The augur looked at the bridegroom’s back and sighed. He bent close to the bridegroom’s skin, examined every bump and line in his flesh. Most apparent were the red lines, claw marks from fingernails. A less experienced fortune teller would have seen those marks and spoken of the satisfaction of the young man’s new bride, perhaps suggested the imminent birth of a child, but the augur had done this for many years, many more years than the young man had been alive. He knew how to read the skin of a person, living or dead. He knew that there would be no happiness for the couple. There would be a child—there was already a child quickening in the bride’s belly; that much was obvious by the angles of the cuts, the swell of the muscles by the shoulder blades—but that child would be the end of them. It was as clear as dark moles on pale skin; as obvious as the ridge of a spinal column.
The augur told the bridegroom to put his clothes back on. He did not tell the bridegroom about the darkness in his future. The augur had seen other soothsayers punished when they told people things they did not want to hear, when he worked for the emperor many years ago. But the augur did not lie. He never lied. And to not tell the whole truth—that was no lie.
“You will have a daughter,” he said. “Afterwards, you will travel to the city to make your fortune.”
The bridegroom left the augur’s hut, his spirits in the clouds, babbling about the hope he had for his future.
Even so, the augur was not surprised when the squalling, pinch-faced infant appeared on his doorstep nine months later. As the village augur, it was his duty to place any unwanted child with a new family, reading everyone’s skin until he found the most fortuitous match. As he lifted the girl into his arms, she cooed and grabbed fistfuls of his beard, and the augur laughed, though it pulled at his cheeks.
The girl had seven freckles on her scalp, a brownish birthmark on her hip, and eyes like mud. The augur took careful stock of her skin, noting every hair, every wrinkle. He heard her piercing, demanding wail. She would be a fierce child. She would ask many questions. Perhaps it was best she stay with him.
The augur had been wrong once, long ago. When his beard had been the color of a raven’s wing, he had read the skin of the emperor’s back. The emperor’s flesh was smooth and soft, almost untouched by hair. The augur ran his hands along the emperor’s skin, feeling for crevices and knots. The emperor’s ribs stuck out boldly. The augur saw success and a long life and strategic wit. He did not consider the width of the emperor’s shoulders, which indicated bad luck in games of chance, or the curve through the back of his neck, signifying a tendency toward night terrors and decisions made in haste.
“The war will go well,” the augur said. “You need not be concerned.”
But the war did not go well. The armies carved gashes into the fields and turned villages to smoke. The emperor limped back to the palace with scars on his back.
The augur was banished.
The girl grew quickly. She waddled behind the augur as he collected the herbs for medicines and teas. She stomped barefoot through the village, crying loudly whenever the augur left her sight. The augur wondered if she understood that her mother was dead from childbirth and her father had forsaken her. He wondered if she sensed the loss and felt afraid that the augur would disappear as well.
The augur had no intention of disappearing. He could read on her skin that she would be cared for by an old man who was not her kin. Even his own hands bloomed with signs of the connection between them: purpling age spots between his second and third knuckles, a pooling of loose skin around his joints.
The girl’s hair grew dark and fine and covered the spots on her scalp. The augur was relieved. The seven spots foretold her death and the losses she would face along the way. That kind of knowledge could not bring anyone happiness. In the city, there were listless, pathetic men, men who had paid incredible sums of gold to know when they would die but found that it gave them no comfort, only a dreadful sense of hopelessness. He would not burden the girl like that. Instead, he put the secret into the back of his mind and carried on.
When the augur took up a cane, so did the girl. She found a stick as wide as a thumb and banged it on the ground as they walked, and they progressed through the village like a six-footed beast. She learned to hit her stick against all sorts of surfaces; the dull thud of wood on wood, the brighter sound when rock and stick met. She added rhythm as the augur went about his days. Quick beats in the morning to accompany his chores, sweeping, and tea-picking, then slow at night before bed. The augur wondered if there was something special about her drumming; that maybe a different type of augur from a distant land could understand the rhythms and learn something about the girl. He wondered if the fate a different type of augur foretold for her would be different from the one on her scalp. The augur wished he could read a better future for her; one less painful.
