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Strange the dreamer, p.4
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.4

           Laini Taylor

  “You, young man, have the soul of a blacksmith,” the master of alchemy told him in a cold rage.

  “Better than the soul of a charlatan,” Thyon shot back. “I would sooner swear an oath on an anvil and do honest work than dupe the world with make-believe.”

  And so it was that the golden godson swore his oath on a blacksmith’s anvil instead of the angel’s emerald. Anyone else would have been expelled, but he had the queen’s favor, and so the old guard had no choice but to stand aside and let him do his own work in his own way. He cared only for the material side of things: the nature of elements, the essence and mutability of matter. He was ambitious, meticulous, and intuitive. Fire, water, and air yielded up secrets to him. Minerals revealed their hidden properties. And at fifteen, to the deep dismay of the “would-be wizards,” he performed the first transmutation in western history—not gold, alas, but lead into bismuth—and did so, as he said, without recourse to “spirits or spells.” It was a triumph, for which he was rewarded by his godmother with a laboratory of his own. It took over the grand old church at the Great Library, and no expense was spared. The queen dubbed it “the Chrysopoesium”—from chrysopoeia, the transmutation of base metal into gold—and she wore her necklace of his hair when she came to present it to him. They walked arm in arm in matching gold: his on his head, hers on her neck, and soldiers marched behind them, clad in gold surcoats commissioned for the occasion.

  Lazlo stood in the crowd that day, awed by the spectacle and by the brilliant golden boy who had always seemed to him like a character from a story—a young hero blessed by fortune, rising to take his place in the world. That was what everyone saw—like an audience at the theater, blithely unaware that backstage the actors were playing out a darker drama.

  As Lazlo was to discover.

  It was about a year after that—he was sixteen—and he was taking the bypass through the tombwalk one evening when he heard a voice as hard and sharp as ax-fall. He couldn’t make out the words at first and paused, searching for their source.

  The tombwalk was a relic of the old palace cemetery, cut off from the rest of the grounds by the construction of the astronomers’ tower. Most of the scholars didn’t even know it was there, but the librarians did, because they used it as a shortcut between the stacks and the reading rooms in the base of the tower. That was what Lazlo was doing, his arms full of manuscripts, when he heard the voice. There was a rhythm to it, and an accompanying punctuation of slaps or blows. Thwop. Thwop.

  There was another sound, barely audible. He thought it was an animal, and when he peered around the corner of a mausoleum, he saw an arm rising and falling with the steady, vicious thwop. It wielded a riding crop, and the image was unmistakable, but he still thought it was an animal that was being beaten, because it was low and cringing and its bitten-off whimpers were no human sound.

  A burning anger filled him, quick as the strike of a match. He drew in breath to shout.

  And held it.

  There was a little light, and in the instant it took his voice to gather up a single word, Lazlo perceived the scene in full.

  A bowed back. A crouching boy. Glavelight on golden hair. And the Duke of Vaal beating his son like an animal.

  “Stop!” Lazlo had almost said. He held in the word like a mouthful of fire.

  “Witless—” Thwop. “Imbecilic—” Thwop. “Lackadaisical—” Thwop. “Pathetic.”

  It went on, merciless, and Lazlo flinched with every thwop, his anger smothered by a great confusion. Once he had time to think, it would flare up again, hotter than before. But in the face of such a sight, his overwhelming feeling was shock. He himself was no stranger to punishment. He still had faint scars crisscrossing his legs from all his lashings. He’d sometimes been locked in the crypt overnight with only the skulls of dead monks for company, and he couldn’t even count the number of times he’d been called stupid or worthless or worse. But that was him. He belonged to no one and had nothing. He had never imagined that Thyon Nero could be subject to such treatment, and such words. He had stumbled upon a private scene that belied everything he thought he knew about the golden godson and his charmed life, and it broke something in him to see the other boy brought low.

  They weren’t friends. That would have been impossible. Nero was an aristocrat, and Lazlo so very much wasn’t. But Lazlo had many times fulfilled Thyon’s research requests, and once, in the early days, when he’d discovered a rare metallurgical treatise he thought might be of interest, Nero had even said, “Thank you.”

