I was laying down cards in the marketplace when I got the latest job offer. “Here comes money,” Irsa, the vendor next to me had said, and moved out of the way so as not to scare him off. So I’d given him his fortune, all the usual sort of nonsense, and out he came with this. I hadn’t expected it of him; he looked too respectable. True, he hadn’t mentioned the exact nature of this job. But I’d been in the Square long enough – I thought – to know what that meant.
“I might want to hire you,” he repeated, as though he thought a dim-witted foreigner like me might need it said twice.
“Move on,” I said picking up my Tarot cards. “Your fortune’s been told.”
“I’m serious,” he protested.
“Please, noble sir. I’m well aware that people hired by Street of Gold Coin procurers are never seen again. Unless you wanted me for one of the Great Houses?” I smiled with polite rudeness. It was obviously out of the question. By Ivory standards, I’m not even pretty. Eight centimeters shorter than everyone around me, hair auburn instead of black – they wouldn’t let me into a Great House as a domestic servant. Not that I felt I was really cut out for prostitution.
“I’m not talking about Gold Coin kanza.” The word he used was Ivoran, and meant rotten flesh, animal dung, scum to the tenth power. I looked at him in surprise, as he’d intended. “I like your card-reading.”
“Thank you, noble sir.” I was as phony as any other market fortuneteller.
“I’m not a noble sir. ‘Gracious’ will do.”
So he wasn’t part of the nobility, although he dressed like it. More and more interesting. And it hadn’t been easy to read his cards. Usually the marks responded, gave you answers, hints, facial expressions. “Someone I know has had an accident? Why, you must mean my great-uncle Hobar.” Not this man. Total silence as I interpreted the pictures. It was unnerving.
He said, “You’re not Ivoran. How did you end up here?”
I shrugged. “If you really want to know, pay me.” To my surprise he brought out another coin and laid it on the ground before me. I shifted position on my rug. “Know, O gracious sir, that this humble person who is I was born on Pyrene, far from – ”
“We can skip the formalities. I’m not paying you as a storyteller.”
I sighed. “I left Pyrene and went to Athena as a student. A classmate of mine had a father who was first mate on the Queen Julia, one of those big luxury liners out of Tellys. One of his wealthy passengers had reserved a suite for the full run, from Tellys to Athena to Ivory, and left at Athena. My friend talked his father into letting him use the suite – it was booked round trip – and take some friends along. It seemed like a great opportunity. You know – I mean, the gracious sir must be aware of what starship passage costs. If I hadn’t gotten a scholarship to Athena, I’d never have gotten even that far. So I came along. That was two years ago.”
When I stopped he said, “But you’re still here.”
“The gracious sir asked me how I came here. Not why I remain.”
He dropped another coin. I scooped it up and added it to the others in my pouch. “I spent a happy month on your lovely planet, which is how long the Julia was in orbit. We went to the Lantern Gardens, the Great Obelisk, and the Lavender Palace. I’d heard about the sorcerers and magicians of Ivory, and while I knew they were fakes, I still wanted to see them. How many chances would I get to play tourist? My friends weren’t interested in phonies, though. The night before we were due to leave they wanted to visit the Lantern Gardens again – they were fascinated by the naked floorshow, we don’t have things like that on Athena. So I left them and went off to the Street of Gold Coins by myself – ”
“Why the Street of Gold Coins?”
“Well, I didn’t know where else to find a sorcerer. And I’d heard you could buy anything there.”
He nodded. “Go on.”
“I wish I could; unfortunately I don’t remember a lot of what happened next. I don’t even know which building I went in. I have a vague memory of a small woman in a green robe, with black hair down to her knees, opening a door.” I began shuffling my cards. This next part was embarrassing. “I woke up the next afternoon in an alley. My money was gone.”
He laughed. “You were rolled.”
“I was rolled.” Because it’s an old story doesn’t make it funny. “The Julia was gone, my friends were gone – I did have some money, because they’d left it for me at the hotel. I’ve spent the last two years trying to make enough money to buy passage back.” And barely making enough to live on. But if I let myself see how impossible it was, I’d go crazy.
“Have you made friends here?”
“I don’t see that that’s any of your business, gracious sir.”
He brought out another coin. This was a good day for me.
“No real friends, no relatives, no one to care if I live or die, which was a problem when my tourist badge expired.” Among the higher classes of Ivory, murder is considered a practical craft, rather like needlepoint. A noble who wants to keep his hand in might pick off a passing stranger on the way home from a hard day in government. Tourists are exempt, by Imperial decree; they wear large red badges, prominently displayed. When mine expired, flickering to a burnt-out black, my spirits went out with it.
“I want to hire you,” he said, a slight variation on his first statement: I might want to hire you.
“To read cards. Not these,” he said, seeing my eyes go to the Tarot deck in front of me, and dismissing it with a contemptuous gesture. “I have my own cards. Come with me and I’ll test you on them.”
This could get too deep for me to swim out. “Gracious sir, I’d better tell you right now that I’m as phony as any other magician on Ivory. I can’t read cards. I just make them up.”
“You think our sorcerers are fakes.” He smiled. “You’ve been here two years, but you still haven’t learned much about Ivory. Rest easy, your lack of talent doesn’t matter. The virtue is in my cards, not in the person using them.”
He put out his hand and helped me up.
And so I met Ran Cormallon…