Fantasy

Toward Lands Uncharted

By Benjamin C. Kinney
4,942 words · 18-minute reading time
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From the author: Eftekhar is the ambassador and spy for a recently-conquered nation, fallen under the control an empire with border-magic that rewrites maps and forces the world to follow. To confront the power of the Censor of Maps, Eftekhar must risk the erasure of her people, her history, and her own memories.


Ambassador Eftekhar watched her hostess' shoulders tighten, despite the smile on the other woman's powdered face. Even here, in the empire's heartland, the aristocracy lived like an occupied nation beneath the pen of the Censor of Maps.

Eftekhar would tear this nation to lint and rags if she could, but if some of its people would rejoice when she beheaded their empire, she could risk giving them a drop of joy.

Lady Shetting said, "If the Lundun peers won't invite you over, it's their loss. The war behind us, and now such a charming new ambassador from Mashhad. They'll regret missing their chance to see that wonderful brocade. It's such a lovely robe -- a calat, it's called?"

"A khalat, yes. The copies don't do justice, do they?" Eftekhar extended an arm, showing off her garment's gold-and-cobalt peacock pattern. With her other hand, she palmed a teaspoon and slipped it into her sleeve. The utensil carried the Shetting house crest; if she ever needed to forge it, a model would prove useful. "Would you like one? I could send one up here."

Her hostess set aside her cup and saucer, and smoothed the peach-colored skirts of her stiff-bodiced mantle. "I'd be honored. But before you thank me too much, I should explain why the Lundun peers have acted so rudely."

Eftekhar watched out of the corner of her eye as a servant refilled Lady Shetting's teacup. Not that Eftekhar needed her habits of vigilance. Here, the household servants had a guild to guarantee their servility and their standardized black outfits. The servant moved against the floral wallpaper like a narrow-waisted shadow.

Despite all Eftekhar's colors and brocades, she had become a shadow herself in Lundun's social scene. Two months of work, and still no allies worth the name. "I know why. It's because I talk about the Censor of Maps."

"So I've heard." The noblewoman stirred her tea, spoon clicking against cup. "And I imagine you want to talk to me about him as well."

Eftekhar rotated her teacup, her palm against the hot porcelain bowl, index finger through the ring. The shape of pistol and trigger-guard lent her strength, even though weapons had long since failed to save her people. "The Censor isn't the only power in your empire. I can offer a cartful of royal Mashhadi fashions and exclusive trade contracts for any house that will push the Censor's office to leave our nation an intact protectorate. We look forward to the benefits of your empire," she lied, "but we can contribute best if we keep our borders, our unity, and our identity."

"Let me show you something, Ambassador." Lady Shetting pushed herself up from her chair, and approached the window. Grey afternoon light blended the powered colors of her face and hair, ashen to ashen.

Eftekhar followed her hostess, teacup in hand. The curtains were printed with stylized peacocks, an echo of her khalat's brocade. She ran her fingers along the fabric's brand-new softness, the fashionable uneven thickness of milled cotton. If new, then the peacocks were no coincidence. Mashhad's royal emblems, copied and published by some conquering officer, to become a pattern for manor curtains.

Shetting pointed out the window, across the landscape of rolling green hills. A herd of sheep spread across one slope, like a bale of cotton burst across the grass. Verdure and wealth, in the last cooling days of autumn, yet the noblewoman studied it with the slack cheeks of resignation. "Our estate reaches as far as the summit of the third hill. Beyond that, the Grey estate begins. Every square yard grows grass for the sheep, or barley, or potatoes. If my household were to annoy the Censor of Maps, I might wake up one morning in a world with a boundary-line closer to the manor. That will always have been the boundary, of course; I will remember it so, as will every other human memory and text. Yet our flock will run out of room to graze, our income shrunk. Perhaps, in time, we'll see the discrepancy, and deduce that we had lost the Censor's favor."

Eftekhar shifted her teacup to her other hand, and shook her scalded palm. "Is nobody willing to push back against him, then?"

"Anyone in the empire who might have enough influence to oppose him, must live under the shadow of his power. Even the King, I'm told. I have asked. But--" She glanced out the window, toward the boundary-stone on a distant hillside.

