Will my search for revenge succeed?
"No, Nicol, turn the cards one at a time, one, two, three, like this," Lucia offered and showed him how to turn the cards from side to side to not change how they lay on the table. "You see, now they show their true faces. We must not change how the questioner has given us the cards." Nicholas nodded and looked down at the three turned cards. For practice they had been giving each other readings, but this time, Nicholas was reading his own turn. The three cards, representing past, present and future lay like a declaration on the small table and Nicholas felt his heart sinking in his chest.
If this is my own reading, then I'm not doing so well, he thought. Across from him Lucia leaned on the chair arm, one hand cupped and holding her chin.
"You are a very complex man, Nicol."
Nicholas looked at the first card on the left, the Queen of Cups. The regal lady sat on her throne, a cup resting on one knee, the ocean's tides washing up and over her feet. Of my past, " A woman of imagination. Romantic, compassionate air. One who encourages the dreams and talents of others. Generosity and care. A loyal lover. A genuine heart. Virtue. Protection. A cultured, refined woman who is wise in matters of the heart. For a male querent she can represent true love; for a woman a romantic confidant or rival. Even as rival she is just and honest, believing in fair play." Yes, my mother believed in fairness, was a woman of virtue and truth; a woman of talent and pride. But she swallowed her pride to take a royal lover, to protect me.
With lips pursed he looked at the middle card, the Ace of swords reversed. "Premature use of force. Excessive force resulting in chaos and violence. All passion spent. Quick temper. Overweening desires. Goals at any price." Yes, that about sums me up. I went for power quickly and have paid the consequences... for now.
Lastly he looked at the card on the right, the Knight of Swords, also reversed and sighed. My future, he thought, is not looking good. "A man who revels in conflict. A bitter person who resents the happiness of others. Disrespect of women. An inadequate, jealous chauvinist or bigot." Could that be... the Master? Nicholas shuddered, a chill running down his back in this hot Florence afternoon.
"Nicol, is there something you're not telling us?" Lucia asked, one long white fingernail tracing the outline of the reversed Ace's sword. Her large, almond shaped eyes moved up, slowly taking him in, reading his body like a card and Nicholas wondered just how sensitive this Italian girl truly was. Green eyes met green eyes and locked in a timeless moment, inquiry and denial, offering and refusal. Nicholas refused to be snared by her tricks and looked down, one hand swiping the cards off the table.
"This is nonsense. I can read these boards for someone else, but it's all show and tell," he said with finality. Lucia sighed, her lacy bodice sliding down to reveal a rounded expanse of bosom.
"Carla will want you to do something else then."
Lucia giggled and rose to her feet in a fluid motion that caught Nicholas's eyes. She's like a tiger, a lazy cat with very sharp claws.
"Fine," he said again and turned away.
Florence was enticing to Uru's party, with Karin and Gepetto spending time to smell flowers, run fingers through foods at the bazaars and slow down the party in just about every way. The only one not noticing was the huge wrestler, Joachim, and he didn't notice much anyway. But Uru was getting fed up. He was hot, tired, dirty, hungry and not feeling one damned bit inclined to shop, especially as they'd spent all their money getting back to Italy from Wales. They'd have to get work soon or starve, that's all there was to it, and here was Karin fingering the expensive jewelry and assorted silks at the Vendor's Wagon.
"Damnit Karin, come on! Enough! We don't have all day!" Uru shouted and turned away, leaving the other three to catch up.
"What a grump," the red head said as she thanked the odd looking man at the wagon and sprinted after the young harmonixer.
"He's not feeling himself lately," Joachim said to her as he matched her pace. "Did something happen?" Karin glanced up at the behemoth and shook her head.
"We told you. But, never mind. If we don't catch up soon he'll just get pissy again and we'll have to placate him." She glanced back at the old man toddling along behind them. "Hurry up Gepetto!"
The Divination shop was just ahead and Uru pressed on, tired as he was, to the front door. There was a small crowd gathered around the front but he pushed his way through, not understanding their protests and not caring either. He made his way down a narrow hallway and out into a wide, circular room. Along the walls were divans and chairs and he quickly pushed his way onto the nearest, forcing the last occupant to slide off and onto the floor. Karin caught up in time to see the older man stand, disgruntled, and apologize in fluid Italian. Uru ignored them. His eyes were suddenly all for the circular floor. A tall woman was bending down, speaking to a man sitting in a chair; she was lithe and lissome and very well put together and Uru felt his eyes beginning to devour her. She moved away and began a graceful pirouette, cards suddenly flowing from one outstretched hand and dancing into the air around her.
"Is that fortune telling?" Karin asked softly as she sat next to Uru.
Gepetto groaned as he took the last seat and Joachim squatted at the end; all eyes were on the voluptuous dancer and her cards.
