“Hurry up, Wyn!” shouted Janke. “The Rising Howl's on its way!”
“I know!” he shouted back. “You don't need to tell me!”
Wyn could hear the squeal of greased iron and the taste of metal tingling on his teeth. The interior of the vent pipe he was climbing vibrated with the hexdraulic elevator's approach.
He pushed his back against the beveled ironwork, keeping his cramping legs braced on the opposite side. Looking up, the square of light that was the way out of the pipe seemed impossibly distant. A head appeared above him; his older brother, Nico.
“Almost there, little man,” said Nico, reaching back to offer his hand to Wyn. “You need me to come down?”
Wyn shook his head and dug deep, pushing with his spine straight as the muscles in his legs burned. Step by step, he inched upward until he was close enough to reach for his brother's hand.
Nico grabbed his wrist and hauled, pulling him from the pipework. Wyn landed badly and stumbled, falling flat on his face in the cliff-side alcove known to every kid in Zaun. The space was barely wide and tall enough for them to stand next to each other with a sheer drop at the edge. Maybe ten yards beyond the edge were the elevator's three support columns, each two yards wide and wrought from heavy ironwork.
Feen stood at the farthest part of the ledge, looking down with a manic grin. The wind billowed around him, his patchwork clothes flapping and his hair wild. Kez stood next to Nico, her cheeks flushed with excitement. Janke beat a nervous tattoo on his thigh with the palm of his hand, glowering at Wyn.
“You almost made us miss it.”
“Howl ain't here yet,” snapped Wyn. “We ain't missed nothing.”
Janke glared at Wyn, but with Nico here, he didn't dare say or do anything. Back at Hope House for Foundling Children, Janke was a bully, but a bully it was sometimes handy to have around when low-rent Chem-Baron thugs fancied kicking downward.
Kez reached to help Wyn up. He smiled and took her hand.
“Thanks,” he said.
“My pleasure,” she said, leaning in to be heard over the noise.
Wyn smelled the caustic soap she'd washed with that morning - like chemical lemon juice. Given the nature of this excursion, she'd made an effort with her clothes too, digging out an old dress from the boxes of clothes discarded by kids who'd outgrown them, or who'd left the foundling home when they got too old. Wyn had beaten the worst of the dust and grime from his own threads, but he suddenly felt acutely scruffy next to Kez.
“I've never ridden the Howl,” she said, still holding tight to his hand. “Have you?”
The screeching roar was getting louder. The clattering rattle of the elevator's mechanisms echoed deafeningly from the dripping, algal-green walls of the alcove. Feen was looking back at him and Janke had an ugly grin plastered over his face. Fear of looking like a dumb kid made the lie easier to tell. “Me? Yeah, loads!” he said, knowing instantly it was a mistake. Wyn glanced over his shoulder. The others were gathered at the edge; legs braced, leaning into the wind.
Wyn leaned close to Kez's ear.
“Sorry, I don't know why I said that,” he said. “I ain't done this before. Not never once. Don't tell the others, but I'm crapping it.”
She let out a relieved breath.
“Good. I didn't want to be the only one.”
Riding the Rising Howl was one of many rites of passage for the kids of Zaun. Like reaching the top of Old Hungry with all your limbs intact, cutpursing a baron's man or playing knock-and-run with a stilt-walking sump-scrapper. Zaun had a seemingly endless procession of insanely dangerous tests you had to pass to truly count yourself a hard-bitten street kid.
But gathering his courage to leap from the rocky ledge, this test seemed to Wyn to be the craziest. The scream of the approaching elevator was getting louder, filling the alcove with the shriek of metal on metal and the boom of ratcheting gears.
Nico stood, leaned out and stared down, turning back with a crooked grin and a thumbs up. He bent his knees and threw himself out from the cliff. Arms and legs flailing, he vanished from sight. Not wanting to be shown up, Janke went next, hurling himself from the ledge with a wild whooping yell. Feen followed his friend, laughing like a maniac. “Ready?” yelled Wyn, his words drowned out by the Rising Howl.
