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Toward the Banner of the King
by T.R. North
In times past I often dreamt I was driving a carriage through the deserted streets of an alien city. In spite of the strangeness of the city, it seemed utterly familiar to me; in spite of the utter waste it presented, whenever I paused, passengers would appear and alight.
They were all masked, as was I. Communication between us was unnecessary, as there was only one fit destination in the whole of the city. They were dressed in fine clothing, but it had the air of costume, and I could find nothing of their true condition in it.
No matter how many passengers I took on, the carriage never filled.
No matter how long I drove, we never drew so close as to see the crest on the yellow banners adorning the distant towers.
I did not miss those dreams when they ceased, but sometimes during waking moments I would try to tease some meaning from them. I spoke of them only once, to my dear sister Camilla, who scolded me for dwelling on such nonsense. “It’s a nightmare, that’s all, Cassilda.”
Her words might have been some comfort if the dreams had frightened me, but it was hardly fear they instilled. They left me with a sense of dread, but also with a sense of great anticipation. I would not wait trembling for the blow to fall, but wished to rush headlong to meet it.
It has always been thus with me. Of the two of us, I inherited our mother’s leaning toward mania; my twin received as her portion our mother’s penchant for melancholy. She named us, in one or the other of such moods, after the doomed princesses in that most scandalous of all books, The King in Yellow. She’d never read it, she later confessed, never even laid eyes on the work. The last qualifier I thought hard to credit, but she was insistent.
Camilla might have escaped remark upon her name had it not been paired with mine, and I believe this was the root of her resolution to shun me as much as she could bear once we grew older.
It pained me, but, I must confess, not so much as it ought. We were very nearly identical in form and figure, the only physical difference between us being a lighter tint to her hair and eyes. But she had a cast to her expression and features that transubstantiated her loveliness into something very nearly angelic while I remained of common clay, and seeing us together was enough to mar the effect of her grace. Relieved of the burden of my presence, she could flit about the periphery of fashionable circles without hindrance. Her beauty and sweet temper were all the introduction she needed, and her fairness was such that it always procured for her some admirer to nurse her through her periods of despondency.
But though she sometimes saw me as a weight about her neck, there were times when I shrank from her as a worm from sunlight. Standing next to me might have dragged her down to the mortal realm, but standing next to her showed me up as a denizen of the depths infernal. Every sensuous or vicious thought seemed stamped plainly on my features when compared to hers, and wholesome men shuddered to look on me as readily as the dissolute figured me for a confederate.
It might have led to some great crime or treason against nature if I’d had our mother’s temperament, but I am hardly so ambitious. I simply reordered my heart to feel contentment in my sister’s absences and resolved to make my way in the world as best I could without compounding our mother’s infamy.
We were told that she had once been a woman of no consequence, interested only in her paints and the affections of the man who would become our father. She had been deranged by his sudden abandonment, her fate sealed when it was discovered that she would soon be delivered of his daughters.
I have never for a moment believed that story, recited by our grandmother as a prophylactic against us taking up our mother’s habits. Our mother had been a fury determined to smash her likeness onto the facade of history, and she had raised us until our eleventh year. That she could ever have been other than as we knew her seemed incredible.
I had also read in her own words of how violently she had loved our father. I discovered her diary soon after her death and secreted it among my own childish books to keep it safe from our grandmother’s purging hands. Our father had been a man bound for the seminary, a path from which she’d tempted him only just long enough to conceive us. She’d been grief-stricken at his absence, surely, but in equal parts she had raged at him for his desertion.
He’d begged leave from her side to attend mass one night. She’d watched him slip into the churchyard like an apparition, then gone home again to attend to her salon and carouse with her companions until dawn. Only as the sun rose had she noticed his failure to return. A bribe paid to the watchman, a foul-visaged fellow who’d made her skin crawl, had bought the answer that no one had stirred through the very gate she’d seen him take with her own eyes.