  It might sound like nothing—or worse, it might appall that he only said it once in all those years. But Lazlo knew that boys like him were trained to speak only in commands, and when Thyon had looked up from the treatise and spoken those simple words, with gravity and sincerity—“Thank you”—he had glowed with pride.

  Now his Stop! sat burning on his tongue; he wanted to shout it, but didn’t. He stood rooted, pressed against the cool side of the mossy mausoleum, afraid even to move. The riding crop fell still. Thyon cradled his head in his arms, face hidden. He made no more sound, but Lazlo could see his shoulders shaking.

  “Get up,” snarled the duke.

  Thyon straightened, and Lazlo saw him clearly. His face was slack and red, and his golden hair stuck to his brow in tear-damp strands. He looked a good deal younger than sixteen.

  “Do you know what she spent on your laboratory?” demanded the duke. “Glassblowers all the way from Amaya. A furnace built from your own plans. A smokestack that’s the highest point in the entire city. And what have you to show for it all? Notes? Measurements?”

  “Alchemy is notes and measurements,” protested Thyon. His voice was thick with tears, but not yet stripped of defiance. “You have to know the properties of metals before you can hope to alter them.”

  The duke shook his head with utter contempt. “Master Luzinay was right. You do have the soul of a blacksmith. Alchemy is gold, do you understand me? Gold is your life now. Unless you fail to produce it, in which case you’ll be lucky to have a life. Do you understand me?”

  Thyon drew back, stunned by the threat. “Father, please. It’s only been a year—”

  “Only a year?” The duke’s laugh was a dead thing. “Do you know what can happen in a year? Houses fall. Kingdoms fall. While you sit in your laboratory learning the properties of metal?”

  This gave Thyon pause, and Lazlo, too. Kingdoms fall? “But… you can’t expect me to do in a year what no one has ever done before.”

  “No one had ever transmuted metal, either, and you did it at fifteen.”

  “Only to bismuth,” the boy said bitterly.

  “I am well aware of the inadequacy of your achievement,” spat the duke. “All I’ve heard from you since you started university is how much smarter you are than everyone else. So be smarter, damn you. I told her you could do it. I assured her.”

  “I’m trying, Father.”

  “Try harder!” This, the duke bellowed. His eyes were very wide, the whites showing in a full ring around his irises. There was desperation in him, and Lazlo, in the shadows, was chilled by it. When the queen had named the Chrysopoesium, he had thought it a fine name for an alchemical laboratory. He’d taken it in the spirit of hope: that the greatest ambition of the art might one day be realized there. But it seemed there was no “one day” about it. She wanted gold and she wanted it now.

  Thyon swallowed hard and stared at his father. A wave of fear seemed to roil between them. Slowly, and all but whispering, the boy asked, “What if it can’t be done?”

  Lazlo expected the duke to lash out again, but he only gritted his teeth. “Let me put it to you plainly. The treasury is empty. The soldiers cannot be paid. They are deserting, and our enemies have noticed. If this goes on, they will invade. Do you begin to see?”

  There was more. Disastrous intrigues and debts called in, but what it added up to was very simple: Make gold, or Zosma will fall.

  Lazlo watched Thyon go pale as the who
le weight of the kingdom settled on him, and he felt it as though it were on his own shoulders.

  And it was.

  Not because it was put there by a cruel father and a greedy queen, but because he took it. Right there in the tombwalk, as though it were a real, physical burden, he put himself beneath it to help Thyon bear the weight—even if Thyon didn’t know it.

  Why did he? He might have turned aside and gone about his evening and his life, giddy with relief that such burdens weren’t his to bear. Most would have. Moreover, most would have hastened hence to whisper of it and spread the rumor before night finished falling. But Lazlo wasn’t most people. He stood in the shadows, furious with thought. He was thinking of war, and the people the last one stole from him before he could know them, and all the children the next one would orphan, and all the names that would die like songs.

