Read an Excerpt From The Lost Dreamer

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Indir is a Dreamer, descended from a long line of seers; able to see beyond reality, she carries the rare gift of Dreaming truth.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from one of Tor.com’s Most Anticipated SFF Books for 2022: Lizz Huerta’s YA fantasy debut The Lost Dreamer, out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux on March 1.

Indir is a Dreamer, descended from a long line of seers; able to see beyond reality, she carries the rare gift of Dreaming truth. But when the beloved king dies, his son has no respect for this time-honored tradition. King Alcan wants an opportunity to bring the Dreamers to a permanent end—an opportunity Indir will give him if he discovers the two secrets she is struggling to keep. As violent change shakes Indir’s world to its core, she is forced to make an impossible choice: fight for her home or fight to survive.

Saya is a seer, but not a Dreamer—she has never been formally trained. Her mother exploits her daughter’s gift, passing it off as her own as they travel from village to village, never staying in one place too long. Almost as if they’re running from something. Almost as if they’re being hunted. When Saya loses the necklace she’s worn since birth, she discovers that seeing isn’t her only gift—and begins to suspect that everything she knows about her life has been a carefully-constructed lie. As she comes to distrust the only family she’s ever known, Saya will do what she’s never done before, go where she’s never been, and risk it all in the search of answers.

 

CHAPTER TWO

SAYA

I landed in the Dream hard. I held my breath, hoping I wasn’t in an unfriendly landscape. My body could not experience pain in the Dream, but I was so accustomed to having a body that knew pain in the Waking World, I automatically curled up to protect myself. I opened my eyes. I was in one of my favorite places, one home to generous and gentle trickster spirits. I knew the offerings I had left back on my altar had been received. Sitting up, I looked around, pretending to look for the spirits I knew were hiding, waiting to playfully attack. In many ways, these particular spirits were like small children, attention changing from one moment to the next, speaking in strange riddles I’d learned to decipher. Even if their messages didn’t always make sense, the outcomes were favorable and kept my mother happy. And if my mother was happy, there were fewer tensions between us.

The landscape shifted slightly as I made my way across a flat expanse of low-growing grasses that glowed in every color imaginable. At each footstep, waves of light dispersed from my motion, same as my body as it moved through the sacred space. Above me, the sky roiled and shifted, showing a glowing blue sphere rimmed in yellow smoke. It changed into a complicated web of geometric shapes that pulsed and twisted into complicated swirls. Spirits flitted by, some small as an eyelash, others lumbering shapes that hovered to briefly observe me with unseen eyes before moving away.

A push knocked me flat onto my face. I heard laughs and knew the spirits I had been seeking had decided to show themselves. I made a game of getting up slowly, brushing the webs of unknown substance from where they clung to my skin, fine threads of whatever the Dream was made of in that particular space.

“Saya so protected coming to ask,” a low voice hummed. I smiled, grateful. It was Yecacu, a spirit who loved the offerings I left. I looked toward Yecacu and waited a moment for her to shift into her familiar shape, a strange combination of some kind of Jaguar spirit and the long legs of a hoofed creature I did not recognize. Yecacu had grown her ears long and tall. Smaller spirits, shaped like frogs, clung to Yecacu’s ears, chirping a Song in unison. I didn’t know their names. My mother had warned me about becoming too familiar with spirits, never asking their names. Yecacu was one of a few who had offered. My hand went to the protection necklace I had worn since birth. The stones were cool; they only warmed when I was being threatened and rarely in Dreaming.

“Yecacu.” I opened my hands in gratitude. “Little friends.” The frog spirits chirped their greeting back.

“Nuts and grains and sweet filled leaves and a stone painted in stars,” Yecacu began, listing the items I’d placed on the altar before slipping into the Dream. “Nothing living, not a drop of blood.” Yecacu’s eyes stared into mine, asking. I shook my head.

