“This is more dumb than crossing the Lucent Sea on an oyster skiff.” Rhia was absentmindedly tugging on ends of her gloves—Atlas’s gloves—flexing her fingers when they weren’t at her neck, reaching for her absent necklace.
“You don’t have to come,” Atlas said. “The ship is right over there. I’m sure Apata would greatly appreciate your help.” He gestured vaguely toward the harbor where at least four—by the gods, he hoped there weren’t more—ships bobbed menacingly in the water.
Kill her. A flash of maggots and deeper, darker creatures crawled across his skin.
And what good would that do? Atlas had learned that contradicting the voice did no good. What started with a voice would devolve into debilitating visions until he either gave in or was too weak to stand. At the docks, he had tried to run, had looked for a way out, knowing that if he could make it past the circle of men and women of varying nefarious intent and to the Jesuine, he could have her out of the harbor before their eyes had adjusted from the blinding flash he was pulling together with the powders he always kept sewn into his coat. But when he focused all his body head to the tips of his fingers, more than enough to create a spark, nothing happened. There had only been empty laughter in his head, and derision. This is not running, the voice said. No, but it’s about to be, Atlas had mumbled, bringing even more heat to his fingertips, so much that he started to feel the needle-sharp cold in his legs. I never could abide when hosts were smart. Atlas felt the heat seep from his hands, the voice somehow drawing it inward. He saw the flames engulf his shop, saw Eliza’s face begin to melt. He started to sweat. His hands shook, and the powders fell through his fingers, mixing with the sand below. Unintelligible curses ran through his mind, not quite forming themselves into words. Now, now. None of that language. We’re more sophisticated than that, Cyrus. The voice chuckled, though it sounded more like the air being let out of a corpse. His knees buckled, and he surrendered.
We would be rid of her, the voice said, pulling him back to the present.
Yes, Atlas thought, but then it would just be the two of us. And, darling, you know we’re not ready for that.
“Atlas?” Rhia sounded concerned. But then, she usually sounded concerned. It was something about the oily quality to her voice, Atlas had decided. “You’re definitely not doing this alone. You can barely stand.”
“I can stand,” Atlas snapped. He looked up at the sandstone tower that Sheista called a bedroom. The wall would be scaleable, though it would be infinitely easier with magic. But since the voice in his head seemed to be able to both give and take anam from him, and did so with little to no rhyme or reason, he decided to do this the old-fashioned way. The way he had taught Fawkes to climb, as they snuck into the library tucked on top of the trade offices on Anft. Suddenly he was there, the sandstone under his fingers turned to slime-slick rock, the smell of rotted fish and burning oil replacing that of apple orchards and salt.
Would you shut the hell up? he thought. I’m no good to you dead or left to rot in this social climbing island’s sad excuse for a prison. The vision faded. Aloud, he said, “Keep watch. If anyone comes, caw like that traitorous bird of yours.” Rhia fell silent, and Atlas saw her thoughts flick to the raven she had so recently trusted. He couldn’t tell what she was thinking, though, and he didn’t care. “Understand?”
“Why are you helping Meurick?” she asked instead of answering.
“It’s the right thing to do.” Rhia started to nod, though she still looked suspicious. He changed tactics. “Honestly, if we get this to him, I think he’ll help us get off the island and back to our boat. Where,” he added, “your necklace is waiting safely.”
“That’s a good idea,” she said.
Atlas got the distinct feeling that if the voice in his head had a body, it would be rolling its eyes. “So what are you doing if you see someone coming?”
“Cawing like a traitorous bird,” she said.
“Good.” Atlas turned and began to climb, the uneven sandstone giving him easy footholds. He felt strength coursing through his fingers, adrenaline through his veins. His mind felt the clearest it had it months, and he knew whatever it was in his head had decided to help. The climb would take him a while—long enough to have a much overdue conversation.
What are you? he thought.
You wouldn’t understand, the voice answered.
I have, it said, and I can’t say I much like the flavor.
Atlas barked out a laugh, the absurdity of everything that was happening finally hitting him, clinging twenty feet above the ground and having a conversation with a voice in his head. Nor I yours, he responded. So why not leave?
It’s not that simple.
Sure it is. Leave the same way you came in.
You wouldn’t understand, the voice repeated.
Okay, then what’s your name? Are you male or female? Atlas wasn’t sure why he cared, some sort of morbid curiosity maybe. He didn’t think he would get out of this alive, not really, and he wanted to know who was going kill him.
