Eastmere, Mjimeri, Central Isle
Every day there were new faces in the bakery. Central was always filled with tourists, no matter the time of day or year, and Eliza loved every second of living there. She had her regulars, of course, stopping by before work or dropping in for a midmorning snack between errands, and she loved them all dearly. There was old Mr. Kirrick from the candle shop down the street—he made each candle by hand, and each was a masterpiece in itself, sparking blues and greens and purples, or smelling like a sunlit field full of the flowers people grew in their window boxes. There was Beatrice from the spice shop down the street who always brought new spice mixes in exchange for Eliza’s bake of the day. There were Jaxon and Jake, the blond, chisel-jawed twins who worked at the place Eliza bought all her favorite dresses—they called her fresa, their favorite sweet strawberry.
But the tourists were her favorite. A bouquet of colors and textures and accents, they always brought with them a feeling of new—a feeling she absolutely adored, one that felt fresh and smelled of possibilities and a little sea salt. Every day as she gave them directions and asked about their plans and why they were in the city, they surprised and delighted her with stories from islands in the farthest reaches of Bakkaj. They had tales of flightless birds that hunted in packs like wolves, of jungles so thick the sun could barely show her face to the ground. There was family drama, power struggles, and a whole host of new innovations in backwards places that Eliza would’ve never thought possible, even here in Central.
The man who had just left—the one with blue eyes so dark they were almost violet and hair the color of toasted almonds—he had been telling her of a new device to make and sift flour they use on Chorlea, an island he said that was off the coast of Druishk and known for its unique wildflowers that grow as tall as buildings and come in colors like you’ve never seen. He told her they made bread that tasted like summer sunshine and that he was in Central to try to sell the idea, did she know where he could start?
She pointed him toward Northmere, told him tomorrow was market day and he should try there first. He thanked her profusely, tipped his hat, and threw a coin in the jar she kept on the counter. The nickel glinted like an unexpected smile against the few coppers lining the bottom. She pulled it out to look at it and ran her fingertip across the raised wildflowers on the face before flipping it evenly back into the jar. He was the last of her morning rush, she knew. She sat for a few moments with her chin resting in her hands, curly red hair cascading over her bare shoulders, and watched the few people who passed by her open door, the early morning innocence fading to midmorning discontent. It happened every day. Someone forgot something on a list, another realized there were fewer hours in the day than there should have been. She sighed and watched the door, eyes unfocused, hoping to see the familiar dishevelled silhouette of an Atlas who had gotten so lost in a book he forgot to eat.
Everything blurred slowly as her head started to nod, buildings fading into one another and blending with the cobbled road. Someone cleared their throat, and she almost fell off her stool. She stood up and shook her head to clear it. Nights were for dreaming. Days were for getting things done. The girl from last night—Apata—was finally awake. The one who knew Atlas, or, judging by her descriptions, knew the version of Atlas he presented to strangers. Especially the ones he didn’t quite trust yet.
It had only taken a few moments to revive her, after which Eliza sent her in the back to bathe and then to bed with a full glass of water and some chamomile and willow bark tea—one of the remedy teas Atlas made—this one to treat dehydration, headache, and sleeplessness. It seemed to help, because when Eliza checked on her a few hours later, she was sleeping like a baby, smiling into the flour sack pillow. She trusted the girl enough to let her sleep here, but still, Eliza was awake most of the night.
She yawned and stretched, her blue floral sundress tickling her knees, as Apata stood uncomfortably in the doorway to Eliza’s apartment. “Sleep well?” she asked.
“Aye, well and enough, I expect,” Apata replied. “Thank you.” They had talked for hours last night, as Apata spilled most of her life story. It was a sad tale, but she told it with pride. The girl was a fighter. They were about the same age, but Apata looked as if she had another half a person stuffed inside her, filling her with extra strength and twice the personality of anyone you’d find on Central. She was lithe, though. Eliza idly wondered how strong she was.
Apata cleared her throat again; the intricate blue patterns covering her face had darkened with a blush, redder than the peeling sunburnt skin. “I’m thinking I might go get the lay of the isle, I might. I’m sick of being lost in this gods damned city. If you see Atlas, can you tell him I was wanting to see him?”
