The picture on the card showed a galleon, painted in bright shades of blue and gold, plunging through the waves beneath a pure white sky. The card lay on a crimson velvet reading cloth, on an upturned barrel. The pink and yellow cotton of Madam Gilda’s Harbourside Fortune Telling Tent flapped in a brisk wind from the sea, its occupants lit by a precarious hanging lamp.
“Ah,” said Lilian in an ominous tone, “the ship.”
Her customer waited.
“This I must consider,” said Lilian, and bent her head so that her lace headdress fell forward over her face.
Lilian was supposed to be turning sausages on the stall next door. Three a penny, and a few special favours if the sailor had a nice smile and coins in his purse. So long as the Moral Men didn’t come sniffing around, it made a good little sideline.
But then Gilda had emerged from her tent at the quayside market, rimed with sweat under her colourful headscarf, her bangles jangling, her velvet shoes scuffed and muddy.
“Help me on with these boots,” she’d told Lilian. “I’ve seen such a sign, such a sign.” Then she had run away, abandoning her boots and her tent.
Not long after this stranger arrived, poking around Gilda’s tent, and Gilda was not there.
“I would have your reading, young woman,” said the visitor in a voice like stones turned over by the tide. Was it a man or a woman? Lilian did not have a truth mirror to be able to see through any glamours the stranger wore. In fact, she had no skill with any of Gilda’s tools.
Lilian had hesitated. That was her saving grace. She knew it was wrong to lie, wrong to mix stale bread in with the sausage pork, wrong to do favours for sailors. That counted for something, surely, when it came her turn to go to High Heaven? It was the ignorant wicked that went to Low Heaven, what soldiers called Hell. Your Nelsons and your Wellingtons went off to High Heaven for sure, but even those who were not warriors had a chance at entry to the hall high in the branches of the Great Tree.
The stranger—a hunched, cloaked figure carrying a black stick – poked at Gilda’s tent and huffed. The breeze flipped back the cloak, revealing a bulging purse hanging from the stranger’s breeches.
At the same moment, a group of soberly dressed men with broad brimmed hats appeared at the far end of the quayside. The Moral Men. She saw them pointing in her direction.
And so Lilian had pretended to be just minding the sausages for a friend, and offered to do a reading. She yelled out to Tom Pieman to tend the sausage stall. The eager sailors would have to wait.
Inside the tent, the lie seemed like less of a good idea.
“Pass silver over your palm and buy a lucky piece of heather, I know.” The money dropped into Lilian’s uncertain hand.
Now she must perform. And something told her this stranger would know if she got the reading wrong. What to use? She had no knowledge of clock magic or tea leaves.
“The cards,” said Lilian, plucking a deck from the several stacks on the whisky barrel which formed Gilda’s table. “Let me spread the cloth.”
She used the motion of smoothing a velvet reading cloth over the barrel to clear her head and decide that, yes, she would tell a fortune, and ask the Great Tree for forgiveness at her heresy, for she had no skill in this art.
It would not be her first lie. After all, London was made of lies. In the salons, lily-gilders cast glamours over fat women to make them appear slim, and bald men to give them the illusion of luxuriant hair. Shopkeepers threw out charm into the street, to turn people’s feet towards their wares. and Drury Lane was packed with jades who promised a night of passion, took the punters’ money and then warded them off, penniless and unfulfilled. Lilian had worked in a low-class salon herself, tarting up actresses for the stage, and mistresses for the bedroom.
Yes, a false fortune was a minor transgression when all of England was cracking apart under assault from Napoleon, who was said to set the very land adrift with his evil spells.
“Take a card,” said Lilian, fanning the fortune telling deck in her hand. This deck was unfamiliar to her, one of these new French sets, with pictures alongside the regular playing card denominations.
The visitor, her–his?–head still covered, plucked a card from the centre of the fan.
It showed a ship.
“You will embark on a long journey,” said Lilian. She searched her mind for other metaphors. In her years of persuading ugly people that they were beautiful, she had told a lot of lies. “Perhaps this signifies a new beginning, a new venture in life.”
She could do with a new venture herself. Everyone said England was finished as a kingdom. Strange fish had been seen in the harbour, and the land itself groaned and strained at its ancient moorings. The harbour was busy because people were fleeing the islands. Despite Napoleon’s efforts, it was still possible to cross the Channel and head for the Continent. When everyone had gone, who would want sausages then?
“A journey,” mumbled the visitor. “To what purpose?” The cowled head turned this way and that, and Lilian felt the shiver of a charm on her skin. She was being tested.
“Pick another card,” said Lilian quickly. “All will become clear.”
