The fortune-teller surveyed me with a watchful expression as her deft hands shuffled the pack of cards. Her kohl-rimmed eyes were soft, but the way she examined my disguise, as if she could see right through it, still sent a shiver down my spine. Despite the fire crackling in the hearth, cold permeated the low-ceilinged room, and I tightened my plain borrowed coat around my chest.
“What do you want to know, child?”
An encouraging smile stretched the lines on her thin face, and she handed the deck to her assistant. Warm amber light shimmered off the cards when the woman, as wrinkled and stooped as the seer, displayed them facedown on the worn wooden table.
Her gentle voice and calm demeanor were meant to put me at ease, but I shifted my weight in my seat, reconsidering my decision to come here. The rickety chair creaked, and I cast a nervous glance around the dark corners of the one-room flat. The pale dawn that filtered through the dirty square windowpanes brought very little light to my surroundings, while the single candle lit on the table cast shadows along the dried herbs hanging from the rafters and the jars and clay bowls on the shelves.
“You’re safe here, child,” the seer said, guessing my thoughts. “Now, why have you come?”
I tilted my head to the side. By now, she’d likely surmised my clothes were borrowed and the name I had given upon my arrival was a false one. Despite my efforts to hide my true station, she’d also likely noticed the shiny gloss of my hair beneath my simple plait, the healthy complexion of my skin, and the delicacy of my hands under the grime I had scrubbed into them. Truth was in the details, and I feared there was no denying what I was—a noble girl alone in the seediest part of the French capital at an ungodly hour of the day, in a magicienne’s lodging, no less.
I sprang to my feet, my heartbeat quickening. What was I thinking? This had been a mistake. There were magicians and seers at court. I didn’t need to be here. I shouldn’t be here. The risk of discovery was too great. Reputations had been ruined for far less than this. But then, my good name would be the least of my concerns if this woman chose to tell her neighbors and acquaintances about me. I could very well not make it back home alive at all.
My feet had taken me to the door when the woman’s quiet voice rose behind me.
“Today is a most significant day, isn’t it?”
I bit my lip, my bare hand hovering above the lock.
“You wouldn’t be here otherwise,” she added.
She was right, of course, but it was easy to guess. Despite her reputation as the most talented fortune-teller in Paris, a lady in my position wouldn’t have risked visiting her in this part of the city if not for a great motive. I glanced back at her, and she motioned to my empty seat.
“Let me help you, my dear.”
I let a couple of seconds tick by. The aromas of rosemary and thyme mixed in the air, along with a more heady scent I couldn’t place. From the street below and the building around us, what little sound reached us was strangely muffled. One could have thought this strange small room was out of time and place.
It seemed silly to run home without answers after all the trouble of coming here in the first place. And this soft-spoken woman and her quiet assistant did appear harmless. I took a deep breath along with my decision. Magic glowed golden in the old seer’s irises. She couldn’t know it, but thanks to my own condition, I knew she was the magicienne she claimed to be. So I would stay and see if she deserved her reputation.
“I want you to tell me about my past.” I sat down again. She nodded, but I went on before she could reply. “And about my present. And about my future.” It was my turn to fix her with narrowed eyes, waiting for her reaction.
Her serene expression didn’t waver under my scrutiny. “Pick a card, then.”
Careful not to touch any, I pointed at one in the middle of the displayed pack. She nodded at her assistant, and in a well-practiced move, they pulled out the card together.
“Révèle,” the assistant said.
Since the dawn of time, magic has required three components: a wielder—in France we called them magiciens; a conduit—in this case, a deck of cards; and a Source. The seer’s assistant was her Source. Magiciens had the power to wield magic, though they didn’t have magic themselves. Sources did, but they couldn’t use it. Neither could exercise their power without the other: God’s or nature’s way of keeping both gifts in check.
When both women set the card faceup, more light rippled along its surface. I had expected tarot cards, but it was a simple pack of playing cards, worn and yellowish. The card I had picked was the king of hearts. The fortune-teller shot me an impressed look.
