Words are not my first language.
For ten years I have written in images. I have reduced our archipelago’s scabrous coastlines and unforgiving shoals to gentle contours and benign gradients. I have flattened the world’s summits, filled in its trenches, repealed its third dimension. There are no histories in my images. No footnotes. No grisly explanations for the borders that separate our island-states. The streets of our cities are narrow, vacant lanes on my parchment, unpeopled by penniless children, unsullied by spilled blood.
For ten years I have been a mapmaker, and for ten years I have told my stories in curves, hachures, and inlays.
Not here. Here I must employ sentences, paragraphs, and chapters — devices that are as foreign to me as alidades and azimuths must be to you. For this place cannot be charted, and no combination of routes and waypoints can describe the strange journey that brought me here. I am beyond the limits of my own cartography, lost to dead reckoning.
Forgive me, therefore, if I ramble. Excuse me, dear reader, if I mislead. I am an unpracticed writer, working with an unfamiliar alphabet. I can only hope to improve as I go along.
And there is something else.
In maps, entire continents are laid out at once, as a bird might survey them from above, and readers are free to inspect whatever points they find most intriguing, in whatever order they please. But the events of a written narrative are revealed sequentially, over the course of a finite timeline. This is a constraint of the medium itself, for a reader’s eyes cannot absorb thousands of words in one fell swoop, as they might a map or a picture. Words are like bricks: individually meaningless, useful only in the context of their accumulation.
But I am ten years a mapmaker. I will not write upon an axis. I will not mold my plot to fit a bell curve or a sinusoid. I do not subscribe to the notion that a story should begin once, at the beginning, or terminate at the end, or even at all. Time is not so simple, in my experience. And for precisely that reason, I will make no apologies for any lingering effects that this account has upon its readers’ sense of linearity – which is to say, upon their sense.
The last vestige of great Atlantis now rests upon a rotting table in its capitol’s highest tower. It is a letter, scrawled in a curious script upon alien paper, and though it is all that remains of my country, it will serve as an appropriate beginning.
And so it is not where I will begin.
A Suicidal Catechism
At the center of the world is an island, and at the center of that island is the Adytum, and at the center of the Adytum is the world.
This is the first maxim in our catechism, a formula that children are made to recite before they are old enough to grasp its absurdity. There are six hundred and fourteen maxims in the Atlantan catechism, one for each island in our archipelago, and they are all absurd. More specifically, each is a recursion, a nauseating form of paradox that pretends to build toward some point only to fold in on itself, to collapse, to self-destruct. Our suicidal maxims are as memorable as they are useless.
But the Adytum itself is eminently useful. It is sacred to all Atlantans, and particularly to we cartographers. This is because of the atlas upon its floor, the map of our archipelago, of our world, from which all other maps are born. It is etched into an immense plate of orichalcum, a disc some three hundred yards in diameter. Upon its surface our world is reproduced in such minute detail that a man walking across it might discover a new lake on some distant peninsula simply by pausing to catch his breath, or revisit the hill on which he was born by kneeling to retrieve a dropped coin. Doubtless the map owes some of its precision to the sheer scale of the strange canvas upon which it is drawn. But anyone who visits that ancient place, as I have done, cannot help but wonder whether it owes some of its impossible intricacy to a physics very different from our own.
Indeed, it is said that before they made the world, the gods created the Adytum as a kind of headquarters, a command center, and that the map on the floor of that place is the blueprint from which they worked.
I have little faith in such mythologies, and less in the men who peddle them. But it is true enough that the Adytum has been there for as long as anyone can remember, and that there are references to it in the earliest of our texts. It is true, too — though I cringe to admit it — that the images cast upon that colossal wheel have proven so accurate over the decades that our guild of mapmakers has devolved to a company of profiteering scribes, content to copy sections of the Adytum onto canvas for sale to merchants and sea captains. We seldom mount our own expeditions. Too many of them, bankrolled by some romantic doge, have ended in our merely confirming what was already in the Adytum for all to see. And so our expertise has shifted from cartography to calligraphy. We take the Adytum’s map on faith, and we add to it place names, scales, compass roses and other such flourishes.
There is one legitimate form of cartography, however, that we still practice: the mapping of Atlantan cities, which are conspicuously absent on the floor of the Adytum. Some posit that the Adytum’s map simply predates our cities, and thus could not have accounted for them. Others believe that the map is a representation of Atlantis’s future, and interpret the omission of our cities as evidence that some vengeful pantheon will one day strike our race from the face of the earth. Until that time, anyway, the task of mapping Atlantis’s cities falls to my guild.