"But what?"

Lady Shetting turned toward her, shoulders squared. "But I'm certain you don't need to hear me talking about the risks. Please, Ambassador. The best advice I can give you is this: forget about influencing the Censor. Go home."

Eftekhar slammed her teacup onto the windowsill, with the clank of cup against saucer. "I won't. If everyone fears him, he has enemies."

"Ambassador, please. I invited you here because I hoped I could help you. If you leave, if you go home, the Censor will do whatever he wishes with lovely Mashhad. You might be fortunate, or you might not. But if he knows you and your nation have been trying to organize people to influence him? Then you can be certain, absolutely certain, that he will punish you."

Eftekhar wanted to shout, to shake sense into this kindly coward. But Eftekhar would have made a poor spy, and a worse diplomat, if she couldn't contain her frustration.

Lady Shetting stared down into her teacup. "You should expect he will know, of course. Someone will tell him. Everyone will tell him. Because once he finds out, he will ask around, and learn whom you've met. He would be so very disappointed in anyone who hadn't told him."

She swallowed, and met Eftekhar's gaze. "Do you understand me?"

On the green-swathed hillside, the ewes of Shetting munched their grass. Surely they had a shepherd keeping them in line, some vigilant figure whom Eftekhar could not discern.

She said, "Thank you for the warning, Lady Shetting."

She slipped the stolen teaspoon from her sleeve and back onto her saucer, and then gave the servant room to clean it all away.

Eftekharstood in the misting morning rain, beneath the protection of a coffeeshop's awning and the waxed blue linen of her umbrella. The working-folk and gentry glanced her way, every pair of eyes drawn to her umbrella like a child watching a carriage wreck. But when anyone's attention lingered, they goggled at her khalat, or her skin, and their expression shifted to surprise or envy or a lip-curl of disgust. She could never pass unnoticed in a Lundun street, but at least her umbrella diverted the stare of anyone too busy to linger.

An experienced agent could operate perfectly well without anonymity. Diplomacy had failed, but she possessed other skills.

The Censor's messenger emerged from some aristocrat's townhouse. The man wore the same guild-standard blacks as any servant, layered against the rain in overcoat and three-cornered hat, with a quill-and-lion badge on his breast to identify his master. Eftekhar memorized the address, then tracked the servant's pace and direction, toward the next household that received correspondence from the tower home of the Censor of Maps.

All those letters, wandering from hand to hand, servant to servant, household to household. Some of those stages would prove vulnerable to bribery or theft. Once she seized a copy of the Censor's stamp and handwriting, she could apply her forgers' tools and begin a new line of attack.

Eftekhar stepped away from the shopfront, into the crowd. She angled her umbrella to block half her vision, a narrowed field to help her focus on the servant's tricorne, rising and falling with the man's bobbing gait. The throng parted around her, their human scents drowned out by rain and coal, their stares transformed into a measure of protection. In a crowd, nobody would harass her.

She wouldn't walk this street alone, not even with the knife-sharp hairpin she hid under her silk hat, and the tools hidden in her thigh-pockets. The war remained fresh in Lunduners' memory, no less bitter for their victory. Just the day before, a child had thrown mud at her, shouting that their soldiers should've killed all of us ________.

Eftekhar scowled, and reined in her wandering mind. Ridiculous that her nation's name slipped her mind, when she came to Lundun as its __________.

A man bumped into her back, and cursed her for halting in the middle of the street. She stepped aside, and tried to reclaim the thread of her thoughts. She had been annoyed because she couldn't recall the word for __________ --

A word she could not remember, because it no longer existed.

The Censor of Maps had laid his ink, and rewritten the world into a shape without her home.

She turned around, threw aside her umbrella, and ran. The Censor alone, of all the people on Earth, would know what he had done, and possessed the power to reverse it. His tower waited a few blocks away, its pale granite peeking over the black-tiled rooftops. Her boots slapped wet stone as she shoved people aside and shouldered her way past shouts and bodies. If she could reach him, she could beg for one last chance to save a place she must have treasured.

