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Strange the dreamer, p.3
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.3

           Laini Taylor
 
And, after a moment, by a low, slow whistle from Lazlo, whose discovery, it transpired, wasn’t so small after all.

  Master Hyrrokkin perked up. “More love potions?”

  “No,” said Lazlo. “Look.”

  The old man performed his usual adjustment of spectacles and peered at the paper. “Ah,” he said with the air of the long-suffering. “Mysteries of Weep. I might have known.”

  Weep. The name struck Lazlo as an unpleasant twinge behind his eyes. The condescension struck him, too, but it didn’t surprise him. Generally, he kept his fascination to himself. No one understood it, much less shared it. There had been, once upon a time, a great deal of curiosity surrounding the vanished city and its fate, but after two centuries, it had become little more than a fable. And as for the uncanny business of the name, in the world at large it hadn’t caused much stir. Only Lazlo had felt it happen. Others had learned of it later, through a slow trickle of rumors, and to them it just felt like something they’d forgotten. Some did whisper of a conspiracy or a trick, but most decided, firmly closing a door in their minds, that it had always been Weep, and any claims to the contrary were nonsense and fairy dust. There just wasn’t any other explanation that made sense.

  Certainly not magic.

  Lazlo knew that Master Hyrrokkin wasn’t interested, but he was too excited to mind. “Just read it,” he said, and held the paper under the old man’s nose.

  Master Hyrrokkin did, and failed to be impressed. “Well, what of it?”

  What of it? Among the goods listed—spice and silk and the like—was an entry for svytagor blood candy. Up until now, Lazlo had only ever seen it referred to in tales. It was considered folklore—that the river monsters even existed, let alone that their pink blood was harvested as an elixir of immortality. But here it was, bought and paid for by the royal house of Zosma. There might as well have been an entry for dragon scales. “Blood candy,” he said, pointing. “Don’t you see? It was real.”

  Master Hyrrokkin snorted. “This makes it real? If it was real, whoever ate it would still be alive to tell you so.”

  “Not so,” argued Lazlo. “In the stories, you were only immortal so long as you kept eating it, and that wouldn’t have been possible once the shipments stopped.” He pointed out the date on the bill. “This is two hundred years old. It might even have come from the last caravan.”

  The last caravan ever to emerge from the Elmuthaleth. Lazlo imagined an empty desert, a setting sun. As always, anything touching on the mysteries had a quickening effect on him, like a drumbeat pulling at his pulse—at both his pulses, blood and spirit, the rhythms of his two hearts interwoven like the syncopation of two hands beating at different drums.

  When he first came to the library, he’d thought surely he would find answers here. There were the books of stories in the dusty sublevel, of course, but there was so much more than that. The very history of the world, it had seemed to him, was all bound into covers or rolled into scrolls and archived on the shelves of this wondrous place. In his naïveté, he’d thought even the secrets must be hidden away here, for those with the will and patience to look for them. He had both, and for seven years now he’d been looking. He’d searched old journals and bundled correspondences, spies’ reports, maps and treaties, trade ledgers and the minutes of royal secretaries, and anything else he could dig up. And the more he learned, the more the little stash of treasure had grown, until it spilled from its corner to quite fill his mind.

  It had also spilled onto paper.

  As a boy at the abbey, stories had been Lazlo’s only wealth. He was richer now. Now he had books.

  His books were his books, you understand: his words, penned in his own hand and bound with his own neat stitches. No gold leaf on leather, like the books in the Pavilion of Thought. These were humble. In the beginning, he’d fished paper from the bins, half-used sheets that thriftless scholars had tossed away, and he’d made do with the snipped ends of binder’s twine from the book infirmary where they made repairs. Ink was hard to come by, but here, too, scholars unwittingly helped. They threw away bottles that still had a good quarter inch at the bottom. He’d had to water it down, so his earliest volumes were filled with pale ghost words, but after a few years, he’d begun to draw a pittance of a salary that enabled him to at least buy ink.

  He had a lot of books, all lined up on the window ledge in his little room. They contained seven years of research and every hint and tidbit that was to be found about Weep and its pair of mysteries.

