Eastmere, Mjimeri, Central Isle
Atlas had always preferred the pre-dawn gloom to any other part of the day. Liza told him it was because he felt kinship with the grey, moody weather, but in truth, it was just the easiest time to forget himself. The day workers were just beginning to stir, brewing Druishk coffee and kissing their loved ones awake, and the night workers and petty thieves had retired to their abandoned warehouses and brothels so the light of day couldn’t touch them. The streets were empty, and the early morning fog that always covered Eastmere until the sun showed her face wrapped him in a protective hug.
The Archives didn’t open for another three hours and Ectan wouldn’t be awake for four, but Atlas had one last route to try before he submitted himself and the rest of his day to the rambling old archivist. He passed the East docks—minuscule compared to the trading docks in Westmere and only used by those who lived locally—and saw old Captain Callahan preparing his ship for the day.
“Captain!” Atlas called, altering his course to talk to his old friend. “What ho?”
The sandy-white-haired man chuckled. “Atlas, my boy! Nautical terms make little sense when used well. And you, son, have been butchering them since I met you.”
“Is that why the crew called me the Butcher of the Cog?”
“I think you earned that after volunteering to butcher our meat, but whatever makes you feel good.” His laugh echoed off the crates stacked next to the gangway. “You were such a scrawny thing, you were. Practically useless with a knife until Taegan Gerrit spent the better half of a journey teaching you which end was the sharp one.”
Atlas pulled a turquoise and opal handled knife from his boot. “Eight years and I’ve still got the one he gave me.” He flipped it in the air then used it to gesture at the boxes. “Off on a journey without your best mediocre sailor, Captain?”
“Jackdaw is comin’ with me, lad. Wouldn’t leave home without him. Though I might leave Jokoa without him, if he keeps losing all my money there,” he added.
“I’m hurt,” Atlas said.
Callahan chuckled. “You’ll get over it. Always do.”
“Part of my charm.” Atlas picked up a length of rope and started absentmindedly fraying the end of it with the knife tip. “What news from the world, old friend?” he asked. The news had been getting worse as of late. Skirmishes in the Shifting Highlands, news of husks attacking both anamri and nearti multiplying exponentially in the North. Callahan let out a breath through his teeth, and Atlas regretted asking.
“Not as bad as it could be, I’ll tell you that much. But not good either, boy.” Callahan paused. “Clan Brannaw has a new leader, and the bastard daughter of the Mad-man is on the run, do with that what you will. Ships from the Southeastern Isles are too many and too close. You always see one or two on a journey—you know that, of course—but of late I’ve seen as many as eight. Short, two-day trips they are, too. In and out. The Southeastern Isles have no business this far north, but there you have it. I’m not about to stop them. Half my crew these days are from Taegan; spent a fortune trading for their lives. And some are damned poor sailors, too. So I let them off on land, with a promise to be paying me back. I may have had Aryn pay them a visit, just in case they got any ideas about skipping town.” He grinned. “I do like that girl, I do.”
It was better than Atlas had been expecting. After the visit from Jaspar, he assumed the Southern presence would be bigger. Most never ventured this far, preferring to hire people to do it for them. The fact that they were in the city—Atlas didn’t want to think about what that meant. It could be anything. But nothing good.
Callahan interrupted his thoughts. “You just going to stand around and ruin my ropes, boy? Help me load these crates.”
“Where are you headed this time, Cap?” Atlas asked, picking up the crate nearest him.
“Rekik. But you didn’t hear that from me,” he said.
“What draws you to that godforsaken spit of land?”
“Been hearing some rumors,” Callahan said. “The inns are talking about a boy the elders go to for advice. Say he’s nearly always right, even when he doesn’t know anything about the situation.”
“That’s not unique,” Atlas said. “Rumors like that break out on this island every other month. It’s never true, anamri or no.”
“Yes, but hear tell this boy has the scales of a fish.”
Atlas’s eyebrow shot up. “There’s no way,” he said. “They would have drowned the boy long ago. And if that didn’t work, lit him on fire. Those people are barbarians.”
