The Delusive Cartographer

Issue #187

The sprawling prison walls were outlined in a sickly blue-green glow, algae skimmed from the tide pools for crude illumination, and as dusk fell across the waters the gaol looked like an enormous dying sea creature beached on the island shore. Crane rather liked it. He mimed manacles around his blue-veined wrists as he turned to his companion.

“I’m willing to sign the confession, now, Mister Gilchrist,” he said. “Spare me the belly of that stony beast! Think on our many years together, I beg you.”

Gilchrist snorted, beetle-black eyes still fixed on the approaching shore, but a few moments later he spoke. “It can still be me. I’ve been in more of these pits than you. And I’d blend better.”

His sinewy arm against the boat’s carved tiller was dark, dusky. Gypsy. Crane, meanwhile, was bony and pallid in the way more common to denizens of Brask and the north.

“Be that as it may,” Crane said, “I humbly posit that of the two of us, I am the superior negotiator.” He re-checked the waterproofed case tucked into the band of his trousers. “This may come as a shock, Gilchrist, but some find you unfriendly.”

“Outlandish.”

Crane laughed, but Gilchrist was silent as he guided the single-masted sloop around another twisting reef. The warm wind was carrying island sounds, island smells. Night flowers prickled Crane’s nose like needles. He breathed deep.

“What are you taking with you?” Gilchrist had seen the case, as he saw everything.

“The customary bag of tricks. One never knows what the situation may require.”

“And the yellow?”

Crane bared his teeth in a grin. “Only a little.”

The bow crunched softly onto the surf. Starlight had seeped into the pale sand, making it shine. Their passenger stirred in the back of the sloop, drawing a glance from Gilchrist.   

“I left enough for the cartographer,” Crane assured, easing out of the boat and sinking to his ankles in the silt. He scratched at his arm for a moment, just above his Guild mark, then stopped.

Gilchrist swung out after him, mouth tight in the way Crane knew was disapproval. They stood with tide licking their legs, Crane a spindly shadow, Gilchrist’s silhouette shorter and broader beside him. Up the beach, Crane’s welcome party was dimly discernable. They hadn’t brought a lantern.

Crane put out his long hand. “Mister Gilchrist.”

Gilchrist gripped it. “Mister Crane.”

Together they pushed the sloop sloshing back into the water, Gilchrist climbing aboard as it buoyed off the sand, and then Crane turned and started up the beach.

Fletcher was as squat and leathery and unpleasant as Crane remembered him, vest open on a collapsing chest, baring carefully-filed teeth. “The infamous Crane, finally come to roost.”

“I assume you’ve been plotting that particular turn of phrase.”

Fletcher shrugged, but his smile turned to scowl. “Search him.”

Crane stood silent as Fletcher’s companion patted him up and down. His arm twinged as the case was discovered.

“And what are you trying to smuggle this time?” Fletcher asked, rotating an ivory bracelet around his wrist.

“We reached an agreement on the case, Mister Fletcher, if you’ll recall. Your snuff is at the top.”

Fletcher’s razor grin returned as he extracted the small tin. “What’s the other shit? Am I meant to let you bring narcotics into my prison?”

“I was under the impression that it was the warden’s prison, Mister Fletcher.”

The scowl again. Fletcher spun his bracelet. “It is that, yeah. And he’d have me in the pit with you lot if he knew I was doing this.”

“Think of me as a shade,” Crane said. “In a day I’ll be gone, and it will be as if I was never here.” He couldn’t help but watch the case as it turned over in Fletcher’s oily fingers. “Think of the silver,” he added, and that did it. Fletcher tossed back the case, which Crane sequestered with a slightly unsteady hand, and signaled his man to take Crane’s shoulder.

Fletcher led the way up from the beach, along a dirt path through nettled underbrush. Crane recognized one of the New World plants by its spiny fronds and purple veins, and made a note to replenish his stock on the way back off the island. A screech from the shadowed wood made Fletcher’s man flinch.

“Are these tenebrous trees inhabited by soul-stealers, by any chance?” Crane asked him.

“By what?”

“Soul-stealers.” Crane waggled his fingers in front of him. “Small, ghostly, nocturnal, with very long and very strong digits. Adapted for strangulation, I imagine.” He smiled out at the dark. “They have an owl’s eyes, very wide and bright, and if you look directly into them you go quite mad in a matter of hours—

“Stow that rot talk,” Fletcher snapped.

“—at which point, all you can do is wander and wail rather aimlessly,” Crane finished. “Your soul is simply... gone. Like that.” He snapped his fingers, terrifically loud, and even Fletcher jumped.

“I’ll gag you,” Fletcher hissed. “One more damn word.”

Crane gave his most beatific smile and parodied a lock and key at his lips. Fletcher, shooting looks into the dark, doubled the pace. They pushed through a swarm of silvery insects, clambered over a fallen tree, and a few minutes later emerged to the looming maw of the gaol. The stone entrance was smeared with more of the bioluminescence, giving it an otherworldly aspect, and Crane found its name fitting.

“Welcome to Purgatory, Crane.” Fletcher grinned, straight-backed and swaggering again now that the trees were behind them. He rapped on iron, and the toothy gate groaned open. Silver coin passed from his hand to the red-eyed gatekeeper’s as they entered. The courtyard sand was stained dark in stretches, but Crane only had a moment to guess if it was blood or oil before they were in a stone corridor lit by guttering lantern-light.

“Only one day, the warden won’t notice.” Fletcher spun his bracelet. “Just get your document and get out, understand? This time tomorrow night, I take you back to the beach and we never cross paths again.”

“If you think it’s for the best, my dear Mister Fletcher.”

They came to a scaled iron door, and the hand on Crane’s shoulder finally lifted. The man stretched his arm.

“I do, that,” Fletcher said, slipping the bracelet off his wrist to fit it into a groove on the door. “Once we’re in the pen, you’re a prisoner. You get that? You’re nobody. Doesn’t matter who that Guild scar scared in Brask. There’s no Guild here.” He unlocked the door and yanked it open. “Someone sticks you, we pack you into a tinderbox and dump you into the drink like any other corpse.”

