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Strange the dreamer, p.6
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.6

           Laini Taylor

  It was a low point, the weeks after Thyon Nero took away his books. The days dragged. The walls closed in. He dreamed of deserts and great empty cities and imagined he could feel the minutes and hours of his life running through him, as though he were nothing but an hourglass of flesh and bone. He found himself staring out windows, wistful, yearning for that distant, unattainable horizon.

  Which is how he happened to see the bird.

  He was up one of the ladders in the Pavilion of Thought, pulling books for an impatient philosopher who paced below. “I haven’t got all day,” the man called up.

  I have, thought Lazlo, pushing off to send his ladder rolling along its tracks. He was at the top tier of the very tall shelves, along the northern wall beyond which the shark-fin ridge fell away in a sheer cliff all the way to the city. There were narrow windows slotted between each section of bookcase, and he caught glimpses of the summer sky as he rolled past them. Bookcase, window, bookcase, window. And there it was: a bird, hovering on an updraft, as birds liked to do on this side of the ridge, hanging in place like tethered kites. But he’d never seen a bird like this one. He halted the ladder to watch it, and something went very still at the core of him. It was pure white, a hook-beaked raptor, and it was immense, larger even than the hunting eagles he’d seen with the nomads who passed through the marketplace. Its wings were like the sails of a small ship, each feather as broad as a cutlass. But it wasn’t just its color or size that struck him. There was something about it. Some trick of the light? Its edges… they weren’t defined, but seemed to melt against the blue of the sky like sugar dissolving into tea.

  Like a ghost diffusing through the veil of the world.

  “What are you doing up there?” called the philosopher. Lazlo ignored him. He leaned forward to peer through the glare on the glass. The bird pirouetted on one vast wing and tipped into a slow, graceful spiral. He watched it plummet and soar out to cast its shadow over the roadway below, and over the roof of a carriage.

  The royal carriage. Lazlo’s forehead clashed against the window in his surprise. There was a procession coming up the long, winding road: not just the carriage but files of mounted soldiers both ahead and behind, the sun glittering on their armor. He squinted. One troop of soldiers didn’t look like the others, but they were too distant for a clear view. Their armor didn’t glitter. Their mounts moved with a strange gait. The road curved around to the ridge’s south face, and soon the whole procession had passed out of view. The huge white eagle glided after them and then…

  Perhaps Lazlo looked away. Perhaps he blinked. He didn’t think so, but just like that the bird wasn’t there anymore. It was and then it wasn’t, and even if he had blinked, it couldn’t have left his sight so quickly. There was no cover nearby, nothing to hide it. The drumbeat of Lazlo’s blood and spirit surged. The bird had vanished.

  “You there!” The philosopher was getting angry.

  Lazlo looked down at him. “Is the queen meant to visit today?” he called.

  “What? No.”

  “Because the royal carriage is coming.”

  The scholars sitting nearest heard and looked up. Word spread in murmurs. Royal visits were rare, and generally announced well in advance. Soon the scholars were standing up from their tables and leaving their materials behind to go outside and gather in the entrance court. Lazlo descended the ladder and walked out with them, not even hearing the call of his name from the librarian behind the Enquiries desk. “Strange, where are you going? Strange.”

  The bird had vanished. It was magic. Lazlo knew it, as he’d known before. Whatever had happened to the city’s true name, magic was responsible. Lazlo had never doubted it, but he’d feared that he’d never see further proof of it. He had a trio of fears that sat in his gut like swallowed teeth, and when he was too quiet with his own thoughts, they’d grind together to gnaw at him from within. This was the first: that he would never see further proof of magic.

  The second: that he would never find out what had happened in Weep.

  The third: that he would always be as alone as he was now.

  All his life, time had been passing in the only way he knew time to pass: unrushed and unrushable, as sands running through an hourglass grain by grain. And if the hourglass had been real, then in the bottom and neck—the past and the present—the sands of Lazlo’s life would be as gray as his robes, as gray as his eyes, but the top—the future—would hold a brilliant storm of color: azure and cinnamon, blinding white and yellow gold and the shell pink of svytagor blood. So he hoped, so he dreamed: that, in the course of time, grain by grain, the gray would give way to the dream and the sands of his life would run bright.

