She welcomed the opportunity to delay her reunion with Greta, and it could prove beneficial to have a distraction from the discomfort of both her corset and the cloying heat.
She entered the tent, and stood just inside the doorway, uncertain whether the woman required her to sit or stand for the reading. Her answer came when the woman stood, gesturing to Gwen to take her place on the stool. Gwen perched on the wooden seat, still warm from the woman's ample posterior. It was good to take the weight off her feet, but her corset dug in more insistently than before, making her wish again that she could remove, or at least loosen it. She hoped this would not be a long reading. Greta was unlikely to withhold her disapproval were she to linger too long here, causing the nurse to hunt the vast area of the carnival for her. She could make the next few days disagreeable, that was certain.
The woman held her hand out, palm upward. Gwen asked her the cost of the reading. It was a very small amount; much less than she had expected. She opened her purse and placed a few coins in the woman's hand, which disappeared under her skirt. Gwen heard the coins clinking as the woman pulled down the tent flap, and moved to face her again.
She leaned close to Gwen, studying her face, one eye squinting, then picked up the pack of cards. She fanned them in her hand and plucked one out, placing it face up it on the table in front of Gwen. She was surprised. She had expected the cards to be unfamiliar, with strange exotic symbols, perhaps, or alien calligraphy. The card on the table was a simple, classic Queen of Spades.
''This one is you, she said, pointing at Gwen's chest.
She then placed the remainder of the deck on the table, behind the Queen, and placed her hand, claw-like, over the top, and cut them, making two piles.
''You must choose, dearest.'' she said, her face solemn,
Gwen pointed to the pile on the left, and the woman removed the unchosen stack, placing it to the back of the table. She then offered the other pile, asking Gwen to pull twelve cards out. The remainder she placed on the discarded pile at the back, and handed the Queen of Spades to Gwen and asked her to shuffle the thirteen cards. The woman watched her carefully, her eyes narrowed.
Gwen offered the shuffled pack back to the cartomancer, who dealt them onto the table, face down, in a circle, until the thirteenth card remained. This she placed in the centre of the vaguely clock-shaped spread.
She began, at the 12 o'clock position, to turn the cards over, progressing anti-clockwise, nodding or shaking her head at intervals. When she had reached the card at 6 o'clock, she stopped, and peered at Gwen. The card she had just turned was the Queen of Spades. She continued until the entire spread was face up, save the one in the centre. The woman hesitated, looked at the ceiling of the tent for a few seconds, and finally turned the centre card. It was the King of Diamonds.
This done, the woman bent at the waist, examining the spread and stroking the side of her nose with one fingernail. She took a long deep breath, and exhaled very slowly, then she turned to Gwen, a tight smile on her face.
''It is a good reading, but also a bad one, for you.'' She pointed to the first three cards she had turned over. They were the Jack and Five of Spades, and the Seven of Clubs.
''These three mean a battle, a fight. You will have to win this before the next thing will happen.''
Gwen tilted her head. A fight, she thought, suppressing a laugh. She was expecting one of those with Greta, later.
''And will I win? Do the cards tell you that?'' she asked.
The woman looked down, her hand playing with the cloth.
''I do not know this. Perhaps. It may not be over quickly. It may be a long time, if you are to win.''
Gwen nodded. She tried, always, to keep an open mind, but she was intelligent enough to retain some scepticism.
''Good,'' she said ''And the next thing that will happen is... after I win?'' she asked, smiling.
The woman looked at the next three cards: the 6 of Spades, the 8 of Hearts, and the Jack of Clubs.
''These mean a journey...a journey to a place you have not before travelled. And a place where you will remain, and be forever blessed.'' the woman said, her face wistful.
Gwen raised her eyebrows. ''Forever blessed?'' she asked. ''Does that mean that I will be happy?'' she asked.
The woman shook her head slowly. ''It does not mean that, dearest.'' she said, her forehead furrowing. She looked up, as if she were trying to find the words to explain, then turned back to Gwen. ''Not always. Not at first. But you will be...special, important.''
''Goodness!'' said Gwen. ''You make it sound very grand. I'm intrigued.'' She beamed at the woman, who shook her head, and moved onto the next three cards. Her own card: the Queen of Spades, next to the Seven and the Jack of Hearts. She looked at them, frowning.
''This is deceit, calumny. Someone will betray you...'' she said, with a fierce, angry expression at the thought. ''Someone close to you. A man.''
''A relative? A friend?'' Gwen asked. ''A...suitor?''
The woman frowned again. ''It is a young man. I cannot say if it is brother or lover.''
Gwen gestured for the woman to continue, aware that Greta was probably becoming impatient and angry somewhere nearby. She looked at the remaining two cards in the clock, and picked up the centre card, showing it to Gwen. It was the King of Diamonds.
''These cards here...'' she pointed to the two in the circle - the Ace and the Three of Hearts. ''They show that you will have a child.'' she held the card in her hand close to Gwen's face.
There was a noise outside the tent. They both paused, and listened. Greta was outside again, calling her name. She rose from the stool, turning to leave.
''Ma'am. Thank you so much.'' she said quickly, holding out her hand. ''I really should go now. It has been very interesting.
''NO! Wait!.'' The woman drew nearer, clasping Gwen's wrist tightly. She shrank back, cringing. The woman pushed the King of Diamonds right up into Gwen's now fearful face.
''You will have a son. He will be powerful, and wealthy. But he will be dangerous And you must stop him.''
The woman's face was now wild and demented. Gwen felt light-headed, her corset seeming to be squeezing her chest, and her heart pounded, slowly, as if she would faint. She gathered all her strength, and pulled her arm from the woman's grasp, rushing for the door flap and brushing it aside so that she could escape.
Outside, she collided with Greta, almost knocking her to the ground.