Eastmere, Mjimeri, Central Isle
The back room of Atlas’s shop was dedicated to books. He called it a rare book room, but in all reality, any book he could get his hands on found a place on the shelves. He had added an armchair a few years back that Fishnik had claimed not long after, but Atlas was determined that they would share it. Fishnik wasn’t convinced.
Midday found Atlas sitting on the ground surrounded by old, half-thumbed-through books as Fishnik snoozed in the chair. Scheming a recipe had led him to nothing but three hours of sleep and a temporary cure for the flakes—one that left the skin slightly tinted green, at that—so he turned to research. That was three and a half hours ago. The most he found of this “disease” was vague mentions in books of myth. It was caused by malevolent spirits, the myths said, that slowly drove their host bodies mad as they committed more and more heinous acts. Brother turned against sister; mother against her own children. One myth told of an old man with skin like a wildflower meadow growing from a ox hide who denied the spirit full control and moved to an uninhabited island where he could tend to the earth. Since this was all that particular spirit wanted, the man and the spirit lived in harmony for many, many years. The myth left off with the man still alive, hundreds of years later.
It was all nonsense. Children’s stories.
Atlas sighed and let his head fall back against the chair. Fishnik jumped at the sudden disturbance. “Sorry, friend,” Atlas said, not moving. Fishnik laid his head down again. “I’ve found nothing,” Atlas continued. “Three hours I’ve been at this and all I have is a bedtime story about being nice to nature. This is hopeless. There’s nothing even remotely similar to this disease, so I can either make it up completely or continue to look for something—anything—more. I don’t know which is smarter.” Fishnick meowed. “I know, I know. I should keep looking, at least for today. But I’m tired!” He leaned his head further into the chair to look at the tomcat. Fishnik looked back at him through narrowed eyes. “Fine,” Atlas said. “I’ll keep looking. But first, I need to take a walk.” He stood up. “You coming?” Fishnik laid his head on his paws. “I’m going to see Liza,” Atlas added. Fishnik’s ears perked up, but he still didn’t move. “Fine. Suit yourself.” Atlas turned to walk out. When the front door had closed, Fishnik jumped down and lazily strolled out the small cat door Atlas had added onto the wall of the storage closet.
By the time Atlas reached the small, brick-front bakery, Liza was squatting in the doorway as Fishnik ate out of her palm. Atlas put on an affronted face and cleared his throat. “Traitor,” he muttered. Liza brushed the crumbs off her hand and stood up.
“I told you your cat visits me more than you do,” she said. “But not usually in the middle of the day. How’s the… project?” she asked.
Atlas smiled. “You can call it for what it is. Everyone around here knows me.”
“Yeah, but… Still. It doesn’t feel right talking about it in the street.”
“I’m not doing anything wrong, Liza,” he said gently. “And it’s going terribly. So I think what we’re going to learn from this is that illegal magic is the best kind of magic, and I should restrict myself to doing only that.”
“No! Atlas! I’m sure—” Atlas winked. “—I’m sure you’re a complete jak-ox.” She rolled her eyes.
Atlas sat down on the ground and pulled her down with him. “I’ve been researching this disease for hours and I don’t think it exists,” he said.
“You’re getting all dirty,” Liza said, watching the dirt settle onto his pants. She leaned back against the doorframe, but stayed on her toes. “Let’s go inside.”
She started to stand, but Atlas stopped her. “No. I need sunlight on my face and wind in my hair. Books are exhausting. Especially when they don’t actually say what you want them to say.”
“What are you looking for?” Giving up her fight to stay clean, Liza stretched her legs out in front of her and smoothed her skirt.
“Anything, really. Any mention of this disease that could possibly tell me what it is or what to do with it. But I’ve found nothing but stories to scare children.” He lay down, resting his head in her lap. “No mention of it in encyclopedias, none in medical books. Nothing.”
“You’re getting your vest all dirty,” she scolded. “What are your customers going to think of you now?”
“The same thing they thought of me before, Liza, love. That I’m a no-good, dirty rotten scoundrel. But that they don’t have any other options. Tourists hardly look at me at all.” He looked up at her. “You worry too much.”
She brushed his hair with her fingers. “No such thing,” she replied. “Have you seen you?”
He laughed. “I just want something I can use for this. Anything.”
“Have you checked with Ectan?”
“The public archivist? Ectan doesn’t know what year it is. It’s a miracle he still knows his own name. He was older than dirt when I saw him the first time, twelve years ago.”
“A year before we met,” she mused. “You used to love doing research in the archives.”
“Because I was a street urchin with no books of my own.”
“You had one,” she said.
“I had one. The one you gave me after you caught me trying to steal from the archives. The story of the fox and the lumberjack. I read it every year, on the day you gave it to me.”
“You do not.”
“I do. And now I know never to steal. Or to burn down the forest.” He smiled up at her.
“Always good things to know,” she said. “Still, you should check with Ectan. Since you appear to have run out of other ideas.”
“I haven’t run out of—”
She raised one eyebrow.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll check with Ectan tomorrow.”