The Empire of Dreams – Rae Carson

THE little girl’s memories began in a dark cellar. She huddled there, knees to chest, fingertips digging into the earthen floor. She liked the feel of it, the coolness, the slight sting as grit separated skin from nails. The earth had always called to her, and she had always answered. Her mamá despaired of her ever having clean hands. She would have stayed forever if she could, there in the cool dark, smelling the baskets of turnips and hanging braids of garlic, digging with her fingertips. Because it was better than being up there, with the banging and the screaming, which she was definitely not listening to but instead digging and digging and digging. Maybe she could dig a tunnel to the other side of the world, or at least a hole so deep she could disappear for real. She thought hard about the other side of the world. What it must be like. Everyone said it was hotter than a fire pit in summer, with a sea of sand that stretched as far as the eye could see. She’d love to see something like that, she truly would. The girl imagined it so hard that she did a wonderful job of not listening to up there for a very long time. Until she realized she had to pee. The outhouse was up the ladder, out the door, and off to the right of the hut she shared with her mamá.

She was not to leave the cellar. Mamá had specifically said to hide, to be silent, to not cry, no matter what happened. No matter what happens. But she was a big girl now, and big girls did not pee in their drawers. The girl pressed her knees tighter together. It would be over soon. The noises would stop; the trapdoor would open. Light would pour down, and Mamá’s hand would reach into the darkness to lift her out. Something banged against the floor directly overhead. She looked up, startled, as dust fluttered down and peppered her eyes.

The girl did not whimper, or even gasp. She blinked against the dirt, blinked and blinked until her cheeks ran with tears. But she would not cry out, and she would not pee. “Put on your big-girl face,” Mamá had said. “Where is it?” someone yelled. A man, with as monstrous a voice as she’d ever heard. Someone responded, and though she couldn’t make out the pleading words, she’d know her mamá’s tone and cadence no matter what. “How much must I destroy before you tell me?” the monster said. Whatever reply her mamá made was drowned out by a great crash. Something large had been knocked to the floor.

The table maybe. Then came the kettle, clanging against the stone hearth, and the girl stopped digging to put her hands over her ears. The crashing and pounding went on and on, raining dust onto her head as she cowered in the dark. She pressed her palms to her ears, hard, hard, harder, until her skull hurt. Silence came, as sudden as a blow. The girl dared to remove her hands and lift her head, and it seemed that her heart pounding into the strange new quiet was as loud as a scream, and surely if the monster was still up there, he could hear it too. Boot steps traversed the floor above, slow and deliberate. Her mamá said one word, clear and bold: “Please.” The thunk that came was not so loud as before, but there was a wetness to it that made a bit of pee blossom warm in the girl’s drawers. She clenched tight—clenched her legs, her breath, her soul—and prayed for the monster to go away.

Instead, he continued to sift through all the things that belonged to them, and the girl knew they were in ruins, even without seeing. The table, which they had painted together with vines and flowers. The clay vase on the mantel. The iron spit and the spice rack above it, hanging with dried lavender. The cupboard with the missing drawer where the girl kept Rosita, her straw doll. The rope bed with feather ticking that she and Mamá shared. The monster was searching for something, even though she couldn’t imagine what. She and Mamá barely had enough food to eat, much less a treasure worth searching for. The boot steps ceased. Light peeked through the slats above her head.

The monster had pulled up the braid rug that covered the door to the cellar. No, no, no, no, the girl prayed. Mamá was always praying. Praying for more food, praying her toothache would get better, praying Horteño the blacksmith would leave her alone. The prayers never seemed to work, but the girl didn’t know what else to do. A hinge squealed as the monster found the iron ring and gave it a yank. No, please, no. Light poured down the ladder, and the girl had been in the dark for so long that it hurt her eyes. “Ah, there you are,” said the monster. A tiny whimper bled from her lips.