Callahan shrugged. “Rumors, boy. There’s always some truth to them.”
“But never as much as you’re hoping for.”
“Be that as it may. I wanted to check it out for myself. And maybe give the boys a break at Jokoa. They’ve earned it.”
Atlas set the box he was carrying on the deck of the ship and dusted his hands off, leaving grey streaks on his straight, black pants. “I wish you all the luck in the world, old friend. And I’d love to hear what comes of these rumors when you return.” He paused, debating whether he should tell Callahan of Jaspar’s odd request. He had a feeling, if anything actually came of these rumors, that the two were intrinsically linked, but Callahan didn’t need anything more in that quick head of his. He’d jump to conclusions and then get himself and his crew hurt, looking for proof. Atlas had seen it happen firsthand. He had done his best to never sail again.
“Of course,” Callahan said. “Where’re you off to?”
“The Archives. Eliza was looking for a certain recipe, and I offered to check the Archives for her.”
Callahan smirked. “Has the lady fallen for your charms yet?”
“She’s a friend,” Atlas said. “She’s the only good thing I have in this world, and I won’t ruin that.”
They had been having this conversation since they had met. Callahan just winked. “Farewell. Best of luck wooing the lady.”
“Goodbye, Callahan. Find the fish-boy of Jokoa.” If you can.
Atlas wandered northward, through tight brick alleys and over crumbling stone bridges. He kept his long, black coat neatly buttoned and the brim of his hat low, avoiding the gaze of early risers going about their business. It wasn’t that he couldn’t fade into the background, it was just that he didn’t. He had an air about him, a charisma that made people instinctively look his way. He deflected their glances as best he could and took advantage of it as he ran his shop. His charm and charisma had quickly led him to become the most popular eclectic shop for tourists and magic aficionados alike. He also cornered the Eastmere market for gifts—he could size people up as they walked through the door and guide them to the perfect gift for whomever it was they were looking. Most people called it a knack. Liza called it perfect insight. Atlas suspected it had something to do with magic, but most people only performed physical magic. Even the strongest anamri—the ones who could knit bodies back together and create animated creatures with nothing but words—couldn’t affect someone’s mind. He had read of a few documented cases, but the facts were fuzzy. Illusionists could skirt around the edges of it, play with the senses, but to see into the mind, to create thoughts, change patterns—that didn’t happen. The mind was safe. No one was quite sure of the science behind it, and personal accounts always had to be taken with a grain of salt.
It was commonly known that magic users drew on their own life force to perform magic. The stronger the magic, the stronger the effect. Anamri were stronger, could tap into more than just physical energy. Most of it was training and practice, but some, like Atlas, were born with a gift for it. But to use the energy of the mind was unprecedented. It might just be insight, like Liza said. Reading people was a skill like any other, and Atlas was fairly good at any skill he had half a mind to pick up.
Atlas felt the cold touch of a blade at his throat.
He stiffened and focused on the breaths on the back of his neck. One, two, three… He ducked down and around, whipping the turquoise knife from his boot and falling into a defensive crouch. A small but well-built man was grinning at him lazily.
“Tsk, tsk, Atlas. Wandering these streets without your wits about you. Not that they were all that full to begin with, but you should know better, kid.”
“Otto, doll!” Atlas clapped the man on the shoulder. “It’s lucky you were upwind, otherwise my beautiful knife would be all dirtied with your blood and it would have been a frightfully awkward situation.”
“Awkward, my ass. You’ve never been able to get the best of me. Speaking of awkward, how’s it feel to be so wrapped up in your own head? It get hot in there?”
“Nah. I keep cool from the breeze blowing through your own.”
“As much fun as that sounds, I unfortunately have places to be, so we’ll have to try that out another time.” Atlas winked.
“You wish, kid.” Otto grimaced. “Where are you headed at this hour? Shouldn’t you be opening your special little shop or flirting with that delightful redhead of yours?”
“I shall do both later today,” Atlas responded. “As for the moment, I’m headed to see Mamán.”
“Why would you do that to yourself?” Otto asked. “Have you learned nothing?”
