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Fortune's Queen

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A Magician. A Knight. A new Queen. A Spy. Who will divide and who will rise, to save the Order of the Tarot? In a dusky Krakow tea shoppe, the Magician waits impatiently for a meeting with his estranged protégée, the Knight of Swords. When Jude, the recluse Knight, arrives he learns a terrible truth; the Queen of Cups is dying. Reluctantly, he agrees to help the Magician find an urgent replacement within the Tarot – an ancient society bound by the principals of the seventy-eight card deck created to uphold the world’s complicated balance of opposing forces. As Jude searches for a new Queen, the lives of a gypsy, a celibate Knight, and a supernatural spy, intertwine to determine the fate of our world....

Fantasy / Romance
C.J. Inkson
4.8 8 reviews
Age Rating:

A Lie is Born



Seventeen Years Ago

A black car idled in the drive of a dark Georgian house, the window slightly cracked to allow the sharp November air in and heart-wrenching sobs out. In the car’s driver’s seat, a young man with limp, dark hair bent over the steering wheel, gripping it tightly as his body wracked with tears. The night outside was silent, save for the man’s sobs and the soft patter of midnight rain on the windshield. As he cried, oblivious to anything but his pain, a sharp knock rapped against the window.

The man’s head snapped up, red-rimmed eyes peering through the glass.

Standing on the drive, an elderly man in a black rain coat holding a sturdy umbrella waited for the crying man to unroll the window. “Excuse me,” he asked loudly. “I’m looking for the man who lives on Blair Street; in the house with the red door.”

The man inside the car blinked several times with puffy eyes before finally rolling down the window. “What?” he croaked, voice rough and scratchy as if he’d been screaming at the top of his lungs for days. “What is it? I can’t go back inside. I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“No,” said the man with the umbrella. “I am trying to ask if you are the man who lives on Blair Street. In the house with the red door?”

Again, the man inside the car blinked. “Yes,” he finally managed. “That’s me.”

“Good,” said the man with the umbrella. “I’ve been wandering these streets all evening looking for you.”

“I’m sorry,” replied the man in the car, “but this isn’t a good time. If you’re trying to sell me something, you best be on your way.”

“No, nothing like that,” insisted the man with the umbrella. “I’ve come with a rather special invitation.”

“An invitation to what?” The man in the car frowned. He was not the type to receive invitations, special or otherwise.

“For coffee, to start.”

“Coffee?” The man reverently shook his head. “I don’t think so. Now is not a good time. So, if you’ll just back up a step,” he tried to shoo the old man away, “I’ll be going.”

The old man, having none of it, wedged the wooden umbrella handle in the window so it could not be budged. “Please,” he began, moving his face inches from the young man’s, revealing wrinkles, age spots, haunting pale blue eyes and decades’ worth of wear, “just one coffee. That’s all I ask.”

“Please get back.” The man in the car attempted to dislodge the umbrella, but it remained firmly fixed. Annoyed, he turned his grey eyes, the color of sea squalls, on the old man. “The rain is getting all over my dash. Please, go away.”

The old man leaned closer, so both were shadowed under the umbrella’s black tarp. “It’s something of an important proposition, really, one that could very well save your life.”

The man in the car paled, swallowing a giant lump in his throat. “What do you mean?” he asked, the words tripping over themselves to escape his dry, chapped lips.

“That was your plan, wasn’t it?” the old man arched a wiry, white brow. “To kill yourself. Tonight. That’s why you’re here – in front of this building, wrapping up loose ends and what not?”

The man in the car made a startled grunt deep in his throat and tightened his hands around the steering wheel. “Who are you?” he asked with a hint of concern and a heavy heap of indignity. “Have you been following me?”

“There is plenty of time to explain,” replied the old man. “Now how about that cup of coffee?”

For a moment, the man in the car said nothing, staring pointedly at the old man as if deciding whether he had been sent by God to save him. “Alright then,” he finally agreed, releasing the steering wheel as if releasing his grip on life. “Just one cup.”

