Strange the Dreamer EXTRACT

STRANGE THE DREAMER is the story of: The aftermath of a war between gods and men A mysterious city stripped of its name A mythic hero with blood on his hands A young librarian with a singular dream A girl every bit as perilous as she is imperilled Alchemy and blood candy, nightmares and godspawn, moths and monsters, friendship and treachery, love and carnage Welcome to Weep . . .

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2. The Dream Chooses the Dreamer

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 ani‑ mal eyes. The glaves themselves were perfect polished spheres, hang‑ ing 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, 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 later 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. He believed in magic, like a child, and in ghosts, like a peasant. His nose was broken by a falling volume of fairy tales, 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?” he said with a chuckle. “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 book‑ binder’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 had 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.” He was 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 they 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 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 under‑ stood 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, bro‑ ken only by the wheels of ladders and the shush of pages turning.

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 cen‑ turies, 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 just 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‑ size 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 sub‑ level, 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, 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 hum‑ ble. 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 in his earliest volumes, the writings were 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? 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?

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