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Fortune, Fate, Freedom

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In that great time before -- when she is Lucinda and so very little more and has as yet no thoughts of a daughter – she takes it upon herself to visit a fortuneteller. It is not yet the thing to do, but she is young and has not yet tamed the impetuous desire to do what is not to be done.

(She will never so fully tame herself, but when young, thinks still perhaps she might.)

There is not yet a grand place for fortunetellers to gather. Instead, she slips into things slightly worn and oh so gray and makes her way to Spite. This is practice. Though she feels the fumbling fingers of the urchins, her real money is tucked where they cannot reach, and the bits of jade she’s left for them will only whet their desire to steal more.

Soon enough, she will have a need for their light fingers and loyalty to their gangs. Hers is a long game, and to sacrifice some of her wealth to it is no significant thing. Her mother, and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother before, far back and forever, have taught her the ways of this great game.

Just past the market –

she lingers some short time, watching the silk-weavers spin their designs and tossing tiny pieces of cheese to the feral cats. One twines around her ankles, tail curling secrets against her skin, and though she still thinks herself ready for this, the subtleties of the exchange leave her slightly breathless

– she finally finds the fortuneteller. It’s in a flower shop, the blooms startlingly bright against the gray gloom. There’s no one inside when she lets herself through the door, and for a moment, she stops and she waits.

Continue to Chapter 2.

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“Follow the thorns.” The voice comes from nowhere and from everywhere. Strain as she might, she hears nothing else, and those few words tell her nothing about the speaker. Young, brash, austere, hedonistic – she has no idea of the nature of the one she is here to see, and that is unusual.

For a moment more she lingers, looking around the tiny room. Flowers are crowded everywhere. Near the door they are familiar, but farther in, the pieces she glimpses through the other bouquets, are petals with hues so intense as to be unbelievable. She cannot imagine the process that so saturated them with dye.

Something catches her attention, a quick flash at the corner of her eye, and she turns. On the floor is a sliver of something shiny. She creeps closer and bends to look without touching – that is a lesson she learned early and learned well. It is a piece of brass, nevercold by the heat she can feel when she peels off one dove gray glove and holds her bare hand above it. It narrows into a point, and she realizes that, roughly, it looks like the long, wicked thorns she has seen in pictures of flowers from the surface.

There’s another tucked a foot away, and another after that, and that’s when she finally notices the path through the flowers, twisting into the room. From the outside, this is but a small shop, but already she thinks, perhaps, there is more to it than she has seen.

The rustle of the paper flowers is loud as she moves, and Lucinda feels caught in the press of them. Each on its own is light, but all together, there is an unexpected weight. Somewhere beyond this strange path is the voice that called out and, perhaps, the fortuneteller. Behind her, the door, and the end to this strange little whim that has so taken her by surprise.

Lucinda draws herself up and takes a deep breath.

If you follow the path of thorns, go to Chapter 3. If you have no use for fortunetellers, go to Chapter 9.

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Follow the thorns.

Perhaps it is only the way the path twists, undulating throughout every inch of the space, but the little shop room feels much larger than it looks. Lucinda eases herself along the path, but no matter how carefully she steps, her skirt disturbs the flowers and petals shower down in her wake.

Candles and lanterns are hidden somewhere behind the flowers, and what light reaches her is hazy, colored by bits of paper –

and is that surface greenery unfurling there? But when she looks closer at that particular shadow, whatever she thought she saw is gone

– and she must strain to see.

At last the paths spirals and spirals – but surely, that is impossible, there would be no room for such thing – and she is deposited at the end. Brass thorns litter her feet, and she is pleased that she is the sort to wear sturdy boots into the spite instead of the thin slippers so favored elsewhere.

In front of the thorns is a doorway, and bits of tattered lace dangle and twist together into what is almost a door. Some she recognizes as that used on hats and one piece, shot through with sparkling thread, brings to mind one of the veils she’s seen on her quiet trips to the palace.

She brushes aside the lace and steps into the darkness beyond.

Continue to Chapter 4.

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At first, Lucinda can see nothing. She touches the tips of her fingers against her cheeks and her gloves are cool. It was not cold along the path of thorns, nor warm, and it is neither in this place beyond the door as well, but she thinks she should be cold, should tremble and burrow into her shawl.

Then that voice.

“Brass for the sun, so distant and so warm.”

Above her, pinpricks of light spring to life. She looks up and then cannot look away. She has heard tell, in those most secret of conversations no one is to overhear but she has always had a knack for such acts, that on the surface, there are names for the stars and stories to be found in the constellations.

If there are such stories in the lights of the Neath, it does not want to be told.

“I have no brass,” Lucinda says, and it is not a lie.

A laugh like broken stone, and then, “Pearls for the moon, so terrible and cold.”

“I have no pearls,” Lucinda says, and it is a lie.

“Is your future worth so little?” Silence, and then, “Did you learn nothing in those memories of distant shores?”

The lights above twist and turn. She blinks, but they are as they were. When she blinks again, they do not seem to have moved, but are somehow – there is something different to them. She tries to stop it, but the delicate shiver curls along her spine.

She slips three pearls into her palm and holds them out into the darkness. She is pleased that her arm is steady and does not shake.

They are gone from her hand in a moment, but with her eyes on the lights above her, she does not see what takes them. Even now, knowing someone – something -- is there with her, it is difficult to drag her gaze away, and once she does, her eyes burn.

