Featured Story • July 2016
The Cartographer’s Price
Suzanne J. Willis
“That’s the only piece that’s not for sale,” I tell the stranger who wears a coat the colour of a shadow. At least once a week, a traveller or collector or some other poor soul asks about the map. It hangs on the wall behind the glass-topped counter, behind me, so I don’t need to watch its constantly changing lines, or the strange shadows that fall across it. I’m used to it by now, but it doesn’t mean that I like it.
The stranger just smiles, taps his fingers on the countertop. The ruby eyes of the skull ring adorning his middle finger sparkle, catching the light of the gas lamps and early evening glow. Unlike the others, he doesn’t offer me more than a fair price or make empty threats to scare me into handing it over. Just smiles a little cunningly, like a rat with a gold tooth.
He looks around at the shelves crammed with stuffed, glassy-eyed foxes and owls, leather bound books with print so tiny I sell golden magnifiers with them, and faded, sepia-toned world globes centuries old.
“Not just a cartographer then?”
Now it’s my turn to smile. “On the contrary, sir, I deal exclusively in maps. They just may not be the type that you are accustomed to.”
The breeze blows the scent of cinnamon and stewing meat through the open doorway. The stuffed foxes lift their noses ever so slightly, whiskers twitching. My customer raises his eyebrows, but says nothing.
“Permit me to demonstrate,” I say, motioning him to hold out his hand, palm upwards. I pick up a silver-dipped magpie’s skull, its beak polished to an obsidian shine, and place it in his hand. The skull is very still, the sort of stillness that comes from listening intently. Then—it swings to the left, the right, back to the left until it faces south-west. Opening its beak, it chirps out directions to Snow’s Reach. A place of ravens and shapeshifters and death. I wonder what business the stranger has there.
“Fascinating,” he concedes, his eyes shining. “But there is only one map that I’m after. It is one of a kind and it hangs on the wall behind you.”
He puts down the skull and places his hand over mine. The flesh is work-roughened, strong, but gentle enough to feel kind. His presence is unsettling, but he has an air of possibility about him. It is something that is sorely lacking in Rorkenbach, with the city’s soldiers patrolling the streets, footfalls like thunder as they march another unfortunate to his execution.
“I know it isn’t for sale. Such an object must stay put until a worthy owner comes to claim it, no?”
I pull my hand away and move over to the copper samovar that holds hot tea brewed with orange zest and rosebuds and a tiny pinch of sea salt that blows in on the wind whipping up from the docks. I pour a cup for myself and another for the stranger.
“You know cartography lore, then. More than most. Then you must also know that the only way to succeed—”
“Is to tell you the true story of its origin,” he finishes.
This is a lot more dangerous than it sounds. “And you will also know that the penalty for a false story is death?”
All my maps, in their various shapes, seem to hold their breath as I silently plead for the stranger to leave. Even if I want to be merciful to a false storyteller, the map will not let me. It is a hateful, dangerous thing, full of capricious moods and misleading information. I do not want to have to dispatch yet another soul who has decided to gamble with his life. Six is more than enough. I had hoped, with each one, that they would be true. That is the strange thing about maps such as this—any one of hundreds of stories about their beginnings could be true, depending upon the direction the teller is coming from. And where they intend to go.
So I had hoped, fruitlessly, that as each of those six had begun, they might not only take away the hateful thing for good, but their story might also bring me closer to finding Nico again. I am silly enough to hope for the same thing a seventh time.
“You’re sure, then?” I ask, a queasy mix of anticipation and dread churning in my stomach. He nods, settles himself into the worn green chaise lounge that is an unfurling portrayal of the whole history of Rorkenbach, and sips his tea. As I shut the door and set the sign to “Closed,” I nod to my fellow merchants in the lane who stand under the amber sunset, setting up for the night trade. Any one of those scoundrels and miscreants could be a spy, and I hope that the stranger has not brought trouble on me just by walking through my door.
I perch on the end of the lounge, shivering a little despite the warmth of my tea.
“This shop wasn’t always yours, was it? Or always a cartographer’s?” he begins. “It used to belong to a Balladliner, the only one seen in these parts for some three hundred years.”
