“That’s a good question,” he said, and turned it back on Lazlo. “What am I doing here, Strange? Are you going to enlighten me?” His voice was hollow, and so were his eyes, his sunken cheeks. He was gaunt with spirit loss, his color sickly. He looked even worse than he had the day before.
As for Lazlo, he was surprised at his own rage, which even now was ebbing away. It wasn’t an emotion he had much experience with—it didn’t fit him—and he knew it wasn’t really Thyon who had provoked it, but his own powerlessness to save Sarai. For an instant, just an instant, he had felt the searing anguish of losing her—but it wasn’t real. She wasn’t lost. Her moths were still here, up on the ceiling beams, and the night wasn’t over. As soon as he fell back to sleep she’d return to him.
Of course, he had to get rid of the alchemist first. “Enlighten you?” he asked, confused. “What are you talking about, Nero?”
Thyon shook his head, scornful. “You’ve always been good at that,” he said. “That hapless look. Those innocent eyes.” He spoke bitterly. “Yesterday, you almost had me convinced that you helped me because I needed it.” This he said as though it were the most absurd of propositions. “As though any man ever walked up to another and offered the spirit from his veins. But I couldn’t imagine what motive you could have, so I almost believed it.”
Lazlo squinted at him. “You should believe it. What other motive could there be?”
“That’s what I want to know. You pulled me into this years ago, all the way back at the Chrysopoesium. Why, Strange? What’s your game?” He looked wild as well as ill, a sheen of sweat on his brow. “Who are you really?”
The question took Lazlo aback. Thyon had known him since he was thirteen years old. He knew who he was, insofar as it was knowable. He was a Strange, with all that that implied. “What’s this about, Nero?”
“Don’t even think about playing me for a fool, Strange—”
Lazlo lost patience and cut him off, repeating, in a louder voice, “What’s this about, Nero?”
The two young men stood on opposite sides of the open window, facing each other across the sill much as they had once faced each other across the Enquiries desk, except that now Lazlo was uncowed. Sarai watched them through her sentinels. She had awakened when Lazlo did, then collapsed back on her pillows, squeezing her eyes tight shut to block out the sight of the mesarthium walls and ceiling that hemmed her in. Hadn’t she said she didn’t want to come back here yet? She could have cried in her frustration. Her blood and spirit were coursing fast and her shoulder was hot as though from Lazlo’s real breath. The pink silk strap had even slipped down, just like in the dream. She traced it with her fingers, eyes closed, recalling the feeling of Lazlo’s lips and hands, the exquisite paths of sensation that came alive wherever he touched her. What did the faranji mean, coming here in the middle of the night?
The two spoke in their own language, as meaningless to her as drums or birdsong. She didn’t know what they were saying, but she saw the wariness in their posture, the mistrust in their eyes, and it set her on edge. Lazlo pushed his hair back impatiently with one hand. A beat passed in silence. Then the other man reached into his pocket. The movement was quicksilver-sudden. Sarai glimpsed a glint of metal.
Lazlo saw it, too. A knife. Flashing toward him.
He jerked back. The bed was right behind him. He bumped against it and ended up sitting. In his mind’s eye, Ruza shook his head, despairing of ever making a warrior of him.
Thyon gave him a scathing look. “I’m not going to kill you, Strange,” he said, and Lazlo saw that it was not a knife that lay across his open palm, but a long sliver of metal.
His heartbeats stuttered. Not just metal. Mesarthium.
Understanding flooded him and he surged back to his feet. For the moment, he forgot all his anger and Thyon’s cryptic insinuations and was simply overcome by the significance of the achievement. “You did it,” he said, breaking into a smile. “The alkahest worked. Nero, you did it!”
Thyon’s scathing look was wiped away, replaced with uncertainty. He’d convinced himself this was part of some ploy, some trickery or treachery with Strange at its center, but suddenly he wasn’t sure. In Lazlo’s reaction was pure wonder, and even he could see it wasn’t feigned. He shook his head, not in denial, but more like he was shaking something off. It was the same feeling of disfaith he’d experienced at the anchor—of disbelief crashing against evidence. Lazlo wasn’t hiding anything. Whatever the meaning of this enigma, it was a mystery to him as well.
