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Strange the dreamer, p.25
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.25

           Laini Taylor
 

  He was intent on keeping the secret of azoth, it would seem, even in this city whence, long ago, the secret had come.

  Drave required a warehouse to store his powder and chemicals, and Lazlo saw to it that he had one—outside the city, in case of fiery misadventure. And if the distance resulted in less day-to-day Drave, well, that was just a bonus.

  “It’s a damned inconvenience,” the explosionist groused, though the inconvenience proved quite minimal, due to the fact that after overseeing the unloading of his supplies, he spent no further time there.

  “Just tell me what you want blown up and I’m good for it,” he said, and then proceeded to spend his time scouting the city for pleasures and making women uncomfortable with his leering.

  Ozwin, the farmer-botanist, needed a glasshouse and fields for planting, so he, too, had to go out of the city and out of the citadel’s shadow, where his seeds and seedlings would see sunlight.

  “Plants that dreamed they were birds,” that was his work. Those words were from the myth of the seraphim, describing the world as the beings had found it when they came down from the skies: “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.” Lazlo had known the passage for years, and had assumed it was fantasy—but he had discovered in Thanagost that it was real.

  The plant was called ulola, and it was known for two things. One: Its nondescript shrubs were a favorite resting place for serpaise in the heat of the day, which accounted for its nickname, “snakeshade.” And two: Its flowers could fly.

  Or float, if you wanted to be technical. They were saclike blooms about the size of a baby’s head, and as they died, their decay produced a powerful lifting gas, which carried them into the sky and wherever the wind blew them, to release seeds in new soil and begin the cycle again. They were a quirk of the badlands—drifting pink balloons that had a way of making landfall in the midst of wild amphion wolf riots—and would most likely have stayed that way if a botanist from the University of Isquith—Ozwin—hadn’t braved the dangers of the frontier in search of samples and fallen in love with the lawless land and, more particularly, with the lawless mechanist—Soulzeren—favored by warlords for her extravagant firearm designs. It was quite the love story, even involving a duel (fought by Soulzeren). Only the unique combination of the two of them could have produced the silk sleigh: a sleek, ultralight craft buoyed by ulola gas.

  The crafts themselves, Soulzeren was assembling in one of the pavilions of the guildhall. As to the matter of when they would fly, the subject was broached on the fifth afternoon, at a meeting of city leaders that Lazlo attended with Eril-Fane. It did not go at all as he expected.

  “Our guests are at work on the problem of the citadel,” Eril-Fane reported to the five Zeyyadin, which translated as “first voices.” The two women and three men constituted the governing body that had been established after the fall of the gods. “And when they are ready, they will make proposals toward a solution.”

  “To… move it,” one woman said. Her name was Maldagha, and her voice was heavy with apprehension.

  “But how can they hope to do such a thing?” asked a stooped man with long white hair, his voice quavering.

  “If I could answer that,” said Eril-Fane, with the slightest of smiles, “I would have done it myself and avoided a long journey. Our guests possess the brightest practical minds in half a world—”

  “But what is practicality against the magic of gods?” the old man interrupted.

  “It is the best hope we have,” said Eril-Fane. “It won’t be the work of moments, as it was for Skathis, but what else can we do? We might be looking at years of effort. It may be that the best we can hope for is a tower to reach it and to carve it away piece by piece until it’s gone. Our grandchildren’s grandchildren may well be carting shavings of mesarthium out of the city as the monstrosity shrinks slowly to nothing. But even so, even if that’s the only way and we in this room don’t live to see it, there will come a day when the last piece is gone and the sky is free.”

  They were powerful words, though spoken softly, and they seemed to lift the hopes of the others. Tentatively, Maldagha said, “Carve it away, you say. Can they cut it? Have they?”

  “Not yet,” Eril-Fane admitted. In fact, the Fellerings’ confidence had proven misplaced. Like everyone else, they had failed even to make a scratch. Their arrogance was gone now, replaced with disgruntled determination. “But they’ve only just begun, and we’ve an alchemist, too. The most accomplished in the world.”