  Now the bird. The presence of magic. And something beyond the reach of understanding. An affinity, a resonance. It felt like… it felt like the turn of a page, and a story just beginning. There was the faintest glimmer of familiarity in it, as though he knew the story, but had forgotten it. And at that moment, for no reason he could put into words, the hourglass shattered. No more, the cool gray sift of days, the diligent waiting for the future to trickle forth. Lazlo’s dream was spilled out into the air, the color and storm of it no longer a future to be reached, but a cyclone here and now. He didn’t know what, but as surely as one feels the sting of shards when an hourglass tips off a shelf and smashes, he knew that something was happening.

  Right now.



  Soldiers and carriage clattered through the gates. The royal entourage was always a gorgeous spectacle, but that wasn’t what stopped Lazlo’s feet as abruptly as though his soul had flown on ahead of his body and left it stranded. It hadn’t, surely, though maybe it leaned forward, like a craned neck. A craned soul.

  Such absolute, unjaded wonder he had never experienced in his life.

  Warriors. That was the only word for the men who rode behind the queen. They were not of Zosma. Even at war, soldiers of the crown hardly merited that term, which belonged to ancient battles and bloodcurdling cries. It belonged to men like this, in tusked helms and bronze chest plates, with axes strapped across their backs. They towered. Their mounts were unnaturally tall. Their mounts were unnatural. They weren’t horses. They were creatures never seen before, lithe and grand and complicated. Their long necks folded back like egrets’; their legs were sleek and many-jointed, their faces deerlike, with great dark eyes and ears like sheaves of snowy feathers. And then there were their antlers: huge and branching, with a sheen like the play of prisms of warm gold. Lys.

  The antlers were spectralys because the creatures were spectrals. Among all those gathered and gathering, only Lazlo recognized the white stags of the Unseen City, and only he knew the warriors for who they were.

  “Tizerkane,” he whispered.

  Tizerkane. Alive. The implications were profound. If they were alive, then the city was, too. Not a hint or rumor in two hundred years, and now Tizerkane warriors were riding through the gates of the Great Library. In the sheer, shimmering improbability of the moment, it seemed to Lazlo that his dream had tired of waiting and had simply… come to find him.

  There were a score of the warriors. The tusks on their helms were the fangs of ravids, and the cages at their belts held scorpions, and they were not all men. A closer look revealed that their bronze chest plates were sculpted in realistic relief, and while half had square pectorals and small nipples, the other half were full-breasted, the metal etched around the navel with the elilith tattoo given to all women of the Unseen City when they reached their fertility. But this went unnoticed in the first thrilling moment of their arrival.

  All attention was arrested by the man who rode vanguard.

  Unlike the others, he was unhelmed and unarmored—more human for being unhidden, but no less striking for it. He was neither young nor old, his wild black hair just beginning to gray at his brow. His face was square and brown and leathered by much sun, his eyes jet chips set in smiling squints. There was a stunning vitality to him, as thou
gh he breathed all the world’s air and only left enough for others by sheer benevolence. He was powerful, chest fully twice as deep as a normal man’s, shoulders twice as broad. Great golden bands caught his sleeves in the dip between biceps and deltoids, and his neck was dark with obscure tattoos. Instead of a chest plate, he wore a vest of tawny fur, and a broad and battered sword belt from which hung two long blades. Hreshtek, thought Lazlo, and his hands closed around the phantom hilts of apple bough swords. He felt the texture of them, their precise weight and balance as he’d twirled them over his head. The memories flooded him. It had been fifteen years, but it might have been fifteen minutes since his hundred routed foes fled through the frost.

  Long ago, when he was still wild. When he was powerful.