The old man smiled, pleased, and stepped back, allowing the younger to exit the car. The door creaked as the young man climbed from the driver’s seat, slowly, as if he were the one with rusty old joints.

When the two stood face-to-face, the elder man tipped his head and nodded down the road. “This way.” He adjusted the umbrella high above his head and started down the street.

At the end of the block, the old man stopped by a warmly lit diner and when the younger caught up he stepped inside with sly, wrinkled smile, as if he knew something the other did not - as if he’d known all along the young man would follow. “Table for two,” he said, raising two fingers to a hostess who greeted them with ginger hair and dark blue eyeliner.

The hostess nodded, grabbing two plastic menus from behind the counter and walking the damp, downtrodden men to an out-of-the-way booth.

After pouring them each a cup of coffee, the hostess departed and the old man reached into his breast pocket to pull out a card, sliding it across the table to the younger man. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, giving it a tap.

The young man scrutinized the card, squinting at it without touching it. It was larger than an average playing card with the image of an average-looking man standing over a table crowded with cups, coins, wands and swords. At the bottom, scrawled in thick black letters, were the words The Magician. “It’s some sort of playing card,” he replied. “With pictures instead of suits.”

“Close,” the man with the umbrella replied. “It’s called a Tarot card.” He tapped the card again with a bony finger. “Do you know anything about Tarot?”

“No,” admitted the younger man, eyes still swollen with earlier tears. He grabbed a handful of napkins from the dispenser and ran the wad under his dripping nose, sniffling. “What’s Tarot? What does it have to do with me?”

“This playing card is not just a card but a representation of someone very real. The Magician, he is called, one of seventy-eight members of the secret society known as the Order of the Tarot, dating back to the beginning of humanity.”

The younger man looked startled and a little worried for the old man’s sanity, stirring his coffee and staring purposefully into the watery-brown depths. “I’ve never heard of anything called the Order of the Tarot. Is it like a club?”

“Heavens no,” chuckled the old man. “It’s a secret society. And it wouldn’t be very secret if you’ve heard of it, now would it?”

“I suppose not,” replied the man dryly. “How stupid of me.”

“There are seventy-eight members of the Tarot,” the old man went on, as if the young man was right on board, “each as different and important as the next.” Once again the old man reached into his breast pocket and pulled out another card. He set this on top of the first, still untouched. This card was of a medieval knight in polished silver armor charging on a black stallion toward an enemy with a blazing sword raised high above his head, the scene set against a blood-red sky. “This card, for example, is called the Knight of Swords. This card represents - well, me,” he said proudly, placing a hand to his heart.

It was then the young man caught the flash of something green glowing against the old man’s left palm, now firmly pressed to his heart. He frowned, studying the old man from behind lowered lashes. “What’s that, on your hand?”

The old man glanced down where his hand remained over his heart. “Ah,” he smiled softly and slowly lifted his hand to show the younger man. “This is the mark of the Knight of Swords. Each member of the Tarot carries a unique mark, given to them by our master, the Magician. As long as it glows green, my vow is true, and I am linked to the rest of the Tarot. Should it fade to black, it means one of two things: either I am dead, or I have broken my sacred vow, and thus my link to the Tarot.”

The young man studied the old man’s palm without moving. It was smooth and wrinkled with thousands of lines, some fine and thin, other deep with age; and in the center of his gnarled palm was a dark tattoo of the knight, sword raised as he raced toward battle. The ink, though dark and rich, was not black, but a phosphorous green that seemed to burn against his pale skin. “It glows,” was all he managed to mutter, amazed.

“It does,” the old man replied. “Drawn by the Scared Wand – by magic.”

At the mention of a magic the young man’s frown deepened, creasing his brow. “Magic? You have magic?”

“Oh, no, no.” The old man waved a theatrical hand. “I’m not magic, the Magician holds the magic. I am just bound to his service by it. As a knight of the Order of the Tarot I conduct the Magician’s work, do his bidding, run his errands, if you will.”

“The Magician?” the younger man squinted, as if trying to decide if this was some tragic, practical joke and he was being filmed for someone’s entertainment.