  Through it all, he was highly sensible of his own uselessness. How could he help the golden godson? He wasn’t an alchemist, or a hero. He was a librarian, and a dreamer. He was a reader, and the unsung expert on a long-lost city no one cared a thing about. What could he possibly…?

  It came to him.

  He wasn’t an alchemist. He was an expert on a long-lost city no one cared a thing about. And it happened that that city, according to its legends, had been practicing alchemy back when Zosma was still a barbarian-plagued wilderness. In fact, the archetypal images of the art and its practitioners came from the old stories brought across the Elmuthaleth: tales of powerful men and women who had tapped the secrets of nature and the cosmos.

  Lazlo thought about it. He thought about it as Thyon and the duke left the tombwalk in tense silence, and as he returned his armload of manuscripts to the library, and he kept thinking about it as the library closed for the night and he missed dinner to return to his room and his books.

  While resident scholars lived in the grand guest chambers of the palace’s upper stories, librarians were housed in the service quarters, one floor above the housekeeping staff, in the rooms once occupied by ladies’ maids and valets. Lazlo entered a long, low-ceilinged passage with many identical doors, each with a glave hanging on a hook. He took his down and brought it into his room with him.

  Glaves were quarried stones, naturally and perpetually luminous, and they emitted no heat, only radiance, the color and strength of which varied as greatly as the quality of gemstones. This one was poor: an irregular hunk of reddish rock emitting a muddy glow. Small as the room was, it left the corners in shadow. There was a narrow bed on one side and a desk and stool on the other. Two wall pegs held every item of clothing Lazlo owned, and there was no shelf but the window ledge. His books were lined up there. He hung up the glave and started pulling them off and flicking through them. Soon he was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, marking pages and jotting down notes. Footsteps passed in the corridor as the other librarians turned in for the night, but Lazlo had no awareness of them, or of the descending silence, or the rise and fall of the moon. Sometime in the night he left his room and made his way down to the dusty sublevel that hadn’t been dusty for years.

  It was his sanctuary—a realm of stories, not just from the Unseen City, but the world. Weep might have been his dream, but he loved all stories, and knew every single one that resided here, even if he’d had to translate them from a dozen languages with the help of dictionaries and grammars. Here, captured between covers, was the history of the human imagination, and nothing had ever been more beautiful, or fearsome, or bizarre. Here were spells and curses and myths and legends, and Strange the dreamer had for so long fed his mind on them that if one could wander into it, they would discover a fantasia. He didn’t think like other people. He didn’t dismiss magic out of hand, and he didn’t believe that fairy tales were just for children. He knew magic was real, because he’d felt it when the name of the Unseen City was stolen from his mind. And as for fairy tales, he understood that they were reflections of the people who had spun them, and were flecked with little truths—intrusions of reality into fantasy, like… toast crumbs on a wizard’s beard.

  He hoped this might be one such crumb.

  At the heart of alchemy was the belief in azoth, the secret essence inherent in all matter. Alchemists believed that if they could distill it, it would enable them to master the underlying structures of the physical world. To transmute lead into gold, derive a universal solvent, and even an elixir of immortality.

  It had long been accepted that this would be accomplished by means of some elaborate process involving the elemental trinity: salt, mercury, and sulfur. An absurd number of books and treatises had been written on the subject, considering the utter absence of empirical evidence. They were full of diagrams of dragons swallowing suns and men suckling at the breasts of goddesses, and Lazlo thought them as wild as any fairy tales, although they were shelved more respectably, in the alchemy room of the library, which, tellingly, had once been the palace treasury.

  Meanwhile, banished belowstairs where no alchemist would ever look for it, in a book of tales from the Unseen City whimsically titled Miracles for Breakfast, there was mention of another theory: that the alchemist was himself the secret ingredient—that only the conjunction of human soul with elemental soul could give birth to azoth.

  And there it was, a crumb on a wizard’s beard.




  He ought to have waited, at least for a few days. Really, he ought never to have gone at all. He understood that later. Lazlo understood a lot of things later.

  Too late.

