Teller of Fortunes 9: The True Picture

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After a long night, Ane returns to her wagon for what answers she can glean.

The room remains much as Ane left it, though a few of her shelves have gone askew in their travels. The bottle of cherry cordial lays on its side, with a few precious, ruby drops congealing in a sticky puddle just below the corked opening. With a muttered swear, Ane picks the bottle up and searches for a rag to clean the mess with.

When she is able to settle herself enough to relax and change out of her clothing, she arranges a clear space on her floor. It isn’t yet safe enough for her to fully impair her mundane senses and let her mind ride again, but there are still things she can do to pass her time…

Her slim fingertips grasp a stick of dusty, pressed-eggshell chalk. With a practiced sweep of her arm, she describes a broad circle around herself. Letters (but not quite letters) that read like the veins of leaves or the paths of hungry caterpillars mark the edge at regular intervals ⁠— equal parts wards and invitations. Before her kneeling knees, she sets a candle of dense, yellow tallow studded with curled, deep black fragments of dried Wanderer’s violets. Even before she lights it, the small circle begins filling with the candle’s scent ⁠— rich gurran tallow, carrying the sweet, almost fruity floral fragrance of the violets. It’s at once rustic and sumptuous, like a wave from a velvet-gloved hand beckoning you down a flower-strewn path.

She strikes a firesteel over a bowl of tinder and lights the candle with a burning twig. The orange flame shimmies in her hands as she brings it to the knotted cotton wick, coaxing the fire into a warm, persimmon glow that dances across the planes of her face. The damp heat of the forest casts a sheen on her skin that spreads the candle’s light along the firm set of her shoulders, down the tattooed valley between her bared breasts, and across the smooth span of her stomach. Despite the heat, a shiver of anticipation raises the soft, peachlike hairs along her arms.

In her right hand, she clasps the hilt of an old ⁠— but no less sharp ⁠— silver filigree penknife. She whispers words in a language she does not know, ones that arise from someplace in the center of her being, ones she could not consciously remember if she tried. Her lips pause moving as she takes a breath, the briefest of pauses before she sends the tip of the knife, straight and swift, into one creamy thigh. Blood, as rich and red as the cherry cordial, wells up around the silver blade, trailing down her outer thigh to drip softly against the floorboards. She dips a fingertip into her blood and feeds a few warm drops to the flame, letting them fall to mix in a scarlet rivulet with the melting golden tallow and unfurling violet leaves.

A small soapstone box, barely larger than a pillbox, sits to her left. Within it, lumps of coarse brown sugar lay clustered in a glittering pile like sticky jewels. She lifts the carved lid, takes one morsel, passes it over the candle’s flame, and lays it reverently atop her tongue.

The sugar is sweet, as sugar is wont to be, flavored with long hours of shardlight over koolak nut palms, the salty spray of seawater, and the hard, flinty sand beneath. Still further behind the sweetness, something else lingers ⁠— something warm and nutty, redolent of months spent dreaming beneath the spongy soil, before wise, patient hands came to dig it up, dry it, and craft it into the tincture dropped over every last glistening piece of koolak nut sugar.

She sets the knife and soapstone box aside. They will not be needed again today.

Instead, she picks up a bright, cobalt blue wax pastel. Before her, she spreads a roll of cattail fiber paper. As the sugar melts, the wax warms, and the wagon rolls on, filling her senses with violets, tallow, and blood, with shard-warmed sweetness and months tucked into the cool, damp earth, with the creak of the wagon and the sinister rustle of the trees outside, she begins to draw.

Somewhere amidst the flow of her hand, a song wells from within her. She doesn’t sing loud ⁠— probably not loud enough to pass beyond whoever may be sitting atop her wagon’s roof now ⁠— but it’s no matter. Whoever could hear her wouldn’t be able to make sense of the floating, wordless melody anyhow.