“I’m out of options, Otto. I need information, and I need it fast. And who better than the ears of the island herself?”
“She’ll try to convince you to become one of hers, you know.”
“And she’ll want something in return.”
“Obviously,” Atlas said. “I think I have something she might like.”
“And a back up?”
Atlas ignored him. “And where are you off to at this hour? You should be abed, after a night of thorough debauchery.”
“Ah, that I could be. Apparently there have been rumors circulating around the docks. Too many magic young’uns with hopes and dreams and no reality. The rumors that spread about Central…” He paused. “Those poor young souls. Anyway, hear tell boats have been coming in with men from the Southeastern Isles. Gods only know what they have belowdecks. Aryn sent me to check out the situation; Dregs and Philip apparently can’t seem to agree with Drizelle on what exactly is happening down thereabouts.”
“That’s nearly a day’s walk! Ah. Hence the hour. I’d be interested in hearing what’s going on if you find anything of interest. I like to take special note of the anamiris that find their way here. Especially ones escorted by our deep-pocketed friends.”
“That term will never catch on, Atlas. Let it go. They’ll always just be kids to everyone but you.”
“You just wait. It’ll be a thing. Soon everyone will be saying it. It would be unfashionable not to.” Otto rolled his eyes, and Atlas grew suddenly sad at the thought of what might befall those kids. “I know it’s not entirely on your way,” he said, “but walk with me to Mamán’s?”
“Aye. Though I’ll be splitting paths some four blocks before her lair, if you don’t mind. Or even if you do. I don’t need to be going back there anytime soon.”
“Fair enough.” Atlas laughed. “How is Aryn these days?”
“She misses you.”
Otto snorted. “She feels like she’s losing control. We’re telling her it’s all in that pretty head of hers, but in truth, there have been so many newcomers, I’m afraid she might not be able to keep track of it all. She went up to Effre to check on a piece of art she had ordered, and a quarter of the shopkeeps didn’t recognize her. They will now, of course.”
“You tell her that to her face?” Atlas asked, incredulous. Otto stared at him. “‘That pretty head of yours’?” Atlas imitated.
Otto chuckled. “Not a chance. I’m standing here in one piece aren’t I?” Atlas lowered his gaze pointedly. “I’m standing here in one piece,” Otto said. “You should visit her.”
“I’ll stop by on my way back from Mamán’s,” Atlas said. “Or the Archives, if Mamán—gods forbid it—can’t help me.”
“Aryn better be talking about it all night, Atlas, otherwise your head will be on a platter tomorrow.”
“Not if you don’t tell her.”
An impish look came over his face. “We’ll see. What can you give me that she can’t, Cyrus Atlas Finn?”
“My undying love?”
“Already got that from a darling little lass down in Southmere.”
“Must you always cause trouble, Otto?” Atlas asked. Otto just grinned. “All right. I’ll play. Stop by my shop, and I’ll find you something. Maybe that washboard you’ve been wanting.”
“I didn’t— Damn it, Atlas. I forget you did that.” Atlas smiled thinly. “Fine, I won’t tell her you’re coming. Go anyway. And see if you can get me that washboard. I hate wearing mildly dirty clothes every day.”
“I’ll do my best. You smell like a wet dog.”
Otto grimaced. “I know.” They walked in silence for a while, enjoying the early morning hush and the camaraderie of old friends. They followed the winding cobbled streets past brick-fronted shops and shoddy peddlers’ carts, the owners watching them lazily. They cut behind garish theaters sitting provocatively above sluggish canals and passed through small spots of artificial greenery. Nothing grew on Central, not naturally. Not anymore. Prostitutes eyed them as they walked past, but no one stopped them. No one cared.
Eventually, Atlas started up the conversation again. “Heard any decent gossip lately?”
Otto answered the question for what it was: an inquiry after the state of affairs of the city, topics Atlas should avoid when seeing Aryn. “Not a lot. The Oubliette has been quiet of late.” Atlas’s eyebrows drew together, but he stayed silent. “No scandals, very few disappearances. It’s unnatural, but I’ll take it if it means there’s less for me to do. She has some new recruits from Bransk. They’re pretty useless, but so were most of us. They’ll learn. There are some very angry factory owners looking to hire a Feld or two.” He chuckled.
