Aboard the Jesuine, Northmere, Mjimeri
When Atlas reached the Glass Harbor, it was nearing sunset, the arches and towers of Effre aflame with the reds and oranges of dying day. He ignored it, scanning instead for signs of the Highlands girl. She’d be the easiest to find. She’d left him, thank the gods, and he’d had time to muster enough energy to strengthen the protection around his rare book room, set in place just for moments like this. Well, not exactly like this. Nothing was like this, and nothing would ever be like this again.
He couldn’t find her. Eliza.
He had looked. Gone farther into the flames than he physically could, felt for her mind, that mind that was sunshine and sweetness and everything good in this world, but she was lost to him. He tried to douse the shop, tried throwing canal water on it, tried smothering it with cloth, with alchemy, but it burned with unholy fire, consuming everything. Fire he had started. He remembered everything, every second clear, layered over twenty-six years of memories that each now pricked him as cold and clear as ice. So he blocked it all out, set the protection—a mix of his own magic and that of a maker’s enhancing the dividing wall—and headed toward the harbor, a corked bottle of power, exhaustion, and soot. It was easier than it should have been, setting the protection. Where once he would have thrown his whole body into pulling up the sheen and strengthening the beams, he now merely thought the process through and it was done. A flick of his fingers sent the flames curling one way or the other, but higher, always higher. What little strength he had didn’t lend itself to caring why.
He saw Apata on the deck of a small ship inspecting the sails and rigging, her red hair absorbing the sun. Eliza’s would’ve reflected it back, radiant, glowing. Apata was all blunt edges and matte colors, like those horrid whale oil paintings Aryn kept scattered around her home. Aryn. He blinked and shook his head, trying to separate reality from illusion, a task that had been eluding him for hours. She really was there. Aryn was standing on the deck, smiling like a scintill eagle swooping in the sun. He saw a few of her Suls, her rescued ones, her muscle, milling around the harbor trying to blend in, with only moderate success. Then he noticed the ship.
He knew that ship, knew its angry curves and angrier crew. The crew that was nowhere to be seen. He had snuck onto that ship, multiple times, stealing away anamri taken from all over Bakkaj. Some of them were Aryn’s still, some boarded ships the second they got their strength back. He had even met Jesuine herself, had run his fingers through her silk black hair and felt her wandering hands like so many men before, knowing even if he asked, that she wouldn’t leave with him, with Aryn. It sickened him when they chose to stay, but for some the red theaters were better than anything they knew. And so she was the patron whore. The ideal little slave girl. When he reached the gangplank, he spat.
He heard Aryn’s distinctive laugh, the thick, exotic music he would recognize anywhere. A higher, tinkling laugh joined it, one he knew but couldn’t quite place. Until he walked on deck and saw her, felt the sea breeze on his bare legs, felt the sun beat down on his scarred chest. “Funny,” he said, pushing the illusion away. He tossed his knife, quick as a blink, and it stuck point-first between Rip’s feet, dissipating the illusion completely. She smiled, enough to define her cheeks but not yet display her dimples.
She bent and pulled the dagger from the deck, running her finger along the soot-covered hilt. “This has seen better days,” she said, handing it back to him hilt first.
He took it and slid it back into his boot. “As have I,” he said. He turned his attention to Aryn. “I know why you’re here,” he said tiredly, “but why are you here?” His arms yearned to draw her to him, but he stayed where he was, looking at her evenly.
“And miss a chance to help out a friend? For such a good cause?” She closed the distance between them and ran her pale fingers down his chest, her fingers catching the hem of his shirt and balling it in her fist so he stepped forward. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He closed his eyes, winding his arms around her delicate, muscled shoulders. She leaned into him, returning the embrace, until his heartbeat and breathing slowed to near normal. “You’re not coming,” Atlas said.
She laughed. “Of course I’m not coming. This was just too fun to pass up.”
“And the crew?”
“Will wake up in a bed in Eastmere with a compelling urge to visit a temple and turn their lives around.” She stepped back and winked at Rip, who couldn’t help but smile, dimples and all.
Atlas turned to Rip. “And you’re our captain?”
Her eyes darted to the stairs that led belowdecks. “For now.” They watched Aryn saunter off the ship and disappear into the bustling harbor crowds. A sharp whistle rose on the wind, and six of her boys turned and followed her back toward Eastmere, toward home.
Wren’s tousled, dirty hair poked up from belowdecks, followed by her smiling, curious face. Ryker followed, solemn but relaxed. “Ships are so cool,” Wren said. Rip smiled. Ryker brightened in response, his cheeks coloring as soon as he realized it. So young.
He tried desperately to divert attention. “Jesuine,” Ryker said. “Who was she?”
Anft, 14 years ago
The voices echoed through the small house, bouncing off the wooden floors, twisting through holes in the walls. Ollie cried silently, hunched against the sounds. They had learned long ago that adding to the cacophony only drew the blows to them. Atlas sat on his small, flat mattress, his gangly arms snaking around his cousin. His brother. He had piled books as high as he could to cover as many holes as they could reach, and artwork Ollie had drawn on fishhide covered the rest. Still the voices surrounded them with sickly, reaching fingers.
“WHO WAS HE?” Oliver always bellowed like a jak-ox, like an ogre. That’s why they called him Myark, after the child-eating villain of their favorite story. Atlas would read it at night to Ollie in low voices, after Myark and Crezza went to sleep. Glass shattered against the wall, then something followed with a dull thud. Atlas cringed. This wasn’t his house, not really. But it was Ollie’s. And that’s why he stayed.
“I SAID WHO WAS HE, YOU LYING WHORE!” Furniture scraped unevenly across the floor.
“Have the livyatan mangled your wits as well as your hand?!” Crezza, his mate, spoke only through her nose. She wanted nothing but attention, cared for nothing but herself and occasionally her son. Atlas was an afterthought, if that. “I’ve had no such but your sorry arse since I was saddled to it in that stupid drunk mistake!”
A fist hit the table hard enough to shake the thin walls. There was a pause, and every muscle in Atlas’s body tensed. He tightened his arms around Ollie, whose sobbing had resolved into hiccups and tears. A loud guffaw echoed around them, Crezza’s croaking laughter mingling between it. The tension leaked out of Atlas’s shoulders, replaced by emptiness.
A bottle opened. More furniture scraped the rough wooden floor. Crezza’s croaking spiked in pitch, and Atlas squeezed his eyes shut. “Oliver!” she said. “The children!”
“The first thing a boy should learn,” he said. Her squeal echoed around them like the dolphins that reached the shore still alive. Myark continued. “And our son is too young to know better.”