  He scanned the sky but saw no sign of the ghostly bird. The courtyard was dead silent, save for the hooves of the horses. The spectrals made no sound, moving with dancers’ grace. A footman opened the carriage door and, when the queen appeared in it, Master Ellemire, head of the Scholars’ Guild and director of the Great Library, took her hand and helped her down. He was a big, swaggering man with a thunderous voice, but he blanched before the new arrivals, at a loss for words. And then, from the direction of the Chrysopoesium, came the ring of boot heels. The long, sure stride.

  A wave of heads turned toward the sound. Lazlo didn’t have to look. Everything clicked into place. The requisition of his books made sudden sense, and he understood that Thyon would not have burned them or flown the pages off the widow’s walk like birds. He would have known of this extraordinary visit in advance. He would have read them. He would have prepared. Of course.

  He came into view, walking briskly. He paused to kiss the hand of his godmother, and offered a brief bow to Master Ellemire before turning to the Tizerkane as though he were the library’s representative and not the older man. “Azer meret, Eril-Fane,” he said, his voice smooth and strong. “Onora enet, en shamir.”

  Well met, Eril-Fane. Your presence is our honor. Lazlo heard it as though from a distance. It was the traditional greeting of guests in Unseen. Learned, word for word, from his books.

  It had taken him years to develop a working dictionary of Unseen, and more to unlock the probable pronunciation of its alphabet. Years. And Thyon stood there and spoke that phrase as though it were just lying around, knowable, as common as any pebble picked up off the ground, rather than the rare and precious gem it was.

  The warrior—Eril-Fane, Thyon had called him—was amazed to find himself greeted in his own language, and immediately responded in kind. And your welcome is our blessing, was what he said. Lazlo understood. It was the first Unseen he had ever heard from a native speaker, and it sounded just as he’d always imagined it would: like calligraphy, if calligraphy were written in honey.

  If Lazlo had understood his words, though, Thyon did not. He covered well, spouting a pleasantry before shifting into Common Tongue to say, “This is a day such as dreams are made of. I never thought to set eyes on a Tizerkane warrior.”

  “I see it’s true what they say of the Great Library of Zosma,” Eril-Fane replied, shifting to Common Tongue as well. His accent on its smooth syllables was like a patina on bronze. “That the wind is in your employ, and blows all the world’s knowledge to your door.”

  Thyon laughed, quite at ease. “If only it were so simple. No, it’s a good deal more work than that, but if it is knowable, I daresay it is known here, and if it is half as fascinating as your history, then it is also savored.”

  Eril-Fane dismounted and another warrior followed suit: a tall, straight woman who stood like a shadow to him. The rest remained mounted, and their faces weren’t impassive like the ranks of Zosma soldiers. They were as vivid, each one, as their general’s—sharp with interest, and alive. It made a marked difference. The Zosma guards were like mounted statues, eyes blank and fixed on nothing. They might have been minted, not born. But the Tizerkane looked back at the scholars looking at them, and the faces framed by ravid fangs, though fierce, were also fascinated. Avid, even hopeful, and above all, human. It was jarring. It was wonderful.

  “This is not the first stop on our sojourn,” Eril-Fane said, his voice like rough music. “But it is the first in which we have been greeted with familiar words. I came seeking scholars, but had not anticipated that we might ourselves be a subject of scholarly interest.”

  “How could you doubt it, sir?” said Thyon, all sincerity. “Your city has been my fascination since I was five years old, playing Tizerkane in the orchard, and felt its name… plucked from my mind.”

  Sometimes a moment is so remarkable that it carves out a space in time and spins there, while the world rushes on around it. This was one such. Lazlo stood stunned, a white noise roaring in his ears. Without his books, his room felt like a body with its hearts cut out. Now his body felt like a body with its hearts cut out.

  There was more. The queen and Master Ellemire joined in. Lazlo heard it all: the concern and abiding interest they took in the far, fabled city and its mysteries, and with what excitement they had met the news of this visit. They were convincing. No one listening would suspect they hadn’t given Weep a moment’s thought until a few weeks ago. No doubt the assembled scholars were wondering how they could have been ignorant of such deep and long-standing interest on the part of their guild master and monarch—who, it was to be noted by the keen-eyed among them, wore a priceless new tiara of lys atop her stiff, graying curls.

