The cards were going mad.
Irhina felt their agitation thrumming through her tiny sea cabin. It was a sharp, jangled vibration, like a dozen out-of-tune instruments all bleating different songs. Something was coming, some great weight that sat on destiny’s weaving and bent all the skeins of fate toward itself.
Shivering, Irhina went to the porthole. All was dark through the bleary glass, save for the rough shapes of heaving waves barely illumined by a cloudy and uncertain moon. Distant lightning flashed through the heavy-bellied clouds. The storm was nearly upon them.
The Sea Falcon bucked and dipped as another wave slammed into it. Irhina's Harrow deck tumbled from the table. Nine cards spilled across the cabin's well-worn rug.
Irhina's skin prickled. There were no accidents in a Harrow deck. No coincidences, no mistakes. Only amateurs could indulge such comfortable fantasies, and it had been many, many years since Irhina had believed them.
Not since she'd been claimed by this very deck, in fact.
Irhina shivered again. That had been a bad night. Fire, screams, confusion. The Harrow deck's folded-paper box, sodden with her uncle's warm blood, crumbling and spilling the lacquered cards into her hands. The stinging thrill of magic against her skin, unwanted but impossible to refuse.
Then—a heavy duty, and a hard life. Years of loneliness with little laughter. Those memories would swallow her easily, if she let them.
She didn't. Here and now, she had a storm to survive.
The cards had spilled into a rough square on the cabin floor. In a traditional reading, they would have been dealt into three neat rows of three: past, present, and future, with the pattern centered on a role card. Tonight, however, they'd formed a different pattern on the shabby red rug. The cards had fallen into a sequence of three by three, but the rows were interleaved, with no clean breaks between past, present, or future. Some of the cards were not only reversed, but thrown sideways, one image interrupting or obscuring another.
The Midwife. The Big Sky. The Brass Dwarf askew: invulnerability under threat. The Carnival and The Demon's Lantern bridged by The Tangled Briar: trickery and illusion on one side, malicious deception on another, and a bloody history that gripped them together—but whether that meant their shared history was the key to unlocking their deceit, or merely signified that some great lie had continued unbroken for ages, was impossible for Irhina to read.
Ordinarily, a role card would have guided her through the conflicting interpretations. The role card, like a story's protagonist, created clarity from a jumble of conflicting elements by providing perspective and narrative structure. Even in a spontaneous reading, there should have been a role card set out to anchor the other symbols in its orbit.
But here there was none. No central figure, no guide toward meaning. Irhina's fingers danced lightly over the cards, signaling her question. The vibration she received in response was unmistakable: the deck did not hold that answer.
There was only the chaos of future-past-present, all knotted together and writhing senselessly. She could as easily have tried to read the future from a bed of snakes.
She swept the Harrow cards back into their box, ignoring the protest that prickled across her palms, and left her cramped cabin. Storm or no storm, she needed air.
Above decks, the storm hadn't broken. A strange yellow pall suffused the clouds' dark bellies, shocking erratically brighter as lightning spidered across the sky. The great golden dome of Crystilan glittered in the distance, reflecting the same eerie stormlight from its perch above the coast's wave-lashed cliffs.
No, Irhina realized. Crystilan wasn't reflecting the light. It was the source of that eerie, dazzling glow. And the glow was intensifying, moment by moment, spilling ribbons of yellow light across the sea and tinting the waves' white froth toward saffron. Luminous ripples raced across the dome's immense interior, fracturing into runic shapes that strained to create whirling diagrams before they shattered apart.
She wasn't the only one mesmerized by the sight. Other passengers had come up to watch it with her: a Tian woman, a Keleshite man, an Ustalavic nobleman in a fine cuffed shirt whose shaggy, bestial features made her wonder if his line was cursed with lycanthropy. It wouldn't have surprised her. The Sea Falcon charged exorbitant rates, but it carried anyone who could afford them, and it ran swiftly to destinations that other ships avoided.
She wondered if one of those passengers had paid for the Sea Falcon to pass this close to Crystilan. The Thassilonian ruin had mystified scholars for millennia. Within the great crystal dome, an entire empty city stood perfectly preserved, untouched by time and impossible to reach. Most assumed that the city and its people had fallen victim to some ancient archmage's curse, and superstitious sailors tended to swing wide around it, afraid of being snared.
Irhina had always thought that a foolish fancy, but now she wasn't so sure. The city under crystal had always been eerie, but now it felt different, aware and more intensely menacing, in a way she'd never sensed before. It was as if some power within the dome was awakening, and was beginning to look upon its surroundings with envious and hungry eyes. A malevolent power, she was sure, though she couldn't say why.
Beneath the Sea Falcon, the sea was lit up from within, so that it seemed they sailed on a lake of molten gold. Lightning flashed from cloud to cloud, faster with each stroke, always strangely soundless—
—until a stroke of thunder cracked overhead with such ferocity that Irhina quailed.
Another sounded, and another, and Irhina realized that it wasn't thunder at all. Crystilan itself was breaking. Massive fissures cracked the gleaming dome. Shivering slabs of crystal tumbled into the sea, throwing up geysers of saltwater and splintered stone that shook the Sea Falcon from afar.
And inside the long-vacant city beneath Crystilan, Irhina could see the tiny, impossible figures of… of people. Some were human-sized, tiny at this distance. Others towered above them, so huge that they must surely be giants. She could make out no details of language or dress, but the sight of them filled her with unreasoning fear.
“What is it?” the maybe-werewolf nobleman muttered beside her. His thick dark nails dug into the railing's salt-spattered wood. He looked half a monster, but in that moment Irhina felt a sudden sense of solidarity with him. If he was a monster, he was at least a monster she knew.
“Upheaval,” Irhina said. “The future tangled into the past, and the past into the future. The cards gave me a reading, and now it begins to come clear. The old will clash with the new, and the new with the old.”
“But what does it mean?” The nobleman's eyes glowed yellow as he turned toward Irhina.
“The cards are but cards,” she told him. “They do not know who the role card in this tale will be. So, in this, they can tell us no meaning. That is for us to find.”
“Or whoever's in there,” the nobleman said, looking back at the tiny figures in the dome.
“Yes.” Irhina clasped her arms against a renewed chill of apprehension. “Or whoever's in there.”
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