The Yellowed Press of an Ancient Power

This story is paired with “The King in Yellow (Suite)” 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.


Although many of my memories are hazy and tattered, I distinctly remember the day he found me. Fog and rain had dominated the weather for weeks, but when the sun finally broke through a crack in the clouds, I tugged on my yellow galoshes and splashed outside to search for windows of magic washed clean by the deluge.

The neighborhood children were running through puddles and playing in the mud. Their threatening taunts followed me as I worked my way through the narrow streets en route to my favorite patch of grass and weeds hidden in the folds of the scabrous city. I outraced the childish commentary and slipped through a ragged tear in the chain link fence to my safe place.

Without warning, the sun shattered as two realities overlapped. On either side of the sun, two others burned. The three orbs singed the sky, shredding the frayed edges of retreating clouds with cruel intent. I stopped and stared. Illuminated by the brilliance of the sun and its companions, a circle of bright dandelions spread out from the center of the battered little plot of land. A smile pinched the edges of my mouth – an all too uncommon expression for a girl suffering from chronic melancholy. And even though the uncomfortable sensation made me nervous, I found an odd enjoyment in the tightness of my face and the tears that tugged at my eyelashes.

As a precocious and pensive girl, I had spent the majority of my years experiencing the world through books read in the warm safety of my bedroom. Botany had always been a favorite subject of mine. I especially loved functional flowers – beauty shielding potent and poisonous power. I stepped over the ring and settled down in the center where I could ruminate on the gentle glow of the dents de lion – the lion’s teeth. With delicate care, I fingered the jagged leaves of a dandelion before plucking the flower from its stalk.

I ignored the sticky white substance leaking from the hollow stem and bent to examine the flower more closely. Dozens upon dozens of individual florets reached heavenward, each of the curving lobes ripe and ready to spread the bloom’s pollen. As if in a dream, I rubbed the blossom against the tender skin under my chin as I thought of the youthful superstition of the golden glow and its promise of sweet riches.

When I opened my eyes, the city and its grey gloom had been replaced by the glassy surface of an immense lake that spread out before me. And even though I strained my eyes to see the other shore, it remained hidden. In that same moment, I heard a man’s voice whispering on the wind.

“Make a wish, my darling.” His voice was soft yet filled with the promise of sharp swords at the same time.

Before my eyes, the dandelion ripened into a ball of tufted seeds, waiting to taking flight on the wings of a whispered wish. At my feet, the lake rippled and then fell as smooth as a pane of glass. I bent forward to meet my own gaze in the watery mirror.

The stranger continued the seduction. “Your every desire will come true,” he promised.

The lake shifted once more, this time revealing the shadowy image of tall towers silhouetted by a pale sky. I fancied that I could see a man in a yellow cloak staring at me from across the water. His eyes burned with a maniacal light.

“A wish, dear Cassilda.” His words touched me like the kiss of a razor. “And then a hundred more.”

Cassandra, I thought. Not Cassilda. Even though I knew I was not the one he called out to, I made a wish anyways and blew hard on the gossamer globe, releasing the seeds to float away in a ribbon of white. Overhead in that foreign sky, a dark star tore away from its anchor and plummeted towards the water, leaving red streaks in the sky as it ripped through the fabric of space. The smooth lake twisted and churned as the windswept waves swirled in a violent whirlpool. Battered clouds, clinging to the horizon, stormed back in to swallow the suns and an amethyst mist rushed forward to wrap its tendrils around my exposed arms and legs.

I grasped the dandelion stem harder between my fingers and closed my eyes against the onslaught, praying for the strength to break free from the madness creeping on the edges of my mind. My lungs ached from the pain of suppressed screams. Breathe, Cassie, I reminded myself. Breathe. And I did. I gasped and pressed my palm hard against my chest. Slowly, oh so slowly, sanity clawed its way down my throat as I concentrated on breathing even though the weight of the world pressed down on me.