  The sun was rising by the time he emerged from the stacks clutching the book, and he might have been tired from staying up all night, but energy thrummed through him. Excitement. Nerves. He felt as though he were part of something, and forgot that only he knew it. He didn’t return to his room, but made his way out of the main palace and across the grounds to the old church that was now the Chrysopoesium.

  All the city was spread out below. A radiance lit the Eder where it met the horizon. As the sun climbed, its gleam raced upriver like a lit fuse, seeming to carry daylight with it. The cathedral bells rang out, and all the other church bells followed—light and sweet, like children answering a parent’s call.

  Lazlo thought Thyon might not have slept, either, not with the terrible burden laid on him. He approached the doors. They were huge, cast-bronze church doors, and weren’t exactly built for knocking. He knocked anyway, but he could hardly hear the rap of his own knuckles. He might have given up then, retreated, and given himself time to think better of what he was about to do. If the initial thrill of discovery had been allowed to wear off, surely he would have seen his folly, even naïve as he was. But, instead, he checked around the side of the church, found a door with a bell, and rang it.

  And so things fell out as they did.

  Thyon answered the door. He looked blank. Lifeless. “Well?” he asked.

  “I’m sorry to disturb you,” Lazlo said, or something to that effect. This part was a blur to him after. His pulse was pounding in his ears. It wasn’t like him to put himself forward. If his upbringing at the abbey had specialized in anything, it was instilling a profound sense of unworthiness. But he was riding the momentum of his outrage on Thyon’s behalf, and the flush of solidarity from one beaten boy for another, and above all, the thrill of discovery. Maybe he blurted “I found something for you,” and held up the book.

  Whatever his words, Thyon stood back so that he might enter. The space was high and hushed, like any church, but the air stank of sulfur, like a pit of hell. Wan shafts of dawn light diffused through stained glass, throwing color onto shelves of gleaming glass and copper. The nave was occupied by a long worktable cluttered with equipment. The whole of the apse had been taken over by a monumental furnace, and a brick chimney cut right up through the center of the frescoed dome, obliterating the heads of angels.

  “Well, what is it?” Thyon asked. He was moving stiffly, and Lazlo di
dn’t doubt that his back was covered with welts and bruises. “I suppose you’ve found me another treatise,” he said. “They’re all worthless, you know.”

  “It’s not exactly a treatise.” Lazlo set the book down on the pocked surface of the worktable, noticing only now the engraving on the cover. It showed a spoon brimming with stars and mythical beasts. Miracles for Breakfast. It looked like a children’s book, and he had his first pang of misgiving. He hurried to open it, to hide the cover and title. “It is to do with gold, though,” he said, and launched into an explanation. To his dismay, it sounded as out of place in this somber laboratory as the book looked out of place, and he found himself rushing to keep ahead of his growing mortification, which only made it sound wilder and more foolish the faster he went.

  “You know the lost city of Weep,” he said. He made himself use the impostor name and immediately tasted tears. “And its alchemists who were said to have made gold in ancient times.”

  “Legends,” said Thyon, dismissive.

  “Maybe,” said Lazlo. “But isn’t it possible the stories are true? That they made gold?”

  He registered the look of incredulity on Thyon’s face, but misinterpreted it. Thinking it was his premise that the alchemist found unbelievable, he hurried along.

  “Look here,” he said, and pointed to the passage in the book, about the alchemist himself being the secret ingredient of azoth. “It says the conjunction of human soul and elemental soul, which sounds, I don’t know, unhelpful, because how do you join your soul with metal? But I think it’s a mistranslation. I’ve come across it before. In Unseen… I mean, in the language of Weep, the word for ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ is the same. It’s amarin for both. So I think this is a mistake.” He tapped his finger on the word soul and paused. Here it was, his big idea. “I think it means that the key to azoth is spirit. Spirit of the body.” He held out his wrists, pale side up, exposing the traceries of veins so that Thyon would be sure to take his meaning. And, with that, he found he’d run out of words. A conclusion was needed, something to shine a light on his idea and make it gleam, but he had none, so it just hung there in the air, sounding, frankly, ridiculous.

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