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Searching for Slumber

GAMES, ILLUSIONS, PLEASURES OF ALL KINDS read the sign above the door. This had to be the place. Unlike most of the shabby streets leading here, both the sign and the door were immaculate, save for a small smudge on the handle that could have been blood. Difficult to tell in the half-light.

Luna tried the handle. It gave, cold under her touch. She’d almost expected it to be locked. Weak light shone through the opening and she stepped inside.

“Weapons?” A huge man blocked her view of the rest of the room, his head reminding her of a boulder. 

“Do I look like a palace guard to you?” she retorted, raising her hands so he could see. Her weak arms weren’t exactly soldier material. She watched him take in her bobbed pink hair, her tall, skinny frame. 

Everything was strangely quiet considering the sign outside. Only dings and murmurs, a faint ecstatic cry. 

The man only grunted, giving her a glare for good measure.

Even in Brithnem, pink hair stood out and would probably be remembered. Not the reason she’d dyed it—there was no reason except that she liked the way it looked—but now that could be a liability. News might get back to her parents that a pink-haired girl had visited Mag Bernan’s place.

She shook herself. How could it? Her parents never came to the Maze. And who cared if they knew? Luna was here to understand the science, not get hooked on the new trend.

Holding her chin high, she passed the enormous man into the antechamber beyond. At the end was another door, the real one. Once she took a few steps away, his body odor was replaced with scents of musk and sugar and something sharp she couldn’t name replaced it. The sickly-sweet rush made her nose wrinkle. 

The next space pierced her eyes with brightness. Lights everywhere, flames burning in lanterns and torch brackets. The chilly night didn’t reach this room, with its tables and two stories’ worth of doors—so many doors! Some of them had signs like the one outside: BEAUTIFUL DANCERS, SEE REAL MAGIC, FIGHTS (BETS IN COIN ONLY), RARE ANIMALS… None of the doors on the second floor had designations. After a scan of the room and its many scantily-clad inhabitants draping themselves across those with the fanciest clothes, it wasn’t hard to guess what those were for. A booth in the corner, run by a curvy woman with black hair and a feline smile, read MONEY CHANGER AND TICKET SELLER.

But it was the line of people that interested Luna. The queue snaked its way along the wall of the first floor, leading… seemingly nowhere. An alcove in the back. An unmarked door. 

Luna carefully picked her way toward the last person in line, avoiding eye contact. She wasn’t squeamish about this kind of establishment—okay, maybe a little—but she hated talking to people unless it was for a specific purpose. Too many of the men and women here had roving eyes. Luna wasn’t attractive, instead unique with her tall frame and features squished close together in her face, but there was the pink hair.

The last person in line was a pale-skinned boy close to her age, though she didn’t know him. He had a dark tattoo covering his neck, so she immediately warmed to him. 

“Slumber?” she asked under her breath. The stuff was illegal but rules didn’t seem to bother anybody here, so she didn’t know why she was being quiet.

The boy nodded, scratching absently at the tattoo. 

She eyed the line of patrons. Most of the rest were teenagers as well, though there were a few older folks too. Many of them hung their heads with obvious exhaustion. “How long do you think it’ll take?”

“They’re pretty quick,” said the boy, “and they can do two at a time. Sometimes three.”

Luna released a breath. That was good news. She didn’t have all night to wait.

“I’ve heard it costs a coin unless you want something really specific. Is that true?” she persisted, reaching in the pocket of her baggy trousers for the ten tokens there. Hopefully, they took small change.

The boy nodded again. 

“And what does it look like?”

“Look.” The boy held up a hand, resumed scratching the same spot on his neck. “You’ll see in a minute.”

Luna fought the urge to roll her eyes as she took up the place behind him in line. Noted. No more talking.

Before they’d moved forward at all, the smell of butter and honey hit her senses. “Cake while you wait?” A gorgeous girl only a couple years older than Luna waltzed into view, carrying a tray of little honey-soaked cakes. She used her free hand to play with her own black hair before lightly caressing Luna’s shoulder.

