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art by Jeffrey Redmond

Cartographer's Ink

Beth Cato resides in Arizona with her husband and son. Her work can be found in The Pedestal Magazine, Fantastique Unfettered, and the Mountain Magic and Stories From the Hearth anthologies from Woodland Press (as well as previously in Daily Science Fiction). For information on her latest projects, please visit bethcato.com.

Not even the soothing heat of a full cup of tea could ease the agony in Sir Oren's hands. Each finger joint throbbed as if it contained a burning coal. He cursed, trying to cradle the cup between his palms, but the brew sloshed and speckled his velvet housecoat. Oren exhaled in frustration and set the cup aside.
If he couldn't drink tea, how in the ten hells was he supposed to manage pen and ink? The secret of his pained hands had been kept this long because the king had no immediate need of him, and his other commissions had far-off deadlines. Oren claimed headaches, avoided the map room entirely, and tried every available concoction to heal his hands. Nothing worked.
If King Atsu didn't see an update on his linked palace map soon, there'd be another messenger. His Majesty would already be marshalling his soldiers to march on Jal and reinforce the Grey Watchtower, so recently cut off by the meandering river. He must draw the new map lines to assert their claim against those Jalian ingrates.
Oren heaved upright and hobbled towards the atelier. He dare not take the pen in his unsteady hand, and yet he must. King Atsu flogged his horse for being skittish on a windy day. Old men were far more expendable than a blooded stallion.
Pride was Oren's downfall. He should have retired years ago, ignoring the pressure to celebrate forty years in his prestigious position. Or, had he possessed any brain, he would have never become Royal Cartographer at all. Never to dabble with red inks that took ten years for priests to steep and bless, never to cope with courtiers whose moods shifted like a summer midafternoon sky. Just maps--his beloved sheets with lines of black and purple, the chance to study the curves and stones of the land, the joy of testing the enchanted spikes in the thousand places they stabbed the soil of Qen. A life of near poverty, perhaps, but wealth of a different sort. Maybe his wife would not have died five half-years past, leaving sweet Tavi motherless far too soon.
His fingers quaked, reminding him of the dire circumstances of the day. Fool. Dreaming old fool. Reality remained harsh and hopeless, with not even an apprentice to aid him. That damned fool boy died in a drunken horserace two months ago, just as Oren's hands began to ail. With a half-year of mourning to complete, Oren couldn't take a new heir to his craft. One curse atop another. If he were religious, he might surmise this was penance for his sins.
He stopped in the hallway. The door to the map room was cracked open. His steps slowed as he leaned to peer inside.
Tavi stood at the master map, pen in hand. Her lips moved in breathy hisses as arcane words dripped into the paper along with the red ink of Qen. Oren clutched at the door frame, barely breathing. For Tavi to even touch the priceless inks was treason, but to say the incantations? If the truth were known, punishment would be neither swift nor kind.
He dared not startle her, lest she freckle the countryside like a pox. Oren mouthed the words, and as though unfurling a scroll, the kingdom of Qen revealed itself in his mind.
The enchanted spikes hummed and sparkled like stars in midnight heavens, each bolt of metal aligned to an intersection on the grid-lined paper map. Over mountains and dipping through valleys, all across the living continent, black ink separated farm from town, sheep lots from cattle. Tavi's casting carried Oren's inner sight across the countryside to stop at the burbling and swollen River Nev.
Red and blue inks floated atop the water like a thick sheen of oil. They oozed with the river's flow. The fresh blue ink stood bold and dominant, but Tavi's addition was fresher yet. Oren traced the red as his daughter's pen met the spirited map and appeared in physical form.
A distant roar met Oren's ears. The soldiers in the Grey Watchtower saw the crimson line. The truest show of a Royal Cartographer's power--ink blessed by God, reassuring them of the rightness of their cause.
How many soldiers would die against Jal in the coming days? These were mere boys, barely growing beards. He shoved the thought aside. They chose the sword.
Oren opened his eyes. Tavi remained ignorant of his presence. She picked up the pen for white next, dipping the nib just so, and in smooth strokes blotted out the old border. The presence of enchantment carried through the air like hot cardamom.
Brilliant, stupid girl. Even if Oren had thought to ask for her help, he would not have; he had done his utmost to discourage her from taking on a cartographer's cowl. Now she had made her choice, foolhardy as it was. If the king had the generosity to end the mourning period early, Oren could formally apprentice her. He held back a snort. King Atsu was only generous in cruelty.
Oren waited until the red and white pens returned to their berths.
"Tavi," he said.
Her head jerked back, loose brown hair rippling over her shoulders. God, she looked so much like her mother. "Papa." Her golden skin blanched.
