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Strange the dreamer, p.7
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       Strange the Dreamer, p.7

           Laini Taylor

  The laughter ceased.

  “I am grateful to your good queen for giving us a gentler reception here.”

  Laughter again, if hesitant. It was his manner—the warmth of him, like steam rising from tea. One looked at him and thought, Here is a great man, and also a good one, though few men are ever both.

  “No one born this side of the Elmuthaleth has ever seen what lies beyond it. But that is about to change.” A rushing filled Lazlo’s ears, but he didn’t miss a word. “I have come to extend an invitation: to visit my city as my personal guest. This last remaining… problem, we have been unable to solve on our own. Our library and university were crushed two hundred years ago. Literally crushed, you understand, and our wisdom-keepers with them. So we find ourselves lacking the knowledge and expertise we need. Mathematics, engineering, metallurgy.” A vague gesture of his fingers indicated he spoke in broad terms. “We’ve come far from home to assemble a delegation of men and women—” And as he said this, his eyes sketched the crowd, as though to confirm what he had already noted: that there were no women among the scholars of Zosma. A furrow creased his brow, but he went on. “—who might supply what we lack, and help us to put the last specter of the past where it belongs.”

  He looked out at them, letting his eyes settle on individual faces. And Lazlo, who was accustomed to the near invisibility his insignificance bestowed on him, was jolted to feel the weight of that gaze on himself. A second or two it rested there: a blaze of connection, the feeling of being seen and set apart.

  “And if this chance, in itself,” Eril-Fane continued, “does not tempt you to disrupt your life and work—for a year at least, more likely two—rest assured you will be well compensated. Further, for the one who solves the problem”—his voice was rich with promise—“the reward will be great.”

  With that, most every scholar in Zosma was ready to pack a trunk and strike out for the Elmuthaleth. But that wasn’t to be the way of it. It was not an open invitation, the Godslayer went on to say. He would select the delegates himself based on their qualifications.

  Their qualifications.

  The words flattened Lazlo like a sudden shift in gravity. He didn’t need to be told that “dreamer” was not a qualification. It wasn’t enough to want it more than anyone else. The Godslayer hadn’t come halfway around the world to grant a junior librarian’s dream. He’d come seeking knowledge and expertise, and Lazlo couldn’t imagine that meant a faranji “expert” on his own city. Mathematics, engineering, metallurgy, he’d said. He’d come for practical knowledge.

  He’d come for men like Thyon Nero.



  The Godslayer was two days interviewing scholars at the Great Library of Zosma, and in the end, he invited only three to join his delegation. They were: a mathematician, a natural philosopher, and, to no one’s surprise, the alchemist, Thyon Nero. Lazlo wasn’t even granted an interview. It wasn’t Eril-Fane who denied him, but Master Ellemire, who was overseeing the process.

  “Well, what is it?” he asked, impatient, when Lazlo reached the front of the queue. “Do you have a message for someone?”

  “What? No,” said Lazlo. “I’d… I’d like an interview. Please.”

  “You, an interview? I hardly think he’s recruiting librarians, boy.”

  There were other scholars around, and they added their own mockery. “Don’t you know, Ellemire? Strange isn’t just a librarian. He’s practically a scholar himself. Of fairy tales.”

  “I’m sorry to say,” the master told Lazlo, eyes heavy-lidded with disdain, “that Eril-Fane made no mention of fairies.”

  “Maybe they’ve an elf problem in Weep,” said another. “Do you know anything about elf trapping, Strange?”

  “Or dragons. Perhaps it’s dragons.”

  This went on for some time. “I’d just like the chance to speak with him,” Lazlo pleaded, but to no avail. Master Ellemire wouldn’t “waste their guest’s time” by sending in someone so “manifestly unqualified,” and Lazlo couldn’t find it in himself to argue on his own behalf. He was unqualified. The fact was, if he did get in to see the Godslayer, he didn’t even know what he would say. What could he say to recommend himself? I know a lot of stories?

  It was the first time he ever felt, for himself, a measure of the contempt others felt for him.

  Who had ever expended so much passion on a dream, only to stand helpless as it was granted to others? Others, moreover, who had expended no passion on it at all. His impossible dream had, against all probability, crossed deserts and mountains to come to Zosma and extend an unprecedented invitation.

