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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.