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Strange the dreamer, p.22
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.22

           Laini Taylor
 

  “You don’t,” she returned. “Did you forget to sleep?”

  “How dare you,” he said mildly, taking a seat at her table. “Are you suggesting that I look less than perfectly fresh?”

  “I would never be so uncivil as to suggest imperfect freshness.” She took a large bite of pastry. “However,” she said with her mouth full, “you’re cultivating patches of blue under your eyes. So unless you got yourself punched very symmetrically, my guess is not enough sleep. Besides, with the state of ecstatic dazzlement you were in yesterday, I didn’t expect you’d be able to sit still, let alone sleep.”

  “First of all: Who would want to punch me? Second of all: ecstatic dazzlement. Nicely put.”

  “First of all: Thank you. Second of all: Thyon Nero would love to punch you.”

  “Oh, him,” said Lazlo. It might have been meant as a joke, but the golden godson’s animosity was palpable. The others felt it, even if they had no clue as to what was behind it. “I think he’s the only one, though.”

  Calixte sighed. “So naïve, Strange. If they didn’t before, they all want to punch you over the theory purse. Drave especially. You should hear him rant. He put way too much into it, the fool. I think he thought it was a lottery, and if he made more guesses he’d be likelier to win. Whereas you make one—a ridiculous one—and win. I’m amazed he hasn’t punched you already.”

  “Thakra save me from the theory purse,” said Lazlo, blithely invoking the local deity, Thakra. She had been commander of the six seraphim, according to legend—and holy book—and her temple stood just across a broad boulevard from the guildhall.

  “Save you from five hundred silver?” queried Calixte. “I think I could help you out there.”

  “Thanks, I think I’ll manage,” said Lazlo, who in truth had no idea where to begin with so much money. “More like save me from bitter explosionists and grudging alchemists.”

  “I will. Don’t worry. It’s my fault, and I take full responsibility for you.”

  Lazlo laughed. Calixte was as slim as a hreshtek, but far less dangerous-looking than one. Still, he didn’t mistake her for harmless, whereas he knew he was, Ruza’s spear-throwing lessons notwithstanding. “Thank you. If I’m attacked, I’ll scream hysterically and you can come save me.”

  “I’ll send Tzara,” said Calixte. “She’s magnificent when she fights.” She added, with a secret smile, “Though she’s even more magnificent doing other things.”

  Calixte had not been wrong in calling Lazlo naïve, but even as remote as such things as lovers were to him, he understood the smile, and the warm tone of her voice. Heat rose to his cheeks—much to her delight. “Strange, you’re blushing.”

  “Of course I am,” he admitted. “I’m a perfect innocent. I’d blush at the sight of a woman’s collarbones.”

  As he said that, an almost-memory tickled his mind. A woman’s collarbones, and the wonderful space between them. But where would he have seen…? And then Calixte yanked her blouse askew to reveal hers—her collarbones, that is—and he laughed and lost the memory.

  “Nice job denuding your face, by the way,” she said, waggling her fingers under her chin to indicate his shave. “I’d forgotten what it looked like under there.”

  He grimaced. “Oh. Well, I’m sorry to have to remind you, but it itched.”

  “What are you talking about, sorry? You have an excellent face,” she said, examining him. “It isn’t pretty, but there are other ways for a face to be excellent.”

  He touched the sharp angle of his nose. “I do have a face,” was about as far as he was willing to go.

  “Lazlo,” called Eril-Fane from across the room. “Gather everyone, will you?”

  Lazlo nodded and rose. “Consider yourself gathered,” he informed Calixte, before going in search of the rest of the team.

  “Scream if you need saving,” she called after him.

  “Always.”

  The time had come to discuss Weep’s “problem” in earnest. Lazlo knew some of it already from Ruza and Suheyla, but the others were hearing it for the first time.

  “Our hope in bringing you here,” Eril-Fane said, addressing them in a beautiful salon of the guildhall, “is that you will find a way to free us of the thing in our sky.” He looked from one face to the next, and Lazlo was reminded of that day in the theater back at the Great Library, when the Godslayer’s gaze had fallen on him, and his dream had taken on this new clarity: not merely to see the Unseen City, but to help.