“Why don’t you come up?” he asked reasonably. She shook her head fiercely. An arm reached for her, draped in the finest, palest linen she’d ever seen. Fingers curled, beckoning her. They were long and slender like spider legs, with skin as white as a cloud. He said, “I won’t hurt you.” His accent marked him as Invierno as surely as his pale skin, with words that sounded half swallowed before being reluctantly shoved from his mouth. “I have to pee,” she whispered. The pressure in her belly was awful, and she wriggled her bottom to keep everything inside. “Let’s take care of that, shall we? Climb up, and you can go to the outhouse.

” The girl was not stupid. But she couldn’t stay in this dark hole forever. If she refused, the monster would come down after her anyway. “All right,” she whispered, and she rose to her feet. She wiped her dirty hands on her shirt and smoothed back her hair. Her arms quivered as she reached for the ladder rungs and began to pull herself up. She was slow about it, thinking, thinking, thinking what to do. No one in the village would come to help, not even if she screamed. It was winter, so if she managed to escape, she’d have to find a warm place to hide. Maybe the monster truly meant her no harm, but she remembered the wet thunk and its ensuing silence, and she knew that possibility for a fancy.

Too soon, she reached the top rung. Her head peeked above the floor, and sure enough, the cottage was in shambles. Near the hearth, sticking out from beneath a pile of splintered wood, was a dark, slender arm ending in calloused fingertips. A smear of blood coated the back of Mamá’s limp hand. Something changed inside her. It was like a twist at the base of her skull, a little snake of sadness and hate and rage—all combined with a desperate determination that should have died with her mamá but instead would be with her always. So the girl’s decision about what to do was easy: She would die fighting as hard as she could. She clambered onto the floor, gained her feet, and faced the monster. He was tall, maybe the tallest person she’d ever seen, with eyes like deepwater ice and nearwhite hair that fell loosely to his waist. An amulet hung from his neck, a small iron cage housing a shiny blue gemstone.

She barely kept her gasp in check. The monster wasn’t just an Invierno; he was an animagus, one of their rare sorcerers who could use his sparkling stone to burn her to the ground, or even hold her in place so she couldn’t move at all. She’d seen a few Inviernos in their village before, but never an animagus. “Well,” he said, looking her up and down with his cold, cold eyes. “Aren’t you a disgusting little creature.” And somehow she knew he wasn’t talking about the dirt under her nails or the hole in the left knee of her trousers or the tiny pee stain at her crotch, but rather her very own self. A busted table leg with a jagged end lay beside Mamá’s hand. Maybe she could reach it before he burned her. Looking the monster straight in the eyes, she said, “May I use the outhouse now?” “If you answer a few questions first, then yes, of course.” She blinked.

She’d expected him to say no. “All right.” “Let’s start with . who is your father?” The girl pressed her knees together. It was easier to hold it standing up, but she couldn’t last much longer. “Don’t know.” “Don’t lie to me.” “Are you my papá?” she asked, peering closer. Mamá had described him as tall and pale, with hair like falling water. And that’s all she’d ever said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the monster, and the girl felt a relief so huge it almost loosed her bladder. Then his frozen eyes narrowed. “But it was someone like me, yes?” The girl said nothing. “How old are you?” This part is fuzzy in the girl’s memory. Did she hold up six fingers? Seven? Whatever it was, she absolutely remembers the monster peering at her strangely and saying, “You have an old soul.” She glared. “I’m precocious.” He stepped forward, quick like an asp, into the very air she was breathing. But she did not back away. The monster said, “Tell me what happened to your anima-lapis.

” The girl had no idea what that meant, though it sounded like the Lengua Classica, which she did not speak and did not care to. She shrugged. The blow came so fast she barely noted it, except suddenly she was on the floor, blackness edging her vision, wet warmth spilling into her drawers. Pain came next, exploding through her cheekbone and her shoulder where she fell. Though she hadn’t eaten all day, her belly threatened to toss something up. She blinked and blinked, trying to see straight, as her heartbeat pounded like thunder in her face. A shape materialized on the floor at her nose: a limp hand. “I’m sorry, Mamá, I’m sorry,” the girl whispered to the hand. “I peed myself.” The monster grabbed the girl’s braid and yanked her head backward.