The augur taught the girl to read letters and numbers but not the signs of the flesh. One day, when she was as tall as a fencepost, he came back from the tea fields to see her with his augury book. The anatomical sketches spread out upon the splintered table, the pages yellow and thin as butterfly’s wings. The girl still read with her fingers, tracing them across the crumbling pages. Her red mouth moved as she whispered the words.
The augur lashed out with such haste it was as though his body had forgotten its age. His spine made a painful cracking sound, and his beard whipped about him as though there was a gale inside the hut. “This is not for you,” he said, snatching the heavy book. “There is no happiness in some knowledges.”
The girl clung to the parchment drawings. “There is no happiness in ignorance either!” she shouted. “I want to know my fate!”
The augur tore the pages from her grip. He would not lie to her. “This skill has brought me nothing but suffering,” he said, and he threw the book into the fire. The flames shot up in a torrent, with a sound that seemed to suck the air from the room. The Diviner’s Book of Augury had been priceless, worth more than everything in the whole village combined. It had been a gift, illuminated with lapis and gold. The augur felt his back straighten as he watched it burn. He felt younger than he had in years. He knew the secrets of skin and bone by heart, but at least now the girl would never learn. The more she knew of her future, the less happy she would be.
The girl cried in the smoke-choked hut. In her fist, she held a scrap of parchment. The augur recognized the illumination. It came from the page that had taught how to read the curve of a collarbone to tell a person’s capacity for love. He could not bring himself to take it from her, even though he knew he should.
Before his banishment, the augur had once been the emperor’s favorite and had been given a suite of rooms in the palace compound. Outside the augur’s window was a still pond where mallards drifted and willow trees dangled their leaves into the water. In those days, the augur wore silk and brocade in colors that made the water lilies seem dull. Many women sought him out for his skill, shivering out of their dresses so he could examine their flesh.
But the augur sought the company of only one woman, a young lady of noble birth with hair the color of the horizon at dawn and a dainty, emotive collarbone. They spent many days strolling along the edge of the pond, kissing beneath the curtain of the willow tree. He studied the skin on her hands, white as the moon. He inspected the veins in the crook of her elbow, the same blue as the pond. He considered every freckle on her shoulders; the dimple in her cheek.
But when he unlaced the ribbons of her bodice and began to read the fortune splayed across her breasts, he was filled with tears. It would not matter how great their love; the lady would marry another man, one her father would choose for her. The augur saw fortune and power folded into her sternum. Nestled between her ribs, he saw all the things he could never give her. And among them, little more than a wrinkle beneath her left breast, the augur saw himself.
The girl poked at beehives and ran wild through the woods. The augur read a fortune for a lord in a nearby village, and with the money he bought the girl a red roan mare. The girl rode fast and reckless, but the augur did not worry. She would not die of an accident in the woods or a tumble from her horse. The girl was given freedom to do as she liked. Too much freedom, the other villagers whispered, especially for a girl. The augur did not worry about this either. Their pettiness was etched onto their broad-nosed faces.
When the girl came home covered in bee stings, he made her a cooling poultice to bring down the swelling.
The girl asked him many questions. She wanted to know about everything. She asked him about every plant in their garden and every bird in the sky. She asked him about the lines on her hand, which contained the most innocuous suggestions of her future. He told her how she would be raised by an old man and grow up poor but happy. She laughed. She knew these things already. The augur never told her more about her fate; no more than she already knew.
She never brought up The Diviner’s Book of Augury, and that comforted him.
The augur’s beard began to brush the dirt floor of the hut, so he started tucking it into his belt. It was white as the tops of mountains and dangled in a way that reminded him of willow leaves. He braided it in the morning while the girl unbraided her own locks. Her hair shimmered like waves.
The augur left the girl for several days and returned with a drum of birch and goat skin. The girl was so delighted with her gift that the augur did not mind eating only porridge for months so that he had enough silver for the taxes that autumn.
The moon turned her face three more times, and the girl stopped riding her horse so fast. She trotted through the village, her chin up, the roan’s hooves drumming on the cobblestones. The young men all looked at her, not because she was beautiful but because it was impossible not to look at her. The village had never seen a girl like her before.