  As for said alchemist, if he was having any luck with his alkahest, he was keeping it as much a secret as his key ingredient. His doors in the crematorium attic were locked, and he only opened them to receive meals. He’d even had a cot moved in so he could sleep on-site—which did not, however, mean that he never emerged. Tzara had been on watch, and had seen him in the dead of night, walking in the direction of the north anchor.

  To experiment on mesarthium in secret, Lazlo supposed. When Tzara mentioned it to him this morning, he had gone himself to examine the surface, looking for any hint that Thyon had been successful. It was a big surface. It was possible he’d missed something, but he didn’t really think so. The whole expanse had been as smooth and unnaturally perfect as the first time he saw it.

  There was not, in fact, any encouraging news to report to the Zeyyadin, not yet. The meeting had another purpose.

  “Tomorrow,” Eril-Fane told them, and his voice seemed to weigh down the air, “we launch one of the silk sleighs.”

  The effect of his words was immediate and… absolutely counterintuitive. In any city in the world, airships—real, functional airships—would be met with wonderment. This ought to have been thrilling news. But the men and women in the room went pale. Five faces in a row uniformly drained of color and went blank with a kind of stunned dread. The old man began to shake his head. Maldagha pressed her lips together to still their sudden trembling, and, in a gesture that pained Lazlo to interpret, laid a hand to her belly. Suheyla had made a similar movement, and he thought he knew what it meant. They all struggled to maintain composure, but their faces betrayed them. Lazlo hadn’t seen anyone look this stricken since the boys at the abbey were dragged to the crypt for punishment.

  He had never seen adults look like this.

  “It will only be a test flight,” Eril-Fane went on. “We need to establish a reliable means of coming and going between the city and the citadel. And…” He hesitated. Swallowed. Looked at no one when he said, “I need to see it.”

  “You?” demanded one of the men. “Are you going up there?”

  It seemed an odd question. It had never occurred to Lazlo that he might not.

  Solemnly, Eril-Fane regarded the man. “I was hoping you would come, too, Shajan. You who were there at the end.” The end. The day the gods were slain? Lazlo’s mind flashed to the mural in the alley, and the hero depicted in it, six-armed and triumphant. “It has stood dead all these years, and some of us know better than others the… state… it was left in.”

  No one met anyone’s eyes then. It was very odd. It put Lazlo in mind of the way they avoided looking at the citadel itself. It occurred to him that the bodies of the gods might still be up there, left where they’d died, but he didn’t see why that should cause such a trembling and shrinking.

  “I couldn’t,” gasped Shajan, staring at his own shaking hands. “You can’t expect it. You see how I am now.”

  It struck Lazlo as out of all proportion. A grown man reduced to trembling at the thought of entering an empty building—even that empty building—because there might be skeletons there? And the disproportion only grew.

  “We could still move,” Maldagha blurted, looking as harrowed as Shajan. “You needn’t go back up there. We needn’t do any of this.” There was a note of desperation in her voice. “We can rebuild the city at Enet-Sarra, as we’ve discussed. The surveys have all been done. We need only to begi
n.”

  Eril-Fane shook his head. “If we did,” he said, “it would mean that they had won, even in death. They haven’t. This is our city, that our foremothers and forefathers built on land consecrated by Thakra. We won’t forsake it. That is our sky, and we will have it back.” They were such words as might have been roared before battle. A little boy playing Tizerkane in an orchard would have loved the feel of them rolling off his tongue. But Eril-Fane didn’t roar them. His voice sounded faraway, like the last echo before silence redescends.

  “What was that?” Lazlo asked him after they left.

  “That was fear,” Eril-Fane said simply.

  “But… fear of what?” Lazlo couldn’t comprehend it. “The citadel’s empty. What can there be to harm them?”

  Eril-Fane let out a slow breath. “Were you afraid of the dark as a child?”

  A chill snaked up Lazlo’s spine. He thought again of the crypt at the abbey, and the nights locked in with dead monks. “Yes,” he said simply.

  “Even when you knew, rationally, that there was nothing in it that could harm you.”

  “Yes.”

  “Well. We are all children in the dark, here in Weep.”