Kez nodded. No way she could hear him, but she got the message. She still hadn't let go of his hand. He grinned, and they ran toward the cliff edge. Wyn's heart was in his mouth, beating like a pneuma-hammer against his ribs. His step faltered, but it was too late to stop now. He reached the edge of the cliff and leapt into the wind, yelling a defiant roar of fear and bravado.
The ground vanished beneath him. Only empty air between him and the lower levels of Zaun, hundreds of yards below. Sheer, undiluted terror seized Wyn. It clamped him in a smith's vice and squeezed the air from his lungs. Wyn saw himself tumbling to the ground, windmilling his arms as if he might suddenly learn to fly like the cliff-shrikes. He looked down. The ovoid, glass and iron shape of the Rising Howl was below him, coming up fast.
Nico, Janke, and Feen were already on it, clinging to its baroque latticework frames or braced against its structure. Wyn slammed into the thick glass and rolled. He flailed for a handhold, sliding down the curve of the outer windows. His sweaty palms slipped. His feet scrabbled for purchase. Anything to slow his descent. Nothing.
“No, no, no...” he gasped, sliding over the curved topside toward the edge. “mercy!”
An updraught of wind flipped him over onto his front and he saw a bronze hook standing proud on the giant elevator's side. He threw himself at it, and it seemed the wind at his back gave him just enough of a push to reach it. His fingers closed on the metal and his sliding descent to oblivion halted.
With the threat of a long fall, followed by a hard stop, averted, Wyn was able to get his feet under him and looked around for Kez. He saw her higher up, laughing hysterically at having survived. Wyn felt the urge to laugh, and couldn't stop grinning like a lunatic as he clambered up to where the upper surfaces of the Rising Howl were less angled.
Nico gave a whoop when he saw him and punched Janke in the arm.
“See? Told you he'd make it!”
Wyn clambered to his brother, his legs rubbery as a shimmerfiend's after an all-night bender. He sucked in a great draught of clean air. Down in the Sump, the air had texture, but getting higher, it had a sharp clarity that made him pleasantly light-headed.
“Not bad, little man, not bad,” said Nico, giving him a slap on the back. His older brother coughed and spat a wad of gray phlegm onto the glass. Nico wiped his lips with his palm and Wyn couldn't help but notice the brackish residue left on his hand.
“Yeah, no bother,” said Wyn.
Nico laughed at his bravado. “Worth it though, eh?”
“It's beautiful,” said Kez.
Wyn had to agree. Far below, this part of Zaun spread over the rocky floor of the canyon in a glittering, bottle-green swathe of light and color. Vapor rainbows arced over the Factorywood and spiraling plumes of shimmering smoke danced over the chem-forges.
From up here, sump pools wavered like emerald mirages and the winking hearth-lights in the darkness were like the stars he rarely saw from Hope House.
Tears pricked Wyn's eyes, and he told himself it was the keenness of the wind. High above, Piltover shone in towers of ivory and bronze, copper and gold. Beautiful also, but Zaun's beauty was lived in. Its streets were filled with life and vitality, every one bearing a heaving, bustling mass of humanity. Wyn loved Zaun. For all its faults, and there were many, its sheer unpredictability and exuberance gave it a pulse you didn't often find up in Piltover.
Wyn looked down through the glass beneath his feet to see scores of people staring up at him. The passengers of the Rising Howl were used to folk hitching a lift upward, but that didn't mean they liked it. A few were Zaunites, but most of them were well-heeled Pilties, returning after an evening spent in the gaslit commercia arcades, glass-ceilinged food parlors, or pounding music halls of Zaun.
“Bloody Pilties,” said Janke. “Coming down to slum it in Zaun. Think they're living dangerously, but at the end of the night they run back up to Piltover.”
“Be a lot less coin flowing down in Zaun if they didn't,” pointed out Kez. “Pilties do well outta Zaun, and we do well outta them. And how many grand days out we had up in Piltover? Remember the fireworks over the Sun Gates last Progress Day? Remember that Piltie girl you were sweet on? You talk big, Janke, but you're the one always wants us to head up top.”
They laughed as Janke went red.