“I cannot offer blood,” I said softly, never knowing how a spirit would react. I touched my necklace; it remained cool. Yecacu shifted for a moment into a blur of light, then reformed.

“The nuts were enough,” Yecacu sighed. The frog spirits in her ears chirped again.

“I’m living in a village of wanderers, rooted for now. What stories do you know?” It was a careful way of asking what information could be freely offered to me, for me to take back to the Waking World.

“Saya so protected doing the bidding of that woman.” Yecacu stared at me. I looked away. The spirits didn’t like my mother, Celay, and always made a point to tell me.

“She lost her gift when she birthed me,” I said. She never failed to remind me. Yecacu stomped her feet and the frog spirits whistled sharply enough for me to cover my ears, though it didn’t help. In Dreaming, every sensation took over the entire body.

“Stole,” the frog spirits chirped. Yecacu flicked her ears and the frog spirits were flung off. They immediately sprouted transparent wings and flew away, chirping the entire time. We watched them go.

“Gossips,” Yecacu muttered and turned her dizzying gaze back on me. “Stories then, for your offerings.” She listed off small pieces of information about the villagers. An older woman with a bad cut on her foot that would poison her blood; Yecacu showed me the root that would heal her. A child had developed nightmares after being subject to his sibling’s rage; the child needed a cleansing, as did the sibling. She went on and on, offering strange messages to people I lived among but barely knew.

“Thank you for these stories,” I said when I thought she had finished. Yecacu pawed the ground.

“There is more, but I am not the one to tell you,” she growled, turning to lick her shoulder with her bright red tongue. She hacked a few times and spit out a mouthful of hair.

“And all the stories you’ve offered me will bring no harm?” I prodded. I had no reason not to trust Yecacu, but it was something I always asked. I had learned the hard way.

“No harm, Saya. Though you are being harmed, you know,” Yecacu said. Another reference to my mother.

“She protects me,” I said. It was what I always said. It was what Celay always said.

“Where else will you go?” Yecacu asked. She knew I would say no more about my mother.

I thought. There were countless places to visit in the Dream. As a child, I had been able to access only safe places full of kind and playful spirits. I had met Yecacu there first. When my bleeding arrived three years ago, I was able to visit different worlds within Dreaming, though some terrified me. I was wary of exploring.

“The cove,” I said. Yecacu raised a hoof as I slipped from her chosen landscape. The light surrounding me was a mass of pale and bright green clouds that seemed to shine and throb with power from within. The air tasted the way a lightning storm smelled, like scent from a fire that burned on no fuel but itself. I spun through, relishing the pull on all my senses until they dissolved into one, a vibration that pulsed and sang in my entire being.

I landed in the cove with a splash that sent ripples glowing out to sea and toward the shore. I floated on my back a long while, staring up at the ever-shifting space above me. It was deeper, endlessly more beautiful than the sky in the Waking World. I felt shapes in the water beneath me, quick pecks at the skin of my legs that tickled. Something with a hot mouth began to lick at my toes. I kicked out gently and whatever spirit it was swam away. I moved my arms until I was drifting further out, the water growing slightly cooler around me as it deepened. Away from the shore, ears submerged as I floated on my back, I could make out voices beneath the water, scraps of Songs and mating calls, a lament or two.

A spirit shaped like a bird drifted slowly above me on outstretched wings. I was as long as one of her feathers. No air stirred, but she glided, looking down with bright yellow eyes. I felt her gaze on me, reading me, seeing what I had to offer. Nothing. I had no other gifts to exchange but my strange ability to enter the Dream. A gift no one in the Waking World knew about except my mother.

The bird turned a slow circle in the air, leaving a trail of dissolving light behind her. She floated over me again. I breathed in and out, waiting for her to speak. I knew I could leave at any moment I wanted, but I was as curious about her as she seemed to be about me. There were no birds that large in the Waking World, not in any of the places my mother and I had traveled. If there were stories about birds like her in our world, I had never heard them told. The bird opened her mouth to speak.

