From the author: When your fate is drawn in blood and ink, only the wealthy can afford the best destinies. One tattoo artist must illuminate the future of his boss's daughter but sees his own dreams in her skin.
limner [lim-ner] -noun
1. a person who paints or draws
2. an illuminator of manuscripts
Jules clenched his hands behind his back. A new canvas. Blank. His.
Her skin shone under the fluorescent lights like brushed bronze. The smooth, sun-blushed sheen consumed his eyes and called to his fingertips. It flowed across her throat, over delicate cheeks and a high brow. Only her eyes interrupted the cascade of skin. They were brown, one was lazy. It focused on her nose while the other studied him with calm clarity.
“You’re my father’s limner?” She pushed the door shut.
“I am,” he said, relaxing his hands and offering one to her. “Jules Weiler, a pleasure Ms. Vega.”
She stared at the scrawling brand that traced a pattern across his knuckles and palm. The limner who had illuminated Jules preferred thick, tribal designs. The remnants of dead cultures, dead peoples, graced only Jules’s hands and face. The absence of a full script marked him as different, dangerous.
He started to withdraw, but she slid her fingers into his. They were warm, sleek, like sunlight. Jules faltered.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“It’s fine,” she said. “I’m Kensey, but you know that. Should I take off my slacks or sweater?”
He released her, his gaze traveling the length of her back to her lazy eye. Jules decided it made her more alluring. One flaw to assure onlookers of her mortality, that she wasn’t a statue untouched by the patina of age.
“Top or bottom?” she repeated.
“Your pants, please.” He turned, checking the equipment on the metal table. Colorful squeeze bottles sat in rows beside a chrome gun, needles, a box of latex gloves, and disinfectant. A pile of gauze pads laid unopened and eager. Jules snapped on a pair of gloves before running a finger across the gun. Cold, reassuring.
“How do you want me?” Kensey’s voice tempted him to look.
Tracts of polished skin stretched from pink manicured toes, past gently curving knees, to trim thighs scored with scars. The subtle stripes marched like a procession of pale soldiers from skirt to pantie-line. Jules closed his mouth.
She hung her slacks over the back of a plastic chair and set her pumps and stockings on the seat. Her modest underwear was a glorious shade of violet.
“On your back.” Jules cleared his throat. “Please. I like to start with feet, then behind the legs. We’ll break for lunch beforehand if you feel up to eating.”
She hopped on the adjustable chair. The plastic molded around her body.
“Comfy,” she said.
“You shaved thoroughly?”
“Twice, an hour ago.”
“Good.” He studied the way her feet tilted toward each other, as if called to their opposite by some divine symmetry. He mentally measured the spacing between bones, the protrusion of her ankle, the arch of her sole.
“What do you see? My script?” she asked.
Jules hesitated. “Not yet. Not until I start.”
“Then how do you know what to change?” She rubbed her arms, the cashmere hugging her frame. She reminded Jules of a window mannequin, half-dressed and forgotten by the designer.
“I just do,” he lied. “It appears. May I?” He gestured to her foot.
Kensey nodded. “What does it look like?”
He touched her. The sallow latex was a harsh disconnect from the shimmer of her skin.
“It looks like the finished product. You’ll see,” he said.
“What’s it look like to you?”
Jules set down her foot. Goosebumps pimpled her calf. He forced his gaze to her face, to the single brown eye that scrutinized him.
“People don’t ask me these things,” he said.
“I’m not people.”
“No, you’re my boss’s daughter. Significantly more important than people.”
She bristled. “Then answer me.”
Despite his misgivings, the corners of his mouth rose. “Like a city skyline. Squares of light and shadowed wires connecting one, to the other, to the next. Like the neon pulse of an old downtown. It’s all color and darkness, and it’s always different.”
Kensey’s eye twinkled. “Sounds beautiful.”
“It is,” he said, “and chaotic.” He ripped open a packet of gauze, doused it in disinfectant, and sterilized the top of her left foot. “When I’m done, you’ll see how beautiful.”
“But no chaos?”
He grabbed the gun and squeezed black ink from the bottle. “Remember to breathe. The thin skin will be the worst, downhill from there.”