“I'll give 'em something to look at!” said Feen with a grin. The scrawny lad shucked the braces from his shoulders, dropped his trousers, and planted his ass on the glass ceiling.
“Hey, Pilties, there's a new moon out tonight!”
And like a dog dragging its backside along the ground, Feen let himself slide down the glass with his ass-cheeks splayed for the viewing pleasure of the people below.
They laughed uproariously at the horrified expressions of the elevator's passengers - men covering the eyes of children and shaking their fists at the filthy Zaunites.
“We're not going right up top,” said Nico, getting his breath back and wiping tears from his eyes. “Babette's is on the Entresol level.”
“We ain't even sure Mama Elodie's gonna be there,” said Janke.
“She'll be there,” said Wyn. “I saw the playbill on her desk. Painted picture of her singing on stage, sure as Gray follows Day. But we gotta hurry, she goes on at eight bells and it's already gone six!”
Mama Elodie was the mistress of Hope House, a foundling home dedicated to the welfare of the many orphans created in the wake of the disaster that tore Zaun apart.
Initially funded by the families who would go on to become Piltover's clans, more than two hundred orphans had been cared for within its walls. But in the century or so since its opening, the institution's fortunes had waned as the money from the newborn city on high stopped flowing. The wealthy upsider families eventually decided they'd assuaged their guilt with enough gold, and that was that.
Mama Elodie was the only member of staff to stay on when the funds dried up, a dark-skinned woman who said she was an Ionian princess. Wyn suspected that might just be a story to charm donations out of the Chem-Barons, but he liked it when she told how she'd chosen to see the world instead of living a boring life in a palace. Wyn couldn't imagine turning your back on wealth like that, but he'd never met anyone else from Ionia - even when he'd run errands for seafarers down at the docks.
Every waif and stray in Hope House had heard Mama Elodie singing as she cooked and cleaned. Her voice was extraordinary, and Wyn had fallen asleep to her lullabies more than once as a babe in arms. Wyn had been delivering a cup of herbal tisane to Mama Elodie when he'd seen the folded playbill for Babette's Theatrical Emporium tucked under a sheaf of dog-eared letters. He'd only had time for a quick look, but swore on a chest of golden gears that it was Mama Elodie, dolled up in her best finery and singing on a footlit stage. She'd seen his look and sent him on his way with a cuff round the ear and a sharp rebuke for being nosy.
He told the others what he'd seen, and within the hour they'd formed a plan to sneak out and see her sing.
“Look!” yelled Wyn, nudging Nico in the ribs.
Nico looked down and nodded, seeing the uniformed conductor shouting into a flexible speaking tube.
“He's warning the staff above to watch out for freeloading Zaunites,” said Nico. “But it don't matter. Remember, we ain't riding it all the way to the platform.”
“So where we getting off then?” asked Feen, clambering to his feet and, mercifully, hauling up his trousers.
“There's an old winch mechanism just below the embarkation platform,” said Nico, pointing upward. “The cowl's nice and flat and wide, and next to it, there's a vent pipe that's lost its cover.”
“We're going to have to jump again?” asked Wyn.
Nico grinned and winked.
“Yeah, shouldn't be a problem for a seasoned pro like you, eh?”
Wyn let out a shuddering breath, his palms bloody where they'd grabbed the rusted cowl of the winch. His second jump into thin air had been just as gut-wrenchingly terrifying, but at least this time he'd known he could do it. The Rising Howl continued upward on its way, and Wyn was glad to see it go.
At least heading back down to Zaun would be easier. They'd take the steps cut into the sheer rock or slide down the dizzying screw-stairs plunging through the overhanging structures cantilevered from the side of the cliffs.
The winch cowl was right next to an open vent, just as Nico had said it would be. The inside reeked of toxic runoff, but at least it was mostly dry. Thankfully, it was large enough to stand upright, which meant it had likely carried a whole lot of gunk and deposited it down into Zaun.
“Where does this end up?” asked Kez, careful to avoid the greenish slime that pooled in depressions in the iron.
“Comes out just behind the Bonscutt Pump Station, I think,” said Nico.
“Don't you know?” said Janke. “I thought you'd done this before?”