“Of course.” Eliza smiled. “He should be back in his shop, if you wanted to drop by after you do some sightseeing. The temples in Northmere are beautiful. And Effre,” she sighed, “if you haven’t seen the glass city by day, go get lost for a few hours. It’s worth it.”
“I saw it years ago, from a distance. Mayhaps I’ll go see it up close the now.” She edged around her plans. “Thank you again, aisling. I won’t forget your kindness.”
Eliza laughed and placed a few of the pastries left in the case and some leftover tea leaves onto a patterned napkin, which she tied up neatly and handed to Apata. “Don’t forget to eat. And maybe taste it this time.” She smirked, and Apata blushed again.
“I won’t—I mean, I will.” She smiled gratefully and took the food before dashing out the door. Eliza watched her go, sending out a hope that the city would treat the girl kindly. She could handle herself if it didn’t, but nonetheless, Eliza wished her well. She looked like she could use a good day.
With the morning rush over and Apata gone galavanting around the city, Eliza decided to close up shop until the afternoon-pick-me-ups came by. She had almost four hours until Mia Nían, one of the healers around the corner, wanted coffee and a raspberry doughflower to start her shift. She made a mental note to introduce Apata to Mia if she ever got the chance, then looked at the pastries left in the case. She was getting low on fruit. Even though tomorrow was market day, the ships came in all week, and she knew her favorite fruit vendor would have something to sell her today. He always did. He said it was just for her, but she knew that wasn’t true. He sold to any pretty face or shiny coin. With the door locked behind her and the keys safely in her over-the-shoulder bag, she knocked on the door next to her own. A grey head and bright eyes answered.
“Hello, Mr. Aliverean.”
“Hello, dear. It’s tied up where it always is.”
“Thank you!” Eliza grinned. “Are you well today? I brought muffins.”
“Better, now.” He smiled back in a grandfatherly way. “But go, dear. You’re burning daylight. You’ll have time to talk to old man once the sun goes down.”
She leaned in to kiss him on the cheek and left a plate of muffins in his hand before turning and running toward the canal where Mr. Aliverian’s raft was tied up. The canals were used primarily to transport cargo. The water was dirty and not very deep, but deep enough that a raft carrying goods could make a trip through Central in about half the time it would if drawn by donkey or jak-ox. As a little girl, Eliza would spend long summer afternoons being pulled on her father’s raft as they laughed and laughed. She had been forced to sell his raft later, to make ends meet, but she still loved the feel of riding the canals. There was nothing like the wind tangling her hair as the sun kissed her nose. And she knew it was the fastest way to Northmere; it would take only an hour or two if the canals were clear.
She heard Mr. Aliverean chuckle as she dug the old willow pole eagerly into the murky water, splashing her ankles as she pushed off the side of the canal into the sluggish current. A few more punts off the bottom and her bakery disappeared behind her. She waved as tourists gaped; the canals were primarily used for cargo, and most of the residents of Central stayed as far from the canal water as possible. She marvelled at the faces she passed. They were all so different, so beautiful in their own ways. The spun sugar skin and dark hair of Taegan mingled with the glinting charcoal grey of Druishk; the unseasonably short clothing of Blitzkrieg and whorling colors of the Shifting Highlands hid against the striking patterns of Kyok always accompanied by hair the color of eggplants—she was never sure what was real, what was adornment, what was illusion. But she didn’t care, not really. A brief glimpse of a face in the crowd as she passed reminded her of a young Atlas, the unruly dark hair and blue eyes flashing a smile at the crazy girl on the raft, but when she looked again, he was gone.
She let her mind drift, confident in her ability to steer the raft safely to Northmere. Eleven years. That’s how long she had known the pretty boy with blue eyes. The one who had inexplicably befriended her, even though she was a twelve-year-old baker’s daughter who had never been to Westmere and he was fifteen and knew the back alleys of Central better than he knew how to spell. He was one of Aryn’s then, scouting for lost souls and putting on self-important airs. She was never sure if Atlas had been born with a knack for that, or if she should blame Aryn. It was easier to blame Aryn.