He crouched beside her, his moist breath hot in her ear. “Tell me where it is,” he whispered. Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I don’t know what animal apples is,” she said. “For true.” “Anima-lapis,” he said, with a tug on her braid. “It would look like this.” He grabbed his amulet and shoved it in her face. The gemstone winked at her from inside its iron cage. She shook her head, or maybe she just thought she did.

Everything was spinning so badly. “I don’t . I’ve never . ” She’d never seen a sparkle stone until today. Horteño the blacksmith had told her about them. The stones were magical, beautiful, rare. Only animagi were born with them, though she wasn’t sure how a baby could be born with a stone. She’d seen quite a few babies in her short life, and they were messy and soft and loud; not stone-like at all. He released her braid, and her head clunked against the floor. Run, she told herself.

But her vision was hazy, and her limbs wouldn’t obey. Maybe in a minute or so. She just needed to blink a little, catch her breath. Before she could collect herself, he flipped her neatly onto her back and yanked up her shirt. She tried to cover herself, but he batted her hands away and bent over her stomach to examine something there. A light finger traced the edge of her navel. It was almost a caress. “Hmmm,” the monster said. The girl squirmed, but he had her pinned. “Maybe,” he said, softly to himself.

“Maybe.” In a way, it was worse than getting hit, having his soft finger glide across her bare belly. It sent shivers all through her and made bile rise in her throat. She wanted to cover her skin so badly. Wash it. Reclaim it. “All right, let’s go,” the monster said, gaining his feet and yanking her up with him. “We have a long journey ahead of us.” She pushed her shirt down as fast as she could, wobbling on her feet. Her pee-soaked pants already chafed the skin of her inner thighs.

“Are you going to kill me now?” she asked. She needed a weapon. The meat knife would be perfect, but there was no way she’d find it in all this rubble. “Not yet,” he said with a shrug. “If we find your lapis, you might be with us for a very, very long time.” Being with him a very, very long time was probably a very, very bad thing. But it also meant she might live long enough to escape. She said, “You should look in the cellar. Mamá keeps things there.” She didn’t look him in the eye when she said it, because she was terrible at tricking people, and he’d surely read her intentions on her face.

A long moment passed. If the monster was smart, he’d tie her up and explore the cellar himself, and she couldn’t let that happen. So she added, “Mamá has a secret place down there. I can show you.” That decided him. “You go first. I’ll be right behind you.” The sparkle stone dangling at his chest began to glow, and its anger stirred deep in her soul. It made her insides fuzzy and hot. The monster was preparing to use his awful magic.

The girl moved fast, practically throwing herself into the hole. She was still dizzy from the blow to her head, so her foot missed the first rung and she slid halfway down before catching herself with a grip that made the skin of her palms scream. She dropped the rest of the way and landed on her wet bottom. The cellar felt cool and comforting and familiar, and it gave her strength. As the ladder creaked with the monster’s descent, she launched herself into the dark corner where Mamá kept a shelf for dry goods—nearly empty of food this late in the year, but the skinning knife should still be there. “Girl, show yourself,” the monster ordered. He had reached the floor of the cellar, but he wasn’t used to the dark like she was. “Over here,” she said, her fingers closing around the knife handle. He approached cautiously, the light from his sparkling gem casting a bluish glow against the stone walls. His hair seemed especially white in the magical light, his eyes especially icy.

“Where is the secret place?” he said. He was so tall he had to crouch to avoid the hanging garlic braids. The girl hadn’t thought beyond getting the knife, the handle of which was already slick in her damp palm, hidden behind her back. She hesitated. “Girl?” She couldn’t think what to say or do next. His amulet brightened. A stream of light burst toward the floor, crashed into a burlap bag. The smell of burned stew filled the air as flames licked at the sack, warming her cheeks. “You burned the turnips,” she whispered, staring. Magic had been done, for true.