Atlas made a sympathetic sound. “They’d have better luck petitioning the governors.” They both laughed at that. The three governors who ruled over Central had fewer scruples than Aryn and Kel—the leader of the Felds in Southmere—did. They also cared less about the goings on in the city. In fact, if you wanted justice or order, Aryn was the one you went to. But if you employed people against their will, well, Aryn fancied herself an avenging angel. “Has no one told them of that annoying habit where the Felds take your money and then don’t do anything?”
“Apparently not,” Otto answered. “They must be new. They turn people over monthly there.”
“The stress of the job?”
“The stress of having two gangs against them and a police force nowhere to be found.”
“If only they stayed long enough to learn the rules.” Atlas was mocking them. The factories on Bransk, while necessary, were considered the scum of Central. The workers were poor and desperate and uncouth; the owners crude and greedy and ignorant. The Oubliette had a shadowed hand over everything in Bransk, throwing anamri who weren’t talented or attractive enough to make it in the Red Theaters or brothels toward the factory floors. They were pushed all hours of the day, given just enough food to sustain them, and forced to improve factory output. Failure wasn’t an option. Anyone who didn’t succeed was beaten—or worse—until they found a way to succeed. Many pushed themselves until they completely burned out and were then discarded. When Atlas worked with Aryn, he made it his personal project to find out what happened after.
It was a horrible thing, to see an anamri burn out. It was gradual, watching them grow gaunt, watching their eyes sink in and their hair grow thin as the fire and passion slowly left their soul, leeching out into their magic, spilling onto the factory floor. The more tired an anamri got, the sloppier he got. A wordsmith started to miss letters, an alchemist missed balance, her chemicals growing more volatile. A healer would leave holes, not caring as his patient slowly bled out from the inside. But that final push—that was the heart-shattering part. Atlas had seen it twice: once accidentally, on a routine trip through Bransk, collecting information for Aryn. He had walked into a glass factory that recently sprung up, checking on the product, the status, who was running it. He made a habit of always using back entrances, because those were where people usually kept the things that didn’t need to be seen. As he made his way toward the front of the building, a commotion on the next floor up caught his eye. He quickly climbed a stack of boxes to get a better view of the cause. Men and women were backing away from a small, straw-haired boy who was thrashing in the middle of the floor. He was muttering frantically, the pitch varying like an animal caught in a trap. His back arched unnaturally, his hands in front of his face, blocking him from an unknown threat. He got to his knees slowly, muscles still spasming, then to his feet. As he stood, he whipped from side to side, and Atlas caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were shining, as if someone had poured molten silver over them, and they were cold, so very cold. It was clear the boy was seeing things beyond what was in front of him. His hands flew up straight in front of him, palms out, and a guttural scream ripped from his throat. Atlas sensed the energy fly from the boy’s small hands a half second before all the glass in sight shattered. As Atlas watched, the shards turned into snowflakes and fell gently to the ground, the sound of the boy’s shriek fading into the whistling of the wind. It was peaceful, beautiful even.
The room grew eerily silent, the snow sitting oddly still on the steel beams and wooden crates. He heard a jagged gasp, and everything snapped back. The boy lay still on factory floor littered with glass. The women had grabbed brooms to sweep up the shards, leaving the boy where he was. A large man scooped the boy up and carried him out of sight. Atlas jumped down from the crates, not bothering with the glass on his coat and in his hair, and ran out the back door, not stopping until he had reached the familiar canvas and wood houses of Southmere.