“I do like to think that mortality makes equals of us all.”

“In we go, then.” Fletcher ushered Crane into the holding pen, dominated by an upright wooden post with no ambiguity in its crusted red stains. Crane heard Fletcher’s man cracking joints.

“Since we’d all prefer my presence not appear on the official records,” Crane said, “I assume from here we proceed directly to the cells.”

“No, we don’t.” Fletcher had a spring in his step as he crossed the room to pull a scourge off the wall. “My cousin is a player in Lensa, did you know that? Could have been me, if I’d only been born a bit prettier.”

“I think you have a rakish charm.” Crane caressed a vein up his throat. “Don’t undersell yourself, Mister Fletcher.”

“To really pull off the masquerade, to really make the audience buy it, he says you’ve got to nearly believe it yourself,” Fletcher continued. “Queer sort, those players.” He flicked his wrist; the tails danced and snapped like a marionette. “You had a little fun in the forest, Crane, and now I get a little fun. Fair’s fair.”

Crane felt fear souring his gut at last. He scratched at his arm. He thought of the boat winding its way in and out of the ink-dark inlets, Gilchrist and his quick knife both far away.

“And you don’t have the gypsy here,” Fletcher said, astute.

Crane’s fingers leapt to his case, to the liquid that would smother his nerves and turn his skin to stone, but Fletcher’s man snatched it away. Crane forced himself to shrug.

He peeled off his shirt, folded it with boarding-school precision, and handed it over. His bare back was laddered with shiny scar tissue, from once in Lensa, twice in Brask, and once in the brig of a ship returning from the New World. His pale arms looked ghostly in the lantern-light as he gripped the ring, taking up a familiar position.

“Nothing too nasty,” Fletcher said. “You’ll be able to walk in the morning. It’s just important we make things realistic.” He handed the scourge to his man and stepped back, smiling like a shark.

Crane put himself elsewhere as the strokes began to fall, but he was no Gilchrist, and in the end he always did scream.

By the time they took him to the cell Crane’s throat was hoarse and his back was raw meat. He collapsed facedown on the tick, then let his hands fumble for the case, for the glass syringe gleaming yellow. He slapped his itching arm only out of habit-—the blue tracery under his skin was impossible to miss. Then he plunged the needle so deep it whispered.

Elysium. Crane exhaled in a string of relieved curses, multiple languages, as the feel of molten lead blanketing his back disappeared. He plucked a sticking piece of straw from his shoulder with barely a twitch. He’d taken more than only a little, and as he smeared salve over his unfeeling stripes, the dark cell seemed to swell and contract.

He closed his unfeeling lids and began to drift away from his body, watching the mess of pulped flesh from above, watching insects scurry down cracks in the stone floor. He drifted higher, through the ceiling, across the anatomy of the cellblock, through one cell and then another. Men asleep, fingers curled around crude shivs; men awake, staring into the gloom; men silently fucking; men scraping on the walls.

Before he could find cell thirteen he was floating higher again, into star-strewn sky. From the fraying clouds he could see the rough shape of the gaol itself, the back of it clinging to a sharp cliff overhang where they dropped corpses into the sea. He could see the stone quarry. The dark wood. Before Crane disappeared into the void, he could even see the tiny shape of the sloop circumnavigating the island in its slow and stealthy circuit, waiting for him.

The cartographer was awake, and that meant he was coughing. Gilchrist watched from the corner of his eye as the old man hacked up a throatfull of rust over the side. His wrinkled-tattoo hands shook as he resettled himself, tucking blankets up under his chin.

“Air here makes it worse,” he rasped. “Thick and damp and always smells like meat rotting. Forgot how much I hated it. Three years I woke up to that stink, from sea-dreams every time.” The cartographer wiped at his pebbly chin. “Then they march you through the jungle to that damn quarry and you hew until your hands are bloody bones. March you back sweating like a hog, with the sun all baking your brainpan. And all the time, that damn stench. Three years. But I got out.”

Gilchrist made a small adjustment on the tiller. “Congratulations.”

The cartographer’s chuckle shredded into another heaving cough. When it was finished he tipped his head back, grimacing. “You’re a laugh, gypsy. You’re one of those bastards spinning a whole web of thoughts inside his skull, plots and tricks. But not saying a word of it.” He trailed a finger in the dark water. “When you get old like me, you’ll want to talk.”

Gilchrist concentrated on navigating. The sloop was clinging close to shore, sliding through the shadowy inlets that ringed the island. Lampreys, attracted to the heavy motion, now slithered along in their wake. Their scaly spines glowed under the surface, signaling prey. The cartographer pulled his hand out of the water.

“Sea sprites, I used to think,” he said. “Carrying their little lanterns and waiting for shipwrecks. I had a head full of those stories when I made the crossing.” He scratched his underarm. “Maybe thirty winters old then, maybe more. Too old for stories, you’d think. But in the New World, who was to say? The maps were blank. Those first crossings, nobody knew what to expect.”

“They still don’t.”

“You and the Crane, you almost understand.” The cartographer struggled upright. “You’ve been there. But me and my crew were the first, gypsy. The first on the continent. The trading companies, they already had their little islands, but we were the first on the continent. The first to find the sleeping cities, and first to sack them for all they were worth. It was like living a myth.”

Gilchrist said nothing, but his hand tightened unconsciously on the tiller. He knew the sleeping cities, the towering temples and hieroglyphed tunnels, the abandoned silence that was deeper and older than any cathedral. He still felt it in his vertebrae, even though he told Crane he didn’t.

“We were sinking with silver by the time our fleet pushed off,” the cartographer said, sliding into the well-worn tale. “We were greedy, maybe. But so were the trading companies. Too damn cowardly to risk funding the fleets from Brask, or ours from Colgrid, but slimy enough to blockade the way back. Some crabshit about the punition tax.”

There were more of the lampreys now, swarming underneath the sloop, lighting it like the bubbling cauldron of some aquatic god. Gilchrist hoped no sharp-eyed patrols were watching from the prison walls.