She nodded and took deep breaths. Her body unwound, eyelids sagging, head listing to the side. Jules noticed her hair was a bit flat, stringy, like autumn wheat neglected at harvest. Strands divided her face, and he resisted the urge to remove them from her skin.
He plunged the needle in, a black mark appearing near her big toe. She sucked air through her teeth, and her flesh glowed pink around the puncture. She didn’t budge.
“Some chaos would be nice,” she said.
The script unfolded before Jules. A life, choices, her destiny. He wiped the fragile droplets of red away and continued. “Your future doesn’t have room for chance.”
The clock on the wall clicked a beat below the buzz of Jules’s gun. They had taken lunch when his hand cramped and resumed immediately afterward. Though the room had no windows, Jules imagined the final embers of sunset winking out, the city descending into the quiet cold of night. Where empties--those without an illumination--scuttled from cops and begged freelance limners to seal their scripts pro bono.
Fortunately, Jules was a made man.
Kensey had lain prone for much of the day. She never cried out, but her breaths mixed with a faint moan. Her skin had bloomed a dusky rose under the bronze, a radiant color that reminded Jules of the desert that encroached upon the city walls. Both made him sweat.
She sat upright now, leg elevated in a stirrup to keep the finished backside from touching anything. He worked up from her knee. The waxy scars lining her thigh loomed above his hand, hissing secrets.
“You could’ve been an indie limner.” Her voice was hoarse. She dabbed moisture from her forehead and neck with a white cloth. The rest of the gauze lay in the bio-bin, plumped with her blood.
“Suppose so,” he said.
“You’re good enough.”
“It’s not about how good you are.”
“So what made you a sellout?”
Jules lifted the gun. “It’s not--I didn’t. Ms. Vega, grilling your limner doesn’t result in only misplaced ink. This is your life. You want me to screw it up?”
Kensey shrugged, her chest rising and falling rapidly. “Already screwed.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
“You think you can fix me? Paint over the damage?” She gestured to her thigh. The pale rows contrasted with the black script that wound her leg and sealed her life. Her pattern was geometrical, all stiff lines and right angles highlighted by the occasional colorful box. When Jules finished, she would be the living abstract of a Piet Mondrian painting.
“I don’t intend to cover them,” he said.
“But my future--”
“It’s blending. Look.” He ran his thumb over the ink leading up her inner thigh. The black bars matched and faded into the scars. “It’s your script, all of it.”
“It was a razor.”
“Stunning.” He flattened his palm against her self-inflicted script, and she gasped. Jules flinched and turned to the metal table. The instruments were lifeless, constant. His face heated.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean anything, I swear.”
The clock ticked in the stillness.
When she spoke, it was just above a breath. “Are you going to finish?”
“Of course, I’m sorry.”
Jules nodded. He looked down and returned the needle to her skin, nearly complete.
“I’ll bandage you,” he said. “After an hour or two, take them off and use the ointment. Keep it clean. Only lukewarm water, antibacterial soft-soap, and the ointment for two to four weeks. You’ll peel and scab. Try not to scratch it. I’ll do your other leg when the first is healed.”
“Can’t you just do it tomorrow?”
He shook his head. “Give your body a chance to heal. Stress increases infection, and pain causes a lot of stress.”
The needle edged her scar tissue. A whine escaped her throat. Kensey squeezed her eyes shut.
“You’ll want tomorrow to rest,” he said.
Jules blotted blood and studied the final inches of her leg. The script thus far had been Kensey Vega’s beginnings, a childhood sealed by time and illuminated mostly for cosmetic reasons. No one who could afford a limner wanted half an illumination. Besides, marking a past allowed the limner to familiarize with the pattern without anxiety over alterations.
But Jules had reached the end of her twenty years of life, a past he was forbidden to touch. Those few quivering inches that remained were mutable. A future that was as much hers as it was his.
The pattern danced before him in color and light. It spoke possibilities only his illuminated eyes could see.
“What is it?” Her voice cut the swirl of neon. Jules realized he had stopped moving, the gun poised a hair from her skin.
“Your future,” he said. “The first glimpse.”
“What’s it say?”
“I think, I mean, I know, you’re going to fall in love, Ms. Vega.”