She’d struck the watchman for a liar, and he had but smiled and begged her pardon and insisted that no living soul had stepped foot across the threshold between sunset and sunrise. In the end, with no further recourse, she’d wrenched her purse out of his hands and spit in his face to pay back his bad faith.
Our father was never heard from again, as if he’d fallen into some great crack in the earth and been swallowed up entirely. For his abandonment, he was condemned to an afterlife of haunting our mother’s paintings, cast always in the role of a tragedy or a suicide. Her Hyacinth, her Marsyas, her Actaeon, her Seneca: all the same silent prisoner mourning in the confines of his canvas purgatory.
The last great restraint on our mother’s behavior being thus overthrown, she established in her orbit Anarchists, proponents of free love, adventurers of both sexes, and even men reported to have been German spies during the war. Her aspirations as an artist outstripping both her natural talent and her taste for industry, she was better known as a model than a painter. The last mercy she showed us was to pose mostly en masque when lacking any other sort of drape, for we both came to resemble her strongly in face and form as we grew to womanhood.
It was a kindness shown more to Camilla than to myself. I took to brushes and pigments before I took to dolls and the needle. I had little more inborn genius than our mother, but my training was far better and my application to the task far more vigorous. I was thus able to earn my living as a painter, and, marked out as something of an oddity by my own rights, I had little concern for the memory of our mother’s behavior. Poor Camilla’s patrons required a less tarnished reputation in their dear muse.
At times she sat for me as a model, either as a sororal favor or whenever some rich benefactor insisted on a keepsake portrait. On those latter occasions I entered the house veiled and permitted no one but Camilla to watch me at my work, lest the sight of me blast the scales from her lover’s eyes. If they chafed at the restrictions, it was nothing to us; Camilla refused to sit for any artist but me. She insisted that it was because I alone could capture her proper being, and she would be immortalized by no other.
“They think there’s some magic to it,” Camilla had confided. “All this mummery about your veiling yourself and forbidding the servants entrance. I think it’s because no one loves me as you do, and you paint a perfection which exists in your keen eye and nowhere else.”
“It exists in the mirror every time you sit before it,” I told her. She gave herself too little credit, at times.
It was my business as a painter which first introduced me to Elliott. It is uncommon to find a model as pliant and good-natured as he, while at the same time being handsome and clean-limbed. He afforded me study after study of anything I could wish in terms of Olympic heroes, saints, prophets, and martyrs. I spent the finest months of one summer molding him into Lord Byron, Gideon, Perseus, and Saint Sebastian in turn. He was still when I wished it and talkative when I grew restless, and he proved to have an endless supply of amusing anecdotes from his time as a student in Paris. Is it any wonder I grew fond of the man, perhaps overly so?
He was a painter, though I had not then seen his work, and I was intrigued when he asked if I might model for him. I had already put him through his paces on canvas, wringing from him every shade of human emotion, depicting him in torment and ecstasy. That he wished a portrait of me to grace his own studio’s wall was an overture returned.
I proposed to wear a mask for the painting, after the fashion of our mother. It was some spirit of impishness that moved me to make the offer, or perhaps consideration for Camilla’s circumstances. It mattered not: He rejected the notion out of hand and laughed as if at a jest. My sweet face was the part of me he liked best, he said, and his determination on that point flattered me.
We began at once and continued as my own work permitted, though he refused to let me see the painting as it progressed. I must admit that his apparent reserve aroused my curiosity, for I had seen his handiwork on other subjects by then. He had cause for modesty on neither technical nor artistic grounds. The mystery pricked at me until at last I resolved to contrive some excuse for lingering the next time he went out, and so settle my mind.
The opportunity was not long in presenting itself; some fellow-scholar from his Paris days came calling unexpectedly, and I was left to my own devices while he saw to the man as best he could.
