The city of Trachis was built at the meeting of two rivers, one which flowed to the green sea and one which flowed to the gulfs between the stars. The galleys which floated the latter river were diverse in their craftsmanship, but they were all of them united by one characteristic: their splendid golden sails.
So it was, one bedewed night, that one of these ships returned from the stars laden with wondrous treasures and curios. Stashed in barrels below-deck were the types of jewels which caught earth-light and transformed it into song, the dust found at the feet of long-abdicated deific thrones, and the grim art of terrible civilizations now lost to time. Among these exotic wonderments was a dress woven from the silk of the Fates.
The rumor of this dress spread through the city, so that long after the ship had again departed for the stars, still it was whispered among the ladies of that country that no garment was its equal in beauty or comfort.
In this way, it came to the attention of King Simon of Trachis that the deckhand who had found and claimed the dress had forsaken his place on the galley in order to remain in the city and sell his treasure. Simon resolved to make of the dress a gift for his wife, Queen Cassandra.
The King himself sought out the sailor and found him at an inn on the wharf.
“Your Majesty,” said the sailor at the King’s coming, “I know the reason for your visit. The thing which I have plucked from one of the hallowed corners of our universe is to be a gift for your love. Truthfully, I have denied many offers for its purchase, and many have said that only a King could pay what I ask. But I have never seen its equal, and I have sailed for many years on Other waters.”
King Simon happily bought the dress, and the old sailor left the city and this tale a very rich man. Pleased as he was, the King did not perceive that the sailor never looked directly at the dress woven from Fate’s silks.
When the King presented the gift to Queen Cassandra, he was pleased to see her receive it with great joy and enthusiasm. She smiled, and for a moment she became two different people contained in one body: one the headstrong girl with whom he had spent evenings wandering in starlit gardens, and the other the gracious woman whose wisdom and love had brought an era of peace to their realm. She cursed him for being frivolous and kissed him for being kind, blushing all the while like a girl.
Presently, the Queen exclaimed, “I will try it immediately, and we will see how it looks in motion.”
And she went away to her quarters with the dress clasped to her chest.
A half hour passed, and Simon wondered at his Queen’s absence. He went to her chamber and found her sitting on the floor, the resplendent skirts of her new dress puddled about her trembling legs.
She turned to him and said, “I have just thought the worst thing. Something repulsive has assaulted my mind—the most vivid nightmare.
I imagined a girl, maybe sixteen and heavy with her first child, walking the streets alone at night. I can see her now, stepping on the cobbles with sandals surely made before she was born. She pulls her rags closer about her to defend against the cold breeze. And she turns in horror to see a rabid mastiff, its eyes aglow in a black alley. And…”
A shudder traveled up and down Queen Cassandra’s body, and her husband, for the first time in many years having no idea how to comfort her, knelt and held her as she shook.
The morning brought evil news. A servant girl had been mauled by an animal the previous night, and neither she nor her child had survived. Simon organized a search for the beast, and it was found and disposed of before noon. The Queen was inconsolable. She retired early from the morning court, and she took no food.
When Simon was able to disentangle himself from the midday business, he found Cassandra in their bed, laying with her face pressed into the covers. The pearlescent fabric of the dress peeked out from the edge of the sheet, and Simon knew Cassandra was holding it close to herself and out of his sight.
After sitting in silence at the foot of the bed for some time, Simon said, “It was an awful thing.”
“I’ve seen more,” Cassandra murmured, “My mind wanders. I don’t know if I am cursed or if I am the curse. Did the gods themselves send me a vision, hoping for me to save the girl? Or did my own morbid thoughts and worries bring her to such an ugly fate?”
“It was awful,” Simon repeated, “But everyone must die sometime. You know that as well as I. Why do you feel responsible for this poor girl? What you saw was no vision, and even if it was, it was simply the intuition that women sometimes possess. You mustn’t hold yourself to blame for what happened. If you and I acted on every feeling we ever had, and all the contradictory soothsaying we heard from priests and wise men, we would be mad.”
“No,” Cassandra said, sitting up in the bed and pushing aside the covers to reveal the dress made of Fate’s silks, “I’ve seen more. It is this strange garment, a gift from the gods as much as from you, that allows me to know the dooms of innocent people. Even now I see an honest-looking man fleeing from armed assailants, probably brigands, running for some time before at last falling under the flurry of their swords. Do you expect me to leave him to his fate the way I did the girl? No. And I’ve seen more.”
“Let me see-“
Cassandra recoiled from Simon.
“You will take it from me,” she said, “And then either you will assume the burden, or you will cast it away – both unforgivable offenses. I will not see you tormented by it, and I will not throw it away to relieve myself of strain. No, it is my responsibility.”
And Simon did as she bid, because her eyes had shone with the rare fury of her command.
