A Conspiracy of Cartographers

Whatever path you seek, the map will show you. The cartographers mixed their ink with the light of the stars and the infinite possibilities to which the heavens have borne witness. Their quills have drawn every possible route a life might take. The parchment is blank now, but you need only state your desire, and the path will appear.

~~~

Guillaume stormed out of the opera house, for once thankful how quickly the music within gave way to horse hooves clopping on the street outside. Who, after all, wanted to hear the rehearsal for their replacement? His own opera, he’d just been informed, was closing after only three performances. No review had been more scathing than that of the Gazette de Vousir: “An excruciatingly dull work from an unwarrantedly ambitious composer. His music has so little impact upon the ear that it has no hope of ever reaching the soul.”

Months of pouring his heart into every note, and what had it earned him? Ridicule and a black eye, the latter courtesy of a disgruntled patron hurling a potato during the opening night curtain call.

Guillaume glanced back at the opera house, where bronze busts of the world’s greatest composers stared down from the theater’s façade. They looked as disapproving as his parents, who would no doubt ask him the same tired question again: why waste your time writing music when you can just hire someone else to compose it for you?

He fumbled the map from his breast pocket for what felt like the hundredth time. After the boos on opening night, he’d been desperate—and drunk—enough to buy it from the Mist Market, though not quite desperate enough to use it. Not until now. But if magic was what it took to prove he had more to offer the world than a heavy coin purse, then so be it.

It was fashionable among his friends to dismiss the idea of magic—well, all of his friends except Rosemonde, but he hadn’t heard from her since she ran off with that well-muscled wisp of a dancer a few months back. As for the rest, they equated magic with tales to entertain children and part the gullible from their money. Guillaume would be a disbeliever too had Rosemonde not shown him the Mist Market, its entrance hidden in stray slivers of moonlight on warm, rainy nights.

You need only state your desire, and the path will appear.

“I wish . . .”

He stopped himself before he could blurt something he’d regret, like he’d done with that damned walnut shell incident. It was a wonder Rosemonde had ever spoken to him again after that.

And where is she now? he wondered. Rosemonde, who never would have made such a mistake at the Mist Market, who knew to thoroughly question the motives of its otherworldly merchants. Those motives were why people in Vousir sometimes disappeared without a trace. Ran off to escape a debt or a marriage or a crime—there was always an explanation that didn’t quite hold up to scrutiny.

Like Rosemonde, a celebrated soprano at the height of her operatic career, running off with some dancing girl.

Guillaume shook off the thought. Rosemonde was too smart to have fallen prey to a magical loophole, and so was he. Whatever the map’s tricks, he would tread carefully enough to avoid them.

“I wish to drink the finest wine this city has to offer.”

He knew quite well where the finest wine in Vousir was—nothing could rival Chateau Avinaus—making his request the perfect test: was the map truly all it had been touted to be?

The map responded with the faintest of vibrations, sending a tingle through his fingers. Images of surrounding landmarks rippled onto the parchment: the opera house, the river to the east, the cathedral to the west. Their representations manifested in colors so bold and luminous that, if not for the vellum’s velvety feel, he would have sworn he was holding stained glass.

The map revealed only his immediate area, five or so city blocks in each direction from where he stood. In front of the map’s rendering of the opera house, a blue dot glowed.

That must be me, Guillaume thought with a chuckle. A little blue dot of a man.

From the dot, a shimmering blue tendril extended, outlining a route: north along the river, then left, toward the university. There, the tendril stopped, pulsing.

“Waiting for me to catch up, are you?”

Speaking aloud earned him nose-scrunched glances from a few passersby—men in fashionably baggy breeches, feathered caps that matched the ribbon loops on their shoulders, and heeled boots that clicked like knives against the cobblestone. Men his family would rather he emulated instead of squandering his days with music.

Guillaume started forward, and the blue dot moved with him. With each step, the map revealed more of the route ahead while the path behind disappeared. As it did, words materialized, faint and ghostlike, lingering just long enough to read before they too vanished, absorbed into the parchment. The first street Guillaume passed carried the words “a good friend” away with it. An alley bore the ominous pronouncement “certain death” while the Fountain House Café was branded “a good laugh but terrible coffee.”

Glimpses of what other paths could have led him toward? His grin widened, even as his fixation on the parchment had him bumping into other pedestrians. The map certainly had the Fountain House well pegged. The other fleeting possibilities proved unexpectedly entertaining, from “an enlightening conversation” to “a profitable business opportunity.” But then, as he rounded the corner opposite the Hotel Frélun, the words “your only chance at true love” flashed in and out of view.

“What?” Guillaume stumbled to a halt. “Go back.”

The map’s route remained unaltered.

“Take me to my one chance at true love.”

The route did not change, even as Guillaume spun round to retrace his steps. “I said—”

A coachman’s curse and a stomping of hooves sent him scrambling out of the way. He collided with an overly powdered woman who shoved him back into the carriage’s path. Guillaume darted to the other side of the street, pursued by shouts of “madman” and “fool” and a few more vulgar invectives. Even the neigh of the carriage horses carried a hint of censure.

He pressed himself against a brick-walled shop, out of harm’s way, though his pulse ticked faster than usual. On the parchment, his blue dot had moved off the path with him, but otherwise the map remained stubbornly dedicated to his initial request.