When I could once again breathe freely, I opened my eyes to find myself sitting in the damp dirt of the bedraggled little plot of land I called sanctuary. Clumps of straggly grass and vining weeds clung to the earth, but there was not a single dandelion in sight. All around me, the dirty walls of cramped buildings squatted so close to one another that they blocked a clear view of the winding city streets. Only one sun hung in the sky, its light red and dim behind a billowing veil of mist. I wished to once again see the tall towers, the dark stars and the calm lake, but I had no more seeds to carry my dreams to the stranger in the yellow cloak.

I opened my fist to examine the crushed stem of the dandelion I’d brought back with me to the real world. It lay limp and lifeless in my palm. Without a second thought, I carefully devoured the dandelion’s remains, bit by bit, until nothing remained but a sticky smear of white. I licked my palm, sucking at the bitter tonic and, when my skin was once again clean and pink, I stood up and headed back to my books. I will find him, I promised myself. Somehow I will find him again.

How could I have realized that from that moment on, my life was no longer mine? How could I have known that the man in yellow had already staked his claim? Or that it was just a matter of time before I would see him again?

*   *   *

The prophecies started shortly after that first encounter with the man in the yellow cloak. My mother died of a broken heart. My father turned his back on me. If only they would have listened, I could have saved them. I’m certain of it.

I screamed when they took me away, but I don’t remember much after that.

*   *   *

“Cassie?” A man in a white mask looked down at me. “Are you here with me?”

Cassilda. Wishes. I tried to shake my head, but it was strapped down. The leather chafed against my forehead. Cassandra, I reminded myself. But it was too late. A vision of this stranger unmasked flitted through my mind.

“You’re going to die a terrible death,” I said, calm. The presence of the others in the room pressed closer. And just like that, my calm shattered. “You’re all going to die.” My voice rose to a shriek. All of the pain, the suffering. I couldn’t bear it. This world was dying, but no one would listen. Why wouldn’t they listen?

The stranger in the white mask shook his head in defeat. His dark eyes were pools of profound sorrow. “My poor darling girl.”

“Dead,” I screamed. “You are already dead!”

He turned away and addressed someone else in the room, someone I couldn’t see. “It didn’t work, but bloodletting seldom does.”

“Do it again,” commanded a man, a man with a voice that kissed my skin with a razor’s edge.

“There are other options,” said the stranger in white. “It’s time to switch things up.”

“No, no, no.” In some corner of my mind I knew I was babbling, but I had to make them listen. “Let me go. Let me help you before it’s too late.”

I struggled against my bonds even though I knew it was futile. The man in the mask gripped my shoulder with a gloved hand as he plunged a needle into my arm. In horror, I watched the lurid yellow liquid drained into my veins. The stranger in white brushed the hair away from my cheek.

“Be strong and have faith, child.” The world faded, but not before he tugged the square of white down over his chin to expose his nose and lips. His skin was smooth and unblemished, quite unlike the vision I’d seen of him begging for help through cracked lips, blind eyes bleeding red tears over cheeks cratered by open sores.

“You will come back to your senses soon,” he continued, his voice soothing as unconsciousness crept closer and my eyes sagged shut.

A strange symbol, alien in its convolutions and jagged lines, lit up the inside of my eyelids. It made me think of pale skies and dark stars reflecting off the polished silver surface of a perfectly calm lake.

“I will show you the way.” The man in white pressed a voluptuous kiss on my brows as I drifted into the darkness, pursued by false promises and the frantic flashing of the yellow sign.

Your every desire will come true.

*   *   *

When all of the other treatments failed, my doctor took an alternative tact. Although he was still wearing white, the doctor was no longer a stranger. He’d been unmasked.

Somewhere along the way, I’d lost my voice. I once overheard a comment that my silence was no great loss. In fact, it would make it easier for my fiancé to deal with me. The identity of my fiancé remained a mystery to me. Apparently, my fey beauty had attracted an admirer, a man of great importance who could overlook my madness as long as I could be kept controlled. And it was this doctor who finally discovered the means to cure my delusions and, in doing so, fell into grasp of his own obsession.

He held my hand around the curve of his arm as we walked down the hallway. “You look lovely today, my darling Cassandra.”

