Strange The Dreamer: extract reveal!

Strange the Dreamer Prologue

By Hodderscape Team

Posted on January 28, 2017 in Books with tags Extract

With two months to go until the publication of Laini Taylor’s epic new novel STRANGE THE DREAMER, we are thrilled to be joining up with our US friends at The Novl to release this exclusive extract. Here, we are introduced to the problem plaguing the mysterious city of Weep for the very first time…

Chapter 8

Tizerkane

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 mountswere 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 though 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.

Chapter 9

A Rare Opportunity

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.”

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.

Chapter 10

No Story Yet Told

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 from 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 unpainted 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.

I’m going to Weep, he thought, and could have laughed at the pun, but he kept his composure, and when the Tizerkane warriors rode out of the Great Library and out of Zosma, Strange the dreamer went with them.

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