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Strange the dreamer, p.16
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.16

           Laini Taylor
 

  “Tell them yourself,” he spat.

  And it wasn’t him she was toying with now by dragging out the suspense of it, but the rest of them. Minya paused to study the quell board, taking her time to move one of her game pieces, and Sarai could tell from Feral’s expression that it was a devastating move. Minya collected her captured piece with a look of smug satisfaction. A scream was building in Sarai’s mind, and, with it, an awful presentiment that the pall of doom of the past day had been leading to this moment.

  What news?

  “It’s lucky for us you happened to die,” Minya said, redirecting herself at the ghost. “Else we might have been taken entirely by surprise.”

  “It doesn’t matter whether you’re surprised,” snarled the dead man. “He killed you once, he’ll do it again.”

  A jolt went through Sarai. Sparrow gasped. Feral sat bolt upright. “Minya,” he said. “What is he talking about?”

  “Tell them,” commanded Minya. Her voice was still bright, but not like a bell now. Like a knife. She rose to her feet, which were bare and dirty, and stepped from her chair onto the table. She prowled the length of it, until she was standing right in front of him. They were nearly eye-to-eye: he, an imposing grown man; she, a slight and messy child. No more suspense, and no more delusion of freedom. Her will clamped onto him and his words reeled out as though she’d reached down his throat and ripped them from him.

  “The Godslayer is coming!” he cried out, gasping. That much Minya made him tell, but the rest he spoke freely. Savagely. “And he’s going to tear your world apart.”

  Minya looked over her shoulder. Sarai saw Skathis in her eyes, as though the god of beasts were somehow alive in his small daughter. It was a chilling look: cold and accusing, full of blame and triumph. “Well, Sarai?” she asked. “What do you have to say about that? Your papa’s come back home.”

  21

  THE PROBLEM IN WEEP

  “What is that?” Lazlo asked. He felt himself perfectly poised at the midpoint between wonder and dread, and didn’t know which to feel. Dread, it had to be, because he’d glimpsed dread on Eril-Fane’s face, but how could he not feel wonder at such a sight?

  “That,” said Eril-Fane, “is the citadel of the Mesarthim.”

  “Mesarthim?” said Lazlo, at the same moment that Thyon Nero asked, “Citadel?” Their voices clashed, and their glances, too.

  “Citadel, palace, prison,” said Eril-Fane. His voice was rough, and dropped almost to nothing on the last word.

  “That’s a building?” Ebliz Tod demanded, brash and incredulous. His Cloudspire, it would seem, was not the tallest structure in the world.

  The height of the thing was but one element of its magnificence, and not even the foremost. It was tall, certainly. Even at a distance of miles, it was clearly massive, but how to properly gauge its height, in light of the fact that… it didn’t stand upon the ground?

  The thing was floating. It was fixed in space, absolutely motionless, high above the city with no possible means of suspension—unless, indeed, there were some scaffolding in the heavens. It was composed of dazzling blue metal with an almost mirror shine to it, as smooth as water, and nowhere rectilinear or planar, but all flowing contours, as supple as skin. It didn’t look like a thing built or sculpted, but rather poured of molten metal. Lazlo could scarcely decide what was more extraordinary: that it was floating, or that it took the form of an immense being, because here was where his wild and improbable theory came wildly and improbably true. In a manner of speaking.

  The entire impossible structure took the form of a seraph. It was a statue too huge to be conceived: upright, straight, feet toward the city, head in the sky, arms outheld in a pose of supplication. Its wings were spread wide. Its wings. The great metal span of them. They were fanned out to such a tremendous breadth that they made a canopy over the city, blocking out the sunlight. Moonlight, starlight, all natural light.

  This wasn’t what Lazlo had meant by his theory, even in jest, but he was hard-pressed now to say which was wilder or more improbable: the return of mythic beings from beyond the sky, or a thousand-foot-high metal statue of one, hovering in the air. The imagination, he thought, no matter how vivid, was still tethered in some measure to the known, and this was beyond anything he could have imagined. If the Godslayer had told them in advance, it would have sounded absurd even to him.