Right before her eyes. “It takes great power to burn turnips,” he said. “They contain so much moisture. Show me the secret place.” “It’s . ” The girl got an idea. “It’s here. Behind this. I’m not big enough to move it.” The monster stepped forward.

He eyed the shelves. Four rickety wooden slats, one of which was damp and half rotted away. They used to be nice shelves, Mamá had told her, before the rot set in. “There’s a hole in the wall where Mamá keeps her special things,” she said. “But you have to move the shelf.” He stared down at her. The knife held behind her back was like a beacon, throbbing in her hand. Maybe she should elaborate on the lie before he noticed. What special thing would her mamá hide away? Something precious. Something frightening .

Mamá would have sold anything precious. She would have protected her daughter from anything frightening. So the girl was left to stare back at the monster, unable to think of a single thing. “Have you seen what’s inside?” the monster asked. “No,” the girl whispered, more certain than ever that he would see through her. “Mamá said I was too little.” Her voice wavered. Her hand hiding the knife shook. Her fear made the monster smile. “Then let’s see for ourselves, shall we?” He turned his back to her and reached for the shelf.

With a grunt and a heave, he lifted it slightly and pivoted it away, then let it drop with a big thunk. He stared at the revealed wall for a moment. His voice was darker than dark when he said, “I don’t see anything. There’s nothing—” The girl pretended the monster was a pig at the butcher. With all her might, she plunged the knife into his flank. And just like a stuck pig, he squealed. Blue-white light shot away from his amulet, a panic flare that exploded against the shelves, collapsing them and setting the remains on fire. The girl recoiled, tears and smoke blurring her eyes. She had just done a bad, bad thing. No whipping in the world would make up for it.

And yet she didn’t feel sorry. The monster babbled and cursed in a language she didn’t understand. He swatted at the knife in him while the flames ate the shelves and spread to the sack of cornmeal. She should flee. She knew she should. But the monster’s flailing hand managed to bump the knife handle just so, and it slid out a ways. Blood drenched his beautiful robe, but the knife was barely sticking in him now. The girl had not killed him enough. She darted in. Grabbed the knife handle.

Yanked it out. And plunged it right back in. It scraped bone this time; she felt that scrape down to the roots of her teeth. He spun around to face her, but his knees buckled and he fell back against the wall. The knife point thrust out of his abdomen, making a tent of his lovely, bloodstained robe. “You . ” he gasped. “Disgusting half-breed.” His back scraped the wall as he slid to the floor. His amulet was still glowing, its heat creating an ever-widening circle of char on his robe.

“You rotting piece of . ” The sorcerer’s head lolled against his chest. Fire spread around them; its heat seared the girl’s face. She didn’t have much time. Yet she hesitated. Maybe she still hadn’t quite killed the monster. If so, he would burn alive in the next few minutes. Shimmering blood formed a pool around him. Its edges lapped the base of the collapsed shelf, now a bonfire. The blood sizzled, and a scent like cooked meat filled the air.

She knew exactly what she was smelling, but she hadn’t eaten all day and she couldn’t stop her belly’s instinctive rumble or keep saliva from drenching her tongue. Her hands flew to her nose and mouth, and she backed away from the glowing conflagration, the monster’s cooking body, and the final scraps of Mamá’s winter stores. Her back banged against the ladder. She whirled, reached for the rungs, and yanked herself up as fast as she could. She had to flee. No one who sassed an animagus—much less attacked and killed one—got away with it. She’d get no help from the village; she and Mamá were barely tolerated as it was. She had to pack as much as she could, as fast as she could, and get far, far away. It meant leaving Mamá’s body behind. Their tiny cottage.

The vegetable garden. All the things she loved. The only things she loved.

.

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