Muse of Nightmares – Laini Taylor

Kora and Nova had never seen a Mesarthim, but they knew all about them. Everyone did. They knew about their skin: “Blue as sapphires,” said Nova, though they had never seen a sapphire, either. “Blue as icebergs,” said Kora. They saw those all the time. They knew that Mesarthim meant “Servants,” though these were no common servants. They were the soldier-wizards of the empire. They could fly, or else they could breathe fire, or read minds, or turn into shadows and back. They came and went through cuts in the sky. They could heal and shape-shift and vanish. They had war gifts and impossible strength and could tell you how you’d die. Not all of these things together, of course, but one gift each, one only, and they didn’t choose them. The gifts were in them, as they were in everyone, waiting—like an ember for air—should one only be so lucky, so blessed, to be chosen. As Kora and Nova’s mother had been chosen on the day, sixteen years ago, that Mesarthim last came to Rieva. The girls were only babies then, so they didn’t remember the blue-skinned Servants and their gliding metal skyship, and they didn’t remember their mother, either, because the Servants took her away and made her one of them, and she never came back.

She used to send them letters from Aqa, the imperial city, where, she wrote, people weren’t just white or blue, but every color, and the godsmetal palace floated on air, moving from place to place. My dears, said the last letter, which had come eight years ago. I’m shipping Out. I don’t know when I’ll return, but you will certainly be women grown by then. Take care of each other for me, and always remember, whatever anyone tells you: I would have chosen you, if they had let me choose. I would have chosen you. In winter, in Rieva, they heated flat stones in the fire to tuck into their sleeping furs at night, though they cooled off fast and were hard under your ribs when you woke. Well, those five words were like heated stones that never lost their warmth or bruised your flesh, and Kora and Nova carried them everywhere. Or perhaps they wore them, like jewels. Like defiance.

Someone loves us, their faces said, when they stared down Skoyë, or refused to cringe before their father. It wasn’t much, letters in the place of a mother—and they only had the memory of the letters now, since Skoyë had thrown them in the fire “by accident”—but they had each other, too. Kora and Nova: companions, allies. Sisters. They were indivisible, like the lines of a couplet that would lose their meaning out of context. Their names might as well have been one name—Koraandnova— so seldom were they spoken separately, and when they were, they sounded incomplete, like one half of a mussel shell, cracked open and ripped in two. They were each other’s person, each other’s place. They didn’t need magic to read each other’s thoughts, only glances, and their hopes were twins, even if they were not. They stood side by side, braced together against the future. Whatever life might force on them, and however it might fail them, they knew they had each other.

And then the Mesarthim came back. Nova was first to see. She was on the beach, and she’d just straightened up to swipe her hair out of her eyes. She had to use her forearm, since she held her gaff in one hand and flensing knife in the other. Her fingers were cramped into claws around them, and she was gore all the way to her elbows. She felt the sticking drag of half-dried blood as she drew her arm across her brow. Then something glinted in the sky, and she glanced up to see what it was. “Kora,” she said. Kora didn’t hear. Her face, blood-streaked, too, was blanched with numb endurance.

Her knife worked back and forth but her eyes were blank, as though she’d stowed her mind in a nicer place, not needing it for this grisly work. An uul carcass hulked between them, half flayed. The beach was strewn with dozens more carcasses, and more hunched figures like theirs. Blood and blubber clotted the sand. Cyrs skirled, fighting for entrails, and the shallows boiled with spikefish and beaked sharks drawn to the sweet, salty reek. It was the Slaughter, the worst time of year on Rieva—for the women and girls, anyway. The men and boys relished it. They didn’t wield gaffs and knives, but spears. They did the killing, and hewed off the tusks to carve into trophies, and left all the rest where it lay. Butchering was women’s work, never mind that it took more muscle, and more stamina, than killing.

“Our women are strong,” the men boasted from up on the headland, clear of the stink and the flies. And they were strong—and they were weary and grim, trembling from exertion, and streaked with every vile fluid that leaks out of dead things, when the glint caught Nova’s eye. “Kora,” she said again, and her sister looked up this time, and followed her gaze to the sky. And it was as if, though Nova had seen what was there, she couldn’t process it until Kora did, too. As soon as her sister’s eyes fixed on it, the shock rocked through them both. It was a skyship. A skyship meant Mesarthim. And Mesarthim meant… Escape. Escape from ice and uuls and drudgery. From Skoyë’s tyranny and their father’s apathy, and lately—sharply—from the men.