“And Cyrus?” There was that mockery of maternal care.
“Let him learn.” Clothes shuffled and whalehide rustled and Oliver’s heavy belt hit the ground. “The boy just turned twelve, he should be out on the boats, like a man.” This was news to Atlas. Oliver Fawkes didn’t celebrate birthdays. Oliver Fawkes celebrated nothing but the christening of a ship, the opening of a bottle, and a long-fought, bloody kill.
Oliver remembered his birthday. He thought Atlas was ready to go out on the ships, thought he was a man.
Atlas choked on the pride and affection growing in his chest. The boats meant nothing but death and mutilation and drink. The boats were what made men like Myark.
He and Ollie. They needed to leave.
Aboard the Jesuine, present day
“We need to leave.” Rhia’s anxious voice broke him out of his memory.
Rip looked her up and down. “Why are you dripping blood on my new ship?”
“We need to leave. Like now.” A trail of wet stone marked what Atlas assumed was her path, the excess water draining into the harbor as tourists gawked or cursed.
Fawkes ran up the gangplank behind her, panting. “How do you even exist?!” He turned to Atlas, who couldn’t help but see the four-year-old boy curled on his moth-eaten mattress. “The water— she was— and it—”
Apata laid a hand on his shoulder, and his breathing returned to normal.
Rhia looked around, counting everyone on board. “I’m not kidding.” She carried a stack of books, which she thrust toward Fawkes, who looked at them with horror.
“What did you do to these?” he whispered. He held the top one out and it dripped a steady rhythm, ink-stained water mingling with the pool spreading outward from Rhia.
“I got them, didn’t I?” She looked toward Rip, who was watching her with mild interest. “Are you our captain? I’m sure you are; I don’t know you. Are we ready to sail?”
“What in Father Earth’s crushing hands happened?” Apata asked.
“Um,” Rhia said. “I snuck into the library. At the school.” She paused and looked around proudly. When no one said anything, she continued. “I looked for anything on the disease, the one affecting anamri.” The word sounded foreign on her tongue. “But I didn’t find much, at least, not much that I actually got around to reading.” She looked crossly at the raven perched on the figurehead. “You are not helpful,” she said. She paused before letting the rest of her words come out in a hurried jumble. “An angry man walked in—he was part of the school, he must’ve been—and he suspected something I think when I couldn’t answer any of his questions, so I jumped out the window. With the books.” She pointed. “And it seems like they want more than just their books back because there are spirits-blessed after us but I don’t know what it is they want and I managed to lose them but we really need to go.”
Atlas felt the boat start to rock as the water tried to pull them away from the harbor. He knew she was telling the truth. But he didn’t have the energy to be angry. Not now. “Stop,” he said, and the water ceased pulling, though by his admonition or hers he didn’t know. He looked at Rip. “Get us ready to sail, then. I hope this ship has provisions enough to get us somewhere.”
“It does!” Wren said.
He had forgotten she was here. “Well, then let’s go.” He looked around. “Wren, Ryker, take stock of what foodstuffs we have. Ollie, find the crew’s quarters, find us somewhere to sleep.” He saw his brother bristle and then let it slide. “Apata, can you sail?”
She shook her head. “Nay, though I’ve enough experience to pick it up right quick.”
“Good. Stay here. Rip’ll teach you.”
“I’ll what?” Rip asked, one hand on her hip.
Atlas ignored her. “Rhia, go rest. Tell the current to take us the hell out of here. Quickly. And pray to your spirits that whatever you set after us won’t catch us.”
“I’ll not be—”
Atlas whirled on her, alight with rage and condescension. “You will,” he said, his voice deathly calm. “Stop acting a child, and we might treat you otherwise. Go. Rest.”
The waves swelled suddenly, knocking boats into one another and shoving the Jesuine violently out of the harbor and well into the Serpentine Sea as Rhia stalked to the captain’s cabin. The raven—Cal, Atlas recalled—cawed once, disapprovingly.
Atlas shrugged and let the ship carry them where hopefully no one could follow. That was one of the perks of being steered by a petulant anamri and not any kind of logic. They’d find an island eventually.
It took hours into the night, but eventually the water calmed down and, Atlas guessed, Rhia with it. Not that she would speak to him. They had just been confined to clear skies and apathetic waves ever since. Rhia refused to speak to anyone except the captain and kept herself holed up in the captain’s cabin. Atlas was almost sorry. He was more sorry that she was the one who could control how fast their ship travelled. Or, rather, how fast it didn’t travel.
He could feel her presence from the other side of the boat as he watched the sun rise, her mind a tangled, tired mess of pride, regret, and longing. He couldn’t tell what she longed for, and suspected she didn’t know either. He could help her with that. If she deigned to ever come out. No one had slept well last night, and Atlas hadn’t slept at all. He wasn’t sure what energy he was still running on, but he was in no mood to pacify a pouting teenager.
He sat on the bowsprit, legs dangling over the water. He heard Rip’s footsteps behind him, saw dolphins dancing in the waves. “Stop,” he said, and the dolphins disappeared into sunlight. “Shouldn’t you be figuring out a heading?”
“That requires us actually heading somewhere,” she said. “Which, as far as I can tell, we’re not.” She sat on the rail behind him and he turned to face her. “I know you’ve gone through hell recently, and this isn’t the perfect situation, but you can stop scowling every time you see me.”
“Sure you do.” She laughed. “It could be worse. I could be Tali.” She let that sink in before swinging her legs back over the railing and walking back toward the helm. “We seem to be stuck in this together, Atlas,” she called over her shoulder. “Don’t make it worse.”
Eastmere, 5 years ago
“You’ll love her.”
“You’re making it worse.” Atlas sat on Aryn’s bed, watching her get dressed. It was the last day of Bersesol, and the city was preparing for the biggest celebration of the year: Mur Temesii. Literally translated, it meant “harvest death.” Practically translated, it meant garish costumes, decadent food, and drinking. Lots of drinking. Hence the reason it was bigger even than Novus, the midwinter celebration of new beginnings. Atlas far preferred Mur Temesii. New beginnings could be found any time you wanted them, if you cared to look. But every bar and tavern open and flowing with the finest drinks to be found in all Bakkaj? That was something special, indeed.
Aryn tried again, winding a sequined scarf through her usual black leather and bright cotton. “Taliën needs someone to look out for her.”
“You could do that better than I. You have eyes on half the city.”
