Sarai opened her eyes in Minya’s dream, and realized she was holding her breath, braced for a clash that didn’t come. She exhaled slowly and looked around, taking stock of her surroundings.
She knew the citadel nursery, but she knew it bare. After what happened there, Minya had ordered everything burned. Nowadays, it was an austere place—a kind of awful memorial, with nothing left but the rows of mesarthium cribs and cots, all shining blue, abstracted by the absence of bedding and babies.
This was the same nursery, but it took a beat to realize it. Sarai was standing in it, and there was bedding and babies—and children and tidy piles of folded diapers, and white blankets worn soft with many washings, and nippled bottles all lined up on a shelf. The babies were in the cribs, lying down, limbs waving, or standing at the bars like tiny prisoners. Some bigger children were playing on woven mats laid out on the floor. They had a few toys: blocks, a doll. Not much. One girl walked up to a crib and lifted one of the babies out and held it on her hip like a little mother.
The girl was Minya. Though in size and shape she hadn’t changed, she was vastly different in presentation: She was clean, for one thing, and her hair was long, not chopped off with a knife. It was dark and shining and fell in waves down her back, and her little nursery smock was white, with nary a rip or stain. She was singing to the baby. It was her same icing-sugar voice, but it sounded different, fuller and more sincere.
It didn’t surprise Sarai to find herself here. The nursery was bound to loom large in the landscape of Minya’s mind. The calm of the scene did surprise her a little. She’d been braced for something ugly—a confrontation, blame. She had thought Minya might be waiting for her at the border of the dream, the way Lazlo did, except unsmiling. But that was foolish. How could Minya know she would come? Sarai didn’t even know if Minya would be able to see her, and even if she could, she couldn’t expect her to be lucid and present in the way Lazlo was.
He was Strange the dreamer, after all. He wasn’t your ordinary dreamer, prey to all the vagaries of the unconscious. He moved through his mind with the assuredness of an explorer and the grace of a poet. Most dreams don’t make sense, and most dreamers aren’t even aware they’re dreaming. Was Minya?
Sarai stood where she was, waiting to see if the little girl would notice her. She didn’t, not yet. She was focused on the baby. She carried it to a table and laid it on a blanket. Sarai supposed she must be changing its diaper. She let her eyes wander, wondering if she might find herself here—her baby self. She should be easy to spot, the only one with Isagol’s red-brown hair.
As she looked around, she noticed an anomaly. Whenever she tried to look at the door—the only one that led out into the corridor—there was a sort of...disruption in her vision, as though her eyes were skipping over something. She found herself blinking, trying to focus, but it was as though an area of the dreamscape was blurred out, like breath-fogged glass. She several times thought she glimpsed figures—grown-up-size figures—out of the corner of her eye, but when she turned, there was no one there.
She wondered where the Ellens were. She couldn’t spot herself, either.
Minya walked back to the cribs, plucked out another baby, and settled it on her hip. She did the little bounce and sway that Sarai had seen humans do to calm their babies when they woke in the night. The baby regarded her placidly. The crib she’d taken the first one from was still empty, and Sarai glanced over at the table where Minya had been changing its diaper. It wasn’t there, either.
A little shiver of unease ran down her spine.
She drifted closer, and the words of Minya’s song lined themselves up and slipped into her mind, each word crystalline with the sweetness of her unearthly little voice. Sarai noticed the nursery had gone quiet. The children on the floor mats had stopped playing and were watching her. The babies, too, and she thought: If they could all see her—they who were just phantasms created by Minya’s mind—then Minya must be aware of her, too.
She caught another hint of movement out of the corner of her eye, and long shadows marched past where there was no one to cast them, and Minya’s song went like this:
Poor little godspawn, Wrap her in a blanket, Don’t let her peek out, Better keep her quiet. Can’t you hear the monsters coming?
Hide, little doomed one, If you can’t pretend you’re dead, You’ll be really dead instead!
And Sarai saw that Minya wasn’t changing the baby. She was wrapping it up in a blanket, just like the song said. It was a sort of game. Her voice was playful, her face open and smiling. On “don’t let her peek out,” she booped the infant softly on her tiny nose and then drew the blanket across her face. It was like “now you see me,” except she didn’t uncover the baby’s face again. On “better keep her quiet,” her voice fell to a whisper, and it all became strange. She wrapped the baby up completely—head, arms, legs, all tucked in and covered, wrapped and swaddled into a tidy bundle, and then...she pushed it through a crack in the wall.
Sarai’s hand went to her mouth. What was Minya doing to the babies?
