Shadows Over Grimora
The time had come once again – time to see if Fate had changed its mind about her.
Cy sat amidst the overstuffed cushions and lavender incense filling her nose with smoke and counted her coin; just enough for a card reading. She rolled the worn pouch and listened to the gem beetles hum outside the Seer’s home – they loved the heat, but she didn’t.
An arid breeze swept through the silks that served as a door to the Seer’s ‘waiting room’. She sighed with it, equally as lethargic; the coin felt filthy in her hands.
Perhaps if you spent less coin on a blathering old woman, you’d feel less guilty, and would be able to afford better food.
There he was.
Cy considered the stern, masculine voice an imaginary friend bathed in her loneliness. She had no name for him, but his mood never improved. Better an angry voice than no voice, she admitted.
She covered her mouth and answered, “Can we not do this? Madame Sefani is the only person I get to talk to outside of my masters and you – and she’s actually nice to me.”
I’d be a lot nicer if we didn’t do this every damned month. You cry all the way into the artisan quarter, worried about your gnatty clothes and worn shoes, and yet you spend your coin here without fail. Would that coin not be better served towards necessities?
“Maybe,” she mumbled. The coin felt even dirtier now. “We shouldn’t be arguing here, you know that.”
What, afraid the Seer will think you’ve gone mad?
“I am arguing with a voice in my head.”
Cy jumped as chimes sang out and clutched her bag of coin tightly. Heavy footsteps passed her and the silk doors billowed into her face. She jumped again at the chime’s encore and the Seer’s loud proclamation.
“I am Madame Sefani! Reader of the mists, mistress of the cards, teller of-,” the Seer paused. “Oh, it’s just you, dear! You would think Madame would be used to our appointments by now.”
She didn’t quite know why, but Cy liked her raspy, natural voice much more than her dramatic quaver. “A good setting to you too, Madame.” She stood, hesitant.
“Gods, the sun is near its descent, isn’t it?” Cy felt her hands cupped in the smooth, gnarled and leathery hands of the Seer. Despite the plethora of scents in her home, Sefani had a scent to her hands that Cy could never quite figure out; it smelled as though a raw pepper had kissed a rose. “How have you been, my dear?”
Cy pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth to keep from sneezing. “Oh, well enough.”
Oh, sure. Dandy.
She hated when he did that. He knew she couldn’t scold him in front of people aloud.
“You have a cut on your nose,” Sefani tutted and sat her at the table. “Domiris has been running you ragged, hasn’t he?”
“He just brokers my work out to people,” Cy answered with a tight smile. “Really, they are the ones running me about. Tis part of the job.” The last word tasted like poison in her mouth.
Sefani’s plentiful jewelry clattered and the chair groaned with her flop into it. “Poor dear…Your skin is all burned too. As pale as you are, you’d think Domiris would insure you worked inside! Especially with those blue eyes – the sun is very bad for blue-eyed kittens!”
Blue? Cy tried to recall blue. She’d seen it only once before, when the blacksmith she’d apprenticed with had struck an anvil so hot that sparks had rained cold. The blacksmith, a gruff man named Denmir, had bellowed through the smoke and declared, “And that is a rare sight! Blue! Remember it, girl!” He’d immediately cursed after that the sparks had set his beard on fire; she had laughed too hard and bruised a rib. She’d felt bad after. He was the only master that had hired her honestly and taught her near every skill she knew.
She did and the thought that her eyes were cold fire made her smile. “The burns do not hurt too bad. The sun does like to toss my stomach, though. I got quite the lashing for passing out last week.” Cy laughed. Sefani didn’t. An uncomfortable silence pranced by.
The younger woman paused before asking, “Is there...anything else unusual about my appearance?”
Sefani paused as well, a rare sound in her home. “Oh, I’m sorry, child. I still cannot tell your origin or,” she almost mumbled the word, “race. If I knew, I’d gladly tell you. All I know is that it is unusual to see such pale skin with black hair. I had thought perhaps you were an albino Meij’in; rare, but not unheard of. You always keep your ears bandaged up, so I cannot say for sure. Beyond that, I simply do not know.”