“I have, but it was about a year ago and I ain't too sure the layout's gonna be the same as it was.”
They followed the pipe as it rose and twisted through the rock. The metal groaned and creaked with the movement of the cliffs.
“The cliffs are muttering again,” said Kez.
“What are they saying?” asked Wyn.
“Nobody knows,” she answered. “Mama Elodie once told me the rock was still sad about what happened when they split the land to make the canal. She said that every now and then, when the rock's sorrow gets too much, it sobs, and that's what shakes the earth.”
“So for all you know, this might end in a wall of rock or a barrier of twisted metal?” said Janke. “Could be,” said Nico. “But I doubt it. Look.”
Nico pointed to thin spars of light up ahead. Swirling motes of dust hung in the air, and Wyn saw a rusted ladder rising into a square-cut channel in the pipe.
“Looks like we got ourselves a way out,” said Nico.
Wyn had only traveled to Zaun's Entresol level a couple of times in his life, and on each occasion it had left a singularly vivid impression on him. Situated just below the notional border between Piltover and Zaun - a fluid and ever-changing line at best - the Entresol was a flourishing hub of cosmopolitan commercia arcades, supper-clubs, recital halls and joy houses, making it one of the most populated districts of the cities. It was also widely regarded by the people that lived and toiled there as the place where the real work of Zaun got done.
Emerging from the pipework, they'd quickly got their bearings and navigated toward one of the main thoroughfares. Wyn and Kez were the only ones who could read well enough to decipher the cursive street signs, and Kez led them to a wide boulevard thronged with the most amazing people Wyn had ever seen.
Men and women from Piltover and Zaun happily mingled on the cobbled street, dressed in colorful finery and plumed hats. The women wore pleated dresses with scoop-lined necks and brightly colored sashes. The men looked dashing in their long frock coats and polished boots that wouldn't last a day in the muck below.
“Everyone is smiling,” he said, feeling the corners of his mouth twitch upward in imitation. “And laughing.” “You'd laugh too if you weren't struggling every day to feed yourself,” said Janke.
Wyn started to reply, but Nico shook his head. Janke had come to Hope House older than most foundlings, and was on the verge of having to leave and find his way in the world. Small wonder he was bitter.
Wyn understood that bitterness. After all, who didn't want more than they had? Who didn't want to live somewhere nicer if they could? The harsh reality of the world was that folk lived as high as they could afford. Most folks were content with their place in the grand scheme of things, but Wyn yearned for a life spent in a place where he could walk hand in hand with a beautiful girl, take in a show, and eat a meal under the moonlight whenever he wanted.
On impulse he took Kez's hand, and when she didn't pull away, his heart beat harder than it had when he made his first jump. With Nico in the lead, they strolled down the center of the street like they had every right to be there.
Which, of course, they did, but the stares their grimy attire attracted made it clear that, while no one was going to kick them back down, they weren't exactly a welcome sight.
For a moment, Wyn fantasized that they could stay here forever, walking along a street of glowing chem-lumens, surrounded by people who could direct them to the best delicatessens with the creamiest crag-duck confit, or advise which plays they simply had to see. He pictured himself dressed like a dandy, greeting his fellow citizens and doffing his hat to visiting clan representatives.
“Is that a cultivair?” said Wyn, pointing to a latticework dome of smoky glass leaning out from the edge of the cliff.
“I think so,” said Kez. “I've only ever seen them from below.”
An iron bridge and taut cables tethered the glass dome to the rock, and they paused to take in the beauty of what it contained. Behind the glass, a small forest of tall trees with broad leafy canopies were tended by a robed gardener with a tattooed and shaven head. A riot of flowers, with petals of red, gold, and blue stood out in contrast to the greenery within. Wyn had never seen anything quite so beautiful in all his life. He waved to the gardener, wishing he could walk with Kez through the forest, smelling the perfumed blooms and feeling the soft grass between his toes.
The gardener smiled and waved before returning to his duties.
A series of bells rang out. Wyn counted seven in total.
“Come on,” he said urgently. “The show'll be starting soon.”
Janke turned to Nico. “You sure you know where this place is?”
