Excerpt for King of Swords (and other prequel stories to Tarot Queens) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

King of Swords

and other prequel stories to Tarot Queen


by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2018 Stephanie Barr


Discover other titles by Stephanie Barr at Smashwords.com

Conjuring Dreams or Learning to Write by Writing

Tarot Queen

Beast Within (First of the Bete Novels)

Nine Lives (Second of the Bete Novels)

Saving Tessa

Musings of a Nascent Poet

Curse of the Jenri

Legacy

Ideal Insurgent



Dedicated to Stephanie, Roxy and Alex, always.

To Chuck, Mirren and many other beta readers, proof that good beta readers are worth their weight in gold but I'm too scatterbrained to keep track of who read each story.


"Tarot Queen: Melan" stories edited by Fiona Skye.

All stories were first published in Legacy.


Cover Art by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Table of Contents

King of Swords (Tarot Queen: Melan, Part 1)

King of Wands (Tarot Queen: Melan, Part 2)

The Hanged Man (Tarot Queen: Melan, Part 3)

Wheel of Fortune (Tarot Queen: Melan, Part 4)

Where Credit Is Due

About the Author



King of Swords


Melan knelt in the dust, a voluminous robe of amethyst silk spread around her. Before her was a low platform covered in soft purple cloth. It was there she plied her trade, but there were no customers now. Today, the cards she turned over were for herself.

She had turned over her card of future influences, Swords X, when she felt rather than heard the someone coming. She closed her eyes and could just distinguish the sharp sound of booted footsteps above the noisy hum of the marketplace. Without turning another card, she opened her eyes and saw him, knew him amongst twice a hundred people. He was half a head taller than the natives around him and as different in appearance as she was herself. He was someone she had foreseen. He was someone she knew would affect her life, even if she didn't yet know how.

With practiced skill she swept the cards back into the deck without looking at them. She whispered a question to her cards and pulled one from the deck. She blinked at the card: The Lovers. That wasn't quite what she'd expected, but the cards had never lied to her. There was always a reason for what they foretold.

She returned the card to the deck, shuffled, and spread the cards, face down, on the table before her in a sinuous arc. Then, she studied the man who cut an easy path through the milling commoners. She knew who he was, aside from her destiny. The Black Count was a famed native of lands as far off as Melan's own, and his appearance was stunning in a land abounding with fair beauty. He wore black and silver from head to toe—even a black fur-lined cape, despite the stifling heat. His hair was crisp and black, and flowed freely down his back. His skin was darker and deeper than the pale skin most common to this part of the world. His eyes were said to be a dark violet-blue that glared fearlessly from beneath thick black brows. She could not see, from where she knelt, the color of his eyes or the famous birthmark below his jaw, but from his extraordinary height, his flowing black hair, and his unmistakable air of assurance, he was the Black Count. He was a Presence.

Shod feet were a rarity in this mountain village and his boots were decorated with silver. His was the walk of a man who had appeared from nowhere, taken charge of a failing king's armies and given them victory when all was thought lost. His was the walk of a man who has been promised everything, through merit, and who means to collect. His was the walk of a man who had proved himself to all around him on whim; he had always known his own worth. There could not be two such men in all the world. He was the Black Count.

The booted feet stopped before her platform.

She could tell he wasn't sure whether he stopped because of her unusual appearance or because she stared at him fearlessly, without a hint of obeisance. She knew she was strange to any eye on this continent. There was a filled circle of silver embedded in her forehead. Her face was round, her lips very full, her nose quite wide and her eyes glittering black. Her coarse and wiry hair was black as well, and pulled back from her face. He glanced at her body and frowned. Clearly, he could not see her body in all that flowing silk, but he wanted to. He reached out and touched her hand. "Is it real?" he asked.

Her eyes flickered to her skin, almost blue-black in color. She smiled, knowing her teeth were glaringly white in her black face. "It is my own skin."

"And you are like this, everywhere?"

She could have laughed out loud at his question, could sense how her skin aroused him, how the very thought of her difference excited him. He took pains to show nothing in his face, but his eyes... His eyes were so expressive, it was as though he were a deck of cards to her.

She could not forbear a smile. "All of my skin is like this."

He was forced to control his breathing. He stared at her for a moment. Then, sat in the dust before her platform, with the ease of one who had done so many times before. "What are these cards? Do you play a game of chance?"

"Tarot, my lord. Not a game but a tool, an avenue to find one's future."

He snorted derisively. She smiled again and added, "Choose a card and it will tell me of your past."

He stared at her. A pulse began to throb in his throat. Without looking, he pulled a card from the deck. For only an instant, his eyes broke with hers to glance at the card before they returned to her face. He slid the card back into the deck. "It said 'The Sun.'"

"As well it might. This is a card of victory, of triumph, of wealth and success gained through effort and merit. It speaks, as well, of arrogance and ostentation, of directness and health, of freedom and glory." She leaned forward. Her robe gaped to allow him a glimpse of her dark nubile body. "The cards know who you are."

"Can you tell my future in one card?"

She shook her head. "I must first know who you are. Choose the card that reflects you."

He chose another card and glanced down. "The King of Swords," he told her as he slipped the card back into the deck.

"You are a lover of truth, clever, fierce, forceful and ambitious. You are blunt and tenacious, authoritative and unimpeachable. You are wise and severe and are the most intelligent with regard to combat. You are endurance. Now, choose a card and I will tell you your most immediate future, something still to happen which will affect the rest of your life."

He pulled a third card but, this time, stared at it for a full minute, before leaping to his feet and stepping over the small low table. He dropped the card, face-up, on the table as he passed. He pulled her to her feet, thrust his fingers into her long coarse hair, and crushed her thick lips under his hard mouth. His hands ripped open her silk robe to glory in her slender body while his lips moved down to her dark shoulder.