“Master Domiris will not let me unwrap them,” Cy muttered, defensive.
There was another pregnant pause.
“Let’s take a look at your cards, shall we?” the proclaimed Seer offered.
“Oh. Yes, thank you.” Cy fished out the majority of her coin and laid it on the table.
“And thank you, dear.” Once the coins clinked into her jar, Sefani extended much beloved deck and pressed it to her palm. From what she had told Cy before, the deck was very rare and harkened back to the infamous witch queen of ancient lore; Sefani couldn't name her legacy beyond the name Serentia and being a witch queen of something or other. “Shuffle like normal.”
Cy took the deck in her left hand and cut it three times before shuffling. They felt well-worn, the corners scuffed yet heavy. The etched drawings felt like little more to her than a mess of circles jabbed into each card. She tried to take her time, not wanting to repeat the mistake she’d made on her first reading of dropping them near Sefani’s candles; it’d been the only other time the Madame had cursed.
Once she felt content with the order, she cut it once more into three piles and sat back.
With each soft slap of the cards, Cy prayed that there was a future worth having.
When the Madame did not speak, she knew the Sortuna had not changed their minds. “Has Death made another appearance?”
“…He does seem to favor you, does he not?” It was the Seer’s turn to laugh weakly. “Every reading this last year…”
“You always say that He means change, right?”
“Oh, of course. He keeps reappearing with Kyrenis, the Moon, however – a strange culmination that I normally see when an exciting, new romance is to begin. Perhaps you will meet a handsome lad or lady soon, mm?”
“Or death.” Cy frowned; she didn’t know what handsome was, but she knew death.
“You never know, my dear! Death does not have to permeate one’s life. Even in such a position as yours, His favor may well mean change for the better in place of a literal demise.”
The Seer made her typical noises of slowly slapping the cards down, giving each one a coo of wonder. On the last one, Cy noticed Sefani had fallen silent.
“It’s the death card again, isn’t it?” Cy asked..
“Three times in a row now you’ve drawn that card in your near future spot,” Sefani admitted,, “I’ve never seen anyone draw this card so consistently. Of course, it doesn’t mean a literal death, my dear!” she added quickly.
“What does it mean then?”
“Well…it seems to indicate being around a good bit of change in the near future. Struggles, strife, but joy as well. Odd that you keep drawing the Moon. The Moon always refers to Fate stepping in your favor.”
Cy wrinkled her nose. “Death is just part of this life, Madame: hiding your brand is death, stepping outside the city limits is death, angering one crooked guard or wearing clothes too nice for your caste is death!”.
“Yes, of course, dear…I am just telling you what the cards say. I had somewhat of a different idea of your work, I’ll admit. You come in with coin, decent dress and typically in good health. Of course I know it is grueling and awful, I suppose I am just sheltered.” ?”
Cy bowed her head; the smallest noise sounded like a sword being drawn. “It is not always bad. Slaves are just…people who had nowhere else to go: displaced, disowned, unable to find work or lodgings, what have you. The Master seeks out employers, strikes a bargain and off you go to work. They are forced to give us a tiny cut of pay when they do not provide lodgings – Grimoran law demands it. Of course, some might prefer lodgings to a forced night in the alleys. The only way out is if a buyer purchases us outright or we make enough to get a pass of citizenship. Slaves are not registered citizens…Tis why the guards are always watching.”
Cy exhaled and bowed her head lower. “Forgive my outburst. It was rude. A slave simply means you belong to someone. Master Domiris is...a broker, of sorts. He looks for openings, strikes a deal, I do the work and get a small cut so the law isn't being broken enough to stir up the magistrates. He knows we cannot run, so he gives us our own time between assignments and that little bit of coin, you know? I wouldn't see you so often if not. Still, I shouldn't have snapped like that.”
“All is forgiven.” The Seer stifled a small giggle. “Oh…and stranger still, the cards see you meeting a very handsome gentleman soon.”