“He’s not a true magician; at least not the kind with rabbits and hats and tricks. The first Magician of the Tarot was the original. The very first magician to ever exist. And he held all the power of our world.”

“Well, sure.”

Ignoring the young man, the older continued. “Our Magician leads the Order of the Tarot. He is the master of the cards, so to speak, he ties us all together, binds us through our markings. Without him, the Tarot and each of the seventy-eight members would not be bound. His life is precious and his role in our world is pivotal.”

“Uh huh.” The young man drummed an impatient finger against his coffee mug. “And what kind of work do you do for this Magician, Mr. Knight?”

“Ah,” the old man raised a finger, “I do this.” He waved a skeletal hand between them, pocked with age spots and bulging blue veins. “I recruit.” He shrugged. “Back in the early days I suppose I would have done a lot more knightly things: fought battles, silenced evil, destroyed anyone who wished to take our power. Today it’s a simpler job. Mostly I scour the world searching for new members to replace the dying.”

“And you are what? Trying to recruit me?”

The old man gave a curt nod.

“I don’t understand. Why would anyone want someone like me? I’m a nobody. I push paper for a living. I know nothing about secret societies or magic or anything you’d be interested in. In fact, I am sure you have the wrong person.”

The old man frowned, but battled on. “Let me explain a bit more, maybe then you’ll understand. As I’ve said, I am the Knight of Swords. When I was recruited, many, many years ago, I, like all members of the Tarot, was required to take a very serious vow. With this vow I was marked by the Magician.” He flashed his green tattoo. “With this mark I was bound to the other members of the Tarot, all seventy-eight. If a member of the Tarot dies, naturally or otherwise, or breaks their vows, their marking blackens and their place within the Order becomes vacant. If this happens, the balance that existed among the carefully chosen seventy-eight members is undone, and our purpose is threatened.”

The man from the car raked a hand through his hair, blinking widely, as if to clear the nonsense. “What does that mean? What is your purpose and what does it matter if a place within this Order is empty?”

“Our world is a complex system,” replied the so-called Knight of Swords – who didn’t look very knightly, as old and wrinkled as he was. “We live in relationship to one another; one man is good, he rides his bike to work, and prays, and recycles. Another is bad; he plots and connives, and murders others while they sleep. We live in relationship to all living things – trees grow, they give us oxygen. Trees grow - we cut them down. We live in relationship to the Earth - it rains, you get wet. It snows, you are cold. It’s hot and dry and there is no water for miles – you die of exposure and thirst. The Earth spins, we stay grounded. It stops spinning – we all die.”

The younger man listened intently while ripping open a pack of sugar and stirring it into his coffee. “I am a smart man, Mr. Knight. I went to college. I know our world is complex, but I’m not sure what this has to do with me, or you, for that matter.”

“It has everything to do with me – and you – and the Tarot.”

“But what is this Tarot. What is the purpose?”

The old knight leaned back in the vinyl-covered booth, a small smile tilting across his wizened face. “Once I explain the answer to that question, my friend, you cannot un-hear the things I’ve said.”

A brown coffee ring remained on the table as the young man raised the mug to his lips, considering. Eventually, he shrugged. “Believe me when I say, old man, I do not have much to lose.”

“So, I understand,” the knight replied. “But what I’m about to tell you is rather extraordinary, to say the least.”

“I’m listening.”

“Very well,” the old man tipped his head, leaning forward as if to invite the young man into his inner circle. “The seventy-eight members of the Order of the Tarot are carefully chosen to be perfectly balanced against one another, as they are perfectly balanced within our world and our solar system and the universe. They each relate differently to the Earth’s forces and elements and each other. Together, they cement the balance of forces and energy that hold our world together. If you leave here today and buy a deck of Tarot cards, much of what I’m explaining will be visible right there in the cards. Each card has a purpose, a force, energy, and each card interacts with those opposing it. Without one, the deck is not whole and it does not work as it should. The deck of Tarot cards is loosely based on the Order’s existence, but the truth is hidden in plain sight. One missing card leads to an incorrect Tarot card reading or an inaccurate game. Translated into our existence - one missing member of the Order of the Tarot leads to the unbalance of opposing forces, and eventually to the destruction of Earth. Through our vows, markings, and relationship to one another, the Tarot keeps the world in balance. It keeps the opposing forces equal so no force is greater than the other.”

