The young men were outside so they could keep an eye on the citadel. After witnessing the departure of the flying metal creatures, they’d drawn straws for who had to go back for the donkey. Thyon had lost, and he’d been halfway back to the sinkhole before it occurred to him that he should be incensed. No doubt Ruza had cheated with the straws (he had, of course), and besides, Thyon should have been exempt from such tasks. He didn’t fetch donkeys. But his outrage had refused to kindle. He didn’t want to be exempt. He wanted to go off muttering and fetch the damn donkey, and come back and be teased about it over a meal of scraps with friends.
Friends? A pair of warriors and a thief? Even now a voice within him explained that they were lowborn, incompatible with his station, and ridiculous besides. But now that voice sounded haughty and condescending, and he wanted to put it in a jar and toss it in a river, then sit and eat bacon with his ridiculous, lowborn friends.
Calixte and Tzara emerged from the guildhall with a tray piled high with odds and ends. Calixte squealed to see her fellow faranji returned, and threw her arms around them both, only to immediately draw back, put her hands on her hips, and regard them sternly.
“I can’t believe you left,” she said. “We good faranji stayed here and performed selfless works, in total disregard for our own safety.”
“Selfless works like making sure the cheese gets to fulfill its destiny,” put in Tzara.
Calixte said, “Don’t mock. In my country it’s a crime to let cheese go to waste. It’s the real reason I was in prison—”
“Did you just call me a good faranji?” asked Thyon, cutting her off.
“No,” scoffed Calixte. “As if.”
“You did. I heard you.” Thyon turned to Ruza. “You heard her, too.”
“I heard cheese destiny,” Ruza said, though it was hard to make out because he still had his bacon tongue, and had to talk with his
teeth together to keep it from falling out of his mouth.
“I heard,” said Tzara. “He’s winning you over. Admit it.”
“Only because he found bacon,” said Calixte, grabbing a slice out of the skillet. Holding it up, she said, very seriously, “Bacon has a destiny, too.”
They’d pulled a table out of the dining room, and they fetched extra chairs for Soulzeren and Ozwin. “So how are things downriver?”
They apprised each other of the situations in both places.
“You saw Lazlo?” Soulzeren asked. “Is he all right?”
“Well, we didn’t get to talk to him,” Calixte said with a scowl. “He flew off. He called up the rest of the metal creatures, you know. Just like that. That’s how they all got up there.”
“You should have seen them,” Thyon said. “It was surreal.” As an afterthought, he added, “Though I can’t believe none of them rode the dragon.”
“I know!” said Ruza. “What was Azareen’s thinking, choosing a winged horse when she could have a dragon?”
“I don’t think she was really focused on which creature was best,” said Tzara.
“You shouldn’t have to focus on it,” said Ruza. “It’s instinctive. Dragons are always best.”
They talked, all eyes straying upward to the citadel, wondering what was going on up there, until all the cheese and bacon, the nuts and overripe apricots had fulfilled their destinies and only crumbs remained.
“So,” said Soulzeren, pushing back from the table to light her pipe. “What are these selfless works the good faranji have been engaged in, with such disregard to their own safety?”
“Not much,” said Calixte, offhand, stretching lazily. “Just restoring the lost knowledge of an ancient civilization.”
Thyon stood up, dusting crumbs off his trousers. “Come have a look,” he said.
. . .
“What is this place?” asked Lazlo, who had not yet seen the heart of the citadel. It was vast and mathematically perfect: a flawless inverse sphere.
“We used to play in here,” said Sarai. “Until we outgrew the opening. We don’t know what it was for. It’s...odd.”
“How do you mean?”
They crossed the antechamber, and as soon as Lazlo stepped into the sphere—onto the walkway that led around its circumference— he did see. Or rather, he felt and heard. It was difficult to describe. A muteness seemed to reach out to envelop him, as though a great void had opened up and the sound of his breathing was siphoned away and sucked into it. As for the metal’s energies, they were wildly complex here, like music composed by some mad virtuoso.
Eril-Fane stepped out beside him, with his mother holding his arm. They looked around, not knowing what they’d expected to find, and all of them, whether this was their first sight of the chamber or not, were alike unable to fathom what might have been done with children here that they had gone in but never come out.
“Maybe they sacrificed them,” said Feral. “No, listen. It is the heart of the citadel. Maybe it needed blood or spirit to function or something. Maybe the metal absorbed the children and that’s what made it magical.”
