It had been a long time since she had built her dreams in her mind and meditated in prayer before sleep. It was more and more difficult to kneel or sit, but she did it anyway, observing the hours she could and ending the day by easing her heart and mind in communion with the Lord.
She had always enjoyed telling stories as a child. Most came from her dreams or her imagination. After pappa had died, she had lost some of that inner spark. Her mind had gone cold and her creativity had gone to sleep for years. Even Lien had not been able to rekindle it.
But now, she found herself daydreaming, and those dreams manifested themselves at night until she felt as if she were living two lives: the real one of the every day and the one she invented to escape it.
She did not dream every night, of course. She suspected if she did, it would frighten her. It would have been too unusual, and that would have unsettled her greatly. But when her dreams were not of the world she invented, she could never truly remember them.
She wished she knew how to write. She often wondered if her dreams would cease if she could get her ideas down on paper. But literacy was never something that was important to her family growing up. Surviving took precedence over reading and writing, and she never truly felt the lack of it unless she was forced into speaking to a stranger in order to have a letter scribed.
She could not say when she built the world she streaked away to during dreams. She was almost certain it had been during her childhood, in the days after mamma’s death. She had been too young to comprehend the loss, too young to be able to withstand the crushing tide of grief that swamped her whenever she remembered that her beloved mamma would never be coming back. She and pappa were alone. There would be no more songs at night, no more secret walks, no more special bond. Mamma had left her, and she had turned to imagination to escape the gaping chasm that truth had left within her heart.
The world she created in her mind was known as Alaléna. It was a world unlike this, a world in which good and evil was clearly divided by a great blue ocean known as the Aemmalee Sea. The part of Alaléna that housed the essence of good was a world of continual daylight. As a child who had feared the dark once mamma was no longer there to gentle that terror, daylight and good had begun walking hand-in-hand. In her child’s mind, all that was evil walked in shadow. It was not realistic, but was a child’s fantasy ever so?
Across the sea from the Daylands were the Nightlands, the home of all that was evil and condemned. The lord of the Nightlands was the terrifying Severus Crutious, the Prince of Darkness itself.
She had first dreamed of him the day mamma had died. She had been five at the time, and when she had opened her eyes to her dreams, she had found herself standing in utter darkness. She had been frightened, and had called for her mamma, so certain that she would come. Mamma had never not come.
Save for this time.
Mamma had not come.
Lord Crutious had instead.
She remembered a low, rasping voice, as gentle as it could be, possessed of a chilling coldness she could, at the time, not explain. She knew now that she had heard such a voice in a neighbor once. It had made her feel cold; she had known just by listening that the man speaking to her pappa was not a good one. She supposed that voice had stayed with her, long after the man himself had left their area of the forest, and had re-surfaced in a time when her mind was most vulnerable to all the things that frightened her.
Crutious had spoken to her, and for a brief time, little her had been soothed by his voice in the darkness. She had clung to the gentleness above the coldness, had believed it meant good.
She had been naive, something that a five year old was expected to be, save in the Nightlands. The voice had not at all matched the man. When he had stepped into the circle of moonlight in which she stood, she had looked up to him, seeking comfort.
And she had been greeted with the sight of a decomposing corpse, skin gray and sagging, bones visible in some places, what flesh still clinging to his spare frame rotting black where it was not covered by sable velvet.
She remembered she had screamed and screamed and screamed while Crutious laughed, displaying jagged, rotting teeth and a black tongue that wriggled against oozing gums like something alive. She had worked herself into hysterics by the time pappa had raced into her room, waking her and gathering her into his arms to comfort her. She had sobbed and he had wept, and both had mourned for mamma.
Crutious seemed to be an integral part of her dreams now. When she returned to them, it was as if she had never been away. Her dream friends turned to her as they had always done, and she expected she had arranged it this way, to keep her from having to attempt explaining things that would mean nothing to the figments of her imagination who had been created with all the goodness of an innocent child. How could she have told her best dream friend that she had forgotten him. How could she explain loss to a figment that had been created never to know it? She told him only that her sleep had been long because she was growing in creative power. She knew he would understand that.