The first day she saw him he was outside the bakery. She watched through the window—glass, one of the finest on the block—as he darted between shadows, trying to hide but not quite achieving it. In the shadow of the old brick canal bridge, he looked around quickly, then crouched down and rubbed some dirt into the leg of his pants. Standing back up, he shifted his weight, screwed up his face, and started to choke back tears as he hobbled toward people walking his way. She couldn’t hear what he was saying, but she could guess well enough as she watched them either shake their heads or dig around in their bags for a copper. After the third person came into the bakery only to give the boy with the fake broken leg what they had just paid for, she’d had enough. She hung her apron on the peg by the door and marched out to him, tapping him on the shoulder. He was a full two heads taller than she was, but she put her hands on her hips and glared up at him nonetheless.
“If you’re hungry,” she said, “all you had to do was ask.”
She glared at him until he started to laugh. He shifted his weight back normally. “Well, I’m not hungry anymore, love,” he said, “but I’ll keep that in mind.”
Sure enough, the next morning saw the boy across the street from the bakery. She watched him approach the door, then turn around and retreat back to the shadows of the flower shop. Twice. Thrice. The first and second times, a customer walked in right in front of him. The third time, as he approached the door, Eliza’s father—a gruff, burly, but kind-hearted bear of a man—went to straighten the sign hanging in the window. The boy skittered backward so fast he almost fell over. Eliza threw her hand over her mouth to stifle a giggle.
“What’s funny, daughter mine?” he had asked.
“Nothing, Daddy,” she had answered. “Can you go make more cinnamon bursts? We’re running low.” They were Eliza’s favorite pastry: cinnamon with a dash of red pepper, and a pastry dough that always split down the middle, dough and molten filling bursting through. And she knew that making them would take her father over an hour. Enough time for the boy to come in, if he was going to.
Her father quirked an eyebrow, but nodded. “Very well.” He gathered the empty baking trays and headed toward the kitchen in the back. “Don’t get into too much trouble,” he added. “Whatever you’re up to.”
“I won’t!” When she looked back to the front of the shop, the boy was watching her warily from across the street. She smiled and waved. She saw his shoulders start to shake, and he took a step forward. He was laughing. He sauntered across the street, smoothing back his hair as he walked, his chin held high, and almost tripped over a loose stone. An extra hop-step as he caught himself got him to the bakery door, which he opened quickly, as if he thought he shouldn’t be there. Eliza sat on a stool behind the counter, her feet swinging freely, and watched him. His clothes were clean but a little too small. He didn’t look like an urchin.
He approached the counter. She stared at him, waiting for him to speak. His eyes were a different color today than they were yesterday. They looked like the sea when the sky was sad, grey and green and deep. “I’m hungry,” he said finally, staring at a crumb on the counter, one hand in his pocket.
“Took you long enough,” she retorted, reaching into the case to grab the last of the cinnamon bursts. He looked up at her, a smile threatening to show. She added a sausage pasty and, as an afterthought, one of the blood daisy blossoms from the display to make it pretty.
The corner of his mouth quirked up. “Thank you. You’re—” As he reached for the plate, a silver coin fell out of his pocket onto the counter. His hand snapped out and grabbed it before it had even stopped bouncing. She looked at him quizzically.
“If you have money,” she asked, “why don’t you buy something?”
His face fell. “‘S not money,” he mumbled. “I should go.” He looked longingly at the pastries and then at her, before rushing out of the store, leaving the plate where it was. She watched him go in shock. Resolve settled in her mind, and she wrapped the food in a napkin, stuck the flower out the top, and chased him. He had only gotten to the corner of the street when she caught up with him. She grabbed his shoulder and he jerked away, spinning to face her, terror and anger warring for control of his features. His steel eyes softened when he saw her.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” he said, matter-of-factly.
She thrust the napkin at him. “It’s rude to refuse a gift.” He opened his mouth to speak, but she turned away, hair flying like tendrils of fire, and stalked back toward the bakery. He stared after her, gaping.
She noticed his footsteps behind her before she had taken twenty steps but waited until she was in front of the bakery to confront him. She spun on her heel, and he ran straight into her. Hands on her hips, she waited for him to speak.
