He was beginning to understand. How had Sarai put it? “The hate of the used and tormented, who are the children of the used and tormented, and whose own children will be used and tormented.”
“So what are you saying? What do you mean to do?” He braced himself, and asked, “Kill them?”
“No,” said Eril-Fane. “No.” It was an answer to the question, but it came out as though he were warding off a nightmare or a blow, as though even the idea was an assault, and he couldn’t bear it. He put his face in his hand, head bowed. Azareen sat apart, watching him, her eyes dark and liquid and so full of pain that she might have been made of it. Suheyla, eyes brimming with tears, laid her one good hand on her son’s shoulder.
“I’ll take the second silk sleigh,” he had said, lifting his head, and while the women’s eyes were wet, his were dry. “I’ll go up and meet with them.”
Azareen and Suheyla immediately objected. “And offer yourself as sacrifice?” demanded Azareen. “What would that accomplish?”
“It seems to me you barely escaped with your lives,” Suheyla pointed out more gently.
He looked to Lazlo, and there was a helplessness in him, as though he wanted Lazlo to tell him what to do. “I’ll talk to Sarai tonight,” he volunteered. “I’ll ask if she can persuade the others to call a truce.”
“How do you know she’ll come again?”
Lazlo blushed, and worried they could see it all written on his face. “She said she would,” he lied. They’d run out of time to make plans, but she didn’t need to say it. Night couldn’t come soon enough, and he was sure she felt the same. And next time he wouldn’t wait until the precise strike of dawn before drawing her close. He cleared his throat. “If she says it’s safe, we can go up tomorrow.”
“We?” said Eril-Fane. “No. Not you. I’ll risk no one but myself.”
Azareen looked sharply away at that, and in the bleakness of her eyes, Lazlo saw a shade of the anguish of loving someone who doesn’t love himself.
“Oh, I’m going with you,” Lazlo said, not with force but simple resolve. He was imagining disembarking from the sleigh onto the seraph’s palm, and Sarai standing before him, as real as his own flesh and blood. He had to be there. Whatever look these musings produced upon his face, Eril-Fane didn’t try to argue him out of it. As for Azareen, neither would she be left behind. But first, the five up in the citadel had to agree to it, and that couldn’t happen until tomorrow.
Meanwhile, there was today to deal with. Lazlo was to go to the Merchants’ Guildhall this morning and ask Soulzeren and Ozwin, privately, to conjure some likely excuse for delaying the launch of the second silk sleigh. Everyone would be expecting them to follow up yesterday’s failed ascension with a success, which of course they couldn’t do, at least not yet.
As for the secret, it would be kept from the citizens. Eril-Fane considered keeping it from the Tizerkane, too, for fear that it would cause them too much turmoil and prove too difficult to hide. But Azareen was staunch on their behalf, and argued that they needed to be ready for anything that happened. “They can bear it,” she said, adding softly, “They don’t need to know all of it yet.”
She meant Sarai, Lazlo understood, and whose child she was.
“There’s something I don’t understand,” he said as he prepared to take his leave. It seemed to him it was the mystery at the center of everything to do with the godspawn. “Sarai said there were thirty of them in the nursery that day.”
Eril-Fane looked sharply down at his hands. The muscles in his jaw clenched. Lazlo was uncomfortable pressing onward in this bloody line of inquiry—and he was far from certain he really wanted an answer—but it felt too important not to delve deeper. “And though that’s . . . no small number, it’s got to be just a fraction.” He was imagining the nursery as a row of identical cribs. Because he hadn’t been in the citadel and seen how everything was mesarthium, he substituted rough wooden cribs—little more than open crates—like the ones the monks kept infant orphans in at the abbey.
Here was the thing that nagged at Lazlo like a missing tooth. He himself had been an infant in a row of identical cribs, and he shared a name with countless other foundlings to show for it. There had been a lot of them—a lot of Stranges—and . . . there were still a lot of them. “What about all the others?” he asked, looking from Eril-Fane to Azareen, and lastly to Suheyla, who, he suspected, had been delivered of one herself. “The ones who weren’t babies anymore? If the Mesarthim were doing this all along . . .” This? He shuddered at his own craven circumlocution, using so meaningless a word to obscure so hideous a truth. Breeding. That was what they’d been doing. Hadn’t they?
“Over two centuries,” he pressed, “there had to have been thousands of children.”
Their three faces all wore the same bleak look. He saw that they understood him. They might have stepped in and saved him coming out with it, but they didn’t, so he put it bluntly. “What happened to all the rest?”
