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Strange the dreamer, p.11
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.11

           Laini Taylor
 

  Eril-Fane had been duly impressed, and had agreed to Ebliz Tod’s every demand in order to woo him to Weep. A formal contract was prepared by Lazlo, in his official capacity, and signed, and the Unseen party was set to continue its journey when Lazlo mentioned a bit of gossip he’d heard:

  That a girl had climbed the Cloudspire.

  “Without ropes,” he’d relayed to Eril-Fane. Only her hands and bare feet, wedged in the single cleft that ran spiral from the base of the tower to its tip.

  “And did she reach the top?” Eril-Fane had wanted to know, squinting up at the tower to gauge the feasibility of such a feat.

  “They say so. Apparently they’ve put her in jail for it.”

  “Jail? For climbing a tower?”

  “For raiding a tomb,” Lazlo corrected.

  Never mind that the man for whom it had been built was still living, the Cloudspire was a royal tomb, and all manner of luxuries had already been laid in for the king’s postmortal comfort. Besides the oculus at the top (for the “respiration of souls”), there was only one way in. It was never left unguarded, but when a treasurer entered the tomb with his arms full of itzal (jars containing the souls of animals, the practice of slave itzal and wife itzal having been—happily—abolished), he found a girl sitting cross-legged on the jeweled sarcophagus, juggling emeralds.

  She confirmed that she had scaled the spire and entered through the oculus, but claimed she hadn’t come to steal. She was only practicing her juggling, she said. Wouldn’t anyone do the same? When Eril-Fane went to the jail—and found a bruised, bald waif in rusty manacles, half starved and defending herself with a nail—he asked her why she’d done it, and she replied with pride, “Because I could.”

  And Lazlo supposed that must also be the reason he had brought her along with them: because she could climb a six-hundred-foot tower with only her small hands and bare feet. He didn’t know why this skill might be of value. It was a piece of the puzzle.

  —Ebliz Tod: a man who could build a tower.

  —Calixte Dagaz: a girl who could climb one.

  —Thyon Nero: the alchemist who had distilled azoth.

  —Jonwit Belabra: mathematician.

  —Phathmus Mouzaive: natural philosopher; liked to declare that his field was no less than “the physical laws of the universe,” but whose focus, in reality, was somewhat narrower: magnetic fields.

  —Kae Ilfurth: engineer

  —The Fellerings: metallurgists; twin brothers.

  —Fortune Kether: an artist—renowned publicly for his frescoes and privately for the catapults and siege engines he designed for skirmishing kings.

  —Drave: just Drave, a so-called explosionist, whose job was setting blast charges in mines, and whose credits included blowing the sides off of mountains.

  —Soulzeren and Ozwin Eoh, a married couple: she a mechanist, he a farmer-botanist, who together had invented a craft they called a silk sleigh. A craft that could fly.

  These were the Godslayer’s delegates. Being told nothing more of the problem in Weep than that it was “the shadow of a dark time,” the only real clue they had to go on in their theorizing was… themselves. The answer, they reasoned, must be found in some configuration of their areas of expertise. Working backward, what sort of problem might such skills solve?

  As Calixte had bemoaned, most of the theories were martial ones, involving conquest, weapons, and defense. Lazlo could see why—siege engines, explosives, and metal did suggest such a direction—but he didn’t think it would be anything like that. Eril-Fane had said the problem posed no danger to them, and he could ill imagine that the Tizerkane general would leave his city for so long if it were under threat. But something, he had said, still haunted them. He had used that word. Haunt. Lazlo alone had considered that he might mean it literally. Suppose there were ghosts. Godslayer. The ghosts of dead gods? He wouldn’t be putting that into Calixte’s book. For one thing, these were hardly the people you would summon to address such a dilemma, and, for another, how they would laugh at him if he did.

  Was that why he hadn’t given a theory, because he was afraid of being laughed at? No. He thought it was because he wanted Calixte to be right: for the truth to be stranger than anything they could imagine. He didn’t want to guess the answer, not even for five hundred silver. He wanted to climb to the top of the Cusp tomorrow and open his eyes and see.