“Listen—” he said. She raised an eyebrow and narrowed her eyes, a curl falling from behind her ear. He bit his lip to keep from laughing but couldn’t hide his smile. “I’m sorry,” he said. Her expression didn’t change, so he tried to muster up more sincerity. “Truly, I am.” Her face softened, and she reached into the pocket of her dress, pulling out a small gem that reflected every color around them.
“I have one, too,” she said, showing it to him. “It was my mother’s.”
Thankfully the boy knew better than to ask questions. He reached out to touch the gem but left it sitting in her palm. “Mine, too,” he said. He pulled the coin out of his pocket and showed it to her. It had the head of a crow on one side and three falling feathers on the other.
“I’ve never seen another like that,” Eliza said. The boy shook his head in agreement as he slipped the coin back in his pocket, and she did the same. “I’m Eliza.” She held out her now empty hand to shake.
He grinned and shook it. “Atlas,” he said. “We’re going to get along.” He pulled the flower from the napkin and tucked it behind her ear along with the stray piece of hair then turned and disappeared around the corner.
The temples of Northmere rose like gods of iron and stone in front of her. Every religion in Bakkaj was represented somewhere on the most northern point of Mjimeri. Each cathedral, each temple was a different size, a different shape, made from materials seen nowhere else on the island, even in Effre where the artisans and artists worked with anything and everything they could. Stone walkways arched over cobbled streets, blacksteel spires rose around artificial courtyards, glass clearer than sight shone with intricate glinting gold filigree. It was Eliza’s third favorite place on the island. She tied the raft up behind a modest circular temple built to honor the gods of Taegan. Rough faces hewn from stone surrounded the building, spewing water into a decorative moat on which waterlilies floated peacefully. The edges of the roof drew to eight points, one for each of the eight major deities, curving toward the sky as if to cut through the heavens. The spire rising from center was for Hikari, goddess of light and overseer of the other eight, and was built to catch the light of the sun, to make it easier for her to communicate with her children. Lanterns hung from the underside of the roof cast swirling shadows on the dirt as they swayed gently in the sea breeze. Eliza knew the caretaker here; Taegan Lyra was an old childhood friend and wouldn’t mind the docked raft. Eliza made a mental note to stop in and visit on her way back if there was time. For now, she needed to get to the market.
Her second favorite place on the island was Atlas’s shop. It always smelled earthy and sweet, like Atlas himself, and every nook and shelf was stuffed to the brim with all manner of interesting things. There were creams and tinctures and pills, of course, but there were also glittering jewels and finely carved figures and any kind of good luck charm known on Mjimeri. And the books. Oh, the books. She was never much one for reading, not like Atlas. But the smell of them made her heart happy. She had spent countless nights sitting in his favorite armchair, Fishnik on her lap, listening to him read from their favorite stories, his head resting against her knee to get more light from the lamp in the corner.
But her absolute favorite place was the one now right in front of her: the Glass Harbor. The curving towers of Effre shone in the distance, as if a window to the heavens had shattered into the shape of a city. She saw the distorted reflections of the ships and the sea and the gardens on the buildings, watched as the sun and the winds made them blur and return, blur and return. The ships themselves bobbed in the harbor, covered with people and animals alike, all exotic, all artificial. Anyone unloading cargo and goods used the Salt Docks. The Glass Harbor was for tourists and artisans and those seeking their fortune or education in the competitive streets of Effre. The most revered school for anamri was located on the western edge of the island, boasting healers and conjurers and illusionists of the highest degree. Her father used to take her to see the shows: beautiful productions with feats so great even anam couldn’t explain all of it. For years now, Atlas had made a point of taking her every year on her birthday. Every show was different, each performer unique. Anamrisku, as it was locally known, didn’t deal in duplicates. Only the innovative, the creative, the naturally unique were accepted to study under the tutelage of the renowned anamri and nearti who taught there.
She had asked Atlas once why he didn’t ever try to get a spot. She knew he was talented enough, if he applied himself. He had laughed at her question, and she briefly saw what he saw: Atlas, sitting behind a desk, his clothes matched with everyone else’s, a concentrated frown on his face, growing in intensity as time passed and the faces around him changed. He let the illusion go, producing a perfect daisy blossom in the palm of his hand, which she later learned he had simply palmed from the bouquet behind him. “I prefer a more hands-on approach,” he had replied. She had let the subject drop at the time, but she wanted to approach it again at some point.
