Sealed on the immortal beast's back, the map was safely locked away in the library of Catawampus, protected by that institution’s labyrinthine shelves, thus closing the chapter on the Gammon-Catawampus War.
Sebastian sat, surrounded by other books on the subject of goblin military history, and stared at the page. An immortal beast mentioned by name and location in a history textbook was something he had never encountered before. If Alistair had known about it, then maybe… He shook his head, bringing himself back to the present moment. There was no point speculating about what might or might not have happened in the past.
Still, the prospect of meeting this supposed immortal beast in the flesh was intriguing in and of itself. It might be worth traveling to Catawampus someday to see if the story were true.
Though Sebastian knew Imperial geography by heart, Ataxia was another matter, so he jumped from the bed to a table where a gigantic atlas sat, open to a map of a mountain range in some place called Tumult. He placed his paw on the page of the book and slowly turned to a few more maps—labeled with names like “Palaver” and “Rigmarole”—before giving up. He would just have to wait for Misha to come and find the right map for him.
Misha wouldn't mind, of course, but Sebastian still felt embarrassed for having to ask. In his true form, he might just flip to the index of countries at the back of the book, then flick back to the appropriate map, measuring the scale with his fingers and estimating the length of the journey with a few careful turns of his hand. But now, he thought, examining the small pink pads on his front foot, that would take hours.
Back in Styx, his paws had felt clumsy and awkward, used more for jumping away from Delilah's mauling than to reach for anything. Once he had arrived in this city, however, he made an effort to learn how to use them dexterously. After working through the tall stack of books Misha had first brought—all of which concerned the local system of government—he had become skilled enough to turn the pages without doubling them up or leaving claw marks.
After that, he had pored over volumes of Chiaroscuran poetry, literature, history and art history (which were considered by most of the citizens to be equally important), and several dozen pamphlets concerning the current “Shadow Crisis”.
After exhausting these, he had moved on to other goblin cultures. Books about Pandemonium and Ataxia covered the bed, table, and floor. Though they all proved interesting, nothing indicated how he might break his curse, and after all these years, he had grown tired of walking on all fours.
After a minute more of staring at the atlas, as if that would be of any help, he heard a knock at the door. Misha stepped in, carrying a tower of books that went up to his chin.
“These are all the ones on Styxian history I could find,” he said, carefully placing the books on a table beside the bed. They swayed in place, so he began to take a few books off the top, turning the stack into several smaller, more manageable piles. “Though I don't really see why you need them.”
“I'd been avoiding the topic until now,” Sebastian admitted, “but since these other books have proven useless in terms of finding a cure, it's time I turned back to the original source of this curse.”
“I figured that, but I meant… didn't you already ask the queen about it?”
“Why would I? Anything Delilah would've told me—assuming she would deign to give that kind of information to her pet—” He spat out this last word, laying his ears flat on his head, and lashed his tail. “—would have proven useless. It's actually a tradition in her culture to add misinformation when recounting a story. Speaking of which…”
He leapt from the table to the bed, glancing over the new titles Misha had brought, then looked up at him.
“I read about an immortal beast that lives in Catawampus. Do you think that's a true story?”
“Probably. I've heard something about it before, but I've never been there, so…”
“Is it far?”
“Catawampus?” Misha said. “It would take months on foot, and slightly fewer months any other way. And it would be very dangerous for us to go out there, either way.”
“I understand… Still, with all the limitations we have concerning the outside, the library here has a an impressive amount of information on other countries.”
“It's not much, considering how long we've been collecting,” Misha said, with the air of someone brushing off a compliment.
“Even so, I wish there were more books about humans.”
“Ah, you're probably wondering about what happened with Alistair and—” Sebastian's tail lashed faster, and Misha cleared his throat. “Well, anyway, it's difficult to get information about the Empire. For obvious reasons.”
His tone of voice was not one of bitterness for something stolen or longing for something lost, both of which Sebastian would have understood. No, Misha sounded wistful and apprehensive at the same time, like he was speaking about some beautiful, dangerous phantasm that everyone dreamed about, but that didn't actually exist.
Sebastian had a sudden urge to take back what he'd said and apologize, but decided against it and licked his paw instead. Of course it wasn't his fault that they knew next to nothing about humans aside from the patchy stories passed down through the years. Yet the fact he could talk about them easily and without speculation, as if “humans” were some sort of everyday thing, made him feel as if he had an unfair advantage over Misha and the others.
“Well, the books on Ataxia took me long enough to read,” he said in an attempt to change the subject, “and those Styxian ones should take some time, too.”
“You read all of these already?” Misha grabbed a thick tome from off the bed and fanned through the pages. “Cover to cover?”
“It's not as if I have much else to do. At least not in this form,” he added when Misha shot him a skeptical glance.
“Even a cat could go to museums, theaters…”
“Perhaps, but I don't exactly relish the idea of people seeing me in this state.”
He sat back on his haunches and looked down at himself, past the fluff of his stomach to his two front paws, one black and one white.
“No one really cares about that,” Misha said, already gathering the scattered books into a pile to take back to the library.
“I care. Even in Ataxia, a talking cat isn't normal.” He hopped off the bed and walked to the door that led out onto a large balcony overlooking the city. He could hear Misha's quiet steps following him. “Curiosity will just lead to more questions and… I don't want to explain why I was cursed,” he finished quietly.
Misha opened his mouth to ask exactly that, no doubt, but then closed it again and stared up into the darkness above.
“I could remove them,” he said.
“Your memories. It's risky. I wouldn't normally recommend it, but if they're really all that bad…”
“I don't recall ever saying anything about them one way or the other.”
“Well, whenever you start to talk about what happened to you, you get quiet and your tail starts flicking.” He pointed to the long, black tail which was furiously pounding the stone floor.
Sebastian had to make a conscious effort to stop it, and began to lick his paw instead.
“And then you do that whenever you're embarrassed…” Misha said, glancing sideways at him. Sebastian immediately stopped. “For someone so secretive, you're pretty easy to read.”
“I wouldn't be easy to read if I wasn't in this ridiculous form. I think the Styx goblins chose it deliberately… And I'm not trying to be secretive. I just don't like talking about… what happened back then. But I would never try to forget those memories.”
“Remove, not forget. Forgetting is something that just happens naturally, and it isn't like those memories are gone, just… misplaced. But removing memories gets them out of your head for good. It's dangerous business, and should really only be used in emergencies.”
“Even if it wasn't dangerous, I still wouldn't do it.”
“That's good,” Misha said with approval. “They must be very precious.”
Sebastian almost laughed at the idea, but couldn't bring himself to do it. His memories were a jumble of rage, sorrow, and regret. Crimes had been committed, both by and against himself, and he had said things he would take back if given the chance. But there were no more chances. His memories were awash in moonlight and blood, and until he could rectify the situation, carrying those images in his heart was all he could do.
“Yes,” he said, looking out of over the city full of people he hoped would never know him. “They're very precious.”