“So our ship, we thought we would slip them.” The cartographer’s face was ghoulish in the lamprey glow. “We came down the coast, down through the Coves, a secret way. We thought we would come up around to the south and bypass the whole lot. Those caverns are a damn labyrinth. Dark as tar...” His tattooed hands danced back and forth. “They wind in and out and in and out again like God’s guts. Yet. We nearly made it, nearly, nearly.”

Gilchrist knew the story well, having heard it first in the damp bar on Brask’s wharf where Crane had found the wizened sailor, then more and more frequently over the course of the journey as the man’s memory crumbled. “The fire,” he said.

“The fire,” the cartographer echoed. “We didn’t have these crank lanterns. Oil lamps, back then, and oil torches. That was the only way to navigate the Coves. It only takes a spark, you know.” He coughed again, deep and long. “An angel tapped my shoulder in the night and I woke up just to see the mast toppling, all ablaze. The cavern was full of smoke and the ship was a damn bonfire. So I dove, and I’m Brask-bred, you know, I can swim like a fish, or I used to. Not the others, not the sailors from further north. I listened to them drown in the dark. Can you swim, gypsy?”

“I’m from Brask,” Gilchrist said.

The cartographer squinted. “Right. The Crane said that. One of those orphans left on the stoop when the caravan blows through—changelings, we used to call them. But God watches over orphans, doesn’t he?”

“Not closely.”

“Maybe not the dark ones.” The cartographer looked off into the black. “It’s a hard thing, hearing your crew drown. Everyone all shouting directions, trying to find any flotsam to grab onto, trying to get oriented. And I didn’t dare go near any one of them, you know, because the drowning frenzy makes a man into an anchor. Wasn’t ready to die, was I?” He shuddered. “Every time someone went quiet and sank, I could picture them like a roll of canvas drifting down, picture all their tattoos, the whale bones and crossed knives and mermaids and sea-luck, none of it enough to save them. I knew their skins, each and every one. I was the inker, see.”

He freed an arm from the blankets and tugged up his sleeve, revealing a swath of cobalt tracery. In the illumination from below, Gilchrist could see the mastery, fishtails intertwining and haunted faces emerging in the pattern.

“I did all these.” The cartographer pulled his other sleeve. “I did everyone’s. When you ink a man’s skin, you know everything about him, all the scars and all the stories. It’s a hard thing, hearing your crew drown. But there was nothing I could have done, was there?”

He doubled over in another coughing fit, worse this time. Gilchrist opened Crane’s rucksack and pulled out a syringe. The liquid inside shone acid yellow. The cartographer nodded, and a moment later the needle was discarded and he was far from his rotting lungs. The lampreys were leaving now, having tasted the wood, and their lights dimmed as they wriggled deep under the surface.

The cartographer’s tattoos disappeared in the darkness, and then his body, and then there was no more coughing, and Gilchrist was alone with his web of thoughts.

Crane awoke in flames. The salve had dried and flaked during the night, and now his back was searing. Hesitation lasted only an eyeblink before he reached for the case. A smaller dose this time, just enough to take the pain. He noticed his usual vein was starting to collapse, so he moved one over.    

They’d put him in an otherwise empty cell, as Crane had requested through gritted teeth during the flogging, and now, as the medicine slowed his breathing, he took stock of the three-sided room. Stone walls, stone floors, a chamber pot crowned with buzzing insects. The eviscerated straw tick that he sprawled on was the cell’s only other feature.

Crane got up like an old man, moving slowly to the center of the room where morning sunlight blotted the stone floor. Motes of dust danced and flurried as he lowered himself to sit cross-legged. He pulled a small bowl from his case, and then the graying sliver of the godbone, which he set reverently inside. The ritual felt different here, so close to the New World. The air roiled with Them, the way it had in the sleeping cities, in the deserted temples.

He wormed a deliberate finger into fresh scab and pulled it away slicked red. Then he smeared the godbone, dropped a pinch of the powder, and began his communion. The first inhalation rolled his eyes back in their sockets.

“Up, bastard.” The barked words came distantly, through fog, accompanied by a rattling scrape as a gaoler keyed the cell open.

“I’d rather not,” Crane felt his mouth say.

“Doing that shit won’t make you any friends in here. The darkies don’t like converts.”

“I have enough friends,” Crane said, with a toothy smile, “in other places.”

The man snorted, but Crane could hear his feet shift nervously. The sharp-smelling vapor coiled through the room like a snake and hung there. It wasn’t until Crane had packed away his things and stood up, spine clacking, that the gaoler approached.

“So why did Fletcher bring you here?” the man asked, palm flat on the handle of his club. “Who are you?”

“I am nobody, dear gaoler,” Crane said. “I am a shade. In fact, if I so wished, I could disappear from your sight completely, ensconced in a cloak of living shadow.”

“Not in the quarry, you won’t.” The gaoler pointed to the carved number on the wall. “You’re in an even cell. You hew today, fresh stripes or not. The sun is going to bake that blood black.”

In answer, Crane pulled a piece of silver from the air. The coin crabwalked down his knuckles and into the gaoler’s waiting hand.

“And that’s how you disappear, too, is it?” The man inspected the coin, then dropped it into his pocket with a clink. He shrugged. “Thirty’s an odd cell today. Never was good with maths.”

“Nor I.” Crane made a wincing stretch. “I wonder if you might do me one other favor. Enlighten me as to the occupancy of cell thirteen.”

“Never was good with grand words, either, bastard.”

“Who’s in it, and will they give me trouble?”

The gaoler scratched his coarse neck. “Think maybe there’s a darkie in there with him now, or maybe they put him one over, but cell thirteen’s been Durden’s for years—since before I shipped over, I think. As for trouble, well.” He chuckled. “Depends what you ask of him. Why?”

“Perhaps he could be persuaded to take my place in the quarry. For the sake of numerical balance.”

“Ha.” The gaoler shook his head. “That’s one of the things you don’t ask of him.”