“Yeah? What’s he like?”
Jules blinked, smiled. “I don’t see the people, just the intersection of--”
She stopped him with a hand on his elbow. “I’m teasing. So that’s good, right? Love?”
“What about this time?”
He examined the script. The relationship would be brief. Passionate, but volatile. It concluded with the kind of emotional anguish that left craters in the heart. He swallowed and avoided her gaze. His instructions were clear.
Jules fired the gun and filled in her future. A new color appeared, a shorter bar. He mended a hole in a heart never broken.
“Yes,” he told her, “It’ll be good.”
Her father paid for perfection.
“I’ve been thinking.” Kensey scooted out of her skirt. She wore a garter. One black stocking covered her barren leg, the other gleamed with Jules’s handiwork and a month’s worth of blond fuzz.
“The peeling has stopped,” Jules said.
She finished her stripping and fell into the chair. “Great, I can shave one while the other itches.” She smiled at him, sliding a hand over her illumination.
“I love it,” she said.
“I’m glad. We have a ways to go.”
“A year or more, I know. I’m ready.” She nestled in the chair, sticking her right foot into the stirrup and steadying her breathing. “I can’t wait.”
Jules began at her toe.
Air whistled through her teeth. Blood came warm and languid to the surface, and he dabbed it away.
“I can’t wait until you’re done with my feet,” she amended.
“The hands are worse. Then there’s your face.”
His smile died as he glanced at her. Her lazy eye looked comical paired with the frown, but her other side spoke of fury.
He cringed. “I’m sorry. I mean it hurts. A lot.”
The gun’s buzz filled the space between them. Kensey was tense beneath his hands. After her feet, she rolled onto her belly. His wrist peeked above the latex gloves, pale and empty. Instead of a script, dark hairs decorated Jules’s arms. They would be his only embellishment. No limner received an illumination beyond sealing his abilities. The tribal bands across his hands and around his eyes secured his future as his boss’s man. To permit anything further was to invite collusion among the limners, and the law didn’t allow fortune-tellers to make their own fortune.
Soft panting, the scents of copper and ink and sweat, these were Jules’s comforts as time passed in lines upon her skin. Another year, a life made happy and successful by his fingers.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said as he reached her calf. “You said my scars were my script. Part of it.”
“They are,” he said.
“I’m not a limner.”
He finished coloring a tiny square with black.
“We all are,” he said, “in our own way. They’re part of you. What you saw on the inside, you brought it out.”
“How’s that possible?”
“When we feel something so deeply, we can touch a part of ourselves. You found your script and you marked it.”
“It hurt,” she said. “Not hurting was worse.”
Jules stopped the gun. He splayed his fingers on her thigh, across the shiny rows that lapped the outside of her leg. “Sometimes we have to feel something that breaks us to feel anything real.”
She shivered. He shrank away.
“It’s not something I recommend trying again, Ms. Vega. You can seriously damage your future. When the illumination is finished, you’ll see, everything will be better.”
“You’ll make sure?”
“Of course,” he said.
She sighed. “Just Kensey. Ms. Vega’s not here now.”
Despite the pain, her muscles loosened as he returned the needle to her flesh. Brilliant coral flushed her skin as if a sunrise had slipped inside her body.
“Kensey,” he said, “you’ll be perfect.”
Jules paused between her legs. The pattern deviated. In a handful of years, Kensey’s drive to follow her father’s legacy would stall. She would walk from the family business. The crisscrossing lines showed Jules the sting of breaking from her father, the poverty and danger, the moments of despair and utter happiness.
Kensey would be joyful. In love.
Jules muttered a curse.
“What was that?” She leaned forward on the chair, searching the fresh ink along her thigh, searching his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” He couldn’t look at her, at her one discerning eye. He had to watch the pattern.
The colors wavered, shimmying along her skin. He traced it backward. His gloved fingers skimmed the script he had already illuminated. Back to her ankle, to the other leg, upward to the score of razor kissing ink, to the pain Jules had erased on their first day.
“You’re touching me, differently,” she said.
One heartbreak eased, a loss mended. But it went too far, his corrections too great. The relationship wouldn’t end. She’d never fall out of love, never be propelled by hurt into her career. She’d abandon her father to be with her heart.