Luna shrugged her off, ignoring—trying to ignore—the tantalizing scent. Supper had been hours ago.

“Only two tokens.” The girl touched the t’s lightly. For some reason, it was obvious that her tongue was making the sound, and she wanted patrons to know.

“No,” Luna said stubbornly, maybe a little too loud.

The scratching boy had turned around and already held two tokens in his hand.

Luna sighed.

A different young man who clearly wanted more than cake, and a sad-looking couple standing together further ahead in line ordered some as well.

Without honey cake, Luna’s mouth wouldn’t stop watering, no matter how fiercely she yelled at it in her thoughts, so by the time she finally reached the unmarked door to the Slumber Room, she was thoroughly irritable.

“Requests?” asked the lanky, red-haired man at the door. 

Luna shook her head.

“One coin.”

She dropped the tokens in his palm. He counted them with annoyance that matched her own until he gripped them in his fist with a clink and opened the door. 

This room didn’t have the same sense of excess as the main chamber. Instead, the wooden walls were bare, even thin-looking. Mattresses and blankets lined the walls, mussed and full of sleepers. All except one. 

The prone forms looked almost dead. One man had his eyes half-open, another patron’s arm flailed out over the floor in the center, and still another had a wan smile on her face. Not dead, then. Dead people didn’t smile.

In two corners of the room, like silent guards, stood figures in black. Tanyu, down to the long black coats they wore. Luna’s heart jumped wildly, adrenaline fierce in her veins. Her fingers closed tight at her sides. She’d put off thinking how she’d react to being in a room with Tanyu, the legendary warriors who had split her life into before and after, but now that she was here, rage filled her so full that there was barely room for the fear trying to crowd in. 

A third person, not Tanyu, cleared his throat in a way that showed he’d tried to get her attention more than once. She whirled on him. With red lips and jet-black hair, the man looked like a bad painting. “What?” she demanded.

Then she saw he held a set of pincers holding something that looked like a cloudy glass marble. 

Right. Experiments.

The tiny ball was nearly white and gave a little where the end of the pincers gripped it. Just like outside, she didn’t see any place here to manufacture the stuff, so it had to be brought in from elsewhere, unless there was some sophisticated operation behind one of the unmarked doors. For safety’s sake, they probably made it elsewhere. That way, if there were a raid, then they wouldn’t lose all their precious stash at once.  

She unclenched one hand, wiped it on her trousers, and held it out for the Slumber. When it dropped in her palm, it didn’t feel unusually heavy or cold. 

“Simply chew it and lie down,” instructed the man, indicating the open mattress near the female Tanyu. 

Luna’s muscles seized. Why did she feel like she was about to be attacked, that this was a trap? 

She scrunched her face in a few ways to shake off the sensation. Deep breath. This was only to see the effects of Slumber, to understand how it worked. 

If she had to chew it, then what were the active ingredients? Was it only responsible for putting people to sleep, or did it help produce the vivid hallucinations? A string of logical questions numbed the part of her that called herself hideous names for being foolish enough to come here. 

With Slumber. 

And Tanyu.

Her chest heaved with nerves as she watched the little sphere roll in her palm. She blinked slowly, refocusing her mind. What great inventor ever hesitated because something was a little dangerous? 

Without another thought, she popped the Slumber into her mouth. It tasted faintly of licorice, maybe, dissolving before she could properly examine the taste and texture. 

Stiffly, she knelt on the mattress, grimacing at the thought of how many other people had lain there.

“No preference?” asked the woman in black standing beside it. She stood rod-straight, not even deigning to lower her head to ask the question.

Indignation boiled again in Luna’s stomach. “I’d prefer to have a clean mattress for this. It’s the least you could do for a coin,” she snapped. “If you sold out for the money, you’d think you’d want people coming back.”

The Tanyuin woman was unmoved. Or maybe she was just blurry. Blurring. Tilting sideways as something soft hit Luna’s head.

Luna kept leaning backward and backward into an impossible spin, like someone falling through thick cream. No, floating. But then she landed softly on her feet. Around her rose a field of yellow flowers, waving gently in the breeze. Faintly, she could smell their perfume. 

