Saturday, 4 August 2012

Playing with a full deck

"Crabbe made them for me."  Madame Sostris sniffed to punctuate her sentence as she shuffled the cards.  They were a new deck; for the first time in a long time it looked like she might actually have a full deck in her hands.  Phlebitis, doomed sailor, tried to look interested.
"Crabbe?" he said, his tone weary and defeated.  Madame Sosotris appeared not to notice.
"He walks the banks of the river," she said.  "You've probably seen him, what with you being a sailor and all."
Phlebitis was indeed a sailor, and made his money by taking cargoes across the Sea of Demons.  One way with frogs that his crew boiled on the voyage, because the people they got the frogs from considered them sacred and would be angry if they knew what was done with the frogs, and the other way with fragile jade statuettes that possibly had curses attached to them.  The curses seemed to stay attached to whoever owned the statuette though, so apart from the odd pang of conscience, Phlebitis managed not to think about it.  Trying to take his ship up a river would be foolhardy.
"Yes," he said.  "Probably.  Does he fall in much?  Perhaps I've even rescued him?"
"I doubt it," said Madame Sosotris.  "His wife did though."
Phlebitis paused and thought about this for a few seconds before replying.  It was clear that this was a deliberate conversational gambit to keep him talking, because he knew that Madame Sostris had an unrequited crush on him, but he was also intrigued as to how she could think this was relevant.  Eventually curiosity won over caution.  "I hope she could swim," he said, going for a fairly neutral comment that didn't commit him to being interested in what she was saying.  Her hands shuffled the cards constantly.
"Yes, but she was run over by a Stinking Barge.  She went under the water and never came back up to the surface."
The Stinking Barges were the city's rubbish-collectors.  They were huge long boats that transported rubbish and sewage downstream to avoid polluting the water that the city depended on for its life.  A few miles outside the city were mountains of ordure and filth that sent out a stench that could make a man want to cut his own nose off his face.  At night, in hot weather, the gases they gave off burned with a pale, shaky blue light that the locals suspected of attracting demons from the sea, and in particularly hot summers they sometimes exploded.  At the base of these mountains men worked, their faces wrapped in cloths soaked in lye, shovelling the filth away into the river, polluting and poisoning the downstream water for thirty miles.  Phlebitis refused to hire men who'd worked on the Stinking Barges because they couldn't get the smell of the refuse off their skin.  He also refused to hire anyone who'd ever been a cultist, anyone who appeared to know what a City Throne was and people who wouldn't drink rum on religious grounds.  So far his crew had been loyal and stable, and he put this competely down to his hiring policies.
"That's sad," he said.  In his experience bodies always came back up unless they were eaten or weighted down first, and his money was on pockets full of rocks.
"Now he collects flotsam from the river," said Madame Sosotris, her hands almost hypnotic.  She was skilled at shuffling the cards, and though few of her clients realised it could prestidigitate any card in the deck to the top almost imperceptibly.  "He hopes to find her in the straw and frayed rope, that her bones might be waiting at the bottom in the mud for the right moment to return to him."
"What's he going to do with the bones when he finds them?"  Phlebitis had a sudden, nightmarish vision of the poor man wiring the bones together and keeping his skeletal wife in his home, presumably a two-room hovel.  Would her keep on display to visitors or in his bed?  Phlebitis shook his head to chase the image away.
"I've never asked," said Madame Sosotris.  "He made this deck of cards though, from things that the river gave up to him.  They're as close to the soul of the city as anything I've ever owned."  She coughed.  "Would you care to cut?"  She held the cards out, and Phlebitis scrutinised them, trying to see if they were bone.  They appeared to be paper, so he reached a hand out and picked a number of cards from the top.
Madame Sosotris bade him lay his cards down, to one side, and turned the top card of the rest of the deck over.
"The strangled Kitten," she said.  "Inverted."  Sure enough, a bedraggled, green-looking kitten took up most of the card, but in the background there was an arm and leg just visible, that might have been human.  The kitten's tongue was hanging out, and its eyes were greyed and hazed.  "Things that people throw away are important to you, and you collect them."
"I'm not sure–" began Phlebitis, but Madame Sosotris glared at him and tapped the card.
"In the background," she said, her finger tapping insistently, "you can see the arm and leg of Belladonna, Our Lady of the Rocks."
Phlebitis fell silent.  His future seemed entwined with Belladonna, who- or what-ever she might be.  He nodded at Madame Sostotris.
"Carry on then," he said.  "Tell me what the mad bitch wants from me now."

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