She stumbled. Tangled in her ______, in a garment far too heavy for running. Why would she wear such a thing? She tore it off, bunched up her gown's skirts, and resumed her sprint. She hadn't come this far to fail now, not after so many weeks of _______.

Of what? Each question hung on her mind's wall like a rectangle of dust, an outline to mark where a painting once stood. The next moment, some subtle servant had cleaned away the residue, and she could no longer see the absence.

She rounded a corner. Almost there. She would throw herself at the Censor's feet, offer anything he demanded, if it might convince him to return even the memory of her ____.

No! The Censor had stolen her foundations, but she still possessed the scaffold, the shapes and struts that defined her life.

She was Eftekhar Gilani, granddaughter of Minister Dalir, hero of the Last War, her peoples' __________.

She was Eftekhar Gilani, granddaughter of Minister Dalir, hero of the ________.

She was Eftekhar Gilani, granddaughter of ______________.

She was _______________.

She was running.

She collided with a door, and her arms slammed against oak. She pounded against the wood, again and again.

The door opened a hand's breadth, its swing halted by a brass chain. A servant's face peeked through the gap and studied her with narrowed eyes.

"Can I help you, ma'am?"

"Please! I need to..." She had needed something, so very badly. Fury and anguish clawed out from her chest, desperate for something behind that door, something other than this dour footman in black shirt and waistcoat, his badge of gold lion and quill.

His face fell, and he shut the door.

It reopened, the chain gone. "Please come inside, miss. It's all right."

Thefootman leads her through narrow halls wallpapered in a pattern of gold lions and quills, over hush-quiet rugs that muffle every step. Picture frames line the walls, filled not with portraiture or with landscapes, but with maps: every one a different corner of the empire, all drawn by the same few hands.

She memorizes every junction and pathway until they pass through an unmarked door, and down the narrow stairs to the servants' basement quarters. She can find no reason to trust the footman, but she has nothing else to anchor her, nowhere else to go.

He ducks his head under the lamp-smoked ceiling, and guides her to the servants' hall, lit by rain-smeared light descending through the well windows. A clean-shaven older man sits across from a woman, both of them in servant's blacks, their faces close in conversation. The footman clears his throat, and the two of them fall silent.

The footman says, "A new one, Gideon. She doesn't remember."

A stiff-lipped sorrow settles onto Gideon's face. "Ah. Would you give the new arrival and me a moment's privacy?"

The footman and the maid shut the stairwell door behind them. Brass buttons shine on Gideon's black waistcoat, but despite that sign of power he shows no telltales of threat, no sharp eyes or shifting weight. Still, she stays close to the door. Her hand lingers by her gown's side-seams, but nothing in her pockets would help her here.

He says, "My name is Gideon Saint-John. Don't be afraid, miss. You're among friends now. I'm the butler for the Censor's household."

She unties her wide-brimmed hat and holds it down by her waist. Only afterward, as one hand lingers on her head, does she realize the purpose of her motion. With her fingers near her hairpin, her wariness focuses to blade-sharp certainty. "The Censor? Is he here?"

Why does his title spark such anger? She knows his title, knows his power, but could name nothing he had done to kindle such bitterness.

Gideon swallows. "Yes, but. Please. You're angry. I understand. We all were, once." His eyes narrow, brows tense with suppressed fear. "Don't worry about him. Tell me about yourself, miss. Do you know your name?"

She searches for a familiar sound, but Eft-- sounds awkward, foreign. Not a proper Lundun name. "No, sir. But you can call me Emma, I suppose."

"Well then. Emma. How much do you remember?"

"I was-- I'm in Lundun to--" She shakes her head. "It was about the Censor of Maps. But I don't know. It's like he pulled one thread from my mind, and the whole pattern unraveled with it. What happened?"

He steps around his table and takes her hand, his thin strong fingers a comfort on her own. "Don't be afraid, Emma. My predecessor overheard the last Censor explain it, once. People's memories adjust to the maps he's drawn." He studies their hands, pale against dark. "These things happen more often than anybody realizes. But as a foreigner, I imagine your condition may be worse than most of us."

"I'm not a foreigner." She grips his hand, her nails against his skin. "But that's monstrous! You serve him, you endure this?"