"But the card?" she whispered as she unbuckled the cape from his shoulder and pressed her hand to his pounding chest.

"The Lovers," he growled and carried her into her tent, under the carefully incurious scrutiny of the market crowd.

The tent was made of thick cloth, so no sound, no movement came from within throughout that day, despite their noisy lovemaking. The moon was, in fact, high overhead when Melan came back into the now-deserted marketplace. The silver circle embedded in her forehead gleamed in the reflected light of the full moon overhead.

She knelt before her table and stared at the card he had thrown. It was indeed The Lovers. Well, she had known that already. But Swords X had warned her of betrayal and despair, so she shuffled the cards again and asked them whom she had lain with. They told her. The inverted King of Swords: ruthless, treacherous, perverse and cunning. Deceitful. She thrust his words of love, of undying faithfulness from her mind. In her heart, she had known them for falsehoods when he had whispered them. "How does he deceive me?" she asked and was answered with the inverted Page of Coins. Adultery. The Black Count was married already, it seemed. He would probably be gone from her life in a matter of hours.

She laughed, but it was a bitter sound. Tarot Queens, as she was, as her mother had been and her mother before her, were allowed but one lover. One lover, chosen by the cards, loved without limits. The price for power.

He had no idea what he had taken, or what it cost her. She stared at the cards until her knees went stiff before she began to smile, slowly, even wickedly. He didn't know her pain, but he would. Oh, yes.

He had had his reading. There was always a price.

She pulled a ring from her middle finger, silver and set with a six-sided amethyst. She murmured a prayer from her heart, words that, from a Tarot Queen, could enchant the violet stone in its bed of silver. She crept back into the tent.

He woke with a start and reached for his sword, but she soothed him with a stroke of her hand. "Rest, my proud conqueror. I have gift for you." His eyes glittered in the light from the open doorway as he reached for her midnight body instead. She avoided him deftly and pushed the ring down his smallest finger, where it fit perfectly. She smiled at her lover, her only lover, and her heart ached within her. "With this ring, you will always know what I feel better than I do myself," she whispered to him, binding the spell to the man who wore the ring. Then she lowered herself upon him and lost herself in the last hours of passion she would ever know.

When she opened her eyes, late the next morning, he was gone as she expected. Sated, he would return to his wife in Corrinn, Melan decided. For her on foot, it was a journey that would take weeks or even months, using money she did not have. Not yet.

She shuffled her cards with a distasteful grimace. Insight gave her the option of blackmail against those with secrets as well as wealth, but it was a course she despised. But there was a child in her belly to think of and it was no time to be fastidious. She must reach Corrinn before the child was born. She needed gold, and so, she cast the first fortune.

Six months later, she had more than enough gold to make her journey and establish herself at Corrinn, enough to care for the daughter she would bear. It was time to leave. Even if she had wished to stay, her efforts to gain capital put her life very much at risk if she remained. So, with a swollen belly thrusting before her, her wealth and her Tarot in the pack on her back, a pair of deadly sharp knives at her belt, and sturdy sandals on her feet, she started for the mountains she must cross alone to reach Corrinn. The journey, even taken slowly, would be hard on her. But not on her alone. She hoped the Black Count was enjoying her morning sickness.

A little over two months later, she reached the gate of Corrinn, but did not enter. Instead, she begged shelter from an outlying farmer, using gold and her swollen ankle to gain pity and a place to sleep. "Funny thing," the farmer said as he tossed in fresh straw for her bed, "they say the Black Count himself tripped and hurt his leg. Never known the arrogant bastard to ail before, but I guess it can happen to anyone."

Melan smiled even when her ankle gave with a small twinge of pain, secure in the knowledge that someone else was feeling the brunt of her pain. Surely, by now, the Black Count had realized that, short of cutting off a finger, the ring could never be removed, but then, maybe he hadn't realized just how much pain he faced.

She leased a small stone house on a hill overlooking the city, secluded but comfortable. It was just what she needed. The day before she saw she would begin labor, Melan went down into the city for the first time and asked a midwife to come to her home the next day. Melan saw the midwife was startled by the odd request, but with a gold coin in her hand, she was not reluctant to oblige.

The labor lasted three long days. Sweat poured down her face, but the vestiges of her pain were readily borne. If the midwife was surprised that she never cried out, she said nothing, content in the gold Melan had promised her.

But then the midwife didn't know that someone else lay abed in violent agony, that the city waited tensely to learn the fate of their Black Count, laid low by a strange, incomprehensible malady. Melan knew and smiled. Rare indeed was the opportunity for men to truly understand the pain of birth. With two sons of her own, would Count's quiet, golden-haired wife recognize his "illness" for what it was? Would she understand the implications? Even the justice?

When Melan, exhausted, lay resting with the tiny wrinkled babe she named Roxell, the Black Count, weakened by three unremitting days of agony, called his captain to him. The captain waited as his invincible leader, white of face and nervously twisting a ring on his smallest finger, said, "You must journey to the village of Epilandown in the Northern mountains. Go with your fastest horses and find a woman of black skin and bring her back here. And bring her gently."

The captain raised his eyebrows at the mention of black skin, but the Black Count was still the King's general, even if his mind had gone wandering. It was not the captain's place to say him nay. He snapped his heels together and left in a swirl of cape.

The swiftest horses could travel through the mountains in summer quickly and the captain returned within a fiveweek. He returned with news, cheered with the realization that his general had not lost his wits altogether after all.