“She is coming, Saya. Let yourself be found,” the bird said. Nearby, a whale-shaped spirit breached, sending a series of small waves toward me. One splashed over my head. I sputtered and kicked my legs beneath me. When I looked up again, the bird was gone.

It was odd but not entirely out of the ordinary for Dreaming. Spirits wanted messages delivered; sometimes they offered me messages. I sensed there were more powerful beings inhabiting the Dream; I felt the displacement of them, spaces I could not enter though I was pulled toward them. My mother insisted I interact and exchange only with those satisfied by small, relatively simple offerings. The bird had asked for nothing; it was some- thing I wouldn’t mention to Celay when I returned. I was learning which silences suited us best, which secrets were my own.

***

I felt my body tense when I returned to the Waking World. I kept my eyes closed and my breathing as even as I could. I knew Celay would be watching, waiting. She had a sense as to when I would return. I felt her hand on my back, a soft stroke. As a small child, when I returned from Dreaming, I would flail and scream, shocked at the weight of my body again, the abruptness of my senses frightening me. I preferred the Dream. She always placed hands on me to calm me. I was curious as to why she continued to do so as I grew older but didn’t ask, afraid she would stop. It was the only time my mother touched me with tenderness.

“You’re back,” Celay said. I sat up and drank the cup of water she offered. I always returned from the Dream thirsty. I swished the water around in my mouth before swallowing.

“Yecacu,” I said. “And the frog spirits that live on her ears, but they were being annoying, and Yecacu sent them flying away.” I knew Celay loved the stranger details from Dreaming; she loved the descriptions of the spirits.

“I didn’t know they flew.” Celay’s voice was soft.

“They did when I saw them.” I kept my tone playful. I’d noticed Celay’s restlessness the past moon; her moods were unpredictable. If Celay was in a foul mood, she would accuse me of trying to make her jealous, and I would have a day of tension ahead of me. “Yecacu told me stories.” I recounted most of what Yecacu had told me, but some of the stories involved things I wouldn’t tell Celay. A woman living near us wanted to give birth and would require the help of a spirit. I knew Celay would take that information and use it to manipulate the young woman and her chosen. I didn’t know them well, but they had always seemed friendly to me.

I gave her as many details as I could. She would get angry if she missed something, and I would be the target of her rage. I could tell she was distracted. It made me nervous.

“Eat something and prepare the basket.” Celay looked at where our food supplies hung suspended from the ceiling of our home. There were bundles of dried fish and meat, bunches of roots and other dried vegetables. Enough food to last a season, but Celay lived two patterns I had grown to know too well. In one, we found a place to live, made a home, stored food, found ways to use my gift to our benefit, without revealing anything of ourselves. After settling into a rhythm—sometimes it took a moon, sometimes several seasons—Celay would grow suddenly frantic and insist we pack only what we needed. We would head toward the smaller trade routes without saying goodbye to anyone we knew. The times we were traveling, Celay was bolder in using my gift to convince those we met that she had a gift, one she refused to name.

We had been in our current home, a small haven composed of people who wandered, a place of temporary rest, for a full cycle of seasons. It was the longest we had stayed anywhere. I was trying to mentally prepare myself for our next season of wandering.

I went outside to the cooking fire behind our small home, set back from the rest of the inhabitants. The previous occupant had been an elder, once a trader until she’d grown too tired to keep moving. She had been known for finding seeds and knowing how to tend them, spreading different kinds of seeds along her trade routes. Before her death, she’d spent several seasons planting and tending different seeds from her journeys. We had come through a few moons after her death and taken up residency in the hut. I was fascinated by the plants the woman had tended and tried to keep them alive. I had mostly succeeded and was dreading the day Celay announced our departure. I wanted to stay long enough to see what I had tended bloom and give sustenance. I was surprisingly good at working with the plants, convincing them to grow in a strange landscape they had no memory for. Another elder had teased me that perhaps I did have a gift. Celay thought it had something to do with my real gift. I didn’t correct her. Tending the plants was the one place in the Waking World where I felt at peace.