  “Once, we were a city of learning,” said Eril-Fane. “Our ancestors would never have had to seek outsiders for help.” He said this with a tinge of shame. “But that’s in the past. The Mesarthim, they were… remarkable. God or other, they might have nurtured our awe into reverence and won themselves true worship. But nurture was not their way. They didn’t come to offer themselves as a choice, or to win our hearts. They came to rule, totally and brutally, and the first thing they did was break us.

  “Before they even showed themselves, they released the anchors. You’ll have seen them. They didn’t drop them. The impact would have knocked down every structure in the city and collapsed the underground waterways, damming the Uzumark that flows under our feet, and flooding the whole valley. They wanted to rule us, not destroy us, and to enslave us, not massacre us, so they set the anchors down deliberately, and crushed only what was beneath them, which happened to include the university and library, the Tizerkane garrison, and the royal palace.”

  Eril-Fane had mentioned the library before. Lazlo wondered about it, and what precious texts had been lost in it. Might there even have been histories from the time of the ijji and the seraphim?

  “It was all terribly tidy. Army, wisdom-keepers, and royal family, obliterated in minutes. Any who escaped were found in the days after. The Mesarthim, they knew all. No secret could be kept from them. And that was all there was to it. They didn’t need soldiers, when they had their magic to…” He paused, his jaw clenching. “To control us. And so our learning was lost, along with our leadership, and so much else. A chain of knowledge handed down over centuries, and a library to shame even your great Zosma.” Here he smiled faintly at Lazlo. “Gone in a moment. Ended. In the years that followed, pursuit of knowledge was punished. All science and inquiry were dead. Which brings us to you,” he told the delegates. “I hope I’ve chosen well.”

  Now, finally, their varied areas of expertise made sense. Mouzaive, the natural philosopher: for the mystery of the citadel’s suspension. How was it floating? Soulzeren and Ozwin for reaching it in their silk sleighs. The engineers for designing any structures that might be needed. Belabra for calculations. The Fellering twins and Thyon for the metal itself.

  Mesarthium. Eril-Fane explained its properties to them—its imperviousness to everything, all heat, all tools. Everything, that is, except for Skathis, who had manipulated it with his mind.

  “Skathis controlled mesarthium,” he told them, “and so he controlled… everything.”

  Magical metal telepathically smithed by a god and impervious to all else. Lazlo watched the delegates’ reactions, and he could understand their incredulity, certainly, but there was a rather large inducement here to believe the unbelievable. He’d have thought that knee-jerk skepticism would have been knuckled under by the sight of the enormous floating seraph in the sky.

  “It can certainly be cut,” asserted one of the Fellerings. “With the right instruments and know-how.”

  “Or melted, with sufficient heat,” added the other, with a confidence that shaded into arrogance. “The temperatures that we can reach with our furnaces will easily double what your blacksmiths can achieve.”

  Thyon, for his part, volunteered nothing, and there was more arrogance in his silence than in the Fellerings’ bluster. His invitation to the delegation was clearer now, too. Azoth wasn’t only a medium for making gold, after all. It also yielded alkahest, the universal solvent—an agent that could eat through any substance in the world: glass, stone, m
etal, even diamond. Would mesarthium yield to it as well?

  If so, then he might well be Weep’s second liberator. What a fine accolade for his legend, Lazlo thought with a twinge of bitterness: Thyon Nero, deliverer from shadow.

  “Why don’t we go over,” suggested Eril-Fane, faced with the incredulity of his guests. “I’ll introduce you to mesarthium. It’s as good a starting point as any.”

  The north anchor was closest, near enough to walk—and the trip took them across the strip of light called the Avenue, though it wasn’t an avenue. It was the one place where sunlight fell on the city, down through the gap where the seraph’s wings came together in front and didn’t quite meet.

  It was broad as a boulevard, and it almost seemed, crossing it, as though one went from dusk to day and back again in a matter of paces. It ran half the length of the city and had become its most coveted real estate, never mind that much of it fell in humbler neighborhoods. There was light, and that was everything. In this single sun-drunk stripe, Weep was as lush as Lazlo had always imagined it to be, and the rest of the city looked more dead for the contrast.

