Soulzeren had said she could carry three passengers in addition to herself. Eril-Fane and Azareen made two, and Lazlo was offered the last place.
“Are you sure?” he asked Eril-Fane. “But . . . one of the Tizerkane—?”
“As you’ve no doubt observed,” said Eril-Fane, “the citadel is difficult for us.” We are all children in the dark, Lazlo remembered. “Any of them would come if I asked, but they’ll be glad to be spared. You needn’t come if you don’t wish.” A sly glint came into his eyes. “I can always ask Thyon Nero.”
“Now, that’s uncalled for,” said Lazlo. “And anyway, he isn’t here.”
Eril-Fane looked around. “No, he isn’t, is he?” Thyon was, in fact, the only delegate who hadn’t come to watch the launch. “Shall I send for him?”
“No,” said Lazlo. “Of course I want to come.” In truth, though, he was less certain after his macabre dream. Just a dream, he told himself, glancing up at the citadel. The angle of the climbing sun snuck a slash of rays under the edges of its wings, shining a jagged shimmer along the sharp tips of the huge metal feathers.
Everyone will die.
“Are you sure it’s empty?” he blurted out, trying and failing to sound casual.
“I’m sure,” said Eril-Fane with grim finality. He softened a little. “If you’re afraid, just know that you’re in good company. It’s all right if you prefer to stay.”
“No, I’m fine,” Lazlo insisted.
And so it was that he found himself stepping aboard a silk sleigh a scant hour later. In spite of the chill that didn’t quite leave him, he was well able to marvel at this latest unfolding of his life. He, Strange the dreamer, was going to fly. He was going to fly in the world’s first functional airship, along with two Tizerkane warriors and a badlander mechanist who used to make firearms for amphion warlords, up to a citadel of alien blue metal floating above the city of his dreams.
In addition to the faranji, citizens were gathered to see them off, Suheyla included, and all were marked by the same trepidation as the Zeyyadin the previous evening. No one looked up. Lazlo found their fear more unsettling than ever, and was glad to be distracted by Calixte.
She came over and whispered, “Bring me a souvenir.” She winked. “You owe me.”
“I’m not going to loot the citadel for you,” he said, prim. And then, “What kind of souvenir?” His mind went at once to the god corpses they expected to find, including Isagol’s. He shuddered. How long did it take for a corpse to become a skeleton? Less than fifteen years, surely. But he wouldn’t be breaking off any pinkie bones for Calixte. Besides, Eril-Fane said that Lazlo and Soulzeren would wait outside while he and Azareen did a thorough search to make sure it was safe.
“I thought you were certain it was empty,” Lazlo pointed out.
“Empty of the living,” was his comforting reply.
And then they were boarding. Soulzeren put on goggles that made her look like a dragonfly. Ozwin gave her a kiss and loosened the mooring lines that kept the big silk pontoons firmly on the ground. They had to cast them all off at once if they wanted to rise straight and not “yaw about like drunken camels,” as Ozwin put it. There were safety lines that hooked to harnesses Soulzeren had given them to wear—all but Eril-Fane, whose shoulders were far too big for them.
“Hook it on your belt, then,” said Soulzeren with a frown. She peered up, squinting at the underside of the vast metal wings, and the soles of the great angel’s feet, and the sky she could see around the edges. “No wind, anyway. Should be fine.”
Then they were counting down and casting off.
And just like that . . . they were flying.
The five in the citadel gathered on Sarai’s terrace, watching, watching, watching the city. If you stared at it long enough, it became an abstract pattern: the circle of the amphitheater dead center in the oval formed by the outer walls, which were broken by the four hulking monoliths of the anchors. The streets were mazy. They tempted you to trace pathways with your eyes, finding routes between this place and that. All the godspawn had done it, save Minya, who alone never yearned to see it closer.
“Maybe they aren’t coming,” said Feral, hoping. Ever since Sarai told him about the silk sleighs’ vulnerability, he’d been thinking about it, wondering what he would do if—when—it came down to it. Would he defy Minya, or disappoint Sarai? Which was the safer course? Even now he was uncertain. If only they wouldn’t come, he wouldn’t have to choose.
Choosing wasn’t Feral’s strong suit.
“There.” Sparrow pointed, her hand trembling. She still held the flowers she’d been weaving into Sarai’s hair—torch ginger blossoms, like the ones she’d put on Ruby’s cake—“for wishing”—except that these weren’t buds. They were open blooms, as gorgeous as fireworks. She’d already done Ruby’s hair, and Ruby had done hers. All three of them wore wishes in their hair today.