Over the past year, the village men had started pausing when they passed, looking from Kora to Nova and Nova to Kora like they were choosing a chicken for slaughter. Kora was seventeen, Nova sixteen. Their father could marry them off anytime he pleased. The only reason he hadn’t yet was because Skoyë, their stepmother, was loath to lose her pair of slaves. They did most of the work, and looked after their troupe of little half brothers, too. Skoyë couldn’t keep them forever, though. Girls were gifts to be given, not kept—or more like livestock to be sold, as any father of a desirable daughter on Rieva was aware. And Kora and Nova were pretty enough, with their flax-fair hair and bright brown eyes. They had delicate wrists that belied their strength, and though their figures were secret under layers of wool and uul hide, hips, at least, were hard to conceal. They had curves enough to keep sleeping furs warm, and were known to be hard workers besides.

It wouldn’t be long. By Deepwinter, surely, when the dark month fell, they would be wives, living with whoever made their father the best offer, and no longer with each other. And it wasn’t just that they’d be split apart, or that they had no will to be wives. The worst thing of all was the loss of the lie. What lie? This is not our life. For as long as they could remember, that was what they’d told each other, with and without words. They had a way of looking at each other, a certain fixed intensity, that was as good as speaking it out loud. When things were at their worst—in the middle of the Slaughter, when it was carcass after carcass, or when Skoyë slapped them, or they ran out of food before they ran out of winter—they kept the lie burning between them. This is not our life. Remember.

We don’t belong here. The Mesarthim will come back and choose us. This is not our real life. However bad things got, they had that to keep them going. If they had been one girl instead of two it would have died out long ago, like a candle flame with just one hand to cup it. But there were two of them, and between them they kept it alive, saw it mirrored in each other and borrowed faith back and forth, never alone and never defeated. They whispered at night of what gifts they would have. They would be powerful like their mother, they were sure. They were meant to be soldier-wizards, not drudge-brides or slave-daughters, and they would be whisked away to Aqa to train for battle and wear godsmetal against their skin, and when the time came they would ship Out, too—up and out through a cut in the sky, to be heroes of the empire, as blue as sapphires and glaciers, and as beautiful as stars. But the years went by and no Mesarthim came, and the lie stretched thin, so that when they looked to each other for the faith they kept between them, they began to find fear instead.

What if this is our life after all? Every year on Deepwinter’s Eve, Kora and Nova climbed the ice-slick ridge trail to watch the sun’s brief appearance, knowing it was the last they’d see of it for a month. Well, losing their lie felt like losing the sun—not for a month, but forever. So the sight of that skyship…it was like the return of the light. Nova let out a whoop. Kora laughed—with joy and deliverance and…accusation. “Today?” she demanded of the ship in the sky. The reeling, brilliant sound of her laughter rang across the beach. “Really?” “You couldn’t have come last week?” cried Nova, her head flung back, the same joy and deliverance alive in her voice, and the same edge of asperity. They were matted with sweat, rank with gore, and red-eyed from the sting of guts and gases, and the Mesarthim came now? Along the beach, among the wet-hollow husks of half-butchered beasts and the clouds of stinging flies, the other women looked up, too. Knives fell still.

Awe stirred in the slaughter-numbed blankness as the ship soared nearer. It was made of godsmetal, vivid blue and mirror bright, catching the sun and searing spots into their vision. Mesarthim skyships were shaped by the minds of their captains, and this one was in the likeness of a wasp. Its wings were knife-blade sleek, its head a tapered oval with two great orbs for eyes. Its body, insect-like, was formed of a thorax and abdomen joined in a pinch of a waist. It even had a stinger. It flew overhead, aiming for the headland, and passed out of sight behind the rock palisade that sheltered the village from wind. Kora’s and Nova’s hearts were pounding. They were giddy and shaking with thrill, nerves, reverence, hope, and vindication. They swung their gaffs and knives, embedding them in the uul, both knowing, as they unclenched their fingers from the tools’ well-worn hafts, that they would never return to retrieve them.

This is not our life. “What do you two think you’re doing?” Skoyë demanded as they stumbled toward the shore. They ignored her, falling to their knees in the icy shallows to scoop water onto their heads. The sea-foam was pink, and flecks of fat and cartilage bobbed in the swaying surf, but it was cleaner than they were. They scrubbed at their skin and hair, and at each other’s skin and hair, careful not to step too deep, where the sharks and spikefish thrashed. “Get back to work, the pair of you,” Skoyë scolded. “It’s not time to quit.” They stared at her, incredulous. “The Mesarthim are here,” said Kora, her voice warm with wonder. “We’re going to be tested.

” “Not until you finish that uul, you aren’t.” “Finish it yourself,” said Nova. “They don’t need to see you.” Skoyë’s expression curdled. She wasn’t used to them talking back, and it wasn’t just the retort. She caught the edge in Nova’s tone. It was scorn. Skoyë had been tested sixteen years ago, and they knew what her gift had been. Everyone on Rieva had been tested, save the babies, and only one had been Chosen: Nyoka, their mother. Nyoka had a war gift of staggering power: literally staggering.