“Babette's? Yeah, I know it,” said Nico, covering his mouth as he coughed again. “I took Aleeza there once, when I had a few coin to my name after I beat that merchant from Bel'Zhun in a drinking contest.”
Wyn remembered that night well, watching in disbelief as his brother threw back shot after shot of kouaxi, a potent spirit the Shuriman had said was made from fermented goat's milk. They reached twenty shots before the merchant finally keeled over. Nico was hungover for a week before he could spend his winnings.
“It's just up here,” said Nico, as they entered a cavernous plaza hollowed out from the cliffs.
People thronged the wide open space, talking, negotiating and haggling over who knew what. A few people with metallic augments strolled through the plaza, each bearing the sigil of one of the Chem-Barons, but they were few in number and attracted more than their fair share of wary glances.
At the far end of the plaza stood a grand structure of vivid color and noise. Barkers shouted inducements to enter and handed out playbills. Fluted columns of black marble veined with gold formed the building's giant portico, over which was a series of statues of wild animals, dragons, and armored warriors. Greenish chem-lights illuminated them, and the wavering flames made it look like they were alive.
“I give you Babette's Theatrical Emporium,” said Nico, taking a deep bow and pointing to the brightly-lit structure.
“What do you mean we can't come in?” said Nico.
The two doormen were well-dressed, but no amount of finery could conceal their experience in hurting people. Snaking tattoos covered their necks and wrists, and one of them had a mechanized arm that buzzed with something energized. A shok-club maybe? Or something even more deadly? Or perhaps it just wasn't working very well.
“We can pay,” said Kez.
“It ain't the money, girly,” said the first doorman, a man Wyn mentally christened Chem-Breath.
“Then what is it?” she demanded.
“You ain't dressed right.”
“Indeed,” chimed in the second doorman, the one with the buzzing, mechanical arm.
“Mistress Babette expects a certain level of... hygiene in her guests' sartorial selections. Your attire falls somewhat below the expected standard, I fear.”
“Yeah, so go and crawl back to where you came from,” said the first.
“Where we came from?” said Kez, incredulous. “This is Zaun ain't it? This is where we come from, you stupid sump-sucker!”
“Get lost, ya snipes,” said Chem-Breath. “This part of Zaun ain't your Zaun.”
“Fine,” said Nico, turning and walking away. “Let's go.”
“Wait, what?” said Wyn, as he and the others followed Nico. “We're just going home?”
His brother waited until they were out of earshot before responding, making sure the crowds at the entrance obscured them from the two doormen.
“'Course not,” said Nico. “Stupid of me. Forgot the first rule of the Sump: Only marks go in through the front door.”
They traversed the length and breadth of the plaza for ten minutes before finding what they sought. Wyn kept one eye on the theater doors. People were still going in, so the show probably hadn't started.
“There,” said Feen, pointing to a sudden plume of emerald smoke gusting from a nearby roofline. Feen worked for Gray-Scrape Malkev, a ductwork maintenancer who threw a couple of cogs the scrawny lad's way to worm through the narrow ducts and clean off the scum when the breather pipes got too clogged.
The source of the smoke was an eatery that looked as if it served a fusion of Zaun street food and upscale Piltovan cuisine. The diners were languid, artist types, and the food looked almost too beautiful to eat.
“That's a shared pipe if ever I sniffed one,” said Feen. “See, you can smell the food from the kitchens and the burn-off from the crystal burners up at Babette's.”
“I knew there was a reason we brung you along, Feen,” said Nico, leading them down the alley cut through the rock between the eatery and the theater. Heavy crates hauled up from the docks were stacked against the wall, and hissing, groaning pipes sagged overhead. Burly men hauled crates inside, grunting with the effort. None of them paid the kids so much as a second glance.
Feen traced the routes of the ducts with his fingers, counting and listening as they gurgled and rattled. He sniffed the air and grinned.
“That's the fella,” he said, pointing to a narrow vent that passed into the rock-face.
“You sure?” asked Janke. “I don't wanna find you picked it wrong and we get flushed out over Zaun.”