He sighs. "We're servants, Emma. We need a roof over our head, food on our plates. Like everyone else. In here, nobody will mock you for confusion or forgetfulness, nobody will ask about your home. We have a life here, and respect in the Attendant's Guild; and every so often, we can do some good for people like you. People like ourselves."

She sets her hat on the table, the closest place within reach. She should have removed it at the door, should never have worn something as rich as its imported cobalt silk.

Gideon says, "Would you like to join us, Emma? Even if you've never served before, there's a place for you here."

Emma surveys her mind's empty embroidery, the scant residues of its once-bright pattern. Why did Gideon's offer tempt her so? Perhaps she had worked as a maid or cook or something similar in her past life, despite her silken hat. Her heart calms at the chance to serve, to shape her life into something of value to others. The comforts of structure, a scaffold to support her empty self.

The opportunity to get close to the Censor of Maps.

She straightens her spine, then ducks her head. "I would, sir."

He pats her hand, and gives her a warm smile, like a grandfather must have given her long ago. "Good. Then I'd like to offer you a position in this household. You'll start as a house maid, work your way up. The job comes with a room in the attic, a half-day off a week, and twelve shillings a month. You have to join the Attendant's Guild, of course."

"The Attendant's Guild?" The idea strikes a familiar spark; she must have seen its members countless times, even if she can't say where. But not every cause is worthy of her service. "I don't know if I've ever joined a guild. Are there any rules? Requirements?"

"Not many. Do your work, help your fellow guildmates. Dues are one penny for every five shillings of salary, which go toward our legal and pension funds." Gideon smiles, and tugs the collar of his shirt. "The Guild understands our household's peculiarities. I've been the Guild Secretary for the past eight years, and I'm not the first from the Censor's household."

A patch of solid ground, space enough for her to embroider a new life. "I'm ready."

He recites, "Do you swear to serve your master in all things within the law? To strive to foresee their wishes, protect their interests, and represent their honor at all times? And to aid any member of the Guild in need, no matter whose badge they wear?"

"I do." She keeps voice calm and earnest, though she has no idea whether or not she lies.

"You're hired, then. Let's get you some blacks, and then we'll introduce you to the master."

Theuniform fits her perfectly. Black gown, black sash belt, proper Lundun servant attire over her shift and petticoats. The Censor's household badge stands out like a golden bruise, but she can afford it, one way or another.

Gideon leads Emma up the back stairs, the wood creaking beneath every step. The older man stops on the third floor's cupboard-sized landing, catches his breath, and then pauses with his hand on the door latch.

 "Don't meet the master's eye. Don't speak unless he asks. You don't have to like him." He loosens his collar. "We just need him to sign off on your contract, then you won't have to see him again. Not for a long time."

The hallway bears the same decor as the ground floor: wallpaper in stylized crowns and quills, maps hanging one after another in their orderly frames. Gideon puts his ear to a door, then gestures for Emma to wait. Wind lashes against a window, the glass spattered with knife-lines of rain.

Three people burst from the door, two men and a woman, all wearing ruffled grey waistcoats and mantles in the standardized style of some uncertain uniform. The woman takes the lead, frustration fist-tight on her face as she leads her companions down the main stairs. None of them glance toward the servants. Gideon glides into the room beyond, and leaves the door open behind him. Emma forces her eyes down, and her feet forward, into the master's study.

The Censor of Maps is only a man. Aged, with thin white hair, a thin white beard, and silver-rimmed eyeglasses. He sits behind a draughtsman's tilted desk, quill pen scribbling across paper as he writes a letter. His lips linger in a complacent smile.

The room has four wide windows, two shelves of leather-bound books, and a table strewn with papers. Emma studies the maps laid out on the table, and spots a glimpse of the empire's newest conquest. Coastlines and borders, names written and rewritten, fresh ink over old terrain. None of it reminds her of anything.

Gideon clears his throat.

The Censor glances up, raises his brows in surprise, then gives his butler a weary glare before he returns his gaze to his work. "Gideon."

She could yank the pin from her hair, and drive it into the Censor's neck while she clamps a hand over his mouth. She has more than strength enough to hold him quiet while he bleeds.