“Everything’s fine,” Jules said.
“You look different.”
“Lie back.” He pressed a hand to her shoulder and she obeyed.
Before he could release her, her fingers danced over his. Warmth bled beyond the yellow latex.
“You’ll fix it,” she said it like a command, without worry or fear.
“I will.” Jules retreated from her touch.
He had to.
The gleam of the chrome gun did nothing to soothe him. Jules paced the floor, his shoes clacking an awkward beat to the clock’s ticking reminder. He checked the supplies, again. She was coming.
He’d made changes. Large ones. Her future required happiness and success. If he failed, Jules would awake to the cold barrel of his boss’s vengeance. Or not wake at all.
He assured himself they were positive alterations to the client’s script. He was a professional limner. A made man. If anyone could weave love and a career, it was Jules. She would be perfect, as contracted. More than perfect.
Kensey opened the door. A rush of heat fanned Jules’s hair. Summer at last.
Her legs were art, strokes of paint in sublime precision. She sat on the chair, lifting her dress and flicking her heels to the ground.
“Limner,” she said, sweeping a hand across her legs. “Do you like?”
Jules nodded. “You’re healing well.”
He squeezed black ink into the gun, steadied his hand and opened his eyes to her script. She slipped off her cardigan.
“You like this?” she said.
Sunburst scars decorated her forearms. Glossy pink souvenirs from places Jules had never been. They glowed under the fluorescent lights, feverish and strong. Her shoulders were lovely, sloping affairs of unblemished copper. Her collarbone pointed the trail toward a delicate neck and rising chest. The cream-and-gold dress wrapped her like a straw.
Jules sucked his tongue against his palate.
“I haven’t cut,” she said. “Since you told me.”
He cleared his throat. “That’s good.”
“You control my script now.”
“I don’t feel different. Should I?”
“No, just relax,” he said.
She settled into the chair, arms raised in the supports. “How will I know the future you've made?”
“You won’t.” Jules sunk the needle into the back of her hand.
“It will be over before you notice,” he said.
He’d created a sleeve of script by supper. His changes--and her scars--had balanced her future. With her heart intact, Kensey’s motivation to succeed would be extrinsic: money, power, luxury. He assured these would compel her to mimic her father. She’d be wealthy, influential, and loved.
She would stay with her father, and keep her heart to herself. Whoever she loved would be a secret. He couldn’t see why.
Jules studied the script unfolding across her right arm. The left lay wrapped in bandages, complete.
He snapped to her face, met her eye. “Can you stay for another session?”
“What? Now?” She was breathless, face dappled with sweat.
“Yes, overnight. You don’t look tired. You’ll be fine.”
“You said the stress from multiple sessions was bad.”
“Is the pain too much?” He placed a hand over her blank wrist. Gloves discarded, her heated skin melted his chill.
She drew in a breath. Her brown eye flickered with something he couldn’t name.
“No,” she said. “I’ll stay.”
“Good.” He sighed and reached for the gun. If he finished the other arm, he could see why. Could fix it. Make it perfect.
Through his illuminated eyes, he saw the whirl and eddy of light waltz over her skin. Secrets, so many secrets kept from her father. She would lie, frequently, each compounding on the next as she struggled to keep one love from the other. There was fear...
...and worry over possible humiliation, scorn, danger. If her father knew, he would hurt her.
“Jules.” She shattered his concentration, his name tumbling on her breath.
“Hmm?” His gaze lingered on her elbow, her bicep, the dip of her collar, the pulse in her throat. Until landing on pink-glossed lips.
She licked them, leaned into him. Her breasts were soft against his chest. Her lips hot against his mouth. The bridge of her nose rubbed his cheek, velvety skin luring him deeper. Mint and metal, sweat and sun, the taste of her tongue branded him. She shifted her unmarked hand, palm sliding across his stubbled jaw. She angled his head and kissed a path along his face, nibbled his neck.
Jules’s eyes fluttered half-mast. The pattern flared on her shoulder. Her script revealed.
She would love a limner.
“Oh God,” he moaned.
There had been no more illumination that night. The revelation pierced the intoxication of her touch. He pushed her away, lied like she soon would.