He knelt before the Black Count, now quite recovered though still twisting the odd ring, and told him that the black woman had disappeared months before. He told him that no one was certain where she was now. The captain lifted his head. "But, your lordship, I asked as I traveled back and there were many who recalled a black-skinned woman, big with child, journeying in this direction months ago. Outside the castle gates, I found a farmer who gave her shelter and, in the city, a midwife who delivered a baby from her." He pointed out a narrow window. "She lives in a stone cottage on that hilltop." The Black Count leapt to his feet and stared at the distant hill through the window, a look of almost longing on his face. The captain cleared his throat. "Shall I fetch her to you, your lordship?"

"No." The Black Count didn't turn around, but only stared out the window. "Make it swift and painless," was all he said, then turned sharply on his heel and left.

Melan shuffled the cards and asked them of the future. She could sense something in the pit of her soul. The baby lay sleeping in the back room, out of harm's way, for harm was coming. Melan could feel it. She pulled out a card and stared before unexpected tears slid down her face. Never had she planned for this to happen. Never had she wished it! Oh, Gods! But the cards always told her the truth. "Not this!" she begged in her heart, but she was powerless to stop it. She was the servant of the cards. They did not do her bidding. The card she had chosen was Death, and she knew it meant that he had sent soldiers to take her life.

Clearly, the Black Count, triumphant in so many campaigns, didn't recognize his black lover. She was The Moon. She was darkness and intuitiveness. She was his hidden enemy. She, too, knew of subtlety and deceit. They had been well-matched. Couldn't he see that it was her ring that bound him? For all his tactical genius, he didn't understand the power of the ring she had given him. Death was in the cards indeed.

But not hers.

Not hers.



King of Wands



Melan knelt on the red carpet, stripped of her amethyst robe. Her bare knees were pressed into the plush wool below her and there was a spear digging into her back. But there was nothing of subservience in her face or her posture. Despite the spear at her back, she did not press her face to the ground as would be expected from a subject to her King. No. Melan was subject to no one. She sat straight and tall on her heels and looked the fair-haired King straight in the eyes.

The King was so easy to read. He did not expect her to stare at him, unafraid. Clearly, he struggled to believe that she could destroy the formidable Black Count. His eyes took in her blue-black skin, her spare body almost devoid of curves. A small smile touched her lips as his eyes lingered on her bare form. She knew she was a strange creature to him, with her long, textured black hair pulled back from a round face, glittering black eyes, and a gleaming circle of silver embedded in her forehead. There was another crescent of silver just over her left breast now, where the arrow meant to take her life had entered her body. She could see it in his eyes as they finally returned to her face. He was repelled and yet intrigued by her strangeness.

And he was repelled and intrigued by her power as well for, when the arrow had pierced her heart, she had not died. The man who had ordered that arrow, he had fallen instead, his hand to his own chest. Her heart had been pierced, but it was the Black Count's heart that had stopped beating.

For that loss, the King intended her life be forfeit. The Black Count had been the victorious general, the champion and the favorite of the King, so much so that his only child, the Princess, had been given to the Count as wife. But any woman who could survive the bite of an arrow through her heart, who could visit immediate vengeance on her enemy, was not someone to be taken lightly. Certainly not someone to be killed precipitously. She could see how he wanted to know the extent of her powers, and perhaps how he could use these powers to his advantage.

Infinitesimally, her smile widened as she saw how he fought his temper at her open defiance. How his lips compressed and his nostrils flared. As his eyes blazed. It was with effort he swallowed his displeasure. He leaned forward in his gem-crusted throne. "Who are you?"

"I am Melan, the Tarot Queen."

The Queen, before a study in disinterest, became suddenly attentive at this, but it was the King's sage who spoke. "You call yourself a queen?" he mocked. "A queen with black skin!" He laughed, and not kindly.

Melan smiled indulgently. There was no need to tell them that anyone with pale skin in her homeland was killed out of hand. "One can be a queen of a country or a queen of a skill. I am a Queen of Tarot."

The King was losing patience. "You killed my general, Tarot Queen," he sneered, his voice making an insult of the title. "Tell me how you killed my Count."

Here, of course, was the question. Melan briefly touched the crescent of silver at her breast, sickly aware that her newborn daughter was in the hands of the King's guards. The bald truth would be her death and the death of her daughter. The King and his court must fear her. If Melan told them that she had punished her lover by giving him a ring that would make him, instead of her, feel her pain, even the pain of her own death, they would know she could be killed with safety.

And she was still too weak to protect herself. When the Black Count had died, struck through the heart with the pain and shock he had meant her to feel, the pain had come back to her. There was no one to feel the pain for her when she had poured molten silver into the wound to stop the bleeding, to heal her witch's heart. It was not something one recovered from easily.

But they knew nothing of the ring, of the spell she had cast on it, or the reasons she cast it. That she was alive at all now meant that they feared her and the power they saw in her. She must feed that fear, or her life, and that of her daughter, would be forfeit.

Neither could a Tarot Queen tell a lie for such a question without forfeiting her power. She hid all her terror deep down in her soul and found the form of the truth she needed on her lips: "He paid the price of betraying me, of lying to me. True betrayal can be costly."

"And what is this Tarot?" the Queen asked, still curious.

Melan bowed her head slightly. "If someone will bring me my robe, I can show you."

The King, nodded his head to his Captain who tossed the silk garment before Melan. Melan's long fingers reached into its folds and pulled out a worn deck of cards, wrapped twice with silk. Completely ignoring her own nudity, she laid her silk robe on the carpet before her and shuffled her cards.

The King leaned forward impatiently. "What are those cards, some kind of game?"

"These cards foretell the future, both yours and mine. But they do not speak to everyone."

The King's sage smirked. "I should like to see them speak to you. That would be a trick." The room laughed.

