I've written a lot about what it takes to create a new adventure hero from scratch — and now you can read a story where I tried to do just that. My story "The Cartography of Sudden Death" just appeared at Tor.com story "The Cartography of Sudden Death" just appeared at Tor.com, and it introduces Jemima Brookwater, a time traveler who helps one person every time she travels.
Illustration by Richard Anderson/Tor.com.
Jemima Brookwater comes from a distant future, where the superscience of metaphysics has solved a lot of our problems. But after she discovers a unique method of traveling through time, she finds herself trapped in the Gaven Empire, a horrible period on Earth's history that lasted for hundreds of years and included atrocities that would make your brain boil to contemplate. She keeps jumping through time trying to get back to the future she comes from, but somehow she always seems to arrive at another point during the Gaven Empire's long history.
How does she travel? Without giving away too much, let's just say she needs someone important and famous to die unexpectedly, creating lots of ripples in causality. She searches out deaths that were already "supposed" to happen according to her history books. Other time travelers, however, aren't so scrupulous.
Here's how it begins:
Ythna came to the Beldame's household when she was barely old enough to walk. They took her from the nursery block in the middle of the night, with nothing but the simple koton robe she was wearing, and carried the tiny girl to a black shiny vehicle, a Monopod. Sitting in the back, wearing a neat gray uniform and matching black gloves and shoes, was an Officiator, who asked the young Ythna some questions. The next thing she knew, she was riding a white cage on a wire over the mountains, up to the gilded fortress where she would serve the Beldame for the rest of her days, if she was lucky.
Ythna forgot the Officiator's face, or whatever else he said to her, but she would always remember what he said as she stepped, barefoot, out of the cage as the sun rose over the golden house. He knelt before her and spoke gently: "You are but one of a thousand retainers to the Beldame. But each of you is a finger, or a toe. Your movements are her movements. Do not make her a disgrace."
Ythna lived in a tiny yellow dormitory room with nine other small children, all of them sharing white-and-red uniforms and eating from the same dispensary. Ythna learned to read and write basic Gaven texts, and worked in the cavernous kitchen and boiler room of the golden fortress, which was called Parathall. At night, the other children teased Ythna and pinched her in places where the bruises wouldn't show on her golden-brown skin, under her retainer uniform. Two girls, the pale, blonde Maryn and the olive-toned Yuli, appointed themselves the rulers of Children's Wing, and if Ythna didn't please Maryn and Yuli she found herself sealed inside a small wooden linen box, suffocating, sometimes overnight.
Every moment people weren't looking, Ythna wept into her loose sleeve. Until one day when she brought some hot barley wine to the Beldame herself, doing the five-point turn as she'd been taught, ending up on one knee with the tray raised before the wrought iron chair.
Ythna was eight or nine years old, and she made sure not to look at the Beldame's white round face, as she knelt. But in Ythna's eagerness to avoid looking on her mistress, she found herself gazing, instead, at the papers the Beldame was studying. Ythna started reading them, until the Beldame noticed.
"You can read that?" the Beldame said.
Ythna nodded, terrified.
"And tell me, what do you think of it?" the Beldame asked.
Ythna stammered at first, but at last she shared a few thoughts about the document, which dealt with the rebellious offworld colonists, and the problems with maintaining order in the fringes of the Empire here on Earth. The Beldame asked more questions, and Ythna answered as best she could. After that, the Beldame sent her away—but then Ythna found herself chosen to bring food and drink to the Beldame often. And sometimes, the Beldame would invite her to sit for a moment at her feet, and talk to her.
Years passed. One day, word came that the Beldame was going to be elevated to the Emperor's Thousand, so she would be in the same direct relationship to the Emperor that the Beldame's thousand retainers were to her. There would be a massive ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Emperor, at which the Beldame would be given a steel thimble, symbolizing the fact that she was becoming one of the Emperor's own fingers. Ythna couldn't even imagine that she could be one-thousandth of the woman who was one-thousandth of the Emperor. She watched the sunrise between the mountain peaks below the Beldame's arched picture windows and laughed at the floor brush in her hand.
"A lot is going to change for all of us," said Maryn, who had grown into a striking young woman who still bossed around the other retainers. "Strange foods, new places. All the more reason to keep our behavior perfect. The Beldame is counting on us."
Ythna said nothing. She was still smaller than Maryn, barely noticeable except for her ribbons of long black hair, down to her waist, and the way she ran through the stone passages of the fortress, her bare feet as silent as snow melting, when nobody else was around.
The day came nearer, and they all traveled for a week by steam truck and Monopod to the Tomb of the Unknown Emperor. At last, they saw it in the distance, looming over the plains: a great structure, shaped like an old letter M, with two great pillars supporting the black canopy. The Unknown Emperor had lain in state for over a hundred years there, behind a faceless statue that raised one hand to the people who'd served him without knowing his name.
They all lined up in rows, the thousand of them, at the base of the Tomb, while the Beldame climbed to the very top. Some of the retainers were playing small bells, and sweet smoke was coming up out of brass pipes all around them. The Officiators were leading Ythna and the others in ceremonial chants. Ythna could see the tiny figure of the Beldame, emerging on top of the structure, as the Emperor himself bestowed the thimble on her. A voice, one of the Chief Officiators, spoke of the hundreds of years of tradition they honored today.
Ythna thought that she could not be any more deliriously proud than she was at this moment, watching her friend and mistress elevated. Her only wish was that she could see the Beldame Thakrra up close at this moment, to behold the look on Thakrra's face.
A second later, Ythna had her desire. The Beldame lay on the ground directly in front of her, lying on her back, her small body broken by the fall from the top of the structure. Her gentle, lined face was still recognizable, inside her brocaded robe and twelve-peaked silken hat, but she had no expression at all, and blood was leaking out all over the ground, until it lapped against Ythna's bare feet. She could not help but panic that maybe her selfish wish had caused this to happen.
Next to Ythna, Maryn saw the Beldame's corpse and began wailing in a loud, theatrical fashion. The other retainers heard Maryn and followed her lead, making a sound like a family of cats. Ythna, meanwhile, could barely choke out a single tear, and it hurt like a splinter coming out.
Frantic to avoid seeing the Beldame like this, Ythna looked up—just as a strange woman stepped out of the nearest pillar in the Tomb. The woman had long curly red hair under a pillbox hat shaped like one of the lacquered discs where the Beldame had kept her spare monocles. She had a sharp nose and chin, and quick gray eyes. And she wore a long black coat, with embroidered sleeves and shoulders, and shiny brass buttons with cords looping around them. She looked like a commanding general from an old-fashioned foreign army.
The red-haired woman stepped forward, looked around, and took in the scene. Then she said a curse word in a language that Ythna had never heard, and slipped away around the side of the Tomb, before anybody else noticed her.
Check out the rest of it over at Tor.com!