The Red Cord

Issue #82

I wear my mother’s soul around my neck.

I do not know if it suits me. It was not a thing I chose, the way the well-born ladies dye the ribbons for their hair. I took my mother’s soul from her when I was born, my first unknowing act in this world, and now I wear the red cord for it, to show the rest what I am.

I am two-souled, and so I am sought by those who wish to learn what my other soul sees. My silent passenger, my dark navigator, my other eyes.

I am not much liked in the tea-houses, but I am welcomed nonetheless. They know that when I take my place at a table in the corner—at a window, maybe, if there is a window free; I like to see outside—word will spread and the curious will come. They drift over by ones or twos, wary or wondering or pretending boisterous nonchalance. They will none of them leave quite the same.

I do not know why people wish to know their fortunes. I think they think it a gift, my second soul, a kind of blessing: the power to soften blows to come, the warning word to avert disaster. But that is not how it works. Disaster is our native element. There is no ink in this world that can rewrite the marks inscribed on us from birth. What I do is not a kindness.

Tonight my business will be slow. The tea-house I have chosen is halfway full, but the men who share the better number of its common benches rustle in their grim livery, black-mantled and plain. The Ordained of the Citadel do not need their futures read; they have none. Their holy sacrament threads its slow black poison through their veins, and these men are numbered among the dead already, every one. The martyred Sons of Margery. I wonder how many futures and fortunes she might have seen, their long-dead prophet; she who has harvested so many strong souls. With how many pairs of closed eyes must she have charted the rocky narrows of lives not her own?

I ought to find another place, a more likely prospect, but I am tired and last night’s readings still fray the edges of my heart, and maybe I would like to just sit here in this corner at the window and sip my almond-fragrant tea and breathe in the quiet company of the futureless. My cards remain wrapped in their twist of scarlet silk at my elbow. I have brought business here before and the proprietor respects me; there is no charge for my tea, nor for the dish of honeyed fruit and lemmas-seeds the house-girl sets before me, her eyes sliding away from mine. Her own business will be slow tonight as well, in a house full of dead men.

Last night is a refrain I hear whenever I turn my head. There are the bright and rising notes: the beloved’s heart delivered, two sought-for marriages, a child conceived and a compact concluded. The soft and shining light in a girl’s face as she heard the start of her own tale. But the start of a tale is where all the promises lie.

I have extinguished that flame in a face at least as often as I have seen it kindled. It is the thing they call my gift.

The rest of the song of last night is the old dark unwelcome chorus. A late-season drowning, an errant spouse, a child lost to mist-rise. The infant lost before it lives. Fire and pox and faceless and all the smaller daily crises, slower but no softer. Ordinary catastrophe.

Is there such a creature? All catastrophe feels extraordinary to the one caught in its tide. It is no comfort to the ones I read, to say to them, This thing is ordinary, this thing that will happen to you.

Why do I tell them these things? Because I am honest, perhaps. An honest fortune-teller. People make the old joke: there is no such thing. But it isn’t our honesty that fails you. The ones like me, the ones who will tell you everything, you do not believe, or pretend not to believe. You will find instead another, who will tell you I see a ship full of silver, a handsome stranger, and you will believe that because it pleases you to do so, and when ship and stranger fail you, you will blame us all, even the honest.

It is my gift and my charge. It is my ordinary catastrophe, to share nightly all of theirs.

None of these men, the men in this tea-house tonight, cares. They spoke their vows and took their poison, and now they sit and drink their tea in the companionable quiet of men without hope. It is a comfortable place, that quiet. The other patrons—there are other patrons, a few—lower their voices, gentle their own gestures, touched by the dark company even as they avert their eyes. None of them will come over here tonight, to me, not so long as the black knights remain. It would be ill form, to look for one’s own future in a house full of men with none. I should leave, and I will not. I like it here, among the dead.