Cassilda. Bereft of words, I had no way to correct him. I had found my true name in the pages of a forbidden play so very long ago. No. I shook my head, trying to dislodge the distorted image of an alien symbol lodged there. That wasn’t right. Or was it?

“You are happy here, aren’t you my darling?” He ran his thumb over the back of my hand as though that gentle press was the most intimate of caresses.

I kept my head bowed, my face a stiff mask veiled by the silken fall of blonde hair. Let the doctor think whatever he wished. I knew the truth and that was all that mattered.

An eternity later, we entered that music room. My hand trembled under the covetous press of his heavy palm. When he finally released me, I rushed to the full-hipped creature in the corner of the room. Music therapy, he had called it. All that mattered to me was that I had been able to regain my voice through the expressive glissandos of the elegant cello that now belonged to me and me alone.

On the first day I’d been drawn into the music room, the cello had called to me. And even though I’d never touched a musical instrument before, I took to playing the cello as though I’d been born to it. Perhaps I was. Cursed as the source of my melancholy, books and plays had been taken away from me years ago. They didn’t realize that music was just another language to fuel my madness. The yellowed scores held hidden messages sent to me by the man with eyes like dark stars blazing, messages only I could read. My responses were sent soaring through the air where he could grasp the notes from his high tower.

I sat down and drew the cello between my thighs. Our bodies curved into one another like the most intimate of lovers. Together, we became whole. My fingers combed the scrolled hair and fluttered along the long slender neck where I fancied I could feel the racing pulse of an anxious heart beating against the restraints that bound a madwoman in this rigid shape. Perhaps I could free her, if only I played the right notes.

The doctor cleared his throat and I glanced up, wondering how long I’d been frozen in the embrace. It was only then I noticed that the heavy velvet drapes had been drawn closed and that I could only see as far as the table lamps penetrated the darkness. A vague, broad-shouldered shape sat in a high-backed chair just out of reach of the dim illumination. With great effort, I shook off a half-formed feeling of foreboding. The music was the only thing that could save me now.

I trapped the instrument’s narrow waist with the strength of my thighs and planted bare feet to the floor. The natural pattern in the maple that made up the cello’s body rippled along the surface like liquid gold. I raised the bow and cleared my voice with a series of glittering half notes before falling into the mournful measure of an adagio for strings.

As I played, I lost myself in the cello’s voice – the way she sang in perfect fifths, the timbre of her tempered triads. Together we bridged the tension in the room and began a new sonata. Together we sang of clouds breaking upon a distant shore as twin suns sank beyond the waves, sisters weeping for the bleeding star, moons circling towers that pierced the sky. Although the drapes were shut, creeping shadows stretched and lengthened across the room. We finished the first part of our composition with a brilliant flourish. And although the cello wanted to sing the second act, I silenced her with the flat bundle of horsehair held to her throat like a whetted scimitar. Her screams thus strangled, a solemn silence fell upon the room.

The measured beat of a slow and ponderous clapping broke the pregnant pause. The man hidden in the shadows stood up, still applauding. “Sensational.”

I fancied I saw the flash of dark stars shining in the shadows, but the illusion was shattered when he stepped into the light. A tall figure emerged, but instead of wearing the tattered yellow cloak I craved to touch, this man wore an elegantly cut business suit. His light hair stood in stark contrast with his tanned skin. He met my startled glance with eyes as innocent and blue as a cloudless sky, but even from this distance I could tell this man was far from guileless. His calculating stare lingered a moment too long on my breasts before he looked away once more.

“She is cured?”

The doctor leapt to his feet. “Yes, yes. Of course. Once the reading material was removed and she was given the chance to occupy herself with something more suitable, she no longer speaks in tongues.”

“I understand she doesn’t speak at all,” the man said wryly.

“Hysteria is just the unfortunate byproduct of being one the fairer sex.” The doctor’s smug tone made me wish my bow truly was a sword. I’d cut his belly open and use his gut to string my cello. She groaned under my trembling touch, but neither of the men standing before me seemed to notice.

“And she is fairer than most, is she not?”

The doctor held his lips tight, but nodded in agreement. “Yes, Mr. Wilde. Your bride to be is most comely.”