“This is the card about your past. A king.” She was fishing for a reaction, but I knew better than to give her the answers I sought myself. I kept my face expressionless. “You have a king as a family member,” she added, to my surprise. I couldn’t help my eyes widening at her insight, but I didn’t reply. Maybe it was a lucky guess. A lot of courtiers could claim to be distant relatives of the king after all. She studied me for a heartbeat, then waved at the face-down cards. “Another.”
I gestured toward the right end of the fanned-out cards. The two women repeated their little ritual and revealed the king of spades. The seer’s brow furrowed.
“And you have a king in your present. A foreigner.” This time the look she gave me was overtly questioning, and even her Source’s face, impassive until now, betrayed interest.
My heart beat harder. Were they playing me? Had the magicienne recognized me and was she telling me what she already knew?
“What about my future?” I asked, my tone clipped.
If she’d guessed my identity, she knew playing tricks with me wouldn’t end well for her. I pointed at a card at random, and light gleamed off it when both women flipped it. King of diamonds.
The seer gasped. “Who are you, child?”
So she didn’t know. She exchanged a glance with her Source, but I ignored the fright in their eyes.
“What about my future?” I repeated.
With trembling hands, she lined the three cards on the table. “There’s a king in your future as well.”
I leaned in to catch her gaze. “Which one? And how will he impact my life?” I had to know. This was too important.
But she shook her head, distress crossing her features at the intensity of my question. “I don’t know, my dear. There’s so much power surrounding you, I can’t tell, I’m sorry. Maybe if you told me who you are, I—”
I huffed a frustrated sigh. This was a waste of time. “I was told you were the best seer in Paris.” I gestured at the cards. “The best seer in all of France, save for the Crown Magicien himself. Yet this is all you can tell me?”
“The cards’ meaning isn’t always clear.”
Her apologetic answer made my temper rise. Her magic was genuine. Her reputation reached even the French court. Yet she couldn’t give me the answers I sought. I pressed my palms onto the table. Already the light in the cards—witness to the power the Source had infused them with—was fading.
“But you’re right,” I said. “I do have a king in my past, one in my present, and one in my future. I know my fate is linked to theirs. I’ve always known that, believe me. What I came here to know—what I want you to tell me—is what it means for me.”
All the women in my life had had kings for husbands, fathers, brothers, or lovers. And not a single one of them had led a long or happy life. Just after my birth, my own mother had gone from being an English queen to a destitute widow in exile. My father had been an English king beheaded for treason by his own Parliament in a country torn by magic and civil war. My brother was the newly reinstated king of England. It was thanks to the charity of the young French king that I had grown up in France. Now, at seventeen and on the eve of my formal entrance at French court, I needed to know if all these kings in my life, and all the decisions I was making now, would ensure I never had to endure my mother’s ordeal, or if they would lead me to a similar fate.
The old woman folded the cards back into the pack. “The cards won’t show me that. I’ll need to try something else.”
I pulled my purse from the folds of my gray cloak—no point pretending I wasn’t wealthy, now—and dumped it on the table with a clinking sound. “Then please do.”
She didn’t touch the leather pouch. Instead, she exchanged a conniving look with her Source. The old woman pushed herself off her chair and shuffled to the shelf to retrieve a small bowl, which she set between us and filled with water from a pitcher.
“Why have you come here, today?” the fortune-teller asked as her assistant took her seat again.
“Aren’t you the one supposed to tell me that?”
“It is your wedding day, isn’t it?” She spoke with a knowing look and placed the bowl closer to me. My silence confirmed her suspicions. “And you want to know what your husband will be like?”
She was seeking clues again. I knew what my future husband was like. I didn’t love or know him well, but I was ready to marry him if it meant ensuring my safety and welfare. What I wanted to know was what my future held; if living in a world of kings and queens would save or crush me.
When I didn’t speak, she produced a small knife from her dress pocket and pointed a crooked finger at the bowl of water. “I need a drop of your blood.”
I froze. Only Sources could recognize magiciens—never the other way around. This woman couldn’t even begin to suspect I was a Source myself.
Misreading my hesitation, she added, “I only need one drop.”