“I see. Well, in any case, you have my gratitude.” Crane patted his captor on the arm. “Would you like me to make a supplication on your behalf? I could butcher a bird, perhaps a gecko.”

The gaoler jerked away. “I told you we don’t like converts here, bastard. Stick to silver.”

“If you insist,” Crane replied to the man’s departing back. He walked the silver coin up and down his knuckles again, watching it flash in the sunlight.

Dawn found Gilchrist’s hand still welded to the tiller and his eyes shot through with pink. The sun was rising rust-colored over the island. Bird cries, too melodic for gulls, carried to the sloop on a sluggish breeze. The sound put a grimace on the cartographer’s lined face, and a minute later his eyes opened.

“Where are we, gypsy?” he asked, after spitting up over the side.

“The far side.” Gilchrist nodded towards a stony outcropping up ahead. “We’ll slide behind those rocks and anchor until dusk.”

“Could drop it here,” the cartographer croaked. “They never come this far. Not that I rightly blame them.” He gave the island a baleful glance. “All manner of odd beasts in those woods.” He stretched, yawned. “But I made it through them, didn’t I? After the Coves, no wood seems dark. And I wasn’t ready to die.”

“Are you ready now?” Gilchrist asked.

The cartographer didn’t seem to hear. “Here in the sun, you can’t even imagine it. Dark like you think you’ve gone blind. That’s the Coves.”

Gilchrist only half-listened as he threaded the sloop between the rocks, bringing them into cool shadow.

“So I put my hand on the wall and I swam,” the cartographer was saying, demonstrating in the air. “Swam for hours. My legs were lead, but that angel was still with me, still telling me not to sink, not to fall asleep. I charted every curve and twist of it inside my skull, working off the map. I knew we’d gotten close.” He gave a bleary smile. “And then, when my damn legs were all but falling off, and my arms, too...”

“Sunlight,” Gilchrist supplied.

“Sunlight,” the cartographer agreed. “Like the face of God himself. So relieved, I was, I didn’t even give a damn the ship that picked me up was trading company. I fed them some crabshit about a fishing vessel, a sudden squall, but of course they didn’t believe a word of it. Look at me.” He raised his painted arms. “They knew I was lying, so they flogged me. You been flogged, gypsy?”

Gilchrist glanced at him, nodded—once in Lensa, four times in Brask, and once in the brig of a ship returning from the New World.

“Rubbed me with salt afterwards. Bastards.” The cartographer swallowed. “But I didn’t tell them a thing.”

Gilchrist dropped anchor with a heavy splash. Loose line hissed its way over the side, then jerked to a stop. The sloop revolved a slow circle.

“Then here,” the cartographer said. “This damn island. Purgatory. Cell thirteen. Three years in there, and I never spoke a word of the wreck. But I etched it. I etched the map. Every twist and turn of those damned Coves.” He looked over. “Wanted to remember. Wanted the both of us to remember. But in the end, you know, when I saw my chance, I had to leave the map behind. Had to take the opportunity when it came, didn’t I.”

Something had changed in the story, some new wording Gilchrist hadn’t been able to catch half-aware. He massaged his hands, frowning, and then asked the same question he’d asked of Crane while the cartographer slept. “Why come back for it now?”

“There was no use, before,” the old man said. “Before these underboats, these...”

“Submersibles.”

“Yeah, those. Coves are too deep to use divers.” The cartographer smothered his cough. “Knowing where it was, not being able to haul up the silver, what good is that?”

Gilchrist considered for a moment before he spoke. “You aren’t going to see a piece of it. You’re dying.”

The cartographer’s wrinkled face contorted, looking for a moment like laughter, another like pain, and then at last it smoothed out. “Don’t you have regrets, gypsy? Don’t you have stones that weigh in your belly?”

Gilchrist didn’t reply, and a moment later the cartographer was swallowed up in another wracking cough.

Purgatory emptied its guts into the sweltering heat, a stream of indentured islanders and convicted criminals all herded by gaolers with bone clubs. Crane watched the tail end of the procession shuffle out of the block. He’d used more salve on his back, so as the iron doors ratcheted shut he gingerly resumed his shirt and made his way towards cell thirteen.

Prisoners watched him pass through the stone hallway, looking up from carved dice or muttered conversations, but nobody accosted him. Crane knew that would come later. But, if nobody in the place had heard news of the Guild’s dissolution, it was possible the mark on his forearm would still stem most unpleasantness.

He found there was only one man in cell thirteen, long and lean and canvassed in a threadbare shirt that might have once been cheery yellow. He was seated on his tick, working something between his hands, where Crane saw the glint of a shiv. Pale driftwood shavings curled at his feet, and the floor of the cell was littered with carvings.

Crane rapped his knuckles on the open door. The man’s skin was deeply bronzed, but when he turned his eyes were flecked green, a color no islander was born with. His hair was cropped to sun-bleached stubble and his nose was well crooked. Even so, Crane was reminded of the sculptures that adorned Brask’s collapsing cathedrals.

“I’ll do the game pieces when I feel like it,” Durden said, “so piss off.”

“I’m not here for that.” Crane stepped inside, eyes raking the room. “My name is Mister Crane. In my former occupation I studied the properties of certain molds, and now the warden has seen fit to burden me with inspecting his walls for... spores. I was wondering if I might make a cursory inspection of your cell.”

Durden returned to the chunk of wood between his hands. His shiv was an obsidian shard, and it fluttered like a bird’s wing as he whittled. “I haven’t seen you before,” he said. “And Fawkes didn’t say anything about fresh arrivals.”

“Between you and I, the administrative policies of this prison are rather a mess.”

Durden waved a brown arm. “Be quick about it, alright?”

Crane needed no further invitation. His fingers tingled and the pain in his back was forgotten now that he was finally here, finally close. He had to force himself to move methodically as he neared the far wall. He charted a foot over from the sliver window and down to the floor. He’d doubted, in the darkest hours of the night. He’d doubted the whole thing. But the groove was exactly where the cartographer had described it.