I flinched at his name. The mysterious betrothal suddenly made sense. Mr. Wilde was an associate of father’s. He controlled the most powerful circles through the power of his press. I thought of the words my father had used to describe him. Fearless. Decadent. Salacious. And I was to be his wife.

“I would think stunning might be more appropriate, old man.” Wilde pulled on his gloves. “I will have someone collect her in the morning.”

He looked at me once more and his lips curved in a sharp smile. “Until tomorrow.” He tipped his hat in my direction and then left the room without a glance back.

The doctor pulled a chair up beside me and pried the bow from my white-knuckled grip. He patted my hand like I was a troubled child. Pompous ass.

“I’m sorry if I upset you.” It was only then I realized that my cheeks were wet from crying.

You didn’t. What the good doctor couldn’t know was that my tears were not tears of pain and sorrow – they were the outward manifestation of pure rage.

“You should be happy,” he continued in his patronizing tone. “You’re much better than you were when I first met you.” He sighed. “I just wish I could keep you a little longer, complete your cure.”

You can’t help me. The ignorant fool looked at me as though he thought he knew me through and through. You can’t even help yourself.

He tightened his grip on my clasped hands.

“You don’t need me anymore,” he said, more for himself than for me.

I never needed you.

*   *   *

The noble Mr. Wilde and I had married the next day in a quiet little ceremony, something he played up in his papers as an intimate affair conducted to soothe the nervous temperament of his beautiful bride, a talented socialite hailing from the other side of the world. I saw the headlines screaming from his desk weeks later, when I’d finally discovered the means to break into his home office over the course of his long business trips.

At the hospital, I’d been parted from the cello each night. The patients had complained of my incessant playing from dusk to dawn and I’d been confined to limit my practice to the daylight hours in the music room. As a married woman, I could do as I liked – to an extent. And the cello never left my side again. When my false husband left the house, I would drag her behind me down the hall and into the stuffy den full of foreign masculine scents where I searched for the lost play that ignited my desires. It never appeared despite my continuous and thorough searching. Finally, I stopped looking. It was much easier to just remember the clean smells of that other world where twin suns scorched the sky and wet winds promised a cure for the human condition. Soon, I promised myself. Soon.

Outside of our elegant townhome, the city clamored for attention. Horns honked, people shouted, and smoke rose in billowing black clouds that obscured the sky. I kept the drapes closed and attempted to drown out the eternal din with music. Together, the cello and I perfected our masterpiece. On occasion, there were times I could almost lose myself in the composition, but not quite. It was almost more than I could bear.

Wilde, the self-proclaimed emperor of this corner of the world, conducted his affairs through deception and slander. Despite these failings, he considered himself exemplary in every way, the perfect ruler and the ideal husband. Even if I still had a voice with which to decry his vicious influence on people and events, I wouldn’t have refuted his claims. I needed him to play his foreordained part in releasing the Yellow King on the unsuspecting world I had come to despise.

*   *   *

On the night I made my debut, my Wilde visited me in the dressing room to give me a lesson on my wifely duties – as if I didn’t already know. He entered quietly and crossed the plush carpeting to stand behind my seated figure. His hands settled on my shoulders and he stared at our reflection in the mirror. As always, I said nothing. I just watched and waited.

“You will be the toast of the town after tonight, Cassandra.”

Not Cassandra. I held his glittering gaze with a steady expression. Not anymore.

“You might be the best investment I’ve ever made,” he said, congratulating himself. His cheeks were flushed, whether from drink or excitement, I couldn’t claim to know.

Wilde traced my jaw with a long, lean finger. “Perhaps you should have some champagne, my dear. You look a bit pallid.”

It was true; my eyes burned like dark stars set in a pale sky. The thought almost made me smile, but the mechanics of the expression were lost in some distant memory.

Wilde hovered over me. He played his fingers along the hollows of my ribs and ran his palms over the bold red silk stretched taunt over my breasts. He pinched the tender flesh viciously, watching in vain for any flicker of emotion to cross my face. My mask held and he relented, releasing his grasp.

