The Map of the One Hundred And Eighty-One Seas
by Matt Thompson
The Emperor of the Fish flapped his gills at the writhing, agonised figure pinned to the reef before him. Maidens, their egg sacs awaiting the cool fecundations of his sperm, swished their tails in alarm as the intruder-cum-prisoner, blood swirling upwards from his wounds towards the warmer waters above, turned his round, pale face on the Emperor and grated out a pained attempt at a laugh.
Bubbles blew from his mouth, merging with the sanguinary trails as they drifted past the proscenium arch of coral that overlooked the temple. His own gills opened and closed in tandem with his spasms of merriment, although none of them could see anything especially amusing about the situation he had found himself in.
“Tell me once more,” rumbled the Emperor, resplendent on his mighty throne, “what you saw in that place.”
“My Lord,” the creature gasped, his long, bony appendages clutching at nothing, “I saw a city. A great city, filled with sea urchins, crabs, oysters...”
“Yes, yes,” came the reply. “I know all that. But what did you see?”
The prisoner, his strength visibly beginning to wane, pulled hopelessly at the spikes of coral that held him fast. Neither fish nor bird nor whale nor worm, his foul demeanour had struck horror into the hearts of the court when they first laid eyes on him. Tubular limbs extended from his torso, making him resemble a pale, fleshy starfish, and dark strands of hair wafted around a head that looked like nothing so much as a sea anemone perched atop a turtle’s skull.
He strained at the skewers again. The guards, their crab claws snapping in the currents that flowed past the sunken temple of the Emperor, hovered in readiness for the kill. So he spoke.
“Emperor,” he gasped, “I saw there a sight not intended for the eyes of one such as I, a lowly creature indeed. I saw” — he paused, his audience on tenterhooks — “I saw, your Highness, the houses of cartographers. And in them, in the shelled caverns where they drew their maps, I saw, my Lord, an old mapmaker. His scales were flaked away, o Mighty One of the Seas, and his eyes were almost blind. But still he drew, still he scored the delicate lines and beauteous curves that proscribe the routes of the world, the stairways and whirlpools of the one hundred and eighty seas, the—”
“Sire!” the Emperor’s Consul spoke out. “Do not trust this creature! See, he speaks with a noble tongue, but his words are a maze of half-truths and outright lies. No such place exists! I beg of you, do not listen to him.”
At the Emperor’s right fin, the Empress remained silent, only the tension apparent in the curve of her backbone betraying her true feelings.
The Emperor gestured to one of the guards, who reached out a pincer and closed it over the prisoner’s mouth. The babbling ceased.
“So,” the Emperor bubbled, “why are you telling me this? You, who trespassed into the High Kingdom of the Fish? You, who lied and wriggled and pleaded when you were brought before me? Why should I trust you, thief? For that is what you are, is it not?”
The guard loosened its grip. Her wretched victim attempted a sardonic smile, failing in the endeavour and merely wincing instead. A fresh trail of blood exuded into a current and floated upwards. “My liege” — he grimaced in pain once more — “allow me to finish. For it was not an ordinary map that I saw. Oh no, Emperor. What I saw, there in that dark hovel, was the true map of the world. Not just the one hundred and eighty oceans, not just that. No, no, no...”
He trailed off, and seemed to lose consciousness for a second or two. The guard reached out again and nipped at one of his webbed feet. The creature jerked upright, confused. “What...? Oh, yes. Forgive me, sire. Now, where was I?”
The Emperor sighed. “I think I’ve heard enough. Guard!” And the crabs clacked their mandibles.
“Sire!” the creature cried out in dismay. “Hear me out! For, as I said, I saw the true map of our world. The seas we all know, yes, but not just them. For I saw also, your most excellent Lordship, the Maps of the Sky!”
The crabs halted, frozen in wonder. The Emperor leaned forward, his throne of seaweed floating away, forgotten, into the inky depths behind him. One of his courtiers, a crimson and gold pufferfish, cried out. “The... the sky?!”
The Emperor turned his great head to the source of the intrusion. He unfolded the sarcous length of his tongue out and devoured the miscreant whole, a faint cry of outrage audible as the courtier disappeared into his gullet. He turned back to his prisoner. “The sky, you say?”
“’Tis the truth, o Glorious One,” the creature said. “Far away, beyond the eddies and swells of our home, the yellow meadows of the sky rise to the Heavens. And, my liege, I saw in that atlas the treasures that reside there. Plankton, sire, and shrimp, and the leviathans of the air. And beautiful ladies, o Emperor, their scales glistening in the rays of the sun, their sacs bursting with eggs. I saw it, I swear!”
The Emperor paused for thought. For minutes on end he hovered on a light current, bloating his belly in and out as he concentrated. His captive pulled feebly at the spikes holding him in place once more, to no avail. No one dared make a sound.
Finally, the Emperor spoke. “And?”
“And?” The thief frowned. “And what, o Great One?”
“Well, where is this map? You stole it, I presume?” The Emperor swam up to him, his vast shape looming over the quailing figure. He thrust his face towards his hostage. “Being the thief that you are.”