"That map is priceless beyond compare. Thousands of lives balance on the actions of a pen. It's not a task for a fourteen-year-old girl of unbound hair. You cannot--"
"And what of your life, Papa?" she cut in, her gaze shrewd. He flinched. Yes, what of his life? "You think you can hide it from me, the trembling, the pain?" Her voice softened. "If you can make it till Cleric's Day, you can resign your commission with honor, but that's more than a half-year away. I remember what happened last year when Hensa lost the king's favorite cloak. He died of pneumonia in the gaol. Papa, he and the king had the same wet nurse as babes. How would Atsu treat you?" Tears flooded her eyes as she bit her lip.
Oren took in a rattling breath. "Better to let me accept my fate alone. I can't imagine the punishment both king and guild would extend to you for drawing on the spirited map, Tavi. You have not yet practiced your art on the property maps."
"Haven't I?" She turned with a rustle of skirts, flinging her arms towards the tables that lined the periphery of the room. "When were you last in this room, Papa?"
Weeks. Mayhap a month. Dread soured his stomach as he walked the walls. Many of his non-royal commissions appeared ready to send. Neat black lines illuminated the redrawn road maps for the district south of the palace that had so recently burned. A map for a property dispute in the North Country contained careful forgeries of his own script in paperbound purple ink. Ten others sat in a neat stack. Touching his hands to the papers, he could sense the rightness in the magic and how it aligned with the earth itself.
These smaller projects had always been his joy; his connection with the land more intimate, his clients less fickle. That, and no one ever died by the actions of a black pen.
"I didn't know," he muttered. "The deadlines were so distant." He rubbed his aching knuckles and palms together, feeling the burden of each grey hair and wrinkle.
"Papa," Tavi asked, "How did I do?" She pinched her lower lip between her teeth.
"Beautifully." He pressed a kiss against her ear, even as tears of worry burned in his eyes. "But it's a dreadful burden you've undertaken."
"When I was little, you told me that red ink was worth a stable of the king's finest horses, and if I ever so much as walked within five feet of an open jar you'd tie me over a nest of scald-bite ants." Though her tone was light, she focused her gaze on the massive map.
He gave her arm a light pat. "So I did. Lucky for you, it's not scald-bite ant season." Oren took his customary seat and studied the spirited map with his eyes. The red ink shivered on the page, and he grunted. "Finish the invocation, girl. It's waiting for you."
"Oh." Tavi flushed. Magic danced from her tongue as the final words flowed. The red ink gelled on the map.
Oren nodded his approval. Jal's own cartographer would see it now, on paper and topography, and she would offer a quick rebuttal.
"Always remember, Tavi, that this is no mere map. As my old master liked to say, "Royal Cartographers peddle in ink, earth, and war.'"
Oren paused. When he was a boy, he'd entertained the notion of training to be a soldier as his cousins had. Now as an old man, he had come to accept that he had slain more men by his pen than he ever could have by sword. He thought again of the boys in the watchtower. His fingers ached.
Tingles swirled in his head, driving his attention to the paper map. The blue ink of Jal grew bolder, retracing their claimed border around the tower.
"Papa, look." Tavi didn't point to the contentious border along the River Nev. Instead, she motioned to the drawn high peak just beyond their own city. A round letter took shape in flowing script and its companions followed until the words were emblazoned for all to read. GOD'S WILL.
The stool's legs scraped across the floor as he rose to his feet. "Come," he said. His old limbs gained new strength as he propelled himself up the stairs, down the hall, and burst open the door to the storage room. Tavi assisted him in wedging the bolt loose, and they threw wide the double doors to the balcony.
Sure enough, there it was. Beyond the red high-peaked roofs and the elegant spires of the palace, the impudent letters glinted like sapphires against the pale green hillside. Below on the streets, almost everyone pointed and gawked. Up the hill, he could see the rider in Qen-crimson livery galloping their way. He could well imagine what the king would say to him now. Oren shut the two doors, his arms trembling.
"Jal can't do that," said Tavi. "They can't. One must never, ever, use blessed ink to write words upon the spirited map. That's what plain purple is for. Why--"
"If their intention is war, what have they to lose? What is the censure of a cartography guild compared to that of a king and his legions?" Oren secured the door in the hallway. The king wouldn't be content with a redrawn border now. This called for a brilliant, showy response, and all Oren had to show was clumsiness.
"Papa." Her lips parted as if to speak, but remained silent.
He rubbed his bristled chin and sighed. There would be no time to shave. "Can you call Ando into my quarters? I need to change into my silks, and I cannot manage the ties on my own."
"Papa, you're so certain that the king will want an audience?"
Already, he heard the rapid knocking at the front door. Oren laid a heavy hand on his daughter's shoulder, his fingers quivering like plucked harp strings.
"Yes. I'm sure."
This would not go well. The surety rested in his gut like a supper of crusty bread and stew.