  The delegates found their voices and poured forth a deluge of questions.

  “How is it floating?”

  “What is that metal?”

  “Who made it?”

  “How did it get there?”

  Lazlo asked, “Who are the Mesarthim?” and that was the first question Eril-Fane answered. Sort of.

  “The question is: Who were the Mesarthim. They’re dead now.” Lazlo thought he saw a trace of grief in the Godslayer’s eyes, and he couldn’t make sense of it. The Mesarthim could only be the “gods” whose deaths had earned him his name. But if he had killed them, why should he grieve? “And that,” he added, nodding to it, “is dead, too.”

  “What do you mean, it’s dead?” someone asked. “Was it alive? That… thing?”

  “Not exactly,” said Eril-Fane. “But it moved as though it were. It breathed.” He wasn’t looking at anyone. He seemed very far away. He fell silent, facing the immensity of the strangeness before them, and then breathed out. “When the sun rose that day two hundred years ago, it was there. When the people came out of their houses and looked up and saw it, there were many who rejoiced. We have always worshipped the seraphim here. It might sound like a fairy tale to some of you, but our temples are timbered with the bones of demons, and it is no fairy tale to us.” He gestured toward the great metal angel. “Our holy book tells of a Second Coming. This isn’t what anyone thought it would look like, but many wanted to believe. Our priestesses have always taught that divinity, by virtue of its great power, must encompass both beauty and terror. And here were both.” He shook his head. “But in the end, the form of the citadel might only have been a twisted joke. Whatever they were, the Mesarthim weren’t seraphim.”

  The whole party was silent. All the faranji looked as dazed as Lazlo felt. Some brows creased as rational minds grappled with this proof of the impossible—or at least the hitherto inconceivable. Others were smooth on faces gone slack with astonishment. The Tizerkane looked grim, and… this was odd, but Lazlo noticed, first seeing Azareen and the way she kept her eyes pinned on Eril-Fane, that none of them were looking at the citadel. Not Ruza or Tzara or anyone. It seemed to Lazlo they were looking anywhere but there, as though they couldn’t bear the sight of the thing.

  “They didn’t have wings. They weren’t beings of fire. Like the seraphim, though, there were six of them, three male, three female. No army, no servants. They needed none,” said Eril-Fane. “They had magic.” He gave a bitter smile. “Magic isn’t a fairy tale, either, as we here have cause to know. I wanted you to see this before I tried to explain. I knew your minds would fight it. Even now, with the proof before you, I can see you’re struggling.”

  “Where did they come from?” Calixte asked.

  Eril-Fane just shook his head. “We don’t know.”

  “But you say they were gods?” asked Mouzaive, the natural philosopher, who was hard-pressed to believe in the divine.

  “What is a god?” was Eril-Fane’s reply. “I don’t know the answer to that, but I can tell you this: The Mesarthim were powerful, but they were nothing holy.”

  He sank into silence, and they waited to see if he would break it. There were so many questions they wanted to ask, but even Drave, the explosionist, felt the pathos of the moment and held his tongue. When Eril-Fane did speak, though, it was only to say, “It’s getting late. You’ll want to reach the city.”

  “We’re going there?” some among them demanded, fear thick in their voices. “Right underneath that thing?”

  “It’s safe,” the Godslayer assured them. “I promise you. It’s just a shell now.
It’s been empty for fifteen years.”

  “Then what’s the problem?” Thyon Nero asked. “Why exactly have you brought us here?”

  Lazlo was surprised he hadn’t figured it out. He gazed at the dazzling behemoth and the darkness beneath it. “The shadow of our dark time still haunts us.” Eril-Fane might have slain the gods and freed his people from thrall, but that thing remained, blocking out the sun, and lording their long torment over them. “To get rid of it,” he told the alchemist, as sure as he had ever been of anything. “And give the city back its sky.”