Now Sarai’s hearts lurched. They seemed to slam together. She leaned forward, resting against the slope of the angel’s hand to peer over the edge and follow the line of Sparrow’s finger down to the rooftops. No no no, she said inside her head, but she saw it: a flicker of red, rising from the pavilion of the guildhall.
They were coming. Disengaging from the city, leaving rooftops and spires and domes behind. The shape grew larger, steadily more distinct, and soon Sarai could make out four figures. Her hearts went on slamming.
Her father. Of course he was one of the four. He was easy to discern at a distance for the size of him. Sarai swallowed hard. She had never seen him with her own eyes. A wave of emotion surged through her, and it wasn’t wrath, and it wasn’t hate. It was longing. To be someone’s child. Her throat felt thick. She bit her lip.
And all too soon they were risen close enough that she could make out the other passengers. She recognized Azareen, and would have expected no less from the woman who had loved Eril-Fane for so long. The pilot was the older faranji woman, and the fourth passenger . . .
The fourth passenger was Lazlo.
His face was upturned. He was still too distant to make out clearly, but she knew it was him.
Why hadn’t he listened to her? Why hadn’t he believed her?
Well, he would believe soon enough. Waves of hot and cold flushed through her, chased by despair. Minya’s army was waiting just inside the open door in Sarai’s room, ready to ambush the humans the moment they landed. They would swarm over them with their knives and cleavers and meat hooks. The humans wouldn’t stand a chance. Minya stood there like the small general she was, intent and ready. “All right,” she said, fixing Sarai and Feral, Ruby and Sparrow with her cool, bright gaze. “Everyone get out of sight,” she ordered, and Sarai watched as the others obeyed.
“Minya—” she began.
“Now,” snapped Minya.
Sarai didn’t know what to do. The humans were coming. Carnage was at hand. Numbly, she followed the others, wishing it were a nightmare from which she could awaken.
It wasn’t like soaring. There was nothing of the bird in this steady ascension. They floated upward, rather, like a very large ulola blossom, with a bit more control than the wind-borne flowers had.
Aside from the pontoons, which were sewn of specially treated red silk and contained ulola gas, there was another bladder, this one under the craft, filled with air by means of a foot-pedal bellows. It wasn’t for lift, but propulsion. By means of a number of outflow valves, Soulzeren could control thrust in different directions—forward, backward, side to side. There was a mast and sail, too, that worked just like a sailing ship if the winds were favorable. Lazlo had witnessed test flights in Thanagost, and the sight of the sleighs scudding across the skies under full sail had been magical.
Looking down, he saw people in the streets and on terraces, growing steadily smaller until the sleigh had drifted so far above the city that it spread out like a map. They came even with the lowermost part of the citadel—the feet. Up and up, past the knees, the long, smooth thighs up to the torso, seeming draped in robes of gossamer—all mesarthium and solid but so cunningly shaped you could see the jut of hip bones as though through diaphanous cloth.
Whatever else he had been, Skathis had also been an artist.
In order to cast the greatest shadow, the wings were fanned out in an immense circle, with the scapular feathers touching in the back, the secondaries forming the middle of the ring, and the long, sleek primaries reaching all the way around to come parallel to the seraph’s outstretched arms. The silk sleigh rose up through the gap between the arms, coming even with the chest. As he squinted up at the underside of the chin, color caught Lazlo’s eyes. Green. Swaths of green below the collarbones, stretching from one shoulder to the other.
They were the trees that dropped their plums on the district called Windfall, Lazlo thought. It occurred to him to wonder how, with so little rainfall, they were still alive.
“Feral,” Sarai implored. “Please.”
Feral’s jaw clenched. He didn’t look at her. If she were asking him not to do something, he wondered if it would be easier than to do something. He glanced at Minya.
“This doesn’t have to happen,” Sarai went on. “If you call clouds right now, you can still force them back.”
“Close your mouth,” said Minya, her voice like ice, and Sarai saw that it infuriated her that she couldn’t compel the living to obey her as easily as she did the dead.
“Minya,” she pleaded, “so long as no one’s died, there’s hope of finding some other way.”
“So long as no one’s died?” repeated Minya. She gave a high laugh. “Then I’d say it’s fifteen years too late for hope.”
Sarai closed her eyes and opened them again. “I mean now. So long as no one’s died now.”
“If it’s not today, then it’s tomorrow, or the next day. When there’s an unpleasant job to do, it’s best to get it over with. Putting it off won’t help.”