The girl brought home a suitor with bare arms bulging from his work in the field. His skin was tanned and his eyes the color of jade. “We’ve come to ask for your blessing,” the girl said, holding the suitor’s hand. It was so big that it swallowed her little fist like a trap around an animal’s leg. Not a good sign, the augur thought.
“I brought you this, sir.” The suitor held up a dead quail, its neck limp in a twine noose. The girl took it from him and began to pluck the feathers.
The augur did not speak.
The suitor shifted in his wide boots. There were pockmarks on his forehead, mostly hidden by his hair. They spelled misfortune.
“You will not get my blessing,” the augur said. “Take your bird and be gone.”
“Father,” the girl snapped, a burst of feathers floating to the ground around her. “Give him a chance.”
The augur took ahold of his walking stick and hoisted himself to his feet. “You may go,” he told the suitor.
The girl swept toward the augur, and, for a moment, he was afraid she would seize his cane and smack him like a disobedient child. “But look at his collarbone,” the girl said. “The angle, the curve, it means that he can love me.”
The augur felt ill. The scrap of parchment from the book. He should have never let her learn even that. He did not want to hurt the girl, to give her the weight of dread, but if he refused, her heart would be broken twice. First in anger at him, then in sorrow.
“Strip,” the augur said to the suitor.
The suitor looked at the girl, and she nodded energetically. “Do it,” she said, and turned her attention back to preparing the quail, gutting it with the apparent smugness of having won an argument.
The suitor removed his shirt, then his shoes. “Your pants as well,” the augur directed.
It was cool in the hut, and the suitor, shivered, naked. The augur looked at him and did what he did best.
“You want to know what his body says of love?” He asked the girl, his voice low and cold. “You want to see his joys, his fears? Everything?”
The girl turned to him, the entrails of the quail still in her hand.
“Look, child, the way his skin of his back wrinkles when he straightens his shoulders. Three lines, that means a hard life, poverty.” The augur brushed his hand down to the suitor’s hip. “That scar, thin but white, the angle parallels his ribcage. He will face pain of the heart, though not true pain, at least.”
The augur glanced back at the girl, expected her to look like a mouse, but her face was flushed with anger, her eyebrows twitching. “You’ve been wrong before,” she said, her voice barely louder than a breath.
Rage filled the augur’s belly. “You want to know more, then?!” he shouted. “Look, the cut of his ears, low intelligence. The mole on his neck, cowardly. The thickness of the hair of his pubis, the way it reaches toward his navel, stretches down his leg. He is sterile. It would be just as clear to me as though he had no balls at all.”
Now, he looked back at the girl. She was white and scared, but the augur could not stop himself. He had been wrong once, only once. This boy’s body told a story clearer than letters on a page. “Look, the beds of his nails. He will leave you. See how the middle toe is longer than the first? That is the sign of someone who will die far from home.”
It was the truth.
The augur felt his anger leave him suddenly. He had to sit down. The suitor put his clothes back on quickly, the girl murmuring to him. The augur’s ears still rang with the sound of his own voice, dizzying him. He wanted to apologize, but when his head cleared enough to look up, the girl and her suitor were gone.
The girl returned the next morning, and neither of them spoke of the night before. She helped the augur cook breakfast, and they ate in silence. She did not stop her courtship with the suitor, but they did not seek to marry, either.
Less than a season later, the emperor’s men came through the village. There was another war, and every war needed young men. The girl’s suitor left with the soldiers, a sachet of herbs for good luck and health pressed against his chest. When the girl returned to the augur’s hut that evening, her face was ruddy from tears and her eyes rimmed red, but she was too stubborn to cry in front of him.
“You were right about his collarbone,” the augur said when the night was so dark he could not make out her shape across the room. “But collarbones are deceptive shapes. I never trust them anymore.”
“I could go with him,” she said, and her voice seemed choked.
“You cannot change your fate because of love,” he said, and he thought of the young woman who had kissed him by the palace pond. Something in his heart seized, and he felt a burst of sympathy for the girl. He wished violently that he had not lost his temper with her. “But what do I know? I’m an old man, and my eyes are growing weaker. Perhaps I will be wrong again.”