“Two-thirds.” She finished and moved to a table in the corner covered in colorful powders and oils and topped with one of the clearest mirrors Atlas had ever seen. “Just meet her. And be nice.”
“When am I not?”
“Whenever I introduce you to someone you don’t want to meet.”
Atlas shrugged. “Get better friends.”
She turned to look at him, her blue eyes accented by dark black lines and half-finished smudges of blue and green. She started to say something but just shook her head and returned to her work. Atlas loved watching her get ready. She never looked innocent, not really. But it was fun to watch her turn from soft and deadly to a colorful warning, a bird of prey.
“I thought tonight was just going to be us,” he said, trying to keep the petulance out of his voice. He saw the corner of her mouth quirk up and knew he failed.
“It will be,” she answered. “Mostly.”
Atlas let out a sound halfway between a groan and a sigh and fell back on her bed, pulling a down pillow over his face. “If she’s anything like the rest of your friends,” he muttered through the pillow, “you owe me.” If she responded, he didn’t hear.
Taliën was beautiful. There were other words for it, but they wouldn’t do her justice. Her skin was burned bronze, her eyes a flashing, beckoning green set deep in a swirling maze of painted blacks and golds. Her hair, dyed jet black at the time, wound in tight waves around her head to pile gracefully atop, loose tendrils falling teasingly on either side of her face. She wore a tight black dress and little else. A small green stone hung from simple gold chain around her neck, and Atlas suspected the fact that it matched her eyes wasn’t unintentional.
“Stop gawking like an imbecile.” Aryn’s words went a little ways toward breaking her spell, but the night air around Taliën still seemed to disappear, her dark-clad form pulling all the colors, sounds, light to her, absorbing them and glowing the more brightly for it.
“If you’re going to make me meet her, at least let me appreciate her.”
She moved lithely, like one of the jungle cats that roamed the islands to the south. The ones that were kept as dangerous pets by important people, people with money. She walked toward them, each step dimming the bright glass city a little bit more.
“Aryn!” Her voice was light, as pleasing as a sea breeze on a clear day. As they hugged, Atlas saw the edges of a spiraling pattern tattooed on her shoulder. His eyes roamed downward, wondering what else might mark that unblemished skin. What else could mark that unblemished skin…
“You’ve started without me!” Her lower lip curled out prettily, jarring Atlas from his thoughts and setting him on a new but very similar chain.
Aryn laughed. “Believe it or not, that’s his first.” She gestured to the tankard that Atlas had quite forgotten he was holding. “He just thinks you’re pretty.”
Atlas not-so-gently pushed Aryn out of the way, stooping ever so slightly to kiss Taliën’s hand. “Delighted to meet you,” he said. “Taliën.”
“Call me Tali,” she said, giggling. “Where’d you find him?” she asked over Atlas’s shoulder.
Aryn shrugged. “He just showed up one day. Hasn’t left me alone since. You might want to watch out for that.”
Atlas was too distracted to be affronted. “And how do you two know each other?” he asked. He knew, of course. Taliën was a merchant’s daughter, the only child of one of the richest men in Northmere. Her father had paid a handsome sum for Aryn to casually run into the girl and pretend to take a liking to her. But, as Aryn had put it, how could anyone not like Tali?
“We met at the Union house,” she said, her eyes darting toward Bransk, whose brick and stone monoliths could just be seen over the dark water of the bay and the gloriously lit Effre glass. “They didn’t want to give me a job because they said I’m too young. I’m nineteen! Younger men than me work there.” Her lip curled into a pout again, and Atlas was drawn from thoughts of the Merchant’s Union that Tali’s father was no doubt a part of. He made a sympathetic noise and put his arm around her waist, drawing her to him. She smiled. “Aryn convinced me to go back after the festival. Said they’d be in a better mood then.”
“Did she?” Atlas looked at Aryn with narrowed eyes.
She shrugged. “If drinking doesn’t put them in a better mood, what will?”
Atlas let it drop, and the three made their way deeper into the incandescent, drink-smothered city.
It took Atlas nearly five months to figure out just how anyone could not like Tali.
From that night forward, they were nigh inseparable. While her father was away at sea, she took him to their mansion in Northmere, where she had her own suite of rooms with a separate staircase just to reach it and where they were waited on by servants both human and helvt. He teasingly asked if her wild streak came from being raised by wild animals, and she giggled and showed him to her bed.
When her father was home with one of his mistresses, they would spend the nights twined together in Atlas’s room in Aryn’s house, whispering about poetry, art, and mortality, telling stories of the world before humans inhabited it. Tali held with the old stories, that there were others in the world, stronger, better, fairer than men. That they were still here, haunting the less civilized corners of the world. Atlas believed in nothing but ingenuity of people, of the creativity flowing from the soul.
While he never told her this, he showed her, conjuring a sun lily from fire willow leaves, buying her the sweetest, purest drink in all Bakkaj from an alchemist he knew on Effre. He showed her illusions of their future and bought her gifts she would have never admitted to wanting.
For months they walked the streets of Eastmere until dawn, and bargained with Glass Harbor merchants for pretty new baubles and exotic foods. Atlas watched the moonlight caress her burnished skin and did the same. They traded secrets and scars and soft, stolen kisses.
Atlas was twenty-one, and he was in love.
Tali got the job with the Merchant’s Union—unsurprising—just like Aryn said she would. She was tasked with keeping tabs on the current market price of goods—a thoroughly useless job, but one she was paid for nonetheless, despite the fact she rarely showed up. New to the underside of the city, Atlas introduced her to Aryn’s other friends when Aryn wasn’t around. He took her to see the Scarlett Daggers perform, their leader taking an instant liking to her after stealing the coins from her coat pocket. Rip she knew already from the Union, a new captain with an inexperienced crew. Tali never hid her scorn well, and Atlas grinned to see her too-wide smile and bobbing laugh whenever they were in the same room. He introduced her to Eliza, and it didn’t take magic to feel the negative current between them. She had no interest in getting to know Aryn’s Suls, much to Atlas’s delight, and they were just as happy to pretend she wasn’t there, though Atlas knew they all wanted her. She knew it, too, and teased him.
“What about him?” she would say, following a young blond into his room on the way to Atlas’s. “Shall we go somewhere, makí?” My sweet. She would wink, and the boy would inevitably stutter and turn red, and Atlas would pull her back into the hall, her kohl-darkened eyes dancing with delight.
It was Philolun, the month of lovers, and Tali’s father had just left for the Southern Isles. Bouncing from island to island until he hit the Southeastern Isles and returned home would take him three weeks at least. They were returning from a show put on by the school, an old play about lovers lost. Taliën pulled him into a shadowed doorway, and he wound his arms around her. They were utterly alone. She traced the lines of his face and leaned back. Where Aryn was ice, Tali was smoldering coals and floating ash.