With a hint of a smile, Crane squatted, sending flares up his back, and worked his fingers into the crack. He traced through the dust, searching for the corner, glancing backward once to be sure Durden was still occupied. His fingers found only solid stone. His chest tightened.

“How long have you been in Purgatory, Mister Durden?” he asked as he dug in with his fingernails, probing, hoping.

Durden was inspecting his handiwork, turning it this way and that. A hunched figure was emerging from the wood, tusked and clawed. “If you’re done, get out.”

Crane stood up, legs almost trembling. “This cell has been renumbered. What was it before?”

“It’s always been thirteen.” Durden looked up at last, with measured contempt. “It’s been thirteen since I was. Now, piss off.”

“Has it been rebuilt?” Crane’s voice was hollow. “Has any of the masonry been redone?”

Durden ignored him, back to his whittling.

Crane’s long fingers twitched at his sides. He took a steadying breath. “I recognize that carving, Mister Durden. You’ve captured the form well in miniature.”

At that, Durden looked up. “What do you mean?”

“It’s the very same gargoyle that lines the main canal in Brask.”

Durden’s green eyes narrowed. “You know Brask?”

“I know her canals as I know my veins. Which, in my particular case, is quite thoroughly.”

Durden stared, and then his face softened all at once. He half-laughed. “Used to climb up on them,” he said. “To watch the docks. I remember those monsters better than anything else. Better than anyone I knew.”

“There is a certain allure to companions who listen well and speak rarely.” Crane matched the man’s wistful expression. “But we are far, far from Brask, Mister Durden. In this particular locale, I would wager there are no others like us?”

“There was a man a few years ago, but he took the bleeding sickness. Died. And there was one other, a long time ago.” Durden tossed the carved gargoyle from hand to hand. “I remember the rain in Brask. Hardly ever rains here.”

“How long have you been in Purgatory?” Crane asked again, impatience needling through his voice.

“Don’t keep track,” Durden said. “Doesn’t do you any good. God, I remember the rain.” He snatched another carving off the floor and held it up. “The one off the Corner of the Four Angels, is this what it looked like? Sometimes I think I’m making them up.”

“You said the cell was thirteen when you were. But that must have been a slip of the tongue.”

“It wasn’t.” Durden stared at the gargoyle in his palm with a ghost of a smile. “Been here most of my life. I don’t dream about Brask anymore. Or the sea. Don’t dream anything, really.”

“I never dream,” Crane said. “Unless aided.” His arm throbbed.

“Came here from a shipwreck,” Durden said, still to the gargoyle. “With one other sailor. He was from Brask, too, I think, unless I invented it. We were the only survivors. I don’t remember much about that. Only the fire and then the dark.”

“Was this sailor rather heavily tattooed?” Crane asked hoarsely, trying to ignore the growing ache in his arm.

“All sailors are,” Durden snorted. “But yeah. Yes. He had plenty. He was the inker.”

Crane could not keep from scratching now. He gritted his teeth. “And when he escaped, did he leave anything in your possession? An etching? A stone or clay tablet?”

Durden’s face sharpened again. He dropped his carving onto the tick. “Who said he escaped?”

“Did he leave you anything?” Crane repeated, nails plucking furiously at the sunken vein, the sore spot where the needle went in.

“He left me to rot.”

“A map to the wreck,” Crane pressed. “A map to the Coves.”

Durden’s nostrils flared. He was on his feet now. “Who are you?”

“Your dear Mister Fletcher is taking me out of the prison tonight. Give me the map, and I’ll have you set free.” Crane stopped scratching, pulled his hand away. There were red slivers under his fingernails.

“You’re a friend of Fletcher’s, are you?” Durden’s voice was soft. “Here to play games.”

“I’m here for a map.”

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Durden said, and then the obsidian shard slashed forward, conjured from his sleeve. Crane felt it split the air along his cheek as he twisted away, scrambled backward. Durden took his leg out from under him, and he smacked to the stone floor, the stripes on his back flaring all at once and making him gasp. Then the obsidian edge was pressed cool up under his jaw, and his assailant’s furious face was inches away.

Crane took a rattling breath. “I feel that we’ve suffered a misunderstanding, Mister Durden.”

“He’ll come down himself if I kill you.” Durden’s words were punctuated with pressure. Crane’s skin was ready to split. “And maybe I’ll get a chance at him. Maybe it’s worth it.”

“Mister Fletcher is no friend to me. I’m loathe to name him even an acquaintance.”

“Prove it.”

“Look,” Crane said, gritting his teeth, “at my back.” He had only a moment to brace himself before Durden rolled him over and ripped his shirt off in one stark motion. The fabric came away trailing tendrils of sticky salve and congealing blood. Crane hissed.

Durden straightened up, shard dropping to his side as he recognized Fletcher’s handiwork. His breathing began to subside.

On the floor, Crane, forehead pushed against the stone, began to laugh. It was a raw, tired sound that filled up the gloom of the cell. “That duplicitous dog,” he groaned. “All those weeks of preparation. All for nothing. That tattooed trickster.”

“So you’re not Fletcher’s friend.” Durden pointed the obsidian shard at him. “Who are you?”

Crane exhaled. “My business associate and I are purveyors of certain substances that languish under the tyrannical policies of the trading companies. By nature, I am also an opportunist.” He sat up slowly, wincingly. “When apprised of a map leading to sunken silver, my imagination ignites and I become altogether too trusting.”

“You knew about the escape. How did you know about the escape?”

“Your erstwhile companion is alive, Mister Durden. For now.” Crane rotated one bony finger. “He and Mister Gilchrist are circling the island as we speak.”

Durden buckled. He dropped back down onto the tick, raising a puff of dust. The shard rolled from slack fingers.

“Gilchrist no doubt suspected an ulterior motive,” Crane muttered. “Always a soft spot for altruistic ventures. Why now, indeed.”

Durden looked up. His sea-green eyes were wide, for a moment almost child-like. “So you’re here...”