What was she supposed to do here? She knew she was supposed to do something, but the memory wouldn’t come. 

Forcing her limbs to move, she started walking. Sweet music tinged the air like honey on cake. Now that sounded familiar. Had she eaten honey cake recently?

She craned her neck upward to see the sky, terribly beautiful with deep purple and gold sunset clouds. When she looked down again, a little girl looked up at her with bottle-green eyes, her impish features close together in a round face. The breeze blew her white-blonde hair around wildly as she smiled. The girl looked familiar too.

“What do you want to see?” came the little voice, inviting Luna to play.

“My brother.” The words were out before she had a chance to think them through.

“Let’s invite him here,” the girl squeaked.

Luna’s breath stopped. He was here?

She spun slowly all the way around. Which way would he come?

“There,” said the girl.

A tall, skinny boy appeared, about eighteen, with dark hair and the black tattoo of a laird flower, symbol of the capital, covering one whole side of his face. He wore the shining silver guard uniform he was so proud of, the one with the light blue sash across the shoulders. 

“Viktor,” she croaked, eyes filling. For some reason, she felt angry. But she was proud too, and happy. She was everything, because he was here. 

Viktor picked his way steadily toward her through the flowers. His mouth kept moving, alternating between smiling and looking like he wanted to say something. Of course. Viktor never did shut up. 

He was moving too slowly. Squawking with impatience, Luna broke into a run until she collided with him. He wrapped his arms around her in a hug. 

“I’m so proud of you,” he said, but the voice and the words weren’t quite his. 

Something squirmed in Luna’s belly, but she held on.

“I miss you too,” he said after a pause.

Luna squeezed her eyes shut. This wasn’t right, but she wanted it so much that she didn’t care. 

“It’s stupid that you had to die,” she whispered, her face still smushed against his armor.

“I did it for all of you.” That voice again, the one that didn’t keep chatting on and on, that didn’t have her brother’s warmth or excitement or conviction.

A word surfaced painfully. Experiment. She swallowed on a cotton mouth. “Who are you, really?” The question stung, but she had to be sure. 

“Your brother. The one who loves you.”

The answer came almost mechanically.

Tears prickled at the corners of her eyes. Not Viktor. A longing so fierce she thought she’d be sick tore through her, then subsided. A year of practice made it easier.

“What else can you show me?” she made herself say, still staring at not-Viktor’s face even though she wasn’t addressing him now. 

From behind her, the little girl asked, “Does your brother want to come with us?”

“No,” she answered for him.

The earth fell away, leaving Viktor behind, a tiny speck on the ground as Luna flew through gilded clouds. Flying dulled the edges of her ache until she woke.

Blackness. She was lying on something scratchy soft. Her skin felt on fire.

Sleepily, she scratched at a few places but the itch only grew. Fighting to open her heavy lids, she tried to swallow. Her mouth smacked open and closed as she attempted to moisten her bone-dry tongue. There was a horrible taste in the back of her throat. Finally, her gummy eyes opened, but it was the middle of the night, wasn’t it?

Thoughts swirled in chaos until they alighted again. She had taken Slumber, seen Viktor…

The memory of Tanyu standing over her, paid to orchestrate everything with their mind powers, sent Luna fully awake. 

“How long…?” she mumbled, but her mouth barely moved in her exhaustion.

“Only a few minutes,” replied the Tanyuin woman, clipped, professional.

“Impressive how much can happen in that short a time,” said the man with the tongs, more showman-like than he’d been earlier. His black hair gleamed greasy in the low light. “If there weren’t so much demand, it could go even longer, but we make the most of the experience. Did you enjoy it?”

Luna sat up, the room spinning. “Did you wake me up?”

“Of course. There are people waiting. Everybody gets an antidote.” Now his tone veered toward impatience. 