Neither, the voice answered. Both.
And what does that mean?
I had a… what do you call it? gender? a long time ago. It doesn’t matter now. Atlas felt the strong urge to look down. For now I am male. His hand slipped off the ledge he was holding onto, and he felt a surge of strength in his other hand. Though if you do not pay more attention, I may be female momentarily.
And your name? Atlas grit his teeth.
You would not be able to pronounce it, nor remember it.
Then what should I call you? This conversation was turning out much less productive than Atlas had hoped.
You can call me… The voice paused for a moment, presumably thinking. He had almost reached Sheista’s window. Call me Steve, the voice said, amusement in its dead voice. An image of Atlas’s childhood best friend flashed before his eyes, the lower half of his torso clasped in a livyatan’s jaws before it dragged him under the waves, his panicked screams fading with the wind.
Hatred narrowed Atlas’s vision as he hopped from the window ledge into the room where Sheista lay on the bed, her white dress in a pile on the floor. Atlas felt Reyxald in the next room taking a piss and stalked over to the door, pulling the bar down and turning the lock.
Sheista held a knife she had pulled from the bedside table. She sat up, brandishing it toward Atlas as the white covers slipped from her bare chest. He stalked toward her, smiling, distracting her thoughts with thoughts of mutiny and murder long enough to lay a hand on her forehead, letting his anam flow freely through her, effectively immobilizing her. “Sleep,” he said, her eyelids fluttering closed as her heartbeat began to slow. She fell back against the rough wooden headboard. It was all so easy. He tried to remove his hand, but found that he didn’t want to. The power that coursed through him was fresh, new, exciting. It sharpened everything in the room until he could take in every detail of the sparsely furnished room at once. He felt the sunbeams wandering through the open window, saw the dust motes fluttering around her head.
Her heartbeat continued to slow. He tried once more to remove his hand, some part of his mind screaming at him to stop, to leave, that this was too far, would cause too much trouble. That part was overshadowed by the power. Everything in the room glinted silver as her heart stopped.
He plucked his hand from her forehead and grasped the medallion that hung freely around her neck. It was tarnished copper, a crow with green-blue wings and blindingly white eyes. The chain around her neck dissolved, searing her skin in a bright red line. Atlas tucked the medallion in his vest pocket and turned toward the window.
He climbed down the tower easily, his hands barely touching a hold before he was at the next. He felt as though if he jumped, he would land without incident. He didn’t try. Some part of his mind was still his, warning him that a jump from this far up would kill him. The high started to fade as he neared the bottom, the weight of what he had just done hitting him. He had killed before. But never like this.
This was you, he thought.
There was no further conversation. No explanation offered, no questions asked. Atlas threw up a guard in his mind, a divide between where he felt the voice residing and the rest of his mind, hoping against hope that it would work. The voice’s presence grew dimmer. He stopped climbing, focusing all his energy on the block in his mind until his thoughts and the thoughts of the voice no longer mixed.
He could no longer feel Rhia hiding behind a tree not fifteen feet from him, nor could he feel Reyxald, who had undoubtedly broken the lock on the door by now. But he could feel his own thoughts, his own mind. He couldn’t hold it.
The division snapped, and Rhia’s worried thoughts came back into focus, as did feeling of maggots crawling under his skin, a feeling he had already gotten used to.
That was interesting, the voice said. Rude, as well, it added.
Yes, well, Atlas answered, tired, it’s rude to take over someone’s mind without invitation. He jumped the rest of the way down, not caring if he broke his neck.
He landed easily, his legs knowing exactly when to bend to absorb the shock, his right foot pushing him easily into a roll. He stood up, brushing the grass and leaves from his pants. Rhia was looking at him warily.
He shrugged. “I got a second wind.”
“And the medallion?” Her eyes darted up to the window. She didn’t believe him, but that was fine. She didn’t need to.
He patted his pants pocket. “Got that, too.” He turned toward the harbor, setting off at a brisk pace. “Come on.”
She hurried to catch up. “So now what are we going to do? You have a plan, right?”
He smiled. “I have a plan.”
The Jesuine was deserted when they got to the beach. Two of the rowboats were gone, and Reyxald’s men were snoring on the sand. The bird was nowhere in sight.
“How are you going to get the medallion to Meurick?” Rhia asked, her eyes on the horizon, where Reyxald’s ship bobbed peacefully in the waves.
