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Strange the dreamer, p.9
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.9

           Laini Taylor

  Which was near enough to the truth. The monster had been Isagol, goddess of despair.

  Her mother, dead now these fifteen years.

  Sarai had a thousand memories of Isagol, but none of them were her own. She’d been too young—only two years old when it happened. It. The Carnage. Knifeshine and spreading blood. The end of one world and start of another. Her memories of her mother were all secondhand, borrowed from the humans she visited in the night. In some the goddess was alive, in others dead. She’d been murdered in an iridescent green gown jeweled with jade and beetle wings, and she’d looked enough like Sarai that the visions of her body were like seeing a prophecy of her own death. Except for the black bar Isagol had painted across her eyes, temple to temple, like a slim mask.

  Sarai eyed the shelf of her mother’s paints and perfumes. The pot of lampblack was right there, untouched in all this time. Sarai didn’t use it. She had no desire to look more like the goddess of despair than she already did.

  She focused on the slips. She had to get dressed. White silk or scarlet, or black trimmed in burgundy. Gold or chartreuse, or pink as the dawn sky. She kept hearing the echo of Ruby’s words—won’t live long enough—and seeing in the row of slips two possible endings:

  In one, she was murdered and they went unworn. Humans burned or shredded them, and they burned and shredded her, too. In the other, she lived and spent years working her way through them all. Ghosts laundered them and hung them back up, again and again over years, and she wore them out one by one and eventually grew old in them.

  It seemed so far-fetched—the idea of growing old—that she had to admit to herself, finally, that she had no more real hope of the future than Ruby did.

  It was a brutal revelation.

  She chose black to suit her mood, and returned to the gallery for dinner. Ruby had come back from her own dressing room clad in a slip so sheer she might as well have stayed naked. She was making tiny flames dance off her fingertips, while Feral leaned over his big book of symbols, ignoring her.

  “Minya and Sparrow?” Sarai asked them.

  “Sparrow’s still in the garden, pouting about something,” said Ruby, her self-absorption apparently admitting no hint as to what that something might be. “Minya hasn’t turned up.”

  Sarai wondered at that. Minya was usually waiting to pester her as soon she came out of her room. “Tell me something nasty,” she would say, bright-eyed, eager to hear about her night. “Did you make anyone cry? Did you make anyone scream?” For years, Sarai had been happy to tell her all about it.

  Not anymore.

  “I’ll fetch Sparrow,” she said.

  The garden was a broad terrace that stretched the breadth of the citadel, abutting the high, indomitable body of the structure on one side, and falling away to a sheer drop on the other, edged only by a hip-high balustrade. It had been formal once, but now was wild. Shrubs that had been tidy topiaries had grown into great shaggy trees, and bowers of blooming vines had overspilled their neat beds to riot up the walls and columns and drape over the railing. Nature flourished, but not on its own. It couldn’t, not in this unnatural place. It was Sparrow who made it flourish.

  Sarai found her gathering anadne blossoms. Anadne was the sacred flower of Letha, goddess of oblivion. Distilled, it made lull, the draught Sarai drank to keep from dreaming.

  “Thank you for doing that,” Sarai said.

  Sparrow looked up and smiled at her. “Oh, I don’t mind. Great Ellen said it was time for a new batch.” She dropped a handful of flowers into her bowl and dusted off her palm. “I just wish you didn’t need it, Sarai. I wish you were free to dream.”

  So did Sarai, but she wasn’t free, and wishing wouldn’t make her so. “I might not have my own dreams,” she said, as though it scarcely mattered, “but I have everyone else’s.”

  “It’s not the same. That’s like reading a thousand diaries instead of writing your own.”

  “A thousand?” said Sarai. “More like a hundred thousand,” which was close to the population of Weep.

  “So many,” said Sparrow, marveling. “How do you keep them straight?”

  Sarai shrugged. “I don’t know that I do, but you can learn a lot in four thousand nights.”

  “Four thousand. Have we been alive so long?”

  “Longer than that, silly.”

