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The center piece of a tiny room

(Italy, 1690)

Entering in to the gypsy’s abode, silence closed around him like a shroud. Perhaps the thick, ancient walls prevented sound from penetrating; but even Matteo’s cane refused to sound properly on the stone floor as he limped forward. The fortune teller, a woman known only by the name ‘Madam Belinda’, moved slowly in an unhurried manner down the narrow hall. Her head was covered in a bright purple cloth, bound in a knot in the back, that kept her waist-length hair at bay. Head jewelry hung from underneath the cloth – golden coins dangling from short chains laced across her forehead.

A small round table, covered with a dark red cloth, sat in the center of the tiny room. Against one wall stood a disused fireplace and on another, shelves holding various liquids and powders in odd-shaped jars. On the top of the table perched a single black iron stand with a solitary candle, lit, illuminating a deck of tarot cards. With only two chairs, she sat in one, while the anxious prince folded his cloak underneath him as he sat with difficulty, in the other.

The gypsy, looking at him, said, “Three cards – past, present, future – no more.”

“I want a full reading,” Matteo said adamantly.

“No, simple prince, you want the truth. The number of cards does not matter. Too many may even obscure the reading. It’s three cards, or nothing at all.”

Remembering violet eyes

The young prince sat silent for moment as the woman’s violet eyes measured him. Why did he feel like prey in her presence, he wondered? It was her eyes, he decided, that unnerved him. He remembered years ago when he first saw her, at a seance he had hosted in his country estate. She was the mystic he invited to lead it. A relative unknown, people had whispered she had “the gift.” As he was wont to do on such occasions, he had tried to expose her as a charlatan, thinking to delight and amuse his guests. However, she sat patiently listening to him talk rubbish at her, then had proceeded with her readings.

Laying down three cards for anyone who requested, she revealed things about them that no one could possibly know, making them gasp in utter amazement. When she came to Matteo, he flatly refused her reading; increasing her prestige immeasurably in the eyes of all those present.

Later that evening, the clairvoyant approached him saying, “You take great satisfaction in exposing people to ridicule and shame. Why does this amuse you, young prince?”

“My motives are my own, they’re none of your business. Besides, you didn’t fare badly,” he admitted.

Leave me, woman

Undeterred, the woman said, “Your pride, simple prince, may well be your undoing.”

Half drunk and happy with the evening’s festivities thus far, even in spite of her performance, Matteo glanced around at the party for Pietro, then back at her, saying, “I think all of your ilk are a waste of time and money. Just because I couldn’t prove you wrong, doesn’t mean you aren’t a charlatan.” Waving his fingers in a dismissive manner, he concluded with, “Leave me woman, you bore me.”

Angrily, she said, “In three days you will be asked to journey to Genoa. If you board that ship, you will perish.” Handing him a slip of parchment, she finished with, “Send payment for my reading to this address.”

Raising his goblet mockingly as she left, he said, “I thought you needed cards to read someone!” then slipped the scrap into his pocket and continued the evening.

Under her breath, as she left, she said, no need, you are an open book to me.

Lost at sea

Three days later, however, he received word that his maternal grandfather was gravely ill, and he must come immediately to his side. In the early morning, the next day, as seagulls cried in the stiffening breeze, a terrible foreboding gripped his chest. With his foot about to touch the plank of the clipper ship bound for Genoa, he froze, ticket in hand, then stepped back, pushing his way through the waiting people. Turning around, Matteo slipped the receipt back into his pocket, feeling another scrap of paper at the bottom as he did.

Two days later, word reached him that the boat upon which he’d booked passage sank during a freak storm, with only minor debris washing ashore. All were lost; not a single survivor. Badly shaken, angered and terrified at the same time, he’d immediately sent five florins to the address on the wisp of paper.

Now, years later, sitting in a nondescript building in lower Vatican City, with a gnawing need to know the future once again, he sat before the same woman, wondering if he’d made a mistake in coming.

“Do you wish to proceed?”

“What?”

“Do you want the reading?”

“Yes.”

The wheel of fortune

Both looked at the first card as she laid it down – the wheel of fortune. The gypsy said softly, “This is your past. You’ve lived a charmed life.” Honestly, Matteo thought, he was born with a silver spoon. The only son of his mother and father, he had always been the hope of their storied house.