~~~

Guillaume was going to need that wine. His one chance at true love—was it really gone? And who would it have been? Surely no one he knew at present or else there’d still be a chance, wouldn’t there? No, it must have been a man or a woman he could only meet on this particular day in a certain particular place at a certain particular time.

Assuming he wasn’t missing some trick to the way the map worked. Magic was honest, but rarely straightforward. And the people who wielded it . . . well, people was the best word he could summon, but it wasn’t the right one. The beings who ran the Mist Market moved in dizzying glimpses. Their feathery manes hung to their waists, glittering, as if they’d plucked the stars from the sky and affixed them to their hair. And the blackness that remained after they’d plucked those stars—that was the color of their veins, which showed through their white, luminescent skin.

He’d had no idea what to expect when Rosemonde first showed him the Mist Market—her gesture of thanks for the notice his first opera had brought her, and an apology for her performance being the only thing about it to earn any praise. He remembered standing slack jawed as she pried open a sliver of moonlight, pulling aside the night as if it was a curtain. He’d followed her through into a marketplace suffused with a glow that emanated from grass and lanterns in equal measure. The drizzle and humidity of Vousir had been replaced with air that smelled of licorice and felt like down against one’s skin.

The first stall they passed was draped in shimmering, diaphanous swaths of multi-hued satin, as was its owner, who called out, “I have just the item for you, my beautiful young man.” The voice, neither male nor female, was like a symphony, rich with harmonies and countermelodies and rhythmic impossibilities. Only those few words and Guillaume began loosening his purse strings, ready to give the merchant whatever price they demanded for anything they wanted to sell him.

Rosemonde touched his shoulder and whispered, “Look closer, my friend.”

Her hand was like an anchor, the only thing keeping him from dashing further into the perfumed depths of the Mist Market. He cocked his head and squinted, staring hard until he finally saw it: a thick, tar-like blackness hanging from the stalls and their sparkling wares, even from the merchants’ fingertips. The slightest turn of his head, and the tar was gone. Only when he stared straight ahead and concentrated could he see through the glamour and glimpse magic’s true darkness.

And now, five years later, he’d followed that magic into a puddle of piss. He shook the offending liquid from his boot and looked up from the map. Where the hell was he?

The street was narrow, the pavement puddle-pocked, the dark doorways entirely unfamiliar. His stomach gave an unpleasant churn. He’d been so fascinated by his possible fortunes blinking in and out of view that he’d failed to take note of street names and landmarks. It was only by the position of the sun, low and heavy as it prepared to set, that he knew he had headed north.

A feeling like needles beneath his skin told him he would not be welcome here after dark. He was too well dressed to belong where the brownish-red smears on the walls could be blood or shit or both. And his long, ribbon-bound hair was too well coiffed to belong where the air’s rancid scent was as likely to be emanating from rotten vegetables as it was from a rotten corpse.

Guillaume searched the map for a hint of which neighborhood he might have wandered into. Despite the late spring warmth, he grew cold, as if a drop of blood was being drained for every road and building he failed to recognize. He could be certain about one thing, at least: the map wasn’t taking him to Chateau Avinaus.

What’s the damn trick?

He almost muttered the question aloud, but the squinty-eyed glare of a passing man sent the words retreating down his throat, along with his desire to ask for directions. It seemed there was little choice but to follow the map’s current route to its end.

He continued down the street, then turned down an alley, the walls so tall and close that he would have sworn it was night if he hadn’t just seen the sun around the corner. At least he could still see his route on the map. Like the Mist Market, the parchment possessed an eerie luminescence—something, he realized with another churn of his stomach, that was bound to attract notice in a darkened alley.

Shit, shit, shit, he thought, silently swearing in time with the slap of his feet. Somewhere behind him, another pair of footsteps joined the rhythm, then another, then another. Guillaume drew in his shoulders, chest tight, but dared not look back.

Don’t run, he told himself. Don’t act like you have anything worth stealing.

