Sometimes Sibyl likes to read her own fortune. It’s one of the perks of the trade.
Her tiny shop is not yet open, the velvet curtain still drawn. Still, the sunlight finds the holes and paints streaks of gold along her floor. Alone, she pulls out the orb and places it gently on a stand centered on the table. The beads underneath jangle as she adjusts herself and places her palms over the surface of the orb.
The orb begins to glow, its silver light pushing the gold of the morning sun to the corners of the room. Sibyl closes her eyes, readying herself to see.
When she looks again, a familiar shape begins to take shape amidst the clouds inside the orb. She sees herself staring back. Then the vision comes in full color. Her face, she can see clearly now, seems to be contorted by fear, her black hair whipping up behind her as she runs toward something. Or away, Sibyl can’t quite tell. But she can see the scuffed mahogany and worn green velvet of her own shop in the vision—the very table she sits at now, toppling over. Then, she notices there’s a man, but she cannot see his face. He’s wearing a bright red scarf, and he’s chasing her. Sibyl watches the man raise his hand above her. In the vision, she’s fallen. She lies in a terrified heap on the floor. She sees that she is trying to plead with him. But he doesn’t seem to be listening. The man’s red scarf flashes as he raises something pale above her and—
The vision clouds over, and a cloaked head appears around her curtain.
“Oh, Miss Sibyl. I know I’m early, but I have to know what is to be with Genevieve’s new beaux.”
Sibyl peels her hands from the orb. Exhales sharply, bringing the room around her back into focus.
The woman’s eyes are demanding, and so Sibyl waves her over. She needs a moment first, though, and lets herself stand and put the kettle on the small fire in the corner. She doesn't know the man in the vision. She’s never seen him before. She pulls her shawl tighter around her shoulders, but the wide knit doesn’t do much to warm her.
A tea for herself and one for Mrs. Haberdasher, who sits impatiently on the small stool, hands hovering anxiously over the orb.
Trying to forget the vision that’s clouded her morning, Sibyl begins her usual routine. “Payment first, if you don’t mind.”
Mrs. Haberdasher digs in her small purse.
“Your niece, Genevieve—do you have something of hers?”
Panicking for a moment, Mrs. Haberdasher digs again in her purse and produces a thick black hair ribbon.
Sibyl’s procedure is always the same. Hands on orb, eyes closed for a moment or two. She doesn’t like this part, as it leaves her vulnerable. She has people eying up her coin safe now and again. A pair of boys, back when Sibyl first started, looked particularly interested. But the safe is well charmed, given to her by a witch in exchange for a reading. It won’t open for anyone but her, Sibyl knows. She remembers telling that to the curious boys all those years ago. She keeps the safe hidden behind her closed bedroom door now, away from curious eyes.
She opens her eyes and the vision comes, pale blue and white at first, then blossoming into full color. It’s a girl about Sibyl’s age, holding hands with a handsome young man just a few years older.
Sibyl stares a little too long at the intimate entanglement of their fingers before she starts to explain the vision aloud to Mrs. Haberdasher. The girl and her young man appear to be strolling through a flowered meadow, hardly a care in the world.
When she finishes, Mrs. Haberdasher is peering at the pale clouds of the orb, and a strange expression is forming on her face. Sibyl steals a look around her shop. She spends most of her life down here, between this cloaked room and the small nook behind the door, where she crawls into at night and emerges from in the morning. No mother or father to speak of, but a rare and precious gift, and a few coins in her safe. Occasionally, she must go out for food and sunlight, but in the winter, such a trip takes more effort than it’s worth, and she sometimes prefers to eat stale bread if it means keeping her feet warm by the fire. Besides, the streaks of morning light are more than enough.
When she focuses again, Mrs. Haberdasher is staring at her. The look on her face is hard to pin down at first, but then Sibyl notices something like horror on it.
“What did you say the young man looked like?”
Sibyl thinks for a moment, remembers. “Tall, charming. Strong hands.”
“And the girl?”
“Long blond hair, small waist, pinched cheeks, a blue dress. Honestly, Mrs. Haberdasher, they look very happy together.”
But Mrs. Haberdasher looks about ready to pass out. “But...but, Genevieve is a brunette. She is olive-skinned, plump around the middle.”
Mrs. Haberdasher pulls her cloak over her head and stands. “Oh, dear.” And without saying a word more, she disappears behind the curtain.
And that’s exactly why I ask for payment up front, Sibyl says to herself.
Later, after she has locked away her coins, she tucks into a hunk of hardening cheese. In a week she will be twenty-three, or at least she thinks. Though she doesn’t know what happened to them, she thinks of her parents, imagines them happy, like the young man and the girl from the vision.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” A man’s voice comes from the other side of the curtain.
Sibyl wraps up her cheese and puts it under her seat. “Yes, please, come in.”