Carefully, she laid down the second card – the fool.

Looking at the upside down card, then up at the pride of Imperialli, she said, “When this card is right side up, it can represent new experiences or possibilities. But upside down, it speaks of bad, foolish behavior, or unwise choice. This card declares your present. Your current path is unwise.”

Immediately, Matteo thought back to Pietro’s warning and how stubborn he’d been about coming to Vatican City.

She laid down the third, card – death

Matteo, his stomach tightening thought, I knew it! I knew it!

The tarot reader said dryly, “It seems you have not progressed far since our last meeting.”

“Tell me what must I do!” Matteo demanded.

Leaning closer, candlelight flickering on her face, the gypsy woman said, “Reverse your course and you may live. You know of what I speak.”

The evil that stalks you

Sitting back in her chair, the woman seemed to deflate as her shoulders sagged slightly. She mumbled, “Do not come to me again, young prince, you do not comprehend the evil that stalks you. I leave you to God.”

Agitated, Matteo placed five florins on the table and stood up stiffly to go. His skin dimpled and prickled as he made his way outside through the creaking door, feeling relief from whatever it was that was in that place. Slowly, he hobbled his way to the carriage, to the great relief of Pietro. “Sir, is all well?” the young man asked, helping him into the cabin.

Lost in his own thoughts, his master replied, “Take me back to my estate.”

Across the Nile

(Karnak, Egypt, 1460 BC)

Two men unfurled the square sail, as another manned the double rudders on the back side of the ship. The sail billowed in the late afternoon breeze, then filled out, driving the boat from it’s mooring. Bren didn’t like the sea but found the Nile smooth and enjoyable.

Both Saras sat quietly as Bren looked at the river bank receding. Lush and green, she saw many familiar leafy trees and what she now understood to be “date palms.” Bren marveled at the sheer scale of Karnak, the immense walls of temples rising high above everything else, dotted with slim spikes of stone pillars, tips gleaming in the setting sun.

A servant poured more water into her goblet as she heard them whisper among themselves. The women, clearly taken with her hair, stared, and eventually one ventured to ask if she could touch it. As she stroked Bren’s locks, she exclaimed, “Hathor,” the same name Brenzel had heard on the street earlier that day.

After no more than an hour of slow movement, the sailors deftly maneuvered the large boat into dock where Bren and her companions were ask to disembark. Muscled slaves bearing three palanquins waited. Three sets of eight footmen supported wooden staves upon which a small enclosed space, covered with sheer linen, contained a single chair. Bren gingerly stepped into one, holding on tightly as the men lifted her up and began walking up the pathway that lay ahead.

The north palace

Parting the translucent draperies, she watched as the world slowly passed by; mud houses, fields, and many people beginning their evening now that the sun was sinking towards the hills in the distance. She felt the fabric around her, soft and fine-threaded, more lovely than anything she’d every seen before, including the sheets at Charlie’s house. After a short while, the men took a sharp right and softly set the whole assembly down. The men stood aside, and Brenzel steadied herself with the frame as she emerged in front of a large entryway of an imposing stone structure. Before the massive wooden doors, a solitary man stood. A young woman, in a dress that started just below her small breasts, greeted them respectfully, asking that they follow her. Still, the two Saras said nothing, as if everything that was happening was to be expected.

As they came to the grand entrance, the man surveyed them critically as the servant girl stood by. Walking around the tall blond like he was inspecting a prized mare, he said more to himself than anyone else, “The reports were accurate.” He paused, stroked his chin, then instructed the servant girl, “If there are no lice, do not shave her head. Otherwise, prepare her as usual. She’ll be presented to Pharaoh after two weeks.”

If there’s no lice

Noticing Bren’s uneasiness as she gathered a lock of her hair in her hands, the man reassured her, “Please, do not worry yourself, everything will be taken care of. I know our ways may be new to you, but every effort will be made for your comfort. If you have questions, please ask and those around you will explain.”

Distinguished with age and obviously a man of power, the man’s demeanor did calm Bren, and she instinctively nodded and said thank you. Turning, as her heart beat fast, she and the others entered into the Royal Harem. One of the Saras said, “That is Senemut, steward of God’s wife. The gods smile upon you my friend, I think he approves of you.”

SEOIB.