Toward the top of the map, further down the alley, the blue line stopped at a pulsing red wine glass symbol. Guillaume bit back a desperate, hopeful little gasp and quickened his pace. His pursuers did as well.

Don’t run, don’t run, don’t run . . .

He risked a glance behind. In what little light spilled from the surrounding windows, he spotted three hulking men, then the glint of a blade.

Guillaume ran.

A sign, there should be a sign by the door, a tavern or a shop, not some unmarked entry into who knows what.

Yet upon reaching the designated door, the only certainties it offered were splintered knuckles if he rapped with his hand, or flakes of metal cutting his skin if he touched the rusty knocker. But the rest of the alley was too long, his pursuers too close, his pause to consider too long.

He banged one hand against the door, the map crumpled in his fist. The other hand slammed the knocker hard and fast. “Help!”

A clank of locks sounded within, and the door opened—just a crack, but enough for Guillaume to force himself through, his unsuspecting savior shoved aside. Guillaume tumbled face-first onto a dirty wooden floor, loose locks of hair falling into his eyes. Cold grit coated his lips. Behind him, the door slammed shut, and the locks clanked back into place.

“Guillaume?”

He spat the grime off his lips. That unmistakable voice. “Rosemonde?”

Except for her clothes and the butcher knife in her hand, Rosemonde looked unchanged—round, freckled, and thick-shouldered, with equally thick boots and the sleeves of her blue work shirt rolled up to her elbows. As always, the lopsided quirk of her mouth made her look perpetually amused.

“I thought you’d sworn off the Mist Market,” she said, nodding toward the glowing map scrunched up in his hand.

“Things changed.”

His legs quivered, his heart too, both with a rapidity that ensured he would fall if he dared stand. The only question was if that fall would be the result of fainting or his legs giving out beneath him. And so he remained on the floor and took in his surroundings: a windowless, bare-walled room that served as all things. The “bedroom” was a chipped basin and a curtainless bed in one corner, the “kitchen” a pail of water and a stove so dingy that he wouldn’t trust a meal from it. The room’s only table tilted to the left, one corner supported by a pile of bricks in place of a leg. From the floor above, a swear-laden argument between neighbors competed with an infant’s wails.

Was this slum really where the city’s most promising young soprano had run off to?

Guillaume smoothed out the map, magically free of wrinkles. His blue dot and the pulsing wine glass now occupied the same spot.

“You wouldn’t by chance have anything to drink in this shit hole?” he asked, trying as best he could to retie his hair without a mirror.

“It’s your lucky day, my friend.” Rosemonde set down her knife, reached into the room’s only cupboard, and produced a bottle of wine. “One of the perks of having a cousin who works the fields at Chateau Avinaus.”

“Chateau Avinaus?”

