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Strange the dreamer, p.2
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.2

           Laini Taylor

  “There are a hundred of us,” they replied, “and only one of you. What do you think?”

  “I think you should believe every story you’ve ever heard about the Tizerkane, and turn around and go home!”

  Their laughter sounded like the creaking of branches, and Lazlo had no choice but to fight. He poked his finger into the little lopsided cage of twigs and twine that dangled from his rope belt. There was no scorpion in it, only a beetle stunned by the cold, but he gritted his teeth against an imagined sting and felt venom bloom power in his blood. And then he lifted his blades, arms raised in a V, and roared.

  He roared the city’s name. Like thunder, like an avalanche, like the war cry of the seraphim who had come on wings of fire and cleansed the world of demons. His foes stumbled. They gaped. The venom sang in him, and he was something more than human. He was a whirlwind. He was a god. They tried to fight, but they were no match for him. His swords flashed lightning as, two by two, he disarmed them all.

  In the thick of play, his daydreams were so vivid that a glimpse of reality would have shocked him. If he could have stood apart and seen the little boy crashing through the frost-stiff bracken, waving branches around, he would scarcely have recognized himself, so deeply did he inhabit the warrior in his mind’s eye, who had just disarmed a hundred enemies and sent them staggering home. In triumph, he tipped back his head, and let out a cry of…

  … a cry of…


  He froze, confused. The word had broken from his mouth like a curse, leaving an aftertaste of tears. He had reached for the city’s name, as he had just a moment ago, but… it was gone. He tried again, and again found Weep instead. It was like putting out his hand for a flower and coming back with a slug or sodden handkerchief. His mind recoiled from it. He couldn’t stop trying, though, and each time was worse than the one before. He groped for what he knew had been there, and all he fished up was the awful word Weep, slick with wrongness, damp as bad dreams, and tinged with its residue of salt. His mouth curled with its bitterness. A feeling of vertigo swept over him, and the mad certainty that it had been taken.

  It had been taken from his mind.

  He felt sick, robbed. Diminished. He raced back up the slope, scrabbling over low stone walls, and pelted through the sheepfold, past the garden and through the cloister, still gripping his apple branch swords. He saw no one, but was seen. There was a rule against running, and anyway, he ought to have been at vespers. He ran straight to Brother Cyrus’s cell and shook him awake. “The name,” he said, gasping for breath. “The name is missing. The city from the stories, tell me its name!”

  He knew deep down that he hadn’t forgotten it, that this was something else, something dark and strange, but there was still the chance that maybe, maybe Brother Cyrus would remember, and all would be well.

  But Brother Cyrus said, “What do you mean, you fool boy? It’s Weep—” And Lazlo had just time to see the old man’s face buckle with confusion before a hand closed on his collar and yanked him out the door.

  “Wait,” he implored. “Please.” To no avail. He was dragged all the way to the abbot’s office, and when they whipped him this time, it wasn’t with his hazel switch, which hung in a row with all the other boys’ switches, but one of his apple boughs. He was no Tizerkane now. Never mind a hundred enemies; he was disarmed by a single monk and beaten with his own sword. Some hero. He limped for weeks, and was forbidden from seeing Brother Cyrus, who’d grown so agitated by his visit that he’d had to be sedated.

  There were no more stories after that, and no more escapes—at least, not into the orchard, or anywhere outside his own mind. The monks kept a sharp eye on him, determined to keep him free of sin—and of joy, which, if not explicitly a sin, at least clears a path to it. He was kept busy. If he wasn’t working, he was praying. If he wasn’t praying, he was working, always under “adequate supervision” to prevent his vanishing like a wild creature into the trees. At night he slept, exhausted as a gravedigger, too tired even to dream. It did seem as though the fire in him was smothered, the thunder and the avalanche, the war cry and the whirlwind, all stamped out.

  As for the name of the vanished city, it had vanished, too. Lazlo would always remember the feel of it in his mind, though. It had felt like calligraphy, if calligraphy were written in honey, and that was as close to it as he—or anyone—could come. It wasn’t just him and Brother Cyrus. Wherever the name had been found—printed on the spines of books that held its stories, in the old, yellowed ledgers of merchants who’d bought its goods, and woven into the memories of anyone who’d ever heard it—it was simply erased, and Weep was left in its place.

