The little woman was picking her nose, inspecting whatever she found on the end of her finger, and then wiping it on the floral wallpaper next to her chair. Madame Sosotris, clairvoyant and haruspex, contained her rage, and sniffed. Her apparently incurable cold continued to make her nose run, and even her balm-dipped tissues weren't enough to keep the skin on her face from getting chapped. The little woman started at the sniff, and promptly sat on both her hands before looking around her. When she saw Madame Sosotris standing in the doorway she tried to look both surprised and innocent at the same time. The end result was a little like the expression of a concussed chipmunk, as drawn by Disney.
"You still have both your hands!" said Madame Sosotris in a tone of mild surprise. "Please, come through to my drawing room. The spirits find that room the easiest room to communicate in."
The little woman shuffled to the edge of the chair and actually jumped down. Madame Sosotris was startled to see that she was actually only a little over three feet tall; looking down on the top of her head made her own head swim and she felt a little dizzy.
"What would happen if the spirits felt most comfortable in your bedroom?" asked the little woman. It sounded conversational, even a little flirtatious, but Madame Sosotris was still annoyed about the nose-picking and -wiping and so gave an honest answer.
"I'd burn cedar wood in there to make it inhospitable for them, and light votives in the drawing room to make it more attractive," she said. "I've sacrificed a number of birds and small mammals in the drawing room, burned several expensive essential oils there, and boarded up some other... sacrifices... alive in the walls. The drawing room is a spiritual magnet now, and to be honest, I doubt you could get hold of a spirit anywhere else in a two-mile radius." She coughed, a throaty, mucusoidal sound, and her shoulders hunched with the force of it. Instantly her nose began to run again, and she patted her pockets for a handkerchief.
"Oh," said the little woman in a little voice. "That must take some effort. Don't the council complain?"
"No," said Madame Sosotris, her voice muffled a little by the enormous white handkerchief she was trying to blow her nose with. "They don't."
The little woman, whose name was Jo, now came into the drawing room and looked around. There were windows in two walls, across which gauzy purple fabrics were drawn, giving the light a definite blue tinge. The floor was stripped-back floorboards with a couple of hexagonal rugs laid on them at opposite ends of the room. There was a round wooden table with four irregular chairs set around it at this end; at the other end were two overstuffed, soft-looking couches set at right-angles around a coffee-table. There were three half-empty cups on the coffee table, and a pile of what might have been dried tea-leaves between them. Jo found herself looking round the walls, which were wood-panelled, wondering where things – sacrifices she reminded herself – might have been boarded up. The walls seemed solid, but there were various framed pictures of different sizes that might have been hiding things.
"Sit down," said Madame Sosotris, gesturing at the chairs. Jo sighed, but only quietly. Sitting on the couches would have been easier for her. "While you sit," said Madame Sosotris turning away to an escitoire hidden behind the door, "I shall get the tools we need for this divination."
"I haven't told you what I'm here for yet," said Jo, struggling onto the chair. To her annoyance, the chair wasnt' quite high enough for her to see over the edge of the table. Madame Sosotris turned back holding a brown envelope and a cushion, and handed her the cushion.
"I wouldn't be much of a clairvoyant if I didn't know why you were here already," she said, sniffing. "You're here to find out about Phlebitis, the doomed sailor."
Jo folded the cushion in two and got it under herself and was pleased to find that this boosted her up to the point where she could rest her arms comfortably on the table. "Doomed?" she said. "It sounds like this will be a short consultation!"
"Not at all," said Madame Sosotris sitting down opposite her and tipping some colourful squares of paper out of the envelope. "Phlebitis's long term future is clearly visible, but his short term destiny is a shifting mess of images and mist. He must do certain things, that is written, but how he achieves them appears to be largely up to him. He is the pawn of a greater power than we humans normally deal with. Choose a piece of paper, dearie,."
Jo looked at the papers, all of which were the same size but differently coloured. Nothing seemed to distinguish them apart from colour, so she selected a pleasant beige square by tapping it with her finger. Madame Sosotris nodded, and put all the other squares away again, then set the beige square in front of her, and starting folding it.
"You are not here to find out if there will be a romantic liaison between you, either," said Madame Sosotris, running her yellowed, horny nails along a crease to sharpen it. "You are here simply to find out where he is headed and how you might intercept him."
Jo opened her mouth to deny it, and then paused. For a moment she could have sworn that the paper shape that seemed to emerge from the paper as Madame Sosotris folded was a crown.
"His whereabouts are important to us," she said finally, kicking herself as she heard herself say us.
"Of course they are," said Madame Sosotris calmly. She turned the paper over and starting making more folds on the other side. "You understand that he is under protection though?" She sniffed again, but a trickle of mucus escaped her nose anyway and ran down swiftly to her lips, where it hunted for a way around them.
"I hadn't," said Jo, watching the paper folds with rapt delight. She'd never seen origami used in divination before, and it was fascinating watching how the paper seemed to catch sparkles and twinkles that shouldn't be there.
"He had protection," said Madame Sosotris. "I can show you how to find him, but I would advise you to take advice from someone else before you approach him."
"Why someone else?"
"Because I will not tell you who protects him, nor will I expose myself to their regard."
Madame Sosotris stood an origami unicorn up on the table, its eyeless face pointing at Jo. "The unicorn will find Phlebtitis until it is identified, after which it will probably be useless. This is all the help I will give you." She sneezed, and although the unicorn was caught in the middle of the blast of air it didn't even move.
"Good enough," said Jo seizing the unicorn. "How much do we owe you?"