Guillaume laughed, and the map went dark.

~~~

A fine wine, Guillaume discovered, tasted even better when paired with the relief of not being mugged in an alley.

There’s the trick, he thought, letting the smooth, plummy red wash over his tongue. At least the map worked as promised, even if it delivered a slightly elevated heartrate along with that promise.

“This is indeed,” he told Rosemonde, “the finest glass of wine I’ve ever had. Or, tin cup of wine, I should say. Really, Rose, the state of your dinnerware is distressing.”

“Was it worth almost being murdered for?” she asked without looking up from the now-blank map. Her hard tone made it clear she would not be commenting on his jibe about her living conditions, though the red flush of her cheeks suggested she took no pride in them.

They were seated at her crooked table. He’d told her about his little adventure while she studied the map, running her hands over it, holding it up to the candlelight, peering at it from every possible angle and distance. As if one could unravel its magic in such a fashion. As if he hadn’t already tried.

“I don’t think I was ever in actual danger,” he said.

Rosemonde looked up from the map, eyebrows hefted high.

“I asked for the finest wine in the city,” Guillaume explained, “and if I’d been murdered outside your door, I never would have reached it, which would mean I’d been lied to about how the map worked, which is not possible, because while we know that the Mist Market merchants are prone to obfuscation, we also know that they cannot lie. Conclusion: the map never would have led me along a path in which those ruffians caught me before you opened the door . . . which, if we’re going to chide each other for our choices, makes it my turn, because why would you ever open your door in a neighborhood like this without knowing who was on the other side?”

Rosemonde shook her head. “As usual, you’re missing something obvious.”

“Which is?”

“Those ruffians could have caught you, beaten you, stolen your precious map, and left you mortally wounded in the alley, but not quite yet dead. Myself, hearing the ruckus and being concerned for the welfare of others—even strangers—would have opened my door and found you there, brought you inside, and poured you a glass of wine to ease your final moments before you succumbed to your wounds and died.”

Guillaume drained the rest of his wine slowly. Judging from Rosemonde’s smug smile, he suspected the color in his face had drained much faster. God, he hated it when she was right.

“Why did you buy this thing?” she asked, putting the map aside to take up her own wine. He noted that she’d given him the nicer cup. Well, the one with less chips and dents, at least. “I know you’re capable of finding good wine well enough on your own.”

Guillaume leaned his arms on the table, which responded with a creaking lurch. He drew back, afraid the remaining three legs would snap and Rosemonde would hold him personally accountable for finding more bricks to replace them with.

“Given how much talking I’ve already done,” he said, “perhaps you could answer a question for me first.”

Rosemonde leaned back in her chair, cheeks puffed and arms folded, her usual look when the conversation was one she’d rather not have. “Why I left the opera?”

“To come live in this shit hole of a neighborhood, no less. We all assumed you’d run off to tour the world with that dancer. What was her name? Anna?”

“Annika.” Rosemonde pinched the bridge of her nose, like someone fighting off a headache. “And no, that relationship was never destined for longevity.”

Guillaume snorted. “Like my latest opera.”

She gave him a pitying frown. “I’m sorry. I read the reviews.”

“Well, fortunately you won’t have to read any others because it’s closed already.”

“Your music is beautiful, Guillaume. You’ll write another one. A better one.”

He snorted again. “Or one that inspires people to throw even more rotten produce at the stage. How does that sort of thing even come to pass in the first place? Bringing vegetables to the opera? Is it an actual conversation people have before leaving home, do you think? ‘Best put this cabbage in your purse, dear, we’ll need to express our disapproval should the tenor crack on a high C.’”

Rosemonde laughed, though there was a weightiness about her, as if her clothing was made from lead instead of cotton.

“You don’t miss all that drama?” Guillaume asked.

“On stage or off?”

“Both.”

“One not at all, the other quite a bit. What I’ve really missed, though, are these conversations of ours.”

Guillaume squinted at her the way he would at the Mist Market stalls, as if her thoughts might reveal themselves the same way the magic did. “Honestly, why did you leave? You were brilliant.”

“I was a puppet.” Rosemonde downed the rest of her wine. “Told what to sing and how to sound and where to stand and who to fuck for a good review. And once you realize how much your strings are being yanked about off stage, you tire of having them yanked on stage as well.”

“And living in squalor is better?”

“No, it’s miserable.” She refilled their cups. “But it’s freer, at least.”

“But the opera—”

“Is just like magic. It weaves a spell so enchanting that you don’t see the strings until you’re too tangled to get yourself free. But you, Guillaume—I think you bought that map because you like the strings. Gives you a bit of security while you pretend to be your own man.”

The words hit like quick little jabs to his ribs. “You’re still sore about that incident with the nutshell, aren’t you?”

“I was trapped in that damn thing for a week!”

“And I apologized for twice as many weeks after.”

Yet the guilt persisted, finding release through his relentless tugging at his shirt cuffs. As so often happened with the Mist Market, he’d mistaken the nature of what he was buying. A brown, wrinkly walnut shell—no more than a charm, he’d assumed, a vessel to carry the magic until he was ready to use it. He’d thought it would target that upstart composer Fanucci and keep him from luring his star soprano away to another city. He never dreamed it would shrink Rosemonde down to fit within the shell’s confines until Fanucci had left town. All these years later, and he could still hear Rosemonde’s glorious voice reduced to a tiny, muffled sound as she let loose a profanity-laden demand for release.

“That map isn’t going to take you where you want to go,” she said now. “It’s going to toy with you, or else it wouldn’t have dragged you to my door for a drink.”

“Or . . .” Guillaume chuckled through his next sip of wine. That the map had brought him to Rosemonde after all these months—it was as if it had anticipated the thing he was truly seeking. “Maybe here is exactly where I need to be.”

Rosemonde slumped in her chair and groaned. “Please tell me you didn’t buy that thing to come looking for me.”

“Not you specifically, no.”

“Then what?”

Guillaume chuckled again. “Why, the greatest opera I’ll ever write, of course. And what would it be without the greatest soprano I’ve ever known?”

“No.” She sat up straighter, her shoulders rigid. “I am not going to be your damned muse.”

“Then be my friend, at least. You’ve always been smarter about magic than me, and I need to get this right.”

“Why? It’s not as if you need the money.”

“That’s exactly why. My family—they don’t produce anything, don’t do anything to make the world more livable. They just consume things, and yet they’re miserable. I don’t want that. I want to create something that matters, and I need your help.”

Rosemonde sighed. “I wish I’d never shown you the Mist Market.”

Acquiescence was such a rare look on her that Guillaume recognized it instantly. He took up the map and smirked. “Shall we get started, then?”