The girl and the augur stood in silence above the broken bodies of young men carried back from the war. Their families wailed and shaved their hair in grief. Some cursed the augur, who had let their sons go to war even though he knew they would only return piled cold in the back of a cart. The augur was too old to feel shame, but he could feel the searing gazes of the villagers as he walked back to his hut, leaning heavily on his staff for support.
The girl’s suitor was not among the dead that time. The next delivery of corpses, stinking of carrion and buzzing with flies, brought him home instead.
Winter rushed in, and with it a cough that wracked the augur’s lungs and made him taste blood. The girl fed him soup, spooning it into his mouth when he was too weak to do so himself. During the long nights when the snow gathered wetly on the rush roof, the augur trembled, cold even through all his blankets.
He wondered if he was going to die soon. He had never looked at his own back in a mirror, and there was no shield or even a polished pot bright enough to reflect it back to him in enough detail. The augur coughed, and it misted his wool blanket with a fine spray of bright red blood. He wanted to prod his face for answers, but he was afraid of what his wrinkles, dripping from his bones like candle wax, would tell him.
There was no such thing as hope if you knew your fate, and the augur needed hope. He did not want to leave the girl yet.
The augur felt his age in a final, unceasing sort of ache. His body quaked; the winter had rooted itself in his bones even as spring warmed his skin. The girl helped him hobble around the village, then around the hut.
From far away, a messenger came, and the augur had the girl bring him to the town center, though he already knew what the man would say. The emperor was dead, and there was a new ruler. The war, the new emperor said, was over, and the evening of the full moon would be a grand celebration.
Even in a village as poor as the augur’s, they had a great feast. They ate snake eggs and egrets, the cocoons of moths and butterflies, venison and buffalo and veal, grapes and grape leaves, honey wine, rice wine, and wine as red as lung blood. The augur picked at his food, his hands shaking. The girl cut his meat into small pieces so it could dissolve between his gums.
Villagers approached him after a few drinks. Now that the old emperor was dead, would the augur go back to the palace and read the fate of the new one? They agreed that they didn’t want to see him go, but they speculated wildly about how much gold those readings might bring in and how it could be invested for the welfare of the village.
The augur did not lie. He was going nowhere. He brushed aside the villagers’ comments; he barely had the strength to listen to them chatter so mindlessly.
The girl snickered, but the augur could see she was worried. What will I do without you? Her question etched itself into the creases around her eyes, a wrinkle between her brows. When they arrived home, the augur made her an ointment of orange peel and spearmint and hoped her worry would go away.
The augur was dying. He didn’t need to read the skin on his back to know it. He hurt; he had a fever. He found it difficult to leave his bed, a terrible strain to hobble to the latrine behind the hut. He had bouts of confusion where the woman tending him was the young lady from the palace, the one he had loved and lost, only to realize that it was the girl he had raised. His hands were as cold as ice.
The girl shaved her head in anticipation. The augur could see the freckles on her scalp for the first time since she was an infant. Everything great and terrible she would do was there, written in her flesh. Her triumphs and her fears. She would mix ointments and salves for people in the city, and these would mend the skin of many, rich and poor alike. She would lose a lover. She would watch a book burn. She would die in violence, a black arrowhead sunk into the side of her slender neck. He shook his head, fates swimming like floaters in his eyes. Had those things happened already, or were they still to come?
“Father, what will I do when you are gone?” she asked, her hands in white knots around his own. Her knuckles promised vigor, three healthy children, an object lost she would never find again.
The augur shook his head, though the motion made the blood rush around his brain like a riptide.
“Please,” she begged, baring her palms and forearms for him to read. She would grow up poor but happy, raised by someone who was not her blood.
“It is better not to know,” he said.
The girl’s face pinched and her mouth twisted. This reminded the augur of what she had looked like when she arrived at his doorstep. Her face had shown him so much then. How she would climb the tall trees in the woods and ride wild. How she would bang a drum, first in his kitchen, then while his body burned in the funeral pyre. How she would marry a good man with a straight back; how he would hold her as she died, her grey hair pooling like silk on a bloody marble floor.
“Please,” she said again, her voice as raw as a bee sting. “I don’t know what I will do when you are gone.”
The augur tasted the cool air between his chapped lips. He felt warm for the first time in seasons. “You, my child, will do whatever you want.”