art by Jeffrey Redmond
by Beth Cato
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.