~~~

You humans often mistake your desires for singular things when in fact they are multi-tendrilled, entangled with and dependent upon so much else. And so what happens if there are multiple paths to your desire, you ask? Which will the map show you? Why, whichever path the cartographers have deemed the most intriguing, of course. Intriguing to you or to them, I cannot say. Both, I suspect, for like music, cartography is an artform, and true artistry should fulfill the audience and performer in equal measure.

~~~

Guillaume had already vomited his dinner over the side of the ship, yet his body insisted on trying to expel whatever microscopic bits might still remain, twisting and contracting his innards until his abdomen ached with every dry heave.If he’d known his greatest opera would involve a trip by sea to Cacours, he’d have settled for his second greatest opera. The map had taunted him with that fleeting possibility on their way to the docks, where they’d boarded The Mad Prince.

When his stomach finally settled, he collapsed onto the deck and pulled his knees to his chest, his skin damp with sweat and sea air.

Rosemonde handed him a flagon of water. “You’ve become quite a dreadful shade of green.”

Guillaume drained the flagon, yet failed to extinguish the burn of bile in his throat. “Death would be better than this.”

“Always so much drama with you.” Rosemonde snatched back the flagon. “You can’t simply wish to not be on a boat. You have to immediately bring death into it.”

“I write operas, of course I have to bring death into it.” He shifted position, hoping to find a smoother bit of planking to sit upon. Instead he landed his backside in a frigid pool of water. “Besides, one must suffer for their art, yes?”

“I thought you were trying to avoid being as miserable as your family?”

Guillaume gave a petulant sniff and hauled himself to his feet. As usual, Rosemonde was right. “I’m going to head below deck and pray for dreams of very dry land.”

Rather than sleep, he flopped about in his hammock. It was an inch too short for his legs, and the ceiling above so close that he feared he would wake from a nightmare and bash his head. His stomach groaned in conversation with the ship, and as he finally drifted toward unconsciousness, he couldn’t help but turn the relentless exchange into music. Violin for the high-pitched creaks, contrabass for the low moans, timpani for the muffled footsteps of the crew overhead, a chorus whispering offstage in imitation of the sloshing water . . .

When he woke, the pattern was still sounding in his head, only now there was a single voice emerging from it, a siren rising from the sea, ensnaring unsuspecting sailors with her song.

No, that part wasn’t in his head. Somewhere above deck, Rosemonde was singing. There was a laziness to her technique that would have horrified their peers in the opera world, but it suited the bawdy song the ship’s crew was belting out along with her.

Guillaume bolted upright. His head thwacked against the ceiling, but he had no time to worry about pain or impending bruises. Even the possibility of blood didn’t keep him from scrambling for his satchel, then the ink and manuscript paper within. All that mattered was holding the music in his head long enough to transcribe it.

Cacours—of course that shabby little island wasn’t the true destination. The inspiration he needed was right here on the ship, and bless that beautiful map for bringing him to it.

As he wrote, the ship rocked, at times hard enough that he had to slap his hands over the manuscript to keep it from sliding off the cabin’s small desk. That, fortunately, was bolted to the wall, the ink bottle secure in its well, and the lantern fixed to the ceiling. A thick slur of ink now crisscrossed his manuscript, but he paid it no mind as he continued putting note to page, the scratch of his quill in duet with the ship’s groans.

Abruptly, an unwelcome countermelody began: an explosion, a discordant splintering of wood, a sudden lurch of the ship. Guillaume yelped and dropped his quill.

Above deck, the singing ceased, replaced by shouts and pounding footsteps. Guillaume darted for the stairs to see what was happening. By the time he reached them, Rosemonde was halfway down, panting.

“Pirates!” She grasped his arm and started back up.

Guillaume yanked himself free. “My manuscript!”

“There’s no time, you twit!”

Again she grabbed him, and again he jerked free, hard enough to send himself staggering across the cabin. His ankle twisted, then flared with a heat to match the swears issuing from Rosemonde’s mouth. A charred scent tickled at his nose. God, was the boat on fire? Yet still he found himself hobbling toward the desk. The music continued to sound in his head, like a taunt now, promising to drag all memory of what he’d written to the bottom of the sea. And so only when he’d swept every last paper into his satchel did he go limping up the stairs after Rosemonde.

On deck, things became a blur of senses: cold night pinpricked with fire, the dark hulk of another ship, the steely slice of blades being drawn, his ankle throbbing as The Mad Prince reeled and rough hands shoved him into a lifeboat, where all was sweat and panicked breathing and too many shoulders pressing together. With a jolt and the grinding of a crank, they lowered. Just as they reached the water below, another cannon blast rocked The Mad Prince. Guillaume leaned over his satchel and clutched it close, shielding it from the wave that cascaded into their tiny lifeboat.

“Grab an oar or swim,” a man barked at him.

Guillaume tightened his grip on the satchel. Water pooled at his feet; his soaked breeches clung to his skin. “My manuscript—”

“Is not worth our lives!”

That was Rosemonde, her voice sharp enough to snap him to his senses and bring a flush of shame to his cheeks. What the hell was the matter with him?

He slung the satchel over his shoulder, risking the damp as he took up an oar.