Melan didn't even smile. She spread the cards before her and pulled one from the deck, laying it facedown on the silk robe. "Here is the card for your future," Melan told the sage. The card was The Hanged Man. "There will be great suffering and punishment in your future. You will know pain, will be abandoned and renounced, and die, alone and unloved."

"You can do that to him?" the King asked, interest piqued.

Melan shook her head. "I do not make the future. I only tell what is in the cards."

"And the cards determine the future?"

Melan shrugged. "They know the future."

"Prove it. Tell my future."

Melan bowed her head. "You must come and choose a card."

The King gestured to his silenced sage. "He did not choose one."

"I must know who you are to tell your future. That creature was easily read." She picked another card at random from the deck and turned it over. The Fool. The laughter was loud and immediate, with even the Queen cracking a smile. Apparently, the sage was not popular.

She saw the King weigh the dangers against his very real curiosity. If not for her flattery, she thought, would the curiosity have won? He pulled his robe tight around himself and stepped gingerly down from his throne. A page rushed forward immediately with a velvet cushion and the King knelt down before Melan. She had reshuffled the deck and spread them in a fan before him. With a hand that shook slightly, the King pulled a card from the deck and laid it on the cloth. It was the King of Coins, inverted.

Melan brushed the card with her fingertips, then nodded but said nothing. The King would not be pleased with her Tarot's reading of his character. The card spoke of impatience and scheming, a lack of mercy and a petty nature. It spoke of corruption and greed and hinted at a hidden physical ailment. Nothing there Melan could not have guessed for herself. But she need not tell him the meaning of his significator. He asked for the future, not his character.

Laying his significator to the side, she picked out a card at random and laid it face-up on the cloth. Wands VI. Ah. She closed her eyes and pressed her hand against the card.

In a moment, she opened her eyes and intoned, "You will receive news of a victory before the sun sets on this day."

The King smiled widely. "What else?"

"There is nothing more in this card."

"Then turn over more! I wish to know it all!"

"You asked for proof of my powers. You will have it before the day is over. If you wish for a reading, you must pay my fee. For all, there is always a price."

"I am the King!"

"You are a mere mortal for all that," Melan told him with a dry tone. "Nothing of power comes without a price."

"What did my general pay?"

Melan glanced at the babe held in the guard's arms, but kept her features neutral. "I never said I gave the general a reading."

Her glance had not been quick enough. With a wicked smile, he said "And I have the daughter you cherish in my power."

Melan's voice was hard as steel. "If Roxell is harmed, you won't need cards to know your future." There was no mistaking her meaning and the King swallowed convulsively.

Whatever the King might have replied remained unvoiced, for there was a clatter of hurried footsteps from the anteroom before the double doors burst open. A soiled and sweaty soldier all but tumbled into the room. "Your Majesty!" he gasped.

"How dare you intrude upon your monarch in this state!" the King snapped, pulling himself up from the floor with the aid of a courtier's arm.

The soldier fell instantly to one knee. "Forgive me, your majesty, but we have been attacked by Toonnan at Alsater. We were taken entirely by surprise, but we were able to defeat them with the throwing weapons the Black Count installed."

"Ever my servant," the King murmured to himself. "Alsater's defenses held? And Toonnan attacked unprovoked? Ha! I knew they would. Well, perhaps we can put a stop to this constant skirmishing—"

The Captain of the guard cleared his throat. "The Black Count has always warned against attacking the mountain defenses of Toonnan..."

"Well, the Count got himself killed," the King snapped. "And I have a new weapon. Now we can know ahead of time what the results of my campaigns would be."

He nodded as if he'd made a decision. "Everyone from this room. I have something to discuss with the black witch."

"Melan," the kneeling woman corrected gently.

There was a quiet muttering as courtiers and guards shuffled from the room. The Captain of his Guard protested. Melan imagined he wouldn't like leaving his monarch alone with a woman he had shot through the heart only the day before. The King was adamant and sent him from the room.

The Queen did not leave her seat, but looked at Melan speculatively, motioning the guard to leave the small brown baby in her arms before he left.

"My dear," the King prompted gently, cautious in his tone with her. But he wanted her to leave.

She didn't move. "Forgive me, beloved," she said with overt meaning, "if I choose not to leave my King alone with a naked woman. Again."

The King pressed his lips together but said no more.

When the door had closed behind the Captain, the King turned to Melan. "Tell me the future of my country. I have to know what will happen."

"And my fee?"

"What do you demand?"

Melan considered him dispassionately for a moment. "I want a death."

The King stared.

"The death of someone I name at my pleasure. And I want your promise in writing."

"You wouldn't trust my word?" the King asked aghast.

"That is my fee."

"And you will answer my questions?"

"I will tell you what the cards say in answer to your questions. But the answers are rarely simple."

"And the cards always tell the truth?"

"The cards have never lied."

The King took a ledger from the clerk's podium and blithely tore a page. In a clumsy hand, he scribbled his promise and signed his name. "Now, tell me, witch, what the future holds for me and my country."

Melan stroked the significator and then pulled seven cards at random from the fan of cards and laid them in a row, face-up. For only a second, she studied them. She touched the first card, the inverted Emperor, which spoke to her of the self-indulgence of an ineffectual king. "At the beginning of your reign, your country was a state of upheaval, plagued with war and unrest." Her hand caressed the next card, the King of Swords, and knew it to represent her lover and the King's savior, the Black Count. A soft note of longing slipped into her voice as she said, "An outsider came and gave new life to your country, and, with his battle acumen, forceful personality, and patient endurance, repulsed the invaders against impossible odds." She recovered her tonelessness as she touched the next card, the Empress. "And this card is another strength for your country, your wife the Queen. But things are coming to a crisis. You have before you a life and death decision, involving pain and death." She gestured to Swords X and then lightly touched Wands V. "There will be conflict, a need to prove oneself."