There’s a brief pause, and then the man comes into the room.
The first thing Sibyl notices, and she cannot hide her reaction, is that he’s absolutely gorgeous. His eyes shine like opals. He’s around her age, she guesses, with a square and quite serious face. His hat is dark, perfectly black, without a hint of scuff or age.
“Are you the seer?” he says, stuffing something into his pocket. He has a hesitant look on his face.
Sibyl remembers herself, nods. “Are you here for a reading?”
He hesitates, glances back at the curtain as if he might make a run for it. But he sits down on the cushion and pulls out a coin purse. He seems nervous, now, she can tell, but Sibyl knows why. She’s seen plenty of men like him—men who don’t believe in the sight and yet come to her anyway, hoping for their wishes to be granted in their futures, unable to stand the waiting that non-magical life requires.
He pushes a coin across the table toward her. His hands are careful, gentle. “I was hoping you would be able to tell me about…” he hesitates, “what will happen to me. Today.” His voice is also careful, also gentle.
“Can I ask your name?”
“Oh, excuse me,” he says. “I am Thaddeus Blackthorn.”
“Oh.” Sibyl knows the Blackthorns. Everyone knows the Blackthorns. “Yes, of course. Well, Mr. Blackthorn, let’s see what your future holds, shall we?”
She doesn’t want to close her eyes to call in the vision, but not for the usual reasons. She’s enjoying watching him. His face seems to change between anxiety and serious concentration so much, she can’t help her curiosity. Something is plaguing him, that much is certain. She obeys a sudden urge to reach out a hand, and she doesn’t quite know why she’s feeling so bold. Her skin meets his, and something warm and unfamiliar stirs within her. When he looks surprised, she makes sure her face seems mystical, as if this is all part of the reading. But while he is a little shocked, he doesn’t at all seem offended. If anything, he looks a little calmer.
She closes her eyes, calls the vision.
Upon opening them, the orb begins to show the shape of his future before her. She waits for it to become clear, for the colors to come to life. And then she sees it. The red scarf. It’s wrapped around a man’s neck—a man that looks very similar to the one sitting across from her now. In the vision he’s coming into her shop, he’s overturned her table. He’s raising his hand. And then she sees herself, cowering in the corner, a silent plead escaping from her lips.
She forces her gaze away from the orb, sending the images spiraling away in a cloud of white.
He stares, waiting for her to say something.
“It won’t be a terribly extraordinary day, I’m afraid,” she says quickly. She’s studying his face for signs but can’t see a hint of malice in it now. “You look peaceful. Contented, even.”
He holds her gaze for a long moment, and her heart sinks. Fortunes can be wrong, can’t they? His face is so earnest and true. Her talents are in reading the future, yes, but she isn’t that bad a read on people’s characters in the present. This man seems gentle and kind. She felt it when they touched.
But none of that matters. The truth was there, right in front of her. And the orb never lies.
That wasn’t so hard, Thaddeus thinks as he hurries away from the shop, pulling his scarf from his pocket and whipping it around his neck.
The first thing he noticed when he glimpsed the seer for the first time was her startling beauty. She possessed a dark elegance and a calming kind of presence. He appreciated her reaching her hand for his more than she could have known. Once he felt her touch, he didn’t want the moment to end.
Thaddeus sighs, stepping up into his carriage. It’s too bad, really, that she is a hoax. He knows she lied about his fortune even though he couldn’t see into her crystal ball. Today is not going to be peaceful. Today is going to be difficult, even he can see that. Clarence is coming home.
Thaddeus hopes no one in the village has noticed him, but he knows they probably do. In fact, he thinks he may have seen his father’s cook hurrying along the street as he was arriving, but it didn’t look like she saw him. Thaddeus thinks of the seer as he pulls away.
Cigar smoke wafts in from the drawing room as Thaddeus closes the front door behind him, and he hears a muffled laugh. He peeks around the thick velvet curtain. It’s his brother, cigar steaming in his left hand. His right hand has disappeared behind a young woman’s backside. It’s Emma, one of the maids. While Clarence chuckles with the ease of a man winning at chess, Emma looks as startled as a doe in the crosshairs.
“Clarence,” Thaddeus says as he strides into the room. Emma’s face washes with shame, and she scurries quickly away.
Clarence looks amused. “That girl was just telling me you’ve been to town. Now, why wouldn’t you wait for your dear brother? We could have gone together. Seen the sights.” He brings the cigar to his lips for a long moment. “Look at you,” he says with a bellow of smoke.
“Have you seen Father yet?”
“The old man is asleep, they tell me.”
Thaddeus feels sick. Father asked for Clarence directly, which is why he was sent for. Thaddeus wants to squeeze something, tear at something to keep his fingers from reaching out and grabbing his brother, but he’s left his scarf and coat in the carriage. Instead, he clenches his hands at his sides.