  But not to him.

  “I owe you a thank-you, Strange,” said Thyon Nero later, after everything was decided and the Tizerkane were preparing to depart.

  Lazlo could only look at him, blank. A thank-you for what? For helping him when he was desperate and alone? For handing him the secret to his fame and fortune? For rescuing the royal treasury and enabling Zosma to pay its army and avoid war?

  No. None of that. “Your books were quite informative,” he said. “Of course, I imagine real scholars will take an interest in Weep now, and amateur records won’t be needed. Still, it’s not bad work. You should be proud.”

  Proud. Lazlo remembered that solitary thank-you from back when they were boys, and couldn’t believe that it had ever been meaningful. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be over there with the chosen?”

  The Tizerkane were mounted, spectrals gleaming white and lys, the warriors in their bronze, faces fierce and alive. Eril-Fane was bidding the queen farewell, and the mathematician and natural philosopher were with them, too. The chosen scholars weren’t leaving with the Tizerkane today. They were to meet them in four months’ time at the caravansary in Alkonost, where the full delegation would assemble to strike out together across the Elmuthaleth. It would take them time to wrap up their work and prepare themselves for a long journey. None of them were adventurers, at least not yet. In the meantime, the Tizerkane would continue their travels, searching out more delegates in the kingdoms of Syriza, Thanagost, and Maialen. Still, Lazlo didn’t know what Thyon was doing mingling among the unchosen. Besides gloating.

  “Oh, I’m going,” he said. “I just wanted you to know that your books were helpful. Eril-Fane was most impressed with my knowledge of his city. Do you know, he said I was the first outsider he’s met who knew anything about it. Isn’t that a fine thing?”

  Fine wasn’t the word that came to Lazlo’s mind.

  “Anyway,” continued Thyon, “I didn’t want you to worry that you’d done all that work for nothing.”

  And Lazlo wasn’t a creature of anger or envy, but he felt the scorch of both—as though his veins were fuses and they were burning through him, leaving paths of ash in their wake. “Why do you even want to go?” he asked, bitter. “It’s nothing to you.”

  Thyon shrugged. Everything about him was smooth—his pressed clothes and perfect shave, his cavalier voice and blithe expression. “Stories will be told about me, Strange. You should appreciate that. There ought to be adventure in them, don’t you think? It’s a dull legend that takes place in a laboratory.”

  A legend? The tale of the golden godson, who distilled azoth and saved kingdoms. It was all about him, and not Weep at all. He smacked Lazlo on the back. “I’d better go and say good-bye. And don’t worry, Strange. You’ll get your books back.”

  It was no comfort. For years, Lazlo’s books had represented his dream. Now they would represent the end of it.

  “Don’t be so glum,” said Thyon. “Someday I’ll come home, and when I do, I promise”—he put a hand to his hearts—“I’ll tell you all about the mysteries of Weep.”

  Numbly, Lazlo watched him walk away. It wasn’t fair. He knew it was a childish thought. Who knew better than he that life wasn’t fair? He’d learned that lesson before he could walk, before he could speak. But how could he accept this? How could he go on fr
om this, knowing that his chance had come and gone, and he hadn’t even been allowed to try? He imagined marching forth right now, right here, in front of everyone, and appealing directly to Eril-Fane. The thought made his face burn and his voice wither, and he might as well have been turned to stone.

  Master Hyrrokkin found him there and laid a consoling hand on his arm. “I know it’s hard, Strange, but it will pass. Some men are born for great things, and others to help great men do great things. There’s no shame in it.”

  Lazlo could have laughed. What would Master Hyrrokkin say if he knew the help that Lazlo had already given the great golden godson? What would everyone say, those scholars who’d mocked him, if they knew a fairy tale had held the key to azoth? When Lazlo had gone to Thyon with his “miracle for breakfast,” it had been so clearly Thyon’s story that he hadn’t even considered keeping it for himself. But… this was his story.

  He was Strange the dreamer, and this was his dream.

  “I do want to help a great man do great things,” he told the librarian. “I want to help Eril-Fane. I want to help the Unseen City.”

  “My boy,” said Master Hyrrokkin with deep and gentle sadness, “how could you help?”