Most of our population is clustered around fourteen islands toward the center of the archipelago, where the weather is most temperate and the seas most placid. But there are small towns and settlements sprinkled across more distant islands — colonies of outcasts, military outposts, mining outfits, and the like. It was upon a mapping excursion to one such far-flung community that I found — or, rather, was lead to — a lagoon.
It should not have been there. The Adytum depicted dry land at its coordinates, and the Adytum is incontrovertible.
But it was there nonetheless.
I did not rise slowly. I did not ease into the waking world.
I jackknifed into consciousness, rolling out of bed and onto the cold stone floor as fists fell like hammers upon the door of my house. I tried to peer out the nearest window to determine if the sun had yet risen, if perhaps I had overslept, but something was blocking my vision. I lifted a hand to my face and felt a warm, rubbery film over my eyes. Skin, I realized. Eyelids. My own. I pried them open.
Beyond the window was blackest night, punctured here and there by a pinprick of starlight. It was very early. Or very late.
The pounding on my door resumed, and I stumbled toward it wearing only a thin sheet and an infuriated scowl.
I flung open the door and growled. “Knock one more time and I swear –”
My anger evaporated, however, when I saw the white-haired woman bent over my threshold. She was holding a lantern, and in its glow I recognized the wizened face of Madame Clara, the mistress of my guild. Beside her stood a man so tall and broad-shouldered that if he had chosen to enter my home, he would have been forced to duck his head and sidle in like a crab. He stood perfectly still, his hands folded neatly over his belt buckle, imitating the posture of a ramrod.
“Madame Clara,” I said, suddenly embarrassed to be standing half-naked in the dark. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
She smiled weakly and shook her head. “Nothing is wrong, Ember. But you must accompany us to the capitol at once. I will explain on the way. Get dressed, and quickly. This man has a carriage waiting for us.”
“Will he be pulling it himself?” I grinned impishly and looked up at the colossus, but his sepulchral face betrayed no amusement.
A few moments later we were careening down the road to the capitol, shouting at each other over the clatter of the carriage and the patter of hooves. I might have been worried that our madcap pace would stop Clara’s heart, if I hadn’t been so sure that her skeleton would be rattled to pieces first.
Several times I yelled at the driver to slow down, but he paid me no heed.
Clara put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve endured commutes far more arduous than this one — and will endure many more. Besides, our time together is brief, and I must explain why we roused you at so strange an hour.”
I was still enraged with our stony-faced driver for ignoring my commands, but I was also intensely curious about my presence in his coach to begin with. This latter sentiment proved the stronger of the two. “Please,” I said, “do tell.”
“Have you ever heard of Penitentia?”
She knew that I had. Everyone had.
Penitentia is the smallest and remotest of the islands in a chain we call the Shreds. It would be nothing more than a barren crag in the sea, an unmarked speck upon the floor of the Adytum, were it not for the abandoned prison on its southern shore.
Technically, the prison has no name. Practically, it is called Penitentia, after the island upon which it rests.
It was carved into the side of a cliff some two centuries ago by a special assembly from the Five Kingdoms, with each government committing equal funds and manpower to its construction. For years it was the severest of the world’s prisons, a repository of savages whose crimes had earned them a sentence worse than execution: a form of temporary damnation.
Because Penitentia possessed only a hundred cells, strict occupancy quotas were assigned to each of the Five Kingdoms, and only a handful of convicts were admitted each year. So rarefied were the ranks of Penitentia’s inhabitants that internment there became an aspirational goal among the members of our demimonde, the ultimate achievement in depravity. In seedy bars and dark alleys, thieves could be overheard venerating confederates who had “passed on” to that dreadful place, and every so often a murderer on the gallows would use his last words to confess a single regret: that he had not shed enough blood to earn him a trip to that rock at the edge of the world.
Twenty years ago Penitentia was abandoned. The cost of maintaining so extravagant a dungeon was astronomical, and the passage to the Shreds was so treacherous that two of every three ships sent there were lost to gales, or mutiny, or madness.
What prisoners remained in that place were left to starve, and now governments simply hang or behead their reprobates.
Penitentia was noteworthy for one other reason, too. It was — and is — the only square mile of earth to be peacefully occupied by citizens from all five of Atlantis’s factions. It helped, I suppose, that these citizens were separated by iron and stone.