  22

  PATTERN OF LIGHT, SCRIBBLE OF DARKNESS

  Lazlo looked up: at the shining citadel of alien blue metal floating in the sky.

  Sarai looked down: at the gleam of the Cusp, beyond which the sun was soon to sink, and at the fine thread winding down the valley toward Weep. It was the trail. Squinting, she could just make out a progress of specks against the white.

  Lazlo was one of the specks.

  Around them both, voices jangled and jarred—speculation, debate, alarm—but they heard them only as noise. Both were absorbed in their own thoughts. Lazlo’s mind was afire with marvel, the lit match touching off fuse after fuse. Burning lines raced through his consciousness, connecting far-flung dots and filling in blanks, erasing question marks and adding a dozen more for every one erased. A dozen dozen. There could be no end to the questions, but the sketch outlines of answers were beginning to appear, and they were astonishing.

  If his absorption were a pattern of light, though, Sarai’s was a scribble of darkness. For fifteen years, she and the others had survived in hiding, trapped in this citadel of murdered gods and scraping a meager existence from it. And maybe they had always known this day would come, but the only life—the only sanity—had been in believing it could be held at bay. Now those specks in the distance, almost too small to be seen, were coming inexorably toward them to attempt to dismantle their world, and what tatters remained of Sarai’s belief deserted her.

  The Godslayer had returned to Weep.

  She had always known who her father was. Long before she ever screamed moths and sent her senses down to the city, she knew about the man who had loved and killed her mother, and who would have killed her, too, if she had been in the nursery with the others. Images rose from her arsenal of horrors. His strong hand, drawing a knife across Isagol’s throat. Children and babies screaming, the bigger ones thrashing in the arms of their killers. Spuming arterial fountains, leaping sprays of red. “The throat’s better,” the old woman had said in Sarai’s nightmare. She reached up for her own throat and wrapped her hands around it as though she could protect it. Her pulse was frantic, her breathing ragged, and it seemed impossible that people could live at all with such flimsy stuff as skin keeping blood, breath, and spirit safe inside their bodies.

  At the garden balustrade in the citadel of the Mesarthim, with ghosts peering over their shoulders, the godspawn watched their death ride down to Weep.

  And in the sky overhead—empty, empty, empty and then not—a white bird appeared in the blue, like the tip of a knife stabbed through a veil, and wherever it had been, and however it had come, it was here now, and it was watching.

  PART III

  mahal (muh·HAHL) noun

  A risk that will yield either tremendous reward or disastrous consequence.

  Archaic; from the mahalath, a

  transformative fog of myth that turns

  one either into a god or a monster.

  23

  UNSEEN NO LONGER

  Fabled Weep, unseen no longer.

  From the top of the Cusp, where the Godslayer’s delegation stood, a trail descended into the canyon of the River Uzumark, with the white of demonglass gradually giving way to the honey-colored stone of cliff faces and natural spires and arches, and to the green of forests so dense that their canopies looked, from above, like carpets of moss one might walk across. And the waterfalls might have been curtains of pale silk hung from the cliff tops, too numerous to count. With its waterfall curtains and carpets of forest, the canyon was like a long and beautiful room, and Weep a toy city—a gilded model—at its center. The shocking surreality of the citadel—the sheer size of the thing—played havoc with the mind’s sense of scale.

  “Does Eril-Fane want me to climb that?” Calixte asked, staring up at the great seraph.

  “What’s the matter? Couldn’t do it?” taunted Ebliz Tod.

  “Have to reach it first,” she quipped. “I suppose that’s where you come in.” She waved her hand at him, queenly. “Be a dear and build me some stairs.”

  Tod’s umbrage rendered him momentarily speechless, during which pause Soulzeren interjected, “Be faster to fly, anyway. We can have the silk sleighs ready in a few days.”

  “That’s just getting to it, though,” her husband, Ozwin, pointed out. “That’ll be the easy part. Getting rid of it, now, there’s another matter.”

  “What do you reckon?” Soulzeren mused. “Move it? Dismantle it?”