But she had no idea what she was asking. I couldn’t let her touch me, let alone my blood. I didn’t know what channeling two Sources at once would do to her, but I doubted it would be good. And I had no intention of revealing the reason behind my reluctance to grant her request. Whether high- or lowborn, Sources had always been far fewer than magiciens. Magic wasn’t hereditary, and no one could predict when or where a child with magic in their veins would be born. In the past, Sources had been hunted and enslaved, and although our modern times had brought a stark change to these practices, being a Source was still a fate I had no intention of embracing. I had already too many constraints on my life to count—the last thing I wanted was to be tied to a magicien, whatever prestige and wealth it brought me. My mother and I had spent seventeen years keeping my secret; I wasn’t about to expose it now.
“You need answers,” the seer said. “I can provide them, but you have to trust me, child. Just a drop.”
She was right though. I had come here for answers, demanded them of her. My condition didn’t have to stop me from getting them. She couldn’t use me as her Source if I didn’t let her, and the magic contained in a drop of my blood couldn’t be very potent. The only risk was for her to realize what I was, but my station and money could ensure she never divulged this information to anyone. Hopefully.
My mind made up, I grabbed the knife to prick the tip of my forefinger. A single crimson drop formed, which I let fall into the bowl.
“Révèle,” the Source said.
When it hit the water, my blood separated into red tendrils that turned a shiny gold. I squinted in the sudden light as both the magicienne and her assistant closed their eyes and lowered their fingers to the liquid surface. The moment they touched the water, both women’s bodies went rigid and the seer’s mouth opened wide in her otherwise calm face. The candle flared while the temperature dropped, and a cloud of steam formed in front of my lips.
My heartbeat thundered in my ears. “What’s wrong?”
Neither woman reacted. Instead, the fortune-teller spoke in a deep, gravelly voice that didn’t sound like her gentle tone of the moment before.
“Four maidens come to the palace,” she said. “The queen of hearts is light as air, and of having her heart broken she should beware.”
I opened my mouth to ask if this queen was me, but she carried on with her eyes still closed, lost in the trance.
“The queen of spades is full of fire, but the higher she rises the harder she’ll fall, and she should be wary of her desire.”
Who was she talking about? Who were these four maidens? And, most important, which one was I supposed to be?
“The queen of clubs is as constant as still water, but secrets and betrayals will undo her.”
The more she spoke, the more I wished I had refused to let her perform the spell. Whoever she was talking about, these four girls had terrible futures ahead of them, and I wished no part in it.
“The queen of diamonds will shine the brightest, but the world won’t hold her light for long on earth.”
Her voice broke and she slumped in her chair, her hand falling to her side and her head lolling against her chest. Her Source inhaled a deep breath and shot bewildered looks around her. Suddenly the room was dark again and the meager fire crackled faintly in the hearth.
I jumped to my feet. “Are you all right?”
The seer’s eyes snapped open, and her thin lips spread into a near-toothless smile. I breathed a sigh of relief and held the table for support, my heartbeat still wild and my corset too tight. The cold air tickled my throat and clawed at my fragile lungs, until a coughing fit tore through me. I buried my mouth in my handkerchief, the cough shaking my body and moistening my eyes.
Worry darkened the fortune-teller’s features as she reached for me. “You’re ill. Is it why you’ve come?” She spoke as if she had no recollection of the words she’d just spoken.
I pulled away from her with a shake of my head. My throat tight and raw, I struggled to get out the words. “No. I’ve been ill for years, and I’m likely to be for still quite some time. But you—” My temper ignited as my fit subsided and my thoughts cleared. “You were talking nonsense, and I still have no idea what I’m supposed to expect.”
She gave a start at my raised voice, and a pained expression descended on her brow. My frustration saddened her, but I didn’t care. She had played with magic she didn’t understand, wasted my time, and given me a fright. And I was no closer to knowing whether my upcoming marriage would lead me to a path of destruction and sorrow or if it would be the saving grace I hoped for. I gathered my skirts and walked to the door, until the Source’s soft voice stopped me.