  And Lazlo didn’t know how, but he knew one thing. He couldn’t help if he stayed here. He watched Eril-Fane bid Thyon farewell. The scene dazzled. Royalty and warriors and spectacular beasts. Eril-Fane stepped a foot up into his stirrup and mounted. Thyon stood beside him, a perfect part of a perfect picture. Some people were born to inhabit such scenes. That was what Master Hyrrokkin believed, and what Lazlo had always been taught. And others were born to… what? To stand in the crowd and do nothing, try nothing, say nothing, and accept every serving of bitter nothing as their due?

  No. Just… no.

  “Wait! Please.”

  The words came from him. Here, in front of everyone. His heartbeats were deafening. His head felt wrapped in thunder. The scholars craned their necks to see who among them had spoken, and were startled—even astonished—to see the soft-spoken, dreamy-eyed junior librarian cutting his way through the crowd. He was astonished himself, and stepped forth with a sense of unreality. Eril-Fane had heard him and was looking back, inquiring. Lazlo had lost track of his feet and legs. He might have been floating for all he could tell, but he supposed it more likely he was walking and just couldn’t feel it. This boldness, such as it was, went against everything in him, but this was it, his last chance: act now, or lose his dream forever. He forced himself forward.

  “My name is Lazlo Strange,” he called out, and the full complement of Tizerkane warriors turned their heads as one to look at him. Their vivid faces showed their surprise—not because Lazlo had called out, but because he had called out in Unseen, and unlike Thyon, he didn’t treat it like a common thing, but the rare and precious gem it was. The words, in the reverent tones of his rough voice, sounded like a magic spell. “Might I beg a moment of your time?” he asked, still in their tongue, and he must not have looked crazed—though it had to be a near thing; he felt crazed—because Eril-Fane eased his spectral around to face him, and, with a nod, signaled him to approach.

  “Who is that?” Lazlo heard the queen ask, her voice waspish. “What is he saying?”

  Thyon stepped forward, his eyes darting between Lazlo and Eril-Fane. “Sir,” he said quickly, his veneer of smoothness slipping. “You needn’t trouble yourself. He’s only a librarian.”

  Eril-Fane’s brow creased. “Only?” he asked.

  If Thyon had indeed read The Complete Works of Lazlo Strange, then he must know that in Weep of old, the keepers of books had been the keepers of wisdom, and not servants as they were in Zosma. Realizing that his slight had missed its mark, he hurried to say, “I only mean that he lacks the sort of expertise you’re looking for.”

  “I see,” said Eril-Fane, turning his attention back to Lazlo. And then, in his own tongue, with what seemed to Lazlo’s untrained ear to be slow and careful enunciation, he inquired, “And what can I do for you, young man?”

  Lazlo’s grasp of the spoken language was tenuous, but he managed to answer, in uncertain grammar, “I want to come with you. Please, let me be of service.”

  Eril-Fane’s surprise showed. “And why did you not come to me before?”

  “I… wasn’t permitted, sir,” Lazlo said.

  “I see,” said Eril-Fane once more, and Lazlo thought he detected displeasure in his tone. “Tell me, how did you learn our language?”

  Haltingly, Lazlo did. “I… I built a key with old trade documents. It was a place to start. Then there were letters, books.” What could he say? How could he convey the hours—hundreds of hours—spent bent over ledgers, his eyes swimming in the dim light of a dull glave while his mind traced the arabesques and coils of an alphabet that looked like music sounded? How could he explain that it had fit his mind as nothing else ever had, like numbers to a mathematician, or air to a flute? He couldn’t. He only said, “It’s taken me seven years.”

  Eril-Fane took all this in, casting a mild sideward glance at Thyon Nero, who was stiff with alarm, and if he was comparing the alchemist’s superficial knowledge with Lazlo’s deeper understanding, he didn’t call it out.

  “And why have you learned it?” he asked Lazlo, who stumbled through a reply. He wasn’t sure exactly what he said, but he tried to say: “Because your city is my fascination. I can still taste its true name, and I know magic is real, because I felt it that day, and all I’ve ever wanted is to go and find it.”

  “Find magic? Or my city?”

  “Your city,” said Lazlo. “Both. Though magic…” He groped for words, and ended up shifting in frustration back to Common Tongue. “I fear that magic must be dark,” he said, “to have done such a thing as erase a name. That has been my only experience of it. Well,” he added, “until the white bird.”