  34

  SPIRIT OF LIBRARIAN

  Another day over, another day of work and wonder, and Lazlo was returning to Suheyla’s for the night. As he crossed the Avenue, that solitary stripe of sunlight, he saw the errand boy from the guildhall coming toward him with a tray. It held empty dishes, and he realized the boy must be coming back from the crematorium, which lay just ahead. He’d have brought Thyon’s dinner, and traded it for his empty lunch tray. Lazlo greeted him, and wondered in passing how Thyon was getting on. He hadn’t seen him in the couple of days since he’d hidden himself away, and hadn’t had an update to give Eril-Fane when asked. With just a moment’s hesitation, he changed his course and made for the crematorium. Passing the anchor on the way, he skimmed his hand over its whole length, and tried to imagine it rippling and morphing as it apparently had for the dark god Skathis.

  When he knocked on Thyon’s heavy, thrice-locked door, the alchemist actually answered it, which could only mean he thought the boy was back with more provisions—or else he was expecting someone else, because as soon as he saw Lazlo, he started to shut it again.

  “Wait,” said Lazlo, putting out his foot. It was lucky he wore boots. In the old days of his librarians’ slippers his toes would have been crushed. As it was, he winced. Nero wasn’t playing around. “I come on behalf of Eril-Fane,” he said, annoyed.

  “I’ve nothing to report,” said Thyon. “You can tell him that.”

  Lazlo’s foot was still in the door, holding it open some three inches. It wasn’t much, but the glave in the antechamber was bright, and he saw Thyon—at least a three-inch-wide strip of him—quite clearly. His brow furrowed. “Nero, are you unwell?”

  “I’m fine,” the golden godson deigned to say. “Now, if you would remove your foot.”

  “I won’t,” said Lazlo, truly alarmed. “Let me see you. You look like death.”

  It was a drastic transformation, in just a few days. His skin was sallow. Even the whites of his eyes were jaundiced.

  Thyon drew back, out of Lazlo’s line of sight. “Remove your foot,” he said in a low, casual tone, “or I’ll test my current batch of alkahest on it.” Even his voice sounded sallow, if that were possible.

  Alkahest on the foot was an unpleasant prospect to consider. Lazlo wondered how quickly it would eat through his boot leather. “I don’t doubt that you would do it,” he said, just as casually as Thyon. “I’m only gambling that you don’t have it in your hand. You’ll have to go and get it, during which time I’ll push open the door and get a look at you. Come on, Nero. You’re ill.”

  “I’m not ill.”

  “You’re not well.”

  “It’s none of your concern, Strange.”

  “I really don’t know if it is or not, but you’re here for a reason, and you may well be Weep’s best hope, so convince me you aren’t ill or I’ll go straight to Eril-Fane.”

  There was an irritated sigh, and Thyon stood back from the door. Lazlo nudged it open with his foot, and saw that he had not been mistaken. Thyon looked terrible—though, admittedly, his “terrible” was still a cut above how most people could ever hope to look. Still, he looked aged. It wasn’t just his color. The skin around his eyes was slack and shadowed. “Gods, Nero,” he said, stepping forward, “what’s happened to you?”

  “Just working too hard,” said the alchemist with a grim smile.

  “That’s ridiculous. No one looks that haggard from working hard for a couple of days.”

  As he said it, Lazlo’s eyes fell on Thyon’s worktable. It was a rough-and-tumble version of his table in the Chrysopoesium, scattered with glassware and copper and piles of books. Smoke drifted in the air, a brimstone scent to singe the nostrils, and right in plain view was a long syringe. It was glass and copper, resting on a wadded white cloth spotted with red. Lazlo looked at it, then turned to Thyon, who returned his stare with stony eyes. What had Lazlo just said, that no one looks that haggard from working hard for a couple of days?

  But what if their “work” relied on a steady supply of spirit, and their only source was their own body? Lazlo’s breath hissed out between his teeth. “You idiot,” he said, and saw Thyon’s eyes widen in incredulity. No one called the golden godson an idiot. He was, though, in this case. “How much have you taken?” Lazlo asked.

