“I’m hungry,” said Ruby. For hungry children growing up in the citadel of the Mesarthim, there had never been a pantry worth raiding. There were only the plum trees Sparrow kept in perpetual fruit.
“It’s no wonder,” she said. She weighed the plum in her palm. “You’ve been . . . active lately.”
Ruby shrugged, unrepentant. She walked the herb path and scents rose up around her. She was wild-haired as ever—or even more so, from her recent exertions—and had put on a slip with a robe, unbelted, its ties flittering behind her like silky kitten tails.
Ruby lolled against the balustrade. She picked a plum and ate it. Juice dripped down her fingers. She licked them clean and gazed out at the Cusp. “Are you in love with him?” she asked.
“What?” Sparrow scowled. “No.”
She might have made no answer at all, Ruby ignored it so completely. “I didn’t know, you know. You could have told me.”
“What, and ruin your fun?”
“Martyr,” said Ruby, mild. “It was just something to do, and he was someone to do it with. The only boy alive.”
“Well, if it’s romance you want, don’t expect too much from our Feral.”
“I don’t expect anything from him,” said Sparrow, annoyed. “I don’t want him now.”
“Why not? Because I’ve had my way with him? Don’t tell me it’s like when we used to lick the spoons to claim our place at table.”
Sparrow tossed up the plum and caught it. “It is a little like that, yes.”
“Well then. The spoons were always fair game again after a wash. The same ought to go for boys.”
“What?” Ruby demanded, and Sparrow couldn’t tell if she was joking, or truly saw no difference between licked spoons and licked boys.
“It’s not about the licking. It’s obvious who Feral wants.”
“No, it’s not. It’s just because I was there,” she said. “If you’d gone to him, then it would be you.”
Sparrow scowled. “If that’s true, then I really don’t want him. I only want someone who wants only me.”
Ruby thought it was true, and to her surprise, it bothered her. When Sparrow put it like that, she rather thought that she, too, would like someone who wanted only her. She experienced an utterly irrational flare of pique toward Feral. And then she remembered what he’d said right before they both looked up and saw Sparrow in the door. “I’ll have to sleep with you from now on.”
Her cheeks warmed as she considered this. At first blush, it was anything but romantic. “I’ll have to” made it sound as though there was no other choice, but of course there was. There was spare bedding; he only had to ask the chambermaids for it. If he preferred to come to her, well. Until now, she had always gone to him. And he’d said “from now on.” It sounded like . . . a promise. Had he meant it? Did she want it?
She reached out and took a windblown curl of Sparrow’s hair into her plum-sticky hand. She gave it a gentle tug. A wistful air came over her, the closest she could come to remorse. “I just wanted to know what it was like,” she said, “in case it was my last chance. I never wanted to take him away from you.”
“You didn’t. It’s not like you tied him down and forced him.” Sparrow paused, considering. “You didn’t, did you?”
“Practically. But he didn’t scream for help, so . . .”
Sparrow launched the plum. It was close range, and hit Ruby on her collarbone. She said, “Ow!” though it hadn’t really hurt. Rubbing at the place of impact, she glared at Sparrow. “Is that it, then? Have you spent your wrath?”
“Yes,” said Sparrow, dusting off her palms. “It was one-plum wrath.”
“How sad for Feral. He was only worth one plum. Won’t he mope when we tell him.”
“We needn’t tell him,” said Sparrow.
“Of course we need,” said Ruby. “Right now he probably thinks we’re both in love with him. We can’t let that stand.” She paused at the railing. “Look, there’s Sarai.”
Sparrow looked. From the garden, they could see Sarai’s terrace and Sarai on it. It was far; they could really only make out the shape of her, pacing. They waved, but she didn’t wave back.
“She doesn’t see us,” said Sparrow, dropping her hand. “Anyway, she’s not really there.”
Ruby knew what she meant. “I know. She’s down in the city.” She sighed, wistful, and rested her chin in her hand, gazing down to where people lived and danced and loved and gossiped and didn’t ever eat kimril if they didn’t want to. “What I wouldn’t give to see it just once.”
Gray as Rain
Sarai hadn’t been out on her terrace since the attack on the silk sleigh. She’d kept to her alcove since then, trying to preserve some privacy while under heavy guard, but she couldn’t take it anymore. She needed air, and she needed to move. She was always restless when her moths were out, and now her confusion was compounding it.