  This was the new mystery.

  This, he never doubted, was magic.



  Lazlo grew up.

  No one would ever call him lucky, but it could have been worse. Among the monasteries that took in foundlings, one was a flagellant order. Another raised hogs. But Zemonan Abbey was famous for its scriptorium. The boys were early trained to copy—though not to read; he had to teach himself that part—and those with any skill were drafted into scribing. Skill he had, and he might have stayed there his whole life, bent over a desk, his neck growing forward instead of upright, had not the brothers taken ill one day from bad fish. This was luck, or perhaps fate. Some manuscripts were expected at the Great Library of Zosma, and Lazlo was charged to deliver them.

  He never came back.

  The Great Library was no mere place to keep books. It was a walled city for poets and astronomers and every shade of thinker in between. It encompassed not only the vast archives, but the university, too, together with laboratories and glasshouses, medical theaters and music rooms, and even a celestial observatory. All this occupied what had been the royal palace before the current queen’s grandfather built a finer one straddling the Eder and gifted this one to the Scholars’ Guild. It ranged across the top of Zosimos Ridge, which knifed up from Zosma City like a shark’s fin, and was visible from miles away.

  Lazlo was in a state of awe from the moment he passed through the gates. His mouth actually fell open when he saw the Pavilion of Thought. That was the grandiose name for the ballroom that now housed the library’s philosophy texts. Shelves rose forty feet under an astonishing painted ceiling, and the spines of books glowed in jewel-toned leather, their gold leaf shining in the glavelight like animal eyes. The glaves themselves were perfect polished spheres, hanging by the hundreds and emitting a purer white light than he’d ever seen from the rough, ruddy stones that lit the abbey. Men in gray robes rode upon wheeled ladders, seeming to float through the air, scrolls flapping behind them like wings as they rolled from shelf to shelf.

  It was impossible that he should leave this place. He was like a traveler in an enchanted wood. Every step deeper bewitched him further, and deeper he did go, from room to room as though guided by instinct, down secret stairs to a sublevel where dust lay thick on books undisturbed for years. He disturbed them. It seemed to him that he awoke them, and they awoke him.

  He was thirteen, and he hadn’t played Tizerkane for years. He hadn’t played anything, or strayed out of step. At the abbey, he was one more gray-clad figure going where he was told, working, praying, chanting, praying, working, praying, sleeping. Few of the brothers even remembered his wildness now. It seemed all gone out of him.

  In fact, it had just gone deep. The stories were still there, every word that Brother Cyrus had ever told him. He cherished them like a little stash of gold in a corner of his mind.

  That day, the stash grew bigger. Much bigger. The books under the dust, they were stories. Folktales, fairy tales, myths, and legends. They spanned the whole world. They went back centuries, and longer, and whole shelves of them—entire, beautiful shelves—were stories of Weep. He lifted one down with more reverence than he’d ever felt for the sacred texts at the abbey, blew off the dust, and began to read.

  He was found days lat
er by a senior librarian, but only because the man was looking for him, a letter from the abbot in the pocket of his robes. Elsewise, Lazlo might have lived down there like a boy in a cave for who knows how long. He might have grown feral: the wild boy of the Great Library, versed in three dead languages and all the tales ever written in them, but ragged as a beggar in the alleys of the Grin.

  Instead, he was taken on as an apprentice.

  “The library knows its own mind,” old Master Hyrrokkin told him, leading him back up the secret stairs. “When it steals a boy, we let it keep him.”

