The shop that Ren Law minded was cramped, with no windows to stream sun through, and a secret hatch door in the ceiling being the only means of entrance or exit. However, what the modest room lacked in size, it made up for in content. Reams of silk with delicate golden brocades, inlaid with dusty peach peonies, were draped over a stand with others alike in quality and each complementing the next. From the walls, illuminated by soft flickering candle light, hung shimmering satins in every hue, begging for fingers to run over their soft folds. Even itchy wools, dyed in rich maroons and sappy greens, were placed with care in neat stacks on an unfinished wood table. To the attentive eye, the spread of wares on offer here were treated with such care one might think that Ren Law thought herself to have a duty to them. Most who entered this humble cache of contraband were not attentive, in fact they were terrified. One does not enter a room of colored fabrics, in a world ruled by chroma-serum and Enforcer led raids for anything in non-approved colors, without a healthy dose of terror.
They had begun to call her the Silken Whisperer, not long after she first opened. Ren knew that the man cut in sharp blacks and with neatly combed hair who had stepped carefully down the ladder from her ceiling hatch, was looking for her. He adjusted his tie, viewing the rooms contents with glassy and mistrustful eyes. Most trembled when confronted with so many different hues and shades, after living for so long in a world filled only by the stark blacks, whites and steely greys of a Grand Chancellor ruled world. This man was not shaken. He was determined.
“Hello,” He said, careful. “My name is Agnus. Am I to assume you are the one they call the Whisperer?” Agnus’ words were clipped, like they found it difficult to make it out around his straight white teeth. His meticulous appearance was garish surrounded by the dust motes in the air, and more so beside Ren’s mangy grey hair and worn wool dress.
“I am.” Ren replied, voice even. She had been expecting this, sooner or later. She had hoped it would be later, that she would see herself past seventy, but hopes often died once they taste reality. They appraised each other, a moment spent and gone before either could acknowledge that the other was even looking.
“They say you have an ability,” Agnus did not move, did not reach out to touch anything, as he spoke. Patrons could not resist the urge once they overcame the shock and fell stumbling into wonder. Agnus was not like the others who came to visit her here. “That you can sense what a person desires upon entering.” Agnus shoved his hands into the pockets of his pants, leaning back slightly, eyes never leaving Ren.
“It is as you say.” Her answer was immediate, spoken softly into the room, words floating in the air between them, to delight and taunt in equal measure. This conversation was one she had heard before but only through the distance of dreams. Always a sapphire silk fluttering in the wind. She drew strength from the thought of it, disappearing into the sky, pulled by a gust. Gone. Freed.
Agnus smiled, a rearing back of lips that made the damask silks nearest to him shiver, “What is it then, that I desire?” His words dropped off at the end, his smile strained, eyes beginning to bulge. This pleasant charade was pulling at his seams. Whoever had sent him had emphasized the idea of her coming in peace.
“You desire none of my cottons or my velvets,” Ren sighed moving toward a table draped with cashmere. There was a small leather satchel stowed underneath, with roses and thorny vines tooled into its surface. “Not a single yard of cloth here would satisfy you.” She gathered the pouch up in her arms, facing Agnus.
“You are to accompany me to the capitol, where you will stand trial for your crimes.” He sneered now, gesturing to the ladder and the hatch. “For corruption and treason against the Republic.”
Ren did not spare him a word or a glance, climbing the ladder up and up, into the storefront that had kept her secrets for thirty odd years. Displays of jackets in standard-issue wool blends hung limp, pants and yards of fabric arranged by approved-color: White, Black, Steel Grey, Charcoal, Neutral Brown. All the fixtures had been treated with chromo-serum, making them dull and ashy. It was the picture of Chancellor mandated colorlessness. All the while hiding a haven of jewels below its polished floorboards. At the door, Ren turned and bid the shop good-bye.
The satchel sat in her lap, beneath Ren’s folded veiny hands. The Enforcers had not cuffed her. The trip to the Capitol had taken three days, her stay in a cell even shorter. The room was humid, rows of people packed into seats in one swelling circle around her. High arched windows let the mid-day sun in to gleam against polished obsidian walls. The Grand Chancellor sat on a raised platform opposite her, looming behind a slab of stone. He was skeletal, a shock of hair like the gaping night sky combed neatly from his face. They stared at each other from across the room, two wills of force suspended in the air.
