens of gowns, all of them too grand to wear, and too terrible. Satins and foils and stiff brocades, encrusted with jewels and trimmed in furs with the heads still on, glassy eyes, bared fangs and all. One had a skirt like a cage carved of whalebone, another a long train made of hundreds of doves’ wings all stitched together. There was a bodice of pure molded gold, made to look like a beetle’s carapace, and a fan collar fashioned from the spines of poisonous fish, with tiny teeth sewn in patterns like seed pearls. There were headdresses and veils, corsets with daggers concealed in the stays, elaborate capes, and teetering tall shoes carved of ebony and coral. Everything was gaudy and heavy and cruel. To Sarai, they were clothes a monster might wear if it were trying to pass as human.

 
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