“In beauty one finds reason, finds the truth,” she said, wrapping her hand around the back of his neck. “And yet to notice beauty ill portends.” She kissed his cheek. “Let beauty be our guide and be our ruse…”
“With hope that time might never bring our end,” he finished.
“You were paying attention.” She laughed and untangled herself from his arms.
“I could say the same of you and your wandering hands.”
She winked and wiggled her fingers at him playfully. “Though time brings not our end,” she said, improvising, “I do.”
“That was terrible.”
She shrugged. “The sea breeze calls and I must go.”
“Must you? It’s not like you need the money.”
“They need me there. What I do is very important, you know.”
“But you’ve been gone so much. Spend the rest of the day with me. The night. And the next. And the one after that.”
“So needy.” She giggled and touched her finger to his lips when he started to protest. “I’ll see you tomorrow, makí.” Atlas sighed and watched her go, watched her turn back at the corner and wink at him before turning toward Eastmere, away from the Union house. He watched as Sica, the tiny blonde who had come to Aryn just months before, split from the shadows and followed Tali toward her home.
Two days later, he watched her casually caress the arm of man who looked as if he had been chiseled from onyx and raised by the sun and the sea. She had introduced him as the captain of Tealo, a beautiful ship that hailed from Druishk, four months prior.
He watched men he knew and men he didn’t, four in total in addition to him. He wondered how he hadn’t seen it, hadn’t sensed it. It consumed every facet of his mind as she kept him strung like the stone around her neck, the one he still knew nothing about. Her kisses were a sweet poison he couldn’t quit. As he lay next to her steeped in self-loathing, her now sun-golden hair tickling his chest, he realized why he hadn’t seen it coming.
Tali wanted nothing. Where there should have been longing, empathy, and warmth, there was only the barest hint of entropy. He had read what he wanted, felt the echo of his own mind in hers. So it came as little surprise when eventually her next kiss was her last, when she told him that he cared enough to smother. He was just too much, she said without a hint of irony, and his gifts were cheap excuses of romance.
Taliën wanted nothing, valued nothing, cared for nothing.
Aboard the Jesuine, heading west-southwest on the Serpentine Sea
“Atlas, don’t you want anything?” Fawkes stood near the railing, a concerned look knitting his eyebrows and wrinkling his forehead.
“Sorry,” Atlas said, reality and memory twining uneasily in his mind. “What?”
Fawkes’s face relaxed at his normal tone. “Rhia made stew,” he said. “Do you want any?”
“She decided to stop sulking?” They both turned their attention to the water barely lapping against the side of the ship.
Fawkes shrugged. “She made stew.”
“I’ll eat. Thanks.” Atlas stood and easily hopped the railing, landing next to Fawkes. “I was hoping to never sail again,” he said, looking at the sea with displeasure. At Fawkes’s confused look, he continued. “I sailed, a while back, with old man Callahan for near a year. We ran”—he paused and looked at Fawkes—“cargo to and from the closer isles.” He shook his legs out. “Gods, I hate boats.” He felt Fawkes hoping for more, wanting twelve years worth of emotional connection. Oh well.
The Jesuine didn’t have a kitchen, not as such. The crew subsisted on preserves, mostly, and the slaves it once carried were lucky if they ate at all. What it did have, however, was a small Maker’s stove that was currently set up near the helm, Rhia sitting cross-legged behind it stirring something in an iron pot. Maker’s stoves were small, usually about the height of a man’s knees and no wider than they were tall, and they burned hot and smokeless, thanks to the magic imbued within. If the anamri who made it was any good, the stove would last longer than the ship.
Rhia didn’t look up as they approached.
Wren sat next to her on the deck, her legs splayed out to either side. A jumble of spice jars sat in the skirt stretched over her lap. “What about this one?” she asked, pulling a jar at random from the pile. She read the label. “Oh, no. We already added that.” She grabbed another. “What about this?” She stared at the label, squinting her eyes. “Zin-gi-ber-a…”
“Paradise pepper,” Atlas said. “Nobody can pronounce its full name.”
She looked up at him with a wide grin. “I like that,” she said. “Paradise pepper. Paradise pepper. Paradise pepper.” She held the jar out to Rhia. “Can we put it in?”
“I think you’ve already added enough,” Ryker said, gently laying his hand over Wren’s as she opened the jar.
Atlas stooped to smell the pot. The smell of fish was barely distinguishable under all the spice in it. “I think a little paradise couldn’t hurt,” he said. Rhia’s face hardened just a little. Better to play nice than have her be a complete pain for however long they’d be stuck on this ship. “Rhia, what do you think?” Her eyebrows relaxed as she thought about her answer.
Apata leaned over the pot, her hair piled haphazardly on her head and falling in every direction. “I think it’s like no stew I’ve had,” she said, wrinkling her nose. Atlas felt Fawkes’s thoughts stutter ever so slightly.
“That just means you’ve got nothing to compare it to,” Fawkes said quickly. Apata stared at him. “So it’ll be good,” he added. She raised an eyebrow and turned back to the pot, suspicion coloring the lines in her face.
Rhia wafted it to her nose, and some of the liquid in the pot splashed up the side. She choked down a cough, and, looking sidelong at Wren, let it turn into a laugh. “What’s one more spice?”
Wren beamed and started vigorously shaking the red powder into the pot. Ryker grabbed her hand, tilting it upright. “That’s more than enough,” he said.
Rip bit back a smile and turned to stare out over the water.
“Wren,” Rhia said, “did you see bowls and spoons anywhere near the stove?”
She wrinkled her face up as she thought about it. Her eyes shot open. “Yep!” She jumped up, jars of spice rolling every which way on the deck, and ran to the stairs, disappearing down them.
Rip was excited. Atlas turned, expecting her to say something, but she only looked at Rhia— who was currently occupied with the controls on the stove—with a half smile. She caught Atlas’s eye and smiled wider, tilting her head toward the edge of the boat, her braid falling over one shoulder. The current had picked up. Atlas gestured just as silently away from the group and started walking. Rip followed.
“Now that we’re actually going somewhere,” Atlas said, “do you know what we’re going to run into first?”