Cy resisted the urge to snap again. “I see. A new master, perhaps?” How would I know if he were handsome? Why would it matter? What even is handsome?
“Oh my…I do hope you will forgive an ignorant, old woman…”
“It is alright. Could you elaborate on what the cards mean?”
“They do not specify, my dear. All they say is that he’ll be very mysterious and quite taken with you. They only give me the signs to watch for and a vague idea of what awaits you. In this case, change and romance.”
Despite herself, Cy felt a bit intrigued. “Thank you, Madame Sefani. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you.” Pleasure felt like such an odd word on her tongue.
“Here,” the Seer pressed a card into her hand as she stood. “I feel as though this is best kept with you. It is the Death card.”
“But, your deck-,” Cy fumbled with the card.
“Oh, it's not really all that rare and it's falling apart anyways. I picked up three new ones this morning.” Madame Sefani laughed, “Old folks just love to ramble on about expenses, dear! Besides, a little nagging voice is telling me that it should be with you – for good luck, perhaps. You know, Serentia is displayed on this card. You have her pale skin. Oh, but I do ramble like an old woman, don’t I? Please, just take it and hope it has a bit of luck, no?”
Resigned, the young slave thanked her and tucked it into a book resting in her satchel alongside her coin purse.
The Seer noticed. “I did not know you could read, dear. Oh! I sound so rude, do forgive me!”
“It’s quite alright.” Cy spared her a smile. “The alchemists make a special ink that rises to the heat of touch. It costs a bit, but they’ll do the tracing if you flatter them enough. Or bake them pastries, I’ve learned.”
“Was it difficult to pick up?”
“At first. Denmir helped a great deal, though. He’s a terrific blacksmith but a better mentor and source of commentary.” She paused. “If you do not mind the cursing, of course”
“I’ve heard it all, dear.” Sefani laughed and took her hand. . “Especially from husbands wondering about wayward wives.”
Cy almost laughed. The Seer did enough for both of them.
“Oh, and do be careful, dear,” she added as they walked to the door together,
“I’m heading right to my night job, Seer. Grave-digging isn’t exactly thrilling work, but I’ll have old Joaquim watching over me.”
“Please do mind yourself. It worries me, you out there at night by yourself.” Her mystic tone dropped. The Seer bid her farewell.
Cy felt the card in between the frayed pages of her guilty pleasure, A Guide to Mystical Beasts & Spirits. She pondered its presence, weighing coincidence against probability before she started toward the large graveyard tucked away from the discerning eyes of the nobility.
“Of course. I’ll see you next month?”
“Probably,” she gave the Seer a wary smile and pushed through the silk door. A quick pat against the cool stone and she had her walking stick in hand and set off down the carved marble path, counting each step. Nine-hundred steps past the bakery that always stank of burnt sugar, another two-hundred up the wide stairs and then another left until the stone turned to loose dirt.
The heat had relented, and she felt a kiss from the wind rolling from the Sea of Petals. If she had but a moment to see beyond the shadows her eyes allowed, she would want to see it.
Denmir had described it as: “Crimson water with great, black petals the size of ships floating up from the bottom where glowing, white trees rest.” She knew black, crimson and white, at least. Her mind painted a picture when it was no preoccupied with terror.
That was a fruitful waist of coin.
The image of the Sea of Petals calmed her. “Will you be less upset if I sing to you?”
His silence was her victory. At last, the lonely psychosis sighed. Yes.
“Good.” The words came before she could think.
They never made sense nor did they come in the Meis’ian language, but every curve of their droll, sensual tone felt right. Though no other footsteps joined hers, she sang quietly – he seemed to like when the song was only for him, even when she sang to all of the city.
Grimora had a way of making a small person feel even smaller. Its homes stood with open columns carved of beautiful onyx and sapphire supporting the stacked homes and a central pathway with winding waterways dribbling down the thousands of steps in its center. Denmir had, in between teaching her to forge blades and gears, described it in details not unlike a poet could conjure; given his gruff, deadpan tone, Cy had always been spellbound.