Celay motioned me to follow her just after midday. I sighed and lifted the heavy basket. I had found the root Yecacu had shown me in Dreaming, growing among the plants I tended. I hadn’t known its use before and was grateful for the knowledge. Besides the root, the basket had Celay’s tools, little tricks she used to convince others of her gift. As a child, I thought it was a game we played, telling stories to people so that they would give us things. The better the story, the more we received. Celay would then praise me after we had been given our bounty. They were offerings from people who were desperate.

We walked straight to the home of the elder with the cut on her foot. Celay shook a bracelet made of bones three times, a signal she used to let people know she carried a message for them. A few people stopped what they were doing to come see. It was part of her plan; the more who witnessed Celay using her gift, the more they trusted us and would make offerings to us. The woman limped out of her house, squinting in the light.

“The cut will not heal on its own,” Celay said dramatically. “The spirits have sent you a gift to keep your blood from poisoning you.” She shook the bone bracelet thrice again.

The woman’s eyes widened; she chanted what sounded like gratitude in a language I didn’t know. I felt my face grow hot. I disliked large displays of emotion. I was always punished for mine. Celay seemed to enjoy emotion in others though, and turned her face kind, opening her arms wide.

“A gift, sister, though I had to search my memories long to see where to find this gift.” She motioned to me. I kept my face carefully blank as I approached Celay. I reached into the basket and pulled out the root. Celay had wrapped it in woven cloth before we left our home, tying small charms around it so that the root rattled. Celay bowed her head deeply as she took the root from me and walked slowly with it in her two outstretched hands, tilting her head back and calling out loudly.

“We thank you for this gift. And I thank you for allowing me to be the one to bridge this world to what the spirits want.” It wasn’t untrue. She was grateful. She didn’t have to do work to secure food for either of us or help in other ways. She claimed she needed large swaths of time uninterrupted in order to receive messages. If there was work that required help, I was the one who would go. Celay forbade me from talking to anyone outside of common courtesies. I pretended to be shy, though I ached for connection with others. Life with my mother was lonely.

The elder took the root and unwrapped it, careful to keep the charms. She examined the root. It was as long as her hand and half the width. Knobby tendrils protruded like hairs.

“What do I do with it?” the elder asked. I felt weak. I hadn’t asked Yecacu how the root was to be used. A very important detail. I saw Celay’s body tense. I looked at the root and noticed it had a familiar shape, though the color was different, like that of a root we used to clear coughs. It also looked like a root Celay had shown me, one to induce strange visions in those who consumed it.

“You will make an infusion of it, to drink,” Celay replied. I gasped. The woman stared at me, then back to Celay. My mother turned to look at me, her eyes cold and full of anger. She kept her face calm, but I could tell by the clench of her jaw that she was enraged. I kept my face serene while everything in me flooded with panic. I didn’t know anything about the root. I hadn’t asked Yecacu, and she hadn’t offered any information. A dangerous mistake. If Celay was wrong, she could kill the woman. I swallowed. I knew what it meant. Celay never stayed close when she made a dangerous mistake.

The woman limped inside and returned with a bracelet made of polished black stones, cut into rough spheres with intricate carvings. Celay took it and put it in the basket, and we continued. It was a temporary place; it would last several cycles of seasons perhaps, if sickness, drought, or flood didn’t come through. The lands we lived in were full of dangerous and unpredictable seasons. There were more established places we could live, communities that had existed for generations and had stone temples carved by unknown ancestors. However, Celay hated cities, and we had avoided them my entire life. I didn’t think I would ever get close to one, not while Celay had any control over me.

 

Excerpted from The Lost Dreamer, copyright © 2022 by Lizz Huerta.

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