  “The moment you see the city,” Eril-Fane had promised them, “you will understand what this is about.”

  The moment you see the city.

  The moment.

  Whatever the problem was, it would be clear at a glance. That was another piece of the puzzle, but Lazlo didn’t want to ponder it. “I don’t want to guess,” he told Calixte. “I want to be surprised.”

  “So be surprised!” she said, exasperated. “You don’t have to guess right, you only have to guess interesting.”

  They were back in camp now. The low-slung woolen tents had gone up, and the Tizerkane had penned the spectrals in a larger pavilion of the same boiled wool. The camels, with their shaggy coats, passed their nights under the cold of the stars. The drovers had unloaded them, stacking their bales into a windbreak, though thus far the evening was still. The plume of smoke from the fire rose straight up, like the charmed ropes in the marketplace in Alkonost that had hung suspended in thin air whilst small boys clambered up and down them.

  The faranji were still waiting for their dinner. There were carrion birds in the sky, circling and cawing ugly cries that Lazlo imagined translated as Die so we can eat you.

  Eril-Fane released a message falcon and it rose through the ranks of them, screaming a raptor’s warning before striking out for the Cusp. Lazlo watched it go, and this, more than anything, drove home to him the nearness of their destination.

  The unbelievable imminence of his impossible dream.

  “All right,” he told Calixte. “You win.”

  She put back her head and ululated, and everyone in camp turned to look.

  “Hush, banshee,” he said, laughing. “I’ll give you one theory, as wild and improbable as I can make it.”

  “And beautiful and full of monsters,” she reminded him.

  “And beautiful and full of monsters,” he agreed, and he knew then what he would tell her.

  It was the oldest story in the world.

  15

  THE OLDEST STORY IN THE WORLD

  The seraphim were the world’s earliest myth. Lazlo had read every book of lore in the Great Library, and every scroll, and every song and saga that had made its way from voice to voice over centuries of oral tradition to finally be captured on paper, and this was the oldest. It went back several millennia—perhaps as many as seven—and was found in nearly every culture—including the Unseen City, where the beings had been worshipped. They might be called enkyel or anjelin or angels, s’rith or serifain or seraphim, but the core story remained constant, and it was this:

  They were beings of surpassing beauty with wings of smokeless fire—six of them, three male, three female—and long, long ago, before time had a name, they came down from the skies.

  They came to look and see what manner of world it was, and they found rich soil and sweet seas and plants that dreamed they were birds and drifted up to the clouds on leaves like wings. They also found the ijji, a huge and hideous race that kept humans as slaves, pets, or food, depending on the version of the tale. The seraphim took pity on the humans, and for them they slew the ijji, every one, and they piled the dead at the edge of the great dust sea and burned them on a pyre the size of a moon.

  And that, the story went, is how man claimed ascendency over the world that was Zeru, while the demons were stricken from it by the angels. Once upon a long-lost time, people had believed it, and had believed, too, that the seraphim would return one day and sit in judgment over them. There had been temples and priestesses and fire rites and sacrifice, but that was a long time ago. No one believed in the old myths anymore.

  “
Get out your pencil,” Lazlo told Calixte, emerging from his tent. He had taken the time, first, to groom his spectral, Lixxa, and then himself. His last sand bath. He wouldn’t miss it. “Are you ready for this? It’s going to be good. Extremely improbable.”

  “Let’s have it, then.”

  “All right.” He cleared his throat. Calixte waggled her pencil, impatient. “The problem,” he said, as though it were perfectly reasonable, “is that the seraphim have returned.”

  She looked delighted. She bent her head and started scribbling.

  From the direction of the faranji, Lazlo heard a laugh. “Seraphim,” someone scoffed. “Absurd.”

  He ignored them. “Of course you know the seraphim,” he told Calixte. “They came down from the skies, but do you know where they came to? They came here.” He gestured around him. “The great dust sea, it’s called in the tales. What else but the Elmuthaleth? And the funeral pyre the size of a moon?” He pointed to the single feature in the great flat land.

  “The Cusp?” Calixte asked.