“You stand accused of corruption and treason against the State,” he said. The room had been filled with a controlled bubbling of murmurs but hushed as he spoke. The reading of her charges was for show. The lens of the camera beside her whirred, capturing Ren’s even breaths and how the chair she sat upon dwarfed her. Her trial was being broadcast around the world, a guard had said when they’d retrieved her from the cell.
Ken nodded, the movement a spike of ice that melted upon the heated gazes of so many. She imagined citizens of the Republic, at home surrounded by their chroma-serum treated walls and furniture, clothed in rough grey wool. Some would be cheering, enamored with this display of Republic force. Others would be clutching tiny squares of cornflower blue silk, some with smooth emerald pashmina decorated with hand stitched tulips pressed to their cheeks. They’d be blinking away tears. She smiled, a small and weathered thing, in honor of them.
“You know the laws of the Republic, yes?” The Chancellor gave a lazy wave of his hand, fluttering winged fingers in the air before him. Ren did not bother answering a question that already had an answer. “There has been a ban on all non-approved colors,” The Chancellor’s expression became pained, as if the word had burned him, “For forty-five years. How long have you been in violation of this mandate?” He asked, cocking his head to one side. The light caught on the jut of his cheekbone, making his face hollowed out.
“Thirty years.” Ren replied, clearing her throat before adding, “Chancellor.” She gripped the satchel in her lap, cracked skin stretching over knuckles. A warning rang in her ears: Do not speak out of turn, do not cause a riot. Ren’s heart stuttered in her chest, traitorous, at the thought. A riot was what she had wanted all those years ago, when she had twisted the last screw into the hinges of the trapdoor. Now, she could be the catalyst to something bigger. Today she faced the greatest choice of her years.
“Such a long time to be secreting away so much contraband.” The Chancellor stated, the words stale. “How?” He followed.
Ren did not respond, hands now shaking where they remained out of sight from the humming camera beside her. I remained out of sight by sheer force of will, because I am clever and determined. I do not swear blind allegiance to a faux-Republic. There is not one whisper left of justice in your regime. Pass down your judgement and release me. The words screamed inside her, black claws at her chest and throat, trying to rip out of her. She doused them with cold water. Told them: Our time has come, you will find release.
“No matter,” The Chancellor continued when Ren’s silence planted a steadfast boulder between them. He leaned forward now, slowly, “I will ask one more question before we conclude.” The Chancellor paused here. Did he want her to protest the culmination of her life’s work being reduced to a single question? To this circus display of his authority? She would not beg.
“Do you regret it?” He asked. Ren had never expected the ability that had been gifted to her upon her mother’s passing, the one that had given her title of Whisperer among the hopeful and distraught. Like a bowstring it had sprung into her mind with a vibrating hum and had not left yet. In this court room and surrounded by so many desires, she could not pin point any. Instead they took on a cracking trill that rose and fell scattered in unending directions. Do you regret it? Shards of glass in her soul, rending jagged bloody things through her as one Will fought through the trilling of hundreds. Empty black stared at her, waiting with crafted patience for a response. Some said the Grand Chancellor had his eyes injected with chroma-serum to remove them of all their color. Do you regret it? It was time for her to make her choice.
“No.” She said, releasing the vice grip she had on the satchel. The word was easy, sliding through the charred withered ones that swam inside her. She smiled, a small and weathered thing, as her sentence was handed down. As they escorted her to a cell to await her death, she could feel the world weep.
Nobody tells you waiting for your death is boring. Three weeks’ worth of meals had come and gone. The sun had risen twenty-one times and set just as many. But here Ren remained, brittle bones never seeming to warm, despite how tightly she wrapped herself up. As a child Ren had imagined what she might be like when she grew up. This is what she reflected upon, stuffed away in some dank corner cell below the city lights and blaring horns of autos. She’d exhausted herself composing letters to her loved ones. The people whose lives she’d left her colorful fingerprints all over. Her Mother had been an artist. Ren had spent much of her childhood spread out on the floor of the studio where her mother worked. With one brush in hand and another in her teeth, beads of sweat running down the backs of her arms, she’d hoist up onto ladders and great scaffolds. Fancifully, Ren had wanted to be just like that, changeable and in tune with something unnamed. Then, as a teenager, it was a mechanic. Fantasies of fixing up old motorbikes and taking cross country trips had been the fuel of that desire. When the Grand Chancellor came into power she had been getting her master’s in political philosophy. She’d immediately dropped from her program, a month before completion. You never really know what you’re going to do, until you do it. She’d thought about getting that tattooed somewhere, as a reminder. It wasn’t necessary, it lived in her heart.
