Living in the Smoke had totally done a job on Tally's head.
No one else mentioned the figure. Were they all in on the joke? Fausto kept worrying that his sparklers were going to run out before any of the other Crims saw them. "Let's see if they're in one of the spires," he said.
"At least we can call them from a real building," Peris agreed.
Shay snorted and headed toward the nearest door. "Anything to get out of this bogus pile of rocks."
The party was spilling outside, anyway, expanding beyond the ancient stone walls. Shay led them toward a party spire at random, through a cluster of Hairdos with beehive wigs, each with its own swarm of bumblebees, which were really micro-lifters painted yellow and black in holding patterns around their heads.
"They didn't get the buzzing sound right," Fausto said, but Tally could tell he was impressed by the costumes. The sparklers in his hair were sputtering out, and people were looking at him like, huh?
From inside the party tower, Peris called Zane, who said the Crims were all right upstairs. "Good guess, Shay."
The four of them crammed into the elevator with a surgeon, a trilobite, and two drunken hockey players struggling to stay upright on hoverskates.
"Get that nervous look off your face, Tally-wa," said Shay, squeezing her shoulder. "You'll be in, no problem. Zane likes you."
Tally managed a smile, wondering if that was really true. Zane was always asking her about ugly days, but he did that with everyone, sucking up the Crims' stories with his gold-flecked eyes. Did he really think that Tally Youngblood was anything special?
It was clear that someone did - as the elevator doors closed, Tally glimpsed gray silk slipping gracefully through the crowd.
Most of the other Crims had come as lumberjacks, dressed in plaid and grotesquely muscle-padded, holding big fake chainsaws and glasses of champagne. There were also butchers, a few smokers who'd made their own fake cigarettes, and a hangman with a long noose draped over her shoulder. Zane, who knew a lot about history, had come as some dictator's assistant who wasn't totally fashion-missing, all in tight black with a bubbly red armband. He'd done costume surge to make his lips thin and cheeks sunken, which made him look kind of like a Special.
They all laughed at Peris's costume, and tried to relight Fausto, but only managed to burn a few wisps of his hair, which was totally bogus-smelling. It took an anxious moment for them to figure out Tally's and Shay's costumes, but soon the other Crims were crowding in to touch the rough fibers of the handmade sweater and asking if it was itchy. (It was, but Tally shook her head.) Shay stood close to Zane and got him to notice her new eye surge.
"Think they're pretty-making?" she asked.
"I give them fifty milli-Helens," he said.
This went totally missing on everyone.
"A milli-Helen is enough beauty to launch exactly one ship," Zane explained, and the older Crims all laughed. "Fifty's pretty good."
Shay smiled, Zane's praise lighting her face up like champagne.
Tally tried to be bubbly, but the thought of the costumed Special lurking her was too dizzy-making. After a few minutes, she escaped onto the party spire's balcony to fill her lungs with cold, fresh air.
A few hot-air balloons were tethered to the spire, hovering like huge black moons in the sky. The Hot-airs riding in one gondola were shooting roman candles at the others, laughing as the safety flames roared across the darkness. Then one of the balloons began to rise, the roar of its burner audible above the party noise, its tether dropping to slap against the spire. It lifted on a tiny finger of flame, finally disappearing into the distance. If Shay hadn't introduced her to the Crims, Tally figured she would have been a Hot-air. They were always drifting off into the night and landing at random places, calling a hovercar to pick them up from some distant suburb or even past the city limits.
Staring out over the river toward the darkness of Uglyville made Tally's brain much less spinning.
It was strange. Her time in the wild was so fuzzy, but Tally could perfectly remember being a young ugly watching the lights of New Pretty Town from her dorm window and dying to turn sixteen. She had always imagined herself here on this side, in some high tower, with fireworks going off around her, surrounded by pretties and pretty herself.
Of course, the Tally of those fantasies had usually been wearing a ball gown - not a woolen sweater and work pants, her face smeared with dirt. She fingered a thread working its way free of the weave, wishing that Shay hadn't found the sweater tonight. Tally wanted to leave the Smoke behind, to escape all the tangled memories of running and hiding and feeling like a betrayer. She hated glancing every minute at the elevator door, wondering if the costumed Special had followed her up here. She wanted to feel totally belonging somewhere, not waiting for the next disaster to strike.
Maybe what Shay kept saying was right, and tonight's vote would fix all that. The Crims were one of the tightest cliques in New Pretty Town. You had to be voted in, and once you were a Crim, you could always depend on friends and parties and bubbly conversation. No more running for Tally.
The only catch was, no one could join who hadn't been totally tricky in their ugly days, with good stories to tell about sneaking out and hoverboarding all night and running away. Crims were pretties who hadn't forgotten being uglies, who still enjoyed the practical jokes and criminal tricks that made Uglyville, in its own way, bubbly.
"What would you give the view?" It was Zane, suddenly next to her, looking all of his two-meter maximum pretty height in the ancient black uniform.
"A hundred milli-Helens? Five hundred? Maybe a whole Helen?"
Tally took a steadying breath, looking down at the dark river. "I'd give it none. It's Uglyville, after all."
