The interior of the Oracle’s shack betrayed its shabby exterior. The walls were dressed with red and purple stretches of gossamer, all delicately embroidered with gold and silver coloured beads depicting, amongst other things, intricate floral patterns. At the sight of it, Rin almost forgot himself in his eagerness to examine it. He had never seen such a thin fabric embroidered with such expertise and delicacy before, and he would have given anything to admire it up close. He righted himself before he made a beeline for it. Embroidery was something he had left back in the Aur Valley, with his mother. It had been something they did together, and while needlepoint was, in his opinion, one of the finer pleasures in life, it didn’t feel right to continue his hobby without the woman who had taught him it in the first place.
At first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking the Oracle was indeed swimming in money. Her abode was clad in finery one might expect to see in an upper class Lady’s bedchamber, or in Shay’s experience a higher grade prostitute’s boudoir, but when one looked close enough, all the finery was a mockery. All the gold and silver adorning the place was too dull and too poorly crafted to be the real thing, and the silk spread out across her bed, for the shack was comprised of one room, caught the light in the same shoddy way the back alley girls’ dresses did in Olmaea. If all her possessions were fake, it didn’t bode well for the Oracle herself, but curiosity had gotten the better of the three of them.
At the heart of the room sat a small table, barely tall enough to allow someone’s legs to rest under it. Like the rest of the shack, it too was dressed in a deep red imitation silk, that same embroidery as before sewn into it. Atop the table was a small wooden dish, and a tiny stick was propped up on it, gently spewing smoke into the place and filling it with that exotic scent that had drifted from the doorway to greet them. It was at this table that they would finally glimpse the Oracle, though their curiosity was not fully sated.
The girl, and she was a girl for she could not have been much older than Aoife herself, sat with her back to them, dark hair draped over her shoulder and brushing against the floor, for it was far too long and had not been cut in years. Her skin was exposed with only a series of thin, fake gold chains to cover her modesty. The table concealed it from the trio for now, but were the Oracle to stand they would discover it wasn’t only her top half that was naked. Her caramel complexion reminded Aoife of her dear friend, but the Oracle seemed a little darker.
“Who seeks their future?” spoke the Oracle, back still turned to them.
The question threw the three of them. They hadn’t come for a fortune telling, they had only come out of morbid curiosity. They certainly couldn’t afford to have all their fortunes read, though Shay had already removed himself from the runnings. He was already twenty three. In the slums, that meant his life was already half over. Aoife and Rin stood to gain more from the woman, even if she was a fraud. After a few minutes of bickering, it was decided Aoife would be the one to cash in on the Oracle’s offer. She knew nothing about her past, it only seemed fair that she should know something about her future instead.
The Oracle turned to face them then. She had known who would speak up regardless, but there were customs that needed to be followed and traditions that needed to be upheld. Her chains were one such tradition. Oracles had drifted from favourable view when the mages were hunted down, since the two were often never far from the other, and it was only the recent bastardisation of their gifts that had cast a more favourable light on them. As such, the old traditions were forgotten by the public. According to the old texts the Oracles followed, an Oracle was not a person, she was a vessel. The chains she adorned herself with served to remind her of this fact, and once upon a time her chains would have been melded to her skin. Thankfully a high mortality rate put an end to that practice, since true Oracles weren’t that easy to come by. Her state of undress—something which caused Rin’s face to explode a vibrant shade of red and his gaze to linger anywhere but the Oracle—served much the same purpose as her chains; to remind her she was an object, and not a human being. Men would come to her under the pretense of wishing to know his future, and would ogle every inch of her body as if it were his right. More than a few Oracles had experienced more than ogling at the hands of their so called clients. Women would come to stare, and to sneer, and to scorn, and to look down on the young maidens for decisions that weren’t theirs to make. Children would point and laugh in the street, if only because their parents had taught them to.
