The Traveller

This story is paired with “The Mask” from The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers. For best experience, download the LithoReader for your iPhone or iPad and get NonBinary Review for free. 

Geneviève, my Galatea. What did she learn, bound in marble? What gods did she invoke when she raised her stony arms at last in freedom? Chaos, Chronos, Ananke, the gods of the beginning. They were the gods she could name. But even they did not know the face of Him. Even they.

She did, though. She looked on Him, and still returned.

She screamed, mad, for weeks. The house in the Rue Sainte-Cécile became an asylum. I had promised, and I did not leave. The servants fled, and who could blame them? She had brought the ache of time back on her heels. We stayed within the safety of the house and garden, protected by what guards I could not tell. That which haunted her turned blindly away from us while she raved. Still, I could feel a presence just beyond my sight, tugging at my attention like the prickle of sweat on my neck. Beyond the walls I would sometimes glimpse crabbed black figures sidling slowly by. I hoped it was my exhaustion creating shapes in the air. Geneviève was fevered and I did not tell her what I saw.

In the long twilights she often eluded me, and I sought her through the empty house. I found her curled up in the corners of rooms, singing in a whisper to herself.

“The King in yellow, his Queen in red, the Jester all in harlequin.”

She sang it over and over again, lilting as a charm.

“Why do you sing that?” I said sternly, hoping to break her free from its hold.

“Sing what?” she answered, as if she dreamed.

“That rhyme, that blasted rhyme?”

Her eyed filled and spilled over with tears.

“I do not know,” she said. “It is not my tongue.”

There was nothing I could respond to that. I would coddle her, then, and persuade her to lay in her bed. Sometimes she could sleep.

*   *   *

We did not speak of love. We had wandered far past that, and would not look back again.

Her resurrection was all I had craved, yet it was not the vibrant girl who returned to me. She was cool now, a touch of ice in her heart from the reaches to which she had travelled. No one can stand in the court of the Yellow King without being altered by it.

Eventually, her wild madness calmed. Still, though, Geneviève cried out every night, haunted by the dreams that followed her back. In the daylight she wanted only to wander through churches, swathed in the anonymity of a grey cloak, looking for something lost in her awakening. We made our rounds through the Notre Dames, La Trinité, Saint Laurent and Saint Roch, L’Eglise de la Madeleine. In every place the priests watched us narrowly as we kneeled, and would if they could excuse it lock the doors behind us. We did not pray. I never would, and Geneviève was far too tainted for it. She cried often, that her faith had been taken from her.

I tried to explain to her that I had read of Him in that cursed play, that I had dreamed long of Hastur and Carcosa, that I had seen the shores she dreaded and the sickly sun that made their darkness visible. That she could talk of these things with me and I would not falter in fear of her, as awful as she was.

“I have seen such stars,” she said. “Their light was dead before this planet had cooled in its orbit. I have stood upon them within the shelter of His tattered robe. You cannot imagine the agony of His attention. This world will rot with it.”

She presses against me when she tells me this, lithe as a snake and bare of her former innocence. Her pale hair twists in a coil around her shoulders like a mantel. Her lips are too close to my face, brushing my skin as she speaks. Despite my assurances I am afraid of her.

“The words and dreams that so horrify you are a pale mask for what He is,” she says into my mouth. I feel her breath fill me, and shudder at what I will lose. She caught the attention of the King while she was trapped with Him between life and nothingness, but I will not leave her. What holds her still draws me along in its wake.

He travels with us always, now, a frost upon our bones. Geneviève is driven by Him. She has her wits again, but she cannot stay still. She paces from window to window, peering out against the night. There is a gleam in her eyes that hints at fever.

“The moon is yellow tonight,” she says, and pulls me from the comfort of the house. I long for the imagined safety of the sheltering walls, but I do not resist her; other forces have use of her now. The amber orb looms like a swollen eye, and I want to look away. She will not allow it.

“Ascension,” she whispers against my ear. We stand in the quiet dark of the yard, and wait.

Geneviève trembles with the restless urge within her. Her loose gown rustles with her shivering, the crimson cloth turned purple in the weird light. She keeps her face lifted to the sky and allows her voice to flow out of her on shallow breaths.