She counted the ceiling tiles again. Fifteen. Dinner had already been served, her tray remained at the cell door. Nineteen. Steam no longer whispered into the air from the mug on it. She rarely found the energy to get up from her cot. Twenty-one. Her guards took her to use the bathroom twice a day. Twenty-eight. That was all the will she had left. Pick yourself up. It had become her mantra, but it didn’t seem to hold power any more. She had spent the last of it that day surrounded by cameras and burning eyes. Now, she was empty. Thir-
Someone was at her door. The on the bedside table flickered, a stub, nearing its expiration. The light it cast was dim and the shape at her door a nightmarish shadow. It stepped over the untouched tray and came into the dying light. The sepia glow did nothing to soften the knives of it’s cheekbones, colorless eyes a polished gleaming menace. The Chancellor sat on the lone chair placed at the foot of Ren’s bed. He said nothing, did not move, not even to blink. Ren’s heart was cold, just like her forgotten mug of tea. Anger had followed her after she’d dropped out of school, a constant vigil over her soul as she collected relics of a happier time. The fabrics that she would use to weave her future. Finally, it had tucked tail and ran when her cell door had clanged behind her three weeks before. Now there was nothing. Just the slicked stone walls around her and the biting winter wind of her thoughts. Ren tugged the blanket around her, tucked it into her sides with jerks.
“Why?” The Chancellor asked. Not the How? From her trial. He stared. Patient. It was hard not to have patience when you ruled over the seven continents with absolution. He clarified, “I have not had much rest over this. I thought to come and unburden you before your execution.” He drummed his fingers across the bedframe. The only sound in the vacuum that precedes the end.
“You gave me a choice,” Ren began. Words didn’t seem like the justice this deserved but she trudged on, “To turn my back on everything I believed in and live the rest of my days in a lifeless world or die.” She smiled when he scoffed.
“There is no honor in dying for this.” He said. The air around them warmed from the venom of it. Ren thought that might do well etched onto her tombstone. There is no honor in dying for this. Would the Chancellor feel the same when his day came? “You have not answered my question, all the same.” He leaned back in the chair, eyes hooded.
“I felt your desire, what you truly want- what you wanted in that moment, anyway.” Ren pushed the blanket away, her body creaking like a tree bent in the wind as she sat. “When you asked of my regrets, you desired something so fiercely it tore me.” She said. It left me empty. She would never feel another’s desire again. Their wishes had been swept away, like the silk in her dreams. Her bare feet were the soft flutter of wings on stone as she stood. They had let her keep the satchel she’d brought, a small comfort for a dying woman.
“What do I desire?” He asked. His twig fingers drummed again, pat pat. Ren pulled the leather purse from beneath the bed, running hands over the tooled roses in a long sweep. She popped the clasp and reached for its only contents. The silk stretched endlessly as she freed it, soft and warm. It rippled in the low light, shimmering sapphire and emerald, like cresting waves in an ocean that no longer existed. An heirloom of some timeless place. It was the silk that wrapped around Ren in her dreams, feather touches against her naked skin before smothering her, pulling her up and up into the eternal. The satchel fell to the floor, her arms outstretched to the Chancellor, offering up its sacred embrace.
He snatched at it, fingers twitching and spasming in its flow. Ren watched him gather it into his arms, one unending pool of glassy ocean. Like a dragging tide pulling stones and shells with its force he brought it to carved stone. Ragged short breaths fluttered silk as he pressed it to his face, stuttering there, before release. Ugly tears slid over tight cracked lips, dripping over his chin in forking streams.
Ren’s bones were beginning to stiffen where she stood when his breathing evened, and he rose. In on sweeping arc he folded the silk in half, then another half, again and again until it’s great mass had been condensed into one dense glimmering star. The Chancellor tucked it into his jacket, turning sharply on his foot. He stepped over the abandoned tray, did not shut the door behind him. Artificial light from the corridor burned holes in the stone walls of the cell. He dismissed the guard, his voice echoing in the hall before even that disappeared too. There is no honor in dying for this. Ren smiled, a small thing, in honor of it.
Ren shuffled into bed, spent. She managed to pull the blanket around her, one last time. Curling into herself like a nautilus, she waited to die.
Dominique Witman is currently a student at City College and have been attending for almost three years. They are studying Political Science but have always had a passion and interest in creative writing, fiction and poetry.