She hesitated, knowing from the cards that the king would not like this future, but Tarot Queens were adept at telling the truth in a way the listeners wished to hear. "A man of your blood will follow on the throne." Her finger outlined the King of Wands.

"A son? I shall have a son?" the king asked eagerly, as his wife gasped. The Queen was approaching her fourth decade, considered past more children. Her face was more intent, tension clear around her eyes and mouth.

Melan touched Cups III. "The Queen who sits now at your side will give her King and his kingdom a child," Melan said firmly, then stroked the card of ultimate results: the Page of Cups. "The conflict will be resolved successfully and your country will regain all its former strength and glory, enough to last through three centuries of peace."

The king rocked back on his heels, speechless with wonder. He let his breath out in a low "Aaaaaah," of satisfaction as he absorbed her predictions. After a moment's deliberation, he found his voice again. "Then I will win! I will triumph! I knew it!" He rubbed his hands together in anticipatory glee. "And I can safely lead the army myself! I've still a son to father!" He leapt to his feet and began pacing excitedly. "I am a charmed man! Untouchable!" He stopped suddenly and glared at Melan. "You will speak of this to no one! Or I shall have your daughter destroyed!"

"The readings are always private," Melan soothed softly, hating him for his weakness, his foolishness at the expense of his kingdom. More, she hated his power over her daughter.

He reached over and pinched her round chin painfully between his corpulent fingers. "They had better be, black witch, or we'll see if black skin burns."

Melan's eyes glittered dangerously, but her face remained impassive. He only thought he knew the future.

Minutes later, she left the castle wrapped again in her amethyst silk, but her footsteps dragged and the wind felt like it whistled through her slender frame.

They had kept her daughter.

For weeks she waited while the king readied his army. The morning the army rode outward to the mountains of Toonnan, Melan watched them from her stone house atop a hill. "Fools," she thought, but couldn't bring herself to smile.

That evening, there was a frantic knock on her door. The Queen, swathed in blue velvet, stood at the door, dripping with wet. There was a dark-skinned infant in her arms.

"Roxell!" Melan uttered, her heart in her voice, as she snatched the babe from the Queen's arms.

"I couldn't keep her from you any longer," the Queen explained softly as she entered, pushing aside her dripping hood. "I had to wait until the King left before I could return her. He did not understand." She stared intently into Melan's eyes. "But I, too, am a mother."

Melan spared a moment to examine her child and the child's clothing. "You have cared for her well."

The Queen nodded regally, before saying, with a curious intensity, "As if she were my own child." She stared at Melan stiffly for another moment, before her haughtiness deserted her. She stepped forward uncertainly. "What you told the king about my son... Tell me, tell me—is it true?"

Melan stepped back and gestured to the table swathed in purple silk, so that the Queen could see the cards waiting there.

The Queen was not a stupid woman. "What is your fee?"

"Clemency for anyone I or my daughter request."

"One act of clemency?"

"One."

The Queen considered only for a moment. "Agreed. If you have paper, I will give it to you in writing."

"Your word is enough."

The Queen raised her eyebrows in surprise. "But you asked for the King's promise in writing."

Melan's face was devoid of expression. "Yes."

The smile that just barely touched the Queen's lips spoke volumes. "Then you have my word."

Wordlessly, Melan sat down at the table and shuffled the cards.

The Queen sat in the facing chair. At Melan's prompting, she chose a card from the deck, the Empress. That much Melan already knew.

Melan chose seven cards as she had for the king and laid them face-up before the Queen.

Gently, Melan touched the inverted Star card. "Long ago, you had a dream, a longing that went unfulfilled." Her fingers moved to the Devil card. "Instead, it was duty that bound you to a different fate."

Melan's fingers skirted along the Fool card, then slid them to the inverted Cups III. "You have an influence in your life, reckless, thoughtless, inconsiderate. He has not changed you from who you are, but he has brought sorrow and disappointment to your life."

The Queen raised a brow. "Are you trying to offend me?"

Shaking her head, Melan spoke softly. "The cards don't lie and I can tell you only what they say."

The Queen pointed to the next card: Death. "Am I going to die? Is that how the king gets the son he's always coveted? I paid you for this?"

"You paid for the truth. Should I stop?" Melan asked. "Many find a truth they didn't bargain for, but I'm bound to tell the truth only."

The Queen bit her lip, then shook her head. "I'll take the truth."

"In truth, if you die, what would your promise buy me?" Melan returned. Compassion glowed in Melan's eyes. "Death is not always death, though it can be, of course." For a moment, her eyes unfocused, as if she remembered something that grieved her. "Sometimes, though, it is nothing more than a significant change." Melan smiled and indicated the Cups IX card. "It's a change that will bring a dream to fruition, a realization of a treasured wish. Ultimately, you will find what you have long given up, will find the love you have thought was impossible, will carry a future king within you."

Gingerly, the Queen touched the last card, the Knight of Cups. "I don't see how that's possible. It's—I saw the King's future. How can they both be true? Will I find love with him after all this time?"

Melan raised her face. "Do you doubt I speak truth?"

The Queen's gaze was drawn to the first card that spoke of a dream that never came true. "No." Tired eyes, almost colorless blue, met Melan's black ones. "No, I don't. Thank you, Melan."

Melan bent her head as the Queen rose. "Your Majesty." And, a moment later, Melan was left alone with her sleeping child.

For many months, Melan waited. Desperate citizens often bringing their most priceless treasures, found their way to her door to ask for guidance, comfort or hope. They brought the news: of the invasion, brash and bold, into the mountain fortress of Toonnan, of the brutal rout by the fortified Toonnians. Others came with news of the surprise ambush of the pursuing Toonnians by the regrouped soldiers of the captain, now general, and the resounding victory.