  “Look at it. It’s not crystal, it’s not marble, and it’s definitely not ice.”

  The sun had melted to a stripe of copper and the sky was deepening blue. The Cusp looked more otherworldly even than by daylight, aglow as though lit from within. “Then what is it?” Calixte asked.

  “The fused bones of slaughtered demons,” said Lazlo, just as Brother Cyrus had once told him. “Thousands of them. The holy fire burned away their flesh, and whatever their bones were made of, it melted into glass. You can still see their skulls, all full of teeth, and make out their curved spines and long skeletal feet. Carrion birds nest in their great eye sockets. Nothing can survive there but eaters of the dead.”

  Calixte had stopped writing. Her eyes were wide. “Really?” she asked, breathless.

  Lazlo broke into a smile. Extremely improbably, he was about to remind her, but someone else answered first.

  “Of course not really,” said the voice, with a drawl of exaggerated patience. It was Ebliz Tod, the builder. He had not appreciated sharing the Godslayer’s invitation with the girl who’d “scuttled up the Cloudspire like a bug,” and had been heard to voice such complaints as, “it demeans those of us of true accomplishment to count a thief in our number.” Now he said to her, with utmost condescension, “Dear girl, your credulity is as vast as this desert. One might get lost in it and never again encounter fact or reason.”

  A couple of the others laughed with him, marveling that anyone could believe such nonsense. Thyon Nero was leaning back against the windbreak, gilded by both sunset and firelight. “Strange believes it, too,” he told Drave, the explosionist, who sat by his side, faring poorly by proximity. The golden godson managed to look dashing even in the midst of a desert crossing. The sun had treated his skin to a happy golden hue, and bleached the tips of his hair to a pale gleam. The lean travel rations had only accentuated the exquisite modeling of his features, and his short beard—kept trimmed, unlike everyone else’s—lent him maturity and consequence without sacrificing any of his youthful splendor.

  Drave, by contrast, was wiry and weather-beaten beyond his years, which were somewhere near thirty. Hailing from Maialen, where sun was scant, he was very fair, and had suffered in the Elmuthaleth more than anyone, burning and peeling, burning and peeling, his face a patchwork of pink and red with brownish curls of dead skin sloughing away.

  The two made an unlikely pair: the alchemist and the explosionist. They had fallen into step back in Alkonost, and taken to riding and eating meals together. In anyone else, it would have looked like friendship, but Lazlo couldn’t see it as anything so benign. Thyon Nero hadn’t had “friends” in Zosma so much as admirers, and Drave seemed willing to fill that role, even fetching him his breakfast, and shaking the sand out of his boots for him, and all without the reward of gratitude. Lazlo wondered if his own long ago “thank you” was the only one Nero had ever spoken. He didn’t pity Drave, though. It was clear to him that the explosionist wasn’t after friendship, but the secret of gold.

  Good luck with that, he thought, wry.

  “He believes in everything, even ghosts,” Thyon added, drawing a willing snigger from Drave before turning his eyes on Lazlo. “Don’t you, Strange?”

  It reminded Lazlo of that awful day at the Enquiries desk when he’d requisitioned Lazlo’s books: the sudden cut of his eyes singling Lazlo out. The barbed question, intended to discomfit. And he felt a shade of his old fear, too. This whole journey, Nero had hardly spoken to him except to make little sharp jibes, but Lazlo felt the burn of his gaze sometimes, and wondered if the alchemist still counted him a cost—the only person alive who knew his secret.

  As to Thyon’s question, his reply was noncommittal. “I admit, I prefer an open mind to a closed one,” he said.

  “You call it an open mind to believe men flew down from the skies on fiery wings?”

  “And women,” said Lazlo. “It’s a woeful species that’s all male.”

  “More like a nonexistent species,” remarked Calixte. “Men lacking both wombs and good sense.”

  A disturbing thought occurred to Lazlo. He turned to Ruza, shifting into Unseen to ask him, “Are there male and female threaves? Dear god, tell me those things don’t mate.”

  “Baby threaves must come from somewhere,” said Ruza.