  The wings hadn’t always been outspread as they were now, Eril-Fane told Lazlo. “It was Skathis’s dying act—to steal the sky, as though he hadn’t stolen enough already.” He looked up at the citadel, but not for long.

  And it wasn’t only the sky that had been stolen that day, Lazlo learned, finding out, finally, the answer to the question that had haunted him since he was a little boy.

  What power can annihilate a name?

  “It was Letha,” Eril-Fane told him. Lazlo knew the name already: goddess of oblivion, mistress of forgetting. “She ate it,” Eril-Fane said. “Swallowed it as she died, and it died with her.”

  “Couldn’t you rename it?” Lazlo asked him.

  “You think we haven’t tried? The curse is more powerful than that. Every name we give it suffers the same fate as the first. Only Weep remains.”

  Stolen name, stolen sky. Stolen children, stolen years. What had the Mesarthim been, Lazlo thought, but thieves on an epic scale.

  The anchor dominated the landscape, a great mass hulking behind the silhouettes of the overlapping domes. It made everything else seem small, like a half-scale play village built for children. And up on top was one of the statues Lazlo couldn’t clearly make out, besides the fact of it being bestial—horned and winged. He saw Eril-Fane look at it, too, and shudder again and skew his gaze away.

  They approached the forbidding wall of blue metal, and their reflections stepped forward to meet them. There was something about it, up close—the sheer volume of metal, the sheen of it, the color, some indefinable strangeness—that cast a hush over the lot of them as they reached out with varying degrees of caution to touch it.

  The Fellerings had brought a case of instruments, and they set to work at once. Thyon went far from the others to examine it in his own way, with Drave tagging along, offering to carry his satchel.

  “It’s slick,” said Calixte, running her hands over its surface. “It feels wet, but it isn’t.”

  “You’ll never climb up this,” said Ebliz Tod, touching it, too.

  “Care to place a wager?” she countered, the gleam of challenge in her eyes.

  “A hundred silver.”

  Calixte scoffed. “Silver. How boring.”

  “You know how we settle disputes in Thanagost?” asked Soulzeren. “Poison roulette. Pour a row of shot glasses and mix serpaise venom into one of them. You find out you lost when you die gasping.”

  “You’re mad,” said Calixte admiringly. She considered Tod. “I think Eril-Fane might want him alive, though.”

  “Might?” Tod bristled. “You’re the expendable one.”

  “Aren’t you nasty,” she said. “I’ll tell you what. If I win, you have to build me a tower.”

  He laughed out loud. “I build towers for kings, not little girls.”

  “You build towers for the corpses of kings,” she replied. “And if you’re so sure I can’t do it, where’s the risk? I’m not asking for a Cloudspire. It can be a small one. I won’t need a tomb anyway. Much as I deserve eternal veneration, I intend never to die.”

  “Good luck with that,” said Tod. “And if I win?”

  “Mm,” she pondered, tapping her chin. “What do you say to an emerald?”

  He studied her flatly. “You didn’t get away with any emeralds.”

  “Oh, you’re probably right.” She grinned. “What would I know about it?”

  “Show me, then.”

  “If I lose, I will. But if I win, you’ll just have to wonder if I really have it or not.”

  Tod considered for a moment, his face sour and calculating. “With no rope,” he stipulated.

  “With no rope,” she agreed.

  He touched the metal again, gauging its slickness. It must have reinforced his certainty that it was unclimbable, because he accepted Calixte’s terms. A tower against an emerald. Fair wager.

  Lazlo walked down to where the wall was clear, and skimmed his own hand along the surface. As Calixte had said, it was slick, not merely smooth. It was hard and cool as one would expect of metal in the shade, and his skin slipped right over it without any kind of friction. He rubbed his fingertips together and continued the length of the anchor. Mesarthium, Mesarthim. Magical metal, magical gods. Where had they come from?