Gideon says, "Your pardon, sir. Emma here will be our new downstairs maid. My cousin's widow, I can vouch for her."

He holds a stick of gold-colored beeswax over a candle, tips a few drops onto the paper, and then thunks his stamp into the wax. "You have a contract ready?"

"Right here, sir." Gideon slides a piece of paper from his waistcoat pocket, and sets it on the edge of the desk.

"Mm." The Censor sets down his stamp, slides his letter to the side, and frowns at the contract. "Sloppy handwriting, Gideon. I expected better of you."

Emma fixes her eyes on the thick rust-red carpet as she slides forward. The butler follows, unconsciously keeping pace until they both stand within arm's reach of the Censor. The thought of his blood on her fingers brings not fear, not shock, but a cold steady focus. Evidently, she had once been someone who could assassinate a man. She could become that person again.

The Censor of Maps says, "Twelve shillings? Where did you get that number? Starting wage has always been ten a month."

"Yes, sir. Of course. My mistake." Gideon flushes, but keeps his voice calm.

Emma's fingers hesitate against her hair. The Censor has apprentices, trainees, an office. For all his frail and vulnerable heart, he's only the face of an institution. If she killed him, even if she burned down his home, a new Censor of Maps would take his place.

She could rid the world of this man, but the problem ran deeper than a man.

He says, "You there. Widow. A bit old to be coming on as a maid, aren't you?"

She mumbles, "Yes, sir."

His stare slides past her, as if he had no reason to commit her face to memory. "I can only hope you'll be more stable than the last girl." He signs his name, and affixes his seal.

The Censor holds out the paper. "Get someone to proofread for you next time, Gideon."

Gideon says, "Yes, sir."

She reaches up to her hair. Her bowels tighten, her body tense like a rabbit's beside a sleeping lion. Any of the servants would surely strike the Censor down, if they possessed the skills to back up their fear and fury. Gideon risked his position for her, and his master would bully him for his kindness? One murder might not rid the world of Censors, but it would bring this tyrant the end he deserved.

But if she killed her master in front of the Secretary of the Attendant's Guild, a swift and panicked boot would fall on the neck of every servant in this building and across the guild.

As her contract changes hands, she swipes a letter from the Censor's desk, and hides the paper between wrist and sleeve.

Emmakneels on the floor of her stuffy garret room, a candle lit beside her despite the rare treasure of clear Lundun autumn sunlight. She lays out two sheets of paper and the tools from her pockets. Quills, inks, tongs; an empty ring-box, a perfume-bottle full of sweet nutty oil, a block of cream-yellow spermaceti wax. Everything a woman could possibly need to begin the Censor's undoing.

She runs a dry quill-tip over the stolen letter's words, tracing every curve and curl until her scratches match the master's ink. She could not name where she had learned these skills, but her hand moves with the fluidity of ten thousand forgotten repetitions. She switches to a blank sheet and writes a new letter in the Censor's handwriting.

Emma brushes oil onto the Censor's seal impression, then cuts a sliver of wax and holds it over the flame until it softens in her tongs. She presses her wax atop the gold seal, soft spermaceti over harder beeswax. She blows it cool, and then pries the two waxes apart: the Censor's impression, and her copy of his stamp.

She sets the half-finished forgery into the cushioned ring-box, and tucks it back into her pocket. Once she can convert it into a durable stamp, she'll have many letters to write. For tonight, she peels the Censor's true seal from his letter, softens the back in candle-flame, and presses it onto the note she had written.

...extra duty for the new servant woman: in charge of the mail room.

With that letter, she would have power again. Again: she knows by the instinct of her word choice, by a forger's skills, by the fearful strength of how a man could die in her hands. The Censor had transformed her into a woman with no losses to avenge, but she still possesses her hate.

"Emma?" Gideon knocks on the door. "We should talk a moment before supper. May I come in?"

"One moment!" She blows out the candle, folds the real letter into quarters, shoves it into her pockets with her tools. The forgery won't fit, not without suspicious creases, so she slides it into her loosened sleeve and opens the door.