The lower ring of the capital was fenced in by wide stretches of plains and farms and the very edges a forest that continued to lose more ground each year to construction. It was also the home of the piers bordering the Sea of Petals, where slaves were auctioned openly and the poorest of Grimora lived.
The second ring was framed by walls high enough to hide the desperate from the artisans, smiths and professors. To be of low caste meant to be in the eyes of disdain always – something even the guards knew. The hawk-eyed patrol kept mark of each insignia belonging to slavers. Anyone trying to leave Grimora, mingle with the upper-class without assignment or who looked the wrong way met with the seven punishments. She used to think that the seven punishments were a dungeon of horrors. It ended up being three beatings from the guard and four more from Dom when she'd stepped too far off the city limits.
A sprawling market famous for its size and selection took up much of it, and Cy had spent many sweltering days there, working for the masters of countless trades and crafts; it was the best of any work she had ever done, and she longed to be assigned to a blacksmith or the rare machinist. The air of the market always danced with the spice of alchemy and the fading, familiar scent of parchment scratched with secrets.
The last, upper ring was crested with the Citadel of Itsalak. It floated upon a vast plot of land, suspended in the sky by the King’s personal minstrels or spellcasters, as Denmir had called them. The floating wonder cast a tremendous shadow upon their grounded settlement, something that was considered a luxury in the hotter months. Denmir told her that any ambassador or guest was ferried upwards by enchanted boat or platform, depending on their importance. There, under the colossus, only the most noble of patrons lived. They spent money that would buy her contract out several million times over and, from what she understood, the upper circle was breath-taking.
Her sore feet walked the familiar route and waited to feel the tell-tale loose dirt beneath. The fragrance of the oil birds and their nests of Myrris bloom drifted over a dogged humidity. They cooed and rustled above in the thick foliage – she sighed through her nose and moved aside to avoid their feathers. Once stuck to her hair, they'd stay until the next allotted bathing.
Denmir, the only master to hire and pay her honestly, had described their plumage like oil in water, hence their name. He’d then bashed his hammer to the anvil and scared them off and said, “Pretentious winged-cuttlefish, the lot.”
He was the only master that’d made her laugh as well. All she knew of the world, of color, of touch, scent and sound had been by his word. He'd spent many weeks finding a language she could understand, a language of sight long taken from her. When the work orders were fulfilled, Denmir had taken up his hammer once more and struck the anvil with a passionate curse, “Embers, red and hot!”
“Embers!” She'd cried back, delighted at their faint glow in her murky world. There she had learned red, crimson, orange and even blue – all other colors had been more difficult. Cy learned what each metal felt like through the smith: the texture, smell, weight, feel and, unfortunately, even the taste. She knew the touch of each fabric when he wove together fine crests for nobles of silks, velvets, cotton and fine gems. Her favorite, secret moments had been listening to him talk about Grimora - “A beautiful, terrible beast, little kitten,” He'd rumbled. “Like the statues of the woman I let you feel but with a row of teeth beneath it, ready to snap you in half. Out there, though...beyond the walls, who knows, eh? That sea is like embers just about to die on the stone with winding blacks and whites from the trees. Gods only know what else is out there.”
She hadn’t asked about the floating lights, however. Even as she walked now, the orbs that burned like embers fallen bobbed, caught in an unforgiving breeze. She never acknowledged them directly – they seemed content to stay back when she sang. As far as she knew, they were more hallucinations in her lonely world of shadows and murk.
Cy sang for her imaginary psychosis. Her words undulated through the streets, melancholy. This was the song carried on mist when it was cold and she had nowhere else to sleep but an alleyway: acceptance, resignation and finality.
The land-bound stars coupled around her. A blanket of illusions was a comfort, though she acknowledged it was the equivalent of hugging herself.
The first time she had seen them she’d screamed so loudly that Domiris had her put in the pens for weeks while an apathetic doctor checked her over. He’d shrugged and told him that an eight year old would get scared in a graveyard, nothing to worry about. She had to work there every night until the panic subsided – the orbs and the drunk gravedigger enjoyed the company.