Still, Oren would make a good show of it. His red silks hung loose off of his gangly frame and matched his fine white-plumed hat. Tavi helped him belt a dagger at his hip, and Oren adjusted it to rest at a jaunty angle. He admired himself in the mirror. Yes, he could still cut a fine figure when he chose.
Tavi helped him roll the great map and secure it in a tube as long as a claymore. The travel-sized ink jars were checked for freshness and judged well.
"I love you, Papa," she said from the doorway, her words soft and warbling.
He took a single step then turned around. "Tavi, tell me. Do you wish to be Royal Cartographer someday?"
She shook her head, frowning. "No. I want... " Her voice trailed off.
"I want to draw property maps for the North Country. When I use black ink there, I can hear the birds sing." She tried to hide her blush behind her billowed sleeve.
Oren nodded, a slow smile stretching across his face. "Yes, yes you can," he said, and walked away.
Tarrying would not help his situation, regardless of what awaited him. The palace guards welcomed him with stiff bows and escorted him within the gated courtyard. Abnormal hustle and bustle punctuated the arcade. Preparations for war were well underway, just as he had suspected.
"Sir Oren." King Atsu paced the long ornate rug in the map room. "God, I thought you would never get here, my man. Did you see what they did, that affront? You must dispose of it, and then I'll dispose of them."
Oren only nodded as he set his parcels down. Several of the royal attendants stepped forward, and with their gloved hands they spread the spirited map on the table and lined the edge with stones to prevent curling. The mate to Oren's map adorned the full wall at the end of the room.
"Well, are you going to eliminate those words?" The king's nostrils flared.
Oren continued laying out his gear, setting the red vial in its wooden cradle. "Your Majesty must be patient. By guild guidelines, any violation or error must remain set in paper for a full day to remind the cartographer of his or her own humility."
"This was no error. This was provocation. I order you to apply white ink immediately."
"I am sorry, I cannot do that, Your Majesty. Once their ink has melded, it needs time to complete its drying on both paper and earth. If white is applied too quickly, the inks may wash. Would you prefer the entire hill be dyed in Jal blue? Or the city itself?"
"No." The king's enthusiasm dampened. "Well, if you can't eliminate their words, we must answer in kind."
Oren scuffed his knuckles against his chin. He expected as much. The guild would not chastise him for issuing a response, but still. One didn't use red ink for words.
"Your Majesty, if I may suggest, avoid words," he said. "Your troops will march on Jal soon enough. Let your swords be their answer."
One of the attendants stepped closer, frowning and toying with the ermine trim of his cloak. "And yet, Your Majesty, the cliffs over their capital would provide a fine canvas for your retort of choice. Swords would only reinforce your wisdom."
"Hmm. Yes. Yes indeed they would," said the king, stroking his smooth chin. "Sir Oren, a response at this time is a necessity. Jal must know that Qen will not tolerate such an abuse of land and pen. Now I must think of the appropriate words." He resumed pacing along the rug.
Damn the meddling sycophant, and damn the king for being so readily swayed. Oren checked his pens, then uncorked the blessed red ink. Acrid tang filled the air. He grappled the pen, trying to ignore the aching tremors that coursed the length of his arm.
King Atsu muttered as he walked. "'God is of Qen?' No. 'The River is but a River?' No, no, that's too dreadfully long. Perhaps I should call a committee, but half my men are in the field, readying to march. God, why must the Jal be so difficult?"
"It's in their nature, Your Majesty," one of the other attendants soothed.
Oren's tongue sat heavy in his mouth. The truth would be known. Forty years of reputation and career gone. And Tavi, sweet Tavi. He dare not even think on her, or the trembling in his hands would overtake his entire body.
"What about staying simple?" the king asked, spinning on his heel. "Perhaps just write 'No', or 'The Grey Tower is Qen.' Or go for the direct threat and pronounce that 'Jal Will Fall.' How is that?"
"Succinct and all too true, Your Majesty."
"Very well. Sir Oren? Sir Oren?"
His fingers twitched and searched for a steady hold on the pen. "Yes, Your Majesty?"
"God, man, we're having a vital discussion here. Pay attention. Write 'Jal Will Fall' above their city. Ah, it even sounds poetic."
"'Jal Will Fall.'" As will I, Oren thought. He licked his dry lips and gripped the pen tighter. He dipped the nib into the vial.
The ancient words slid from his tongue and the trembling claimed his fingers again, but Oren could not stop the words, not now, not at this critical juncture. The glass vial thudded against the table. Dread and horror almost strangled his throat, but the words flowed onward. Warm ink drenched the heel of his hand. He clenched his eyes shut in denial even as the attendants and King Atsu gasped.
After a dozen galloping heartbeats he opened his eyes to witness the devastation. The vial had tipped in its rest, spreading a tide as bright as a severed artery. The capital of Jal drowned in red.