“This is a sign of abundance and growth,” said Lilian.
It might be. She didn’t know. It was hard to concentrate. Outside, she heard Tom Pieman talking to the Moral Men. The Men wanted to know about jades and doxies–prostitutes, as they called them.
“Hmm,” said the visitor. “This I doubt.”
“There are weeds,” said Lilian, peering at the card. “Rampant among the flowers… could it be that something threatens you? The garden is in danger of being overrun,” she added in a burst of inspiration. “Danger lies all around, and unless these evil influences are rooted out, the entire garden will fall into despair.”
It sounded good. She almost wished Gilda were here. Except that Gilda would tan her hide for daring to make a reading, and to take an actual customer’s money.
“What form is this threat?” demanded the visitor.
“Um…” Lilian squinted again at the Garden card. Crows flew in the sky, the fountain bubbled up with blue water, all seemed flourishing, but for those weeds. “Complacency,” she decided. “While all around do nothing, you see a threat. You must act,” she intoned, pushing the card towards her guest. “Seek out what undermines your efforts and remove it from… life.“ That was a little weak as an ending, but there was only one more card to read.
From beyond the tent, the smell of sausages wafted in. The Moral Men muttered about fallen women and how the transportation ships were always looking for new passengers. Lilian willed Tom Pieman to offer them a free sausage or two. If the Men took her, it would be transportation–or the noose. Either meant death, but transportation took longer.
“Everyone flees,” said the visitor, waving a gloved hand at the conversation outside. “They are afraid.”
“Mm.” It seemed wrong to agree or disagree.
“They say the Prince will become Regent.”
“They say that the spell holding Britain together is breaking apart, that Napoleon has undone Merlin’s ancient pact to make six-thousand islands into one.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen,” said Lilian indignantly. “The King would never allow it.”
There was a snuffling sound from beneath the visitor’s hood, which might have been amusement. “What would you do if it did, girl? If England became four-thousand islands, and Scotland another two-thousand? If Wales drifted off and Sweden came to claim us all as their own, as in the time of Merlin?”
The tent awning flapped open. There were the Moral Men, in their priest-like clothes, frowning into the tent, looking for a girl who broke the law. Lilian swallowed. If Gilda came back now, all was lost.
If she hesitated now, all was lost anyway. Her visitor and the Men would know her as a fake. She sat up straight. “I would stay,” said Lilian, “and read the cards for any who passed by my island. There would be more ships,” she added, “and more people needing to know their future.”
“Draw the last card,” commanded her customer.
Lilian obeyed, hoping that it would be an easy one.
“Tis a sign of hope,” she said. This one, finally, was a simple reading. Everyone knew an anchor’s truth–security, a place to call your own, home at last.
The visitor chuckled. Lilian knew that laugh. How had she not seen it before?
“Gilda,” she said.
“Yes, it’s me.” Gilda threw back the hood and showed her weathered face. “And you have passed the test, the test I needed.”
“I…” Lilian glanced around but of course they were alone in the tent. “But I was just making it up. Inventing readings.”
Gilda touched Lilian’s arm and a tingle passed from her hand to Lilian’s skin. “You have the gift,” she said. “A true gift.”
Lilian blinked. She could cast a basic glamour, for sure, and make simple wards against evil. Or rotten pork. But this? “You mean… I can tell the future?”
“You can invent,” said Gilda. “That is the key.” She sighed. “Especially in the future I can see. Lies will become the new coin, and those who command an untruth will be princes of the new realm.” She grimaced in the direction of the Moral Men, now departing with free sausages.
“So… none of it is real? The scrying, the cartomancy?”
“I didn’t say that. The cards. They tell a truth in the mouth of the teller. In the heart of the asker too. Your reading for me was as accurate as any I’ve heard and any I’ve given.” Gilda stood. “I must pay you,” she said. She passed Lilian a rough gold coin. “And the tent is yours too.”
“I must go. The cards do not lie. There is a ship in harbour, waiting for me, and the garden of England is in peril, and there is an anchor coming loose in the world, that I must find and set right.” She embraced Lilian. “Good luck, and keep those cards close.”
She passed out of the tent, leaving Lilian stunned in the fortune teller’s headdress. A moment later Gilda’s head popped back through the awning. “Your sausages are done,” she said.
Lilian bit her lip. But she knew what to do. “Tell it to Tom Pieman,” she said loftily. “I am Lilian the seer now.”
She smiled. This was the chance she’d hoped for. No more floppy sausages. Rich customers would be hers now. And in the privacy of Gilda’s pink and yellow tent, she might be able to tell more than fortunes.