  Lazlo couldn’t have belonged at the library more truly if he were a book himself. In the days that followed—and then the months and years, as he grew into a man—he was rarely to be seen without one open in front of his face. He read while he walked. He read while he ate. The other librarians suspected he somehow read while he slept, or perhaps didn’t sleep at all. On the occasions that he did look up from the page, he would seem as though he were awakening from a dream. “Strange the dreamer,” they called him. “That dreamer, Strange.” And it didn’t help that he sometimes walked into walls while reading, or that his favorite books hailed from that dusty sublevel where no one else cared to go. He drifted about with his head full of myths, always at least half lost in some otherland of story. Demons and wingsmiths, seraphim and spirits, he loved it all. He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales his first day on the job, and that, they said, told you everything you needed to know about strange Lazlo Strange: head in the clouds, world of his own, fairy tales and fancy.

  That was what they meant when they called him a dreamer, and they weren’t wrong, but they missed the main point. Lazlo was a dreamer in more profound a way than they knew. That is to say, he had a dream—a guiding and abiding one, so much a part of him it was like a second soul inside his skin. The landscape of his mind was all given over to it. It was a deep and ravishing landscape, and a daring and magnificent dream. Too daring, too magnificent for the likes of him. He knew that, but the dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around.

  “What’s that you’re reading, Strange?” asked Master Hyrrokkin, hobbling up behind him at the Enquiries desk. “Love letter, I hope.”

  The old librarian expressed this wish more often than was seemly, undaunted that the answer was always no. Lazlo was on the verge of making his usual response, but paused, considering. “In a way,” he said, and held out the paper, which was brittle and yellowed with age.

  A gleam lit Master Hyrrokkin’s faded brown eyes, but when he adjusted his spectacles and looked at the page, the gleam winked out. “This appears to be a receipt,” he observed.

  “Ah, but a receipt for what?”

  Skeptical, Master Hyrrokkin squinted to read, then gave a crack of a laugh that turned every head in the huge, hushed room. They were in the Pavilion of Thought. Scholars in scarlet robes were hunched at long tables, and they all looked up from their scrolls and tomes, eyes grim with disapproval. Master Hyrrokkin bobbed a nod of apology and handed Lazlo back the paper, which was an old bill for a very large shipment of aphrodisiacs to a long-dead king. “Seems he wasn’t called the Amorous King for his poetry, eh? But what are you doing? Tell me this isn’t what it looks like. For god’s sake, boy. Tell me you aren’t archiving receipts on your free day.”

  Lazlo was a boy no longer, no trace remaining—outwardly—of the small bald foundling with cuts on his head. He was tall now, and he’d let his hair grow long once he was free of the monks and their dull razors. It was dark and heavy and he tied it back with bookbinder’s twine and spared it very little thought. His brows were dark and heavy, too, his features strong and broad. “Rough-hewn,” some might have said, or even “thuggish” on account of his broken nose, which made a sharp angle in profile, and from the front skewed distinctly to the left. He had a raw, rugged look—and sound, too: his voice low and masculine and not at all smooth, as though it had been left out in the weather. In all this, his dreamer’s eyes were incongruous: gray and wide and guileless. Just now they weren’t quite meeting Master Hyrrokkin’s gaze. “Of course not,” he said unconvincingly. “What kind of maniac would archive receipts on his free day?”

  “Then what are you doing?”

  He shrugged. “A steward found an old box of bills in a cellar. I’m just having a look.”

  “Well, it’s a shocking waste of youth. How old are you now? Eighteen?”

  “Twenty,” Lazlo reminded him, though in truth he couldn’t be certain, having chosen a birthday at random when he was a boy. “And you wasted your youth the same way.”

  “And I’m a cautionary tale! Look at me.” Lazlo did. He saw a soft, stooped creature of a man whose dandelion-fluff hair, beard, and brows encroached upon his face to such a degree that only his sharp little nose and round spectacles showed. He looked, Lazlo thought, like an owlet fallen out of its nest. “Do you want to end your days a half-blind troglodyte hobbling through the bowels of the library?” the old man demanded. “Get out of doors, Strange. Breathe air, see things. A man should have squint lines from looking at the horizon, not just from reading in dim light.”

  “What’s a horizon?” Lazlo asked, straight-faced. “Is it like the end of an aisle of books?”

  “No,” said Master Hyrrokkin. “Not in any way.”