“To aid in your liberation. Yes, so it would seem.” Crane stood slowly, checking the contents of his case. The last yellow vial was safe. He breathed more easily. “I can appreciate a skillful deception, though I generally prefer to be the deceiver. I applaud his audacity.” He looked around at the scattered carvings, remembered the dormitory he’d thought of as a cell in his youth. Hardly comparable. “Do you know how to fashion a loaded die, Mister Durden?”

“What? Yeah. Yes.” Durden snorted, perplexed. “Of course.”

“I’m in need of a new pair,” Crane said. “The last were jettisoned overboard after a particularly heated game of craps. Carve me the dice, and I’ll get you out of Purgatory and off of this island.”

Durden peered at him suspiciously. “Maybe I do still dream.”

“You’ll find my hand quite solid,” Crane said, holding it out. Slowly, slowly, Durden reached to shake. Crane watched his face as he made his addendum. “By whatever means we accomplish this escape, however, I’ll need to see Mister Fletcher.”

Durden’s hand froze.

“I sense a history.” Crane wriggled his fingers. “Am I right to guess that bribery is not an option?”

“He used to wear the bracelet on the other wrist,” Durden said. “Now he’s got it hiding the scar. I slit it while he was sleeping. Stupid. If I could go back, I’d slice him ear...” He traced under his jawline with one fingernail. “...to ear.”

Crane let his hand drop, raised a brow. “Is there a way to get him down here?”

“He hardly ever does, not anymore. Calls them up instead.” Durden stared down at the glittering black shard beside him, then back up. “You’d have to kill somebody.”

Crane smiled. “Are you familiar with a certain weed, purple in coloration, with spines of such length?” He demonstrated with his thumb. “You may know it as—

“Hanged man’s tongue,” Durden finished. “Yeah. Every once in a while one of the islanders will take it. They find them all fat and bloodless in the morning. Better off there than here, I suppose they think.”

“Fatal in large quantities, yes.” Crane opened his case. “But if properly prepared, using solely the extract, ingesting a small amount only mimics death.” He held up a tiny satchel of powder and handed it over.

Durden inspected it, sniffed it. His face was dark but his eyes were sparks. “What are you planning?”

“Many things, Mister Durden,” Crane said, reaching past his dyes and powders for the yellow vial. “But as the first order of business, I need to send a message.”

Durden kept watch while Crane prepared himself for the journey, winding a scrap of his ruined shirt around his arm as a tourniquet. His veins bulged like blue worms.

“I did try it, just once,” Durden said from the door, still rolling the extract in his palm. “Threw it all up in the end.”

“Fortunate,” Crane said. He held up the syringe, tapping his nail on the glass, and gave a last languid glance around the cell. “Do you only make gargoyles?”

“I make game pieces, sometimes. Sometimes dice.” Durden shrugged. “But for me, only the gargoyles, yeah.”

“And why such an affinity for the monsters?” Crane asked, sliding the needle into his favored vein. He pulled with a practiced thumb, drawing a tendril of blood up into the yellow. The mixture swirled, almost luminous.

“They remind me of Brask,” Durden said. “And they’re ugly.”

Crane curled his fingers around the godbone, then he slammed the cloudy liquid back into his bloodstream and was gone. The stone walls of the room crumbled around him, and he found himself hurtling through the cell block, ribboning through moving legs and gesticulating arms. He burrowed through more stone and suddenly felt hot sunshine, though he had no skin.

Down the rough dirt path, past the purple knot of hanged man’s tongue, into the spice-smelling trees. Crane felt the beating hearts of birds and great bats as he slid through the foliage. He plowed through tangled vines and toothy fronds, and all at once he was out of the trees, onto the beach, skimming over sand, and an instant after that he was bare inches over the water, conjuring salt-spray as he danced bodiless along the waves.

Gilchrist snapped from his sleep when the wind changed. As he sat upright, blinking on gound, he saw that the cartographer had felt it, too. The old man was peering into the darkening sky with his brow furrowed.

“Reversing,” he croaked. “Blowing northerly. That damn well’s not natural. Impossible, that is.”

“Improbable,” Gilchrist conceded. The sloop’s sail billowed taut all at once and the sloop lurched dangerously. Gilchrist caught the side.

“Purgatory wants me back,” the cartographer laughed. “Trying to wreck us. Can’t go into this shit, we’ll be dashed on the rock.” His laughter devolved to coughing as Gilchrist stood up, steadying himself on the mast. The wind rippled his clothes.

“We’ll turn her,” he said. “We’ll have to come around the back of the gaol again.” He began working the winch, bringing the anchor up out of the sand. “That overhang. Will there be anyone watching from it?”

“Not usually, no.” The cartographer was gasping again, and his sleeve had come away blotted with blood. “They only go up there when there are corpses to drop.”

Durden was dead, one arm crabbed underneath him, the other flung out stiff-fingered on the stone. His lips were bruise-colored and his shirt soaked scarlet. In the flickering lantern light, he looked like a nightmare.

“I believe we met earlier,” Crane said, conversationally, to the gaoler who was now watching him as one would a wild animal. “After I’d communed. We spoke briefly, did we not? I believe I may have mentioned the supplication.”

The gaoler didn’t reply, hand still strumming against the handle of his club. The other prisoners had been driven back to their cells, but their laughter and their howls carried through the stinking air.

“I thought of using a bird,” Crane continued, “but it didn’t seem profound enough.”

The gaoler shook his head, and when he spoke his voice was just slightly unsteady. “You’re a damned madman.”

Crane inclined his head. He’d returned to picking dried dye from under his nails by the time a pale-faced Fletcher arrived with a shroud bundled under his arm, shadowed by another of his men.

“What the hell have you done, Crane?” Fletcher demanded. “Get the document and get out, I said.” He froze for an instant when he saw Durden’s body. “Did you check?” he snapped to the gaoler.

“Dead. Not a flicker.”

It didn’t stop Fletcher from kneeling, checking the pulse for himself. Durden’s throat was still as marble.

“Damn you, Crane.” Fletcher stood up, wiping his thumb on the shroud. “No trouble, I said. What the hell happened?”