  They did not contain answers to them.

  Somewhere along the way, Lazlo had accepted that the answers weren’t here, not in all these tomes on all these great, vast shelves. And how could they be? Had he imagined that the library had omniscient fairies on staff to record everything that happened in the world, no matter how secret, or how far away? No. If the answers were anywhere, they were in the south and east of the continent of Namaa, on the far side of the Elmuthaleth, whence no one had ever returned.

  Did the Unseen City still stand? Did its people yet live? What happened two hundred years ago? What happened fifteen years ago?

  What power could erase a name from the minds of the world?

  Lazlo wanted to go and find out. That was his dream, daring and magnificent: to go there, half across the world, and solve the mysteries for himself.

  It was impossible, of course.

  But when did that ever stop any dreamer from dreaming?

  3

  THE COMPLETE WORKS OF LAZLO STRANGE

  Master Hyrrokkin was immune to Lazlo’s wonder. “They’re stories, boy. Stuff and fantasy. There was no elixir of immortality. If anything, it was just sugared blood.”

  “But look at the price,” Lazlo insisted. “Would they have paid that for sugared blood?”

  “What do we know of what kings will pay? That’s proof of nothing but a rich man’s gullibility.”

  Lazlo’s excitement began to wane. “You’re right,” he admitted. The receipt proved that something called blood candy had been purchased, but nothing more than that. He wasn’t ready to give up, though. “It suggests, at least, that svytagors were real.” He paused. “Maybe.”

  “What if they were?” said Master Hyrrokkin. “We’ll never know.” He put a hand on Lazlo’s shoulder. “You’re not a child anymore. Isn’t it time to let all this go?” He had no visible mouth, his smile discernible only as a ripple where his dandelion-fluff mustache overlapped his beard. “You’ve plenty of work for little enough pay. Why add more for none? No one’s going to thank you for it. Our job is to find books. Leave it to the scholars to find answers.”

  He meant well. Lazlo knew that. The old man was a creature of the library through and through. Its caste system was, to him, the just rule of a perfect world. Within these walls, scholars were the aristocracy, and everyone else their servants—especially the librarians, whose directive was to support them in their important work. Scholars were graduates of the universities. Librarians were not. They might have the minds for it, but none had the gold. Their apprenticeship was their education, and, depending on the librarian, it might surpass a scholar’s own. But a butler might surpass his master in gentility and remain, nevertheless, the butler. So it was for librarians. They weren’t forbidden to study, so long as it didn’t interfere with their duties, but it was understood that it was for their personal enlightenment alone, and made no contribution to the world’s body of knowledge.

  “Why let scholars have all the fun?” Lazlo asked. “Besides, no one studies Weep.”

  “That’s because it’s a dead subject,” Master Hyrrokkin said. “Scholars occupy their minds with important matters.” He placed gentle emphasis on important.

  And just then, as if to illustrate his point, the doors swung open and a scholar strode in.

  The Pavilion of Thought had been a ballroom; its doors were twice the height of normal doors, and more than twice the width. Most scholars who came and went found it adequate to open one of them, then quiet
ly close it behind himself, but not this man. He laid a hand to each massive door and thrust, and by the time they hit the walls and shuddered he was well through them, boot heels ringing on the marble floor, his long, sure stride unhindered by the swish of robes. He disdained full regalia, except on ceremonial occasions, and dressed instead in impeccable coats and breeches, with tall black riding boots and a dueling blade at his side. His only nod to scholar’s scarlet was his cravat, which was always of that color. He was no ordinary scholar, this man, but the apotheosis of scholars: the most famous personage in Zosma, save the queen and the hierarch, and the most popular, bar none. He was young and glorious and golden. He was Thyon Nero the alchemist, second son of the Duke of Vaal, and godson to the queen.

  Heads lifted at the jarring of the doors, but unlike the irritation mirrored on all faces when Master Hyrrokkin had laughed, this time they registered surprise before shifting into adulation or envy.