Gideon wipes his brow with a handkerchief and says, "I've told the other staff we have a new arrival. They know what that means. You needn't-- What's that?"

Has he smelled candle-smoke? Emma says, "Can you give me some of their names before we head down?"

Gideon plucks a disc from the floor. A circle of golden wax, fallen from the forged letter as the paper bent against her wrist.

His nostrils flare. "Emma? This is the master's seal. How did you get this? Did you steal it?"

"How did I get what?" She feigns confusion, grabs his arm, tries to pluck the evidence from his fingers. "It must've fallen off the contract."

He pulls away, his face tight with anxious disappointment. "You swore to serve your master. Stealing from him, even the Censor--" He shakes his head. "This violates everything the Attendant's Guild stands for. I vouched for you, Emma!"

Guilt knots against her heart, but the seal represents her only scrap of control. "I didn't. I promise. Please don't turn me in."

"This is bigger than you, Emma." He tucks the seal into his waistcoat pocket, and his suspicion hardens with a crust of certainty. "I can't imagine whom you might've been before. A noble, a thief. It doesn't matter. If you cling to your old life's fragments, you won't be able to live this one."

He turns away. Emma studies the heels of his polished shoes. Her hands flutter, denied of any instrument that could help. Even if she could present him a letter emblazoned with her copied stamp, it would do no good against an honest man willing to double-check his master's messages. Her instincts recall a thousand ways to fight, but all the old methods have become as powerless as a rebel's starry-eyed dream.

She can't surrender, not yet. She possesses one more thing, beyond a branding-iron hate and her forger's skills: her people.

Emma grabs Gideon's arm. "You said you wanted to help people like us. Me, you, all us powerless souls in the Censor's household. But what about the rest?"

Her heart rushes with the same realization she needs to kindle in him. He swivels on his heel, his jaw and lips clenched tight. She says, "We can't be the only ones who lost to the Censor of Maps. What if he'd erased my old life while I walked on the far side of Lundun? The far side of the world? There must be thousands who never made it to his household. Tens of thousands."

Gideon pries her grip from his arm. "I imagine there are. I've lain awake many nights, worrying about them. But we can only help the people within our reach." He squeezes her hand, more firm than comforting. "Emma, nobody needs to know what I found today. But you have to swear to never do its like again. I can't suspend the Guild's rules for you."

She could nod, and give her oath, and live a life of service. Or, rather, someone else could; shecannot. Whatever cause she once fought for, she is no meek soul, resigned to whatever shape the Censor decreed.

"I won't promise that, Gideon. I shouldn't. Hear me out." She releases his hand. She cannot compel him, cannot deceive him, not for what she needs. All she can do is trust him, and hope one thing matters to him more than the narrow circle of his guild.

She says, "If you let me help, you can bring an end to the Censor of Maps. No one will ever again run through Lundun's streets emptied of everything but bitterness. And on the way, we'll make the Attendant's Guild greater than you've ever imagined."

Gideon steps back and straightens his shirt collar. "You're not making sense."

"Our guild, Gideon. And others like it, even if we have to establish them ourselves. It'll be slow work, but the Censor will have no way to fight back." She grasps his hand, squeezes, then forces herself to let go. "The aristocracy kneels beneath his pen, but we can knit the people of Lundun into organizations that need no borders."

He glances at the window. Clouds thread across the sky, dimming the sun one grain at a time. Gideon draws the master's golden seal from his waistcoast pocket, and rolls the wax disc between his thumb and forefinger. "First we go down to dinner. Afterward, you and I will sit down, and you'll tell me more." The seal shatters in his fingers.

She lets him take the lead, down toward the servants' hall. As his black-clad figure descends the stairs, she pauses at the threshold and tugs free her hairpin. A gilded peacock, its shaft honed to a razor's edge. She leaves it on her dresser. Not something a house maid needs, when she has better ways to protect her household and fill the blank spaces of her life.

The rest of the world would never learn the name of Emma Saint-John, but she would rewrite it nonetheless.

This story originally appeared in Mind Candy (Myriad Paradigm).


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Benjamin C. Kinney

Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and the Assistant Editor at the Hugo-nominated science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod.

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