  The same place as the seraphim? “They came down from the skies,” went the myth—or the history, if indeed it was all true. And where from before that? What was behind the sky?

  Had they come out of the great star-scattered black entirety that was the universe?

  The “mysteries of Weep” weren’t mysteries of Weep, Lazlo thought. They were much bigger than this place. Bigger than the world.

  Reaching the corner of the anchor, he peered around it and saw a narrow alley that dissolved into rubble. He ventured down it, still trailing his hand over the mesarthium. Glancing at his fingertips, he saw that they were grimed a pale gray. He wiped them on his shirt, but it didn’t come off.

  Opposite the metal wall was a row of ruined houses, still standing as they had before the anchor but with whole sides carved away, like dolls’ houses, open on one side. They were decrepit dolls’ houses, though. He could see right into old parlors and kitchens, and imagined the people who had lived in them the day their world changed.

  Lazlo wondered what lay beneath this anchor. The library? The palace or garrison? The crushed bones of kings or warriors or wisdom keepers? Was it possible that any texts had survived intact?

  His eye caught on a patch of color ahead. It was on a forlorn stone wall facing the mesarthium one, and the alley was too narrow for Lazlo to get an angle on it from a distance. Only as he approached could he decipher that it was a painting, and only once he was before it, what it depicted.

  He looked at it. He looked. Shock generally hits like a blow, sudden and unexpected. But in this case it crept over him slowly, as he made sense of the image and remembered what he had, until right now, forgotten.

  It could only be a rendering of the Mesarthim. There were six of them: three females on one side, three males on the other. All were dead or dying—skewered or laid open or sundered. And between them, unmistakable, larger-than-life, and with six arms to hold six weapons, was the Godslayer. The rendering was crude. Whoever had made the picture was no trained artist, but there was a rough intensity in it that was very powerful. This was a painting of victory. It was brutal, bloody, and triumphant.

  The cause of Lazlo’s shock wasn’t the violence of it—the spurting blood or the liberal quantities of red paint used to illustrate it. It wasn’t the red paint that got him, but the blue.

  In all the talk of the Mesarthim so far, no one had seen fit to mention that—if this mural was accurate—they had been blue. Just like their metal.

  And just like the girl in Lazlo’s dream.

  How could he have forgotten her? It was as though she’d slipped behind a curtain in h
is mind and the moment he saw the mural, the curtain fell and she was there: the girl with skin the color of the sky, who had stood so close, studying him as though he were a painting. Even the collarbones were hers—the little tickle at his memory, from when he’d glanced down in the dream and blushed to see more of female anatomy than he ever had in real life. What did it say about him that he had dreamed a girl in her underclothes?

  But that was neither here nor there. Here she was, in the mural. Crude as it was, capturing none of her loveliness, it was an unmistakable likeness, from her hair—the rich dark red of wildflower honey—to the stark black band painted across her eyes like a mask. Unlike the girl in his dream, though, this one was wearing a gown.

  Also… her throat was gaping open and gushing red.

  He took a step back, feeling nauseated, almost as though he were seeing a real body and not the cartoonish depiction of a murdered girl he’d glimpsed in a dream.

  “All right down there?”

  Lazlo looked around. It was Eril-Fane at the top of the alley. Two arms, not six. Two swords, and not a personal armory of spears and halberds. This picture, crude and gory, added yet another dimension to Lazlo’s idea of him. The Godslayer had slain gods. Well, of course. But Lazlo had never really formed an image to go along with the idea before, or if he had, it had been vague, and the victims monstrous. Not wide-eyed and barefoot, like the girl in his dream.

  “Is this what they looked like?” he asked.

  Eril-Fane came to see. His steps slowed as he made out what the mural depicted. He only nodded, never taking his eyes from it.

  “They were blue,” said Lazlo.

  Again, Eril-Fane nodded.

  Lazlo stared at the goddess with the painted black mask, and imagined, interposed over her crudely drawn features, the very fine ones he’d seen last night. “Who is she?”

  Eril-Fane was a moment answering, and his voice, when he did, was raw and almost too low to hear. “That is Isagol. Goddess of despair.”

 
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