Updated: Feb 15
Click here for the audio dramatization of this short story!
“You there!” a voice called, “You, the tall hare!”
Eni’s head turned reflexively at the voice; she had been in Terregor for almost three months and everyone she met called her a rabbit. At first, all that she saw was a narrow alleyway, but when she looked more closely she saw there was an even narrower tent wedged into it. It looked fairly unremarkable compared to the others that packed the city streets, its plain black fabric blending into the dimness except where a few paste stars glittered dully around the flaps. Compared to its neighbors that squeezed the opening to the alleyway even thinner, a brilliantly red and yellow tent selling pastries and a fluttering mass of green and blue with a massive sign boasting of frozen drinks, the only part that stood out in any way was the carefully lettered sign set on its flimsy roof: FORTUNES TOLD.
What Eni did not see, though, was who had called for her attention, although the street was so packed with mammals celebrating the Day of Description that it was hardly a surprise. She still hadn’t quite gotten used to how busy life in a city was, and the festival made it seem as though the population had suddenly tripled.
“In here, my dear,” the voice said, and a face appeared from within the gloom of the fortune teller’s tent.
As the tent’s occupant stepped out to urge Eni to enter, she immediately understood why she had recognized her as a hare. The fortune teller was a hare herself, hunched over with age and leaning heavily on a carved wooden stick with a number of polished crystals set into the top. She was smiling, exposing a mouth almost utterly devoid of teeth, and the fur of her face was completely white unlike the graying brown of her exposed paws and ears. Her wrists looked as thin as twigs, but her body was so heavily draped in brightly colored shawls that it was impossible to tell whether she herself was just as slender.
“Come, come,” the hare said, her loose dewlap wobbling with every word, “Don’t you want to hear what the future has in store for you?”
“Aye,” Eni said without thinking, and she winced internally.
Before arriving in the Circle, she had thought her command of Modern Circi was excellent. Then she had actually started talking to mammals who spoke it natively and discovered that the books she had learned from were woefully out of date.
“Yes, I mean,” Eni added, and she walked into the tent.
The inside was so dim that it made the tent feel much larger than its exterior dimensions suggested; a slightly bitter incense filled it with a haze that banished the smells of the food stalls on either side and made the light of a single red lantern dream-like. The shadows it threw flickered and danced, and as the light caught the fortune teller’s face at different angles she sometimes looked as young as Eni herself or impossibly old.
She still moved with all the gravity of her age, though, carefully taking a seat behind a small table set in the middle of the floor and gesturing for Eni to sit down opposite her on a thick cushion. “How much do you charge?” Eni asked; it seemed perhaps a bit rude to bluntly ask the question, but she hadn’t seen a price listed anywhere and knew that everything on the Day of Description cost money.
The old hare chuckled. “For you, no charge,” she said, “Just tell your friends at the university about Madame Heligor, if you would.”
Eni had a brief moment of surprise at the fortune teller’s insight before she remembered that she was wearing the uniform of a university student; obviously the hare was a local and knew what the sharply cut jacket and skirt meant. “But oh,” Heligor said after a moment, giving Eni a piercing stare across the table, “You don’t have any friends at the school, do you?”
“Siu demmu ya—” Eni began, too shocked to remember to speak Circi, and then she caught herself.
“How did you know that?” she asked, but underneath her wonder was a seed of hope.
Had she, by luck or the will of the Mother herself, found someone who knew genuine magic? She had walked into the tent not expecting anything more than the amusement a few copper pieces could buy, but maybe… A vision of the old hare telling her exactly where she needed to go flashed through her head briefly before Eni forced it down.
Heligor chuckled again, her face enigmatic in the light. “Never mind that, my dear,” she said, “But it’s free nonetheless. I’ve lived nearly eighty-six years and in all that time I’ve never met a hare Aberrant.”
That, at least, was not surprising; Eni had never met another hare Aberrant herself, and considering she was almost twice as tall as the fortune teller it was painfully obvious that she was one. Heligor smiled, and for an instant she was very nearly beautiful. “It shall be my honor to tell your fortune,” she said, and from within her voluminous clothing she produced a deck of cards.
“Shuffle these, if you would,” the fortune teller said, and when she gave them to Eni it felt as though a spark passed between their paws.
Eni did as she was instructed, clumsily shuffling the cards together until Heligor told her to stop. “Flip the first card onto the table,” she said.