“I ain't wrong, sump-raker,” said Feen. “You crawl through enough soot and slime like I have, you get a nose for what leads where.”
They waited until the men working for the eatery took a break before using the crates to climb up onto the roof. Feen quickly found them a crawl-hatch on the side of the pipe and prized it open. Wyn blanched at the fumes leaking from the hatch.
“Is that safe?” he asked.
“Safe enough for a sump-snipe,” said Feen. “Trust me, you'll get more grit on your lungs walking the Black Lanes than you will from the fumes in there.”
Wyn wasn't so sure about that, but Feen crawled inside, swiftly followed by Janke and Kez. Janke went next, and Nico gestured to the pipe.
“Your turn, little man,” said Nico.
Wyn nodded and climbed inside, following the sounds of scraping knees, cursing and coughing. Feen was right about one thing; the air in here was pretty rank, but nothing like when the Gray closed in and made every breath a battle. Nico climbed in behind him and he settled into a rhythm of shuffling forward on his elbows and knees. Light filtered in through cracks in the metal where it had split, but that ended the minute the pipe plunged into the cliffs.
“How much farther?” called Nico from behind him, the sound resonating weirdly in the pipes. He received no answer, only echoes. Wyn tried not to think of all the reasons why there was only silence. Had the pipe emptied them out over the cliffs as Janke had feared? Had the others hit a pocket of gas that had knocked them out or suffocated them? Or maybe the rock hereabouts was sad too, and had chosen to crush the tiny figures crawling through it.
Just before the thought of being crushed to death by melancholy cliffs paralyzed Wyn with fear, a hand reached down from above and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.
“Got ya!” hissed a voice as he was hauled up through a hatch that had been invisible in the darkness. He cried out in alarm and struggled before he realized it was Janke pulling him up. He was deposited on a wooden floor in a lightless room. No, not lightless, a thin bar of light shone from beneath a nearby doorway. As Wyn's eyes adjusted, he saw the myriad paraphernalia of the performer's art stacked haphazardly around the room; shelves upon shelves of masks, garish costumes, theatrical backdrops and fake props.
Feen was laughing as he pranced around the room with the top half of a horse costume on his head. Kez wore a golden crown with paste-gems studded around its edges and a bright red stone at its center. Janke swung a wooden sword, its blade painted to look like gleaming silver.
Wyn grinned as Nico climbed from the pipe behind him. He felt light-headed, but couldn't tell if it was from the fumes or the elation of getting inside.
“Nice work, Feen,” said Nico, dusting himself off and coughing out a wad of gray phlegm.
Feen threw off the horse costume and beamed at this unaccustomed praise. He started to speak, but then they heard the beat of drums and the skirl of pipes.
“It's starting,” said Kez.
The interior of Babette's was no less impressive than its exterior. The main hall was adorned in colorful fabrics, gilded balconies, and a vaulted ceiling decorated with stunning vistas of sweeping forests, soaring mountains, and achingly blue lakes. An enormous chandelier of sparkling crystals hung from the center of the ceiling, wheeling constellations that sent beams of splintered light through the chamber.
Hundreds of people filled the space, revelers in fashionable attire and dancers who had shed their coats and inhibitions both. A raised stage at one end was home to musicians who played from the heart, a pounding, driving beat that shivered the blood and got your feet tapping. The music was infectious and Wyn laughed as Kez dragged him onto the dance floor. The sight of five sump-snipes anywhere else might have provoked a reaction, but here, amid the spinning dancers and singers, it barely raised an eyebrow.
They moved with the ease of those who knew how to slip out of a Piltover warden's grip in a heartbeat. Feen stomped and threw his arms around like a madman, all elbows and knees. Janke shuffled and bobbed his head, lost in his own private world of music. Nico danced in a weaving pattern, smooth as you like, pausing every now and then to flirt with a pretty girl. Wyn waved as he and Kez twisted across the dancefloor, spinning each other around with euphoric abandon.
The music was so loud they couldn't speak.
He didn't care.
Chemlights threw a rainbow at the chandelier and it exploded in a dazzling borealis of colors in splitting lozenge patterns. Wyn lifted his hands, as if trying to catch the light.