“Since I’m your captain,” Rip said, “we’re not going to run into anything. But I expect dear Captain Kilf has a map.” She held up a finger, correcting herself. “I have a map.” She smiled, satisfied. “Come on.” As they walked toward the captain’s cabin, she started again. “I’m impressed.” Atlas ignored her. “The great Atlas made nice with someone inferior. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
Atlas laughed once. “Of course I can. Twyla hasn’t stabbed me yet, remember. Hasn’t even tried to rob me.”
“That’s only because she knows you’re a better thief.”
“That almost sounded like a compliment.”
“Hm. It wasn’t supposed to.” She pushed open the door to the cabin and in a few steps was leaning over a chest with a detailed map of Bakkaj carved into it. She held a compass in her left hand as if it were an extension of her arm. “As far as I can tell,” she said, “the, ah”—she looked out at where the others were sitting and laughing—“storm pushed us north out of the harbor and then south, probably toward the girl’s home. When she calmed down, we turned slightly west, with the normal current.” She waved away Atlas’s attempt at explanation. “Apata explained it.” She paused. “Well enough. If you manage not to piss off anyone who controls the ship, we should reach the Citadels in a day or two.”
The original name of the small island chain had been lost to time and practicality. They weren’t usually even labeled on maps, as they were too small of be of any real consequence and the trade they did with Central had little bearing on any market. Atlas had been to the easternmost of the islands, Picca, because Callahan had heard a rumor they grew swit, a vicious—and expensive—stimulant illegal on most civilized islands. The rumors had proven false, of course, and they were off to chase another far idea. Each major island of the Citadels was a small fortress built of sandstone brick, the edges of the fortress coming nearly to the water, sometimes jutting out over it. The minor islands were simply spits of sand.
“Have you ever been there?” Atlas asked.
Rip laughed. “No.”
“Well, what better time to visit than when we’re wanted fugitives?”
“Excuse me,” Fawkes said, coming around the corner and leaning against the door frame, “I have done nothing to earn the title of wanted fugitive. Though I am always wanted.” He gave Rip an exaggerated wink and sauntered into the room to look at the map.
“Nothing but steal a thrice-damned necklace from an innocent island girl.”
“Which I gave back.”
Atlas laughed. “Ever been to the Citadels?”
“Once.” Fawkes made a face. “Is that where we’re headed?”
“Unless someone,” Atlas looked at Rip, who rolled her eyes, “pisses off our resident temperamental naturalist.”
“I think Rhia’s okay,” Fawkes said. “Also, stew.”
“Pardon?” Rip said.
“We found bowls. I would say get it while it’s hot, but it could be frozen and it would still burn.” He grimaced. “But if Apata asks, I think it’s delicious.”
He led the way back to the stove. Rhia sat with her back to the wall, nursing her bowl with a stalwart look on her face. Apata stood next to her, openly staring at the bowl in her hands with disgust. Ryker sat cross-legged, nearly finished with his stew, and Wren’s sat forgotten next to her, all her attention on the jackrabbit cowering in her lap. A sunberry, judging by the yellow striped fur and berry-kissed nose.
She looked up from petting it when they got closer. “Rip!” She picked the jackrabbit up by its middle and stood, carrying it to Rip. “Look what I found!”
“Oh,” Fawkes said. “Yeah.”
“It was hiding under a blanket near the bowls,” Wren continued. “I think it was hungry, so I gave it stew!” She smiled. The poor animal.
“I didn’t think Kilf was one for keeping pets,” Rip said.
“Sunberrys make good scarves,” Atlas said. Wren looked at him aghast, and Ryker looked at him disapprovingly. Atlas shrugged. “It would have fetched a solid silver, at least. This lucky”—he paused, considering his word choice—“one must have escaped.”
“It’s no luck if he’s had to eat this,” Apata mumbled.
“She,” Wren corrected. “Her name is Gula.” The jackrabbit’s ears perked up at this, and Wren sat down again at Rip’s feet. They stepped over her to get to the waiting bowls of stew.
“Which did the rabbit not eat out of?” Rip asked.
“Gula,” Wren corrected. Ryker pointed to the one on the far left.
Atlas took a spoonful directly from the pot. “I’ve had worse,” he said. He wrinkled his nose as the full force of the spice hit. He coughed. “But I’ve also had a lot better.”
“You make it next time,” Rhia said.
“I think it’s delicious,” Fawkes said.
“Don’t think I didn’t see you toss the lot in the sea,” Apata said. Fawkes blushed. “It’s a right disgrace to food, it is. But I’ve had worse as well.”
“Fine,” Rhia said. “The next meal is being cooked by Atlas and Apata together. Who else heard it?”
“I did,” Fawkes said.
“How long are we going to be on this ship?” Ryker asked.
“A day or two, possibly more,” Rip said. “We reach the Citadels in about a day and a half if nothing goes wrong. We don’t have to stop. I think we probably shouldn’t, actually.”
“Agreed,” Atlas said.
“Yes,” Fawkes said, looking a little queasy.
“Why not?” Wren asked.
Rip shrugged. “They’re not much, and we have enough provisions to keep going.”
“And,” Atlas added, “if someone is after us, the Citadels are one of the closest island chains to Central. We’d be easy to find.”
“Wouldn’t that make us harder to find?” Ryker asked. “Since it’s the most obvious route?”
“Maybe,” Rip said.
“But the Citadels hold no alliance,” Fawkes said.
“He’s right,” Atlas said. “They’d be just as likely to hand us over as they would to help us.”
“So we keep going?” Fawkes asked.
“So we keep going,” Atlas said.
“With fair weather, we should reach Marenth in under a fortnight. It will be easy to hide there, and to get information. Many people live there, and are starved for good gossip. I’m sure we could come up with some.”
“And most of it would probably even be true,” Fawkes said.
“Yes,” Rip continued. “Except…”
Apata opened her eyes and looked around. “Except it smells like a storm.”
Eastmere, 11 years ago
The day smelled like rain, and now like cinnamon.
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” he told the little red-headed baker girl who didn’t think twice before touching him. As if he knew the future. As if he knew what mattered.
She hadn’t minded, just scolded him for his manners and handed him food.
She was too brave, too innocent, too good. She was perfect.
“Can’t you do anything about this?” Fawkes asked. “You control water.” He looked pointedly from Rhia to the sky, which was currently drenching them with a solid downpour.
“Why don’t you ask Apata to just make a person?” she retorted. “She controls the human body.”
“Maybe I will,” he said. “When we’re not getting soaked to the bone!”
A single wave hit the side of their ship, dousing Fawkes through. Rhia smiled smugly. “There,” she said. “Now it won’t feel like you’re getting as wet.”
Fawkes gave her the dirtiest look he could manage, then stalked over to the helm where Apata, Rip, and Atlas were watching with amusement.