His name was James Callier, and he had grown too. She had last seen Jamie when she was fifteen, though her subconscious had, it seemed, adjusted him to match her in age. Perhaps even to surpass it.
He was far taller than her now; when she fell into step beside him, walking the white shore of the Daylands, she noticed her head did not even come close to reaching his shoulder. When he had turned to embrace her, murmuring, “It’s good ta see ye awake again, lassie,” her ear was level with his heart, and even that required her to rise onto her tiptoes.
His hair caught the sun like a mane of molten flame, and the blue of his eyes looked as if someone had taken some of the Aemmalee’s crystalline water, molded it into two gems and blessed her dream friend with them. She supposed she had. As a child, blue had always been her favorite color.
As they began walking once more, she peered up at his profile, anchored by a strong, square jaw, his features chiseled and his brow high and aristocratic, he looked every inch the prince she had made him to be. The royalty of her world was not that of her waking one. The social system was similar, but the people on top were far less condescending and cruel and far more apt to lend a helping hand. Intermingling and even marrying was encouraged, and money was not as important as the type of person you were.
Moving her gaze from Jamie, she looked down the beach where children played, building sand castles, burying one another and digging for seashells. Their shrieks of joy and laughter were carried to her on the breeze, making her smile with a freedom she did not allow herself while awake. Tilting her face into that breeze, she inhaled the scents of salty air, fish and seaweed, the latter two perfectly balanced below the former and never overwhelming unless one was walking the shore of the Nightlands, where every unpleasant thing was magnified a hundredfold.
That was the horror of the Nightlands. It could take anything that in moderation was good and turn it into something revolting. She did not journey there on purpose, but sometimes Crutious drew her to him in nightmares, and then she had no choice. The Nightlands was a rotted place, a land where everything died a little from the inside out each day. It was desolate, disgusting and made her feel dirty just knowing it was part of her mind. It was like a spot of mold that kept growing and growing as she got older and had seen or experienced more and more unpleasantness. She knew every good thing needed an opposite to balance it. She just wish her childish mind had not created the Nightlands to be so… well… nightlandish.
Shaking those thoughts away, she returned her attention to the here and now. Jamie was watching her, his head cocked to the side as if she was a puzzle he was trying to figure out.
“Wha’ y’ lookin’ at?” she asked, glancing down at herself. “I got somethin’ on me?”
Jamie laughed, shaking his head. “It’s just good ta have ye back, lassie.”
“Y’ said tha’ ‘lready,” she returned, but she was smiling. “Anythin’ new ‘appen while I was ‘sleep?”
“Well, Larken had a bairn.”
Larken Campbell was the sister of her heart, her best female friend in her dream world, and this news made her feel terrible, as if she had betrayed the friend of her imagination who had always been there when she needed her.
“I missed tha’,” she murmured. “I didn’ mean t’ sleep fer so long. Msorry, Jamie.”
“She was no’ angry, lassie,” Jamie said gently. “Ye come and ye go. Yer our creator. Ye got yer own life ta live. We ken this. We miss ye when yer gone, aye, but we’re no’ goin’ ta blame ye fer what ye canna control.”
When she was a child, the inhabitants of the Daylands had felt naught save happiness. She had been so convinced that it was the only way to live. As she grew, however, she found herself opening them to more and more emotions in order to make them grow as people. There was a time and place for happiness, but without anything else to balance it, it was meaningless, and it did not take her long to realize this.
The only thing she had withheld from them was loss. She could not do that to them. It did mean that they could never really comprehend her fear for Lien, she knew. In their minds, if someone went away, they almost always came back if you just waited long enough. Death had no place in their worlds, and thus it would hold no place in their fears. But anger did, and her friends’ lack of it was a testament to their good and understanding hearts, not due to an inability to feel the emotion itself.
“Thanks, Jamie,” she murmured now, stopping and turning to face him. He walked a pace more before realizing she had stopped and backtracked to join her, standing before her and gazing down on her with those Aemmaleen blue eyes.