  “Where do the days go?” There was such sweetness in Sparrow’s wisp of a smile. She was as sweet as the scent of the garden and as gentle, and Sarai couldn’t help thinking how perfectly her gift suited her. Orchid Witch, they called her. She felt the pulse of life in things and nursed it forth to make them grow. She was, Sarai thought, like springtime distilled into a person.

  Ruby’s gift, too, was an extension of her nature: Bonfire, blazing like a beacon, burning like a wildfire out of control. And Minya and Feral, did their gifts suit them? Sarai didn’t like the thought, because if it was so and their abilities spoke some essential truth about their souls, what did that say about her?

  “I was just thinking,” said Sparrow, “how our waking life is like the citadel. Enclosed, I mean. Indoors, no sky. But dreaming is like the garden. You can step out of prison and feel the sky around you. In a dream you can be anywhere. You can be free. You deserve to have that, too, Sarai.”

  “If the citadel is our prison,” Sarai replied, “it’s our sanctuary, too.” She plucked a white blossom from its stem and dropped it into Sparrow’s bowl. “It’s the same with lull.” Sleep might be a gray wasteland to her, but she knew what was lurking beyond the safe circle of lull, and she was glad of the gray. “Besides,” she said, “my dreams wouldn’t be like a garden.” She tried not to envy that Sparrow’s were—or that her gift was such a simple and beautiful one, while her own was neither.

  “Maybe one day they can be,” said Sparrow.

  “Maybe,” said Sarai, and hope had never felt like such a lie. “Let’s go have dinner,” she said, and together they went inside.

  “Good evening, brood,” Less Ellen greeted them, carrying a tureen from the kitchen. Like Great Ellen, Less Ellen had been with them from the beginning. She had worked in the citadel nursery, too, and with two Ellens, a distinction had been needed. The one being greater in both status and size, so it was that Skathis himself, the god of beasts and high lord of the Mesarthim, had dubbed them the greater and lesser Ellens.

  Ruby breathed a woeful sigh as her dinner was put before her. “Kimril soup. Again.” She scooped up a spoonful and let it dribble back into her bowl. It was beige, with the consistency of stagnant water. “You know what this is? It’s purgatory soup.” Turning to Sparrow, she asked, “Couldn’t you grow something new for us to eat?”

  “Certainly I could,” Sparrow replied, a tartness in her tone that had not been there when she was speaking with Sarai, “if my gift were conjuring seeds from thin air.” She took a dainty sip from her spoon. “Which it isn’t.”

  Sparrow might make things grow, but she had to have something to start with. For the most part, the citadel gardens had been ornamental—full of exotic flowers, with little in the way of edibles. It was their good luck that some long-ago gardener had made a small kitchen garden of herbs, fresh greens, and a few vegetables, and their very good luck that their sometime visitor, the great white bird they called Wraith for its habit of vanishing into thin air, had seen fit to drop some kimril tubers into the garden once, else they’d have starved long ago. Kimril was easy to grow, nourishing though nearly flavorless, and was now the staple of their boring diet. Sarai wondered if the bird knew that it had made the difference between life and death for five blue abominations, or if it had simply been a fluke. It had never brought them anything else, so she supposed it must be the latter.

  Sparrow grew their food. Feral kept the rain barrels filled. Ruby did her part, too. There was no fuel to burn, so she burned. She made the fires that cooked their meals and heated their baths, and Minya, well, she was responsible for the ghosts, who did most of the work. Sarai was
the only one who had no part in the mundane tasks of their days.

  Purgatory soup, she thought, stirring hers with her spoon. The simplest possible fare, served on the finest porcelain, and set on an elaborate charger of chased silver. Her goblet was chased silver, too, in a design of twined myrantine branches. Once upon a time, the gods had drunk wine from it. Now there was only rainwater.

  Once upon a time, there had been gods. Now there were only children going about in their dead parents’ undergarments.

  “I can’t do it anymore,” said Ruby, dropping her spoon into her soup. It splattered the table and the front of her new slip. “I can’t put one more bite of this insipid mush into my mouth.”

  “Must you be so dramatic?” Feral asked, bypassing his spoon in favor of tipping back his bowl and drinking from it. “It’s not as though it’s terrible. At least we still have some salt in the pantry. Imagine when that runs out.”