~~~

Guillaume’s stomach gurgled in protest at the supper in front of him: strongly spiced stew accompanied by an even stronger coffee to fuel him through another fevered bout of composing.

“Are you going to eat that,” Rosemonde asked, “or just sulk?”

He ignored the question and rubbed at his ankle. It hadn’t been the same since he’d twisted it during their escape from The Mad Prince. They’d ended up rowing to the nearest shore, where he’d been relieved to find that his manuscript, while damp and torn in spots, was still readable. From there, the map—magically dry and unscathed—led them to the town of Abrye, where a melody inspired by a monk’s rhythmic chanting took hold like an itch in his brain, before he then experienced a far more literal, lice-induced itch and was forced to shave off his hair. In Tassis, the wind whistling through the city’s ancient ruins gave life to an aching tenor aria—he’d written that with an equally aching finger, broken in a tussle when he caught a troupe of traveling actors trying to steal his coin purse.

Now the map had brought them to this tavern in Glusia, two months and hundreds of miles from Vousir and everything he’d ever known.

“Your singing earlier,” a passing patron said to Rosemonde, his accent thick and guttural, “it was beautiful.”

The man tossed two coins to her, which she caught with a “thank you” and a laugh. “You should applaud my friend here as well,” she said. “He wrote most of those songs.”

For a fleeting moment, a smile found its way to Guillaume’s lips. He’d forgotten what a good team they made. Rosemonde had been singing wherever they went for whoever would listen and whatever they would pay: from street corners, to taverns, to the courts of minor nobility. Guillaume provided a bit of accompaniment on the perpetually out-of-tune guitar they’d picked up on their travels. And he’d written her new songs—first as apology for almost getting them killed, then simply because he enjoyed it.

Unlike his opera. With the map deciding where and when he encountered inspiration, he felt less like a composer and more like a scribe taking dictation from a fickle and sadistic master. Rosemonde, meanwhile, was happier than he’d ever seen her, with a constant lopsided smile on her face, and she didn’t seem to care that her hair was in tangles or that stew was dribbling down her chin. Because she was singing whatever she liked now, and on her terms. He was the one with the magic map, yet she was the one who had found her path.

“Is it even my opera?” he asked, finally setting to his stew. “Great, maybe, but if I’m following a map, a path someone else has laid out for me, is it actually mine?”

“It’s bullshit, is what it is.”

Guillaume spewed a mouthful of stew back into the bowl. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“This idea that you can take a shortcut to greatness, the magical equivalent of asking for the quickest route to the nearest café.” She fixed him with a hard stare. “I’m a better singer than when we first met, yes?”

“Of course you’re—”

“It took me years of working on things until I got them right, then working on them more until I got them better, and then I’d do it again and discover there was yet more I could achieve. Not perfection, because that doesn’t exist. But better—that exists, and you’ll never run out of it. I damn well haven’t.”

Guillaume scoffed. “It’s easy to attribute everything to hard work once you’ve found—and in your case, abandoned—success. But for some of us, hard work doesn’t seem to matter. What’s the point of better if you’re still toiling in obscurity?”

Rosemonde eyed him with a heavy-lidded look of pity. “Your greatest opera might take your entire life to write. Are you prepared to follow that map to your deathbed?”

“Would I have bought it if I wasn’t?” Guillaume shifted, settled, then shifted again. He couldn’t find a comfortable position any more than he could find a willingness to admit the truth: he hadn’t considered that.

“Let’s hope you live to be an old man then,” Rosemonde said. “But considering your current penchant for misfortune, I’m worried you’ll be one of those composers who die tragically young and stupid.”

“Like Braunhofer?”

“Just imagine what else she could have written had she lived.”

Guillaume jolted upright in his chair. The sudden motion set his ankle burning, but the rest of his body went cold. When she died, Braunhofer had been only a year older than he now was. What if his life proved equally short? What if the map led him to an untimely death upon finishing the opera? Even if it proved to be good, he couldn’t write a greater one if he was dead, and so merely good would be the greatest he could ever achieve.