“In a way, o Benevolent Light of the Seas, I did.” A crafty look came to the pale, tortured face, the Emperor’s visage not two inches from his. “For you are right. I am a thief. But not of the kind you think. For I, sire, am a thief of knowledge.
“I, Emperor of the Oceans, hold in my memory the manuscripts of the ancients, the secrets of the Ones who skimmed the face of the water in the Beginning. I know the ways of the sharks, the thoughts of the octopus. I can sing you the songs of the swells, the symphonies of the tempests, the tales of the tides. I, my Lord—”
“Thief,” the Emperor interrupted, “do be quiet.”
The thief ceased his prattle once more. The Emperor thought a while. “And you remember every detail of these maps?” he said. “The currents that carry the Swooping Demons to the breeding grounds of the Coldest Sea? The passages through the vortices that rise from the Great Southern Ocean? The hidden pathways across the reefs of the Warmest Deeps?”
“I do, my Lord.”
“Every vent of the Belching Fireways? Every curlicue of the Turquoise Pools? Every gust of the winter winds?”
“Yes, yes, yes! I do, I do, I do, I...”
“I see.” The Emperor spoke to his Consul. “Bring me the mapmaker.”
The Emperor’s Consul blanched. “But... but, sire! Do you not remember? You ordered him put to death, o Noble one, when he refused to depict the Third Ocean of the West in the likeness of your magnificence as you had commanded.”
“Hmm. I’d forgotten about that.” The Emperor took to brooding again.
“Your Eminence,” came the hesitant, agonised voice of the thief. “A cartographer would no more be able to chart the Maps of the Sky from my description than he would the Maps of the Seas from the undulations of a jellyfish. No, Emperor.”
His gills flapped and gurgled, the grotesque form of his body slumping down as his life force dwindled. He mumbled on. “Only I am able to show you the way. Only I, my Lord, only I, I, I...” He broke off into a racking sob, his head drooping.
The Emperor, looking more decisive now, levered a fin beneath the creature’s chin and gazed into its face. “Then, thief,” he said, “I shall learn from you.”
And with that, he opened his vast jaws wide and gobbled the thief up.
The courtiers gasped as one. The Egg Maidens, in their shock, loosed a volley of spawn from their ovaries, crying out in bewilderment as the eggs drifted away, unfertilised. The Empress, her face calm, moved not a muscle.
The Emperor swished his tail in satisfaction, creating a surge of water that nearly bowled one or two of his sycophants over. He attempted a belch. Frowning, he tried again. There was a choking sound. His face turning a frightening shade of yellow, he began to convulse in a panicked attempt to expectorate the blockage from his maw, gagging all the while.
One of the crab guards sidled forwards to assist him. At a signal from the Emperor’s Consul, the second guard reached out a claw and snipped her cohort’s head clean off. Her victim, eyestalks still swivelling this way and that as they floated away, flailed helplessly in a circle, her anus exuding a steady stream of excreta as her movements began to weaken.
The Emperor, meanwhile, had expanded his torso to at least double its usual size in his efforts to clear his passageways. He thrashed his fins around him, churning the water and battering immense chunks of coral away from the reef in his agony.
The courtiers scattered as the arch above them was smashed to smithereens, their voices screeching in blind terror. Still the Empress gazed benevolently on. Her husband’s gills exuded an angry, final stream of bubbles.
With a vast, dissatisfied sigh, his motion ceased. The enormous body, scales glinting in the luminescence that shone out from what remained of the reef, drifted down to the sand that covered the ocean bed, and lay still.
The courtiers, after a while, crept quietly back to their places without a word.
The silence was broken by the Empress’s Consul, soon to be Emperor himself, or so he hoped. “Well,” he said, “that’s that, then.”
“It is,” said the Empress, and in one sinuous movement she reared up above the Consul and swallowed him down. She gulped, heavily, and gazed around her. “Does anybody else wish to join my husband, or his adviser?” she said.
The line of flatterers mutely shook their heads no.
“Good. In that case, someone can get rid of that thing.” She gestured towards the bloated body that had once been the Emperor of the Fish, feared throughout the one hundred and eighty — or was it one hundred and eighty one? — seas. “And we can get on with changing things up a bit around this place.”
The surviving guard sidled its way along the seabed and, not without some difficulty, hoisted the Emperor’s carcass from where it drifted on the sand. She reached inside its mouth with her free claw and clumsily extracted the corpse of the thief. Gingerly balancing the disgusting thing on the tips of her pincers, she made a gesture to the Empress with her antennae.
“Hmm? Oh, that. I was surprised the poison worked, to tell you the truth. Certainly without killing the both of them. And I was even more surprised that thief came up with such a good story. Shame he never got to finish it.” And a thoughtful look came to her.
“A most inventive plan, my Lady,” said a courtier, his tail trembling. “My congratulations on the efficacious execution of your—”
But he never got to finish his fulsome praise for her endeavours. The Empress dove towards him and seized him in her jaws. “My Ladyyyy!” he wailed, and his voice echoed away into her craw. The Empress regarded the remaining courtiers, a severe expression on her face. They shuffled their fins, not a one of them daring to speak.
“I need,” she said, a ray of sunlight piercing the skin of the sea and suffusing her in a golden glow, “a thief.”
Copyright © 2016 by Matt Thompson