People came with stories of celebrations in the city below her small house: a King once more on the throne, the Queen at his side, peace at last through diplomacy with the Toonnan kingdom and, most thrilling for all, the Queen increasing again with child.

Roxell was just taking her first tottering steps when Melan was summoned again to the castle.

As she knelt before the King, her head as high as always, Melan was more struck by the differences. She knelt before the King, but still clothed. Her child was safe at home with a nursemaid. There was no spear at her back.

Nor was the King as she remembered. Oh, the facial structure, the fine clothes, the curling fair hair, all were as she remembered. But this was a face that knew suffering and compassion, lined with care, a body that was not soft with self-indulgence. The eyes were cool and, this time, she could not read the mind with a quick glance. These eyes were not without soul or compassion, but they were guarded. The eyes of a thoughtful man. Beside the King sat the same Queen, unmistakably, despite the gravid belly. Time and sorrow had faded from eyes since last they'd spoken, and now, she glowed with an inner beauty that rivaled youth.

Melan didn't tremble, for she had known she would be summoned again someday. "Your Majesty," she intoned, bowing her head slightly.

Rage did not touch the King's eyes. In fact, a small smile touched his lips. "So, you are the Tarot Queen who sent the king to his death with a lie."

"The cards never lie, Your Majesty."

"Perhaps not, but he can't read the cards. He was dependent on you to tell him his future. Did you not tell him he would father a child that would be remembered through time?"

"No, Your Majesty. I told him someone of his blood would take the throne. It was he that assumed it was a child. Not his brother."

The King glanced at his wife, once his twin's widow. "Is this true?"

"Yes. And the child she predicted would come from me, a son for the King and his kingdom." Her hand reached to touch his hand, gently, even caressingly. "A child for you."

With eyes that still glowed with love, she turned back to Melan. "She knew I loved you, that I had always loved you. I was afraid to believe she had told me the truth, afraid to revive the dream that had all but died in my soul. But she did tell the truth, just as she did for your brother, even if I didn't see it at first."

Wordlessly, the King's fingers gripped hers. She turned back to him, smiling with tears in her eyes. "I couldn't believe that when she pulled the King of Wands, the man she meant was you."

"You are the gift I have given this kingdom, to repay it for the general I stole. Your wisdom and patience will bring a prosperity to this kingdom that the Black Count, for all his skills, could never achieve." Melan's voice was soft, but of such clarity that it carried to every corner of the room. "Even a Tarot Queen must repay her debts, must pay the price for the power she's taken."

The Captain of the guard, now general, spoke now. "She cannot be trusted. Her power is too great, a risk for king and kingdom."

The King turned back to Melan, his eyes contemplative, even a little sad. "I fear I have to agree. Even if I understand your actions, it does not make you less dangerous, for us, for our children, for the subjects of this kingdom. Nor do I know how to neutralize you except to have you killed."

Her face impassive, Melan said nothing, regarding the King straightly. Only after searching his eyes for several moments, did she turn her face again to the Queen. And nodded.

The Queen nodded in return. "Dearest, the price for the reading she gave was clemency for one at her request. She asks me now. Will you honor the word I gave her? The promise your brother made when she calls for that? There is still the matter of her babe. If she has such gifts, will you have the child killed as well?"

The King sighed. "I will honor your word—and his." His eyes narrowed as he thought. "Since your life must be spared, and I must protect my people, you must leave the city and go to the top of Sunrise Mountain, where only the most intrepid can find you. I will ensure that you are cared for so that you will never want for money, will never be tempted to trade your skill for gold. Only those who most need your skills will find you.

"Perhaps it will not be enough," he continued. "But I fear I tempt the fates if I remove your skills entirely. And the Queen's debt will be paid."

Melan rose with neither smile nor tears, resigned to her fate.

After all, isolation had been the fate of Tarot Queens for more lifetimes than not.


The Hanged Man



From inside, Melan could hear the wind howling beyond the shuttered window, could imagine the swirls of snow. She pulled the blanket closer to her, grateful for the cheery fire. Age, however, was descending quickly, and she felt the cold more and more every year; the fire warmed her less and less. Four decades before, she had left her homeland, a land that had never known snow or the cold wind that blew so readily here. Drought, though, and other hardships were abundant. Always, there is a price.

For years, she had made a home of this foreign land, or as much of a home as one can when one is so very different from everyone else. Her heritage and her fate, as she had waited for the one who would be her lover, had slowed time so that her face was unlined and her body still supple when he at last came to her and warmed her tent with one night of passion—before abandoning her.

Years past, he had paid the ultimate price for that betrayal and she had nearly lost her own life as a result. Since his death, time had reclaimed its lost years, filling her long limbs with aches and weakness, crippling her once nimble fingers, dimming her mind.

She and her daughter were exiled here, deemed dangerous—and who could argue the logic, even if the constant cold weakened Melan further? Knowledge, even of the future, was a double-edged sword. The house the King had built them was small, but sturdy and comfortable. There were always livestock in the shed out back, cared for by Melan, and sometimes her child, Roxell, when Melan could no longer move so easily. Foodstuffs were sent regularly, as well as other comforts and luxuries.

But it was a solitary existence. Melan missed people. Few indeed made the treacherous trek to her tiny house to seek her aid. Only Roxell, her precious child, made life bearable. Inexorably, Melan's eyes were drawn to the slim girl kneeling on one of the furs that covered the stone floor. As her mother watched, Roxell shook some tiny blocks of wood and tossed them before her. Only seven years old and she had already mastered the bones, the runes, even the crystal ball that Melan herself had never conquered. Only the cards remained to be mastered, and Roxell already understood them.