  Master Hyrrokkin’s reaction was pure adulation. He lit up like a glave at the sight of the alchemist. Once upon a time, Lazlo would have done the same. Not anymore, though no one was looking at him to notice the way he froze like a prey creature and seemed to shrink at the approach of “the golden godson,” whose purposeful stride carried him straight to the Enquiries desk.

  This visit was out of the ordinary. Thyon Nero had assistants to perform such tasks for him. “My lord,” said Master Hyrrokkin, straightening as much as his old back would allow. “It’s so good of you to visit us. But you needn’t trouble yourself to come in person. We know you’ve more important things to attend to than running errands.” The librarian shot Lazlo a sideward glance. Here, in case Lazlo might miss his meaning, was the best possible example of a scholar occupying his mind with “important matters.”

  And with what important matters did Thyon Nero occupy his mind?

  With no less than the animating principle of the universe: “azoth,” the secret essence alchemists had sought for centuries. He had distilled it at the age of sixteen, enabling him to work miracles, among them the highest aspiration of the ancient art: the transmutation of lead into gold.

  “That’s good of you, Hyrrokkin,” said this paragon, who had the face of a god, in addition to the mind of one. “But I thought I’d better come myself”—he held up a rolled request form—“so that there could be no question whether this was a mistake.”

  “A mistake? There was no need, my lord,” Master Hyrrokkin assured him. “There could be no quibbling with a request of yours, no matter who delivered it. We’re here to serve, not to question.”

  “I’m glad to hear that,” said Nero, with the smile that had been known to render parlors full of ladies mute and dazed. And then he looked at Lazlo.

  It was so unexpected, it was like sudden immersion in ice water. Lazlo hadn’t moved since the doors burst open. This was what he did when Thyon Nero was near: He seized up and felt as invisible as the alchemist pretended he was. He was accustomed to cutting silence, and a cool gaze that slid past him as though he didn’t exist, so the look came as a shock, and his words, when he spoke, an even greater one. “And you, Strange? Are you here to serve, or to question?” He was cordial, but his blue eyes held a brightness that filled Lazlo with dread.

  “To serve, my lord,” he answered, his voice as brittle as the papers in his hands.

  “Good.” Nero held his gaze, and Lazlo had to battle the urge to look away. They stared at each other, the alchemist and the librarian. They held a secret between them, and it burned like alchemical fire. Even old Master Hyrrokkin felt it, and glanced uneasily between the two young men. Nero looked like a prince from some saga told by firelight, all luster and gleam. Lazlo’s skin hadn’t been gray since he was a baby, but his librarian’s robes were, and his eyes, too, as though that color were his fate. He was quiet, and had a shadow’s talent for passing unremarked, while Thyon drew all eyes like a flare. Everything about him was as crisp and elegant as freshly pressed silk. He was shaved by a manservant with a blade sharpened daily, and his tailor’s bill could have fed a village.

  By contrast, Lazlo was all rough edges: burlap to Nero’s silk. His robe had not been new even when it came to him a year ago. Its hem was frayed from dragging up and down the rough stone steps of the stacks, and it was large, so the shape of him was quite lost within it. They were the same height, but Nero stood as though posing for a sculptor, while Lazlo’s shoulders were curved in a posture of wariness. What did Nero want?

  Nero turned back to the old man. He held his head high, as though conscious of the perfection of his jawline, and when speaking to someone shorter than himself, lowered only his eyes, not his head. He handed over the request form.

  Master Hyrrokkin unrolled the paper, adjusted his spectacles, and read it. And… readjusted his spectacles, and read it again. He looked up at Nero. And then he looked at Lazlo, and Lazlo knew. He knew what the request was for. A numbness spread through him. He felt as though his blood and spirit had both ceased to circulate, and the breath in his lungs, too.

  “Have them delivered to my palace,” Nero said.

  Master Hyrrokkin opened his mouth, confounded, but no sound came out. He glanced at Lazlo again, and the glavelight shone on his spectacles so that Lazlo couldn’t see his eyes.

  “Do you need me to write out the address?” Nero asked. His affability was all sham. Everyone knew the riverfront palace of pale-pink marble gifted him by the queen, and he knew they knew. The address was hardly the issue.