“Don’t disappoint me, my dear.” He punctuated his words with a chaste kiss on my cheek. “It would be a shame if you were found to be unstable. I doubt there are many doctors who would allow you to play your wild music in a madhouse.” He grinned. “It might upset the clientele.”

With his warning in place, he left me staring into the mirror. But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find my true consort in flat plane of silver. The truth destroyed all hope. It was a piece of reflective glass, nothing more.

From oh so far away, a knock sounded on the dressing room door. “Ten minutes, miss.”

The mask slipped and the mirror shattered, revealing foul yellow splotches where the glass had once been attached the wall. The hideous pattern left behind twisted and turned in a grotesque maze that captured my complete attention. I traced the bloated curves and sprawling flourishes as they stretched only to double back, overlapping lines in series of dizzying waves until they once again returned to the beginning. The Yellow Sign. My lips tightened at the edges and I reached out to gather my instrument to my joyful heart.

It was time to orchestrate the end of the world.

*   *   *

I ended the first suite with a flourish, but remained sitting even though the entire audience had leapt to their feet to praise my brilliance. The applause thundered through the music hall, yet still I remained motionless. The applause faltered and then fell silent, uncertain. I was the Red Queen and these people were my subjects; they just didn’t know it yet.

Mr. Wilde stood stiff, bristling with anger. Get up, he mouthed, lips starched in sharp folds. Get up. Even though he was dressed impeccably in an elegant tuxedo, the crisp white and somber black couldn’t disguise the fact that he was lowly born. I decided then that this false husband of mine would be much better suited to a fool’s motley – something I needed to remember after the rightful ruler took his place at my side tonight.

My expectant glance flickered to the one empty opera box in the otherwise crowded music hall. Over the course of the first suite, I had kept my eyes trained on the vacant seats, but during the applause I had lost my focus. The box was no longer empty. My heart raced, thudding murderously against my ribs in acute joy. If only I could have given voice to the emotions raging behind my pallid mask, what a moment that would have been!

The cello trembled under my hands. The woman trapped inside the instrument begged for freedom. And I was finally able to grant her wish.

My king and savoir lifted his arms, demanding our undivided attention. The cello and I prepared for battle –my bow raised and ready to slice her tightly bound waist, my fingers rigid and poised to tear out her slender throat. She begged for the attack, but I stayed motionless, waiting for the Yellow King to signal the beginning of the second and final solo for cello.

His hands dropped and I fell upon the cello and the woman trapped within. I tore at the strings that bound her, released her staked feet, and plucked the polished wood from her eyes. Her perfectly coifed hair fell from the scrolled curls into a wild mass that tangled around her shoulders. And her waist stretched and expanded, breaking the tightly tied corset, as she screamed her release.

No prison would ever contain us again.

Together we sang of the distant shores of Lost Carcosa, a magical place where dark towers once stood under the crystalline brightness of twin suns. The notes wailed with the torment expressed by the newly dead as they remembered the suffering caused by the boiling clouds and the terrible wrath of falling stars. Like my subjects, those people in that far off land dismissed prophetic truths, preferring the comfort of their purling deceptions. And together they would share the same fate.

Make a wish.

Through it all, my gaze remained fixed on my consort, my king. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw my subjects recoil in horror – their eyes bleeding, their faces torn, their fingers bent in terrible claws. Thousands of mouths stretched wider and wider; lips cracked and split under the onslaught of their silent screams, yet I continued pouring the truth of their corruption and evil from taut strings strangled by the fraying scimitar at my companion’s throat.

Cassilda.

The finale broke like a wave upon the masses gathered before me. The shredded bow clattered to the stage. The cello, battered and broken, lay on her side, bleeding in tattered red ribbons that crawled across the sounding boards. My consort and king drew his yellow cloak close as he looked down at me. His eyes glittered like dark stars shining their brightest in an attempt to avert the inevitable.

In the obscene silence that followed, a yellowed score fluttered to the floor.

Your every desire will come true.


carina-bissett

In another life, Carina Bissett wrote travel articles and books about the Southwest. These days, she spends her time crafting twisted fairy tales and cross-pollinated mythic fiction. She is currently at work on the first novel in her five-book Elements series.