Melan shook her head. Roxell was too powerful. Even her touch on Melan's cards could ruin them for Melan. Tarot for Roxell would have to wait until she was old enough to create her own cards.

Roxell lifted her head and smiled at her mother as if she felt her mother's thoughts—and she likely did. Those eyes, of a clear and beautiful amethyst, were so like her father's, but without his coldness, his ruthlessness. He had provided the nose as well, the silky black hair and the strange black birthmark beneath her pointed chin that was barely noticeable on her warm brown skin. Everything else came from Melan, except for those traits, like Roxell's power, which were beyond even the sum of her parents.

Though still small, Roxell's voice was crystalline beauty, perfectly pitched and capable of singing all the songs Melan sang and even those songs she had heard in passing from supplicants. Roxell was agile and strong. She noticed everything. If Melan's life had not been all she had hoped, the Gods had granted her the most wonderful child. Thus, was balance provided.

"Someone comes, Mama," Roxell said.

Melan raised a brow. "In this storm? Maybe they'll come after it's over."

"She is desperate. She is cold. Shall I make her tea?"

Melan raised a hand to protest, then heard the knock. "Do, child, and make enough for me as well."

Melan pushed herself up from her chair, hating the aches, the stiffness, the slowness with which she moved. The blanket slipped from her chilled fingers, but she left it, a puddle of deep blue-purple wool. Bending was no longer trivial and the knocking was becoming frantic.

At last, her shuffling feet brought her to the door. Her fingers fumbled with the latch. She stumbled back, as the door slammed open, dumping a snow-crusted bundle at her feet.

Compassion overrode pain as she helped the bundle upright while Roxell pushed the door closed and latched it. Melan supported the visitor's tottering steps, helping her strip off the soaked cloak and gloves. Led to the chair, the woman sat wearily as Roxell draped the discarded blanket over the woman's damp clothes.

As Roxell ran for the tea, Melan took her first look at the newcomer. Huge pale eyes of clouded sky blue were rimmed with red from weeping, sunken and shadowed in a pointed face of translucent white. Some of the pallor could be from the cold for the slim nose was tipped crimson, the lips blue, the fair hair darkened and plastered to her head.

Around her slim neck, a collar of platinum, amethyst, and black topaz glittered in the firelight. She was a well-to-do patron then, likely beautiful, perhaps imperious under other circumstances. Tonight, though, she was desperate, a wounded animal and all but hopeless. A poor frightened child. Melan felt her eyes tear as her gut tightened. For those this desperate, the cards could rarely provide solace.

That could wait, Melan thought, as Roxell brought steaming and fragrant tea and steadied the woman's trembling hands so she could drink. First, she would need to be warmed and fed. Melan sank into the cushion Roxell gave her and willed herself to ignore her discomfort.

Some time later, as the wind began to die outside the confines of the cozy hut, the woman set aside her tea at the table at her elbow. Her hair was dry now and framed her face with golden waves. But her eyes were no less desperate than before and still her fingers trembled.

"Thank you," she said, at last, her voice a gravelly thread of sound Melan suspected was not her normal voice. "I—I need help. My—my husband..."

With care, Melan spoke in a voice of sympathetic gentleness. "I cannot change the past or the future, child. The best I can do is reveal the truth."

The woman flung herself from the chair and fell, prostrate, at Melan's knees. "Please, please, tell me. I have to know where he is, if he's alive. It's the truth I need, Witch Queen, the truth I need to know." She reached for Melan's skirt, and pinched it between her fingers. "Only then will I be able move forward, even if it's without—" She gasped and closed her eyes, "I have to know."

Melan bowed her head, her eyes closed. "There is always a price," she said at last, her voice a whisper of sound.

The woman moved to her knees, then reached beneath her hair and unclasped her choker. Melan opened her eyes and saw the gems on the woman's open palm, a handful of glittering starlight. "Please," the woman said, "Before Kobol married me, this was all the wealth I owned. It was a gift from my grandmother—" she stifled a sob, before continuing more resolutely. "Even when I faced disaster, I never relinquished this." She thrust it forward. "Take it, please."

Melan wanted to say no, but it was a fair price. Tarot Queens had obligations as well as powers. With long, knotted fingers, she picked up the beautiful piece. "Agreed."

Roxell brought the table and set it in front of Melan, unfurling the violet silk cover with a practiced movement. Then, Roxell brought the bag that held Melan's cards as the woman took the cushion facing Melan.

Melan opened the bag with stiff fingers, unconsciously caressing the cards as they slid into her hands. Silky smooth from years of wear, she could still remember when she made them, coloring them with youthful skill and only the best pigments. Over the decades that followed, they had shown her so many things, so many dreams and destinies. They had made her fortune and threatened it.

"What do I do?" the woman asked, her eyes wide.

"What is your name, child?" Melan asked.

"I am Sandel, wife of Kobol."

"Is it your fate you wish to learn or that of your husband?"

Sandel licked her lips before answering. "Kobol's."

Melan swept the cards across the table in a long line. "Find your mate so I can know his fate."

Sandel reached hesitantly for a card, hand visibly trembling, then chose it, pulling it from the line. Melan took the card from her and smiled. "Temperance. Here, your mate is shown to be a friend, a picture of balance, a man of both reason and creativity." She laid it, face up, on the cloth.

"Yes," Sandel breathed. Her hand touched the card lovingly. "Kobol."

Melan touched it as well, then pulled seven cards from her line. She turned the first and smiled at the Lovers. "This is his past, true love." Next was the Knight of Wands. "He recently went on a journey, unafraid of any risk."

"Yes," Sandel said, her eyes locked on the cards as Melan revealed them. "What is this card?" she asked as Melan turned over the Wheel of Fortune.