As the days went on, the Queen became possessed of a frantic need to survey her people by means of tirelessly probing the dress.
She dispatched guards to momentarily stop the work of tradesmen who she had foreseen would perish during their labors, she declared a holiday on a day that otherwise would have seen a deadly fire consume much of the marketplace, and she identified the man who had been pursued by swordsmen in her vision, giving him a temporary apartment in the royal palace.
And for a few weeks, the news was free of misadventure and disaster. Word spread across the country of an Oracle-Queen who had brought good fortune to her people, and in time there came many visitors to Trachis who hoped to question Cassandra about their fates. She endeavored to help everyone who came, though it proved costly.
The toll was almost immediate on the Queen. Her usual vigor was sapped from her, and she developed a vulnerability to sudden swoons and debilitating waves of panic. Her hair, formerly as lustrous as a new penny, took on a tarnished color that reminded her of bloody flagstones. She became irritable with all the members of her court, and even with her daughter, Princess Mina. A seemingly endless tide of visitors and well-wishers crashed against the walls of the palace, and as the clamoring masses grew more impatient, murders began to stain the streets of Trachis.
More guards were deployed to quell the mobs of unruly people, and new ones were conscripted to fill the places of those who had been moved from posts inside the palace to posts in the city. Many of these new men were inexperienced, and some even abandoned their posts altogether on days when their absence was less likely to be noticed, disappearing into taverns for hours at a time.
Then, on a dreary Spring morning, the King and Queen awoke to find that their daughter Mina was missing. A frantic search of the palace and its grounds yielded only a discarded ribbon which Mina had used to tie back her hair the previous evening. The Queen consulted the dress made of Fate’s silks and saw nothing but a distant gleam, as one might see when a ship on the starlit horizon sets its lamps alight. Many people in the city were questioned before a local drunk was found who had seen a suspicious man leaving Trachis.
“He come up from the aqua-duck all wet an’ wild-eyed,” said the tippler, “but he was dressed better ‘n some folks that live up on the hill. His hands was all a-shakin’, and when he saw me lookin’ at him he gave me a look fit to strike me dead on the spot. Seen him run somewhere down the street and toward the east gate.”
Mina’s body was discovered in one of Trachis’s aqueducts. It was determined that she had been kidnapped in the early hours of that morning, and her captor had planned to escape through the outward-flowing sewage system and into the wild country outside of Trachis. There, he would have been able to evade capture in the mountains and hold Mina for ransom. However, at some point during their journey, there was a struggle, and Mina tried to lose her abductor in the tunnels beneath the city. Then, either the abductor had thrown her, or she had fallen into the rushing waters of the aqueduct. Though she was a capable swimmer, she couldn’t fight the current, and she drowned only a five-minute walk from the gates of the palace.
When this news was brought to the King and Queen, they succumbed to a grief the likes of which they could never have imagined. Simon was stricken with seizure and was thereafter thought to be cursed for bringing a relic of the gods into Trachis. He lived for two days in total silence, unable to eat, and on the third morning he swallowed his tongue and perished.
That was the day the kidnapper was apprehended and brought before Queen Cassandra. He had been found hiding in the mountains outside of Trachis. When Cassandra saw him, she immediately turned away, filled with such agony that she did not trust her heart to keep beating if she gazed upon his face any longer. Here was the man who had run from the “brigands” in her vision. Only now did she realize that the brigands had not been brigands at all; they were local people enraged by his crimes. Fate had ordained that he would be driven from the city for some petty offense, and Cassandra had defied it, creating new destinies for her daughter and husband as well as the horrid kidnapper. She had given the man expensive clothes, a room in the palace, food and wine, and the ideal opportunity to plan and execute a royal kidnapping.
She commanded that he be sent into the dungeons until she was able to think of a worthy punishment. And she left the palace.
An hour later, Queen Cassandra donned the dress made from Fate’s silks and stepped onto the banks of the river from which her gift had come. There, at the place where one may look into the distance and see the end of the world, she spoke the words that have since become legend.
“Fate is indeed cruel to those who try to know it. Though all I did was for the good of my people, I forgot that the fate of mortals is the business of higher beings than I. Goodbye to the world! I will do better to watch you from afar.”
And having so spoken, she cast herself into the river, buoyed by the silks of Fate, which tell the dooms of all things that are and will be.
After the passing of ages untold, it carried her to that place where the Fates are woven, and her Sisters welcomed her with knowing smiles.
Austin Fraser is twenty-three years old and has been in love with the written word for as long as he can remember. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are his favorite genres for both reading and writing. He credits Gene Wolfe, Clark Ashton Smith, Harlan Ellison, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King as literary inspirations. He hopes to capture the reader’s imagination with that unique type of magic that only exists in the best stories. When Austin isn’t writing, he is also a full-time student and serves as the Engagement Director for the Odyssey magazine.