I stole toward the easel like a thief in the night, careful lest my footfalls or even my very breath should betray my intentions. A terrible fear gripped my heart as I approached, though I saw no reason for it in that moment, and I gently raised the curtain he’d drawn across the canvas. The scene which met my eyes seemed far too cheerful, far too domesticated, to provoke the devastation it wrought in my breast. I stood like Niobe, turned to stone and yet still able to weep; the woman Elliott had painted was not me but dear Camilla!
Undone, I turned from the dreadful sight. My eyes fell on the traitorous palette, left on the bench and marked with a hue far too bright for my own hair but the very likeness of Camilla’s. A sudden fury seized me such as I had never felt before. Even in my childish rages, even standing before the bonfire our grandmother made of our mother’s last possessions, clutching that salvaged diary and wishing blood and hellfire on her gray head, I had not been so furious with the world’s perfidy. It was as if I stood at the center of a great maelstrom, and the only decision yet to be made was whether to let it fall upon the work or the man himself.
I drew the curtain again and arranged myself carefully so that he would have no inkling that he was discovered. I had Eve’s example to guide me; no good came from sharing ill-gotten knowledge with faithless men. But I could not bear to face him in that moment, and so I left the studio without notice or accounting. I retreated to my own apartments to let the coals I’d lit in his blaze their fullest.
I resented Camilla’s loveliness. I admit it openly. Ever had she been the darling, the instant object on which all love fastened, while I skulked in the shadows. The barb of seeing her reflected in my lover’s eye when he gazed upon me sank deep, deep, and pierced me to the heart. But I’d have sooner unveiled that canvas to see a goblin squatting on the couch than my own form so transfigured. Elliott’s brush had robbed me of all, of even the dignity of being despised for myself. In his studio, I had become some base idol, a proxy by which he could worship his true goddess.
At last, alone in my chambers, I became mistress of myself again. Elliott and I had spent much time in each other’s company, and he had never mentioned my dear Camilla. She would sit for no one but me. She would be painted by none but my hand. It was possible that Elliott did not know her, did not love her, but had only been rebuffed by her as a pretty woman rebuffs a forward painter. If that were the case, I could consign his canvas to the fire, break his brushes, threaten to tear out his eyes for their sin, and be satisfied. But if he had paid court to her, had declared his love and dogged her steps and come to me after she had cast him out? I was resolved to ruin his happiness as thoroughly as he had wrecked mine.
I did not come to him again, and I bolted my door against him. I gave out that I was ill, afflicted with a fever, and he did not question it or try to gain admittance to see me. Thus alibied, I slunk after him like a ghost for the next fortnight and observed him without being seen. I could not have guessed that I was so far from his thoughts. I stood within arm’s reach of him on several occasions, and never once did his eyes light on me. I was farther from his notice than the sparrows quarreling over scraps of bread in the park, for at least those afforded him some amusement.
It became clear over the course of this haunting that Camilla was Elliott’s frequent companion. They were not lovers yet, but she had not turned him away. My heart broke at the smiles she bestowed on one so false, and after that I followed him no more. To Camilla I said nothing.
I tried to console myself with my paints, but it was hopeless. No matter my subject or palette, the portrait took on a jaundiced hue and a sickly shape. Everything I put to canvas, wood, or paper seemed shot through with the brass of my hair or limned with the gold of Camilla’s. If I made a brush of my tresses and bled the color into the paint, I could have achieved no more loathsome an effect.
With my paintings blighted and my mind thus disordered, I turned to the one remnant I had of our mother. It was a poor substitute for a mother’s embrace, or soothing words, or a soft hand stroking the brow and calming troubled dreams. But then our mother had not been much of a woman for those blandishments while it had still been in her power to bestow them, before death had stilled her savage heart forever.
When I had seen what our grandmother intended for our mother’s silks and paints and sketchbooks, I had slipped the diary into the paper wrap of a child’s Bible with a child’s cunning. The one was sacrificed to save the other, and in this way the diary had escaped the flames of perdition. Even once the book and myself were well and truly out of reach of the old woman’s matches, I had left the wrapper as a reminder of my first triumph.