The tea-house door opens on a low chime of bells and a trio of gaily-dressed young men spills in, bright birds of evening, all laughing disarray. There is a young woman with them, propped between. She has the glaze-eyed distant stare of hathrim, her hair and clothes disordered, and I don’t need to touch the cards at my elbow to see disasters in her path.

The gathered Ordained at their benches and tables look up and then away again, disinterested, but the laughing men in the doorway falter just the same. It would dampen their fun, no doubt, this grim company, and so they will take their stumbling prize elsewhere.

There is another, though, in the doorway behind them. As they turn, as they make to take their leave, this one slips among them like a knife between ribs and takes the stumbling girl from them gently by her elbows. The girl tries to look over her shoulder, but the hathrim has dulled her movements and her head only lolls strangely. One of the youths, not laughing now, starts to speak, and the new one, the stranger, says something quietly and low. The young men fall back and I see why.

It is a Courier: one of the Citadel’s dangerous pets. I wonder what draws this one out tonight, on what dark task her masters have unleashed her. It is the uniform that marks her apart: the cinched high-necked black coat and high black boots, the gloves. She is a slight, uneasy shadow spilled across the doorway merriment, crow among the songbirds, and she clasps the unsteady girl’s elbows in her black-gloved hands and regards the three bright youths placidly. She is a shade their size, shoulder-height to the least of the lot, but there will be no challenge to this creature’s supremacy here. One does not argue with a soulless.

Not soulless in the way of my dead mother, whose stolen soul I wear around my neck, but one of the living soulless. An aberrant.

The creature smiles now at the bright boys, and they recoil before the look as from a snarling dog. Without a word or gesture they turn and tumble from the tea-house, and she stands where she is and holds the swaying girl almost tenderly against her. I do not love the soulless—no one loves the soulless—but for this one, briefly, I would like almost to cheer.

It is an errant thought, an idle thought, but one should not think thoughts errant or idle in the presence of a soulless. One never knows to which they are listening. The creature turns its head and the mild gaze finds me. Almost she smiles again and I feel a prickle, the first rise of the clenching fear that drove those boys out onto the street. But then her eyes slide from me and the fear is gone with them, brief cloud’s shadow across the sun.

She turns her head and the house-girl is there at her shoulder, grim and dutiful; the two of them together manage the hathrim­-addled girl across the room to a vacant booth. The aberrant steps away and the house-girl draws a curtain so that the vacant child can return to herself in privacy.

A few of the Ordained have noted the aberrant’s arrival and are watching her now incuriously. If any of them knows the creature’s business here, none of them speaks it. She looks at none of them. Instead she does the thing I have been half-dreading since the glance of a moment past: she turns and crosses the room to me.

I try at first not to look up at her, which is foolish. You cannot pretend not to notice a thing that reads minds. That is what the soulless do: they read minds, as I read futures. They see the thoughts of others arrayed before them as cleanly as I see cards on a table. It occurs to me that we might have things in common, this creature and I, and so I do look up at her now.

She is smiling at me. It is not the passing predator’s smile of before, the chill cloud-shadow, but a quizzical, almost assessing look. I feel as though I am being gently weighed in the crook of that smile.

I do not like the look of her. The smile widens even as I think it and I cringe inwardly. But what is the point of that, the cringing, either? There is nothing that is not laid bare to this creature—not unless you are one of the already-dead, the bleak men in their black livery—and so I raise the angle of my chin, defiant, and look her in the eyes and think what I am thinking.

She looks like a thing that crawled from under a rock. She is formed like a person, I mean; if she were colored differently she might be a girl, an ordinary one. Her mouth is a little too wide, her nose a little too long, her eyes set too far apart in a way that gives her a curiously unfocused look. She is not unfocused. She is measuring me. But her skin is white and her hair is white—her hair is close-cropped like a boy’s, and stands up unevenly in a way that suggests wind—and her eyes are a very pale grey, smoke in winter. She is colorless, and the effect is unpleasant.