Hours pass beyond her notice as she allows the ritual to take her by the hand, guiding her skilled fingers into crafting a seemingly endless array of symbols and figures across the rough plane of the paper. It’s only when her senses begin to clear that she sits back on her heels, stilling her hum and taking a deep breath. Her head tips back as she fills her lungs with the warm, sweet air, before exhaling a luxuriant, satisfied sigh through parted, half-smiling lips. The candle burns out, guttering and finally suffocating itself in a limpid, shimmering pool of liquid tallow. The pastel is long gone, drawn into nothing more than a few stray, sticky traces of blue wax lingering on her fingers (and one smudge above her right brow). Despite this, the paper is still covered with-

“Oh,” Ane’s hum flickers. “Oh, son of a bitch.

Somewhere, the pastel had run out. Somehow, she had thought it was a good idea to keep drawing.

The rest of the figures are fingerpainted in fresh blood.

The Teller of Fortunes feels around for the rag she’d used to clean up the cherry cordial ⁠— it’ll have to do for now, until she can find something cleaner ⁠— and presses it to the three new cuts near her left elbow. She should have known better.

“Motherf- Where the Void is the alum?!

She rattles, one-armed, through the bottles and jars in the cabinet beneath her bed. Fortunately, though she exists in a kind of organized chaos, it is one in which she’s able to track down nearly anything she needs in a matter of minutes. Where an interloper might be perfectly dumbfounded, Ane can still find things most of the time.

She sits at the edge of her bed, still naked and smelling of sweet violets and the sharp, copper smell of blood, to dress her wounds and curse her lack of sense. It’s only after she’s given them a good shake of alum to stop the bleeding (accompanied by a colorful string of profanity at the sting), a generous daubing of cave bee honey, and a stretch of clean cotton fiber to cover that she actually takes a look at her colorfully-drawn handiwork.

The page is at first overwhelming to the senses, defying any sense of an initial impression. It first all comes in a haze, a blur of mixed color and texture. The streaks of the smooth pastel swirl together with gritty, dried blood, in some places even staining through the page and boring a hole to the other side. There’s even a tear at the right edge of the paper, where Ane likely moved it too abruptly in her frenzy.

As Ane stares into the result, these bits of destruction finally recede from attention, revealing themselves to be the distractions that they are. Somewhere, in the chaos of the painting, order begins to mold and take shape.

Strangely, the pastel avoided the center of the page, creating space for the true picture. Color sweeps above to form a sky, maybe clouds, maybe an ocean. Below this are a series of circles, nine  in total, each spaced irregularly and drawn with erratic strokes that leave streaking tails of pastel coming off their apexes. Each circle is filled with empty space, except for three. Within them, splatters of blood forms a long, bumpy line; these are smeared as if blood sprayed off while Ane was mucking about elsewhere on the page.

Then, there is the center.

There, in some fit of mystic insight or erratic madness, she drew a symbol. There is a figure-eight lain on its side. At each end, a line of blood trails off and around the symbol in a semicircle, but never reaching the other end. The result is infinitude, with one half-arc above, one below, almost as if to put it within a circle. Crafting this symbol seems to have resulted in the aforementioned tear, a spot where her little finger seems to have punched a hole through the paper straight through to the other side, leaving a vacant maw upon the page.

To the left, in the margin, it seems Ane continued to make marks after this main “piece” was finished. She left what looks like a cross between a tree, half a smeerp, a crying man, and a left foot. Then again, it might have just been where she put her bloodstained left palm. One’s mileage may vary.

It seems the last of the drawing was intended to carry on to the floor. Unfortunately, the floor is a terrible artistic medium, so that just turned into a right mess.

“Hmm,” she murmurs to herself as she puzzles over the rough page. She can’t make heads or tails of it ⁠— then again, she rarely can so soon after the fact. Now that her wounds have ceased bleeding, she begins to clean up: First the sooty stub of the tallow candle, then the bloodstains and pastel marks, and finally finding a home for the page itself.

For now, she lays it across the top of her vanity. A few bottles and jars hold the edges down, keeping the page from rolling itself up again. It gives her the opportunity to see the drawings, but not too closely… just at the margin of her awareness, where subtle suggestions and dream-images live. Eventually, she may find the keystone of understanding that helps the ragged circles and bloody smears resolve into the shape of something real.

Ane slips beneath her blanket, listening to the wind through the trees as the wagon creaks onward.