The Wardrobe of Metaphysical Maps

The first map Isabella found in the Wardrobe of Metaphysical Maps was the great golden globe that tracked the overlapping spheres of power and influence exercised in Florens by the great families and guild masters and pontifical councils and of course her new husband the duke himself. It turned at a fascinated touch from Isabella’s fingertips, betraying the state of affairs impressionistically through shifting lines and imprecise shading. Names and titles flashed past that Isabella had only just begun to attach to faces. She was still studying it when Baldesar di Casatico, whose name seamed a particularly indented splotch, came out of the Hall of Lilies and said, “Will you come, your highness? The Masters of the Major Arts are waiting.”

Isabella let the globe go. “What is this?”

“That? The old duchess made it. She had a particular interest in maps, as you can see.”

Isabella glanced around. The room was lined with glass-fronted cases. Everywhere she looked, charts and maps and crabbed diagrams inhabited gleaming shelves. She stole another glance at the globe. “Who is Anna?” she asked.

Baldesar’s shoulders jerked. “The duke will be waiting, your highness,” he said, after a noticeable moment. “Will you come?”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’ll come.”

That was the first time Isabella heard the name of her husband’s mistress, but not, of course, the last.


It was not the fact that her husband had a mistress. Isabella had been prepared for that by her mother, who had told her practical things about his family’s reputation and how to handle any other women there might be, and as Isabella had been brought up alongside the children of her own father’s mistresses she was not much shocked to find out her husband had one too. What did irk Isabella, though, was that Anna’s impression on the globe was so much heavier than hers. Only Baldesar’s imprint compared. In contrast, Isabella was nowhere to be seen.

She abandoned the globe in disgust. Beside the doors to the Hall of Lilies were wide, flat map-drawers; she pulled one out. Between tissue paper, charts crackled. Isabella eased out the uppermost and spread it on the table in the middle of the room.

It looked like a map of Florens, but all the names, when Isabella looked closely, were wrong. When she looked more closely still, she began to see other errors: misplaced bridges, inverted palazzos, streets that bent the wrong way. The next map put a wilderness where the Palazzo Ducale should have been and two rivers where there was only one. Isabella was frowning at the third, which had abandoned roads and rivers and was labelled A Mirror of the Virtues and Vices of Federico da Cignano, when Baldesar came in.

“Baldesar,” Isabella said, “was the old duchess mad?”

“A little eccentric, perhaps. Why?”

“These maps… are any of them real?”

“Honestly, your highness, I’ve never looked. Did you mean to join the hunt? His highness wishes to know.”

Hunting swept Isabella out of the city to uncharted woods, or at least to woods not charted on any of the old duchess’s maps. She chased her husband between the trees and made him laugh, but the next time she checked the globe in the Wardrobe of Metaphysical Maps her imprint remained a pin-prick in Anna’s sprawling domain. Annoyed, Isabella flung open a cabinet, where The Court of the Duke of Florens at a Scale of One Inch to One Lady-in-Waiting flared colour from its frame.

The compass rose pointed towards His Highness’s Pleasure, with other points including Her Highness’s Favour and His Mistress’s Interests. Symbols staked out debts and marital alliances and the significance of submerged feuds. The more Isabella looked, the more sense the map made.

“Children,” she said, tracing one particular path to its satin-clad end. “Legitimate heirs. Very well.”


She couldn’t find a map of the way round her husband’s infertility. That didn’t stop her trying.


The last map Isabella found in the Wardrobe of Metaphysical Maps had been pinned to the underside of the table with tin tacks that had turned the paper brown. She had given up on the globe and the duke by then, largely because the duke had given up on her, as far as legitimate heirs went, and Anna’s vast empire still showed no signs of falling. “I want a new table in here,” Isabella said, and in the process of removing the old one A Spiritual Geography of Melancholy and Merriment was found.

She took the map into the Hall of Lilies. The colours had faded, but Isabella counted out the old duchess’s landmarks easily enough on the crisp paper. Marriage. Miscarriages. Mistresses. Stillborn and short-lived children. On the sunnier side, the single son, the courtly splendour, the literary life full of music and hunting and dancing. A bright road snaked between sombre spectacles. Isabella ran her fingertip along it thoughtfully.

Under her finger, the map warped and reformed. Now the map splashed shades of subdued greys and lilacs in subtler contours. Isabella recognised her own disappointments sketched out in the old duchess’s penwork.

“Baldesar?” she said, as the door opened. “Have you seen this?”

She smiled up at him. He looked down curiously. Isabella covered the key with her hand.

She had seen where the old duchess’s road had taken her and it had not expanded the lady’s impression on the golden globe. But power was not what this map showed. Power was not what had made the old duchess happy. Perhaps it would not make Isabella happy either.

What might pulsed under her finger like a heartbeat. “What do you think?” she said.

© Julia August. First published in Grendelsong in 2016.