I have seen the soulless before, everyone has, and usually to the ordinary they are only identifiable by their uniforms, and the marks they hide beneath their gloves. But this one does not even look human.

Uninvited and unwanted, she sits down. Not in the chair across, the client-chair, but companionably in the seat at my elbow. She puts her own elbows on the table. I can feel her continued gaze like a draft against my skin, though I am not looking at her any more. I pick up my tea again.

“Will you say my future, fortune-teller?” the soulless asks. I cannot tell if she is joking. There is no suggestion of it in her voice, but there is no suggestion of anything: her voice is as colorless as her person. It is low, a little hoarse at its edge, and there is a slight clipped cadence to her speech like an accent. But there is no color.

I set my tea down again and fold my hands before me. “I cannot.”

“Why is that, fortune-teller?”

Now I turn my head and look at her. “You have no soul. How can I see its path?”

I do not know if I was expecting her to take offense, but the creature does not. She nods at me, once. After a moment she asks, “Do you see your own?”

I hesitate. “No.”

This interests her. She cocks her head. “Why not?”

I could be glib, or sage, use any of the dozen careful answers I have used in the past. But this creature is looking into me, and there is no point. “Because I don’t want to.”

She nods. “What do you think you might see?”

I don’t know why she is asking me these questions, making polite conversation. She can see all the answers already. Cards on a table. I reply anyway. “I don’t know. I don’t want to know.”

Again the soulless nods. “It is difficult, to see the things that others cannot. To keep their secrets for them, and from them. It is not a thing one chooses.”

I look at her, the colorless creature in her stern black coat. She is looking at me. I cannot read her.

She leans forward abruptly and puts her elbows on the table. She touches her own throat thoughtfully and looks at the red cord knotted around mine. “I have a task to perform,” she says.

I nod. She looks through me.

“It is not a task I chose. It is not a task I would have chosen. I would like to see the end of it.” She reaches a hand inside her coat and half-draws out a folded corner of a parchment, fingering it absently. She is a Courier, of course. Almost I wonder what ill word the letter contains, and for whom, but then I do not; it is wisest not to consider the business of the Citadel. The aberrant smiles at me and it is a sorrowful sort of look. “You could tell me the end of it, could you not?”

I shake my head at her. “I cannot see a soul’s path if there is no soul.”

“Have you tried?”

The question stills me. I have not tried. I have never looked at the future of a soulless one before, because why would I? What is there to see? It seems almost blasphemous to suggest the thing she is suggesting, particularly in this house on this night, the room full of martyred men. A tremor of the illicit goes through me at the prospect, and almost I reach for my cards then. She sees it, and the smile takes on a sharper edge, wolflike. She leans forward and says to me, in a sweet low way, “You do this thing for me. Do this thing for me, fortune-teller, and I will give you a gift.”

I don’t know if it is the illicit way of the request that thrilled me a moment ago, or the coaxing note in her voice, or the prospect of an unknown gift—what gift could an aberrant offer one of the ordinary, one of the souled?—or if there is something more sinister, some cold power coiled behind her pale eyes, that has me setting aside my tea and reaching for my cards. Maybe I would just like to believe it is the last.

The aberrant sits back and smiles at me again, very slightly. I begin to unwind the silk, watching the cards and not her strange face.

“What are you called?” she asks me.

“Tharil,” I tell her, still watching the cards. The silk comes free and I set the stack of cards aside and shake the scarlet cloth wide, let it settle on the tabletop.

“We are the same,” she says, and I look up at her now.

“What?”

She reaches out and touches my throat, fingers the red cord tied there. I try not to flinch back. Her gloved fingertips are smooth and chill.

“We have each the wrong number of souls,” she says, and withdraws her hand to fold it with the other on the tabletop. I remember how to breathe again.

I want to touch my throat myself, to feel the familiar knot, but instead I take up the stack of cards from beside me, set them on the silk on the table. I begin to sift the cards through my fingers.