In the thrall of ink and magic, Oren knew the panic in the distant city. Screams, crying children, frantic goats. The sparkling waves washing over mud, over cobbles. With the ink so thick and unset, it tracked and sloshed underfoot. If someone stood on a normal line as it was drawn, the ink may darken their soles for a half dozen footsteps, but this? Thousands upon thousands of footsteps reverberated through the fresh ink. He could feel the impressions the citizens' bodies made as they fell into the muck. The ink was not thick enough to drown them, but--Oren gasped.
Foundations faltered along one particularly steep hillside, and with an audible snap the old property lines broke as the buildings slid downhill. In a cascade, the tenements in the crevice below ceased to be, the old lines drowning in rubble and Qen red.
Cacophony. Chaos. Red, blood red.
He forced himself to full consciousness. He dropped the pen to one side and lifted the wooden cradle upright and away from the map. The glowing ink continued to spread. Damn it all. That small vial had been open for twenty years, and could have lasted a dozen more. The cost--no, he dare not think of the expense. It would hardly matter now compared to the loss of so many lives. Jalian lives, to be sure, but lives nevertheless. These were citizens, not soldiers. He tugged a rag from his case and mopped the red ink from his hand. His creased skin remained spider-webbed in crimson.
Oren's eyes burned with held back tears. A whole hillside, obliterated. The city... It was enough that his ink bolstered the soldiers, encouraging war time and again. A baby's wail echoed in his mind.
The king's lips held an unusual pallor. "God, what have you done?"
Oren bowed his head. "I apologize, Your Majesty. Regardless of the consequences, I should have addressed this first, but when it comes to men and their pride--"
"Well, you should have told me what you had in mind. God, it's brilliant! Better than mere words. The people of Jal must be running and screaming through the streets. Ink as a weapon. It's perfect." A rare smile lit the king's face. "Blood red ink at that. Their streets will run with the real thing soon enough. I'm glad you didn't tell me what you had planned, Sir Oren. Better to surprise me, surprise us all." The king clapped his hands, and an attendant bowed. "Have the captain ready my horse. We ride for the River Nev immediately."
Oren stayed very still as he absorbed Atsu's reaction. The fool didn't know--didn't realize. More of the old black boundary lines wavered, and Oren whispered the final words of setting to freeze the ink. Belated mercy to those already drenched in red.
"Leave your handiwork in place until I order otherwise," said King Atsu. "That will be well beyond the single day required by your guild, I assure you. I can't get over this magnificent stain. It's ingenious. We must notify our own countrymen in case Jal should make a like counterattack. Thank God, our hills are not as steep as theirs."
With a wave of his hand, one of the attendants dashed away, undoubtedly to warn the mayor and the rest of the city. The king moved behind Oren and placed both hands on his shoulders. "Anything else I can do? Anything else you need?" Giddiness warmed his voice.
Sir Oren sat up straighter underneath the king's touch. This was the moment. "Yes, Your Majesty." The words were hoarse. "If you sign a writ permitting an early end to the mourning period of my belated apprentice, it would be much appreciated."
The guild would fume over the exception--as would the boy's family--but such things could be soothed by time. At the very least, he could survive past half-year with his commission intact. He grimaced, staring at the spillage. Others would recognize this folly for what it was.
"An unusual request, but considering your devotion to my father and now me, I shall grant it." The king snapped his fingers, and an attendant brought him pen and paper. He went to the other end of the table.
Oren blotted more ink from his wrist and forearm as he studied the map and saw beyond to the screams, the chaos, the readied swords. His parched throat ached as he swallowed.
Within a minute the waiver was done, and King Atsu whirled from the map room with lackeys in his wake. The stone walls shuddered from trumpet blasts as the royal entourage galloped from the courtyard. After several attempts Oren recorked the empty vial.
"'Ink, earth, and war,'" he whispered, staring at his soiled hands against the map. This would be his legacy: a puddle of crimson. A legacy earned. Perhaps he should have been a soldier after all.
Beyond the window, a bird warbled in song. Oren lifted his head, listening. No, this stain was not his entire legacy. Tavi would be a fine cartographer, one wise enough to never wear red ink on her hands. He thought again of what she said, and smiled.
Many years ago, Oren had known where the birds of the North Country sang their sweetest. Perhaps they awaited him still.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 24th, 2012

Author Comments

I think most writers have a story or concept in their head that they just can't get to work on paper. That was my experience with "Cartographer's Ink." This was the story that made return trips to critique groups and endured revision after revision. It sat on my computer for months at a stretch, simply because I didn't know how to salvage it. Years passed. I decided to give revisions another go, and here we are today. It's an amazing feeling of joy and relief for the tale to finally be presented to readers. Thanks to my friends at OWW and Codex who aided the story on its journey, and thank you for reading!

- Beth Cato
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