Well, it's official...I'm putting out a story collection on December 21st. ARE YOU EXCITED YET? YOU SHOULD BE! I definitely am. Cover art still needs to get designed, unfortunately, but I have only two stories--one long and one short--to finish for this collection. And guess what? Because I love you all so much, you get to read the first story in the as-yet-untitled anthology! Please make sure you share this one, if you like it.
I’m not sure exactly when it started, the dreams that I would get lost in. I do remember the first night, but I couldn’t tell you how old I was, exactly. There was a sensation like going down a slide, feet up and head down. Sleep rushed over me, not settling like a warm bird but flying over me, faster than I could understand it.
I rose from a pool of mercury, which clung to my limbs and stuck to my skin as I lifted myself. I was wearing something white and flowing, cool and slick on the skin. To my faint surprise, it was not wet where the sticky, shining metallic stuff had been covering it only moments before. It seemed to be a sort of cavern. The light was grey, dim, cool and distant.
This is how I began to chase the dreams around, following them through caverns. Each night I’d take a different path from the pool, rushing headlong through a stalactite archway and into another world. I saw wonders and I saw terrors. Rabbits with the legs of spiders bursting through their sides, pets that transformed from sweet distractions to slavering, clicking monsters after a single touch. Flowers that were made of tiny dancing ladies, capering in silk and the remains of butterflies. Buildings that shifted and walked like men, pausing to converse with each other as they walked through cities on the road. A city in the desert where they traded dreams instead of money.
Deep in the desert, there are cities where men sell dreams and memories. Sell is not the right word, perhaps. Memories are the currency. A shared but ordinary memory, told well, is the price of a healthy cow; a brief anecdote, ac chicken. For the knowledge and private things, skills are traded; items change hands, and market stalls empty.
Such memories have a fine face value, if told well, but if brief or ill-described, fetch small sums. There are women of fine repute whose descriptions beggared princes, and men whose fine plays set the nations at war and furnished their armies, as well.
Yet still more precious than the memories, say the sage’s duty scrolls, are the dreams. The scrolls dictate the way of life, and so it is. The dreams are coin of a different sort. Where a man might go an d work in a gold mine in exchange for a saucy tale, which he and his fellows could share in the city, dream currency is one that can be held, extracted. A memory flutters into the air and is used until it is shared, decreasing in value as it becomes more familiar. Dreams are a currency to be held.
A woman whose name was lost in time—only her sex remembered—was the first to hear the secret hum of the spheres and experiment with certain crystal alloy glasses. She taught her pupils, seeking the ones with moonstruck eyes and steady hands and ruthless souls, and they passed down their secret trade. To catch dreams and to make the equipment—the skills can be trained, but not taught. The precious clear headdresses and ornaments cupping the shaven skulls of every citizen collect only a few grains of dreams and each night, nearly microscopic granules.
Months or years would pass before the silvery grains had accumulated enough to be seen by the naked eye, and to be large enough to sell. The powdery grains had a look and flow like liquid silver, and in the finest, secret corners of the markets, a few merchant-priests controlled the rituals concerning its trade.
Under the light of the bright moon, which lingered high and long in that cold-nighted place, lenses of dragonscale and amber could be used to magnify the worlds and wonders hidden in the grains. Up close, each apparently silvery grain was an uneven crystal, almost a tridecahedron, but its natural facets had been made by no jewelry. In their depths, each one threw off its own light in a dozen colors. At a fine enough magnification, horrors and wonders, lascivious and foolish things flickered. Each moment, a shifting mass of concentrated lovely chaos would appear and dissipate.
Marvels they were, but even with its powers, a single grain was never bought alone. Those who came to buy and sell their dreams would inhale the powder for sweet and stranger sleep, sell it for fantastic stories or gold to the alchemists, or sprinkle dreams of certain kinds in the shoes of lovers and enemies. As the merchant-priests sorted dreams into approximate categories, alchemists and magicians waited outside or in lines, hoping for just enough of the dust to make their potions. Mixed with fenny seed and the breath of a phoenix, it granted invisibility; with the tears of a sea-turtle and five bright emeralds from a gryphon’s nest, finely powdered, it would cure any sickness, and—it was said—could bring back anyone even from the very brink of death. The necromancers used it with coals of the Pit for obscene things, to beguile demons for temporary service.