  “So, sir,” said Master Ellemire, perhaps trying to wrest authority from Thyon. “What news of Weep?”

  A misstep. The warrior was stoic but couldn’t entirely hide his wince, as though the name caused him physical pain.

  “I’ve never liked to call it that,” cut in Thyon—softly, like a confession. “It’s bitter on my tongue. I think of it as the Unseen City instead.”

  It was another knife in Lazlo’s hearts, and earned Thyon a considering look from Eril-Fane. “We don’t use that name, either,” he said.

  “Then what do you call it?” inquired the queen, querulous.

  “We call it home, Your Majesty.”

  “And you’re a long way from it,” observed Thyon, getting to the point.

  “You must be wondering why.”

  “I confess I am, and so much else besides. I welcome you to our great city of learning and hope that we may be of service.”

  “As do I,” said the warrior. “More than you could know.”

  They went inside, and Lazlo could only watch them go. There was a sensation in his hearts, though, as a stirring of embers. There was fire in him. It wasn’t smothered, only banked, but it would burn like the wings of the seraphim before this was over.



  Word spread quickly: The visitor wished to address the scholars.

  “What can he want?” they wondered, streaming into the Royal Theater. Attendance was voluntary, and unanimous. If the sight of the warriors wasn’t enough to stoke their curiosity, there was rumor of a “rare opportunity.” They gossiped, taking their seats.

  “They say he brought a coffer of gemstones the size of a dowry chest.”

  “And did you see the tiara? It’s lys—”

  “Did you see the creatures? One rack of antlers could ransom a kingdom.”

  “Just try getting close to one.”

  “The warriors!”

  “Some are women.”

  “Of all the mad indecencies!”

  But mostly they wondered at the man himself. “They say he’s a hero of some kind,” Lazlo overheard. “The liberator of Weep.”

  “Liberator? From who?”

  “Who or what?” was the cryptic reply. “I don’t know, but he’s called the Godslayer.”

  Everything else in Lazlo’s mind took a step back to clear space for this new intelligence. The Godslayer. He marveled. What had the warrior slain that went by the name of god? For fifteen years, the mysteries of Weep had never been far from his thoughts. For
seven years, he had scoured the library for clues of what had happened there. And now here were Tizerkane, and the answers he sought were under this very roof, and new questions, too. What were they doing here? In spite of Nero’s treachery, a dazzlement was growing in him. A rare opportunity. Could it be what he hoped? What if it was? In all his dreaming—and indeed, all his despairing—he had never foreseen this: that his impossible dream might simply… ride through the gates.

  He didn’t take a seat in the sea of scarlet robes, but stood in the back of the theater, in the shadows. Scholars had been summoned, not librarians, and he didn’t want to risk being told to leave.

  Eril-Fane took the stage. A hush fell fast. Many of the scholars were seeing him for the first time, and you could almost feel their carefully cultivated skepticism fail.

  If there were gods in need of slaying, here was the man for the job.

  Lazlo’s pulse thrilled through him as the Godslayer began. “It has been two centuries since my city lost the world,” the warrior said, “and was lost to it. Someday that story will be told, but not today. Today it is enough to say that we have passed through a long, dark time and come out of it alive and strong. Our difficulties are now behind us. All but one.” He paused. A somberness darkened his voice and regard—the mysteries of Weep, writ on its own hero’s face. “The… shadow of our dark time still haunts us. It poses no danger. That much I can say. There is nothing to fear. I assure you.” Here he paused, and Lazlo leaned forward, hardly breathing. Why did he assure them? What did their fear matter? Could he mean…?

  “You may know,” he went on, “that my city was ever forbidden to faranji. ‘Outsiders,’ as we would call you.” He smiled a little and added, “Fondly, of course,” and a low laugh rippled through the audience.

  “You may also have heard that faranji who insisted on trying their luck were executed, one and all.”

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