“When I was gone,” she says, so softly I must nod my head toward her. “When I was gone, He showed me everything. It all happens at once. There is no now, or then, or was. It is all, and always. Madness. Inevitable madness. When He lets fall his robe it is…it is infinite.”

The stars decay in our sight. Dim light falls on our upturned faces. We wait for the sign. It will come, it always comes. The light of farther suns cannot hide it forever.

Her voice catches like threads on a branch. “It is nothing I should have seen.”

I press her hands between mine to comfort her, but she pulls away and motions me to silence. She is caught here and pulled by somewhere else. I cannot help her, only follow. She tilts her chin, directing me without saying a word.

I look over my shoulder and start like a cat. Three figures shrouded in black cloth come toward us, unhesitant. Their faces are hidden, and I believe they scented us like hounds. Even masked as they are, I know they are unnatural. I can feel their monstrousness in the air around us, a weight like wet smoke. Geneviève steps forward and holds up her hand. If she is frightened she does not betray it. I do not see what she shows them, but the three halt and bow at her command.

“Come,” she says. “His creatures will not forget what they seek.”

Geneviève slips her empty hand into mine. Her skin is cool and smooth. Yet her palm burns against mine like a brand. She leads me through the dark streets of Paris, along the Rue des Petites Ècuries, through alleys and courtyards until we cross the Boulevard de Magenta and the great gothic spires of Saint Laurent Church rise into the night before us. The city around us is silent, as if we had been plucked out of time and encased in crystal. I feel that we are alone in vast space, the only human creatures on this earth. Fear brushes up my spine but Geneviève is calm beneath her urgency.

“This ground has been consecrated for centuries,” she says. “Let us hope.”

I follow her up the wide steps and into the nave of Saint Laurent. She does not seem to notice that the great doors stood ajar for us. Her focus is elsewhere. There is a hush held within the cold stone walls that breathes menace. The outer silence comes in with us, inescapable as a rising tide. Despite the carved saints and beautiful glass panels that sweep above our heads, there is no sense of the holy in here. Something else has crept in and overwhelmed it. My skin crawls as if I brushed something dead and decaying. Geneviève shudders then and leans against my arm. Her skin scorches me as she grips my hand in hers. She jerks suddenly, forcing me to step back.

“There,” she hisses. My eyes follow hers, and far down the aisle I see the sweep of ragged yellow robes disappear in the shadows of the transept. I reel, dizzy and lost. The moon shining through the stained glass windows scatters fragments of color across the grey stone floor. Without volition, I step forward into the spangled light, moving toward the looming darkness deeper in the cathedral. The King draws me. I have no will.

Geneviève pulls at my arm, dragging me back. I lean forward with a compulsion I cannot conceive. I know only that I am called. Her fingers dig into my flesh, hard as marble. I turn at the pain, see the chill of white creep up in her cheeks. I am losing her. He will take her from me, wrap her in pallid stone and keep her within the deep well of unreckoned time. Her eyes glint like mica in the pale light. She knows.

“As long as the robes disguise Him we may live through. Stay with me,” she says.

The church is silent as the sky is silent. Geneviève holds on to me, her lips trembling, sure of her own fate.

“His Queen in red,” she murmurs, then throws back her head and laughs like the damned. “Time unbounded! Tempus edax rerum…”

I clutch her to me, trying to still the surging hysteria that has gripped her. Her terror is as fierce as when she first returned. She knows what comes. She has seen it before. It has never ceased to burn her. At last she quiets, but I know that any hope has slipped past us. We will not be safe again, for the King will rule us. He will rule us all.

In the corner of the church there is the rustle of dull yellow cloth stirred by an unseen mover. Geneviève rushes toward it before I can restrain her, her pale face twisted with despair. She reaches for it, pulls it down from where it trails, bunches the rotten fabric in her trembling hands.

The robes are empty. It is what we feared. He is uncontained.

NBR5RuppertsmallErica Ruppert lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and an assortment of over-indulged pets. She writes, teaches, bakes, runs, and reads many odd things. She has previously been published in Rose Red Review, Cæsura, and Bookends Review