Zane chuckled. "Now, Tally-wa, there's no reason to be nasty about our ugly little brothers and sisters. It's not their fault they aren't as pretty as you." He pushed a stray lock of Tally's hair back around her ear.
"Not them, the place. Uglyville is a prison." The words felt wrong in her mouth, too serious for a bash.
But Zane didn't seem to mind. "You escaped, didn't you?" He stroked the sweater's strange fibers, like the rest of them kept doing. "Was the Smoke any better?"
Tally wondered if he wanted a real answer. She was nervous about saying something bogus. If Zane thought Tally was missing, vetoes would rain down no matter what Shay and Peris had promised.
She looked up into his eyes. They were a shimmering metallic gold, reflecting the fireworks like tiny mirrors, and something behind them seemed to pull at Tally. Not just the usual pretty magic, but something that felt serious, as if the bash around them had disappeared. Zane always listened raptly to her Smoke stories. He'd heard them all by now, but maybe there was something more he wanted to know.
"I left the night before my sixteenth birthday," she said. "So I wasn't exactly escaping Uglyville."
"That's right." Zane released her from his gaze and looked out across the river. "You were running from the operation."
"I was following Shay. I had to stay ugly to find her."
"To rescue her," he said, then trained his golden eyes on her again. "Was that really it?"
Tally nodded carefully, last night's champagne spinning her head. Or maybe tonight's. She looked at the empty glass in her hand and wondered how many she'd had.
"It was just a thing I had to do." As she said the words, Tally knew that they sounded bogus.
"A special circumstance?" Zane asked, his smile wry.
Tally's eyebrows lifted. She wondered what tricks Zane had pulled back when he was an ugly.
He didn't tell that many stories himself. Though he wasn't that much older than her, Zane never seemed to have to prove that he was a real Crim, he just was.
Even with his lips thinned by costume surge, he was beautiful. His face had been sculpted into more extreme shapes than most, as if the doctors had wanted to push the Pretty Committee's specs to the limit. His cheekbones were as sharp as arrowheads underneath his flesh, and his eyebrows arched absurdly high when he was amused. Tally saw with sudden clarity that if any of his features were shifted a few millimeters he would look terrible, and yet at the same time it was impossible to imagine that he had ever been an ugly
"Did you ever go to the Rusty Ruins?" she asked. "Back when you were...young?"
"Almost every night, last winter."
"I love the ruins covered with snow," he said. "It makes the edges softer, adding mega-Helens to the view."
"Oh." Tally remembered traveling across the wild in early autumn, how cold it had been. "Sounds totally...freezing."
"I could never get anyone else to come with me." His eyes narrowed. "When you talk about the ruins, you never mention meeting anyone there."
"Meeting someone?" Tally closed her eyes, finding herself suddenly balance-missing. She leaned against the balcony rail and took a deep breath.
"Yeah," he said. "Did you ever?"
The empty champagne glass slipped from her hand and tumbled into the blackness.
"Look out below," Zane murmured, a smile on his lips.
A tinkling crash rose up from the darkness, surprised laughter spreading from it like ripples from a stone in water. It sounded a thousand kilometers away.
Tally took in more breaths of the cold night air, trying to regain her composure. Her stomach was doing flip-flops. It was so shaming to be like this, about to throw breakfast after a few lousy glasses of champagne.
"It's okay, Tally," Zane whispered. "Just let yourself be bubbly."
Tally realized how bogus that was, having to be told to stay bubbly. But even through his costume surge, Zane's gaze had softened, as if he really did want her to relax.
She turned away from the drop into emptiness, gripping the guardrail with both hands behind her.
Shay and Peris were also out on the balcony now; she was surrounded by all her new Crim friends, protected and part of the group. But they were watching her carefully too. Maybe everyone was expecting something special from her tonight.
"I never saw anyone out there," Tally said. "Someone was supposed to come, but never did."
She didn't hear Zane's response.
The lurker had appeared again - across the crowded spire, standing still and staring straight at her. The mask's flashing eyes seemed to acknowledge her gaze for a moment, then the figure turned and slipped among the white coats of the costumed Pretty Committee, disappearing behind their giant facegraphs of every major pretty type. And even though Tally realized it was a bogus thing to do, she pushed away from Zane and through the crowd, because there was no way she could pull herself together tonight until she found out who this person was, Crim or Special or random new pretty. She had to know why someone was throwing Special Circumstances in her face.
Tally dodged between white coats and bounced like a pinball through a clique all dressed in fat-suits, their softly padded bellies spinning her in circles. She bowled over most of a hockey team, who wobbled on their slippy hoverskates like littlies. Glimpses of gray silk teased Tally from just ahead as she ran, but the crowd was thick and in frantic motion, and by the time she reached the central column of the spire, the figure had disappeared.
Glancing at the lights above the elevator door, she saw that it was on its way up, not down. The fake Special was still around, somewhere in the spire.
Then Tally noticed the door to the emergency stairs, bright red and plastered with warnings that an alarm would sound if you opened it. She looked around again - still no gray figure. Whoever it was had to have escaped down the stairs. Alarms could be switched off; she'd pulled that trick herself a million times as an ugly.