The bustle of people around her quickened the closer she got to the water. She let the sea of faces flow around her, not bothering to pick out individual features, but choosing instead to revel in the cacophony of colors. Effre, and by extension Northmere, was nothing if not sensational. She made her way past the harbor to the main market square. There were a few markets in Northmere, and more in the rest of Central, but this was the one everyone knew. This was the one where every shopkeep in Southmere and Eastmere wished they could sell, the one every citizen of Central wished they could afford on the daily. The one with even black and white tiles that click-clack-echoed in the busiest hours and fluted columns cool to the touch that cast criss-crossed shadows in every direction the entire length of the market. The one where Crioche sat every day in his woven straw chair surrounded by boxes of fresh fruit, chatting with any passerby who strayed too close. When he saw Eliza, his crinkled, sun-baked face split into a pale grin.
“I know why you here,” he said.
“I’ll bet you don’t,” she teased.
“Well then why am I here, Cri?”
“You looking for him.” Crioche pointed over her shoulder at someone disappearing into the shadows at the far end of the market.
“Actually, I’m—” She would recognize those movements, that hat, anywhere. “You know what? I’ll be back.” She hurried out of the market toward where her path would cross with his, trying to keep herself from running and only succeeding in a hop-step-skip that brought more curious eyes than sprinting would have. Crioche’s wet, croaking laughter echoed louder than her uneven steps.
“Atlas!” He stopped in his path, drawing back against a stone house that looked like the sandcastles Eliza would make as a child, and waited for her to catch up.
“Liza, love,” he said, leaning his forehead down to meet hers. He sighed.
“I thought you might be out this way,” she said, pulling back.
“But that’s not why you’re here,” he finished for her.
“Why do you do it? Why do you go see—” He opened his mouth to answer, but she cut him off. “No. Never mind.” She let it drop, changing the subject before he could keep it going. “I met someone last night who was looking for you.”
“In an I-want-to-sell-something way or an I’m-going-to-kill-you way? Those are two very different things.”
“In an I-need-help-and-you’re-the-only-one-I-know-in-the-city way?”
“You help somebody once,” he muttered. “Did they give a name?”
“More than a name. I got an unexpected houseguest who looked like she hadn’t eaten or bathed in weeks. Why do they all come to you?” He shrugged. “She said her name was Apata. An Abrugael, by her face. I always forget what the different colors mean.”
“But hers were blue?”
Eliza nodded. “So you know her?”
Atlas laughed. “That might be an overstatement, but I gave her a place to stay for a week. Don’t you remember? She wouldn’t tell us why she was here; we only found out a week later when one of the gods-blessed Highlands clan leaders came looking for her.” Eliza looked at him skeptically. “No?” His forehead creased as he thought. Eliza loved it; he was rarely so vulnerable. But she still didn’t have any memory of this other than what the girl had told her. Realization dawned on him. “That was the month you took to visit the Southern Isles with Lyra. You weren’t here. I knew something was wrong with those weeks.” He pulled her into a hug. “Don’t ever leave me again,” he muttered into her hair.
She laughed. “Don’t be dramatic.”
“But that’s what makes me so charming.” He let her go. “What did the clan girl want?”
“She didn’t really get around to that. She passed out first, then woke up delirious and mumbling something about worms and rotted things. She needed sleep. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone that dehydrated. Thank you for the tea, by the way.” The bells from a cathedral–Eliza could never tell which one, even though she had spent half a day looking once–chimed midday. She had always loved the sound of them. Some kind of echoing quality made it so that on a perfectly clear day you could hear the bells from anywhere in Central, even over the factory noises on the farthest edges of Bransk.
Atlas cringed. “I’ve always hated those bells.” She didn’t bother arguing with him that they were beautiful and a modern marvel of sound, he would simply reply, then why do they sound like that?
“Her life has fallen apart,” she continued, “and I think she believes you can help her with that.”
“I probably can.” He sighed. “Where is she now?”