But Luna couldn’t leave now. She hadn’t discovered anything about how Slumber really worked. One experience wasn’t enough to answer her questions, like what it was made of, how much control subjects had over their dreams, why it was so addictive, how the Tanyu could get inside people’s minds…

“Go again!” The sentence had sounded more eloquent in her mind but came out as a slurred order, her voice even huskier than usual.

The man smiled, indulgent and venomous. He was used to this. “Back of the line.”

“Wait, I’ve got…” She had nothing. No more money to pay. “It won’t take extra time,” she insisted. 

She scratched her pink hair hard as she scrambled for something, anything, she could give in exchange. Then her fingers found metal.

“Here!” she said, holding out three small gears of different sizes, a caliper, and a little container of miniature nails. She forgot she’d stuffed them in her other pocket before leaving. Not that it was a surprise to find them. 

The man looked at the odd collection in her hand. The sight of the caliper, which she’d saved up for when she was twelve, gave her heart a little twinge.

“I just want one to take home,” she said.

The man’s brow furrowed. “You won’t have the same experience without—”

“I know. Please.”

Once more, his eyes raked over the tools as if mentally calculating their worth. Nearly a coin, probably. 

With a huff, he held out the pincers with a new marble of Slumber on the end. “Don’t let it get too hot or it’ll melt. Take it now and we’ll ban you.”

Luna’s chest ached as she took the new prize. “I won’t.” She stood and left slowly, her legs leaden and skin crawling, but her mind alive to possibilities. She’d start tonight. The idea made her exhausted body recoil, but there was no way she could go home and simply put the little ball on a shelf until the morning.

Luna’s house was a twenty-minute walk back out through the Maze neighborhood and into Farmers Guard, a dangerous trek alone at night. The city had been on edge before the battle that killed Viktor, but now it felt more divided and fragile than before. Maybe that was why Mag Bernan’s establishment was so busy. People just wanted to escape.

When she reached her parents’ house, she carefully unlocked the wooden door and crept inside. They were unlikely to wake, but they’d also taken in a war orphan around her age and she wasn’t sure yet if he was a heavy sleeper. He stayed in Viktor’s room, across the hall from hers. 

She felt her way in darkness, walking on tiptoes even though she was afraid she’d fall over at any moment. Her balance was off, heavy and lopsided after the dream. Everything she touched seemed to activate new patches of irritated skin. Finally, she closed the bedroom door behind her and lit a candle. 

Drawing out the Slumber, she placed it carefully on the board she used as a workspace, stained and scored with the memory of many other experiments. The sphere looked so small. Her hands moved automatically, grabbing for the blade resting in a cracked wooden cup on the edge of the counter. If she shaved off a sliver, then she could heat it and see what happened, or test it in water to see if it floated, or hold it close to a lodestone. 

She hovered the knife above the white object, slowly bringing it down. The Slumber gave without breaking, just as she’d seen with the pincers. 

Her vision darkened and blurred. Shaking her head, she tried again. Just a little piece…

What if the Slumber wouldn’t work if some was missing? The idea made her recoil. It had to work. It had to put her to sleep and give her the chance to see Viktor again, expand her mind with new possibilities. 

This is how addiction starts.

She scraped the top of one finger with the dull side of the knife and pushed the thought away. She could shave off a piece of Slumber. She could cut the whole thing in half to figure it out, but the risk was too great. Maybe a smaller piece wouldn’t give her the answers she was looking for anyway. She needed just one more piece. That way, she could experiment on that piece and keep this one just in case.

This wasn’t addiction. Addiction was when someone took Slumber several times a week, like a couple of her friends did. It was when people couldn’t think of anything else. It was when they lost weight and their eyes grew glassy and they couldn’t focus on daily tasks. That was addiction.

But the thought of making this cloudy white marble of Slumber ineffective chilled her blood. No, please. She cleared her dry throat. She had gone to the Maze for answers, and she would get them. Tomorrow. When she went back. 

Her stomach dropped.

“It’s fine,” she whispered fiercely to herself, clattering the small blade back into the cup. “Great inventors take risks. You’ll figure it out.”

Meanwhile, she’d keep the Slumber hidden, ready in case she wanted escape in dreams.

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