The second time was planned. Aryn knew of his project, so she gave him any excuse to roam Westmere and Bransk. He had been following an anamri for days–it wasn’t a long process, watching an anamri burn out. Not the weak ones. This one was a middle-aged woman, unspecialized, but skilled. It broke his heart to see anyone in the Oubliette, but the older ones were the worst. Because he knew that they were weak. If they were strong, they would have been taken as children, or they would have been strong enough to not be taken at all. This woman was untrained, and he watched as a paper factory drained her energy, her will to live, powerless to stop it. Aryn had warned him off, when he first told her about it. We get who we can, Atlas, she had said, but there are some we can’t steal from. Not without upsetting people far more important and powerful than us. He was sixteen at the time, head full of fantasies of saving the world the way Aryn had saved him. She was twenty-two and headstrong, but she knew how to pick her battles.
So Atlas followed the woman anyway, looking for a chance to get her out of this situation. That particular day, he followed her to the factory and watched her take up her place behind the row of pulpers, stepping in when the process got slow. He had already watched her mark each of the basins for expediency and easier separating earlier that week, but the boss wanted things faster. He watched her stoop over the basin farthest from his perch in an open windowsill and start muttering. He watched her finger move, writing in the air, trying anything she could to separate the fibers from the solution. Nothing in the basin moved. He watched her start to sign, start to sing. She closed her eyes and started to sway back and forth, her fingers still, hands poised over the basin, straggly hair falling over her face. The contents started to swirl, sparking against the metal walls, but she didn’t see it. She rocked faster, sensing that whatever she was doing was working. She started to sing, low, at first, growing louder and faster as the contents of the basin spun faster. The men and women at the other basins started to back away, gathering in a small group near the far wall, watching. She wasn’t singing words, not words in any language Atlas recognized. Her voice got higher, more frantic; her words came faster and slurred together as her hands grabbed things unseen from the air around her. She lunged for things, jumped for things, still singing, still swaying. Blood started to drip from her nose and the corner of her mouth, a sure sign that she had been drawing on her physical energy as well as her anam, the energy of her soul. She didn’t seem to notice, still whirling and lunging in a sort of desperate dance to accompany her song. Her voice continued to grow, to rise, until the sound was nothing but but a shriek. The basins were shaking where they stood, the liquid sloshing out onto the floor and burning like acid. She continued to mouth words, a thin, keening wall of sound escaping her lips. Her eyes snapped open long enough for Atlas to see they were pure silver before she collapsed. The shriek faded on the wind, the room eerily silent.
One of the men against the far wall looked around the room and, once he determined everything had settled down, went over to the woman. He bent down to take her pulse, check her breathing, and, satisfied, he threw her limp body over his shoulder and left the room. She was still breathing. Atlas could feel it. The woman was still alive. He swung from the window onto the roof and scurried toward the back door of the factory, confident that’s where the man would take her. He watched, hidden, from the roof as the man carried the woman toward a copse of twisted evergreen trees. The hidden dock was just beyond. Initially constructed as part of the salt docks, but unused due to the inconvenient positioning, the hidden dock was the perfect place to get rid of things. People. Anything you didn’t want coming back. You couldn’t just dump bodies, the governors cared that much. But you could ship them out.
Atlas felt, more than saw, something rip itself from the tree nearest the figures. It hung in the air momentarily, shimmering like heatwaves over a rotting corpse, before darting toward the man and disappearing from sight. The woman’s head jerked up. Her arm twisted behind her, wrapped itself around the man’s neck, and squeezed. He dropped to his knees, hands at his throat, dropping her in the process. She hopped over his shoulder easily, arm never leaving his neck. She squeezed harder as the man struggled in her grasp, clawing and wheezing. He collapsed.
The woman rolled him onto his back and bent down, listening. She stood up, brushed her hands off on her dirty skirt, and smashed one heel into his chest, perfectly over his heart. Atlas heard his ribs snap. The woman looked back toward the factory, and Atlas saw the light glint off her clearing molten silver eyes. A vine sprouted from the nail of her middle finger and wound its way up her hand. She looked at it, disinterested, before walking toward the dock, where a ship was waiting.
Another man was coming from another direction, another factory, carrying a small, limp, black-haired girl toward the waiting ship. The woman snapped her fingers and the girl jerked to life, pulled out a hairpin and stabbed the man in the heart. He collapsed, and the woman and child continued toward the ship. A wave of the woman’s hand, and the ship was crawling with a host of silver-eyed men, women and children, tossing the crew overboard. The woman and child stepped on board, and the wind changed direction, ushering them out of the harbor.