“Yes,” I said. “I know of Penitentia. I know something of its history, and also of its location in the Shreds according to the Adytum.”
“That is good,” said Clara, nodding her head. “And of course the Adytum is accurate in placing it at the northwest extremity of the Shreds.”
“The Adytum is always accurate.”
She smiled. Then, after studying my face for a moment, she said: “I will tell you something that the Adytum cannot. When the Five Kingdoms built Penitentia, they each stationed a bastion of five guards there. Once a year the chief guard from each bastion was dispatched to his respective kingdom’s capitol to report the number of vacancies in Penitentia’s cells for his government to fill. Most years the number was one or two. But every decade or so, when an especially powerful tempest passed over the Shreds, the bottommost floor of the prison would flood, drowning all the convicts confined there, and the number of vacancies assigned to each kingdom would approach double digits. These were known as ‘purge years,’ and they were always cause for celebration in Penitentia, where so many longed to die.”
I shook my head. “Why are you telling me this, Clara?”
“Because this year is a purge year.”
The shift from past to present jarred me. She is an old woman, I reminded myself. Surely her tongue has slipped, or her mind has slid into memory.
But when she continued, she did so in the present tense. “In addition to the twenty guards,” she said, “there are some twenty sailors who live in Penitentia. They are among the world’s foremost experts — perhaps its only experts — in the violent currents that assault the shores of the Shreds. For most of the year they are paid outrageous sums of gold to simply mill about the island. Drinking, I suppose. Gambling, perhaps. Only the gods know what else. But every so often a chief guard must return home to fetch new prisoners, and a crew of seamen is sobered up and put to sail with him.”
Here I should explain that the Shreds are so named because the torrents and eddies that whip and lash among them have, over the eons, eroded those islands to mere tendrils, to wisps of swamp and rock. Since my childhood I had heard tales of spontaneous whirlpools, of currents that reversed their course without warning, of tides that dropped so swiftly that ships crashed and broke upon the reefs beneath them. Such tales were invariably secondhand, always told under influence of drink, and almost certainly embellished. For no captain of sound mind charted a course to The Shreds. What few had gone there had done so by accident, having lost their way at sea.
Or so I had always assumed.
“Clara,” I said, now certain that the old woman really believed what she was saying. “We both know that the prison at Penitentia has been empty for twenty years. What are you saying?”
But she carried on as though I had said nothing. “Between the twenty sailors and the twenty guards — and a few others of whom we know much less — there are more than forty free men on Penitentia, and these men have built for themselves a small village outside the walls of the prison. It is a primitive village, I am sure, with only a few hovels and shacks, but it is a village nonetheless. And I am told it even has a road, which begins at the pier, runs up through the village, and terminates at the prison. And as you know, Ember, where there is a road…”
“…there must be a map,” I finished. It was one of the mantras of our guild, branded so indelibly upon my psyche that I could no more have prevented my lips from completing Clara’s sentence than I could have prevented my eyes from dilating in the dark.
“Just as you say,” agreed Clara. “And so one of our guild members must go and make a map of this village. And there is only one ship that sails from our kingdom to that village, and it does so only once a year. And because its purpose — indeed, its very existence — has been a secret these twenty years past, it anchors for only a few hours before casting off again, in the blackest hour of moonless night. Tonight, Ember.”
The implications of Clara’s words seeped in gradually, and as they did, a terrible new feeling welled up inside me. It was something more insidious than fear, more final than panic. It was how a monarch must feel after unmasking an assassin at his banquet table — just after swilling the dregs of his poisoned wine.
“Why?” I asked. “Why me?”
Clara smiled. “You’re looking at this the wrong way, my dear. Aren’t you always criticizing our guild for its lack of ambition? For what we’ve become? Only a handful of people in this kingdom even know that Penintentia still operates, and now you may count yourself among them. You alone will map an island more remote than any place your peers could ever hope to explore. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, every cartographer’s dream.”
“Even so,” I said, stilling the tremor in my voice. “I should like to know why I, of all the mapmakers in Trita, have been selected for so dangerous an assignment.”
She frowned. “I will tell you the truth, if you must have it. But we have known each other a long time, Ember, and I am sure you would prefer not to know the answer. Or if you must have an answer, let me tell you a lie, something to –”
“The truth, Clara. The truth, and tell it straight. Why me?”
“Because,” she said, locking her tired eyes to mine, “you were the first to answer his door.”