  “But how would they even find each other?” Lazlo wondered. “Let alone…?” He let the rest pass unsaid.

  “I don’t know, but I bet when they do, they make the most of it.” The young warrior waggled his eyebrows.

  Lazlo grimaced. Ruza shrugged. “What? For all we know, threave love stories are the most beautiful of all time—”

  Calixte snorted. She, too, had troubled herself to learn the language, with Tzara her principle teacher, as Ruza was Lazlo’s. The two women were sitting together now, and Calixte whispered something to Tzara that made the warrior bite her lip and flush.

  “Pardon me,” cut in Thyon, with the pinched look of someone who believes he’s being mocked. And since he hadn’t bothered to learn Unseen, he could almost be forgiven for thinking so. He restated his question. “You believe men and women flew down from the skies on fiery wings?”

  Lazlo had never said he believed in the seraphim. Even in his books he’d made no such claim. He had nothing like proof, or even faith. It simply interested him—greatly—how all the cultures of Zeru were underpinned by the same story. At the very least, it spoke to the migration patterns of ancient people. At the very most, it spoke to a good deal more. But all that was neither here nor there. He wasn’t trying to win the theory purse, after all. He was only satisfying Calixte. “I see no harm in entertaining all ideas,” he said. “For example, could you have arrived at azoth if you’d arbitrarily closed your mind to certain chemical compounds?”

  Thyon’s jaw clenched. When he spoke again a tightness had replaced the mockery in his tone. “Alchemy is a science. There is no comparison.”

  “Well, I’m no alchemist,” Lazlo said, affable. “You know me, Strange the dreamer, head in the clouds.” He paused and added with a grin, “Miracles for breakfast.”

  Thyon’s face went stony at the mention of the book. Was Lazlo threatening him? Absolutely not. He would never break his triple promise, and he heard his own taunts with a sense of unreality. He wasn’t a junior librarian at the golden godson’s mercy anymore, and whatever awe he had felt for him was gone. Still, it was stupid to goad him. He turned back to Calixte. “Now, where was I?”

  She referred to her notebook. “The fused bones of slaughtered demons,” she supplied.

  “Right. So it was here the seraphim came down—or more like there, in the city.” He gestured toward the Cusp and beyond. “And there they slew the unwholesome ijji, leaving the young and attractive race of man and woman free of foes, and went away again. Millennia passed. Humans thrived. And then one day, as prophesied… the seraphim returned.”

  He waited for Calixte’s pencil to catch u
p. “Okay,” she said. “You’ve got the monsters part, and I suppose I’ll grant you beauty. For your lovely face, if not for the seraphim,” she added in a tease. Lazlo didn’t even blush. If Calixte did find his face lovely—which he found distinctly implausible, considering its centerpiece—there was nothing like attraction or desire behind it. No, he had seen the way she looked at Tzara, and the way Tzara looked at her, and that made for a fairly thorough education on the subject of desire. “But what,” Calixte asked him, “is the problem?”

  “I’m getting to it,” said Lazlo, though in truth he hadn’t quite figured out that part of his wild and improbable theory. He looked around. He saw that it wasn’t only the faranji paying attention, but the Unseen as well: the Tizerkane, the camel drovers, and old Oyonnax, the shaman. They couldn’t understand Common Tongue, but his voice naturally caught their ear. They were accustomed to listening to him tell stories, though that usually happened after dinner, when the sky was dark and he could only see their faces by the flickering light of the fire. He did a quick translation for their benefit. Eril-Fane was listening with wry amusement, and Azareen, too, who was perhaps more to him than his second-in-command, though Lazlo couldn’t work out the nature of their relationship. The closeness between them was palpable but also somehow… painful. They didn’t share a tent, as several pairs of warriors did, and though they showed no physical affection, it was clear to anyone with eyes that Azareen loved Eril-Fane. Eril-Fane’s feelings were harder to interpret. For all his warmth, there was something guarded about him.

  The two shared a history, but what kind?

  In any case, this wasn’t Lazlo’s current puzzle. The problem, he thought, casting about. Seraphim and ijji.

 
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