  “What?” The Godslayer grew suddenly serious. “What white bird?”

  “The… the ghost eagle,” said Lazlo. “Is it not yours? It arrived with you, so I thought it must be.”

  “She’s here?” Eril-Fane asked, intent. He searched the sky, the line of the rooftops. “When did you see her? Where?”

  Her? Lazlo pointed beyond the palace. “When you were first coming up the road,” he said. “It—she—seemed to be following. She vanished right before my eyes.”

  “Please, Strange,” Thyon cut in, pained. “What are you on about? Vanishing birds?” He laughed, as one would at a child with a silly notion, but it rang terribly false. “Now I really must insist you leave our guest in peace. Step back now, and you might yet keep your position.”

  Lazlo faced him. The alchemist’s hand rested—casually—on the hilt of his sword, but there was nothing casual in the malice that burned in his gaze. It wasn’t only malice, but fear, and Lazlo understood two things: He would not keep his position, not after such insolence as this. And he could not be permitted to leave, either, not with the secret he carried. In putting himself forward, he had risked everything. It was all suddenly very clear. A weird, bright courage sang in him as he turned back to Eril-Fane.

  “Sir,” he said. “It’s true that I am unqualified in engineering and the sciences. But I can be of use to you. No one would work harder, I promise you. I could be your secretary, handle contracts for the delegates, write letters, keep accounts. Anything. Or I’ll take care of the spectrals. Carry water. Whatever you need. I… I…” He wasn’t fully in possession of himself. His words were spilling out. His mind was racing. Who am I? he asked himself. What do I have to offer? And before he could bite it back, he heard himself say, “I can tell stories. I know a lot of stories,” before faltering into a painful silence.

  I know a lot of stories.

  Had he really just said that? Thyon Nero laughed. Eril-Fane didn’t. He exchanged a look with his second-in-command, the tall, straight woman by his side. Lazlo couldn’t read it. He saw that she was beautiful, in a very different way than the women of Zosma were beautiful. She was unpa
inted and unsmiling. There were lines around her eyes from laughter, and around her mouth from grief. She didn’t speak, but something passed between the two. These seconds were the longest of Lazlo’s life, and the heaviest with fate. If they left him behind, would he even last the day? What would Nero do to him, and when?

  Then Eril-Fane cleared his throat. “It’s been a very long time since we heard new stories,” he said. “And I could indeed use a secretary. Gather your things. You’ll come with us now.”

  Lazlo’s throat trapped his breath. His knees felt turned to water. What had been holding him up all this time? Whatever it was, it let go, and it was all he could do not to stumble. Everyone was watching. Everyone was listening. The shocked hush was threaded with murmurs.

  “I have nothing to gather,” he breathed. It was true, but even if he’d had a palace full of possessions, he couldn’t have gone to fetch them now, for fear of returning to find the Tizerkane gone, and his chance, and his dream—and his life—with them.

  “Well then, up with you,” said Eril-Fane, and a spectral was led forward.

  A spectral. For him. “This is Lixxa,” said the warrior, putting the reins into Lazlo’s hand as though he might know what to do with them. He’d never even ridden a horse, let alone a creature like this. He stood there looking at the reins, and the stirrup, and the faces of the Tizerkane regarding him with curiosity. He was used to hiding behind books or in the shadows. It was midsummer, midmorning, in the full light of day. There were no books to hide behind, and no shadows—only Lazlo Strange in his worn gray robes, with his nose that had been broken by fairy tales, looking like the hero of no story ever told.

  Or. No story yet told.

  He mounted. He was clumsy, and he wasn’t dressed for riding, but he got a leg across, and that seemed to be the main thing. His robes hiked up to his knees. His legs were pale, and his soft-soled slippers were worn nearly through. Lixxa knew her business, and followed when the others filed out through the gate. All eyes were on Lazlo, and all were wide—except for Thyon’s, which were narrow with fury. “You can keep the books,” Lazlo told him, and left him standing there. He took one last look at the gathered crowd—scarlet robes and the occasional gray—and spotted Master Hyrrokkin, looking stunned and proud. Lazlo nodded to the old man—the only person besides Thyon who knew what this meant to him, and the only person in the world who might be happy for him—and he nearly wept.

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