There are lights moving toward her. She squeezes her eyes shut and then quickly opens them again. Not lights, then, but spangles on a shirt. A woman, dark hair long and straight, swirling around her as she steps closer.

Moon pearls encircle her throat, and once again, Lucinda has difficulty looking away.

“Listen,” she says, and it is not the same voice as before. She speaks as if she sings a lullaby –

the tune will haunt her always, and when she rocks her daughter to sleep while sorting through secrets, she will find herself humming it still

-- and it is such a pleasant song Lucinda tilts her head to better listen.

“I will tell you three things: one of fortune, one of fate, and one of freedom. Which will you hear first?”

Fortune and fate are the same thing, she thinks, but does not say. And in this, as she so rarely is, Lucinda is wrong.

If you will hear fortune, choose Chapter 5. If you will hear fate, choose Chapter 6. If you will hear freedom, choose Chapter 7.

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“Seek secrets for your success.”

Lucinda wants to roll her eyes, because of course secrets lead to success – they are only as good as they can be used, and she is very good at using them indeed – but before she can mock and excuse herself, left only with the loss of three pearls, there is more.

“Secrets, and cheese.”

She starts to laugh, but then – oh yes, she can work with that.

If you will hear fate, choose Chapter 6. If you will hear freedom, choose Chapter 7.

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“The death dealer comes.”

The darkness and the graveyard of flowers and the twisting path, all are meant to entrance and intrigue, to turn the natural into something supernatural, and she knows better than to fall for such tricks.

Still, her chest is tight.

“There is no true death here.” She laughs, and it sounds like the first crack of broken glass.

“For some.” A light shrug. “For you, it comes. Watch for its sign.”

In the lights, there is something new, and Lucinda’s throat works. She does not recognize it at the time, but she will never forget it, not for all of her days.

If you will hear fortune, choose Chapter 5. If you will hear freedom, choose Chapter 7.

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“You will have a daughter.”

She has not once heard that a child was freedom, but when she asks, the fortuneteller refuses all elaboration. Instead, she curls her finger and automatically, Lucinda takes a step forward.

“This, I will tell you for free. In a decade, return to me. You will know the question to ask, and for you, I will have the answer.”

If you will hear fortune, choose Chapter 5. If you will hear fate, choose Chapter 6. If you will return in a decade, choose Chapter 8. If you choose not to believe, choose Chapter 9.

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In a decade, she is Alice, and she is the Cheesemonger, and she has twined her control throughout the city. She had thought the challenge would last forever, but it has been too easy, her fortune built on secrets and – when she is alone, she allows herself a smile – cheese.

She is visiting Benthic College, her thoughts on the past and the future, fortunetellers and their secrets, when it happens. She cannot find her fortuneteller at the great Mahogany Hall, and it is, she finds, a disappointment.

From the shadows, a slender hand catches her sleeve, and Alice finds herself led into the shadows.

They stand so close they could kiss, this fortune a whisper in her ear.

“They have turned on the city,” she murmurs, her breath warm against Alice’s cheek. “You could stop them, if you will.”

There is no need for a response --

she has been thinking of this for months, watching the secrets and the lies and the spies, and growing disillusioned with her world

-- but Alice says it without hesitation, and seals her own future with lips and tongue.

I will.

For three quarters of an hour, they are together, in a lovers clench if anyone cares to look. Then Alice is left alone with her secrets and her thoughts and a small vial of Cantigaster venom.

She is left alone with these things and a terrible, destructive plan.

Continue to Chapter 10.

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“Fortunetellers.” Lucinda rolls her eyes and slips away. In time, she is Alice and she is the Cheesemonger, and she is known – known but not – in all parts of the city. She grows weary and bitter of the secrets and spies and lies and murders.

She has money enough, and with her daughter assisting in the regular business, time as well.

Cantigaster venom, she learns at long last, is a useful thing for those who wish for true deaths.

Around her, the great game continues, as Alice, she watches and waits.

Continue to Chapter 10.

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You dream of her sometimes after her murder, and the first time you do, she frowns. “I never thought you would bring me death, oh most trusted of agents.”

Her hands are open, not fisted, and though she looks sad, sometimes, she does not ever yell.

Once she asks, “Did I end the Game?” And when you shake your head, she sighs and fades away.

The night she says, “The city still falls,” you wake shaking and cold, the taste of saltwater on your tongue.

If you visited the fortuneteller, continue to Chapter 11. If you did not, you are done.

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In that great time between -- when she was the Cheesemonger’s daughter, between child and adult, between the life she always thought she’d live and this one you have granted to her at long last, taking her place in the game as her mother and her grand-mother and her great-grandmother, always and into forever – she takes it upon herself to visit a fortuneteller. Her mother had been, once, and though she would never say what she was told, something in the memory of it made her turn her face into shadows. In time, she learned to watch closely enough to catch her mother's fleeting smile.

After, she looks at you with an easy air, her eyes clear, but she keeps her fingers pressed together and her palms turned to the floor. You will never know what she was told, but sometimes you see her trace the lines of her palms, and if you look close enough, she could be writing the sigils of secrets into her skin.

When you dream of her – and dream you must, for you dream of all things, the things you have seen and the things you have not, that which exists and that which does not and that which will – she holds up her hands, blood smeared across her palms, and laughs.

“I did not see you for what you are, game player.” Her smile goes sharp. “Death on your fingers and lies on your tongue.”