“Wandering. I told her you’d be in your shop later. Speaking of, what did you find at the Archives?” She looked accusingly at his empty hands.
“Ectan wouldn’t let me in,” he said.
“Again? Why this time?” He pulled the bone dragon from his coat pocket and held it out to her. She weighed it in her hand, turning it over to look for markings on the bottom. Atlas had taught her that years ago, and it had become a habit whenever she held something new. “I don’t get it.”
Atlas did his best impression of the old archivist’s rasping voice. “No magical artifacts in the archives!” He coughed. “Apparently this little thing is bad for the books.”
“He’s still on that?” She shook her head. “Come with me. I need fruit, and then we are going to the Archives.”
“Hush.” She grabbed him by the wrist and headed back into the market square. He deftly flipped his hand around, twined his fingers with hers, and followed.
Eliza wandered the border of Northmere and Eastmere, the bone dragon stowed safely in her bag as Atlas looked for information on the disease from the Southeastern Isles. He was supposed to have a cure done by tomorrow, and as far as she knew, he had a whole lot of nothing. The anamri who had come to him—Jaspar—well, she didn’t really know what he wanted. Atlas had found mentions of this disease, the one that gave people scales and tree bark and other unfortunate features, but most of it was in myths. Eliza suspected it was a ploy, though for what, she didn’t know. One story stuck in her mind, playing itself in a loop that kept skipping. A collection of children’s stories from around Bakkaj included in it one from Rekik, of all places. It was a typical story to scare children into behaving, with monsters and magic and people who finally ate their supper.
The story told of an old woman who had practiced magic all her life. The villagers shunned her, even the animals shunned her, all except one. A small, white rabbit followed her everywhere she went, and the two became inseparable. A man from the village, a hero, shot the woman with a poisoned arrow as she stooped to build a fire, nicking the rabbit next to her. A lot of things happened while he watched: the rabbit laid on the dying woman and started to grow into a human-like creature with long ears and excessively muscular legs, and the trees bent down to the woman, who rose as if new with the bark of the trees where her wound had been. The story had more or less ended there, warning children that they’d turn into trees with monsters chasing them if they dabbled with magic. Atlas had written it off but added it to the pile of other similar myths. She thought there was something more to it. Though, she didn’t know what help it was in creating a cure. That was Atlas’s strength. Hers was keeping him alive long enough to figure it out.
“Eliza!” She turned to see a woman clad in black leather and loose, colorful cotton waving to her. She looked like a bird of prey. Eliza suppressed a groan and tried to smile.
“Hello, Aryn,” she said. This was her least favorite part of the city. This was Atlas’s past. This was the only part of Atlas she had nothing to do with. And it was walking right toward her.
“What brings you to my edge of the city? Is our Atlas around somewhere?” Aryn smiled. It reminded Eliza of dough that had exploded in the oven.
“He’s in the Archives.”
“That’s right, he mentioned needing to find you a recipe.” She winked. “Still got him wrapped around your finger, eh?”
You have no idea what affection looks like. “Something like that.” Eliza briefly wondered why Atlas hadn’t told Aryn about the project but decided she didn’t care. She smiled. “And how goes running half the city?”
Aryn laughed—a musical sound unexpected from her overbearing demeanor. “As well as can be expected. It would be better if everyone were more like you and less like Atlas.” Eliza couldn’t help but laugh, too.
“I won’t argue with that.”
“Oh, I almost forgot.” She pulled something out of her pocket and handed it to Eliza. “Can you give this to Atlas when you see him?” It was a silver coin: a crow’s head on one side and a single, floating feather on the other. “It must’ve fallen out of his coat this morning. I found it on my doorstep.”
“Yeah,” Eliza said, distractedly staring at the single feather, “sure.” There’s more than one? Eliza frowned.
Aryn shook her head and started to say something but chose the better of it. “It was nice to see you, Eliza,” she said instead. “May the sun be at your back and the wind in your favor.”
“And your wits and your weapons the sharpest,” she muttered. She adjusted the strap of the bag hanging over her shoulder, her fingers worrying the fraying fabric as she slipped the coin into an inside pocket. She needed to see Atlas. Now.