“But he will want to do his bequeathing soon, I suspect.” His eyes narrow, like a hungry dog’s.
Thaddeus knows he shouldn’t tell him. He knows he should just keep his mouth shut. And yet, something in his smug brother’s face deepens Thaddeus’s anger until he’s on the verge of hatred. “He doesn’t have it anymore. He’s already given it to me.”
Clarence laughs, like he doesn’t believe it. And then he stares, some strange emotion growing apparent on his face. “Yes, well, you always were the golden boy.” Without waiting for a reply, he goes on. “And what have you done with it, my little brother? Where will you have put it?”
There’s a small smile on his face, one that Thaddeus doesn’t like the look of. He’s seen that look before, but he can’t think of when. Perhaps, he thinks, it was when they were boys.
Father is awake now, but barely. “My boys,” he manages to say. The fire lights up Clarence’s back, sending his face into shadow. They sit, and Father sputters, coughs uncontrollably, sounding like he might spill his insides out on that too-small handkerchief. Thaddeus feels something inside him breaking. Father will be nothing more than a memory soon.
“...with your mother’s magical coin.” Father is saying something to Clarence. Thaddeus listens. “I still remember how happy it made us all.” He attempts a smile but falls into a sputter of coughs again. Thaddeus rises to place a gentle hand on his back.
“And where is it now, old man?” Clarence asks this in a voice with far too much tension for the small room. But he gets no reply because Father can’t speak. His answer, if there was to be any, gets lost in the noise and mess of dying.
Clarence, as if personally affronted, stands and storms out of the room, leaving a waft of chilly winter air in his wake.
Thaddeus puts a warm cloth on Father’s head just as Emma comes in. He nods as she replaces it with a new one and a bowl of fresh hot water. Thaddeus takes a seat near the fire. Dusk has fallen, and the day is starting to weigh him down.
“I’m sorry sir.”
It takes Thaddeus a moment to register that Emma is speaking to him.
“I know I shouldn’t have said anything,” she says. “It’s just that Mrs. Haberdasher, the cook, she said she saw you down at the seer’s shop in town, and Mr. Blackthorn, your brother, sir, he asked me where you were. He was very...insistent. I’m so sorry. I know you probably don’t want him to know that you’ve been to see her. I don’t suppose any gentleman would.”
Thaddeus stands, heart racing. Emma is so startled, the bowl splashes onto the bed. Normally, he would reach out and help her clean up the mess, but he can’t seem to move.
Outside, there’s the sound of horses, wheels trampling over the stone drive. Thaddeus turns to the window just in time to see his carriage turn the corner and disappear out of sight.
Sibyl sits as close to the fire as she can. She surveys her heel of bread, only a couple days old, and her cheese. The fire rumbles in front of her and her toes burn delightfully.
She looks over her shoulder to the open door leading to her small bedroom. She can see the safe from here. It was so strange. When she went to put the man’s coin into the safe, she noticed it was much heavier than a crown and much larger too. And it wasn’t a sovereign either. Where the king’s face should have been, it showed a woman who seemed to watch her as she viewed it from different angles. Sibyl wasn’t sure, but she thought she could sense some kind of charm living inside the gilded coin. She put it into the safe quickly, and told herself she’d take it out and examine it later.
But it is later now, and her feet are too warm by the fire, and the food is too delicious. She saved up to buy the aged cheese, and she is going to enjoy every last morsel.
Suddenly, a small creaking comes from the other side of her curtain. The wind, perhaps.
But then she hears a voice. It is not one she recognizes, and it makes her drop her bread and cheese at her feet. “Seer. Where is the coin?”
The man wears a red scarf.
Too stunned to move, Sibyl stares at his face. He looks so much like the handsome man from earlier, but she can see clearly that it isn’t him.
“Open your safe.” The man’s voice snaps her back to reality. This is the vision. He is going to hurt her. He closes in on her before she can say anything. He flips the table over, his face turning the color of his scarf. Sibyl stumbles backwards, catching her foot on the open door. She cowers in the corner as the man approaches. “That coin is mine. Give it to me.”
“Please,” she says. It’s all she can think of to say. It’s all she has time to say.
The man grabs her fire stoker and raises it above his head. Sibyl goes stiff. For some reason, she can’t react. She can’t move.
But the blow never comes. She watches as her orb seems to float in the air above the man’s head. It comes down with an echoing crack. The man slumps to the floor, stoker sliding out of his fingers.
Sibyl follows the orb as it rolls into her bedroom. She looks up. Standing above her is the handsome man from earlier. He’s breathing heavily and is reaching his hand out.
“Mr. Blackthorn,” she says. Warmth and relief wash over her as their fingers intertwine and he pulls her upright. She steps over the unconscious man in the red scarf and falls into Mr. Blackthorn’s arms.
Behind them, the fire sizzles, giving way to the long, dark night.