Her mind wandered, full of anxious thoughts of her next assignment and the Death card Sefani had pushed into her hand. Logic said it was all just coincidence, but the elevated beat in her heart told her to be afraid.
Her walking stick hit a bit of raised, cracked stone and stopped. “Wait…” She poked at it a few more times, brow knotted. Even if there were a million cracked pieces of marble in the lower ring, she had never felt this one before, she was sure of it.
A cold chill of horror froze her in place. “I went the wrong damned way.” She groaned at the realization that she’d taken a left at the bakery that used too much salt and not the right she’d meant to. “Serves me right for daydreaming, I suppose.”
Cy had no idea whether to laugh or curse. Instead of either, she inhaled through her nose and started back, retracing what she could remember. From the smell of salt, sweat and rotting wood, she guessed she had wandered down next to the pier.
“If you are so upset, why didn’t you warn me?”
I was busy listening to you sing! There’s no time for this nonsense, you have to get moving.
Down by the oceanfront, that’s not far, she thought. Just a quick loop back up the steps and five miles left of those men that shout while they dice fish. Cy carefully felt her way back and prayed that the mood of Joaquim, the surly old undertaker Dom had rented her out to, was good tonight. Maybe he’ll be too drunk to wake and won’t notice I’m late. Cy prayed for a bit of good luck but almost immediately amended her request for any luck except her normal hand.
She did her best to both hurry and be methodical enough not to trip. The sun was down, and the pier had been briefly abandoned, with only the anchored ships creaking nearby. The drop in temperature told her as much and she wagered the sun had begun its descent ten minutes prior.
Footsteps rang out on the older cobblestone, but she assumed they were sight-seers there to see the famous bay. Still, she kept a wary ear out. Most residents would retreat to the second ring of Grimora after sunset; the ones who valued their seis would stay there until morn. The waves thundered nearby, drowning out anything that might have helped her guess how many people really were left.
The Sea of Petals had been described to her as a deep red and littered with great, white underwater trees that filled the surface with black petals the size of a small ship. Denmir had shown her, once, what red might be. He'd struck the anvil until sparks showered before her gaze, bright even in the shadows. Red, orange, and all in between, smoke in her nostrils and fires in her eyes,
I wish I could see them.
“Me too,” she commiserated.
The wistful thought was a mistake. She hadn’t paid mind to the muffled footsteps approach behind her; she’d gotten too close to the crashing water. Before she took another step, a hand clamped around her mouth and another gripped her wrists together. The assailant held even her walking stick in place.
“Don’t scream.” It surprised her how nonchalant the man’s voice was. “No one has to get hurt here.”
Cy nodded, instantly numb.
“Guards are already fanning out, boss.” This man’s voice was much less sturdy, almost high-pitched with panic. “Drem’s signaling to keep out of the bigger alleyways. I tells you, they’re figuring us out!”
“Take it easy, they don’t know our routes.” The first man assured, steering them deeper into the shanty town; already, she could smell the odor of crumpled tin roofs, molded wood and a legion of unwashed bodies. “Move on.”
“Aniff someone comes looking for her?” the nervous man asked, hurrying to keep up with them. He bumped into her a few times in his effort. She preferred the bumps to the spittle flying from his panting.
“She’s a slave. No one’s gonna be missing her. They go missing all the damn time.”
Her heart sank. No one would miss
her, except perhaps Sefani. The old seer wouldn’t notice until Cy
missed her usual monthly visit. Dom would, but she doubted he’d
retaliate in time. Plenty of time for her body to be dumped in the
sea or left for the rats. She almost tried asking her own insanity
for help before her shoulders slouched.
She tried to stay alert and memorize their movements but her mind drifted to the Death card in her satchel; she’d meet a handsome, mysterious man, indeed.
As they dragged her farther into the stench of gangrene, trash and smoke, she wished with all in her that she hadn't thought ill of her indentured career. Cy would rather dig a hundred graves, a million, than lie in her own.