“Course, Ari,” he said softly.
“I won’ be gone fer so long no more,” she said. “I jus’ needed t’ deal wi’ some stuff in mown world. But tha’s done now an’… so I’ll be ‘ere more.”
She could not say why she felt the need to explain herself, but she did. She had loved this world as a child. How could she have forgotten about it, abandoned it, lost so much belief in good that she had turned away from the very sanctuary she herself had built?
“I’m glad ta hear it,” Jamie said before he glanced at something over her head.
Turning, Aria grinned as she spied Larken racing toward her, long skirts and petticoats hiked indecently above her ankles with not a care in the world for the somewhat scandalized looks she was getting. Her loose hair streamed out behind her like a golden-brown banner and even from this distance, Aria could see the sparkle in her emerald green eyes.
Larken was only a few inches taller and a score or so pounds heavier than Aria herself, but she may as well have been three feet taller and 300 pounds heavier for the force with which she slammed into her friend. Jamie, being the gentleman he was, stepped out of the way and allowed both girls to topple to the sand in a hugging, laughing heap.
“You’re back! You’re back! I can’t believe you’re back! I’ve missed you so much and I have so much to tell you. Like, did Jamie already tell you that I have a baby now? The most adorable little girl to ever grace the Daylands, of course. I mean, at least since I was born.”
Jamie scoffed and Aria laughed as her friend prattled on and on about events Aria could not hope to follow at the speed with which Larken was telling them. They were both still tangled on the sand, heads resting side-by-side, sand in their hair and grinning like two damn fools.
After a time, Jamie joined them and began attempting to braid their hair together. Squealing, they turned on him, tackling him into the sand and beginning to bury him. That attempt turned into a full-out sand-throwing fight that, by the time twenty minutes had passed, had grown from just the three of them to half the teenage inhabitants of the Daylands. Aria could never remember laughing with such abandon anywhere but within her dreams, where a smile was not an invitation for someone to come and take it away, where a laugh was not a summons for something cruel and unnecessary to befall her.
When she dreamed, almost everything made sense. And those things that did not always, eventually, had an answer.
As they walked up the dirt road that led from the beach toward the palace, Larken explained how she and her husband had come to be together.
“We met on Albatross,” she began, referring to the largest island in the Dayland’s southern archipelago. “I’d gone there after father chose to sail to Resthaven.”
Resthaven was the closest anyone in the Daylands came to death. It was an island that, once sailed to, one could never depart. Those who were old, infirm or who felt as though they had given all they could to the Daylands left for Resthaven and did not return.
Lavish parties were held for those who chose to sail. It was a great honor and the Daylanders believed it was a sign of favor from the Divinities that one should recognize it as their time to depart. The whole of the Dayland population lined the coasts to watch the Resthaven ship sail away. They waved, they cheered, they laughed, they cried. It was loss, but not loss, for nobody went unexpectedly, and it was a well-known fact that there was no place more beautiful and good than Resthaven. In comparison, the Daylands may as well have been the Nightlands.
“When did ‘e sail?” Aria asked quietly.
“About three years ago,” Larken replied.
Shortly after pappa had died, then.
“I’m sorry I wasn’ there,” she said.
“It’s all right,” Larken replied warmly. “He had a beautiful send off. I don’t think I ever saw him smile so big.” She smiled herself. “He’s in bliss now, and he deserved it. I miss him, but when it’s my turn to sail, I know he’ll be there waiting for me.”
“No one’s sailin’ anytime soon though,” Jamie instructed. “Royal decree.”
Aria and Larken laughed, each linking an arm through one of the Dayland prince’s, who grinned.
“Anyway,” Larken said. “I was really missing father at the time since, you know, it had only been us two for so long.”
“So I paid for this lassie to go cheer herself up in one of the archipelagos,” Jamie cut in. “And what does she return with? A bloody fiance.”
“How long were y’ gone fer?” Aria asked.
“Two years,” Jamie responded. “I had ta move out there for a while in order ta–”
“Annoy us both thoroughly,” Larken finished.