“There,” she says, and I stop. She reaches between my hands and draws a card out gently, turns it over. We look at it together.

It is the Serpent.

The face of a maiden gazes up at me, a pretty, painted face, but it is a mask: behind the mask, coiling down, is the spiraling golden-scaled length of the serpent’s body. Each of its scales is inscribed with a letter or a sign; none of them makes a word in any tongue known to any living person.

I say softly, touching the card with the tips of my fingers, “Deceit.” The aberrant, beside me, makes no reply. “Disguise, misdirection, betrayal.”

She sits forward wordlessly and draws a second card from between my hands and lays it beside the first. There is a dark expanse of roiling blue-green, beneath a red and storming sky. A small black ship like a thrust spearhead rides the tumult. “The Sea,” I say. “Disaster, failure, a fall. An end.”

The aberrant makes a soft noise now, but when I look at her face her expression is as mild and colorless as before. I cannot tell if there is a certain tension in the line of her jaw or the set of her shoulders. She nods at me, once, and reaches for a third card.

A blind white figure, neither male nor female, gazes eyelessly up at us. Behind and around it, all is darkness. The figure seems alight by contrast. “Oh,” I say. It is a card I do not often see. I touch it, adjust its alignment on the silk with the others. The aberrant looks to me. “The Star,” I tell her. “Secrets and promises. Beginning.”

The soulless sits back and smiles at me. Without looking down at them again, she touches first the Star and then the Sea. “And this—beginning—comes after this. An end.”

I nod at her. She draws her gloved hand back. The colorless gaze is steady on my face. “Tell me what it means.”

I reach for the dish of grey salt the house-girl has set at the table’s edge, take a pinch of it between my fingers and place it on my tongue. I close my eyes against the sharp dissolvent flavor, and my mother’s soul opens its inward own.

The Serpent, the Sea, and the Star.

There is a yellow road in the green countryside, and a black river winding like a serpent, and there is blinding pain, pain white-hot and splitting the seams of the world. It is hard to describe, the pain like a sheet of ice across the view.

The pain breaks and I am alone in a landscape of ice, a white expanse. The night sky is haunted with ghostfire, blue and wild. I am not alone after all: there is someone at my shoulder and I turn to speak, and then it shifts again and there is a forest and a black tower, and a man I do not know, a man in the black surcoat of an Ordained, and for a moment that almost brings me stumbling to a halt. There is a dead man in her future. He lifts ice-pale eyes and looks right at me. His face is badly scarred. My heart wrings. And then he is whirled away.

I am seeing things now faster than I can decipher them. I speak them as fast as I can, as best I can, in a low and toneless way. Words tumble from my throat, welling up behind the red cord.

There is a yellow road, and there are shadows between trees, some terrible stalking darkness, there is a clash of arms and horses, men in terror, and then the world is swimming strangely and I am looking through the bars of a cart, I am in a cell and speaking to someone there, in the reeking darkness, there is the dead man’s scarred face again, he is speaking and his voice is a low thrill like music in my veins. There is fire and there is a procession in darkness and a warm room and the smell of linden, and there is a great ceremonial place, banners red and black and a high vaulted chamber with motes in the light and a crowd of people waiting, solemn assemblage and I am holding my breath, holding my head high—now I am the one whirled away. I am still talking, there are still things reeling past me, in the eyes of my other soul, my mother’s soul, but I cannot make sense of them or sort them and the words spill out of me like water.

I did not think a soulless would have a future. This one has so much future.

It snaps, a soundless break, and I am left like one drenched in icy water, alone. I take a breath and then another, and sit back. After a moment the room swims into sight again. The tea-house is as I left it, just the same.

Beside me, the aberrant stirs and leans forward. She puts a gloved hand flat on the table, and when it withdraws there are three silver coins there. It is more than I cost, it is more than I would ask, by a great deal. I do not say this. She will know it anyway. I put my hand out to take the coins and as I do, unexpectedly, the creature leans in to me. She puts a hand flat against the side of my face and throat, a dry gloved hand, and kisses me.

