Counting Cards

It’s been a long time since I’ve resorted to reading cards. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to rely on fortune-telling for much of anything, be it earning a living or getting some glimpse of things to come. Val can say what he likes about my prognosticative skills but I don’t always get more than vague hints. If I had more natural Talent–but then if I did I wouldn’t be who I am, and we wouldn’t be here, would we?

I sat down tonight with my old deck and considered our problem. Matters in the store are getting worse, not better. Practically every item we have with the Capitol on it has fallen or been taken off the shelves (and considering where we’re located that is quite a few) and then what had to be the last straw.

“Honey-sweet,” and though Val often uses that endearment sincerely, this evening I could hear the edge to it, “did you happen to look in the back room today?”

The back room of the shop was, at some point, probably a study or a pantry or some other tiny room when this house was simply a house. We use it as a catch-all space for items that don’t really fit a particular category, such as kitchenware, books, or clothes. As such it’s filled with all the sorts of flotsam you expect in a thrift shop or the kind of antiques store that’s more a junk heap. To be fair, Antiquitas Veritas is somewhat our personal attic, filled more with things we find amusing or which we’ve inherited than objects we actually expect to sell. But at our ages, what do you expect?

There had only been four or five customers in the store today, and with Val spending part of his time manning the counter instead of stalking our visitor Elaine, nothing could really have escaped our notice. His hearing’s exceptionally acute, naturally, and between that and Val’s chronic boredom it makes shoplifting from us an interesting sport (for us, at any rate.) So the chances of someone sucessfuly rearranging anything without our knowing are slim at best. Which is why I found it quite surprising when Val walked me into the back room, and I saw what had been done.

Every piece of glass or mirror or shining reflective surface was turned out, dangling off shelves, propped against cases, anything so it might catch the light. It was like a bizarre display of fairy lights, reflections glittering over every surface, bouncing back at each other, and in the middle whoever had arranged the room had made a neat platform, almost an altar, out of our display cases, and placed a blue glass bowl in the center. The bowl was half-filled with water, or at least a clear liquid that looked like water, and there were leaves and petals of some sort in it.

“This isn’t some sort of bizarre pagan ritual of yours, is it?” I knew it wasn’t, as Val was superstitious but not observant by any stretch when it came to that sort of thing. “Some appeal to the Good Goddess to get whatever’s haunting the place out?”

“Don’t be silly, darling. For starters I can afford a few doves or a lamb if I wanted to try that.” He was only joking, for the most part. I think in all our years together I’ve seen him actually make an offering once, though he does like to talk about it to disturb the Christians. “Books leaving notes for us and pictures scattered all over the shop are one thing, but apparently it believes we aren’t getting the message.”

“It really ought to be clearer about what the message is, then.”

You would think, as long as we’ve been at this, I would know better than to say things like that. The scattered lights were suddenly moving, as if all the mirrors and glass were being turned by a breeze. On that breeze, I caught the faintest scent of ocean and marsh-grass and sun-heated rocks. Then I realized the surface of the water in the bowl was trembling. That quickly changed to tiny whitecaps as the water grew wilder, darker, flinging the leaves and petals over the edges and sticking to the sides. Something was flickering in the water, a red and gold glow drawing up into a miniature cyclone. I started to hear a fine, faint ringing sound, and if it was just audible to me it had to be a shout to Val–

His arms were around me and he was crushing me against him, one hand pressing my face against his chest. I squeezed my eyes shut at the unspoken warning and felt the stinging shards of glass and ceramic spattering against my back. I felt a rush of heat, too, not hot enough to burn but enough to grab my attention. Val held me a minute longer, until the noise subsided and we dared to look up. The bowl had shattered, spraying water and glass across the room, but at the center, there was a charred mark on the wood floor and a few curled wisps of charred leaves, swirled by a faint breeze.

Val stepped away, and we both looked carefully at the disaster area. He wasn’t shaking like I was, naturally, but from the way his lips pressed together and his fists clenched he was just as rattled.

Finally, he looked up at me. “Wind, Water, Earth, and Fire.”

I stared down at the debris again, and saw what he meant.

Venitias.They come.

“It can’t be.” I looked up at him. His expression was impassive, neither unconvinced nor unnerved. “They’re dead.”

They have died before. Replacements always came along then. Why not now? What else could the books and the . . . messengers . . . be trying to tell us? What else could be worth this kind of fireworks?” Val picked up a razor-thin sliver of glass. “And there’s your boy.”

“And your girl.” I closed my eyes, and recalled Val’s shared memory of this Elaine, surrounded by the rich blues and soft golds of the Peacock Room. Had all that brilliant color simply been the antique paint? And ‘my boy’, Alan, bathed in what might not be sunlight after all, with the very stones of the Capitol practically singing around him? “They certainly don’t appear to be Mages.”

“Unless there’s some secret pool of survivors holed up training potentials somewhere, they’re certainly not.” Val studied the miniature rainbow the broken glass cast on the floor. “But there’s no reason they can’t be . . . what this seems to be saying.”

I felt a sick, sinking feeling at the pit of my stomach. “If they are . . . ye gods, they’re all alone.”

“If they are, hardly.” Val tossed the broken bit back into the pile of debris. “They’ll have us, won’t they? Gods help them.” He looked around a bit more pragmatically. “Well, one thing we have to do is clean this up. And then, hie I back to my computer. There must be something in their backgrounds I’m missing. As for you . . . have you thought about seeing what the cards say?”

Which is how I came to be sitting with the elderly deck, one of the few things I have that predates Val arriving in my life, shuffling and cutting as I tried to find the quiet mental place I need to be for them to work. Finally, I managed to clear the last cobwebs, and thought of Alan while I flipped the top card. King of Hearts. Elaine. Queen of Spades. I shuffled again, and this time laid out a short version of my own, personally-created spread. Two at the top, three beneath, and a single card at the middle. Nothing complex.

The bottom cards came out King of Diamonds, Queen of Diamonds, Jack of Diamonds. In every reading I’ve done since we met, these have always been Val, me, and Nicodemus (who argues that he really ought to be the Ace, but I told him to take it up with the powers that guide the cards, not me.) “Together again, eh?” I murmured.

The top cards were the King of Hearts and the Queen of Spades. In one respect, no surprise. Whoever they were Alan and Elaine were obviously deeply involved in whatever was happening. In another, how? Neither had ever set foot in our shop, so why was the inventory so determined to grab our attention? My mind wandered to Sophia’s bookcase, and David’s long-forgotten astrolabe. How would they know they’d found new owners when those new owners had yet to come within a mile of them?

And, more worrisome, if they were what today’s tantrum suggested, why now? What else was coming?

The last card’s chequered back glared up at me, and I shook away the wandering thoughts and flipped it.

“Oh, now you’re just having me on,” I said to the darkening room and whatever was lurking invisibly in its corners, as the caricature of a Joker winked up at me from the table.

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