“I won’t make you a person,” Apata said.
“You smell much better now,” Atlas added.
“I hate you all,” Fawkes said. “Do you really need my help up here, or am I just here for entertainment?”
“She seems to be holding steady,” Rip said, giving the ship a once-over. “Surprisingly.”
“Or not.” Atlas looked at Rhia, who was standing on the forecastle deck, staring out over the waves and grinning like a child. Her arms moved as if she were conducting a hundred-piece orchestra, a dance almost.
“Or not,” Rip echoed.
“You can go belowdecks, if you wish,” Atlas said.
Fawkes grimaced. “It smells.” He looked longingly toward the captain’s cabin.
Ryker opened the door of the cabin and walked toward them, frustrated. “I tried to get her to go to sleep, because she didn’t sleep last night. But she just keeps playing with that rabbit.” He made a helpless gesture.
Fawkes looked from Atlas to Rip imploringly.
“Maybe we should all take shelter, then,” Rip said, fluttering her hands uselessly toward the helm. She had tried to steer, only resulting in the ship rolling violently to the side, the wheel wrenched out of her hands. As she let go, the ship righted itself, continuing on their course gods only knew where.
“Rhia,” Atlas called. Rhia turned, and the boat started to rock. “Come inside!” Rhia shook her head, not bothering to yell. “Will you be okay?” She nodded. She turned back to the water and the boat steadied.
Rip took the wheel again. “I should stay, just in case.” It spun wildly one way then the other, and she frowned, letting go. She set her feet against the wind and rested one hand lightly on the wheel. “I’ll stay.”
“Are you sure?” Atlas asked. She nodded. “Let’s go, then.”
As they filed inside, Atlas looked to Rhia. She stood, leaning against the railing, her mind wild and unfamiliar. But some part of him knew her, felt kinship with the ricocheting waves and tumbling emotion, the fullness that shone out from her, a halo of strength and sea mist. Atlas half expected wings to sprout from her shoulder blades; he saw her take flight, spiraling gracefully, ecstatically toward the moon. He blinked and she was just a girl again, drenched and enveloped by the night. He shook the illusion away, disconcerted. He idly wondered if her necklace played any part in her abilities and what exactly was in it. It had quieted when she put it on, and he hadn’t heard it since. He went into the cabin, feeling spirits and memories dancing just behind his eyes.
The cabin was warm and sheltered from the wind, but Fawkes had started to shiver. Even after Atlas found a place to sit, still Fawkes shook. Apata’s turned from her seat next to him, concern threading through her godmarks. She kneeled in front of him, placing one hand on his stomach and one directly over his heart. Atlas felt his mind hitch and stifled a laugh. She started to chant under her breath, and his body relaxed. Well, he stopped shivering, at least.
“I— You—” he stuttered. He fell silent when she turned away to set her back against the cabin wall. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve been saying that a lot.”
Apata pulled a blanket off the bed and wrapped it around her shoulders. She tossed another one over Fawkes. “Aye.”
“Tell me a story!” Wren said from her perch at the head of the bed.
“Who?” Ryker asked.
She thought about it. “Apata.” She pointed.
Apata laughed. “Well enough. Let me think.” She set her lips and looked around the room. Fawkes was stuck between staring at her and looking anywhere but. Apata smiled. Her voice was tired, but strong. “All right. Now, I’m not going to carry on as if I know all there is to know about the eons that came before my own sweet self. That said, there are geezers in the Highlands who sing and chant this shite to no end, so even if you come away a cynic, you can’t come away not knowing anything at all…”
She told them of the creation of the world, of her people. Her voice rose and fell with the gentle rocking of the ship. “…and that,” she finished, “is how men and fae became separated. At least, that’s how the codgers tell it.”
Wren’s eyes were bright throughout the story, tracing the intricate spirals on Apata’s skin and gasping at the appropriate times, the storm forgotten. The jackrabbit was asleep in her lap. Fawkes, too, was enthralled with Apata’s tale. Atlas sensed the multitude of questions in both their minds, Wren’s much closer to the surface. But before she could give voice to any, the ship suddenly felt the full brunt of the storm. It started to rock violently, sending books and instruments flying, and sending Fawkes sprawling into Apata’s lap. He recovered himself quickly, fighting down a flush.
“Rhia,” Atlas said, rushing out the door.
Fawkes and Apata were close behind, the others following after.
Rhia lay on the deck, a tangle of limbs and limp fabric. Rip held steadily onto the helm, watching.
Atlas took two steps toward her. “What happened?” he yelled over the wind.
Rip made a helpless gesture. “She collapsed!” The wind and the rain drowned out her next few words. “…helm, steer the ship … would have … get her inside!”
Atlas nodded and turned back to Rhia. Apata was kneeling, listening for Rhia’s heartbeat and breathing. Finding both, she started barking orders. “You.” She pointed to Ryker. “Find something she can drink and warm it. Fawkes, prepare the bed. Atlas, take her legs. I’m drained the now and could use the aid.”
Together, Atlas and Apata carried Rhia to the captain’s bed. Ryker disappeared belowdecks, Wren scurrying after. “Blankets,” Apata said, and Fawkes piled all the blankets he could find on top of and around Rhia. Apata felt Rhia’s forehead, her chest, her hands.
“She’s not just cold,” Atlas whispered.
Apata’s hand brushed Rhia’s necklace, and she hissed. She pulled it from around the girl’s neck and handed it to Atlas. “Aye. Take this somewhere it won’t hinder her.” She paused, a hand on either side of Rhia’s head. “Pounding,” she said.
Atlas could feel it too, the steady rhythm of waves beating back her consciousness. He set the necklace in the nightstand drawer, where it wouldn’t accidentally break. Apata pulled her eyelid open and they both saw the silver starting to ring her irises. Apata whispered something under her breath, though whether a blessing, a curse, or a healing rite, Atlas wasn’t sure. She let the eyelid drop.
“She’s not gone,” Atlas said.
Apata started to chant, healing for sure this time. Ryker returned with a steaming mug of something foul-smelling. “It was all I could find.” He offered it to Atlas. Atlas shrugged and waited for Apata to finish. Rhia’s body relaxed, but still she didn’t wake.
Apata’s shoulders slumped. “Hold that to her skin.” She gestured to the mug. “But don’t let it touch. And don’t spill.” Ryker looked helplessly around. The boat rocked angrily; it was all anyone could do to stay standing. Still, Ryker placed his palm over the mouth of the mug and held it carefully near Rhia’s shoulder.