I close my eyes, remembering Nico and the music she made in the lonely hours between midnight and dawn. It would trill across the fen, wind around the wooden piers and sweep through the stone laneways and alleys, making people wonder just what its recipient had paid to Nico in return.
“You knew her, I think?” my guest asks.
“No one knows where the Balladliners come from. The northern lands the sunlight never touches? Descended from the sirens and sailors that were man enough for them to keep close for a short while? Me, I think they are from beyond the borders of this world, dead lands where women weep themselves into stone and the cost of those tears is far greater than any that we could imagine. But what would an old pirate like me know?” He winks and, although I am far too cynical too actually blush, a giggle bubbles out from me.
“I don’t know that anyone recalls when the Balladliner, Nico, arrived, or for how long she traded here. But they all remember her music, made on her strange instruments and sung from the balladlines on her flesh. For Balladliners don’t sing with their voices. Her body was covered in scars, new and old, reopened and scarred all over again. All except her face and hands, where they say she kept her private music. Those scars were the balladlines of her body and musical notes bled from fresh wounds whenever she agreed to a trade. Harmonies born of opal tears and mandalas of unearthly voices gave birth to the compositions that lived beneath her skin. When Nico sailed from beyond the borders of this world, across the Bitter Seas, the music found shape and married itself to her cells.” For the first time, the stranger’s face is grave.
“Every song was a sacrifice. Some were obvious. The shanty she gave to the fishermen in exchange for the mermaid tied to their mast, ready to sell to Rorkenbach’s soldiers for meat or Professor Finnegan for his museum, had belonged to her own mother. The day she sung at dawn to hold back the rains that threatened to flood the streets left her pale as though she’d been bled by those quack doctor’s leeches.”
The map behind the counter sighs and rustles irritably. It isn’t a good sign. But my guest just laughs, dismisses it with a wave of his hand.
“Temperamental, isn’t she?” he says.
“Almost as impatient with digression as she is intolerant of lies,” I reply. I am beginning to like him, and it’s always more difficult to get rid of the ones with whom I feel an affinity.
“Where was I? Ah, sacrifices. Now, the more serious ones. Like how you came to be in her service, for example.” He whispers, soft like spring rain, but it stills everything. The night. The map. Me.
“Tell me, how did you come to be in the Commander’s . . . entourage?”
My cup rattles in the saucer. I put it down and clasp my hands, so he can’t see them shaking. “That’s not part of the story.”
“Of course it is! A story is a little give, a little take, a compact between teller and listener. Just like a song. What the listener brings to it is, perhaps, the most important part of all. And you are the very maker of that map, are you not? The Commander’s cartographer, famed for her depictions of this world and places beyond. Of lands undiscovered and things unspoken—”
“Please,” I beg him, “if anyone here gets wind that I am anything more than a mere trader . . . ”
“I have no intention of revealing you to anyone,” he says “only to be true and complete. If I am not, I will pay for it with my life.”
From its place on the wall, the map asserts its dominance in this little, cramped shop. The notes of its own canticle fill the room. Oceans crashing on the shore, icebergs creaking under green-lit, winter skies, airships lifting from the highest peaks to follow the secret, everchanging paths the map holds close. She agrees with the stranger that I should take part in his story, and I am oddly relieved.
“The Commander was my father.” The word still doesn’t sit comfortably on my tongue. “He was not a loving parent, it’s fair to say. Indifferent, at best, unless there was something he needed from you. When he discovered my talent with maps . . . ” I shrug, preferring not to go over the things that seem a lifetime ago.
The stranger nods. “Nico gave the Commander the last song from her old world in exchange for you. That balladline ran down her right hand side, from armpit to hip. She used it just that once.”
“I treated her for weeks afterwards,” I tell him, remembering how her body had not seemed to want to heal. “A cartographer needs more strings to her bow than just drafting and drawing, in order to make the most unique of maps. I saw that wound and I know the sacrifice she made.” But I still wonder if it was for me or for the chance to obtain the map that hangs on the wall. For it, too, had belonged to the Commander. It is my most exacting work and the one that still haunts me.