Kez threw her arms around his neck and reached for the lights as well. He smelled her soap and sweat, the perfume of her hair and the heat of her body. He never wanted this moment to end.
But it did.
A meaty hand came down on Wyn's shoulder and he felt the crushing disappointment of a moment that might never come again being snatched away from him. He cursed at the interruption, but the swears he was about to unleash died when he saw Chem-Breath the doorman looking down at him.
“Didn't I tell you to go back to the Sump?”
He glanced over at Kez and saw her chest heaving with excitement. She nodded, and the answer to his unasked question was in her outstretched hand.
Wyn laced his fingers in hers and yelled, “Run!”
He squirmed from Chem-Breath's grip and they bolted toward the heart of the dancefloor. Kez gave a wild yell and they wove through the dancers as if they were playing hook-dodge in the Sump. They ran hand in hand, Chem-Breath right on their heels. He barged through the dancers, but Kez and Wyn had run the streets of Zaun since they'd learned how to use their legs. They'd given the slip to wardens, chem-thugs, and vigilnauts alike. A fat doorman was no challenge at all.
They heard Chem-Breath's enraged shouts even over the music, as if he were singing along to it. They led him on a merry chase, ducking between the gyrating dancers and singers. Kez held tight to his hand. Wyn couldn't help but laugh even as they let Chem-Breath get close. Then, just as the man's hand reached for his shoulder, Chem-Breath fell to the dancefloor, smashed in the face by Feen's flailing elbow.
They left him rolling on the ground. Wyn couldn't remember a feeling this intoxicating.
His every dancing, running step was in time with the beat of the music. Each soaring chorus felt like it had been written especially for this moment. They laughed like lunatics through the light and sound, united in a way they'd never known before.
Then the music stopped. The lights were extinguished and a single chem-burner focused its illumination upon the stage. The suddenly stilled dancers gave a collective sigh as a woman rose from the center of the stage. Magic or stagecraft, Wyn didn't know or care, it was a magnificent entrance.
“Mama Elodie,” said Kez.
Wyn knew it was her, but still couldn't match the stern, matronly mistress of Hope House with this goddess before him. She wore her long hair tied up in an elaborate series of braids threaded with beads of mother-of-pearl and jade that glittered like newborn stars.
She wore a radiant green gown that hung in sweeping folds and which shimmered like silken spider-skin.
She was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.
Mama Elodie raised her head, and the music built from a slow, glacial pace to a rising heartbeat. Her head lifted in time with the music and her dark skin shimmered with diamond dust. Her eyes swept the crowd, seeming to fix everyone in Babette's with her soulful gaze. She smiled, as if surprised to see so many people, and the warmth of her almond eyes reached everyone who saw her. Wyn felt her goodness enfold him, feeling as if burdens he didn't know he carried were being peeled away, layer by layer.
And then she began to sing.
The words were unknown to him, but they flowed like honey, half spoken, half sung.
Every note drifted like leaves on a warm, summer night, flowing in spirals around the room. Her voice rose in pitch and volume, and Wyn felt his skin tingle with its touch. He let Mama Elodie's song wash over and through him. Wyn felt a swelling feeling of connectedness between him and Kez. Her eyes met his and he knew she felt the same. But it was more than that.
Wyn felt a connection between him and everyone in the audience, a sense of oneness and harmony he'd never known or dreamed was possible. Mama Elodie's hands sculpted the air as her powerful voice filled the chamber with harmonies that penetrated skin and bone and made every edge within them smooth. Sweat sheened her skin, and veins stood out on her neck.
However she was making this music, it was clearly taking a toll.
The light filling the chamber dimmed as her voice grew softer and softer. The notes melted like snow in spring, sunset over a winter ocean. Tears flowed down Wyn's face, and he knew he wasn't the only one crying. Dozens of men and women wept, reaching toward Mama Elodie and imploring her to continue. She swayed on the stage, the song nearing completion.
Slowly, so very slowly, she descended through a trapdoor into the stage until she was gone. Mama Elodie's voice grew softer and softer, until it was little more than a whisper. Soon, even that was gone.
