Gray as rain, you were, but your color came normal in time.
In the silent street of the sleeping city, Lazlo’s feet slowed to a stop. He lifted the hand that had, moments ago, been holding the piece of mesarthium. The moth’s wings rose and fell, but he wasn’t looking at the moth. The discoloration was back—a grime-gray streak across his palm where he’d clutched the slender shard. He knew that it would fade, so long as he wasn’t touching mesarthium, and return as soon as he did. And all those years ago, his skin had been gray and had faded to normal.
The sound of his heartbeats seemed to fill his head.
What if he hadn’t been ill at all? What if he was . . . something much stranger than the name Strange was ever intended to signify?
Another wave of shivers swept over him. He’d thought it was some property of the metal that it was reactive with skin, but he was the only one who had reacted to it.
And now, according to Thyon, it had reacted to him.
What did it mean? What did any of it mean? He started walking again, faster now, wishing Sarai were by his side. He wanted her hand clasped in his, not her moth perched on it. After the wonder and ease of flying in so real-seeming a dream, he felt heavy and trudging and trapped down here on the surface of the world. That was the curse of dreaming: One woke to pallid reality, with neither wings on one’s shoulders nor goddess in one’s arms.
Well, he might never have wings in his waking life, but he would hold Sarai—not her phantom and not her moth, but her, flesh and blood and spirit. Somehow or other, he vowed, that much of his dream would come true.
As Lazlo quickened his pace, so did Sarai. Her bare feet moved swiftly over the cool metal of the angel’s palm, as though she were trying to keep up. It was unconscious. As Ruby and Sparrow had said, she wasn’t really here, but had left just enough awareness in her body so that she knew when to turn in her pacing and not walk up the slope that edged the seraph’s hand and right over the edge.
Most of her awareness was with Lazlo: perched on his wrist, and pressed against the closed door of his consciousness. She felt his quickened pulse, and the wave of shivers that prickled his flesh, and she experienced, simultaneously, a surge of emotion radiating out from him—and it was the kind of trembling, astonished awe one might feel in the presence of the sublime. Clear and strong as it was, though, she couldn’t grasp its cause. His feelings reached her in waves, like music heard through walls, but his thoughts stayed hidden inside.
Her other ninety-nine moths had flown off and were spinning through the city in clusters, searching for some hint of activity. But she could find nothing amiss. Weep was quiet. Tizerkane guards were silent silhouettes in their watchtowers, and the golden faranji returned directly to his laboratory and locked himself inside. Eril-Fane and Azareen were sleeping—she in her bed, he on the floor, the door closed between them—and the silk sleighs were just as they’d been left.
Sarai told herself that there was nothing to worry about, and then, hearing the words in her mind, gave a hard—if voiceless—laugh. Nothing to worry about? Nothing at all. What could there possibly be to worry about?
Just discovery, carnage, and death.
Those were the worries she’d grown up with, and they were dulled by familiarity. But there were new worries, because there was new hope, and desire, and . . . and love, and those were neither familiar nor dull. Until a few days ago, Sarai could hardly have said what there was to live for, but now her hearts were full of reasons. They were full and heavy and burdened with a fearsome urgency to live—because of Lazlo, and the world they built when their minds touched, and the belief, in spite of everything, that they could make it real. If only the others would let them.
But they wouldn’t.
Tonight she and Lazlo had sought solace in each other and found it, and they had hidden in it, blocking out reality and the hate they were powerless against. They had no solution and no hope, and so they’d reveled in what they did have—each other, at least in dreams—and tried to forget all the rest.
But there was no forgetting.
Sarai caught sight of Rasalas, perched on the anchor. She usually avoided the monster, but now she sent a cluster of her moths winging nearer. It had been beautiful in the dream. It might have served as a symbol of hope—if it could be remade, then anything could—but here it was as it had ever been: a symbol of nothing but brutality.
She couldn’t bear the sight. Her moths broke apart and spun away, and that was when a sound caught her ear. From down below, in the shadow of the anchor, she heard footsteps, and something else. A sullen creak, low and repetitive. Flowing more of her attention into these dozen-some moths, she sent them down to investigate. They honed in on the sound and followed it into the alley that ran along the base of the anchor.
Sarai knew the place, but not well. This district was abandoned. No one had lived here in all the time she’d been coming down to Weep, so there was no reason to send moths here. She’d all but forgotten the mural, and the sight arrested her: six dead gods, crudely blue and dripping red, and her father in the middle: hero, liberator, butcher.