Eni did so, revealing a marvelously detailed illustration.
“The ship,” Heligor said, “A journey, then. And you have already traveled far, have you not? But it is your future that interests you, not your past. The next card, if you would.”
The old fortune teller gasped at the next card that was revealed, which showed a snake eating its own tale in such vivid detail that it almost looked alive in the flickering light.
“The ouroboros,” Heligor said, “It means your past and your future are as one. You have journeyed far already, but the roads ahead of you are as endless as the ones behind you.”
A chill went down Eni’s spine at the tone of the hare’s voice; it was hushed and almost reverential, and she looked at Eni in open amazement. “But what is it that you seek?” she whispered, “Flip the next card.”
All Eni saw, though, was a chalice, beautifully done in shimmering gold leaf. “The cup,” Heligor said, “It is treasure you seek. Or no…”
The fortune teller peered into Eni’s eyes. “No, no. Not something. It’s someone.”
Eni’s mouth fell open, her heart hammering in her chest. She hadn’t told a single soul about the reason she had traveled all the way from the Nihuron Peninsula to the Circle, and Heligor seemed to have divined it. “Mmm,” the old hare said thoughtfully, “Not a relative. Not a friend. A lover?”
“What?” Eni blurted, even as she felt her ears flush crimson, “No, no, not a lover.”
Her skin felt prickly and hot under her fur, just like when she had stumbled upon The Sultry Dreams of the Saine for the first time. But she wasn’t interested in the mammal she was pursuing like that, of course. It was just a good story even if it was implausible nonsense, and that was the only reason she had read it two or three times. Five, at most.
Heligor made a thoughtful sound again, and while she didn’t laugh Eni thought she saw one in her eyes. “Then let the next card show us, my dear,” she said.
A fearsome wolf filled the card; his mouth was twisted in a pained snarl, his fingers ending in claws that curved as wickedly as fishhooks. He was bound all over in heavy chains, but they didn’t seem to bother him in the slightest as he slashed at the card’s border as though trying to escape. His eyes appeared haunted, and Eni repressed a shudder. She had seen that expression on a wolf’s face only once before, and that had been more than enough for her. “The warrior,” Heligor said.
“Why is he chained?” Eni asked, her voice so low it surprised her.
“Remorse is a prison no less solid than the most inescapable jail,” Heligor said, “And without remorse, a warrior is nothing more than a crazed monster killing for sport. This is a card of nobility, of spirit if not of blood. Your paths will intersect. Or already have, perhaps.”
Eni let the words run over and over through her mind. Perhaps it meant Avamezin, who was noble in spirit as well as blood and who she had already met. Or maybe…
“Another card, dear,” Heligor said, interrupting Eni’s thoughts.
She flipped the top card and was stunned. “The phoenix,” the fortune teller said.
Although the artwork was beautiful on all the cards, the one Eni had revealed put the rest to shame. It was a phoenix, its flames rendered in metallic inks that seemed more real than the feeble light in the lantern that lit the tent. Its wings were outstretched as it soared toward the moonlit sky, its proud head raised. “It is a sign of death and rebirth. A very curious card to get with the ouroboros, my dear, a very curious card indeed.”
“But what does it mean?” Eni asked.
“You will fail, my dear. Over and over and over. But you will rise from the ashes of your failure each time.”
“But will I succeed?” Eni asked, “Will I— Will I find what I’m looking for?”
“That is for the Mother to know and us to find out,” Heligor said, a smile touching her muzzle.
“But— But what about the next card?” Eni asked desperately, and without waiting for the fortune teller to say anything she flipped it onto the table.
The card looked little different from a regular playing card; it had the number 6 at its center surrounded by a wreath and a border of staves. “The power is in only the first five cards, my dear,” the old fortune teller said gently, “They’re nothing more than cards, now.”
Eni sighed as she put the deck back onto the table. “Good luck,” Heligor said as she deftly swept the cards Eni had flipped back into the deck and made them all disappear back into her shawl, “It was a pleasure to read your fortune.”
“Thanks,” Eni said, a little glumly.
She was starting to feel a little foolish; the old hare hadn’t told her anything she hadn’t already known. Eni certainly didn’t need a deck of cards to tell her that she wouldn’t give up, and as she left the tent she resolved to go back to the university’s library for more research.
After, that was, seeing what else the festival had to offer.