“Well, aye, that too,” he allowed.
Aria was giggling as she bumped Jamie with her hip. “Let ‘er finish ‘er own tale!”
“Indeed,” Larken said, tossing her hair. “Shut up.”
Jamie and Aria burst out laughing but Jamie did subside into silence as Larken continued her story.
They had met at a meat seller’s stall, when both had attempted to purchase the last seared steak quadkabob available.
They had begun bickering over it until the seller had an idea to ask them a riddle, perhaps to prevent bloodshed right in front of his stall; Larken was rather territorial when it came to Albatross quadkabobs.
Aria wasn’t even certain where the idea for quadkabobs had come from. In her dreams, a quadkabob is much like a normal kabob, only instead of being threaded onto just one stick, the meat and vegetables are threaded onto a frame of four vertical sticks and three horizontal ones before being seared or grilled to utter perfection.
“So we agreed,” Larken said. “And he begins. What crawls on four legs in the morning, and immediately we were both, man! The poor man just sort of shrugged. I think he’d just given up on us and figured he’d let us sort it out.”
“Did ya?” Aria asked as they navigated around an old woman pushing a shopping cart, smiling at her as they passed.
“Of course,” Larken said.
Aria shook her head, grinning to herself. Larken could pull off the most soulful, kicked puppy look she had ever seen, even on kicked puppies! If she had turned the full force of those eyes on her husband, the man would not have stood a chance.
As it turned out, the quadkabob encounter had a happy ending after all. Feeling guilty for so shamelessly cheating the poor man out of a good lunch, Larken had snapped her quad frame in half and offered him one. He had taken it, they had walked together through the market and, according to Larken, “The rest was history.”
Aria had to admit to herself that Larken Campbell, well, Larken Cross now, she corrected herself, really knew how to pick them. Her husband was a dark-haired, dark-eyed, bronze-skinned Divinity, with broad shoulders, hard-packed muscle and a straight-toothed smile. He was like a darker version of Jamie, though Aria secretly admitted to herself that she rather preferred her flame-haired friend with the spray of freckles across his nose and his crooked smile.
“I’ve heard quite a lot about you,” the man, Alestor, said, bowing over Aria’s hand and brushing his lips against her knuckles as if she might break were he to press them more firmly to her skin. “Thank you for giving us this world to live in.”
Aria smiled awkwardly before nodding her head and retreating to stand beside Jamie. Even in her dreams, meeting new people was odd, because she was not aware of creating them all. She suspected she subconsciously created people based upon glimpses of faces she saw while walking the streets of the waking world. But it was always a bit unsettling to meet a figment of her imagination that she could never remember creating.
She also felt odd when they thanked her for being their creator. To her, she was more to them than the Divinities she had created to watch over them. And yet, to Jamie and Larken, she was just Ari. She was pleased that those who were used to seeing her walking the Daylands thought precious little of it, even if they did show her signs of respect she could have done without, but new people always made a big fuss over her creator status.
As Alestor turned to Larken, Jamie slipped his arm around her shoulders.
“Still bothers ye,” he mused.
“I should ‘av’ created ye all ne’r knowin’ I created ye.”
“We’d figure it out,” he replied. “It’s no’ just our instinctively knowing. There is somethin’ ye carry that resonates with us when ye are near. Every being kens its Lord or Lady or Divinity, and ye are the highest of them all ta us. In time, he’ll get past it, just as we all have.”
The baby was indeed beautiful, with her father’s dark hair and skin and Larken’s piercing, laughing eyes and delicate facial features. She was dressed in infant small clothes and swaddled in a seashell-pattered blanket.
“Wait,” Aria said as she examined the edges of the blanket very closely. “Are those quadkabobs?”
“Wait, what?” Jamie asked, hurrying over to look. “Are ye serious, Larken?” was his question only a beat later, after Aria indicated the line of embroidery she was examining. “Ye actually sewed quadkabobs inta yer bairn’s blanket?”