“May I?” Lazlo asked, not waiting for an answer. The metal seemed to call out to him. He took it from Thyon’s hand and weighed it on his own. The ripple of glavelight on its satin-blue sheen was mesmerizing, its surface cool against his dream-fevered skin. “Have you told Eril-Fane?” he asked, and when Thyon didn’t answer, he pulled his gaze up from the metal. The scorn and suspicion were gone from the alchemist’s face, leaving him blank. Lazlo didn’t know exactly what this breakthrough would mean for Weep’s problem, which was far more complicated than Thyon knew, but there was no doubt that it was a major accomplishment. “Why aren’t you gloating, Nero?” he asked. There was no grudge in his voice when he said, “It’s a good episode for your legend, to be sure.”
“Shut up, Strange,” said Thyon, though there was less rancor in the words than in all the ones that came before them. “Listen to me. It’s important.” His jaw clenched and unclenched. His gaze was sharp as claws. “Our world has a remarkable cohesion—a set of elements that make up everything in it. Everything in it. Leaf and beetle, tongue and teeth, iron and water, honey and gold. Azoth is . . .” He groped for a way to explain. “It’s the secret language they all understand. Do you see? It’s the skeleton key that unlocks every door.” He paused to let this sink in.
“And you’re unlocking the doors,” said Lazlo, trying to guess where he was going with this.
“Yes, I am. Not all of them, not yet. It’s the work of a lifetime—the Great Work. My great work, Strange. I’m not some gold maker to spend my days filling a queen’s coin purse. I am unlocking the mysteries of the world, one by one, and I haven’t come across a lock yet, so to speak, that my key will not fit. The world is my house. I am its master. Azoth is my key.”
He paused again, with significance, and Lazlo, seeking to fill the silence, ventured a wary, “You’re welcome?”
But whatever Thyon’s point was, it was apparently not gratitude for the part Lazlo had played in giving him his “key.” Aside from a narrowing of his eyes, he continued as though he hadn’t heard. “Mesarthium, now”—he paused before laying down his next words with great weight—“is not of this world.”
He said it as though it were a great revelation, but Lazlo just raised his eyebrows. He knew that much already. Well, he might not know it the way that Thyon knew it, through experiments and empirical evidence. Still, he’d been sure of it since he first set eyes on the citadel. “Nero,” he said, “I should have thought that was obvious.”
“And that being the case, it should be no surprise that it does not understand the secret language. The skeleton key does not fit.” In a voice that brooked no doubt, he said, “Azoth of this world does not affect mesarthium.”
Lazlo’s brow furrowed. “But it did,” he said, holding up the shard of metal.
“Not quite.” Thyon looked at him very hard. “Azoth distilled from my spirit had no effect on it at all. So I ask you again, Lazlo Strange . . . who are you?”
Sparrow leaned against the garden balustrade. The city lay below, cut by the avenue of light—moonlight now—that slipped between the great seraph’s wings. It looked like a path. At night especially, the cityscape was muted enough to lose its sense of scale. If you let your eyes go just out of focus, the avenue became a lane of light you might walk straight across, all the way to the Cusp and beyond. Why not?
A breeze stirred the plum boughs, shivering leaves and Sparrow’s hair. She plucked a plum. It fit perfectly in her hand. She held it there a moment, looking out, looking down. Ruby had thrown one. Reckless Ruby. What would it feel like, Sparrow wondered, to be wild like her sister, and take what—and who—you wanted and do as you liked? She laughed inwardly. She would never know.
Drifting down the corridor toward Feral’s room, she’d been daydreaming of a kiss—a single sweet kiss—only to discover . . .
She felt like a child. On top of everything else—her chest aching as though her hearts had been stomped on, and the shock that had her still gasping—she was embarrassed. She’d been thinking of a kiss, while they were doing . . . that. It was so far beyond anything she knew. Sarai used to tell them about the things humans did together, and it had been so scandalous, so remote. She’d never even imagined doing it herself, and for all of her sister’s fixation on kissing, she’d never imagined her doing it, either. Especially not with Feral. She squeezed her eyes closed and held her face in her hands. She felt so stupid, and betrayed, and . . . left behind.
She weighed the plum in her hand, and for just a moment it seemed to represent everything she wasn’t—or perhaps every sweet, insipid thing she was.
Ruby was fire—fire and wishes, like torch ginger—and she was . . . fruit? No, worse: She was kimril, sweet and nourishing and bland. She drew back her arm and hurled the plum as far out as she could. Instantly she regretted it. “Maybe I’ll hit one of them,” Ruby had said, but Sparrow didn’t want to hit anyone.
Well, maybe Ruby and Feral.
As though conjured by her thoughts, Ruby stepped out into the garden. Seeing her, Sparrow plucked another plum. She didn’t throw it at her, but held it, just in case. “What are you doing awake?” she asked.