I read the familiar words again, hearing our mother’s voice as I did so. Alas, Cassilda! Your lover was false. Alas, Camilla! Your lover is false. Alas, Elliott! Your foot shall find a stumbling block yet. Alas, Carcosa! Your king’s banner is his own ragged wings.
I woke before the fire with a start, unconscious of having fallen asleep. The diary was open in my lap. When I closed my eyes I could still see dark stars picked out against the backs of my eyelids, and suddenly I saw the instrument of my revenge, as ready to my hand as a sword.
I spent the next day scouring bookshops, beginning with the meanest and making my way to the richer establishments. It was in a warm and seemingly wholesome place that I finally found the serpent I intended for the cradle of Elliott’s happiness. The proprietor spoke of the perfection of art and the smoked-quartz waters of beautiful Demhe, and he placed the book in my hands with a joy that almost saw him refuse my payment. The coins had taken on an unhealthy sheen in my eyes, though, and I pressed them on him with my gratitude.
The King in Yellow vanished into my handbag with a slither like a live thing, and at another shop I found a book as alike in size and weight as possible. Back in my studio and bathed in the bright sun, I worked like a thing possessed to effect the terrible transformation.
The harmless pages of the treatise on natural philosophy, I prised from their cover and gave over for kindling. The King in Yellow I handled as carefully as I might have a preparation of Paris green, refraining from touching its leaves with a bare hand or letting its words be exposed to an unshielded eye. A judicious application of glue and thread saw the tragedy neatly camouflaged, an asp exchanging its colors for those of the garden snake. That my sister’s smiles would break Elliott’s heart yet, I put pen to paper and scratched out an inscription urging him to read the slim volume cover to cover without pause. As I could forge my sister’s hand but not my sister’s mark, I left the thing unsigned.
The dagger in his breast would be anonymous, a fitting blow from the woman who’d offered herself bare but for a mask when first we’d ventured into this mire.
I wrapped the book in gaudy paper and left it for him with his concierge, then returned home to wait for the seed thus planted to bear its poisoned fruit. That night I did not sleep, instead alternately walking the floorboards as I might a promenade or attempting yet another flawed portrait. These works were even more soiled than those which came before, but I found that whatever ochre contaminant had crept into my paints displeased me less. The works I produced that night were hideous in the light of day, and I fled the apartment rather than keep company with them. They had, however, so distracted me that I had almost forgotten the work of the previous few days, and I was reminded with a jolt that Elliott might even now be laboring under the effects of my vengeance.
My feet were soon on the path to his studio, though what I hoped to see I knew not. I approached his rooms with a sense of dreadful excitement, only to find the front door ajar, standing open wide enough to provide passage for a cat. But Elliott owned no such animal, and I had to set my shoulder to the edge to force it open farther. I found an ottoman overturned behind it, and the rooms in a grand disarray beyond that.
It had been a man’s strength which had so ransacked the studio, but in the center of it all, unstrung and weeping, was my beloved Camilla. My eyes started from my head at the sight of her, and I recoiled when I realized what lay open in her hands.
She rose slowly to her feet when comprehension dawned on her tear-drenched face that her accidental enemy was there before her in the flesh. She waved the book at me, pointing savagely at the inscription.
“What wrong have I done you that you damn me so?” she cried. “What sin have I committed that this is your revenge?”
I saw then with compounded horror the book as she had seen it. The hand which I’d known Elliott’s hope would disguise as hers could never have been any but mine in her eyes. The lack of a signature had been no proof against her reading the inscription as a sisterly whim, to be humored as I had so often humored hers. Never has a blow struck been so bitterly regretted!
“Not you,” I swore. “Never you! It was meant for Elliott, and Elliott alone!”
