A Writing Prompt Response: The Favorite

Read the io9 writing prompt here.

The thick smoke, smelling of dusty herbs, wafted in the orange light like the coils of snakes.

Valencia coughed and covered her mouth politely with a gloved hand, one hand remained cradling her swollen belly. Madame Pirocud looked up from the objects on the pocked wooden table, a glare on her wrinkled face. Valencia’s cough subsided.

“The smoke helps the Spirits. Loosens their vocal chords,” Madame Pirocud said, her voice cracking defensively.

Valencia nodded, acceptance and desperation in her eyes. “But the gold…” began the old woman, her voice strained kindness, “helps my Spirits.”

The younger woman, her once lovely face now tired and grim, reached out with a trembling hand and placed a small pouch on the table in front of the older woman. Madam Pirocud snatched it up as soon as it touched the wood.

“If you can’t tell the Lady what she needs to know,” Bartholomew threatened, placing his hands protectively on Valencia’s shoulders, “I shall take that gold back, and then some.”

“Yes, yes,” said the old woman. She reached into the pouch and counted the bright gold. It was warm, enchanted, just like she had demanded. She nodded, satisfied. “The payment is accepted,” she cackled. She bent her head to the objects on the table and the bangles around her neck and forehead jangled. “Now,” she wrapped two colorful, tasseled scarves around her hands, “you wanted to know about the little one?”

“Yes,” said Valencia. She reached up and touched Bartholemew’s large hand, still resting on her shoulder, but her other hand remained gently on her stomach. “We must know if Le Strous touched it with his curse.”

The old woman’s eyes were unreadable in the smoke tinged orange by candle light, but they glittered darkly. She held out her wrinkled hands, covered by the scarves, over the objects and nodded to Valencia. Valencia removed her hand from Bartholemew’s and the other from her belly. She removed her gloves and placed her bare hands in Madame Pirocud’s.

The old woman closed her eyes for a moment, and mumbled words that seemed to blend with the smoke. Nothing in the room changed, but her mumbling ceased abruptly. She released Valencia’s hand, and the younger woman set them immediately upon her belly protectively.

Upon the table, a wooden carved cow figurine glowed in the candle light, its wood smooth and the edges of the detail rounded with wear. Madame Pirocud reached for it, her eyes still closed. Her fingers did not fumble as she drew the figurine up a few inches off the table, then let it fall. The heavy figurine landed upside-down with a loud wooden ‘thud’.

“Hmm…mmm.” The old woman’s throat thrummed. “A girl. It is a girl.”

“Fine,” said Bartholemew, his voice impatient, “but the curse?”

Valencia leaned forward slightly, her eyes feverish in her gaunt face. “Please,” she whispered. But Madame Pirocud was not done. Her eyes still closed, she reached for a small pile of nuts, stones, and sticks. She picked them up in one gnarled hand and threw them on the table with a force that should have sent them scattering across the room, but they remained on the table as if held by strings.

Madame Pirocud’s hand hovered over the nuts, stones, and sticks. She opened her eyes. “Power,” she murmured. Valencia sagged and closed her eyes. But the old woman smiled a snaggled grin. “Your offspring has power. You are right to fear for her. Those with power are to be pitied.”

“What kind of power?” demanded Bartholemew.

The old soothsayer swiped her arm across the wooden table. The cow figurine, nuts, stones, and sticks clattered to the dirt floor of the tiny room. Madame Pirocud pulled a deck of large cards from the folds of her dress.

With the practiced ease of a seasoned card shark, she cut the deck and shuffled the cards. The rectangles of paper purred in her hands, three times each for the riffle and bridge. She rotated one half of the deck each time she cut it.

After the third bridge, she gathered the cards in a neat pile and placed them in the palm of her left hand. “Draw five cards from the top of the deck with your right hand,” she said. “Place them on the table face down.” Her old eyes watched Valencia’s hands carefully as the pregnant woman drew one, two, three, four, five cards and placed them on the wooden table.

Madame Pirocud reached for the first card on her right, the last card that Valencia had placed on the table, and turned it over. Her wrinkled lips cracked a toothy smile. The small, beautifully detailed painting on the card depicted a skull on a field of roses. In the blackness of the skull’s mouth was a sickle moon entwined with a serpent.

“Death,” she hissed gleefully. Valencia paled and Bartholemew gripped her shoulders. “But it is the last card you drew, and the mouth of the skull faces away from you. The girl shall cause an end to some unlucky fool,” the old woman said, cackling.

Without a pause, the old woman turned the next card. It depicted a man, naked and anatomically correct down to the wrinkles on his knuckles. He held an apple, red as a setting sun, in his hand and his mouth was open in the act of taking a bite, revealing teeth that were daggers, their tiny hilts set with even tinier jewels.

“Oh ho,” said the woman. “A betrayal by the Nude Adam, a betrayal caused by lust.” The old woman’s eyes flickered to Bartholemew, and her lips quirked in a smile. “Isn’t that the way of all men?”

She flipped the next card over. The painting on the next card was dark, a black sky with small, pin prick dots of light. “Hmm…yes,” said Madame Pirocud. “A difficult card. Could be power, darkness, could be empty. It is your third card, and the third thing in anything is usually power. But this power is not your girl’s power. This is the power of someone else.”

“Le Strous?” breathed Valencia.

“Perhaps,” said Madame Pirocud. “But Night Sky is neutral, infinite, the place of the gods.”

The fourth card depicted a pocket watch, silver chain and silver case. Symbols replaced the numbers on the face of the watch and instead of twelve, there were twenty-three. “The Devil’s Timepiece,” said the old woman gravely. She did not explain, but turned over the last card with an almost heavy reluctance in her hand.

The last card, which was the first card Valencia had drawn, was the most powerful card. This was the card drawn to the top of the deck by the power of the Spirits.

It depicted a small girl in a rich dress. She held a demon, skin bubbled with scales and claws and teeth glinting, in her arms, pressed it close to her chest. Matching red poppies adorned the hair of the girl and the horns of the demon. “The Favorite,” said Madame Pirocud, her cracked voice quiet.

She looked up from the card and met Valencia’s eyes. “Your child is not cursed,” she said, forcing a kind smile.

After the pregnant woman and her protector left, old Madame Pirocud poured herself a strong drink from a flask and slumped back in her chair. She turned towards the fire in the hearth and stared into its burning, flickering depths. In her hand, she still held the final card, the girl and her demon. She let it fall from her wrinkled fingers to the dirty floor.

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