The most enforced, and perhaps most tiring, of the old traditions was fasting. A ritual inherited from the wildsmen in the East, Oracles spent most of their lives fasting. The theory was that food, and existing as a human being by extension, would cloud an Oracle’s visions, and lead to readings and predictions that couldn’t entirely be trusted. This, of course, would ruin an Oracle’s name and reputation, so to reduce the risk of such a faux pas, the Oracles were taught to fast, partaking of food only when the shell of their vessel began to wither. While Oracles themselves may not have been considered human, the bodies they inhabited were and needed sustenance like any other. It was this strict regime of fasting that gave the Oracles their mystical and otherworldly appearance, with long skeletal limbs and slender frames that looked neither female nor male but somewhere in between. Compared to others of her craft, the girl that sat before the trio would have looked decidedly well fed, with curves in all the right places and an undeniably female body.
“Give me your hands,” she commanded gently, accent as exotic as the scent coming from the smoke that still filtered through the shack.
Shay’s arms folded across his chest, his interest in the situation beginning to wane, despite the naked woman in front of him. He had seen plenty of other women do this song and dance in Olmaea, though they usually asked for payment in advance. She would take Aoife’s hand, ask her questions and make a few lucky guesses based on things Aoife wasn’t even aware she’d said. It was all one big con.
But then the Oracle did something he wasn’t expecting, and that certainly had the Olmaean’s attention. Instead of simply holding Aoife’s hands, she turned them over so her palms were raised towards the sky. Into her palms, the Oracle drew a set of eyes with a stick of charcoal she had had beside her on the floor. She took Aoife’s hands again, motioning for her to hold them up with her palms facing the Oracle. The shack was silent, the trio all holding breaths they didn’t quite realise they needed as they waited in gleeful, and apprehensive, anticipation.
For a moment, the Oracle did nothing, just sitting there with her eyes closed. Her eyes shot open suddenly, as if she were a thing possessed. Her hands cut through the plume of smoke, wafting it towards her and breathing it in in long, deep drags. As she stared at the eyes drawn on Aoife’s palms, her own eyes rolled back in her head, and though Aoife didn’t dare look she swore she could feel something moving around on her hands.
Rin was enraptured, mouth hanging open as he watched the event unfold before him. He had never read about Oracle’s, and had had no idea what to expect but this was beyond anything he could have imagined. If Shay’s new interest was anything to go by, it wasn’t what he’d been expecting either.
The Oracle’s eyes were still rolled back in her head when she began to speak. “Your future is hazy,” she began, another waft of smoke pooling around her. “I see blood and steel, tears and sand, snow and fur.”
There was more blood in her future? That didn’t exactly sit well with the young orphan, considering the events that had caused her to flee her home. But the Oracle had said her future was hazy. Perhaps that meant she was seeing the past too? The whole thing had her confused, if she was truly honest. Snow and fur, now that was obvious. They were heading North, where there would be snow and lots of it, to find the Wolf-Children of legend. But tears and sand? She had thought they would carry on straight up through the Riverlands, since it made the backbone of the world, but the Oracle seemed to imply they would head East instead. Or was she saying something was going to happen in Karasti? There was sand on the shore, after all, but they had already left the village’s boundaries… Aoife wasn’t sure she liked this whole fortune telling thing.
“You are important, Aoife,” the Oracle continued, casting her sightless gaze on Rin and Shay for just long enough that the trio didn’t notice she had guessed Aoife’s name without cue. “You all are.” Her attention was back on Aoife then. “Your destiny lies in the North, but you are missing someone.”
“Niamh,” Aoife blurted out without thinking. Niamh was the only person she could think of that she was missing, and that she would have loved to take on this adventure with her, but the Oracle shook her head.
“No, it is someone you have yet to meet. In a golden city, there is a man dressed in jewels. Find him, he will help you.”
Rin found himself frowning at that. The only golden city he knew of was the ancient city of Franziska, and that was pure legend. Aside from a few questionable firsthand accounts in old storybooks, no one had ever actually laid eyes on the place. Were they meant to go on a wild goose chase before they could carry on without their own goal? Besides, what sort of man would be so self-absorbed that he dressed himself in jewels? Even the Valenaras had more taste than that, and they were the richest family in all the world. Was it bad luck to ignore an Oracle? He hoped not. He certainly wasn’t planning on looking for this gem encrusted man. He didn’t trust Shay not to try and steal them all, and given his recent luck, he didn’t trust Aoife not to fall for the man.