How gladly I convicted myself of the lesser crime as a defense against the greater! She understood, then, and sank back to the couch with a heartbroken sob. I realized with a sudden wildness the only proper atonement. It was impossible to purge the book’s poison from her mind, but I could still drain the cup and join her in her sorrow. I picked up the fatal tome and turned the page, my eyes seeking now what they’d so scrupulously avoided before.
“You mustn’t!” Camilla plucked it from my hands with a shrill cry and hurled it into the fire, her beautiful features stark in her anguish. I protested, but it was too late. The flames consumed the wretched thing as readily as the morning sun wipes frost from the window panes, and my attempts to pluck it from the hearth served only to blister my fingers.
Camilla, satisfied that the danger had passed, returned to her seat and wept. Even in the most profound depths of her previous bouts of despair, I had never seen her so overcome. She cringed when I tried to console her, fleeing my touch and eventually bidding me leave. Terrified by the thought of what she might do if left to herself, I refused the order until she threatened to call the concierge to put me out bodily. His loyalty was such that he might have obeyed her orders, even those given in such a state. I relented, my coward’s heart quailing at the thought of being dragged into the street like a thief taken in the act.
I paced the city, blinded by grief and tortured by remorse. How careless I’d been in laying my snare! I could scarcely believe my sister’s fate, or that I had been the unwitting author of it. The sang froid with which I’d applied myself to Elliott’s destruction abandoned me. Elliott! What was he when weighed against Camilla? Nothing, less than nothing! I’d pardon ten thousand Elliotts offenses far worse if it would spare but one Camilla!
When my eyes cleared, I found that I had come to the banks of the river. I thought of filling my pockets with stones and wading into the water, of giving myself over to the current. It was perhaps wide and deep enough to unstain my hands, or, failing that, at least blot out my wickedness. The water was churned and slick, though, with a yellow scum dancing on its surface and turning to foam on its shore. Repulsed, I turned away and looked once more to Elliott’s studio. I would not abandon Camilla just yet, it seemed, or at least not in this way.
The smoke presaged one final disaster, and I found my return barred by policemen. Behind them a bucket brigade waged a fruitless war against the flames engulfing the building from which I had been so lately ejected. The upper floors, which Elliott’s studio had once occupied, had already collapsed. I searched the crowd, desperate for a glimpse of Camilla’s face. But even as I did so, I knew beyond doubt that she would not have fled the inferno. I continued my vigil until the building was embers and ash behind a skeletal threshold.
Dawn saw the street deserted, but for a black carriage coming slowly up the lane. It was an undertaker’s carriage, I saw, and upon closer inspection I realized that it had no driver. A cold calm descended over me, and I was not surprised when it came to a halt before the orphaned doorway.
I stepped forward and opened the door, waiting. In the dim and smoke-filthed light, a spectral procession of masked dancers dressed as though for a ball drifted from the ashes and climbed into the cab. Camilla I knew by her gait and bearing, Elliott by his artist’s hands. The last of them came arm in arm. Our mother’s hair spilled over the lady’s shoulders, and our father’s eyes peered from behind the gentleman’s mask. When all the shades had found their seats, I climbed onto the driver’s bench and took the reins. I was certain of our destination at last.
It was not long before the twin suns rose, and I bore the revelers ever closer to the castle walls. As the light glittered on the mirror surface of Hali, the Yellow Sign stood out on the banners, and I knew that we would soon be home.
About the Author
T.R. NORTH was born and raised in Florida and has never been featured in a “News of the Weird” column run in another state. Other works of short fiction can be found in the Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, Metaphorosis, and Phantaxis. Follow on twitter @northonthegulf or their blog northonthegulf.wordpress.com for updates.
About the Narrator
Justine Eyre is a classically trained actress who has narrated over three hundred audiobooks. With a prestigious Audie Award and four AudioFile Earphones Awards under her belt, Justine is multilingual and is known for her great facility with accents. She has appeared on stage in leading roles in King Lear and The Crucible, and has starring roles in four films on the indie circuit. Her recent television credits include Two and a Half Men and Mad Men.