Melan regarded it calmly before answering. "Wheel of Fortune, inverted. It is a reflection of the most recent events in his life: bad luck, sudden ill fortune."

"Is he dead?"

Melan turned the next card, the Chariot. "In his present circumstance, he is facing an obstacle or adversity."

"And?"

Melan found herself hesitating, reluctant to know the truth, certain, somehow, it would not be auspicious. At last, she turned the card and sighed: Death. Sandel stared, her heart in her eyes, at the implacable card. Melan swallowed before saying, "The card of Death can mean many things, change—"

"Is that what it means now? Tell me the truth." There was just the slightest hint of contempt in her voice. "I came for the truth. I paid for the truth."

Melan found tears in her eyes. "There is Death in his immediate future." She blinked the tears away and looked at Sandel straightly. "I'm sorry."

Sandel returned her gaze solemnly, her eyes dry. Her eyes flicked to the card and then back to Melan. "Thank you." She pointed to the last cards still unturned. "If he is dead, what are those?"

Melan turned them over and nodded. "This," she said, indicating the Tower, "is ruin and destruction of mind in the further future." She frowned. Something didn't feel quite right. "You are so important to him, perhaps it is the dashing of his hopes for your happiness. And this," she added, indicating the Hanged Man, "this is the ultimate conclusion: punishment, suffering, and remorse." She found herself reaching for Sandel's hand but Sandel withdrew it and slid back on her cushion.

Melan looked up at her as Sandel stood up, her eyes moist again. "I would that I could have given you a different future, child."

Sandel lifted her chin, eyes still desolate, but free of tears. "No, I asked for the truth. I have to thank you." The smallest sigh touched her. "I must go."

"Mama," Roxell said softly at Melan's elbow. "There's something wrong."

Melan nodded at her and pushed her back. "Give me a minute, baby. Is it still snowing?"

"No, Mama, but—"

"Sh, baby." Suddenly, Melan felt terribly old, every ache, every stiff sinew communicating her inadequacy. Feeling helpless, she saw Sandel, wrapped in her tragic dignity, let herself out of the door and out into the clear cold. Melan found herself stroking her child's silky hair.

"She's gone," said Roxell in a voice of great solemnity. "Mama—"

"Yes, baby?" Melan said tiredly, trying to convince her body to rise and bar the door. She noticed only now that Sandel had left without her cloak and gloves. Her internal sense of wrongness increased, but she couldn't pinpoint what…

"Mama, it was the man's fortune you were telling."

"I know, baby," Melan said, levering herself to her feet, using the willing Roxell as a crutch, trying to quell her inner disquiet.

"His remorse, his pain."

"Baby, he's dead." Melan's voice was patient, but she found herself arrested.

"It's his fortune," Roxell insisted, "but it wasn't his death."

All at once, Melan couldn't breathe. "Show me, sweetheart," she said faintly, bracing herself on a cupboard. Roxell scurried away and returned with the silk-covered ball. Roxell's hands were unerring as she unwrapped the ball and set it on the stone stand. Then, as Melan looked on, Roxell gently touched the clear crystal until it darkened and opaqued, then gleamed white with snow, a small dark figure at its center.

Melan stared, transfixed, as the dark figure struggled through the heaped snow, driven to her destination, a cliff's edge that dropped to nothingness only footsteps away from a wooden door. Her voice strangling in her throat, Melan tried to warn her, tried to cry out in dismay, but she knew, just as the figure slipped over the edge to her doom, Sandel had made her own future.

Melan felt herself crumpling, collapsing to the ground. The cards had told the truth, as they always had, but she had misread their meaning and killed an innocent. She hugged her child to her as the sobs consumed her. "Roxell, Roxell, what have I done?"

"You have let your cards use you for their own ends," Roxell said calmly, stroking her mother's back.

*

Roxell sat on the floor, throwing her runes as a storm raged outside. Her mother rocked only a few steps away, wrapped in blankets, her eyes focused on the fire. Outside, as the wind raged, there was the sound of pounding. Roxell tried to ignore it as she knew her mother did. Roxell didn't need to use the crystal or the runes to know who pounded. It was a man, someone who had survived a near-fatal journey, risking his life again to find out what had happened to the woman he loved.

Just as she knew her mother couldn't bring herself to tell him how his love had met her fate. The Hanged Man spoke of remorse and destruction of the mind, even as the man's pounding became more desperate.

But remorse and destruction for more than just the man.


Wheel of Fortune



Melan woke from her doze with a start. She was unsurprised to find a shawl draped over her stooping shoulders, a fur on her knee. Roxell was always thoughtful.

Melan grunted, then shifted, painfully levering herself to her feet using the rocking chair as an unstable brace. Not two decades past, before Roxell was born, Melan could have leapt to her feet from the kneeling position or walked across the tiny cabin on her hands. But she had lived nearly eight decades before she found her lover, her youth preserved by magic. Only after Roxell was born did she begin to age, her body accumulating years at an accelerated rate. Now, her sight dimmed by cataracts, her bones brittle and in constant pain, she was a crooked shadow of her former self, incapable of all but the most minor activities. Even walking across the room was an agonizing and time-consuming event, one that would generally require her daughter's help.

Melan didn't want Roxell's help. Beyond her distaste for making her daughter her servant, Melan found herself more and more resentful of Roxell's health and youth. Melan knew the resentment was unreasonable and its bitterness left a bad taste in her mouth.

"Mother," Roxell said softly, as if she had materialized at her shoulder. Melan cursed her growing deafness. "Mother, can I help you?"

With gentle hands, Roxell steadied and supported her, directing her stumbling steps to the privy and then back to the cabin's single chair. Melan found herself humbled by Roxell's unfailing patience and consideration and hated her own uncharitable thoughts all the more.


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