Suheyla answered. Her voice was lifeless. “We don’t know,” she said. “We don’t know what the gods did with them.”
Veil of Reverie
There was no beauty sleep for Thyon Nero. Quite the opposite.
“It might not kill you,” Strange had said. “But it will make you ugly.” Thyon recalled the jest—the easy teasing tone of it—as he drew another long, ill-advised syringeful of spirit from his own overtaxed veins. It couldn’t be helped. He had to make more azoth at once. A control batch, as it were, after the . . . inexplicable . . . results of last night’s test.
He had washed all his glassware and instruments carefully. He might have requested an assistant to do such menial chores, but he was too jealous of his secret to let anyone into his laboratory. Anyway, even if he’d had an assistant, he would have washed these flasks himself. It was the only way to be certain that there were no impurities in the equation, and no unknown factor that might affect the results.
He had always eschewed the mystical side of alchemy and focused on pure science. Such was the basis of his success. Empirical reality. Results—repeatable, verifiable. The solidity of truth you could hold in your hands. Even as he read the stories in Miracles for Breakfast, he was mining it for clues. It was science he was after—traces of science, anyway, like dust shaken from a tapestry of wonder.
And when he reread the stories, still it was research.
When he read them to fall asleep—a habit that was as deep a secret as the recipe for azoth—it was possible that he might drift into a kind of reverie that felt more mystical than material, but they were fairy tales, after all, and it was only in those moments when his mind shut off its rigor. Whatever it was, it was gone by morning.
But morning had come. He might have no windows to attest to it, but he had a watch, ticking steadily. The sun had risen, and Thyon Nero wasn’t reading fairy tales now. He was distilling azoth, as he had done hundreds of times before. So why had that shimmering veil of reverie been drawn over him now?
He shook it off. Whatever accounted for the results of his experiments, it wasn’t mystical, and neither was mesarthium itself, and neither was spirit. There was a scientific explanation for everything.
The Whole Day to Get Through
In the citadel and in the city, Sarai and Lazlo each felt the tug of the other, like a string fixed between their hearts. Another between their lips, where their kiss had barely begun. And a third from the pit of her belly to his, where new enticements stirred. Soft, insistent, delirious, the tug. If only they could gather up the strings and wind themselves nearer, nearer, until finally meeting in the middle.
But there was the whole day to get through before it was time, again, for dreams.
Waking from her first kiss, still flush with the magic of the extraordinary night, Sarai had been buoyant, and alive with new hope. The world seemed more beautiful, less brutal—and so did the future—because Lazlo was in it. She lay warm in her bed, her fingers playing over her own smile as though encountering it for the first time. She felt new to herself—not an obscene thing that made ghosts recoil, but a poem. A fairy tale.
In the wake of the dream, anything seemed possible. Even freedom.
But it was hard to hold on to that feeling as reality reasserted itself.
She was still a prisoner, for starters, with Minya’s army preventing her from leaving her room. When she tried to shoulder through them to the door, they gripped her arms—right over the bruises they’d made the day before—and hauled her back. Less Ellen never came with her morning tray, nor did Feyzi or Awyss with the fresh pitcher of water they always brought first thing. Sarai had used the last of her water yesterday to clean the wound on her arm, and woke dehydrated—no doubt her weeping in the night hadn’t helped—with nothing to drink.
She was thirsty. She was hungry. Did Minya mean to starve her?
She had nothing at all until Great Ellen came in sometime in early afternoon with her apron full of plums.
“Oh, thank goodness,” said Sarai. But when she looked at Great Ellen, she was disturbed by what she saw. It was the ghost’s beloved face, matronly and broad, with her round red “happiness cheeks,” but there was nothing happy to be found in her affect, as flat as all the ghosts in Minya’s army. And when she spoke, the rhythm of her voice was not her own, but recognizably Minya’s. “Even traitors must be fed,” she said, and then she dropped the hem of her apron and dumped the plums onto the floor.
“What . . . ?” asked Sarai, jumping back as they went rolling every way. As the ghost turned away, Sarai saw how her eyeballs strained to stay fixed for as long as possible on her, and she read pain in them, and apology.
Her hands shook as she picked up the plums. The first few she ate still crouched there. Her mouth and throat were so dry. The juice was heavenly, but it was tainted by the manner of its delivery, and by the horror of Minya using Great Ellen in such a way. Sarai ate five plums, then crawled around on the floor until she had gathered up all the rest of them and shoved them into the pockets of her robe. She could have eaten more, but she didn’t know how long they’d have to last her.
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