“There was a connection between you and Nico, a simpatico. She exchanged the song for you and let him leave here that night with the map.”
Remembering the night we first crossed paths still makes me smile. “It was in this very shop that we met. It was a proper Balladliner’s shop, then, filled with harps and pianos, whistles and drums and other odd instruments carved from petrified wood or sewn in the strangest of cloths. I was enthralled. The Commander had banned music on his ships, although that was the least of his cruelties. Nico knew from the moment she saw me, trailing behind him, how he treated me. How he treated us all. And she offered to bargain for me.” I stop myself, struck by the feeling that, instead of bringing me closer to Nico, the stranger’s story will pull her further away from me than ever.
But he presses on. “Nico knew about the map, too. And as the Commander walked in here, it called out to her, running along her scars and trying to find its way to her. No matter, mapmaker, that you had tattooed it in black and violet and umber on his skin, it sought her out. I’m right in thinking that you could never recreate it from memory?”
I shake my head, reliving the night the Commander blindfolded me, placed the tattoo implements in my hand, and brought his prisoners in one by one, to describe those lands and seas and journeys to me. I had just been a conduit for the directions of their words, then witness to the sounds of their subsequent executions. One by one by one.
“Some maps are not mine to know. The ink mixed with his blood and that brought it under his rule . . . ” I stop as the stranger brings his finger to his lips to silence me. The rhythmic footfalls of the soldiers pound towards us, stop outside my shop. I hold my breath—has someone found me out, or is it the stranger they are looking for? He whispers something in an unfamiliar tongue. The gas lamps flicker, someone shouts from the direction of the public house, and the soldiers run from my door.
“For nearly a year, you and Nico shared the shop. You, selling your diagrams of dreams and places unknowable, she balladlining for the sad and the lost, the greedy and the curious. Almost a year, until the night the Commander returned again, demanding to know why the song he had bought didn’t control the map, why instead his crew had all died or gone mad crossing the Bitter Seas. Why it called lamiae who attached themselves to the hull of his ship and sucked the life from it so it ended up a wraith-vessel, unable to make it back to shore. But Nico gazed very calmly at him and said—”
“‘Some maps are not yours to know,’” I finish. In the low light, the foxes curl up and tuck their noses into their tails and the animal bones huddle close to autumn leaf capes. The parchment sways and bounces on the wall, blown by a fierce breeze from its far reaches.
“The Commander’s blade was quicker than either of you thought possible. But Nico’s arm caught the first blow and a harpy shriek bled from the wound. It brought him to his knees and you brained him with a ceramic urn. She bound her cut and directed you to strip his shirt and stake him out, face down. ‘No blindfold this time, dear heart’ she told you. There was the map, scrimshawed by you across his back. You gathered your tools and sat at this very counter, and Nico took your sharpest-nibbed pen, opening the balladline that ran from her collarbone to navel.”
With the stranger’s words, it is as though she stands before me now, pale flesh crossed by a thousand scars, each one a path to exquisite music. A path that is paved in pain and one that she walked gladly again and again. It is as though I can hear the notes spilling from her torso. That song has anchored itself somewhere deep inside me, too. I hold my breath, feeling faint, worrying that the soldiers will come back, that the stranger does not know the end of this tale, that I will be anchored to the past until the end of my days. That the stranger does know the end of it and that there will be another loss to add to the store of them I have already accumulated.
My guest draws a deep breath and closes his eyes. “The refrain that bled from that wound was like the light that flashes through opals made into sound. Like all the minor keys twined themselves into notes so discordantly, gloriously melancholic that they bade the ocean to stop tiding, the wind to stay in its own corner of the world, the blood in your veins to stop flowing, all to right an awful wrong. She sung the map from his skin through you and onto the parchment that hangs on that wall.”
He opens his eyes and continues, as I cannot speak. “You drew the last landfall, then collapsed and watched as Nico, with quiet words and gentle hands, sealed the balladline once more. She knew you would not be able to assist her with what needed to be done next. So she put you to bed, whispered to keep the map safe until its owner came to claim it. When you woke the next morning, both she and the Commander were gone and the map hung in that very spot.”