Lucia swayed with an internal music, a dance tune she had heard in the market square as a child. It was seductive, enticing and she recalled well the dancer had looked divine; so today, as always, she emulated that long ago dancer, hips swaying, arms circling, turning on her own axis as the cards began to spin in the opposite directions. The whole thing was magic and illusion and she knew that well, but it was also divination and she concentrated on the question asked by the little man in the chair, his hands clasped in anticipation. They always looked so hopeful and Lucia didn't want to disappoint them. Well, at least they can see me dance, she thought as the final spiral of cards came around and one single card flipped up from the rest revealing the answer. Lucia slid seductively to the man's side and bent down to whisper in his ear. He slumped forward in disappointment and Lucia felt for him. He'd asked this question before and always got the same answer. He really would be better off just going to work instead of coming here, she thought. But then, we wouldn't get the money we need either. Oh well.
"That was great," Gepetto remarked with a nod, his beard waggling.
"I wonder how she did that? I didn't see any strings or wires," Joachim added.
Karin looked from the old man to the wrestler and then at Uru; he sat grinning, a look of bemused attraction on his face and Karin instantly felt burned. She jabbed her elbow into his ribs.
At the back of the shop Nicholas was fiddling with a deck of cards. He thumbed them carefully, feeling each edge with his fingers, trying to feel anything from the little pieces of painted cardboard. But he felt nothing, and he knew that, if he had to divine for anyone today, he'd be a total failure.
It's not like I can't do it, he thought, remembering very well the layout of cards for himself. They knew me too well; or I knew myself. But this is different. These people expect something. Carla expects something. Maybe this whole thing was a mistake.
He stood from leaning on the table edge and opened the door to the hall, listening. He caught Carla walking down the hallway toward the rotunda and the voices echoing softly in the tiled room. Curious, he followed, stopping at the entrance and leaning back into the shadows.
Carla paused at the heart of the rotunda, eyes squinting at the group arranged on the divan.
"We're done for the day. Go on, get lost!" she told them and Gepetto turned a gap-toothed smile onto the older woman.
"Please, just this once. You would really be helping us out."
Carla snorted. "I don't suppose you have any money," and when everyone shook their heads, "My best girl doesn't work for free!"
"Please, it's about Sapientes Gladio," Karin pushed the subject. They really needed to find them, find their leader, find that creep who had hurt Uru.
"That old business." Carla turned toward Lucia and the dancer nodded. "All right," Carla said turning to stare hard at Uru and Karin. "I'll help you. But it will cost and you'll have to work it off on your backs." The old woman walked a few paces around the rotunda and paused at the back hall, catching sight of Nicol in the shadows. She stared at him for a long minute as well before turning around. "I want you to run an errand for me. Lucia will go with you."
"Yes?" Lucia asked. "But-"
"Never mind. That young man will have to earn his keep as well."
"You... you want me to do the cards today, Carla?" Nicholas felt cold sweat trickle down his back. It was one thing to do it with Lucia and another to try it the first time on his own.
"Yes. Lucia has gone to Manmariana Island with those strangers and I need you to dance the cards."
"Yes, I have something for you to wear over here. Put it on. Get limbered up and get ready. There's a line at the front door." And when Nicholas didn't move, "Get going!"
The old woman scuttled quickly from the dressing room leaving Nicholas to pick up the clothing. Long filmy pantaloons, harem trousers with open legs and a hip scarf of chains and coins, all in white and gold. There were two arm bands with tassels and a short-waisted vest also in white, trimmed in cold and coins. Nicholas gasped at the attire.
Belly dancing – she wants me to divine while belly dancing! Nicholas's eyes and mouth hung open in shock and it wasn't until Carla came by and banged on the door that he galvanized into action, quickly stripping and donning the costume.
Out in the rotunda, the seats were full, a line of querents also lined the walls. Nicholas paused at the entrance, eyes wide with both excitement and fear.
What the hell am I doing? he asked himself. Behind him little Pietro came up with his drum and paused at his knees, looking into the room.
"Wow, senior Niki. Lots of money today. I drum for you. You be good," the little Italian boy said in broken English and moved into the rotunda, taking his place to one side with his drum. He made a few opening taps on the drum and the waiting people began to hush, eyes turning toward Nicholas. With a will he tamped down the nerves and thought back to those dance lessons he'd suffered through as a child.