“Fuck,” he muttered.

“What’s the matter now?” Rosemonde asked.

Guillaume pulled out the map and glared at that infuriatingly impatient blue line, pulsing like the veins in his forehead. No going back, no asking it to abandon this path for a new desire. He’d learned those lessons, but never the lesson of asking the right questions, like whose idea of greatness was he pursuing—his or the Mist Market’s?

“Certainty comes with a cost,” he’d been told by the merchant who sold him the map. “For why should you be able to walk knowingly toward your desire while others stumble blindly along?”

Only now did he realize that the cost in question might not be the money he’d paid.

~~~

The map urged them south; Guillaume took them north.

“Giving up on the opera?” Rosemonde asked.

“Not at all.” He led them down a lane of hardpacked dirt, toward a posting station where he’d been told they might find a carriage heading toward the coast, and from there a boat back to Vousir. Every step felt light, the pain in his ankle reduced to an easily ignored pinch. “I’m simply done letting a mysterious lot of mystical cartographers dictate how and when I compose my greatest work.”

The lopsided quirk of Rosemonde’s lips evened a bit, for once making her look pleased instead of amused. “Write me a grand death,” she said, “and I might consider coming back to the stage.”

“I promise you the grandest death you’ve ever died.”

That night, with his manuscript paper spread across the floor due to their room’s lack of either desk or table, Guillaume inked the tip of his quill and set it to the page.

The notes wouldn’t come.

The music that had been filling his head all day went silent, replaced by the image of a surly orchestra refusing to play, their arms folded and their instruments set off to the side.

Guillaume closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He just had to focus was all, listen to whatever music the night had to offer and work from there. Perhaps the basso hoot of an owl, the wind’s keeling soprano, the—

He heard nothing except Rosemonde snoring.

The next few days followed the same pattern. While cramped into the back of a sheep trader’s wagon, where the jostling of both road and ewe made writing impossible, music filled his head. A swirl of strings, a plaintive call from the oboe, then a glorious melody in Rosemonde’s voice. But as soon as he had a chance to transcribe it, the music drifted away, like those fleeting glimpses of missed opportunities on the map.

Yet more trickery to the magic. Once begun, it seemed he could not abandon a journey to follow his own path—not if he still wanted the thing it had been leading him toward. Unless . . .

That night, he made a show of composing while Rosemonde took to her bed. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her he was blocked, no more than a puppet tangled in the map’s strings. He waited until she was asleep, then took the map from his satchel and ripped it to shreds, issuing a guttural “ha!” with each crisp tear of the parchment.

Let’s see this damnable journey continue now.

Rather than fluttering to the floor in a random scattering, the scraps settled in their original positions and sealed themselves back together with a soft slurp.

Guillaume swore, snatched up the map, and thrust it over the nearest candle flame. No matter how long he kept it there, seething through clenched teeth, the map refused to burn, as obstinate as that imagined orchestra in his brain.

He swore again and started pacing. What the hell was he supposed to do? Never compose again? Give up the only thing he’d ever had any passion for?

No, composing was his life. But he’d become so impatient for validation that he’d ended up as miserable as his parents after all.

I wish I’d never bought the damned map.

Outside, rain began pelting against the window. Guillaume stopped pacing, his gaze locked on the rivulets running down the glass. In the candlelight, the trickles resembled liquid silver. Hope tickled at his throat. Rain on a warm night—the conditions one needed to find the Mist Market. It could be coincidence that the downpour had begun with his regrets about buying the map, or it could be an invitation to do something about it.

He gathered the pages of his manuscript and, along with the map, shoved them into his satchel. He was about to snuff out the candles when he noticed Rosemonde seated upright in bed, her hair tousled from sleep, a judgmental tilt to her mouth.

“How long have you been awake?” Guillaume asked, cheeks flushing.

“Long enough to have figured out where you’re going.”

He didn’t ask her if it was a good idea. He knew it wasn’t. But he was out of good ideas.

Rosemonde reached for her boots. “At least you’ll have me to keep you out of trouble this time.”

“I need to do this on my own.”

“Why?”

He shuffled from foot to foot. As always, she was the one asking the right question: why indeed? Why when every good thing he’d ever achieved, on stage or off, had involved his friend’s help?

“Let’s go then,” he said.

Soon enough they were standing outside, in the middle of the street in the middle of the night, drenched. Guillaume grasped a pale sliver of moonlight, parted the air like a theater curtain, and stepped into the Mist Market with Rosemonde. Once through, their clothes were instantly dry and suffused with the same glow that lit the market stalls. Guillaume strode forward, past honey-voiced vendors who promised everything from an enchanted quill to a giant pair of white, downy wings.