  “I didn’t say it was terrible,” said Ruby. “If it was terrible, it wouldn’t be purgatory soup, would it? It would be hell soup. Which would have to be more interesting.”

  “Mm-hm,” agreed Sparrow. “In the same way that being eternally tortured by demons is more ‘interesting’ than not being eternally tortured by demons.”

  They had an ongoing debate on the merits of “interesting.” Ruby contended that it was always worth it, even if it came with danger and ended in doom. “Purgatory’s more than just not being tortured,” she argued now. “It’s not being anything, ever. You might not be tortured, but you’ll also never be touched.”

  “Touched?” Sparrow’s eyebrows went up. “How did we get to touching?”

  “Don’t you want to be touched?” Ruby’s eyes glimmered red, and the corners of her lips curled up, feline. There was such longing in her words, such hunger. “Don’t you wish you had someone to sneak off and do things with?”

  Sparrow flushed at this, a roseate warmth creeping into the blue of her cheeks and giving them a violet cast. She darted a glance at Feral, who didn’t notice. He was looking at Ruby.

  “Don’t get any ideas,” he told her, flat. “You’ve debauched me enough for one day.”

  Ruby rolled her eyes. “Please. That’s an experiment I won’t be repeating. You’re a terrible kisser.”

  “Me?” he demanded. “That was all you! I didn’t even do anything—”

  “That’s why it was terrible! You’re supposed to do something! It’s not facial paralysis. It’s kissing—”

  “More like drowning. I never knew one person could produce so much saliva—”

  “My darlings, my vipers,” came the soothing voice of Great Ellen, floating into the room. Her voice floated, and she floated after it. She didn’t touch the floor. She didn’t bother with the illusion of walking. Great Ellen, more than any other ghost, had shed all pretense of mortality.

  Ghosts were not bound by the same laws as the living. If they appeared exactly as they had in life, it was because they chose to, either out of believing themselves perfect as is, or from fear of losing their last touchstone to reality in the form of their own familiar face, or—as in the case of Kem the footman—because it just didn’t occur to them to change. That was relatively rare, though. Most of them, given time, made at least small adjustments to their phantom forms. Less Ellen, for example, had, while alive, been in possession of but a single eye (the other having been extracted by a goddess in a foul mood). But in death she restored it, and made both eyes larger and thicker-lashed in the bargain.

  But it was Great Ellen who was the true master of the postmortal state. Her imagination was an instrument of wonder, and she fashioned, of the stuff of her ghostliness, an ever-shifting expression of her marvelous self.

  This evening she wore a bird’s nest for a crown, and an elegant green bird was perched in it, singing. It was only an illusion, but a perfect illusion. Her face was more or less her own: a matron’s face, cheeks high, red, and round—“happiness cheeks,” Sarai called them—but in place of her wool-white hair were leaves, streaming behind her as though caught in a breeze. She set a basket of biscuits on the table. Kimril-flour biscuits, as bland as the soup. “No more of your sniping and snarling,” she said. “What’s this about kissing?”

  “Oh, nothing,” said Feral. “Ruby tried to drown me in saliva, that’s all. Come to think of it, has anyone seen Kem lately? He’s not dead in a puddle of drool somewhere, is he?”

  “Well, he’s definitely dead,” remarked Sarai. “I couldn’t say about the drool.”

  “He’s probably hiding,” said Sparrow. “Or maybe pleading with Minya to release him from his torment.”

  Ruby was unfazed. “Say what you like. He loved it. I bet he’s writing a poem about it.”

  Sarai let out a muffled snort at the idea of Kem writing a poem. Great Ellen sighed. “Those lips will lead you into trouble, my pretty flame.”

  “I hope so.”

  “Where is Minya, anyway?” asked Great Ellen, regarding the girl’s empty chair.

  “I thought she might be with you,” said Sarai.

  Great Ellen shook her head. “I haven’t seen her all day.”

  “I checked her rooms,” said Ruby. “She wasn’t there, either.”

  They all looked at one another. It wasn’t as though one could go missing in the citadel—not unless you took a leap off the terrace, anyway, which Sarai thought Minya the least likely of the five of them to do. “Where could she be?” mused Sparrow.