I met her kind gaze, and my anger melted despite myself. Predicting the future was never a perfect art. I had expected too much, and taking out my irritation on them wasn’t fair.
“I’m sorry we can’t give you the answers you came for,” she went on. “I do wish we could have helped you.” Her smile was apologetic, the concern in her eyes genuine. She stood up to hand me back my money. I took a step away from her.
“I know.” I refused the purse she pushed into my hand. “You both earned this. Thank you for all you’ve done.” I pulled my cowl over my hair and walked out of the cramped lodgings.
Outside, mist rose from the muddy street as the gray dawn crept over the slanted roofs of the city. At this time of day, street merchants came out of their lodgings still bleary-eyed, their wares piled in wicker baskets, while craftsmen opened the shutters of their workshops and called out to one another. Few spared a glance for me—I wasn’t the only girl about walking to her destination, lantern in hand bobbing with each step in the chilly air. Still, I hurried along the mismatched facades, my face hidden and my eyes down, as quickly as I could without triggering a coughing fit. I kept to the main thoroughfares, which became busier by the minute as the traffic of horse-drawn wagons and pedestrians grew.
I reached the river Seine just as the church bells rang seven times. The stench of the gray waters mixed with the smell of manure and rotting refuse in the street, and I covered my nose with my hand in a feeble attempt to shield my delicate lungs from the foul air. On the other bank, the silhouette of the Louvre Palace emerged from the morning fog. My shoulders unwound in relief. With any luck, I would be back in my chambers at the Palais-Royal, in the shadow of the palace, before my ladies-in-waiting awoke and found my bed empty.
I made my way to the stone bridge until the crowd became too thick for me to navigate. Forced to a halt, I craned my neck to catch a glance of the blockage, to no avail. The gathered onlookers around me all displayed grim expressions and shook their heads at one another.
“Isn’t it terrible?”
It took me a heartbeat to realize a young flower girl was addressing me. A pale bonnet of tattered lace framed her thin face, enhancing the darkness of her vivid gaze. The old basket she clutched with dirty fingers held daisies and roses.
“What happened?” I whispered, in the hope that my low voice would disguise my educated accent.
“They found ’nother one,” she replied. “Floating in the river.”
Blood drained from my face. “A suicide?” I had heard the priests condemn those desperate souls at mass, but I had never come this close to the reality of their fatal despair. However, the girl shook her head.
“No. A murdered one.” The glint of excitement in her eyes stole the last of the flush in my cheeks. My mind slow to process the information, I opened my mouth to ask another question, but she carried on without my prompting. “Just like the others. Magic sucked out of them and their body bled of life like some dried fruit. No idea who did it. It’s the third one this month. Those Sources are dropping like flies, they are.”
Alarm rose in my chest, stole my breath, and sparked a coughing fit. I turned away and closed my eyes, having no choice but to wait until my breath settled. When I looked up again, the flower girl was elbowing her way through the crowd, away from me, eager to take a closer look at the body dragged from the waters. A matron in a large apron snapped at her to wait her turn, but the birdlike creature remained unfazed.
“I wanna see the dead Source! I got the right to see it just as you do!”
I forced a shaky breath down my searing lungs and gathered my wits. The last thing I wished was to catch a glimpse of that poor soul. Killing Sources to take their magic had been banned during François I’s reign, a hundred and fifty years ago. Yet I had heard some unscrupulous magiciens still resorted to the illegal practice in order to channel enough magic for complicated enchantments. The power surge didn’t last, but it allowed them to perform special spells.
Above the city, the mist lifted and the sky paled in the morning light. I had to return to the Palais-Royal as soon as possible and leave behind the streets of the capital and their dangers. The life that awaited me at court was by no means devoid of complications, but at least it would keep me safe from murderous magiciens. Now I just had to ensure I made it back to my bedchamber without further delay.
Because the fortune-teller was right. Today was my wedding day. And nothing would cause an international incident more than the king of England’s own sister vanishing on the morning of her nuptials to the only brother of the Sun King of France.
Copyright © 2020 by E. M. Castellan