“Only a little pain when they bind to the skin,” the vendor purred.

Guillaume’s previous visits to the Mist Market had been fueled by curiosity or desire. But now, with his insides bristling, it was easier to hear the malice lurking beneath the vendors’ seductive tones. For once, he didn’t need to squint to see the black, tar-like drip of magic.

As soon as he spied the merchant from whom he’d bought the map, he took the accursed thing from his satchel and slammed it on the stall’s crystalline counter. “Find another fool to sell this to. I’m done with it.”

The merchant cocked their head, staring at him with their unblinking onyx eyes. “We cannot return what you have paid.”

“I don’t want my money back. Just my life.”

In a blur of motion, the merchant ran their black-veined fingers over the map. The blue dot that represented Guillaume still pulsed on the street outside the inn, and the blue line still pointed a route southward. Even on a magic map, the Mist Market did not exist.

“It will be difficult,” the merchant said, “to untangle the magic that binds you to this unfinished journey.”

“I’ll pay more.”

“Money will not do. We require something else.”

Anything, Guillaume almost blurted. Fortunately, Rosemonde’s presence tempered his inclination to speak faster than he could think. God, how could he have considered coming here without her?

The merchant curved their long, blade-like lips into what should have been a smile. “We will accept only that which the map has given you,” they said. “The music you have composed since beginning your journey.”

Guillaume clutched his satchel. His opera? Great or not, that had been months of work. Work he was proud of. Work he would never be able to replicate. The music would no doubt vanish from his head for good, just as it had when he strayed from the map’s route. Such was the price of magic.

“No,” he said.

“Then I am afraid we cannot help you.”

“There must be another option.”

The merchant snickered. “Must there?”

Guillaume’s face grew hot. He recalled how suddenly the rain had begun, as if in summons, and had to wonder: had he been acting on instinct when he stuffed the manuscript into his satchel, or under the influence of magic?

And if they wanted his music, then maybe it truly was great.

Guillaume stuffed the map back into his satchel and stormed away from the merchant’s stall. Rosemonde matched his brisk pace.

“Well, this was a short and pointless journey,” she said, casting a derisive glance at his satchel. “You owe me a glass of wine when we get back to the inn. Can you try not to get mugged along the way?”

Except wine tasted better when you risked more for it. That thought hung on him like shackles, slowing his steps.

As they neared the Mist Market’s exit, a flap of wet night hanging in midair, Rosemonde started humming. It took him only a moment to recognize the melody: an aria from the first opera he’d ever written.

“All the bloody music I’ve composed,” he said, “and that’s the one you’re going to hum?”

“Why not that one?”

“Because it’s . . .” Pleasantly bland at best, he almost said. Because he’d composed far better since, and wasn’t that what she had told him? That he’d never run out of better. Yet better wasn’t enough, was it? He was still holding on to that damn manuscript, after all.

“Honestly,” he said, “why is that the one that sticks with you?”

“Honestly? Because it felt like you wrote it just for me.” She laughed, a flush in her cheeks, and for once there was no wryness to her smile. “I know that’s ridiculous—you had no idea who I was when you wrote that—but it was about someone being pulled in a thousand different directions at once, and trying to find her own way, and . . . well, it was like you had peered inside my head and turned all that mess into music.”

It was Guillaume’s turn to blush. He’d always assumed she viewed that opera as nothing more than her first big break, something she’d sung so gloriously because she had been paid to sing it so gloriously. All this time, he’d been determined to write something that mattered, never realizing he already had. Not to the critics, perhaps, but it had mattered to Rosemonde, just as other songs had mattered to those people who tossed coins and words of thanks to them in taverns and on street corners.

Maybe the music didn’t need to be great. Maybe being what someone else needed—someone other than just himself, for a change—was enough.

Guillaume turned back, took the map and the music from his satchel, and set them both on the merchant’s counter.

“I’ll be following my own path now, thank you.”

~~~

If you are not interested in the map, then perhaps another of our treasures might intrigue a musician such as yourself: fragments from an unfinished opera, the greatest work of an anonymous composer. Or rather, it would have been his greatest work. Perhaps you would like to try writing its end?

About the Author

Barbara A. Barnett

Barbara A. Barnett is a Philadelphia-area writer, musician, orchestra librarian, Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, coffee addict, and all-around geek. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Fantasy Magazine, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction. You can find her online at babarnett.com.

Find more by Barbara A. Barnett

One thought on “A Conspiracy of Cartographers

  1. Xavier says:

    I enjoyed this. Gave me much food for thought about philosophical issues regarding creation. Thanks.

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