She could send shock waves—into the earth, into the air. She’d shaken the village when her power first woke, and caused an avalanche that obliterated the path to the boarded-up mineshafts. Skoyë’s gift, technically, was a war gift, too, but of such a low magnitude as to make it a joke. She could cast a sensation of being prickled with needles—at least, she could for the brief duration of her test. Only the Chosen got to keep their gifts, and only in strict service to the empire. Everyone else had to fade back to normal: Unworthy. Powerless. Pale. Piqued, Skoyë drew back her hand to slap Nova, but Kora caught her wrist. She didn’t say anything.

She just shook her head. Skoyë snatched back her hand, as stunned as she was enraged. The girls had always been able to enrage her—not through disobedience, but by this way they had of being untouchable, of being above, peering down at the rest of them from some lofty place they had no right to. “You think they’re going to choose you, just because they chose her?” she demanded. Perfect Nyoka. Skoyë wanted to spit. It wasn’t enough that Nyoka had been chosen, plucked from this hellrock frozen nowhere of an island, but she lingered here, too, in her husband’s heart and her daughters’ fantasies, and everyone else’s charitable memories. Nyoka got to escape and be preserved in false perfection, always and forever the pretty young mother called to greater things. Skoyë’s lips curled back in a sneer. “You think you’re better than the rest of us? You think she was?” “Yes,” hissed Nova to the first question.

“Yes,” she hissed to the second. “And yes.” Her teeth were bared. She wanted to bite. But Kora grabbed her hand and tugged her away, toward the trail that snaked up the rock face. They weren’t the only ones headed for it. All the rest of the women and girls had started back up to the village. There were visitors. Rieva was at the bottom of the world— where a drain would be, if worlds had drains. Strangers of any kind were as rare as storm-borne butterflies, and these strangers were Mesarthim.

No one was going to miss out, not even if it meant the uuls spoiling on the beach. There was eager chatter, stifled laughter, a hum and buzz of thrill. None of the others had bothered to wash. Not that Kora and Nova could be called clean, but their hands and faces were scrubbed and ruddy, and their hair, salty-damp, was combed back with their fingers. Everyone else was smeared and greasy and dark with blood, some still clutching their hooks and their knives. They looked like a swarm of murderesses boiling out of a hive. They reached the village. The wasp ship was in the clearing. The men and boys were gathered around it, and the gaze they turned on their women was full of distaste and shame. “I apologize for the smell,” said the village elder, Shergesh, to their esteemed visitors.

And so Kora and Nova saw Mesarthim for the first time—or the second, maybe, if they’d been babes in Nyoka’s arms sixteen years ago when she stood where they were now, her life about to change. There were four of them: three men and one woman, and they were, indeed, as blue as icebergs. If there had been any wisp of hope that Nyoka might be with them, here it died. Nyoka had been fairhaired like her daughters. This woman had tight black curls. As for the men, one was tall with a shaved head, and one had long white hair that hung in ropes to his waist. As for the last, he was ordinary, apart from the blue skin. Or…he ought to have been ordinary. His hair was brown, his face plain. He was neither tall nor short nor handsome nor ugly, but there was something about him nevertheless that wrested the eye from his comrades.

His wide stance, the arrogant angle of his chin? For no clear reason, Kora and Nova were certain that he was the captain, the one who’d shaped godsmetal into a wasp and flown it here. He was the smith. Of all Mesarthim gifts—and there were too many to count, new mutations all the time in an everexpanding index of magics—one gift was prime. Every person born in all the world of Mesaret had a dormant ability that would wake at the touch of godsmetal—as they called the rare blue element, mesarthium. But out of millions, only a handful possessed the prime ability: to manipulate the godsmetal itself. These few were called smiths, because they could shape mesarthium as common smiths shaped common metals, though they didn’t use fire, anvils, and hammers, but their minds. Mesarthium was the hardest substance known. It was perfectly impervious to cutting, heat, or acids. It couldn’t even be scratched. But to the mind of a smith, it was infinitely malleable and responsive to mental command.

They could mine it, mold it, awaken its astonishing properties. They could build with it, fly in it, bond with it, so that it was something like alive. This was the gift that children dreamed of, playing Servants in the village, and it was the one they were whispering about now, flushed and eager, saying what their own ships would be when they got their commands: winged sharks and airborne snakes, metal rap-tors and demons and rays. Some named less menacing things: songbirds and dragonflies and mermaids. Aoki, one of Kora and Nova’s little half brothers, declared that his would be a butt. “The door will be the hole,” he piped, pointing around at his own. “Dear Thakra, don’t let Aoki be a smith,” whispered Kora, invoking the seraph Faerer to whom they prayed in their little rock church. Nova muffled a laugh. “A butt warship would be terrifying,” she said. “I might steal that idea if it turns out I’m a smith.