  “Blow it up,” said Drave, which drew him flat looks from everyone.

  “You do see that it’s directly above the city,” Lazlo pointed out.

  “So they get out of the way.”

  “I imagine they’re trying to avoid further destruction.”

  “Then why invite me?” he asked, grinning.

  “Why indeed?” Soulzeren murmured in an undertone.

  Drave reached out to smack Thyon Nero on the shoulder. “Did you hear that?” he asked, as Thyon had failed to laugh. “Why invite me if you don’t want destruction, eh? Why bring ten camels’ worth of powder if you don’t want to blow that thing right back to the heavens?”

  Thyon gave him a thin smile and half nod, though it was clear that his mind was elsewise occupied. No doubt he was processing the problem in his own way. He kept his own counsel, while the other delegates were vociferous. For months their intellects had been hamstrung by mystery. Now the sky presented the greatest scientific puzzle they had ever encountered, and they were all considering their place in it, and their chances of solving it.

  Mouzaive was talking to Belabra about magnets, but Belabra wasn’t listening. He was muttering indecipherable calculations, while the Fellerings—the twin metallurgists—discussed the possible composition of the blue metal.

  As for Lazlo, he was awed and humbled. He’d known from the first that he had no qualifications to recommend him for the Godslayer’s delegation, but it wasn’t until he beheld the problem that he realized that some part of him had still hoped he might be the one to solve it. Ridiculous. A storybook might have held the secret of azoth, and knowledge of stories might have earned him a place in the party, but he hardly thought that tales would give him an edge now.

  Well, but he was here, and he would help in any way he could, even if it was only running errands for the delegates. What was it Master Hyrrokkin had said? “Some men are born for great things, and others to help great men do great things.” He’d also said there was no shame in it, and Lazlo agreed.

  Still, was it too much to hope that the “man born for great things” should not turn out to be Thyon Nero? Anyone but him, thought Lazlo, laughing a little at his own pettiness.

  The caravan descended the trail into the valley, and Lazlo looked about himself, amazed. He was really here, seeing it. A canyon of golden stone, swaths of unbroken forest, a great green river blurred by waterfall mist, flowing as far as the shadow of the citadel. There, just shy of the city, the Uzumark broadened into a delta and was sliced into ribbons by boulders and small islands before simply vanishing. Beyond the city it reappeared and continued its tumultuous journey eastward and away. The river, it seemed, flowed under the city.

  From a distance, Weep was stunningly like Lazlo’s long-held picture of it—or at least, like his long-held picture as seen through a veil of shadow. There were the golden domes, though fewer than he’d pictured, and they didn’t gleam. The sunlight didn’t strike them. By the time the
sun angled low enough to slant its rays under the citadel’s outspread wings, it had gone beyond the edge of the Cusp, and only traded one shadow for another.

  But it was more than that. There was a forlorn look about it, a sense of lingering despair. There were the city’s defensive walls, built in a harmonious oval, but the harmony was broken. In four places, the wall was obliterated. Set down with geometric precision at the cardinal points were four monumental slabs of the same alien metal as the citadel. They were great tapered blocks, each as big in its own right as a castle, but they appeared entirely smooth, windowless and doorless. They looked, from above, like a set of great map weights holding down the city’s edges so it wouldn’t blow away.

  It was difficult to make out from this distance, but there seemed to be something atop each one. A statue, perhaps.

  “What are those great blocks?” he asked Ruza, pointing.

  “Those are the anchors.”

  “Anchors?” Lazlo squinted across the distance, gauging the blocks’ position relative to the great seraph overhead. It appeared to be centered in the air above them. “Do they act like anchors?” he asked. He thought of ships in harbor, in which case there would be anchor chain. Nothing visible connected the seraph to the blocks. “Are they keeping it from drifting away?”

  Ruza’s smile was wry. “They never took the time to explain it to us, Strange. They set them down the day they came—never mind what was under them—and there they are still.” Ruza jerked his head at the procession behind them. “Think one of these geniuses will be able to move them?”

 
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