Otto coughed. Atlas hadn’t thought about that day in years. They had walked farther than he thought they had: Otto was stopped at a crossroads, looking pointedly in his direction. This was where they split ways—Otto to Salt Docks and Atlas to Mamán’s. He felt to make sure the bone dragon and bag of coin from the Southeastern Isles were still in his pocket and took a deep breath.
“What do you say you go talk to Mamán and I investigate the docks?” Atlas asked.
Otto laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “Sure! I’ll sell your unswerving loyalty to her highness and promise her all your money and maybe even that shop of yours in exchange for some unhelpful, convoluted riddle, and you can tell Aryn that you didn’t know what you were looking for but the docks sure look nice and sunny this time of year. Which of us do you think would be dead first?”
Atlas thought about it. “You. Definitely you. Aryn likes me too much.”
“I’ll pass on Mamán’s, thanks.”
“Worth a try.” Atlas shrugged. “Wish me luck.”
“I’ll wish you more than that, you poor bastard. The sun be at your back and the wind in your favor.”
“And may your wits and your weapons be the sharpest,” Atlas replied. It was an urchin’s prayer, a way to stay safe on the street. Aryn taught it to all her new recruits, in part so they’d remember how to survive—many of hers came from the Oubliette and were stolen as children, with no sense of self-preservation—but also to bond them together. A shared greeting was a shared culture, and a shared culture left less room for backstabbing and elitism. Aryn’s Suls may not be the most humble on the streets, but there wasn’t a chance in all shades’ hell that they thought themselves better than one of their own. Not aloud, anyway; not if they valued their lives.
Atlas watched as Otto turned west and disappeared quickly behind garishly painted brick apartments. The mist was starting to lift and Atlas distantly heard the bells and whistles and shouts of Northmere coming to life. He loved the lavish temples and wide open markets of Northmere with its brightly colored glass tiles, swirling marble columns, arching mansions and carefree people, but it was nothing compared to the tight, comfortable streets of Eastmere that he called home. Mamán lived on the border of the two, in the burnt-out husk of a sprawling mansion. Or, rather, that’s what it was and that’s what it continued it look like. Mamán was an illusionist, one of the strongest anamri Atlas knew. And, thanks to the number of times Atlas had said her name in the street, she was expecting him.
Something about Mamán gave him the shivers. The mansion’s flickering in and out of conscious sight was unsettling, but Atlas had grown used to it. He’d even grown used to her helvt servants with their feral eyes and long, greying muzzles. But Mamán herself, the physically unimposing, yellowing old woman, was something else entirely.
Cleo, Mamán’s favorite helvt, stared at him from the doorway. He ran through what he was going to say to her in his head, knowing full well it was useless. Mamán had a way of subverting any expectations for how a visit was going to go. But the repetition steeled his nerves as Cleo led him toward the woman he had worked for before he met Aryn. It was all formality, all a show. The comfortable hallways filled with photographs passed him by in a blur. He took note of a redecorated guest room as the crow’s head coin wove in and out of his fingertips in his pocket. Eventually they reached the wide glass double doors that were supposed to close off Mamán’s office from the rest of the house, but never fulfilled their duty. Her back was to them as she stared out the window.
“Atlas, my son,” she said. “You are tense.” Her voice was a caged shadow of what it could have been, but this was how Atlas had always known her. Cleo bowed low, tail sweeping up behind, before backing out of the room. “Not good for you,” she continued. “You end up like me, hunched like little, old weasel.” Her shoulders shook under the colorful, fringed sarape she wore. Laughter, he hoped. She turned to look at him, her one good eye searching his face as the milky one seemed to look through him. He tried to keep his expression as neutral as possible.
“You want something,” she said. She patted the seat on the window next to her. The skin on her hand, once as vibrant and strong as the eastern redwoods, now resembled dying tree bark; her bracelets and rings clinked together in discordance as she gestured.