Mother, for you. I'll make you proud, he thought, and with a graceful bow toward the room, slipped in with a jingle of coins. Bare feet slapped on cool tiles and the drum began to beat, matching the tattoo that was Nicholas's heart. He lifted his arms in a snake move, undulating them and shaking tassels. A gasp sounded in the room and Nicholas took that as surprise and acceptance. He shook his hips slightly and moved along the parquet of the floor, dancing along the designs as if the pattern were a mantra, a prayer to some dancing god. He spun on one foot, kicking out, setting the coins to jingling and catching the gaped mouth response of the querent. He slid in close to the questioner's chair, offering the cards for him to hold, sliding away with a shake of his hips and a twisting, twirling dance that took him back around the room. He spun in place for a moment, remembering the pirouette's he'd practiced so long ago, turning tightly on one stubby-toed foot before dancing on, coins jingling in his passage back to the chair where to took the cards back, sliding one card into his waistband and dancing away, letting the cards scatter into the air. He danced along the divans his hips swaying and coins jingling, no longer hearing the gasps of surprise but only the beat of the drum echoing in the rotunda. He clapped his hands, turning back toward mid room and danced a somersault, landing and sliding on his knees to the querent and handing him the one card from the deck. With near breathless voice he whispered the card's meaning, never once looking at it and the querent sighed, nodded and rose to leave, a flush expression on his Italian cheeks.
One down, Nicholas thought and rose with a languid motion even as the next querent sat in the chair, her corpulent body flushed with excitement.
"I'm sorry," Carla said to Uru and Karin, "there really is an Adriatic Magnolia, but I don't have one on the island. I didn't know if I should trust you, so I put you to this little test." Lucia nodded and bobbed a knee at the others. They were back from Manmariana island where they had fought their way to the garden only to be nearly devoured by a mutant feline, had only returned minutes ago and were more tired, dirty and hungry than before they had left. Exhaustion was in Uru's crimson eyes and he sighed at Carla's words.
"So, do you trust us now?"
Carla nodded. "I can get you what you need, as well as weapons, clothing, supplies; but you'll have to work it off, as I said. You," and she pointed at Karin, "can room with Lucia. You, Uru? You can go with my latest student. He has a flat down the Ponte Vecchio. The two of you will just have to get along. You're both on probation and I don't want any trouble from you."
"How did he do, Carla?" Lucia asked and the older woman could barely contain her grin.
"Very good, actually. He's a fine dancer." She turned again toward Uru. "I expect you can move well as a fighter. Get yourself settled and come back in the morning."
Carla was gone however, her steps an echo in the now empty room. Uru sighed.
"So, where's this roommate?" he asked, stretching tired arms, rolling his neck and shoulders.
Lucia smiled. "Come with me; he's in the dressing room."
Nicholas was putting his dancing clothes into the press, his own clothes, thin and worn yet finally clean were back on him and he felt much better after the light supper Carla had provided. She had said he deserved more than soup and promised him fowl next time. The thought of roasted bird set his mouth to watering.
Lucia's light tap on the door brought him back from whatever fantasy he was tempted to enact over that bird and he bid her enter. He did not expect her to have company and he turned a bright smile onto the delightful diviner.
"Lucia," he said, smiling and instantly felt the room grow dark as his head exploded in pain. Something had struck him, hard and fast, and he felt himself falling, blood exploding over his vision even as a growling voice breathed on him.
"Uru!" Lucia reached down and dragged at the fighter's arm, pulling him back as best she could. "You're hurting him! Stop!"
"Lemme go! That bastard did this to me! It's all his fault!" He pulled back, yanking his arm free and bringing it down with crushing force onto Nicholas's unconscious body, his fist hitting the ex-priest in the face again, blood splattering across his face.
"If you don't stop you'll kill him! Carla will skin you alive! I'll never forgive you! I'll douse you with perfume!"
With a grunt Uru pushed away from Nicholas, one fist grinding into his chest for good measure.
"That Sapientes Gladio bastard nearly killed me. He stole my fusions, my power, my life! Do you think I care if Carla skins my ass?"
"You have to live with him, Uru. And yes, you should care."
Uru rose and faced Lucia, their breaths intermingling he stood so close.
"Give me one good reason."
Lucia glanced down at the bleeding Nicholas and nodded.
"You need the money."
"You need the rest."
"And he never mentioned to anyone he knew you or Sapientes Gladio. In fact, he came seeking answers about them."
"Bu – so he's a spy? Does Carla know?"
Lucia shook her head.
Uru smirked. "So I can kill him," and he raised one fist.
Lucia grabbed that fist and held it to her bosom, and Uru looked up at her green eyes, wondering why she should be so concerned.
"He may be a spy, or he may not. But if you kill him, you'll never know. And, I have a feeling, Uru, that there is more here than just you and your search; I think he's searching as well."
"So, let him look it up in the phone book."
"I mean it, Uru. If you want Carla's help then you'll behave yourself." She looked down at the supine Conrad and sighed. "I don't know how to say this, I'm not very good with words, but he's more than you think."
"Still waters and all that shit? Oh God, Lucia. Do I have to live with the guy?"
Lucia nodded once. "Just for a while."
Uru shook himself and moved away. "I hate this, I just hate this."