For Glory, For Empire
A Night with Lady Fortune
It was another raucous night on the ship. The sailors were in good spirits, the return of the Grand Expedition and Ts’ao Hai with it giving them an excellent excuse to drink, sing, dance, and gamble through the night. Someone had “borrowed” an ever-burning torch from the colony to provide light for the festivities, bringing cheer to what was otherwise a dim, cloudy night. The wine had been flowing for some time when the “guest of honor,” his skin rosy with the kiss of wine, made his way over to the overturned crates that served as the gambling tables, plunking himself down next to Florica.
“Good evening, Lady Fortune,” he said, his lips curved in a rakish smile, “I see you’ve been living up to your name.” He dipped his head towards her pile of winnings, the product of Florica’s canny strategy of always drinking less than her opponents did. “I wonder if you can share a bit of your fortune with me, and tell me what tomorrow holds for this old rover.” He leaned forward, the torchlight painting one side of his face in yellow hues while the other was coated in shadow, the smooth, symmetrical line of his jaw disappearing into the darkness. His posture was loose and his tone affable, giving an air of nonchalance that almost belied the glitter of interest in his eye.
Florica met his gaze from behind a wave of raven black hair and smiled around her cheroot at the Bea’txo scallywag. “Of course, Admiral. Perhaps tonight is the night your curiosity will be satisfied.”
The rest of the game became silent except for drunken Tuphec, who doubled his bet, which led to a flurry of grumbles and folded hands. Florica almost jumped out of her chair, announced, “Arcantis Majorum,” and raked in a pile of chips that represented more than a year’s wages for a laborer.
Tuphec leaped up with violence and a dagger, but was met with a lit cheroot to the cheek and a warning, “It was in the water that one learned to swim.”
Captain Ts’ao Liu Fan made her presence known to defuse the situation. “Yanko, take Tuphec to get that looked at. Perhaps he will be a better player with a scar and less alcohol. I thank the rest of you for volunteering for extra duty tonight.”
Crew scurried out of their captain’s sight immediately with only a modicum of griping, and she followed, sensing her father’s mood, leaving only Ts’ao Hai and Florica, the fortune teller.
“Shall we begin, Admiral. I will need your true name, a personal item, and a drop of bodily fluid if you wish more than passing accuracy. But then again, I could also bend you to my will with those things as well.” Florica then laughed richly, and more than a little maniacally.
Ts’ao Hai watched her for a moment, trying to decide whether she was being serious or simply indulging in a dramatic flair. He eventually decide that, like himself, she was engaged with a little bit of both. He drew a dagger from his tall boot, while placing his hand on the crate in front of them, palm down and fingers spread. He stabbed the dagger into the space between his thumb and index finger, then jumped the blade to in-between his forefinger and middle finger.
“I have not spoken my true, full name in nearly a decade, and never to a non-Bea’txo.” That last remark wasn’t necessarily all true, but he paused for dramatic effect to sell it. Then he spoke it, the tone sibilant and full, the poetry of the Bea’txo language turned towards the expression and description of a soul. He kept playing the gambling game for a moment, the knife dancing. “I’ve had many loves, but never any master or mistress beyond Wanderlust, and the sea herself.”
Deliberately he nicked the web of his thumb with the dagger’s point, catching a teardrop shaped drip of blood on the point and resting it on the table in front of her. It remained balanced on the point, shining in the torchlight, a feat accomplished through the dexterity and swiftness that was the heritage of the Elder race.
Finally, he removed the ornate little snuffbox from its place in his sash, setting it on the table. “A gift from noble friends, who have a higher purpose than mine.” As he explained the box’s significance, he drew a mango from the sash and produced another hidden knife, slicing away the skin and spearing little pieces of fruit on the hand of the dagger, rapidly dressing it down to the oblong seed at the center.
Florica was becoming intoxicated by the performance of Ts’ao Hai; she now understood why so many buccaneers followed him halfway around the world. She was not so taken aback to fall for his sleight of hand, and he was too pleased with himself to notice her removing her subtly marked Arcantis deck, and produce her “telling” deck.
Florica began her own show. “Let us observe the proprieties, Admiral. Please sit to the North. Good. Now, rub your blood across the edge of every card while saying your true name once more.” Ts’ao Hai was surprised at the depth of Florica’s ritual, and her change in demeanor. Her playfulness was now lost in her concentration. This was not a staged routine.
Her long fingers played over the cards, setting in motion the divining spread. Ts’ao Hai was more nervous than he expected, and reached for his flask.
Four cards were laid out at the four ordinal directions. All were of the suit of Keys. Florica cocked an eyebrow of controlled disbelief. “Unlike lesser practitioners, I take every precaution.” She then spit on a spirit in the corner. Ts’ao Hai mistook it for a rat.
Pointing at each card in turn, she persisted. “You have lived by theft. You have been banished. You are light on your feet. You seek wealth.”
The fifth card was turned, and it was a card unlike any that Ts’ao Hai knew, The Prince of Wolves. “In the recent past, something lost returned unbidden, and has shown to be both a blessing and a hardship.”
Ts’ao Hai thought of two lights; he could see the lavender and orange of the sunrise, a flame just hidden from his sight, and then the moon, whose pale fire she snatches from the sun.
The sixth card was turned, and it was The Wanderer. “You are not tied down, but you are bound by your secrets. You will not be free until you free yourself.”
Ts’ao Hai could hear voices in the water that kissed the side of the boat, heard it as it rushed to the land, heard it as it hissed around curved stones in the reefs, the flash of spray.
The seventh card was turned, and it was The Void. Florica cleared her throat nervously. “You are headed into the Darkness, and not all of you will return.” She concluded with a gesture of warding, rose from the table, and walked away, leaving the cards, not looking back.
Ts’ao Hai saw their faces as she walked away, heard the slight slosh of his hip flask as if at a great distant, staring out into the dark over the sea. His bones ached in a peculiar way as he regarded the black spot over the water, dark and pitiless as an adder’s eye. “A storm, then.” One hand smoothly collected his things, not touching the cards as he reclaimed the dagger and the small box. “I’ll thank you for your warning, Lady Fortune – and I’ll lash my hands onto the helm. The way through this storm – is straight through it.”
Tovena Ravoush needed a drink after a night’s watch with five extra sailors under foot. In the mess of the Chun Ye was a half-empty bottle, and an almost new set of cards. Tovena took a draught of the fortified wine and looked at the seven arrayed cards, The Void in the center, drawing in her attention.
Drawing her in.
Into The Void…