The creaking was louder now, and Sarai could make out the silhouette of a man. She couldn’t see his face, but she could smell him: the yellow stink of sulfur and stain.
What’s he doing here? she wondered with distaste. Sight confirmed what her other senses told her. It was the peeling-faced one whose dreams had so disturbed her. Between his ugly mind and rancid hygiene, she hadn’t made contact with him since that second night, but only passed him by with wincing revulsion. She’d spent less time in his mind than in any of his fellows’, and so she had only a passing notion of his expertise, and even less of his thoughts and plans.
Perhaps that had been a mistake.
He was walking slowly, holding a sort of wheel in his hands—a spool from which he was unwinding a long string behind him. That was the rhythmic creaking: the wheel, rusty, groaning as it turned. She watched, perplexed. At the mouth of the alley, he peered out and looked around. Everything about him was furtive. When he was certain no one was near, he reached into his pocket, fumbled in the dark, and struck a match. The flame flared high and blue, then shrank to a little orange tongue no bigger than a fingertip.
Bending down, he touched it to the string, which of course wasn’t a string, but a fuse.
And then he ran.
Thyon dropped the shard of mesarthium onto his worktable and dropped himself, heavily, onto his stool. With a sigh—frustration on top of deep weariness—he rested his brow on his hand and stared at the long sliver of alien metal. He’d gone looking for answers, and gotten none, and the mystery wouldn’t let him go.
“What are you?” he asked the mesarthium, as though it might tell him what Strange had not. “Where did you come from?” His voice was low, accusatory.
“Why aren’t you gloating?” Strange had asked him. “You did it.”
But what, exactly, had he done? Or, more to the point, why had it worked? The vial labeled spirit of librarian was lying just a few inches from the metal. Thyon sat like that, staring hard at the two things—the vial with its few remaining drops of vital essence, and the bit of metal the essence had enabled him to cut.
And maybe it was because he was dazed with spirit loss, or maybe he was just tired and halfway to dreaming already, but though he looked with all the rigor of a scientist, his gaze was filtered by the shimmering veil of reverie—the same sense of wonder that attended him when he read his secret book of miracles. And so, when he noticed something odd, he considered all possibilities, including the ones that oughtn’t to have been possible at all.
He reached for the metal and examined it more closely. The edges were uneven where the alkahest had eaten away at it, but one facet was as perfectly smooth as the surface of the anchor. Or it had been. He was certain.
It wasn’t anymore. Now, without a doubt, it bore the subtle indentations of . . . well, of fingers, where Lazlo Strange had clutched it in his hand.
Hot and Rotten and Wrong
As Sarai had felt waves of Lazlo’s feelings even through the barriers of his consciousness, so did he feel the sudden blaze of hers.
A fry of panic—no thoughts, no images, just a slap of feeling and he jerked to a halt, two blocks from the anchor, and then, flooding his senses: the tang of sulfur, hot and rotten and wrong.
It was the stink of Drave, and it felt like a premonition, because just then Drave came into view at the top of the street, rounding the corner at a dead run. His eyes widened when he caught sight of Lazlo, but he didn’t slow. He just came pelting onward as though pursued by ravids. All in an instant: the panic, the tang, and the explosionist. Lazlo blinked.
And then the world went white.
A bloom of light. Night became day—brighter than day, no darkness left alive. Stars shone pale against bleached-bone heavens, and all the shadows died. The moment wavered in tremulous silence, blinding, null, and numb.
And then the blast.
It hurled him. He didn’t know it. He only knew the flash. The world went white, and then it went black, and that was all there was to it.
Not for Sarai. She was safe from the blast wave—at least her body was, up in the citadel. The moths near the anchor were incinerated in an instant. In the first second before her awareness could flow into her other sentinels, it was as though fire scorched away her sight in pieces, leaving ragged holes rimmed in cinders.
Those moths were lost. She had some eighty others still on wing in the city, but the blast ripped outward so fast and far it seized them all in its undertow and swept them away. Her senses churned with their tumbling, end over end, no up, no down. She dropped to her knees on the terrace, head spinning as more moths died, more holes melting from her vision, and the rest kept on reeling, out of her control. It was seconds before she could pull her senses home to her body—most of them, at least. Enough to stop the spinning as her helpless smithereens scattered. Her mind and belly heaved, sick and dizzy and frantic. The worst was that she’d lost Lazlo. The moth on his hand had been peeled away and snuffed out of existence, and for all she knew, he had been, too.