The chamber was entirely dark now. Wyn let out a shuddering breath as the house lights gradually came up. He blinked as his eyes adjusted, seeing how low the chemlights had burned. How long had Mama Elodie's song lasted? Hours? Minutes? He had no way of knowing for sure. Wyn felt exhausted, but renewed at the same time. His thoughts were lighter, his lungs feeling clearer than than they had in months. He turned to Kez, and saw she too felt the same sense of rejuvenation. The audience members were smiling; friends and strangers alike embracing in the shared magic of what they had just experienced.
Nico, Feen, and Janke came over, and every one of them had experienced some profound revelation. What that was, Wyn couldn't know, but that every one of them felt changed was clear.
“Did you...?” said Wyn.
“Yeah,” said Nico.
They hugged, five orphans from Zaun, sharing a brief moment of belonging they would never know again. By the time they broke apart, it was to see the two doormen, Chem-Breath and Buzz-Arm, standing with their hands balled into fists. Chem-Breath's nose was askew on his face. An improvement, thought Wyn.
“I believe we told you to go home,” said Buzz-Arm.
“Bloody sump-rats,” snapped Chem-Breath, still nursing a bleeding nose. “Think they can give us the runaround.”
He thumped one meaty fist into his palm for extra emphasis.
“It's time for you to leave, and I can't promise it won't be painful,” said Buzz-Arm, sounding almost apologetic.
“There's no need for that,” said a melodious voice behind them.
Wyn let out a relieved breath as Mama Elodie put a hand on the back of his neck. Her fingers were warm and he felt a calming sensation flow through him at her touch.
“They with you?” asked Chem-Breath.
“They are indeed,” replied Mama Elodie.
The two doormen looked as though they wanted to take this further, but came to the conclusion that arguing with the headline act in front of her bewitched audience probably wasn't a good idea. The doormen backed away, making eye contact with each of the kids to let them know that they may have escaped a beating this time, but coming to Babette's again would be a really bad idea.
Wyn turned to face Mama Elodie, but whatever magic she had woven on stage was now entirely absent. The Ionian princess was gone and the Zaunite housemistress was back. She glared at them with hard, flinty eyes.
“I should have let them give you a good beating to teach you all a lesson,” she said, ushering them toward the front door of the theater. The others nodded in mute acceptance of her anger, but only Wyn caught the glint of amusement in her eye. Even so, Wyn could see a great deal of menial labor in all their futures.
“You were amazing,” said Kez as Mama Elodie marched them from the theater and turned toward Drop Street. The late-running descender to Zaun had a station there, so at least they'd be spared more jumping onto elevators or a lot of stairs. Nico, Feen, and Janke waved and ran off, old enough to head home on their own without needing to ask permission. Wyn didn't mind; he was with Kez and Mama Elodie, so he'd enjoy this moonlit descent to Hope House.
“Where did you learn to sing like that?” asked Kez.
“My mother taught me when I was a girl,” said Mama Elodie. “She was of... an old Ionian line, though her voice was far superior to mine.”
“It was a beautiful song,” said Wyn.
“All the Vastaya songs are beautiful,” said Mama Elodie. “But they are also sad.”
“Why are they sad?” asked Wyn.
“True beauty is only beautiful because it is finite,” said Mama Elodie. “That is why some of their songs are too sad to sing now.”
Wyn didn't really understand. How could a song be too sad to sing? He wanted to ask more, but the farther they walked from Babette's, the less important it seemed.
He looked up. Chemlights and reflected stars shimmered on the city of iron and glass as they navigated the cliffside streets toward home. Wyn saw a sliver of moonlight peeking out from behind the clouds, and took a deep breath of clean air, knowing it might be his last for a while.
“You know you're all scrubbing floors and pots for the rest of the week, yes?” said Mama Elodie.
Wyn nodded, but didn't mind. He was still holding Kez's hand. A week of scrubbing seemed like a small price to pay.
“Sure,” he said. “Sounds good.”
- For a detailed look, see City of Iron and Glass
- City of Iron and Glass serves as the main event to re-introduce Zaun into the new canon.