“I lied. Are you coming or not?”
“Off this godsforsaken island and somewhere I can sell this,” he put his hand over his pants pocket, “and whatever other valuables there are on the ship to some unsuspecting, deep-pocketed tourist.”
That was almost impressive. A lie inside of a lie.
Atlas ignored it.
Rhia’s attempt at protest was cut abruptly off when screaming erupted from the school’s ship. Blood-red fire began to lick up the main mast, lighting the sails like beacon of warning.
“That’s our cue,” he said. “Come or don’t. I don’t care.” He set off toward the Jesuine, the gangplank exactly where they had left it. He threw up the wall in his mind and finalized his plan. He would sail back to Central and find Aryn. If anyone would have the connections to get this thing out of his head, she would. And if, gods forbid it, she didn’t, he would seek out Mamán. It would be easier to escape notice without a troupe of blundering anamri behind him.
Since the Jesuine was empty, he assumed the rest had been recaptured. He saw the chairs on the deck, the broken ropes, the dried blood. A few sawmouths were strutting around, looking for the source. He shooed them away easily; they were more interested in whatever carnage the fire would leave behind. With the thing’s influence briefly out of his head, he wondered if he should stay. He knew he had no chance against Reyxald’s men, the hirelings and the school, but there was a part of him that remembered when he had wanted to grow up to be a hero. That part died when he snuck out of Oliver’s house leaving little Ollie behind.
The divide snapped, and Atlas felt the flash of Ollie’s mind in his, backed by too many others to count, gone almost as soon as they had appeared.
“Get out of my head,” he growled, and Rhia looked at him.
Atlas shook his head to let her know it wasn’t any of her business. She didn’t ask. “Your necklace is in the cabin,” he said.
“Thank you,” Rhia breathed. She ran to get it, ashamed to have momentarily forgotten it.
While she was gone, he prepared the ship to sail, a simple task since they had never truly docked. It didn’t take long to get out the bay; the Citadels were an anomaly, shallow islands surrounded on every side by deep ocean. A tailwind meant they were tasting open ocean by the time Atlas heard Rhia’s exclamation of joy on finding her necklace.
She emerged from the cabin, the teardrop bauble gently hitting the hollow below her neck with each step. She looked like a new person: her mind was refreshed, her body stronger, sprightly, where before she had been dragging, slumped against her weariness. Atlas felt heat radiating from the necklace, felt a mixture of hatred and relief flowing over and around Rhia. But it didn’t seem to be coming from her. He wondered again what her necklace was.
“This isn’t right,” she said, staring at the unnaturally red flames growing smaller in the distance. She moved to take the wheel, meaning to steer them back toward the others.
“Yes, well,” Atlas answered, blocking her path, “our inevitable death isn’t right either.”
“We should try to save them.” She reached again and Atlas easily circled her wrists with one hand, using his anam to calm her down.
“How?” he challenged her. She didn’t answer. “If they survive that fire, they’ll be taken back to the school,” Atlas said.
“You sound so sure,” Rhia said, disgusted.
Atlas sighed. “I saw it, when they first arrived. They meant to take us all back there. So we’ll go and get backup and then rescue them from a stationary building, which, I hope you know, is a lot easier than rescuing them from a moving building engulfed in alchemist’s flame.”
“Oh,” Rhia said, her fingers around her necklace. “I’m sorry.”
She will be.
“It’s fine,” Atlas said. “Go find us some food.”
Rhia hissed. “I’m not your wench to be ordered around,” she said, hands on her hips.
Atlas stepped back from the wheel. “Would you like to steer? You did such a fantastic job of it last time.”
“I—” Rhia paled, backing down. “I’m sorry.”
She opened the door to the winding stairs that led down to the storerooms. Atlas heard her steps echoing through the ship. They stopped abruptly.
“Um, Atlas?” she called.
“You, uh, need to see this.”
He stopped halfway down the stairs, face to face with Apata. She stood, supported by Fawkes, the scowl on her face so deep he wasn’t sure if she was capable of smiling anymore. Behind them Rip matched her expression, years of previous slights layered underneath. Ryker was hugging Wren, his blood staining her clothes. They all looked like hell. Behind them tied to various posts were a host of people he didn’t recognize. The old hireling from the Highlands, a few in acolyte robes from the school.
“Well, shit,” he said.
Indeed, the voice in his head answered. It laughed.