What was this about?
She paced. Ghosts were all around her, but she was barely aware of them. She could still make no sense of Lazlo’s exchange with the faranji, though it clearly had something to do with mesarthium. Lazlo was tense, that much she understood. He handed back the piece of metal. The other man left—finally—and she expected Lazlo to go back to sleep. To come back to her.
Instead, he put on his boots. Dismay sparked through her. She wasn’t thinking now of exquisite paths of sensation or the heat of his lips on her shoulder. That had all been driven out by a thrum of unease. Where was he going at this time of night? He was distracted, a million miles away. She watched him pull on a vest over his loose linen nightshirt. The impulse to reach for him was so strong, but she couldn’t, and her mouth was alive with questions that she had no way to ask. A moth fluttered around his head, its path a scribble.
He saw it and blinked back into focus. “I’m sorry,” he said, uncertain whether she could hear him, and put out his hand.
Sarai hesitated before perching on it. It had been a long time since she’d tried contact with a waking person, but she knew what to expect. She did not expect to slip into a dreamspace where she could see and talk to him, and indeed she didn’t.
The unconscious mind is open terrain—no walls or barriers, for better or worse. Thoughts and feelings are free to wander, like characters leaving their books to taste life in other stories. Terrors roam, and so do yearnings. Secrets are turned out like pockets, and old memories meet new. They dance and leave their scents on each other, like perfume transferred between lovers. Thus is meaning made. The mind builds itself like a sirrah’s nest with whatever is at hand: silk threads and stolen hair and the feathers of dead kin. The only rule is that there are no rules. In that space, Sarai went where she wanted and did as she pleased. Nothing was closed to her.
The conscious mind was a different story. There was no mingling, no roaming. Secrets melted into the dark, and all the doors slammed shut. Into this guarded world, she could not enter. As long as Lazlo was awake, she was locked out on the doorstep of his mind. She knew this already, but he didn’t. When the moth made contact, he expected her to manifest in his mind, but she didn’t. He spoke her name—first aloud in the room and then louder in his mind. “Sarai?”
No response, only a vague sense that she was near—locked on the far side of a door he didn’t know how to open. He gathered that he’d have to fall asleep if he wanted to talk to her, but that was impossible right now. His mind was buzzing with Thyon’s question.
Who are you?
He imagined that other people had a place in the center of themselves—right in the center of themselves—where the answer to that question resided. Himself, he had only an empty space. “You know I don’t know,” he had told Thyon, uncomfortable. “What are you suggesting?”
“I am suggesting,” the golden godson had replied, “that you are no orphan peasant from Zosma.”
Azoth of this world. That was what Thyon had said. Azoth of this world did not affect mesarthium. Azoth distilled from the alchemist’s own spirit had no effect on it at all. And yet he had cut a shard off the anchor, and that was proof enough: Something had affected mesarthium, and that something, according to Thyon, was Lazlo.
He told himself Nero was mocking him, that it was all a prank. Maybe Drave was hiding just out of sight, chuckling like a schoolboy.
But what sort of prank? An elaborate ruse to make him think there was something special about him? He couldn’t believe that Nero would go to the trouble, particularly not now, when he was so obsessed with the challenge at hand. Thyon Nero was many things, but frivolous just wasn’t one of them.
But then, maybe Lazlo just wanted it to be true. For there to be something special about him.
He didn’t know what to think. Mesarthium was at the center of this mystery, so that was where he was going—to the anchor, as though Mouzaive’s invisible magnetic fields were pulling him there. He left the house, Sarai’s moth still perched on his hand. He didn’t know what to tell her, if she could even hear him. His mind was awhirl with thoughts and memories, and, at the center of everything: the mystery of himself.
“So you could be anyone,” Sarai had said when he told her about the cartload of orphans and not knowing his name.
He thought of the abbey, the monks, the rows of cribs, the wailing babies, and himself, silent in their midst.
“Unnatural,” Brother Argos had called him. The word echoed through Lazlo’s thoughts. Unnatural. He’d only meant Lazlo’s silence, hadn’t he? “Thought sure you’d die,” the monk had said, too. “Gray as rain, you were.”
A fizz of shivers radiated out over Lazlo’s scalp and down his neck and spine.
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