“What, you disapprove of my purse?” asked Lazlo, holding it up to show off its gaudy brooch to best advantage.
“Yes, I rather do.”
“But it’s so handy,” said Lazlo. “Look, I can wear it like this.” He demonstrated, dangling it from his wrist by its drawstrings and swinging it in circles, childlike.
Ruza just shook his head and muttered, “Faranji.”
But mostly, there was work to be done.
Over those first few days, Lazlo had to see to it that all the Godslayer’s delegates were set up with workspace to accommodate their needs, as well as materials and, in some cases, assistants. And since most hadn’t bothered to learn any of their host language on the journey, they all needed interpreters. Some of the Tizerkane understood a little, but they had their duties to attend to. Calixte was nearly fluent by now, but she had no intention of spending her time helping “small-minded old men.” And so Lazlo found himself very busy.
Some of the delegates were easier than others. Belabra, the mathematician, requested an office with high walls he might write his formulas upon and whitewash over as he saw fit. Kether, artist and designer of catapults and siege engines, needed only a drafting table brought into his room at the guildhall.
Lazlo doubted that the engineers needed much more than that, but Ebliz Tod seemed to view it as a matter of distinction—that the more “important” guests should ask for, and receive, the most. And so he dictated elaborate and specific demands that it was then Lazlo’s duty to fulfill, with the help of a number of locals Suheyla organized to assist him. The result was that Tod’s Weep workshop surpassed his Syriza office in grandeur, though he did indeed spend most of his time at the drafting table in the corner.
Calixte asked for nothing at all, though Lazlo knew she was procuring, with Tzara’s assistance, an array of resins with which to concoct sticking pastes to aid in her climbing. Whether she would be called upon by Eril-Fane to do so was much in question—she herself suspected he’d invited her along more to rescue her from jail than from real need of her—but she was determined to win her bet with Tod in any case. “Any luck?” Lazlo asked her when he saw her coming back from a test at the anchor.
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” she replied. “It’s all strength and cleverness.” She winked, flexing her hands like five-legged spiders. “And glue.”
As she dropped her hands, it occurred to Lazlo that they bore no gray discoloration. He had discovered, after his own contact with the anchor, that the faint dirty tinge did not wash off, even with soap and water. It had faded, though, and was gone now. The mesarthium, he thought, must be reactive with skin the way some other metals were, such as copper. Not Calixte’s skin, though. She’d just been touching the anchor and bore no trace of it.
The Fellerings, Mouzaive the magnetist, and Thyon Nero all needed laboratory space in which to unload the equipment they had brought with them from the west. The Fellerings and Mouzaive were content with converted stables next to the guildhall, but Thyon refused them, demanding to scout other sites. Lazlo had to go along as interpreter, and at first he couldn’t tell what it was the alchemist was looking for. He turned down some rooms as too big and others as too small, before settling on the attic story of a crematorium—a cavernous space larger than others he’d rejected as too big. It was also windowless, with a single great, heavy door. When he demanded no fewer than three locks for it, Lazlo understood: He’d chosen the place for privacy.
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.”