Eastmere, Mjimeri, Central Isle
Approximately 471 miles south, Cyrus Atlas Finn sat on a three-legged stool behind a garishly painted wooden counter and moped. His latest shipment of herbs, spices, and dyes had been lost on the Frigid Sea, and his favorite scuttering captain with it. On top of that, his cat had disappeared. Fishnik was finicky on good days–one of the many reasons Atlas was fond of him–but he nearly always showed up for breakfast, and he hadn’t yet.
Atlas hadn’t had a day this bad since his adopted parents kicked him out on the street twelve years ago with nothing but the clothes on his back and the money in his pocket. It had taken him a year to learn how to pick locks and another year to work up the courage to break into his childhood home and steal what was rightfully his. He was thirteen at the time, and he was only half successful before being chased off the property with a newfound price on his head.
He walked the crow’s head coin across his slender fingers, lost in thought. It was one of the few things from his childhood he hadn’t stolen, and it had become a sort of good luck charm. The coin hadn’t tarnished, despite being the object of many of Atlas’s nervous habits.
The bell over the door tinkled, and he quickly slipped the coin in his vest pocket. A pale, heart-shaped face peeked in as the early morning sunlight cut the darkness in the shop. “Atlas?” her lilting voice asked. Atlas’s shoulders relaxed, and he stopped moping quite so intensely. “Can I come in?”
“‘Course you can, Liza, love. You’re always welcome here.”
Liza grinned and pushed open the door with her hip until it opened far enough to walk through. In one hand she carried a small plate with assorted pastries, in the other, an irritable golden tomcat.
“You’re extra welcome when you bring your world-famous pastries,” Atlas said.
Liza’s cheeks reddened, and she giggled. “They’re not world-famous, Atlas. They’re not even city-famous.”
“But they will be!” He walked over to her and kissed her on the forehead. “Thank you for bringing my cat back.”
“He just likes the fish pasties I make for the dockworkers. He usually comes by at night when I throw them away, but he must’ve sensed your mood this morning or something.”
Fishnik jumped out of the girl’s arms and stalked past Atlas in search of his bed and breakfast. Finding one but not the other, he meowed once and sat expectantly. Atlas ignored him.
“I have not been in a mood,” he said.
Liza smiled. “I only meant this morning. Your door was closed when I made my deliveries. But let’s talk about that. Why have you been in a mood?”
“Want to see a trick?” Atlas pulled a feather from behind the counter and set it on his palm. He breathed out, and the feather levitated four inches above his palm. He continued to blow, and the feather flipped lazily through the air, Atlas following it, until it hovered an inch from Liza’s face. One final breath and it tickled her nose before gravity took over.
Liza laughed. “Any child knows that parlor trick, Atlas.”
“But do they know this one?” He held up the key to the bakery she had been holding minutes before, then skipped out of reach.
“Hey!” She reached for the key and swatted his arm instead. “Thief.”
He laughed and handed it back to her, his hand lingering just a second longer than it should.
A shadow fell on them as a figure stepped through the doorway.
Atlas stiffened and gently pushed Eliza behind him.
“Dreadfully sorry to interrupt.” The man was tall, and his skin was dark and wrinkled. He wore a finely-cut suit, and his white beard was well kempt. “But I am in need of assistance.” Fishnik hissed from his back corner and the man’s mouth twitched downward. “I was told here you sell herbs and… trinkets.” He paused to take in the inside of the shop as his eyes adjusted to the dim light. “Of the magic variety,” he added, not even trying to disguise his distaste with what he saw. His accent was that of the Southeastern Isles, a small bunch of islands still afloat through only willpower and greed, or so the rumors said. Legends were told of mob bosses and slavers and malevolent spirits possessing those who overstepped their bounds, all of whom would come for children who didn’t eat their dinner.
“I have a wide variety of merchandise that appeals to my many customers,” Atlas said. “What specifically can I help you with, sir?” Fishnik threaded himself between Eliza’s feet, hackles raised. The man ignored him and pinched the forefinger and thumb of each hand together at his sides. Atlas recognized it for what it was: a practical gesture to stop anam–soul magic–from interfering. A beginner’s trick. He took an instinctive step back.
“I am looking for two things, in particular, and I was told you were the man to supply them. I hope I was not steered wrong.” The man frowned and continued to glance around the shelved walls. The room seemed to grow colder.
“May I call you by a name, sir…?” Atlas asked.
“Jaspar.” The man waved his hand, dismissing the question. “You are an alchemist, no?”
“I have some knowledge,” Atlas said, taking a step forward. He was starting to see his breath. “Enough.”
Jaspar looked at him, and Atlas repressed a shudder. He worked with a lot of shady clientele, but this man unnerved him more than most. Having Liza in the shop made it even worse. “I am looking for tincture, a liniment, a… what do you call them here? Potion? to cure an ailment our medics cannot yet understand.”
“If I knew, it would be cured.”
“What are the symptoms?” Atlas asked, annoyed.
