Professor Ignatius slammed the book closed on the lectern and bellowed, “Bugger it all!” Marlin, perched on his left shoulder, let out a loud squawk, while Merlin, perched on the opposite shoulder, stayed quiet and simply stared at his master’s flushed face. Ignatius crossed his arms across his chest, resting them on his ample belly, and glared at the thick, dusty tome in front of him. “There’s nothing there of any use!” he growled. “The greatest compendium of rare and unusual sea creatures, written and compiled by the leading xenozoologists of the Five Great Epochs, and there’s absolutely sod all about the curiosity in the West Garden.” He gave the lectern a swift kick, then immediately regretted it as he drew his foot back and bit his lip to stifle a cry of pain. Marlin gave another squawk. Ignatius frowned, imagining the bird was actually laughing at him.
The scholar turned and limped out of the study, grimacing at the pain in his foot. As he walked down the stairs from the tower, the strains of a queer, bubbly song came drifting through the narrow windows. The words of the song were in no language Ignatius had ever heard, but the tune entranced him just the same. He found long-forgotten memories coming back to him: hiding in his parents’ pantry, stuffing his mouth with an entire jar of spice cookies; the delight of kissing the beautiful Lady Mandala before she left on her quest for the Lost City of Broken Stars, and the hollow sorrow when he realized she would never return; running a short sword through Brother Caliban’s heart to stop him from completing the summoning spell of the Plague Eternal. The memories filled Ignatius’ heart and mind so fully, he lost his sense of the surroundings and almost walked right into the great iron doors that led to the West Garden. Startled cries from Marlin and Merlin snapped him out of his reverie, and he pushed open the doors and walked out into the crisp, spring morning.
The eerie singing was louder outside. Ignatius tramped across the overgrown garden, the grass and flowers still damp with morning dew, the sun bright in the cloudless sky. His breath came out in short, sharp huffs. Professor Ignatius stopped a few feet away from the bizarre creature singing its uncanny song in the middle of the garden.
It was a fish, but not any kind of fish Ignatius, or any of the other scholars at the university, had ever seen before. It was as long as Ignatius was tall and as wide around. Its fins were like the great webbed wings of a bat. Its skin was a mottled green dotted with bright, golden spots. The fish’s bulbous eyes were closed (As if in rapture, Ignatius thought, and then dismissed the thought as absurd) and its mouth opened and closed in strange, undulating motions. The fish’s unearthly song washed out of its mouth and splashed through the garden, weaving around Ignatius and the birds on his shoulders. Marlin and Merlin began to coo contentedly.
Professor Ignatius scratched his rough chin and glared at the fish. “What the hell are you?” he said. “Where do you come from? Why are you here?” The beast ignored him and continued its song. Ignatius felt the music tugging at his heart. He resisted its pull and snarled, “In the name of the sun and moon and stars, what do you want?” He balled his hands into tight fists. “Do you hear me?” he yelled. “What do you want?”
The song abruptly stopped. Silence crashed onto the garden. Startled, Ignatius took a step back. The fish opened its eyes and looked directly at Ignatius. A chill ran down the scholar’s spine.
And then just as suddenly, the fish closed its eyes and began singing again. The melody was different. Darker, dripping with melancholy and regret. Ignatius felt tears well up in the corners of his eyes. “What do I want?” he asked himself in a hoarse whisper. He thought of his fast rise through the college, from student to apprentice to professor to Head Professor in the Department of Arcane Biology in less time than any other scholar before him. He remembered all the times his mentor, Arch-Professor Xavier, had berated him. “You bury yourself in your research! You have no sense of diplomacy or etiquette! You’ll never be promoted to the Council of Elders unless you stop isolating yourself and start playing well with others!” A ball of rage burned in Ignatius’ chest. He was angry at his own failure and angry at Xavier for reminding him of his failure. What was the point of a meteoric rise if he only crashed as quickly as he’d risen?
He felt the fish’s song slip into his ears, his nose, his mouth, like mist on a spring morning. It tasted of crimson nights and ocean rain. It tasted of regret and lost time. His thoughts drifted back to when he was a boy of nine, standing on the pier with his father, quiet and staring intently at their fishing lines. His father suddenly jerked as something pulled on his line. Ignatius dropped his own pole and ran to help his father pull the large, spotted fish that they now saw was hooked on the line. It struggled like a demon, and Ignatius’ father grunted and pulled with all of his strength. But all Ignatius could think was that he’d never seen a fish so beautiful, so entrancing. He thought his heart would beat out of his chest as he stared at the fish. He tugged on his father’s sleeve. “Please, father,” he said, “let it go. It’s too beautiful to kill.” His father glowered at his son but said nothing. He just grunted more and pulled even harder to bring the wriggling fish up to the pier. Hot tears stung Ignatius’ eyes. He pulled the knife from his belt, reached out, and sliced through his father’s fishing line. The fish dropped back to the water and disappeared beneath its surface with a loud splash. Ignatius heaved a sigh of relief.
His father beat him that night and called him a failure, a disappointment, a fool.
Ignatius now looked at the singing fish, tears running down his face, his jaw slack. “By all the stars!” he whispered. “I do remember you.” The fish once again fell silent. As Ignatius turned and began walking back towards the college, he heard a gurgling laugh echo behind him. He turned back, only to find the curious fish gone. Marlin gave a short, confused cackle.
When Ignatius got to the door of Arch-Professor Xavier’s office, he rapped once, then opened the door and strode in. His mentor looked up from his desk littered with ancient tomes and scrolls. “Ignatius!” he said with a start. “I wasn’t expecting you. What can I do for you?”
“I’m taking a leave of absence,” Ignatius said. He put his hands on Xavier’s desk and leaned in. “An indefinite one.”
“Wait, you’re what?” Xavier said. “You’re doing what?”
“I’m taking an indefinite leave of absence.”
“Now?” Xavier asked. “But why?”
Ignatius sighed. “I’ve decided to travel in search of the Lost City of Broken Stars. I need to try to find Lady Mandala.”
Xavier stared into Ignatius’ eyes, leaned in, and sniffed the air. “I smell no wine or ale on your breath, so you can’t be drunk. Have you gone mad? We don’t know if the city can be found. We don’t even know if Ariadne is still alive.”
“I haven’t gone mad,” Ignatius said calmly. “This is something I need to do. This is important.”
Xavier’s mouth tightened into a sharp line and his eyes grew cold as stone. “This will kill your career here, Ignatius. Do you understand that? You will never make the Council of Elders.”
Ignatius shook his head. “I believe that was a foregone conclusion.” He took a step back and felt his whole body relax. “At any rate, this is something I need to do. To hell with my career and the Council of Elders.” He turned and walked back to the office door.
The Arch-Professor slammed his hands on his desk and yelled, “Damn you to the moon and back, Ignatius! You’re throwing everything away for nothing! You’re a fool chasing a lunatic dream!”
“No,” Ignatius said. “I’m just finally listening to the song.” He walked out of the office without looking back.