The lamps brighten again, although the air has the ghost-scent of warm blood, as it had that night. The stranger looks at me sadly. I steady myself, so my voice won’t waver.
“There was a great commotion the next morning, for the Commander’s body was found floating face-down in the fen, wrapped in weed and fish-nibbled at the toes. They said he had bled out from the lacerations on his back. But with no crew to seek vengeance and certainly no love lost between him and Rorkenbach’s troops, they didn’t bother to investigate further. Although the whispers about me continue. Still . . . ” I shrug.
“And Nico?” he asks.
“I haven’t seen her since that day. But she is still regarded as trouble here and would be executed on sight if she returned.” In the years since she left, the weight of loss has lightened a little, but grief still feathers its way across my skin. Then the map shakes impatiently and I stand, lift it from the wall. I roll it carefully and seal it with bronze wax that only the one who knows its story will be able to break.
“I believe this belongs to you, sir.” But I hesitate as I go to hand it over. Yes, he has told me the true story. But it is a story of the past and no hint of how I might leave here, where I might begin my search for Nico. I am bound by the lore of cartography but for the first time, I want to disobey it. I want something for myself.
As he puts his hand out his coat rises up his wrist a little, revealing a criss-crossing of old scars that remind me of hers. Tears well up in my eyes and I turn, lay the map out of his reach and busy myself with the tea urn so he will not see. “But of what use is the map to you without the song that he took from Nico?”
Behind me, he laughs softly then, in a very familiar voice, says “I only used it once, dear heart. That song and the map are mine alone to know.”
I want to move, but that voice, those words, have frozen me to the spot.
“Thank you for keeping it safe. I cannot stay, but we will meet again. You have my word. You have this, for yourself. No one else.”
I turn and with the sharp beak of the magpie skull on the counter Nico, in the guise of pirate and raconteur, opens up a balladline on her palm. The place where she keeps her secret songs. Then the music . . . it whispers into my ears and find its way into the places where I keep my own secrets. It moves through me stealthy and sure, like flame, like water, like the soft creep of a bee deciding where it will sting. Her song, clear and ancient and raw, fills me with memories gone and those to come.
It banishes the terrible emptiness that has lived in me forever.
It is Nico’s gift, and it sets me free.
She seals the line with a whisper, and it is Nico’s lips that press softly to my cheek. I hand the map to her, my protector and the only friend I have ever known. Nico, shapeshifting Balladliner, who disappears again under her shadow-coat as I lift my hand to her cheek. On the counter is the silver skull ring, eyes shining from within. I slip it on my thumb as my artefact maps—those I know and love—shift and settle on the shelves, happy that the ghastly map, the last reminder of my other life, is gone for good.
As the song beats softly as a promise inside me, I set the flame a little higher under the samovar, then open the door to the night patrons who navigate their way to me under the unchartered depths of a dark and starry sky.
Suzanne J. Willis is a Melbourne, Australia–based writer, a graduate of Clarion South and an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in anthologies by PS Publishing, Prime Books, FableCroft Publishing and Fox Spirit Press, and in Fantasy Scroll Mag, SQ Mag, Luna Station Quarterly and the British Fantasy Society Journal. Suzanne’s tales are inspired by fairy tales, ghost stories and all things strange, and she can be found online at suzannejwillis.webs.com.
She writes that “‘The Cartographer’s Price’ began as an image of a tiny laneway shop full of strange, lovely objects and a melancholy shopkeeper. The sharpest object in that image was a sinister map hanging on the wall behind the counter. I have always been fascinated by maps and how, like language, they change over time. How they hold different journeys for different people, are their own tiny worlds of infinite possibility.
“I wrote the story during a time of loneliness and unhappiness—music and stories have always been my anchors during those times and the Balladliner became a strong symbol of both. The final piece of the tale came together when I realised that the Balladliner was Nico, a character who had escaped tragedy in another tale of mine and with whose story I still haven’t quite finished. She follows the strange map still . . . ”
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