When she went back to the cribs for another one, Sarai darted to the crack in the wall—that was definitely a dream addition, and didn’t exist in the real nursery—and peered inside it. There she saw more bundles, baby-size and bigger.
None of them were moving.
She dropped to her knees and reached in, pulled out the nearest one and opened it. Her hands shook as she tried to be gentle but also not touch it too much because she didn’t know what she’d find inside, and then it was open and it was a baby and it was alive and also utterly still.
It was the most unnatural thing she’d ever seen.
The baby lay unmoving, curled as small as it could make itself, peering up at her with a wariness too old for its glossy infant eyes. As though it had been told to keep still, and understood, and was obeying. Sarai reached for another bundle, and another, unwinding babies like so many cocoons. All were alive, motionless and silent as little dolls. And then she opened the bundle that was her, small Sarai with cinnamon curls, and a sob escaped her lips.
With that sound, the singing stopped. The nursery went deathly quiet. Turning on her knees, Sarai came face-to-face with Minya. The little girl thrummed with a dark fervor, eyes big and glazed, breath fast and shallow, skin seeming to crackle with a barely contained energy. In a baleful singsong that sent chills down Sarai’s spine, she said, “You shouldn’t be in here,” and Sarai didn’t know if she meant in the nursery or in the dream, but the words, the tone, seemed to slide into a dance with the unmoored shadows and the thrum, and it was all getting faster and louder, and the shadows were closing in, and a terrible dread stirred in her.
She’d been inside countless nightmares, her own and others’, and this could hardly even be considered a nightmare. To describe it, it would seem odd more than scary. The babies were alive. They were just wrapped up. But dreams have auras, a pervasive feeling that seeps through the skin, and the aura of this one was horror.
“Minya,” said Sarai. “Do you know me?”
But Minya didn’t answer. She was looking past her at the unwrapped cocoons and the little living dolls all scattered and lying still. “What have you done?” she cried, growing frantic. “They’ll get them now!”
And Sarai didn’t have to ask who “they” were. She’d seen the Carnage play out dozens of times in Eril-Fane’s dreams, and in the dreams of those who’d been with him and helped him on that bloody day. She knew the awful, gruesome truth of it. But she’d never been here, in the nursery, waiting for it to start.
Except, of course, she had been. She’d been two years old.
Were they coming? Was this that day? The dread thickened around her. The shadows wove closer, like figures dancing in a circle, and all the children and babies started to cry—even the silent unwrapped dolls and all the ones still wrapped. The parcels started to writhe and wails poured out of the crack in the wall.
Minya was beside herself, darting from child to child, fussing and grabbing at them, yanking them to their feet, trying to pick up babies off the floor. They were starting to crawl away from her, coming unwrapped, no longer frozen, and her face was wild with distress. The task was overwhelming. There were nearly thirty of them, and no one to help her.
Again, Sarai wondered: Where were the Ellens?
“It’s your fault!” Minya flung at Sarai, darting terrified glances at the open door. “You ruined it! I can’t carry them all.”
“We’ll save them,” Sarai said. The panic was infecting her, and the helplessness, too. This dream aura was an oppressive force. “We’ll get them all out. I’ll help you.”
“Do you promise?” Minya asked, her eyes so big, so full of pleading.
Sarai hesitated. The words were on her lips and they tasted like a lie, but she didn’t know what else to do and so she said them. She promised.
Minya’s face changed. “You’re lying!” she shrieked, as though she knew very well how this day came out. “It’s always the same! They always die!”
The children were crying and scattering, trying to hide behind cribs and under cots, and the babies were wailing and bleating and Sarai knew it was true: They were long dead and she couldn’t save a one of them. Despair overwhelmed her—or nearly.
She reminded herself who she was, what she was, and that she was not helpless here. She could change the dream. They always die!
Minya had just said. Did she live this, then, over and over? Was she always, always trying to save them, and always, always failing? Sarai couldn’t bring the dead back to life, and she couldn’t go back in time, but couldn’t she let Minya win this, at least once?
She took over the dream. It was what she did, easy as breathing. She closed the nursery door, the one Minya kept glancing at. She closed it so no one could get in. And then she opened another door, out through the other side where no door had ever been. It led to the sky, and an airship was docked, a version of the silk sleigh, but bigger, with patchwork pontoons, and tassels and pom-pom garlands draped over the rails, and instead of a motor, it had a flock of geese in harness, all formed up in a V and ready to pull them away to safety. They had only to take the children and load them onto it, and Sarai could help with that, too. She could just will them there. They didn’t need to be herded and chased. She told Minya, “We can escape,” and pointed to the doorway.
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