  Lazlo smiled and went back to the receipts. Well, that word made them sound dull, even in his head. They were old cargo manifests, which sounded marginally more thrilling, from a time when the palace had been the royal residence and goods had come from every corner of the world. He wasn’t archiving them. He was skimming them for the telltale flourishes of a particular rare alphabet. He was looking, as he always was on some level, for hints of the Unseen City—which was how he chose to think of it, since Weep still brought the taste of tears. “I’ll go in a moment,” he assured Master Hyrrokkin. It might not have seemed like it, but he took the old man’s words to heart. He had, in fact, no wish to end his days at the library—half blind or otherwise—and every hope of earning his squint lines by looking at the horizon.

  The horizon he wished to look at, however, was very far away.

  And also, incidentally, forbidden.

  Master Hyrrokkin gestured to a window. “You’re at least aware, I hope, that it’s summer out there?” When Lazlo didn’t respond, he added, “Large orange orb in the sky, low necklines on the fairer sex. Any of this ring a bell?” Still nothing. “Strange?”

  “What?” Lazlo looked up. He hadn’t heard a word. He’d found what he was looking for—a sheaf of bills from the Unseen City—and it had stolen his attention away.

  The old librarian gave a theatrical sigh. “Do as you will,” he said, half doom and half resignation. “Just take care. The books may be immortal, but we are not. You go down to the stacks one morning, and by the time you come up, you’ve a beard down to your belly and have never once composed a poem to a girl you met ice-skating on the Eder.”

  “Is that how one meets girls?” asked Lazlo, only half in jest. “Well, the river won’t freeze for months. I have time to rally my courage.”

  “Bah! Girls are not a hibernal phenomenon. Go now. Pick some flowers and find one to give them to. It’s as simple as that. Look for kind eyes and wide hips, do you hear me? Hips, boy. You haven’t lived until you’ve laid your head on a nice, soft—”

  Mercifully, he was interrupted by the approach of a scholar.

  Lazlo could as easily will his skin to turn color as he could approach and speak to a girl, let alone lay his head on a nice, soft anything. Between the abbey and the library, he had hardly known a female person, much less a young female person, and even if he’d had the faintest idea what to say to one, he didn’t imagine that many would welcome the overtures of a penniless junior librarian with a crooked nose and the ignominious name of Strange.

  The scholar left, and Master Hyrrokkin resumed his lecture. “Life won’t just happen to
you, boy,” he said. “You have to happen to it. Remember: The spirit grows sluggish when you neglect the passions.”

  “My spirit is fine.”

  “Then you’re going sadly wrong. You’re young. Your spirit shouldn’t be ‘fine.’ It should be effervescent.”

  The “spirit” in question wasn’t the soul. Nothing so abstract. It was spirit of the body—the clear fluid pumped by the second heart through its own network of vessels, subtler and more mysterious than the primary vascular system. Its function wasn’t properly understood by science. You could live even if your second heart stopped and the spirit hardened in your veins. But it did have some connection to vitality, or “passion,” as Master Hyrrokkin said, and those without it were emotionless, lethargic. Spiritless.

  “Worry about your own spirit,” Lazlo told him. “It’s not too late for you. I’m sure plenty of widows would be delighted to be wooed by such a romantic troglodyte.”

  “Don’t be impertinent.”

  “Don’t be imperious.”

  Master Hyrrokkin sighed. “I miss the days when you lived in fear of me. However short-lived they were.”

  Lazlo laughed. “You had the monks to thank for those. They taught me to fear my elders. You taught me not to, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.” He said it warmly, and then—he couldn’t help himself—his eyes flickered toward the papers in his hand.

  The old man saw and let out a huff of exasperation. “Fine, fine. Enjoy your receipts. I’m not giving up on you, though. What’s the point of being old if you can’t beleaguer the young with your vast stores of wisdom?”

  “And what’s the point of being young if you can’t ignore all advice?”

  Master Hyrrokkin grumbled and turned his attention to the stack of folios that had just been returned to the desk. Lazlo turned his to his small discovery. Silence reigned in the Pavilion of Thought, broken only by the wheels of ladders and the shush of pages turning.

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