“I don’t understand,” the young man scratched his head, his face scrunched in deep thought. “You’re telling me these seventy-eight members of the Tarot keep our world balanced because they have each been chosen and marked by a Magician? And these marks, these vows, all connect to one another, and create balance for every opposing force in the universe?”


“Right. Seems a little farfetched, Mr. Knight, don’t you think?”

The old knight smiled wryly, opening his hands in a conceding gesture. “Of course it does. But so do most things in our universe. After all, we are a system of beings living on a spinning rock, floating in the middle of a vast weightless, colorless, ocean, gliding through a plane of space toward...nothing. The sun, the stars, the tides, gravity...it all seemed a little farfetched once, didn’t it?”

The younger man tipped his head in agreement. “I suppose. But this…you’re talking about magic and markings and secret societies that keep our world from destroying itself.”

“What I am talking about is not something you do not already know. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – physics 101.”

Again, the man from the car nodded. “That is true, but -”

“The Order of the Tarot is nothing more than a physical representation of that law. Every person on this planet holds energy that interacts with the invisible forces around them. You can see it in the way your heart beats – tiny electrical currents running through our bodies keeping us alive.” The old knight thumped his marked hand over his heart, thump, thump, thump, thump. “And when the right people are placed in relation to one another and bound by the right magic, it creates an intricately woven blanket, each like a knot, holding our precarious cosmic system together. If one knot slips… well, let’s just say the world can’t survive when one force becomes too strong and there is nothing to oppose it. Eventually that force will destroy everything around it.”

“Okay,” said the man from the car, setting his cup aside, “say this is all true. Say there is an Order of the Tarot controlling the world’s opposing forces by marking seventy-eight people and binding them together with magic – say there are seventy-eight chosen members, to be exact –and each of those members relate to one another to balance everything around them, creating stability for our world. What does that balance mean? What happens if one of the seventy-eight is killed? Or breaks this ‘vow’, you speak of?”

“Destruction,” the old knight offered. “Chaos. The world will be off kilter and eventually, if it is unbalanced for long enough, the world will destroy itself, either through natural disaster or war or disease. Take this for example: you put two eggs on each end of a teeter-totter. Both weight exactly the same and thus the teeter-totter is perfectly balanced, suspended in harmony as long as no other factor invades. One of the eggs breaks – either by its own force or by something else’s doing – the teeter-totter is now unbalanced. One end crashes to Earth and the other egg breaks on impact. Our world works much the same. When something is unbalanced it trickles down, like the Butterfly Effect – it may start small, like a fight, which leads to hate, which leads to crime, which leads to unrest, which leads to war. Or the opposite. If there is too much good in this world, it is no better outcome than too much hate. If there is too much good, there is no competition, and with no competition there is no purpose and the economy will weaken, and a weak economy leads to poverty, which in turn leads to starvation and death. The thing to remember is the smallest change can have the biggest impact. A chain-reaction. The world needs balance. Without it, anything can happen. War, natural disaster, famine... it’s impossible to predict how one small change will impact the entire world. The Tarot exists to keep the balance perfectly in check. To prevent dissymmetry. Our seventy-eight members represent each and every type of energy force on Earth: good, evil, strong, weak, wealth, poverty, air, water, fire…the list goes on. All those forces are perfectly balanced against one another within the Tarot, and our markings bind us to together, which in turn binds those energy forces to the world. Think of the Tarot as a miniature eco-system. If our energy is balanced within our system, our ancient bond to the Earth balances the greater cosmic system; like a reflection, or a growing wave.”

The young man folded his arms across his chest, staring fixatedly at the knight.

“Have you heard of the Philosopher Heraclitus?”

“Cannot say that I have.”

