Short Story: Cartographer’s Ink


by Beth Cato

ink-300wBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She’s the author of The Clockwork Dagger (a 2015 finalist for Locus Award First Novel) and The Clockwork Crown from Harper Voyager. Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.


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.

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FSi-230-227wFantastic Stories of the Imagination
September–October 2015 #230

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You can view the Table of Contents and read excerpts from these stories here.

  • Fiction: “The Attic of Memories” by Sunil Patel — A bucket list with a life of its own.
  • Fiction: “I Miss Flowers” by Alexandra Grunberg— When living forever isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
  • Fiction: “Elvis has Left the Building” by Dario Ciriello— The King was only the opening act.
  • Fiction: “Cartographer’s Ink” by Beth Cato — Conquering a map, literally.
  • Fiction: “Ro-Sham-Bot” by Effie Seiberg — What do you do with an old, obsolete robot’s heart?
  • Reviews: “The Fan: Virgin Ghosts, Virgin Priestesses, and Virgin Vampires” by Carole McDonnell — In this month’s column, Carole McDonnell reviews the American film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, the Korean series Oh My Ghostess!, the 2012 film Chanthaly directed by Mattie Do, the first female Laotian horror film maker, and Abengoni, Charles Saunders African-inspired sword and sorcery novel.
  • Reviews: “The Magic Lantern: Erasing the Origins” by Adam-Troy Castro— Adam-Troy Castro uses the Western as a model for what should and shouldn’t be done to cope with the modern comic book movie epidemic. Err. Renaissance! Full disclosure: A-T C writes comics, as well as other things, and his opinions are fascinating.
  • Reviews: “Area 51 1/2 September-October 2015” by Steven Sawicki — In this issue our resident Alien reviews novels by John Scalzi, Adam Christopher, John C. Wright, short fiction by Kelly Link, and the animated short THE OCEANMAKER, written and directed by Lucas Martell.
  • Reviews: “New & Noteworthy Short Genre Fiction: September-October 2015” by Gillian Daniels— Gillian reviews stories by C.S.E. Cooney, Jei D. Marcade, Arie Coleman, Sofia Samatar, and Charlie Jane Anders.

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