The girls’ smuggling run is on the edge of disaster, with a side of skewers, in the Suit of Swords.
Snowing in Capricorn
Act 3: At Long Last Love (Suit of Swords)
Ryan D Mills
It’s amazing what a city girl set adrift will cling to.
Somewhere along the way down, I’ve turned the instructions I’ve been given into a mantra.
“Find out what he wants, get the best price you can.”
I feel this is not the best way to enter a negotiation. The shore I’ve dragged myself onto stretches for a mile on both sides, invisible in the dark, given away only by the sound of crashing surf, which doesn’t come and go but rolls continuously in an echo from the cliff face, whistling through the bed of rocks I’m clambering over.
The salt water clings to my shirtback and lashes me wetly with the chill of the wind, as I hold the few items I’m supposed to keep dry, a bundle of calico and some metal like iron I can barely keep together, and attempt, however desperately, to shield them from the spray.
I’m trying to follow the instructions as best I can. And to cling to what pieces our few remaining crew could remember of the unlit cove, and the transaction we’d meant to make, our original goal from when the hold had been full, when everyone was accounted for, and our spirits were high.
I’m more at home with a Ouija board than judging the tides. Deciphering spirit guides rather than nautical maps. But I am good at following sketchy instructions.
I listen and catch my breath.
From the change in the hiss of the spray, and the sensation of a low bass rumble from my left, I can tell I’ve neared the junction in the rocks where the sea wall meets the cliffs. I must be exactly in the cleft of the inlet.
Slipping on the rough shards that line the base of the wall, I find I’m close enough to reach out an arm and support myself as I make my way further up from the water’s edge. Under the shadow of the seabank, where I’m shielded from the wind, the tang of salt is replaced by the thick, soupy air of sea decay and wet stone, and the taste of it stays in the roof of my nose, just as stubbornly as the salt-water I’d swallowed getting here.
I find the rock face in the very corner and I have to lean against it. It’s dusty, coarse like paper.
Much dryer, I realize, than everything else, and completely free of the growing sea-things that coat the slick surfaces on either side.
So I turn for a moment, and remember how tired my legs are from fighting the surf, from getting my best friend’s little runabout here in one piece. From hauling the boat into the water as her Jadeflower ran aground, and the authorities circled with their searchlights and their nets on the black water. My knees want to give way along with the rest of me, and I let them, and I yield for a moment to sit on the shards of tide-locked stone I can feel underfoot.
I rest. And I wonder how the old seafarers could sacrifice so much to keep their magic alive.
The bay stretches invisibly around the deep well of the surf. No lights. No one to raise an alarm.
But I’m beginning to notice the sound of ringing. It comes from the wall at my back, which shudders a little every time the water crashes onto the shore. It’s the thunder of the waves, of course. But also, it’s other sounds.
I’m reminded of the desperate faces of our crew in the torchlight, barely believing their own advice.
And I’m stuck with the fact that it’s real. Just like the rock-face at my back, the question behind their words is one I’ll have to reach through to answer.
What could a conjurer of buried things possibly want? What would he offer in payment?
I’m about to find out. The feeling of sand at my back increases, until the rock face opens to admit me like a mouth. I can almost convince myself it’s comforting. Almost. It could be sleep-like, at any other time, flowing along with the dirt into the heart of the cliffside.
But there’s a moment when sounds from the sea outside deaden, the column of air stiffens, the earth door seals over, and my heart stops.
I was afraid this would happen.
I’m trapped in an hourglass. I wait for it to bury me.
For the pulse in my veins to betray it: I’m losing my nerve.
I can’t show it. Because I’ve begun to suspect the earth around can see me, and report, just like my own cards can see. Because somewhere down here, there’s a wizard who can command the tongues of the dead.
I’m spat out at the bottom of the sand-tunnel along with the carefully-wrapped samples and paperwork I’d been carrying in a pile of damp silt. The musket survived: I’d clutched it to my chest as I was carried down like some Egyptian royal’s second cousin, holding my crook and flail and everything else I’ll need for my passage to the afterlife.
Alone, I have as much hope of using it correctly as reading hieroglyphics. I’ve brought it, ultimately, to remind myself of why I’m here. It’s Suryatta’s, the Jadeflower‘s captain, my friend and bad influence.
In this secret world of spells, it’s a pledge of sorts, that this wizard will understand, despite the warnings. To make him see we have common cause. It’s a sign that I’ll use it to fight, either with or against him, once I work it out.
The contract I’ve brought is a modern version of the same.
I flip its pages, letting the sound ripple in front of me. To let him know I’m nearby, approaching, and not afraid.
The tunnel I’ve entered extends in both directions, with a clear line of sight. “Never dance on a gun deck,” they say. The ground is uneven, part gutter. But I wonder if I can identify an exit if I need it, and I try to move to that side without making a sound.
I need not have bothered. There’s an intense point of red like a spark, hovering in the air at the other end of the passageway. By that alone, I know he’s seen me.
My own eyes adjust to the dark. The enchanter is a dim outline in gold at the entrance of a wide, low room. I glimpse the burning end of a cigarette in one hand, a sword at his waist by the other.
He wears a military coat in the old style, three thin bands embroidered across the front in silver.
The stitchwork gleams as he reaches for a lamp, and I murmur my assent over the lopsided bundle in my arms. It’s my one advantage in this contest, with someone so magically-gifted, someone who’s managed to stay so impossibly dry. The water has yet to reach my hip pocket, despite appearances. Which means I still have the cards to guide me.
The light reveals there’s not much in the room that’s of this earth, besides the puddle of water I’ve brought in. All around, broad half-moons of metal reflect the flames in his hands, the big, guttering one of the lamp, and the winking red eye of the cigarette as they dance as he moves. It’s a scene out of a vision, but nothing I could ever predict.
“Tell me, then,” he goads. “What did you see, in tonight’s reading? Who was there? And who was in the centre?” He grins as the passageway ripples. “The Lovers? It’s always the Lovers. Tell me. From one fortune-teller to another.”
I’m trying to make sense of my surroundings when I realize what those glowing shapes are.
It’s gunpowder. In a hundred waist-high casks, each banded with tin against the seawater.
I can’t take my eyes off it. Both the scene, the casks, and the burning ember in his fingers. It’s going to be sticky to negotiate now.
“The Seven of Cups, maybe that fits best. For this gift of mine,” he says. “For everyone who’s ever dreamt of flying on broomsticks. Every weaver-woman who wants to weave the moonlight.”
I decide the spirits this wizard talks to must have driven him crazy.
Then I look in an open cask, and I realize it’s something much more dangerous.
We’re standing in the middle of a decade’s worth of contraband. Broken down into pouches no larger than a child’s hand. Ready to put anyone who’s interested on the path to witchery.
Is this a trick? I feel the Tarot deck, hot in my hand. I place my thumb on the uppermost card.
The enchanter’s watching me. I’m not sure what’s in his eyes. I hold my breath, grasping a paper-thin edge from the deck. Wanting to see if this man can be trusted. Relying on the musket if he can’t.
I’m prepared to do it. To cross the room and hug him through his coat despite myself. Or point the gun at his heart and press the trigger.
But I do neither. Not yet.
Because, as always, the future depends on the turn of a card.
Art Credit: Etson Caminha, Masters of Skin Art, Dili, East Timor