Crane spread his arms at his sides. “He accosted me with a blade. In order to maintain appearances, I thought it best to engage him myself rather than demand that your men intervene. Realism is our priority, is it not?”

Fletcher stared down at the corpse, breathing heavy. He turned to his man. “Tell the warden it was a suicide,” he ordered. “And throw those damned animals some bread and meats to keep them quiet. Not a word about the pale man, understand? From anyone. He was never here.”

The man nodded and strode out of the cell; a moment later Crane heard him dragging his club along iron bars and shouting for quiet.

“And you, wrap the body,” Fletcher said, bunching the shroud and tossing it to the gaoler. “We’re going to deal with this right now. Before it gets any worse.”

“Have I upset you, Mister Fletcher?” Crane asked, watching the gaoler try to avoid bloodying his hands winding the fabric around Durden’s stiff limbs.

“Never knew when to stop jawing, did you, Crane.” Fletcher bared his sharp teeth, but he wasn’t smiling. “Help him carry the body.”

Crane obliged, hooking his hands under Durden’s armpits as the gaoler lifted ankles. He’d done a poor job with the wrapping, and one limp arm flopped free before they’d even exited the cell. The prisoners had been silenced by threats and bribes, but they watched like raptors as the strange procession shuffled down the cellblock. Fletcher was leading the way, snarling at anyone too close to their bars.

His bracelet unlocked another gate, and then they were stumping through a dim corridor to a stairwell. Durden’s body grew heavy as they dragged him up the winding steps. Every grunt and every footfall echoed, and Fletcher was visibly sweating.

“You appeared to recognize this particular inmate,” Crane panted, as they crested the rough-hewn stairs. “Was he a friend, perhaps?”

Fletcher didn’t reply, but he fingered the bracelet on his wrist. Crane could smell sea-tinged air as they marched down a shorter corridor, this one bowed by sagging wood rafters, and, after Fletcher keyed open the damp door, into a small circular room. Wind sucked at his clothes as they entered, shrieking from a gaping hole set dead center in the stone floor. Fletcher stalked to the dark mouth and dropped a gob of spit. He nodded to himself, then turned and spoke over the windy groan.

“Into a box.” Wooden caskets, weighted with rocks, were leaned up on the walls like dominoes. Crane let Durden’s upper half drop to the floor, not as gently as he’d intended. The gaoler held onto the corpse’s ankles for a second, eyes still fixed on Crane’s blood-smeared hands, then did the same. They hauled the coffin off the wall to fall with a bone-deep thud.

As Crane helped wrestle Durden into the box, he saw a nostril twitch. “Do you remember how I told you I can disappear at will?” he asked the gaoler. The man stood abruptly, shivered.

Fletcher, meanwhile, was staring down at Durden’s still body. “The warden’ll believe it,” he muttered. “Knows the little maggot’s tried before.” His expression clouded. “He was bloody beautiful when he first washed up here with that smuggler. Skin soft as a baby. Before the sun crisped him and his nose got smashed in.”

“Drop him?” the gaoler pressed.

Fletcher shook from his reverie. “Drop him,” he said, spinning the bracelet at his wrist one final time. “And then get a box for the pale one.”

“Mister Fletcher, we had an accord.” Crane opened the case in his waistband with one innocuous hand. “Think of the silver.”

“That was before you made me this mess,” Fletcher snapped. His eyes darted again to Durden’s body in the box. “Grab him.”

The gaoler advanced on Crane, club in hand. Crane moved around the howling hole, towards the half-open door. The gaoler sidestepped to block his way.

“Would you like me to vanish, now?” Crane asked. “As I described?”

“Too late for bribes,” the gaoler said. “You can vanish down the hole, bastard.”

He reached, and in the same instant Crane flung his hand up from his case. The powder burst into a searing black cloud. The gaoler stumbled backward with a wail, and Crane put a shoulder into his belly, shoved hard. Clutching at his face, the gaoler toppled back through the doorway just as Crane slammed the door and threw the rusted bolt.

As he spun back, Fletcher clapped his hands together, just twice. “That’s what you call dramatic, isn’t it?” he said, taking a wide berth around the hole. “Does you no good, Crane. You had a lucky stick with Durden, but I know you’re not a knifeman.” He groped in his belt for a narrow blade. “And those little tricks of yours only work once.”

“One more trick,” Crane said, nodding towards the box.

Durden’s green eyes flicked open, and whatever words had been in Fletcher’s throat turned to a strangled grunt. He stood rooted to the stone as Durden grimaced, shook himself, and unfolded from the box like a woken gargoyle. Crane could almost see the soul-stealer stories racing through Fletcher’s skull.

Durden pulled the obsidian shard from his sleeve. Even with the drug in his blood and one arm hanging numb, he was quick. It was only two furious heartbeats before Fletcher’s knife was spinning down through the hole and Durden’s blade was nestled against the man’s bobbing throat.

“I should have taken your balls when I had the chance,” Fletcher said through his teeth.

Durden nodded to the empty box, and when he spoke Crane could tell the words weren’t his. “Lie down on your back.”

Fletcher’s eyes widened for a moment with recognition, then he sneered. Staring first at Durden, then at Crane, he stepped into the box and lowered himself down. There was a pounding on the door; the gaoler had his sight back.

“If I hadn’t fucked you, someone else would have,” Fletcher said. “And if it weren’t for me, those animals would have torn you apart as soon as the smuggler skived off.”

“Like you tore up the islander boy,” Durden said. “I remember that. You tossed him out this hole when you were done with him.”

“But not you,” Fletcher croaked. The pounding at the door intensified.

“Open your throat,” Durden said, considering the obsidian in his hand. “Maybe it’ll be faster than drowning. Don’t bother with the wrists, that’s too slow.”

He tossed the shard into the casket, and then, as Fletcher opened his mouth, he slammed the lid shut, his tanned face unreadable. “He told me he had a cousin,” Durden said vaguely. “A famous player, in Lensa or Lentha or whatever the damned place is called. But they don’t let women go on a stage, so boys have to play those parts, the women’s parts, until their voices break.” He put both hands on the box. “I used to eat sand every day, trying to roughen it.”