“It was an integral part of our beginning!” Larken defended herself while Aria giggled.
“The poor lass is gonna be starvin’ every night,” Jamie lamented, causing Larken to huff and Aria to laugh louder.
“Does ‘er cradle look like one too?” she asked her friend.
Larken shot Aria a glare, but the corners of her lips were betraying the amusement she was doggedly holding back.
“She’s beautiful,” Aria told her friend, smiling gently at her. “Wha’s ‘er name?”
“Savannah,” Larken replied, beaming down at the baby in her arms. “Savannah Rose Cross.”
Yet another person she had no memory of creating.
“Do y’ like ‘I’m?” Aria asked as she skipped rocks with Jamie on the castle’s main dock.
“Who, Alestor?” Jamie asked. “Aye, he’s no’ such a bad sort. A bit dotin’ and overprotective, but I suppose I’d be a wee bit the same if I were married.”
“It does tend to come wi’ th’ title,” Aria agreed.
Jamie shrugged, skipping a stone a full five or so feet further than she had.
“I would no’ ken.”
They sat in companionable silence for a time, their bare feet swishing back and forth in the sun-warmed waters of the Aemmalee. The sky was darkening toward what passed for night in the Daylands. It was not truly night at all, but more a deep blue twilight in which the moons and stars could shine like precious gems against rich velvet.
She gazed out across the bay, her eyes tracking the glide of a masted ship in the distance as it made its way toward the harbor for the evening. As she watched it approach, Aria asked the question she had been dreading the answer to.
“So… Crutious. ‘Ow much troubl’ ‘as ‘e caused durin’ msleep?”
Even without looking at him, Aria knew Jamie was scowling. Perhaps that odd sense went both ways, because she could almost feel an echo of his anger as if it were her own.
“Quite a bit, ta be honest, Ari,” Jamie said. “He marched on the Daylands wi’ an army of his minions after ye’d been asleep fer six months or so. Guess he thought that with ye no’ around, the Daylands were ripe fer a takeover.”
“Wha’ ‘apened?” Aria asked, rubbing her temples with two fingers. “Did ‘e ‘urt anyone?”
Jamie was silent for so long, Aria found herself glancing over at him. He was staring out over the water with a furrowed brow, his fingers loose about his handful of stones.
“Oh, aye?” Jamie said, looking at her. “Aye, he hurt people, Ari. He hurt some so badly the Divinities sent the Resthaven ship to come and take them away. Many were no’ ready to go.”
Aria heard the shock in her own voice, but it was not quite as shocked as she felt. The Resthaven ship was never supposed to come in times of war! People were not supposed to be able to sail to Resthaven against their will!
“How is tha’ poss’ble?”
“I had hoped ye could tell us,” Jamie said, shaking his head. “Ye dinnae ken? Ye dinnae give permission fer that ta be done in times of need?”
“Nay,” she said emphatically. “No one’s spposed t’ go t’ Resthaven if’n they ain’t ready.”
Jamie frowned, casting his gaze toward the pier-bound ship. The silence between them was heavy with worry and confusion. Aria knew Jamie must be feeling even more unsettled than she herself was, for if the creator had not changed the rules of how their world worked, then who had?
Before she could say anything further, she felt a gentle tug at the back of her mind. It was the warning she had known ever since childhood, telling her that wakefulness was on its way.
“We’ll figure this out,” she told Jamie as she pushed herself to her feet. “But I’ve gotta go fer now.”
Jamie rose and slipped his arm around her. They returned to the castle in silence and parted with an embrace at the door of her bedroom. Entering the simply-furnished chamber, she crossed toward the large bed at its center, sinking down onto it as her eyes began to close.
She lost a bit of time then, as she always did, her mind traveling from dreams to waking in a way she could not consciously follow. When she opened her eyes to her tent once more, she blinked blearily and frowned up at the leather roof. She could hear the sounds of the camp waking around her, could hear Arrow pawing at the dirt behind the tent.
And in her mind, she could still hear the voice from her dream.
“Many were no’ ready to go.”
Then why had they gone?