“Ah, well. It might help to mention him in all of this. You see Heraclitus was an ancient Greek philosopher. He was also a member of the Order of Tarot. In fact, in his day he was the Magician himself. He preached the Unity of Opposites. He stated that every element was an opposite, or connected to an opposite, and those opposites couldn’t exist without one another. Water is cold, so fire is hot. And within those opposites there is always war. The universe is in constant change, but it also remains the same. The Unity of Opposite is present in the universe as both difference and sameness. Heraclitus once said, ‘It is wise to agree that all things are one. In differing it agrees with itself, a backward-turning connection, like that of a bow and a lyre. The path up and down is one the same.’ You see, a slanted road has the opposite qualities of ascent and descent, yet they are, in fact, one in the same. It is our job as Tarot to ensure all those opposites co-exist and remain balanced against one another. Without one opposite, the other could not exist harmoniously.

“And you truly believe all this?”

“Oh yes,” said the old knight, folding his hands neatly on the laminate tabletop. “I have been the Knight of Swords for seventy-three years. My time is running short, and soon someone will replace me, but I have lived a long life, my friend, and I have seen and experienced many things.”

“And what, exactly, do you want from me?” the young man raised his red-rimmed eyes, lashes still damp with tears. “I have nothing. I am a broken man. I would fit no mold to uphold any balance within your Order.”

“That’s not true.” The old knight reached across the table and tapped the card of the Magician. “You fit this mold. Perfectly, in fact.”



Six Months Later

From the corner of a dark room, a baby cooed in a bassinette, reaching toward a man talking animatedly above her.

“Don’t you see – ?” the man interrupted himself, pausing to scrub a hand over his stubbled chin. “What should I call you?” After a deep moment of thought, he raised a triumphant finger. “I know – I’ll call you Ophelia, after my mother. She was a bit daft and died of pneumonia when I was fifteen, but who the hell isn’t daft these days? You’ll be clever, though. I’ll ensure it.”

The baby gurgled, laughing and stretching chubby fingers toward the man.

The man frowned. “Maybe we should start early? It can’t hurt. If I’m going to train you to help me, you should know the basics before you can talk. Maybe that way you’ll listen. I’ve been told children are prone to excessive chatter.” Smiling softly, the man left the bassinette and crossed the room to a long work bench. Microscopes, hissing beakers, charts and diagrams scattered the table and among the clutter he found a leather-bound book and bottle of milk. Eagerly, he grabbed both items and took them back to the happy, babbling baby. “Ophelia,” said the man, giving her the bottle then raising the book. “Do you know what this is?”

The baby grasped the bottle tight and began sucking, making smacking noises with her tiny lips.

“It’s the book of Athios.” As the man held the heavy book over the baby, light captured the symbol stamped on the front cover: a golden circle with the Greek letter Alpha (α) placed at the center. “And do you know who Athios is?”

The baby grunted in response.

“Athios is the ancient founder of the Order of Science Against Magic. He despised Heraclitus and his Unity of Forces and he made it his life mission to stop Heraclitus and the Tarot from controlling our world with magic.”

Again, the baby grunted, this time adding a small burp.

“By the time you’re old enough to read, you will have the entirety of this text memorized. Do you know why, Sweet Pea?” The man waited a beat, as if the baby might actually respond. “Because we cannot let dark magic destroy Earth. We cannot rely on something as flimsy as magic and hocus pocus to control something as important as the world’s delicate balance. But, don’t you worry, little Ophelia, your Uncle Milo will make everything okay. It took me six long months, but I finally found this book – the key. It was given to me by a colleague in the ancient literature department. Can you believe that? All that time at the university and the answer was right under my nose. A scientific solution to this madness! And all I have to do is build it!” Milo hiccupped a laugh, as if amused by his brilliance, and opened the book to the center where a complicated diagram of a clockwork world surrounded in sums and calculations spread across the yellowed page. “Once we build it, and once we discover the secret of how to destroy them from within, the Magician will have no choice but to dissolve his magic cult and let us – no,” he shook his head, correcting himself, “let science take control.” Milo balled his fits tight, a wicked sneer creeping over his face as he tucked the baby goodnight.

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