“That’s absurd,” said Sarai.
“Is it?” he queried, feeling that he was onto something.
“It is,” Lazlo agreed with Sarai. “The metal doesn’t feed on children, I’m not sorry to say.”
“Well then, what?” Feral asked, disgruntled. It wasn’t so much that he wanted it to feed on children, as that he wouldn’t mind being right.
“I don’t know,” Lazlo said. He thought of Calixte’s theory game that they’d played as they crossed the Elmuthaleth. He’d won by accident, with a theory he’d intended as outlandish. Could anything seem outlandish now, in this world of seraphim and magic? He took the chamber’s measure, from the pair of enormous metal wasps perched on the curve of the walls, to the floating orb at its center, and began to follow the walkway.
He was holding Sarai’s hand. She came with him. The others followed, including Ruby, who had joined them wordlessly, only daring Feral with her eyes to object, and goggling when she realized it was the Godslayer in their midst.
Lazlo approached one of the wasps. The orchard at the abbey had been full of wasps in summer. As a boy, he’d been stung all the time. Even at normal size they were wicked things. Enormous like this, they were nightmarish. Rasalas and the beasts of the anchors were big enough to hold several people astride, but these were on a different scale: All seven of them—eight, including Ruby—could easily fit inside its thorax.
It was just a stray thought, but it teased a thread out of the complex stave of energies that surrounded Lazlo and snagged his attention. Fit inside it? Sensing a door in the thorax, he opened it.
Sarai murmured, craning her neck to see inside. The others looked, too. “There are seats,” she said. “And...cages.”
Cages. Small ones, just the right size for...
Gooseflesh rose on her arms. Why were there cages in the belly of a wasp in the heart of the angel hovering over Weep?
“It’s a ship,” Lazlo said, looking from one wasp to the other. “Both of them. They’re flying ships.”
“With cages,” said Eril-Fane.
“For children,” finished Suheyla.
The chamber swallowed their breathing and shrank their words, which only increased their disquiet. In a dread-scuffed whisper, Sarai asked, “To take them where?”
Whatever This Fate Was
Soulzeren and Ozwin had been duly impressed by the good work of book-rescuing, and had squeezed past the crates to go up to their room and rest. The other four remained outside to watch for the return of the metal creatures and their riders. Calixte was rebraiding the single stripe of hair that ran the meridian of Tzara’s shaved head, while Thyon and Ruza looked over the Thakranaxet.
It was open on the courtyard table. The empty tray and bacon pan had been pushed aside, crumbs brushed away, and a clean linen napkin laid out beneath the tome. It wasn’t archival treatment, but it was better than nothing. Thyon had made Ruza go and wash his hands. “It’s your holy book,” he’d pointed out. “Do you want to get greasy fingerprints all over it?”
“I’ll get greasy fingerprints all over you,” the warrior had muttered, going to do as he was told. Thyon, flushing, had pretended not to hear.
Now, hands clean—and brown and square and scarred—Ruza was reading the book. It was a thing of beauty, scribed hundreds of years ago by masters, and illuminated with golden designs. It lay open to a curious diagram that took up a whole spread. It was a row of tall, vertical discs, a half inch or so wide in the middle, and tapering to points at the top and bottom, each labeled in gorgeous script. When Ruza leafed to the next page, then the next, they saw it was more than the one spread. It went on and on.
Whatever it was, Ruza was enthralled by it, focused and serious in a way that made him seem both younger and older. That didn’t make sense, Thyon chided himself. Regardless, it was true: younger because of his earnestness, and older because of his gravity. Thyon wouldn’t have thought he had the capacity for either. He watched as his brown swordsman’s hands gently turned the fragile pages. When he looked up there was awe in his eyes.
“What is it?” Thyon asked.
Ruza ignored him. “Tzara,” he said. “Have a look at this.”
Stung, Thyon sat back. Tzara was looking feline and sleepy as Calixte braided her hair. “What?” she asked lazily.
Ruza angled the Thakranaxet toward her, pointed at the first disc in the diagram, and read, “ ‘Meliz.’ ”
Tzara’s eyes opened a little wider. Calixte, her fingers holding small sections of braid, looked as blank as Thyon felt. The word meant nothing to either of them. Ruza flipped again through all the pages of the diagram, dozens and dozens of those thin ovals all pressed together. He pointed to the last and read, “‘Zeru.’”