I do not breathe. She tastes cold and a little salt, almost metallic, but not unpleasant. Her tongue moves and I recoil then, pull away, and she is looking at me solemnly with her flat silver eyes. There is something reptilian about them, and I look away. No one in the tea-house has taken any notice, or they pretend not to.

Beside me, the aberrant gets to her feet in silence. From within the black and buckled coat she withdraws the folded document. Almost I had forgotten it. She smiles at me now. “I have a message I must bring.” She taps the edge of the document on the edge of the table and turns on her heel, toward the stairs and rooms above.

Three steps gone, she hesitates, turns back and fixes me with the empty gaze again. “Tharil,” she says. “Do one final thing for me.”

I nod at her, the silver coins cold and heavy in my hand. She smiles. “When I am gone, look to see what your cards will tell you of your own fortune.”

And then she is gone. I watch her go.

There is a weight of stone on my chest, a weight of drowning water. I do not want to do the thing she has asked of me. I arrange the three silver coins before me on the tabletop in a line, one beneath each of her chosen cards. The Serpent, the Sea, and the Star. Each coin bears identically the imprinted seal of the Citadel, tower and flame, the mark the aberrant herself must wear etched in her white skin beneath her gloves. I count the coins and I know I will do it. I will read my own cards.

When she is gone. She is not really gone yet, I tell myself. She is upstairs on her business. There is time yet for tea.

I arrange the coins again, stack one upon the other, and reach for my tea-cup.

There is a clamor of raised voices, urgency. Around the tea-house the black knights exchange looks. Four of them are on their feet; one wears emblazoned on his surcoat the white flame of a Vigilant. They make for the stairs and commotion from above. It is only then that I realize why they are all here, what they are doing. There is someone upstairs, someone important. Some unseen master of the Citadel. I sink back into my corner, gather my cards and silk before me, and watch the stairs. Boots rattle and echo above, men’s voices call back and forth. The rest of the ranked Ordained at their benches sit silent and rod-straight and watch the stairs as I am watching.

There comes the tread of boots descending, and then figures emerge into lamplight and space. There are two of the Ordained. One of them is the one wearing the white mark of a Vigilant and the other one I do not recognize; he has not been one of those seated here. Between them they are half-leading, half-dragging the aberrant. My soulless with the complicated future. The side of her face is a swelling bloom, and as they haul her past my table, toward the door, she lifts her head and smiles at me and her teeth are limned in blood. Blood smears her chin, a slash of crimson on the winter-white skin.

She raises a black-gloved hand to me, the colorless girl, in a kind of strange salute, and it is then I see the other slash of scarlet she wears. Twined among and around her gloved fingers, she is wearing a red cord. I reach reflexively and touch my neck and my own naked fingers meet with nothing. There is nothing there. She has untied my mother’s soul.

She laughs at me, the bloodied creature, to see the look on my face, and one of the men bearing her shakes her a little and her head lolls away and she is not looking at me any longer, and then they are taking her through the tea-house door in a low chiming of bells, and out into the night. The ranks of men at the tables do not move.

I touch my naked throat again. It is a thing I have never felt before. I touch my throat and feel naked and I do not know what comes next. I reach for the cards, and I turn the top one over.

It is blank. So is the next, and the one below it. They are all blank as new leaves.

I will give you a gift, fortune-teller, she said. And she took mine away.


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Wren Wallis lives in eastern Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. She is a 2016 graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, and her short fiction has appeared previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies as well as in Daily Science Fiction, Lackington's, and the Alliteration Ink anthology No Shit, There I Was. She can be found on Twitter as @invisibleinkie and online at wrenwallis.com.

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  1. […] story that ran in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, “The Red Cord,” is set in a place called the Westreth Ordinary. Or just the Ordinary, to its inhabitants. […]

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