  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  Lazlo shook his head. He was beginning to lose patience. “You can lie if you want, but I already know your secret. If you’re so damned determined to keep it, Nero, I’m the only person in the world who can help you.”

  Thyon laughed as though this were a good joke. “And why would you help me?”

  It wasn’t at all how he’d said it in the Chrysopoesium when they were younger. “You, help me?” That had been incredulity that Lazlo dared believe himself worthy of helping him. This was more like incredulity that he should want to.

  “For the same reason I helped you before,” said Lazlo.

  “And why was that?” Nero demanded. “Why did you, Strange?”

  Lazlo stared at him for a moment. The answer really couldn’t be simpler, but he didn’t think Thyon was equipped to believe it. “Because you needed it,” he said, and his words pulled a silence over them both. Here was the radical notion that you might help someone simply because they needed it.

  Even if they hated you for it after, and punished you for it, and stole from you, and lied and mocked you? Even then? Lazlo had hoped that, of all the delegates, Thyon wouldn’t prove to be Weep’s savior, deliverer from shadow. But far greater than that hope was the hope that Weep would be delivered, by someone, even if it was him. “Do you need help now?” he asked quietly. “You can’t keep drawing your own spirit. It might not kill you,” he said, because spirit wasn’t like blood, and somehow people went on living without it, if you could call it living. “But it will make you ugly,” he told him, “and I think that would be very hard for you.”

  Thyon’s brow creased. He squinted at Lazlo to see if he was mocking him. He was, of course, but in the way he might mock Ruza, or Calixte might mock him. It was Thyon’s decision whether to take offense or not, and perhaps he was just too tired. “What are you proposing?” he asked, wary.

  Lazlo let out a breath and shifted straight into problem-solving mode. Thyon needed spirit to make azoth. At home, he must have had a system, though Lazlo couldn’t imagine what it was. How did one keep up a steady supply of something like spirit without anyone finding out? Whatever it was, here, without coming out and asking for it—and revealing his secret ingredient—he had only his own, and he had drawn too much.

  Lazlo argued with him, briefly, over whether it was time to let the secret go. But Thyon wouldn’t hear it, and finally Lazlo, with a frustrated sigh, stripped off his jacket and rolled up his sleeve.
“Just take some of mine, all right? Until we can think of something else.”

  Through it all, Thyon regarded him with suspicion, as though he were waiting for some hidden motive to reveal itself. But when Lazlo held out his arm, he could only blink, discomfited. It would have been easier if he could believe there were some motive, some sort of revenge in the works, or some other manner of scheming. But Lazlo offered up his veins. His own vital fluid. What motive could there be in that? He winced when Thyon jabbed in his needle, and winced again, because the alchemist missed the spirit vein and hit a blood vessel instead. Thyon wasn’t an especially skilled phlebotomist, but he didn’t apologize and Lazlo didn’t complain, and eventually there was a vial of clear fluid on the table, labeled, with a contemptuous flourish, SPIRIT OF LIBRARIAN.

  Thyon did not say thank you. He did say, releasing Lazlo’s arm to him, “You might try washing your hands occasionally, Strange.”

  Lazlo only smiled, as the condescension marked a return to familiar territory. He glanced at the hand in question. It did look dirty. He’d trailed it over the anchor on his way here, he remembered. “That’s the mesarthium,” he said, and asked, curious, “Have you noticed its being reactive to skin?”

  “Hardly. It’s not reactive to anything.”

  “Well, have you noticed skin being reactive to it?” Lazlo persisted, rolling his sleeve back down.

  Thyon only held up his own palms. They were clean, and that was all his answer. Lazlo shrugged and put on his coat. Thyon’s response didn’t bode well, in its broader context—about mesarthium not being reactive with anything. In the doorway, Lazlo paused. “Eril-Fane will want to know. Is there any reason to be hopeful? Does the alkahest affect mesarthium at all?”

  He didn’t think the alchemist would answer. His hand was on the door, ready to shove it shut. But he paused for half a second, as though Lazlo had earned this single, grudging syllable, and said, grimly, “No.”

 
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