  “I haven’t seen much of her lately,” said Feral. “I wonder where she’s been spending her time.”

  “Are you missing me?” asked a voice from behind them. It was a child’s voice, bell-bright and as sweet as icing sugar.

  Sarai turned, and there was Minya in the doorway. A six-year-old child to all appearances, she was grubby and round-faced and stick-limbed. Her eyes were big and glossy as only a child’s or spectral’s can be, minus the innocence of either.

  “Where have you been?” Great Ellen asked her.

  “Just making friends,” said the little girl. “Am I late for dinner? What is it? Not soup again.”

  “That’s what I said,” chimed Ruby.

  Minya came forward, and it became clear what she meant by “making friends.”

  She was leading a ghost behind her like a pet. He was newly dead, his face blank with shock, and Sarai felt a tightness in her throat. Not another one.

  He moved in Minya’s wake, stiffly, as though fighting a compulsion. He might strain all he liked. He was hers now, and no amount of struggle would restore his free will. This was Minya’s gift. She fished spirits from the air and bound them to her service. Thus was the citadel staffed with the dead: a dozen servants to see to the needs of five children who were no longer children.

  She didn’t have a moniker, the way Feral was Cloud Thief and Ruby was Bonfire and Sparrow was Orchid Witch. Sarai had a name, too, but Minya was just Minya, or “mistress” to the ghosts she bound in iron gossamers of will.

  It was an extraordinary power. After death, souls were invisible, incorporeal, and ephemeral, lasting a few days at the most between death and evanescence, during which time they could only cling to their bodies or drift helplessly upward toward their final unmaking—unless, that is, Minya caught and kept them. They were made solid by her binding—substance and matter, if not flesh and blood. They had hands to work with, mouths to kiss with. They could speak, dance, love, hate, cook, teach, tickle, and even rock babies to sleep at night, but only if Minya let them. They were hers to control.

  This one was a man. He still wore the semblance of his worldly body. Sarai knew him. Of course she did. She knew the people of Weep better than anyone, including their leaders, including their priestesses. They were her dark work. They were her nights. Sooner or later they would all die and find themselves at Minya’s mercy, but while they lived, it was Sarai’s mercy that mattered.

  “Tell us your name,” Minya commanded the ghost.

  He gritted his teeth, c
hoking to keep his name to himself. He held out for four or five seconds and looked exhausted but determined. He didn’t understand that Minya was toying with him. She was leaving him just enough will to believe he stood a chance against her. It was cruel. Like opening a birdcage to let the bird fly out, whilst all the while it’s tethered by the leg, and freedom is only an illusion. Minya marshaled a dozen ghosts at all times, even in her sleep. Her power over them was entire. If she wanted him to say his name, he would say his name. If she wanted him to sing it, he would sing it. Just now, it amused her to let him believe he could resist her.

  Sarai said nothing. She couldn’t help him. She shouldn’t want to. He would kill her if he could, and the others, too. If he were alive, he would rip them apart with his bare hands.

  And she couldn’t really blame him for it.

  Finally, Minya tore his name from his lips. “Ari-Eil!” he gasped.

  “You’re young,” said Ruby, who was fixed on him with uncommon interest. “How did you die? Did someone kill you?” she asked, in much the same tone as if she were inquiring after his health.

  He stared at them in raw horror, his eyes skipping from Ruby to Feral to Sparrow to Sarai, trying to process the sight of their blue flesh.

  Blue. As blue as tyranny and thrall and monsters in the streets. His eyes caught on Sarai for a long tremulous moment and she knew what he was seeing: Isagol the Terrible, resurrected from the dead. But Sarai’s face was too young, and must seem naked without the black band painted across her eyes. She wasn’t Isagol. She saw it dawn on him: what she was, if not who. What they all were.

  “Godspawn,” he whispered, and Sarai felt his revulsion as powerfully as though it, too, were given substance by Minya’s binding. The air felt slippery with it. Rank. He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut, as though he could deny their existence. It served as an affirmation, if nothing else. Every new ghost who recoiled from them in shock proved that they had not yet broken The Rule.

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