The Oracle seemed to have more to say, but she slumped where she sat, eyes drifting shut again. No one moved. Was this part of the act? The squirming feeling in Aoife’s palms had disappeared, but she was too scared to look at them.
Shay was the first to break the uneasy silence. “What a load of shit. At least the fakes back home make sense.”
“I don’t think she’s a fake, Shay,” Rin said, unable to take his eyes off her.
Slowly, the Oracle straightened up. Her eyes had returned to normal, but she looked tired and a sheen of sweat glistened on her brow. In Shay’s experience, this was the part where she would ask for an extortionate fee, and threaten to curse them if they didn’t—or couldn’t—pay up. But instead she turned her weary gaze to Rin, allowing Aoife to finally lower her hands. The Oracle didn’t speak. She merely held out her hands expectantly, but it wasn’t money she was asking for, it was his hands.
Aoife shuffled out of the way as Rin took her place at the table. She risked a glance at the drawings on her hands—great, bold eyes with three thick lashes on either lid. The orphan looked back up in time to see the Oracle marking the same eyes on Rin’s palms, and she could see Shay out of the corner of her eye with his arms still folded across his chest like a disapproving parent.
There was no hesitation in the Oracle’s actions as she positioned Rin’s hands and wafted that smoke around her again. Was that the secret? Maybe they weren’t visions but rather hallucinations, Rin thought, though they should all have been experiencing them, not just the Oracle, given the amount of smoke they’d all been breathing in. The sweat on her forehead began to run down her face as she worked herself into a frenzy again, chains jingling as she moved.
“There is fire in your blood,” she said, as cryptic as ever. “But you are only half a soul. The other half is covered in snow, and ice.” She wavered a little where she sat, as if she were about to pass out, but her eyes remained open and she kept herself upright. “The world is on your shoulders, but you are too weak to carry it.”
She slumped forwards again then, and the shack was filled with silence once more. Were all Oracles as difficult to understand as this one? Perhaps she wasn’t very good at it, or perhaps she was new to it. After all, Rin himself had been new to a trade before, he knew what it was like to have people expect perfect results straight away. Between his and Aoife’s predictions, nothing had made much sense. Hopefully she could explain more once she was in her right mind again, not wrapped in prophetic visions.
As the Oracle righted herself again, she gestured for Shay’s hands but the Olmaean did not move. His features had formed a scowl that looked like it would soon be permanent if they didn’t leave the place soon. He liked to think he was brilliant at spotting a con when he saw one, and he knew that Oracles and fortune tellers and psychics were all bullshit, but this one spewed nothing but nonsense. She still hadn’t asked for payment, and her predictions hadn’t made any fucking sense. If it was a con, it was a brilliantly put together one. She was either a genius or an idiot, and he couldn’t tell which.
“Please, let me tell your future,” the Oracle pleaded, but Shay remained unmoved.
“Sorry, Miss, but I don’t need anyone to tell me my future. I’m going out of this world the same way I came in; kicking, screaming and covered in blood.”
The Olmaean had to stifle a laugh as it became painfully obvious that his joke hadn’t quite landed on its feet. He thought it was funny nonetheless, and a quiet snort of amusement managed to slip past his iron defenses.
The Oracle persisted. The girl spent the better part of half an hour trying to convince the Olmaean to let her read his fortune, but Shay would not relent. Fortune telling was for lovesick girls who wanted to find out who they would marry, and men who wanted an insight into which company to put their money into. He was a tanner, a kid from the slums, and he would always be that. He had no business meddling with fate and destiny and whatever other rubbish the Oracle could spew. If something was going to happen, he’d rather not know and just take it as it came. That tactic had gotten him through life well enough so far.
When it became painfully obvious that Shay would not give in, the Oracle resigned herself to defeat. She turned her attention back to Rin and Aoife, graciously thanking them for trying to convince Shay to as little success as she had had.