“You have to go,” he said.
“I’m staying, all night.”
“They’ll find you. This can’t happen. I’m--”
“A limner, Kensey. I have no future, no will.”
“You can make one.”
“No, I can’t.”
“I’ll find another limner to do your script.”
“Your father would kill me, us. You.”
“I want you, Jules.”
“You need to leave.”
And she had left. Promises for their next session glistening on her lips.
Jules shoved the sponge in the bucket. The sterile floors gleamed with liquid, and bleach choked the air. His hands burned red to the wrist, pants spotted with white. He scrubbed until his skin cracked and bled.
Many limners had attempted self-illuminations. Without fail, they died. Peering at one’s own destiny called to death. Changing it summoned the end instantly. Jules had never gazed at his script. Didn’t want to, didn’t care. His boss kept him comfortable. His abilities were sealed. What more was there?
There could be Kensey. Had the other limner seen her while he'd illuminated Jules’s hands? Had he laughed?
Jules hurled the sponge against the wall. It stuck a moment, splattering bleach across the plastic panels, and slid to the ground. He breathed hard. His thoughts dulled the ache in his hands.
Only through indirect alterations could a limner change his own fate, and that was tricky at best. By changing those he interacted with he could shift the future in his favor. But relationships were fluid connections, ever-changing, fractious. Undesirable.
Through Kensey, he might transform his life. But if her father found out, Jules wouldn’t need to invite death. Oblivion would find them both.
“He won’t know,” Jules whispered into her ear while preparing the gun. “I’ll make sure.”
“I know.” Kensey stretched on the chair. Her right arm was clean and shining. It dazzled his eyes, her pattern flaring brighter than his last glimpse of the outside world. He read her love in the curve of neon.
He put the needle to her skin but paused. “Don’t--uh, distract me when I start.”
She smiled. “I’ll try to keep my hands to myself.”
He caught himself grinning as he began. “Talk to me about you. I want to know it all.”
“You already do, limner,” she said, “but I’ll tell you anyway.”
As he filled in her future, she relayed her past. And when the pain ceased, they smiled. Together they whispered deeper truths under fluorescent lights. Skin against skin.
Twice Jules negated her death. Maybe his too, he couldn’t know.
Years would pass in guile and secret rendezvous. Mistakes that might have led to their discovery, simply erased. No taint of their love allowed on her neck, no exchange of passion interrupted by a curious father.
Her skin consumed him as he worked. The smell of iron and ink. The smooth delicacy of her touch. The flavor of peppermint lip-gloss. The heat. He might illuminate her body, but she carved a channel inside Jules. She liberated him from a prison of plastic walls and cold steel. Worse, she made him laugh.
“Going to start soon, limner? Or leave me wanting?” Kensey lay facedown. Her back glimmered, bare and enchanting. Above a vivid strip of white, her shoulder blades arched. Below, a set of dimples compelled him to lick her waistline.
“Your arms and legs look great,” he said.
“They better. My limner is supposed to be the best.”
Jules slid a fingertip up her spine. The city nightlife flashed in her script, long lines of neon and bright squares of windowed life. “He is.”
She shivered. “He’s also a terrible tease.”
He traced the pattern’s many permutations, searching for the path to perfection. His fingers brushed pain and sadness aside. When he unfastened her bra, she lay silent. No tremble under her skin, only the pulse of her warmth as he shifted the straps over her shoulders.
He snapped on fresh gloves. “Some say the spinal illumination is the most painful, but I doubt you’ll have a problem.”
He lifted the gun and placed it against her back.
“Remember, keep breathing,” he said.
He jerked the gun aside. “What is it?”
“Tell me what it says, about us.”
“You know I can’t. Your will might work to alter the seal. But I can tell you it’s wonderful.”
“More than wonderful. Your father will never find out, Kensey.”
She sighed, hesitated. “I meant, that is, my future family.”
“I just thought--” she started. “Forget it.”
“No, it’s fine.” He squinted at the script. “A family, of course.”
There were paths that led to children. None ended well. Pregnancy destroyed their secret. Even if she claimed an alternate father, the child would reveal them through hypnotic stares at family and friends. Any offspring she produced with Jules resulted in a limner, a slave to the future.