“So do you,” he replied as he sat. He tried not to think about the conversation as it happened. Mamán was unique, as far as illusionists went. At least, Atlas had never met anyone quite like her. As far as he could tell, she could see what you could see. So if you thought about your words before you said them, she would have a way to steer the conversation away from your point and toward her own before you even opened your mouth. He had learned this quickly and left even more quickly, which is why she wanted him back. She never made him see her point, a tribute to the fact that he could still surprise her. It was also the reason he was the only one Aryn ever sent to make deals with her.
“Only you,” she said.
Atlas laughed. “Now, I know that’s not true. You also want the entire city groveling at your feet.”
She tutted, shaking her head. “If that were case, it would be happening. Too much saliva, attention. No time.” She held her hand out expectantly. “What you need, Atlas, boy?”
He placed the bag of coin in her palm, knowing she wouldn’t accept it. Mamán never accepted the first offer, it had to be two-fold, sometimes more, if she thought she could get more. “I need information,” he said as she opened the bag to take stock of the contents. “And I thought, who better to get information from than the wisest and most knowledgeable woman on the island?”
“I am that,” she said, distracted by the multitude of different coins in the bag.
“The world, even,” he said, laying it on thick.
“That too,” she said. “More.” She slipped the coins in the pocket of one of her layers of clothing and held out her hand again. Atlas pulled the small bone dragon with its swirling egg from his vest pocket and gently placed it in her hand. If there was anything that would get him the information he needed, it would be that.
The next few seconds were a blur of energy. No sooner had the dragon touched Mamán’s skin than she let it fall to the floor, jerking her hand back and cradling it to her chest.
“What is that?” she hissed, backing as far away as the window seat would let her. The dragon lay on the plush carpet where it fell, the egg swirling faster. Atlas knit his eyebrows together and warily picked up the dragon to inspect it, tried to see what she had seen. He saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“It’s part of the reason I’m here,” Atlas said. This was not how he expected the conversation to go.
“Explain,” Mamán said, her tone brooking no argument. So Atlas did. He explained how Jaspar, with his inexperienced naturalist anam abilities, came requesting a cure for a disease. He explained what he had found in his research and how silly it all sounded. He explained his distaste for the men of the Southeastern Isles because he knew Mamán would see it anyway. He glossed over his helplessness to even fake his way through it; he was in Mamán’s house—she knew. He explained what he needed from her: any information at all that she could give him as to what was going on in the Southeastern Isles and anything she knew about this disease.
She watched him calmly through all of this, her milky eye never leaving the dragon in his palm, still cradling her own to her chest. “I know nothing,” she said when he had finished.
Atlas didn’t believe her. “Why did you react that way to the dragon?” he asked, changing the subject.
“You don’t feel it,” she mused. “It is power. And evil.”
“But why?” Atlas asked, pushing.
“I do not know!” she snapped. “Not what it is, but know what it does. It kills. Do not break it, boy, do not ever break it.”
“Does it have something to do with the Southeastern Isles?”
Atlas pushed. “Did they make it there?” She shrugged. “What’s it made from?”
“Power! Imlet, you do not know.” The phrase stung. That was the name he had given upon meeting her, and she only used it to call him stupid, as if he could fool her.
“That’s why I came to you, Mamán.”
The helplessness in his voice softened her. “There is much in this world. Find what you cannot see. Listen for what you cannot hear. Not inside, not outside, but crossing in between, or trapped.” Her voice started to trail off, and Atlas knew that was his cue to leave. “Never freedom… come oblivion… they sing… they ring… they watch and watch destroy understand…” Atlas started to back out of the room, leaving Mamán to her ramblings. He got halfway to the front door when he heard her voice ring out clear. “You owe me, Cyrus Atlas Finn. I will collect, Imlet.”
Shades’ hell, he hated when she did that. He almost got away without owing her anything. He would have to be proactive and offer her a favor before she requested one of her own, but that could come later. He felt the early morning sun on his face and repressed a shiver. The Archives weren’t far, and he had research to do.
“No magical artifacts in the Archives,” Ectan croaked.