Apata made a frustrated sound. “Where she needs heat.” Ryker moved the mug slowly to Rhia’s stomach, twisting his body so he wouldn’t touch her.
His mind was tight, rigid, unsure.
Wren sat at the foot of the bed, the jackrabbit pressed to Rhia’s bare feet. “It’s all right, Gula,” she whispered, petting its ears. “You’ll make Rhia all better.”
Apata looked to Fawkes, who scrambled quickly to her side. She waved him off. “Tell Rip we need to make landfall.”
“But the Citadels—”
She narrowed her eyes, and he hurried out the door of the cabin.
The storm held no sign of abating.
They hit land just as the sun began to tinge the water pink and orange. The storm had let up nearly four hours prior, and the natural current had carried them toward the southern edge of the Citadels. Rhia was calm but still unconscious. Apata had deemed it wiser to let her body heal itself rather than force her awake, though Fawkes spent half the night fretting over her unmoving form.
Set into the southern coast of the largest of the Citadel islands was a small inlet, most likely meant for trade ships. It currently held the Jesuine, bobbing placidly in the ebb and flow of the water nudging at the base of a large sandstone fortress. Atlas stood staring at the jumbled mess of islands to the north and west. Some stood proud and tall, obviously inhabited. Others were crumbling ruins with cultivated plants sprouting from between bricks. A few women in billowing white dresses were picking fruit a few islands over. They stopped briefly to stare as the ship had floated in, quickly losing interest and going back to their work.
“Which island have you been to?” Rip stood next to him, gazing also at the orchard. Her hands clenched and unclenched on the rail. Her mind was an arrow, swiftly flitting from thought to thought, never losing focus. Atlas admired her for that; it had been like that as long as he’d known her, though he had never sensed it this acutely. Close quarters bring out all sorts of hidden things.
Atlas shrugged. “They all look more or less the same, and it was many years ago.” They fell silent.
“Come on,” Rip said. “We should go ashore if we’re to find help for Rhia. We all need rest.”
“Not without me,” Fawkes said. He stood a few paces behind them, shaking out his legs. He grimaced. “Though rest is for sure. Damn hammocks. Not exactly a feather bed.”
“No,” Atlas said. “You’re not coming.”
“I can help!”
“You can help by staying here,” Atlas said.
“How?” Rip said, ignoring him.
Fawkes wiggled his fingers. “I’m a thief. We know things.” Atlas rolled his eyes. “And,” Fawkes continued, “I’m a sweet-talker.” He winked at Rip, who looked at Atlas, a question in her eyes.
“He would be more trouble if we left him here,” she said.
Atlas looked evenly at Fawkes. “The only thing I saw you steal, you gave back. Some thief.”
“Bet I can pick a lock faster,” Fawkes replied.
“Than me?” Atlas snorted. “I doubt it.”
“You taught me.”
“And I’ve had plenty more years to practice.”
Atlas was spared a reply by a shout from the ground.
“Are you lasses coming or am I stormin’ this castle all by me lonesome?” Apata stood with her hands on her hips.
Atlas let out a sigh through his teeth. “You need to rest,” he said.
“Father Earth’s sagging bollocks I do.” She started to walk around the edge of the fortress.
Rip grinned. “She’ll go without us.”
“Apata!” Atlas called. She stopped. “Wait.” She did.
A small voice piped up behind them. “Can I come?” Wren asked.
“No,” Atlas said. Her face fell. “You need to stay here.”
“But I’ve never seen a castle!”
Fawkes squatted until he was eye level with her, resting on the balls of his feet. “It’s very important that you stay here,” he said.
“Why?” Her little forehead creased as her eyebrows bent together. Ryker emerged, bleary-eyed, from belowdecks, though she didn’t notice.
“You need to look after Ryker and Rhia.” Ryker nodded to show he understood.
“But Ryker looks after me,” she said.
“So if Ryker is looking after you, who’s looking after Rhia?”
Understanding dawned on her. “Oh.” She looked back to the cabin where Rhia lay. “I will!” She scurried over and sat near the door, Gula hopping at her heels. She gave a cheery wave as Atlas, Rip, and Fawkes joined Apata on the beach.
“What now?” Rip asked. “How do we get supplies? And beds enough for seven? That’s asking more than hospitality.”
“Knock on the front door?” Fawkes offered.
Apata snorted. “As good a plan as any.”
Rip rolled her eyes and looked at Atlas. “I hope you have a plan.”
“Sure,” Atlas said. “Mostly.”
Fawkes started to whistle as they walked, a bar song that Atlas only knew half the words to.
The fortresses from which the islands got their name were mostly round, with odd corners following the contours of the island. They each were made up of multiple levels, a parapet around the top edge of every level, with a walkway large enough for two men to walk abreast. The Citadels were nigh impenetrable, should the need arise for their defense.
Staring up at the five-story castle, Atlas nearly didn’t notice the group walking toward them. Apata stopped, throwing her arm in front of Fawkes and Rip, his song cut off mid-chorus. Atlas felt Rip’s mind tense, felt her drawing anam should she need to throw illusions.
The group was made of all races and ages, each with skin that told of long hours in the sun and long hair that fell straight down their backs. Some wore it in braids, others left it loose, some wore crowns of golden green leaves. All of them, even the men, wore billowing white dresses.
A woman broke from the rest and approached as the others murmured behind her at the presence of strangers. She was tall, as if every part of her had been elongated. Her hair flashed the colors of autumn leaves on Anft, the sickly brilliant red that came from grease-poisoned roots, and her face was all angles and lines. She held out her arms in welcome.
“We are unaccustomed to visitors,” she said. “But you are weary and in need of aid. Come, gather the rest of your crew. There is breakfast enough for many inside.”
Atlas stepped forward and bowed low, wishing he had his hat. The hat from another lifetime ago. “Your offer is very kind. But one of our own is unconscious, and we seek a bed for her to heal.” The group behind the woman gasped quietly at this. Atlas gestured to Apata and continued. “She is a healer, and is confident our girl will recover. However, we set out ill-prepared and have not the accommodations for proper healing.” The woman nodded, taking in fully the raggedy appearance of the group in front of her. “Will you help us?” Atlas asked.
“Ethan, Caris, return with our guests to their ship and help them bring the girl to a spare bed.” Two men, one blond and sun-reddened, the other with skin the color of storm-drenched oak and hair that was a deep forest green, nodded, walking toward Atlas. “We have healers, both anamri and highly-trained, who would look over your ill one.”
“I’ll not leave her side,” Apata whispered.