  “My lord, of course not,” said Master Hyrrokkin. “It’s just, ah…”

  “Is there a problem?” asked Nero, his pleasant tone belied by the sharpness of his eyes.

  Yes, Lazlo thought. Yes, there is a problem, but Master Hyrrokkin quailed under the look. “No, my lord. I’m sure… I’m sure it’s an honor,” and the words were a knife in Lazlo’s back.

  “Excellent,” said Nero. “That’s that, then. I’ll expect delivery this evening.” And he left as he had come, boot heels ringing on the marble floor and all eyes following.

  Lazlo turned to Master Hyrrokkin. His hearts hadn’t stopped beating after all. They were fast and irregular, like a pair of trapped moths. “Tell me it isn’t,” he said.

  Still confounded, the old librarian just held out the request form. Lazlo took it. He read it. His hands shook. It was what he thought:

  In Nero’s bold, sweeping script was written: The Complete Works of Lazlo Strange.

  Master Hyrrokkin asked, in utter mystification, “What in the world could Thyon Nero want with your books?”

  4

  THE BASTARD GOD OF FORTUNE

  The alchemist and the librarian, they couldn’t have been more different—as though Shres, the bastard god of fortune, had stood them side by side and divided his basket of gifts between them: every gift to Thyon Nero, one by one, until the very last, which he dropped in the dirt at Lazlo’s feet.

  “Make what you can of that,” he might have said, if there were such a god, and he was feeling spiteful.

  To Thyon Nero: birth, wealth, privilege, looks, charm, brilliance.

  And to Lazlo Strange, to pick up and dust off, the one thing left over: honor.

  It might have been better for him if Nero got that one, too.

  Like Lazlo, Thyon Nero was born during the war, but war, like fortune, doesn’t touch all folk with the same hand. He grew up in his father’s castle, far from the sight and smell of suffering, much less the experience of it. On the same day that a gray and nameless infant was plunked on a cart bound for Zemonan Abbey, a golden one was christened Thyon—after the warrior-saint who drove the barbarians out of Zosma—in a lavish ceremony attended by half the court. He was a clever, beautiful child, and though his elder brother would inherit the title and lands, he claimed all else—love, attention, laughter, praise—and he claimed it loudly. If Lazlo was a silent baby, harshly raised by resentful monks, Thyon was a small, charming tyrant who demanded everything and was given even more.

 
Lazlo slept in a barracks of boys, went to bed hungry, and woke up cold.

  Thyon’s boyhood bed was shaped like a war brig, complete with real sails and riggings, and even miniature cannons, so heavy it took the strength of two maids to rock him to sleep. His hair was of such an astonishing color—as the sun in frescoes, where you might stare at it without burning out your eyes—that it was allowed to grow long, though this was not the fashion for boys. It was only cut on his ninth birthday, to be woven into an elaborate neckpiece for his godmother, the queen. She wore it, and—to the dismay of goldsmiths—spawned a fashion for human-hair jewelry, though none of the imitations could compare with the original in brilliance.

  Thyon’s nickname, “the golden godson,” was with him from his christening, and perhaps it ordained his path. Names have power, and he was, from infancy, associated with gold. It was fitting, then, that when he entered the university, he made his place in the college of alchemy.

  What was alchemy? It was metallurgy wrapped in mysticism. The pursuit of the spiritual by way of the material. The great and noble effort to master the elements in order to achieve purity, perfection, and divinity.

  Oh, and gold.

  Let’s not forget gold. Kings wanted it. Alchemists promised it—had been promising it for centuries, and if they achieved purity and perfection in anything, it was the purity and perfection of their failure to produce it.

  Thyon, thirteen years old and sharp as the point of a viper’s fang, had looked around him at the cryptic rituals and philosophies and seen it all as obfuscation cooked up to excuse that failure. Look how complicated this is, alchemists said, even as they made it so. Everything was outlandish. Initiates were required to swear an oath upon an emerald said to have been pried from the brow of a fallen angel, and when presented with this artifact, Thyon laughed. He refused to swear on it, and flat refused to study the esoteric texts, which he called “the consolation of would-be wizards cursed to live in a world without magic.”

 
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