“But why?!” Atlas was nearly yelling in his frustration. They had been at this for the better part of an hour.
“Bad for the books. No magical artifacts in the Archives.”
“You keep magical artifacts here!” He gestured toward the artifact room and accidentally knocked an illumination orb off its stand. He caught it before it hit the ancient, cracking tile. It took a lot of concentrated effort not to throw it at the old archivist.
“Safely, yes. You don’t know safe.”
“Ten years ago, Ectan. That was ten years ago. I was sixteen. Do you even remember being sixteen? Or is that beyond recorded history?”
“Out.” Ectan pointed to the door with a surprisingly steady hand.
“Ectan! Look how small and harmless this is.” He pulled the dragon out of his pocket again.
Ectan frowned in fear and distaste. “You were small. Not harmless. Out.”
“You’ve known me forever. I just need to look for something. Look, you could even keep it here with you.” He pushed the dragon toward the old man.
Ectan recoiled. “Bah! Come back later. I can’t look at you now. And with no egg. No magical artifacts in the Archives. You knew this, Finn.”
Atlas let out a sound somewhere between a sigh and a scream and stalked out into the streaming sunlight. He walked, fuming, not really caring where his feet took him. He stopped when he reached a door. When he saw it was covered in flaking gold leaf and smeared with paint, he sighed. Of course this is where he would end up.
He knocked four times in rapid succession, waited, and then kicked twice, his boot scuffing the door as he fumed again at how eagerly he remembered. The door opened a crack and an ice-blue eye darkened attractively with charcoal looked out. A perfectly messy mane of blonde hair came into view as the door opened wider.
“Hello, Aryn,” he said.
She smiled slowly. “Atlas.” She stood, one hip resting lazily against the doorframe, blocking the entrance. She eyed Atlas appreciatively up and down.
“What kind of welcome is this? Leaving me on your doorstep like a common criminal?”
“How long has it been, Atlas?” she asked.
He grimaced. “Is there a right answer to that question?”
“Then we have some catching up to do, don’t we?” he said.
She pursed her lips in mock thought before pushing the door all the way open with her hip. She smiled. He shrugged out of his coat as he strolled past her, and she grabbed the hat off his head playfully, ruffling his wavy brown hair in the process, and tossed it into an unoccupied room. “It’s like you don’t love me anymore,” she teased, her fingers tracing the sharp angles of his face. “And with all our shared history.” They trailed warmth and guilt as they made their way to his wrist, wrapping easily around it. His coat followed his hat, and he allowed himself to be led through winding hallways and up dark stairwells.
“I’d never,” Atlas replied, distracted by all the new faces looking at them curiously from half-open doorways. There seemed to be two to a room now; so much more crowded than when he was here last. And so young. Were they that young once?
She stopped, and his preoccupied momentum sent him straight into her. He took an instinctive step back, but she twisted her fingers through his own and pulled him back to her. “They all know you, you know,” she whispered, gesturing toward the doors with her free hand. Her breath raised goosebumps on his skin as her body curved into his. “You’re their idol. They tell stories about you. Your adventures. The ones you’ve saved.”
“True stories?” Atlas asked. He ran his fingers through her hair and felt her head tip back into his hand.
He frowned and looked back down the now empty hallway. The feel of her fingernail pressed gently against his chin turned his head back to her. Their eyes met, lingered, and as she traced her nail carefully down his jawline, he forgot his apprehensions, forgot everything but the burning cold woman in his arms. He reached easily behind her to turn the handle to her apartment, and her hand wound around the back of his neck. She pulled him down to kiss her as she had countless times before. Their lips met gently, falling quickly into desperation, making up eagerly for lost time. They stumbled forward. She unbuttoned his shirt with practiced fingers, and he fumbled with the belt around her waist. She let him go, hands trailing down his chest before undoing the buckle herself, and pushed him onto the bed. He languidly watched as she went to the window overlooking the divide between the brick and woodsmoke of Eastmere and the glittering arches of Northmere. She drew the curtains closed as her shirt fell open.
“So,” she said, slowly walking toward him, “let’s catch up.”