Crane put his shoulder into the casket’s edge and together they pushed it along the stone floor, scraping like bone. On the lip of the hole, they paused. Crane listened for Fletcher’s breathing, but the wind tore all other sounds away. Night waves roiled below, pitch black.

“I’ll need a new blade before I carve the dice for you,” Durden said. Crane nodded. They pushed, and the weighted casket dropped like a meteor. More footfalls came from the corridor, more voices rough with urgency. The damp door buckled under a renewed assault.

“I assume you have not forgotten how to swim,” Crane said.

In answer, Durden pinched his nose with one hand, cupped himself with the other, and stepped off into nothing. Crane, unable to avoid a small sound of admiration, lowered himself down into it more carefully, bony fingers splayed on the stone lip. He eyed the drop, reflecting on how much less deadly it would seem with just a drop of yellow swimming up his veins, but when the door burst open he didn’t hesitate to let go.

Gilchrist had watched the casket plummet, watched it smash down through the waves and disappear. He wasn’t sure if the cartographer had seen it. The old man was only half-lucid, and his blankets were smeared red. Gilchrist peered up at the overhang. The sea was dark and the sloop was small, but they were not invisible.

Then two figures dropped down, one arrow-straight, the other flailing spidery limbs in a way Gilchrist knew well, only streamlining an instant before impact. Gilchrist leaned on the tiller. The wind was surging again, carrying the sloop on course.

He kept his eyes fixed on the splashes as he sliced closer. The cartographer’s head was up again, trying to speak through phlegm. Gilchrist unwound rope, twisted it through the chunk of carved driftwood, and cast towards the approaching swimmers.

Crane came up over the side first, spitting seawater. “Good evening, Gilchrist,” he gurgled. “I see you received my message.”

Next came a lean man, sun-darkened, who collapsed into the bottom of the boat and stared up at the saturnine sky as if he’d never seen it before. Gilchrist looked across to Crane.

“Our cartographer withheld a few small details,” Crane said, gingerly probing where the saltwater had found his wounds. “For instance, the fact that there was one other survivor of the wreck. A cabin boy.”

Gilchrist looked at the escapee and realized. “The angel.”

“More of a demon, in my brief experience.” Crane shook water from his ear. “Quite capable with a shiv. You’d like him.”

“Boy?” The word was rasped. “Durden?”

The cartographer had struggled upright, now clutching at the side of the sloop and staring, open-mouthed. Gilchrist and Crane watched as Durden crawled forward, equal measure of shock scrawled on his face. The cartographer’s eyes were glistening wet. His tattooed hands wrapped around Durden’s head. The wind was dying down.

“Hoped you’d survived, hoped and dreamed,” the cartographer mumbled, and whatever he’d planned to say next was lost in spasm. Durden steadied him as he coughed and coughed.

Crane’s eyes fell on the rucksack at the same time Gilchrist reached for it and pulled out the remaining medicine.

“Enough for the deep sleep, isn’t it?” Gilchrist asked quietly.

“As it is, I imagine he’ll be gone in a matter of hours, Gilchrist,” Crane evaded, scratching his arm. “One does hate to waste.”

“Crane.”

Crane grimaced. He filled the syringe to the very top and reluctantly handed it across. Gilchrist stepped to where Durden and the old man were still wrapped together in the stern. The cough was shaking the cartographer’s whole body now.

“When he’s ready,” Gilchrist said, holding out the syringe. Durden eyed it, then took it from his grasp, nodding just once. The cartographer looked blearily upward. Gilchrist gave him a shoddy seaman’s salute and returned to where Crane was tracing the stripes on his back with pale fingers.

“I assume you’ve reached the same conclusion I have.”

“There was no map.”

“No,” Crane agreed. “There was only an old man arriving at life’s denouement carrying considerable guilt.”

Gilchrist cocked his head in Durden’s direction. “He’ll want to go back to Brask?”

“I would assume so, yes.” Crane was considering the gleaming yellow dregs trickling down the inside of the vial, tipping it back and forth.

“We’ll have a long stretch at sea,” Gilchrist said. “Enough time to clean you out, if you don’t buy at port.”

Crane stopped. “I won’t be pleasant, Gilchrist.”

“You never have been.”

“Ha.” Crane cracked a smile, and hesitated for only a moment before he flicked the vial off into the water. The blackness swallowed it instantly.

Up above them, the clouds were moving off, and hot white pinpricks of light were appearing in the firmament. It was a few minutes on that Gilchrist realized the cartographer had finally gone still. The sloop was cutting a steady clip, and Purgatory was beginning to recede behind them. Durden released the old man’s arm, still silent, and stood to peel off his sopping clothes.

“It is a shame about the map,” Crane said, pensive. “I had such high hopes.”

“Unfortunate,” Gilchrist agreed, and then paused.

Durden had cast off his shirt, and in the starlight Gilchrist saw that the man’s back had been skillfully tattooed with a jet black sea creature, its tentacles stretching across his skin, winding in and out and in and out. As he watched, narrow lines of luminescence bloomed against the black. Glowing the same eerie blue as Purgatory’s algae-smeared walls, they snaked across Durden’s shoulder blades and swirled up his spine, charting the way through pitch-dark Coves to the cartographer’s sunken ship.


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Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and at twenty-three now writes from Edmonton, Alberta. His short fiction has been nominated for the Sturgeon Award and appears in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and multiple times previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.

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4 Comments on “The Delusive Cartographer”

4 Responses to “The Delusive Cartographer”

  1. Jazzlet says:

    Beautifully written.

  2. […] “The Delusive Cartographer” by Rich Larson Crane needed no further invitation. The pain in his back was forgotten now that he was finally here, finally close. He charted a foot over from the cell’s sliver window and down to the floor. He’d doubted, in the darkest hours of the night. He’d doubted the whole thing. But the groove was exactly where the cartographer had described it. […]

  3. […] Delusive Cartographer,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue #187 (Nov 24, […]

  4. Jeff Rensch says:

    My favorite new writer! Thank you BCS

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