For a hundred hundred years, it was precious and respected as a thing to trade only in small quantities, delicately, with respect. A certain king came to power in the ten thousandth year of the cities’ existence. In centuries to follow, his name was struck from temples, archives, and monuments, and replaced only with a glyph for unspeakable cruelty. It was he that decided the cold-blooded and long-lived dream masters would be best at practicing their art if they had steady supplies of dream powder.
A suddenly revived tourist trade and many kidnappings followed. Ten thousand chained slaves, sleeping in the finest beds in the empire, were drugged to sleep, and dreamed en masse. With their priceless dust and an army of magic users, the king set out to grow their trade and conquer the neighboring cities outside the desert. Under the flame-eyed sun and cool moon, his armies marched, silent as the sand dunes and invisible, thanks to certain obscene preparations.
I awoke in their dungeons, once or twice on my travels, chained to silk cushions and with slaves fanning me with ostrich plumes. I struggled and cried out, and the most delicate extract of belladonna and mandrake steeped in wine trickled down my throat, until I slept again. Dreaming again, dreaming within dreams, I awoke in my own life.
So it was, nightly, for some days or weeks—perhaps centuries. I cannot tell. Once again I awoke as a soldier, panting and sweating in the desert, but moving soundless in formation behind the shields and shifts wrought by sorcerers. I remember our swords in the necks of citizens, dragging the children back with us to be trained in the somnatorium, for refined sleep, producing the most dreams. I remember every moment of their screaming, their delicate skin chafing in the cuffs, the blood they left behind them on the sand. I remember the point of my sword on their delicate birdlike throats. I remember inhaling just a little dream dust, just a grain or two, to quiet the screams in my head for the night. I remember the madness.
I remember awakening in the palace far away the next night, in the cool south. Watching the vast spire-domed city from the highest minaret, where my dark-skinned and lovely people worked hard to create beautiful things, I wondered at the approaching army. There was no chance of a diplomatic marriage, but it would have failed anyway. War or sabotage were the only solutions, to keep my people from lying in their silk and twitching in sleep, dream-slaves to the conqueror. No magic was worth it, but his power was only swelling.
Awakening again, no longer a fine dark princess with glorious curling hair and spider silk and gold on my limbs, I found myself a sorcerer, working with the dust, a few grains at a time. To mix the stuff into the mad king’s wine cup, swallowing it, a thing no-one was permitted to do—inhale a bit was powerful, a thousand times less, than to swallow even a grain…yet I slipped a little in my pocket before I mixed the rest for the king. When prepared, I brought it to the lady, whose body I had so recently borrowed. My silvery pools were far away, the dull daytime that night would pull me back from, as I watched her take the poison cup to the official envoy.
And oh, had I only been a servant, the lowliest, at the surrender dinner, to witness what came. I know only of what happened after from a dream night as a nomad, finding one of the fallen pillars lying in the sand. The story was in characters our people had nearly lost, and yet I pieced together hints of the narrative hints of the dust. A hidden scrap of parchment, stained with something brown like blood and burned by fire, gave further hints, but refused to yield the details of its secrets.
And so was the king’s downfall, through methods that were struck from history after, and their consequences. The terrible price was worthy, but oh, even the few historians who had written of the king spoke not of the consequences of the princess’ decision. Great and terrible things, waves of mercury and fire, armies of the dusty dead in their graves, horrors from beyond the stars coming to cut the world in two, were hinted at but not spoken of clearly. The world was fire and darkness, but it must have gone away, for people still survived. And yet, the shadow on the horizon hinted that things were still there, lingering in the desert…turning from the pillar, I pulled my long-trunked and strange-legged mount, and turned from history.
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the good kind of crazy. Find me on Twitter, Facebook, and on Tumblr, and make sure you grab my books at Amazon, here and here. Don't forget to check back for short stories, more politics, analysis, scraps of science, and even some reviews. (And no, I haven't forgotten those extra reviews I promised you...they're coming, really. Cross my heart.) There will even be more interviews. This is your darling SciFiMagpie, over and out!