“It is a skin condition… mostly. The flesh, it begins to be eaten away and replaced by something more… beautiful. But inhuman. Some have the scales of the sunbeam snake, others the bark of the Estronian Yew, still others echo the bed of an autumn creek, impossible as it may seem. I need your alchemy to stop the progression of this condition. Can you do that?”
“And the second thing?”
Jaspar frowned, unhappy with his unanswered query, but continued. A bead of sweat rolled down his face. He didn’t seem to notice, even as more sweat rolled into his eyes. “The second is nothing; it is a small blacksteel tree, as many keep in their windows for luck. You have these, yes?” Jaspar blinked once, and the sweat was gone.
“I do, yes,” Atlas said. He could feel Liza shivering behind him. “And how will you be paying for these?”
“For the tincture I have Mjimerin coin, enough to cover whatever your cost may be. For the tree I offer a trade.” He pulled from his pocked a curled dragon carved from yellowing bone. It protected a small glass egg that seemed to contain the galaxy, swirling even as the man held it still in the palm of his hand. “It is a trinket of luck, like the one I seek. No more, no less. A fair trade.”
Atlas reached for the dragon. “May I?”
“Of course,” Jaspar said.
Atlas inspected it closely, stroking the finely carved scales and holding the glass egg as near to his eye as possible. It radiated warmth, but that was nothing more than remnant of whatever minor magic made the galaxy appear to move inside the egg. “Very well,” Atlas said. He gestured toward a shelf near the door. “Take your pick of the trees, they are all more or less the same. Be back here in four days, with this unlimited coin you boast of, and I will have either your tincture or a very, very good excuse.”
Jaspar nodded. He spent a minute inspecting the display of blacksteel trees before sliding one into his coat pocket. “Four days, shaman,” he said. The bell over the door tinkled as it closed. Atlas slumped against his desk as the room returned to a normal temperature. Liza set her hand on his shoulder and he started.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“He was… unsettling,” Atlas said.
Liza laughed quietly and went to open the front door. “Yes, he was. So can you cure it? That disease?” Sunlight streamed in, and they both unconsciously relaxed.
Atlas snorted. “Of course not. I’ve never seen it, never studied it, never even heard of it. But I’ll put something together for our deep-pocketed friend.”
“That’s cheating, Atlas,” Liza said.
“Of course it is, darling. That’s what I do to uppity rich snobs.” He didn’t mention his suspicion that the man was an anamri, a dangerous one, too, if he was really from the South. “And most of them are never the wiser,” he continued. “The perks of being good at your job. Well, that and the benefits.” He winked and twirled one of Liza’s curls around his finger. She laughed and leaned her head into his shoulder. “Unfortunately I should probably get to work putting together something that could pass as a never-before-seen cure-all for a fictional ailment. And you, I’m sure, have a line of customers sixteen deep.” Liza blushed, standing up, and emptied the plate she had brought onto the counter.
“Come see me if you get hungry later,” she said. “Your cat visits me more often than you do.” Fishnik jumped onto the counter as if summoned and started eating one of the pastries. Atlas laughed.
As the door clicked into place, Atlas took a seat behind the counter and stared at his shelf of herbs and spices, absentmindedly walking the gold coin over his knuckles. His shoulders sagged. This was an impossible task and both he and Jaspar knew that. So what was the man really after? What kind of test was this?
At least he assumed Jaspar knew of the impossibility–it was possible that the man was unfamiliar with anything outside the southeastern isles where magic, it was said, ran completely rampant. Maybe he actually thought this was a doable task. Atlas sat up straighter as he started to scheme. Chamomile, of course, would have to go into the mix, and common clover. Anyone knew that. He’d have to mix an egg yolk in for the texture, and he’d have to enchant it eventually. Probably more than once, if Jaspar Moneybags was going to get all the way back to Estronia–or whatever small, mob-run island he was from–without noticing it was a sham. There would be ample time to let Aryn and her gang know to keep a lookout for an old man who didn’t belong here, with or without magic.
Aryn was the one who had bought his freedom, all those years ago. He was under her protection, and she under his. Aryn was the eyes and fists of the city, but Atlas was the ears and the heart. He was an anamri, though an unpracticed one. Aryn was not, which allowed her free reign of the city, but limited her understanding and finesse. That’s where Atlas stepped in. If not for Aryn, he would have ended up part of the Oubliette, working the whorehouses or Red Theaters just to line the pockets of the rich with another layer of gold. Some performers in the city were free, but there weren’t many. He rubbed the spot on his wrist where the brand would have been, and thought of the friends he had made that first year on the streets, of where they were now. Jaspar wasn’t the problem, Atlas knew, but he was one of them. Whatever part he had to play, he was simply one sliver of the growing threat in Central and–because the three islands that made up Central generally controlled trade and culture–all of Bakkaj. Jaspar would pay. And with more than coin, though that was a good start.
Fishnik curled up on the counter in front of Atlas, as far from the bone dragon as possible. Atlas smiled to himself, gripping the coin in his palm. This would be fun. He had four days to prove to himself yet again that he was good at what he did. Four days to play. Four days to create a convincing impossible cure.
Four days until everything went to hell.