” “No, you won’t,” said Kora. “Our ship will be an uul, in loving memory of our home.” Their laughter this time was insufficiently muffled, and caught their father’s ear. He silenced them with a look. He was good at that. They thought that should have been his gift: mirth-queller, enemy of laughter. In fact, he’d tested as elemental. He could turn things to ice, and that was fitting, too. His magnitude was low, though, like Skoyë’s and everyone else’s on Rieva, and really, nearly everyone’s everywhere. Strong gifts were rare.

It was why the Servants went out on search like this and tested people all over the world, seeking out those needles in haystacks to join the imperial ranks. Kora and Nova knew they were needles. They had to be. Their giddiness faltered, and it wasn’t their father’s look that quelled it, but the Servants’ as they surveyed the gathering women— and smelled them. They couldn’t keep their disgust from showing. One murmured to another, whose answering laugh was as harsh as a cough. Kora and Nova couldn’t blame them. The smell was grotesque even if you were used to it. What must it be like to the uuluninitiated, and those who’d never had to gut or flay anything? It was painful to be part of this milling gruesome crowd and know that to the visitors they were indistinguishable from the rest. They both formed the same desperate plea in their minds.

They didn’t know that they thought the same thought at exactly the same moment, but neither would it have surprised them. See us, they willed the Mesarthim. See us. And as though they had spoken aloud—as though they had shouted—one of the four stopped talking midsentence and turned to look straight at them. The sisters froze, clutching each other’s knife-stiff fingers, and shrank back from the stare. It was the tall Servant with the shaved blue pate. He’d heard them. He had to be a telepath. His eyes bored into theirs, and… poured into theirs. They felt him there like a breeze stirring grass, riffling through and seeing, just like they’d wanted to be seen, and then he said something to the woman, who in turn said something to Shergesh.

The village elder pursed his lips, displeased. “Perhaps the boys first…” he ventured, and the woman said, “No. You have Servant blood here. We’ll test them first.” So Kora and Nova were led inside the wasp ship, and the doors melted closed behind them. Chapter 2 Fresh Horrors Sarai had lived and breathed nightmares since she was six years old. For four thousand nights she had explored the dreamscapes of Weep, witnessing horrors and creating them. She was the Muse of Nightmares. Her hundred moth sentinels had perched on every brow. No man, woman, or child had been safe from her.

She knew their shames and agonies, their griefs and fears, and she had thought… she had believed…that she knew every horror, and was beyond surprise. That was before she had to kneel in the blossoms of the citadel garden and prepare her own body for cremation. The poor broken thing. It lay in the white blooms, beautiful and rich with color—blue skin, pink silk, cinnamon hair, red blood. For seventeen years this had been her. These feet had paced the citadel floors in endless restless circuits. These lips had smiled, and screamed moths at the sky, and sipped rain from chased silver cups. All that it meant to be Sarai was anchored in the flesh and bones before her. Or it had been. Now she was ripped out of it, unskinned by death, and this body, it was…what? A thing.

An artifact of her ended life. And they were going to burn it. There would always be fresh horrors. She knew that now. Chapter 3 A Ragged Little Girl with Beetle Shell Eyes Last night, the citadel of the Mesarthim had almost fallen from the sky. It would have crushed the city of Weep below. If any survived the impact, they would have drowned in the floods as the underground river broke free and swamped the streets. But none of that had happened because someone had stopped it. Never mind that the citadel was hundreds of feet tall, wrought of alien metal, and formed by a god in the shape of an angel. Lazlo had caught it—Lazlo Strange, the faranji dreamer who was somehow a god himself.

He’d stopped the citadel from falling, and so instead of everyone dying, only Sarai had. Well, that wasn’t quite true. The explosionist had died, too, but his death was poetic justice. Sarai’s was just bad luck. She’d been standing on her terrace—right in the open palm of the giant seraph—when the citadel lurched and tilted. There’d been nothing to hold on to. She’d slid, silk on mesarthium, down the slick blue metal hand and right off the edge. She’d fallen and she’d died, and you’d think that would be the end of terror, but it wasn’t. There was still evanescence, and it was worse. The souls of the dead weren’t snuffed out when the spark of life left the body.

They were emptied into the air to be languidly unmade. If you’d lived a long life, if you were tired and ready, then perhaps it felt like peace. But Sarai wasn’t ready and it had felt like dissolving—as though she were a drop of blood in water, or a hailstone on a warm red tongue. The world had tried to dissolve her, to melt her and resorb her.

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