“Thank you,” Atlas said. It was for both Apata’s confidence and the woman’s kindness, though it was addressed the to Citadelians. Atlas felt his body start to collapse under the weight of deflated stress. The trip from the ship to Rhia’s bed to the great hall was a blur. Fawkes watched him warily, but he barely saw it. His plate was piled high with fresh fruit and warm breads, cheeses and honey, but he tasted none of it. He started to slip into the past. He could feel it coming, now, and he had been fighting it off for near an hour. It was getting easier to control, but he was exhausted. He let his thoughts wander…
Eastmere, 4 months ago
Eliza hated baking bread. She said it was because kneading the dough was too much of a pain, but Atlas suspected it had something to do with waiting for the dough to rise. Eliza was many good things, but she wasn’t patient. But it was Atlas’s birthday, and so she was baking bread.
Atlas sat at the counter in her bakery, running the stem of of a Marenth yellow lily through his fingers and watching her work. “I’d offer to help, but…”
“I don’t want my bakery smelling like the runoff from Bransk, thanks,” she said with a smile. “No magic. One day I’ll teach you how to cook like a normal person.”
“I can cook!” Atlas indignantly put the flower back in the vase on the counter.
“Sure,” Eliza said. “What’s the main ingredient in lamprey pie?”
“Nope. How do you pit fruit?” Atlas started to answer, a condescending look in his eyes, so she interrupted. “With your hands,” she amended.
His face fell. “Pull it out?”
“You’d lose half the best parts of the flesh.” She laughed easily, the dough ready to sit until risen. “I’ll teach you, don’t worry.”
“You don’t know alchemy,” he muttered.
“Nope! But I do know baking. And this will be the best bread you’ve ever tasted.”
“Aryn’s coming,” Atlas said, casually changing the subject. He watched her face carefully.
Her smile hardened but stayed where it was. “I assumed. And the others?”
“Will probably also be there.” Atlas hated Aryn’s friends, but not nearly as much as Eliza did. Where Atlas hated each separately for various reasons, Eliza hated them all on the principle that they gave a bad name to not only women, but the entire island of Mjimeri. She wasn’t wrong.
He held his hand out to her, and she let him lead her gently around the far end of the counter. “The sooner we get this over with,” he said, “the sooner we can come back and celebrate. And eat the best bread I’ve ever tasted.” He kissed the top of her head and pulled her apron off, hanging it on the peg by the door. She tucked the strings behind it and pulled the door closed behind them.
Atlas explained as they walked the winding streets of Eastmere, heading toward the Salt Docks, why meeting with the Union was so important. She knew of course, which is why she agreed to come, but Atlas always felt calmer when he was explaining something. What had started as a meeting between Atlas and a few scuttering captains, a trade deal, had turned into a meeting between the Union heads, the gang leaders, and whole host of captains. He took Eliza’s hand as they crossed the center of the island, a stone star marking the spot that split the meres. “I’ve no idea who’s going to be there now,” he said. “But I need captains who travel farther, ones willing to stock my shelves. My wares don’t exactly come from the market.” Eliza knew this, too. She didn’t always approve of his business, but they rarely spoke of it anymore except in jest. She was there as a voice of the shopkeepers, speaking up for the trade of fruits and flour and average things, since most of the shopkeepers weren’t aware these meetings happened. “It’ll be over soon,” he said, as much to himself as to her.
Aryn and Tali were waiting for them in front of the five-story brick and soot building that sat jutting out over the bay. They were laughing, which was usually a good sign. Usually. Tali smiled wide when she saw Atlas, her perfect teeth reminding him again of a jungle cat’s. He smiled back, dropping Eliza’s hand and striding confidently forward. “Aryn,” he said, nodding. “Tali.”
“Atlas,” they said in unison. “And Eliza!” Aryn continued. “Always good to see you.”
Eliza smiled and curtsied but said nothing. Atlas bit back a smile. It was important he show his allegiance with Aryn and her Suls, as they kept most of the city quiet and running smoothly. Eliza had no such restraint, and he could feel her fighting down her desire to leave.
“You’re late,” Tali said, fingering the iron medallion around her neck, the one that showed just how high she had risen in the ranks since starting.
“We’re early,” Atlas said. “Relax.”
“You’re late,” she repeated and led them toward the entrance. “Come.”
“Come,” the red-haired woman, whose name he recalled was Sheista, said. “We finish our meal out of doors. It is a day for celebrations.”
Wren clapped her hands in excitement, and Ryker and Rip shared a look of amusement. Everyone looked relaxed, happy even. Rhia was safe with Apata. A celebration was good. Atlas leaned over to Fawkes, whose plate was nearly empty. Fruit juice stained the corners of his mouth, widening his smile even more. “Still hate this place?”
Fawkes laughed through a mouthful of bread. “S’pose not.” He swallowed. “Let’s go celebrate, big brother.” He punched Atlas gently on the shoulder, and Atlas smiled. Fawkes was content. They followed Sheista and the others from the breakfast table down to the beach.
Three ships bobbed peacefully in the water, and three rowboats sat staunchly on the sand.
In front of the first were two burly sailors and the finely dressed Captain Reyxald. The raven, Cal, sat on his shoulder, eyeing the group with his head cocked to one side. He was the least of their worries. Reyxald wanted his money or the dagger, no more. That dagger was worth a fortune and both he and Atlas knew it. Unfortunately, Atlas currently had neither.
In front of the second were three women he didn’t recognize. One had godmarks the color of a dying forest. Another wore the half-shaved purple hair of Kyok. The third was plain, with a wide nose, limp hair, and olive skin. From one of the southern isles then, once. All were obviously hirelings.
In front of the third stood two men and two women who looked to be from the school on Effre, otherwise they had no purpose anywhere near a ship. The man in the front, a tall man with a small, angry mustache looked disapprovingly from Atlas to Rip to Ryker to Fawkes. The others followed his lead, huffing when he did in collective disappointment.
Representatives from all three groups tossed bags of coin to Sheista. Celebration indeed. She curtsied and led her people back inside the castle, most likely barring the gate behind them.
“What do they want?” Wren asked. Ryker pulled her closer to him, fishing a rusty piece of knife from his jacket. Atlas looked desperately from the group behind him to the men and women waiting in various states of impatience. He was searching for a way out. He wasn’t seeing one.
You, a voice in his head that was not his own whispered. They want you. It sounded like dead things moving in the dirt. You need to run. Two things Atlas knew for certain: one, the voice was something entirely separate from himself, and it was in his head. And two, it was right.