Of course, she would want a family. She might be successful, loved, happy, but still lonely despite Jules’s affection. They could never marry, could never be more than a hidden devotion. And he would never pass on his curse.
“We can’t do this,” he said.
“What?” Her shoulders tensed. “I didn’t mean what I said. It doesn’t matter to me.”
But he saw the lie. It was beautiful, the way it skimmed over her curves, twisting like a frantic firefly caught in her script. It mattered. Her happiness mattered.
“Your back, we can’t do it today,” he said.
“It requires more thought. Planning. I need to incorporate all your wants.”
“All my wants,” she said.
The gun clinked on the table as he set it down, metal to metal. He freed his hands from the sickly latex. “I’ll need to study the probabilities.”
“Just you,” he said.
Then there were no more words, only luminous, boundless skin.
The water had gone cold. Soap scum nipped at his flesh. His teeth clattered. Jules held the razor in front of his nose, exhaling a fog over the silver shine. The blade winked under the bathroom’s delicate lights, its edge as thin as the breath between Kensey’s kisses.
He could have her. He could have everything. Someday she’d inherit, become his boss. He would be elevated, pampered, cherished in ways he never imagined. Her love would set him free. Ask for anything, it would be his.
But when she’d leave his embrace before dawn could spill across their secret, she would cry. She would cut. Kensey could fulfill his fate, but Jules would never be what she needed. Not fully, perfectly. It would take more than indirect alterations.
He stood, water lapping at his knees. The air assaulted his skin, raised bumps and forced his dark hair on end. He focused on the glint of the razor, at what is. Then looked at himself, to discover what might be.
He dared death and found his illumination.
She was living art, Jules’s masterpiece. Only her face remained untouched. Her straw hair was slicked back in the tightest knot, lazy eye watching past him with tenderness. They made love against the plastic walls, atop the cushioned chair, on the harsh floor. He kissed the corner of her flawed eye, swallowed the swell of her lips. Each time Jules stroked the sunburst scars along her arms, he swore they burned.
“It’s our last session,” he said.
“I’ll sneak back.” She nipped his earlobe. “Visit you.”
“I know.” He made her comfortable on the chair, adjusted the tools, filled the gun with ink.
“I need you to do something for me today, Kensey.”
“Anything,” she said.
He gave her the razor.
“Jules, I’m not--”
“It’s for me,” he said, removing his shirt. His chest underneath was bare, shaved clean. “To assure your future, our future. I can’t do it myself.”
She ran her thumb over the blade, careful to avoid the edge. He sat on the chair and lifted her legs over his thighs. Her illumination shone like a kaleidoscope of color, a galaxy against the black sky of his slacks.
“Right here,” he said, looping a finger around his pectoral muscle. “Score the skin on top. Don’t go too deep, just enough to bleed.”
“I’m not a limner,” she said.
He caressed her inner thigh, her beautiful scars. “You can be. Today.”
She nodded. She put the razor to him. Her hand shook. “I can’t, Jules. I can’t.”
“It has to be perfect,” he said and shoved her hand against his flesh.
She never cried. Not when he pierced the skin above and below her lips, under her eyes, behind her ears.
She only cried when she cut him.
Jules had kissed those tears, drank them deep, while she etched a scar above his heart. Round and thick, spiked with rays that branched outward like candle drips.
He said, “Good-bye,” when her illumination was complete.
And she told him, “I’ll see you soon.”
Even though he had shut the door, sealed her out. In his future, Kensey could not exist. And in hers, another would take Jules’s place.
He greeted the new client, a young upstart in the boss’s corporation. The boy was well-groomed and polite. His script had no surprises. His skin held no secrets.
Jules massaged the waxy sun under his shirt. The spot warmed him. He couldn’t remember why.
This story originally appeared in 1st and Starlight.
Edited by Sky McKinnon: In these pages, you will find stories old and new, eyes to the future and to the past. Dreams of science fiction and fantasy alike. Sweeping journeys and quiet contemplation. Love and sacrifice. I leave you at the intersection between our little slice of reality and the never-ending roads of stardust and hope you enjoy your stay.
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