The First Step

“Fortunes!” The old man’s reedy cry pierced the square, cutting through the voices of traders and merchants. “The stars! The endless skies! Know your place in the heavens!” He sat just at the edge of an open-air tavern beside the market, the table before him in the sun with his head in the shade. “Sands of time, drops of rain! A blink, a wink, a nod, a smile!” In one wizened old hand, he clutched a wooden cup that he twisted around to rap sharply against the solid wooden beam holding the roof, making its contents rattle. “All truths can be told, all sights seen! I touch the ages and the moments! The stars move through me!”

Beside me, my mentor Nephtet disdainfully sucked air through her teeth. “Don’t listen,” she murmured, tugging at the collar of my tunic to hasten my steps.

I turned slightly to face her, though I strained to keep my eyes on the old fortune-teller, his sing-song chants rising and falling in my ears. “Why not?”

“He’s touched, Chloe,” my teacher hissed back. “Plague. I can smell it on him. It might as well be birdsong.”

“But—” I stopped, turning and squinting into the shadow, trying to get a better look at the victim, sitting alone at a table. “I thought we were supposed to be—!”

Nephtet yanked harder on my tunic to pull me away, but as I turned to break my gaze, the old man’s rattle-cup slammed once more into the wooden beam beside him. My foot hit the ground at an angle, then turned under me and sent a lance of fire up my calf. I let out a cry as I dropped to one knee, but before I could tumble into the mud, Nephtet’s good arm was at my shoulder, bracing me from falling further. Then her face was before mine as she knelt in front of me, her golden eyes narrowed. “Slag,” she cursed, her gloved hand tracing down my leg. “How bad is it?”

“I— I don’t know,” I breathed, squinting to stop the tears in my eyes. Hurts.”

“Walking in circles, turning in against itself!” The old man’s voice cried out again. “Copper, silver, gold! Only two drachma! I can see outside of time! Trace the skeins, follow the webwork!” The contents of his cup when it hit the wood shook inside my head.

Nephtet frowned, her lips twisted to one side. She tapped once on my ankle and I hissed in response. “It’s probably strained. Let’s tie off two loose ends. Rise.” My mentor put one hand against my side, then stood and pulled me up with her, bracing my weight against her hip. She walked me over to the empty bench opposite the old man at the tavern and eased me down onto it. “Say hello, Chloe,” she said as she sat beside me and began searching through the pouches that hung from her sashes.

As I dropped onto the seat, the old man fell quiet, and he leaned forward on his elbows. I opened my mouth to speak, but then his face came out of the shadow, and my voice failed me. One of his eyes was a gentle green that reminded me of grass on the hills in summer. The other was milky all throughout, a cloud caught in glass. He twisted his head to the side, hiding his good eye, and stared at me with the other, a storm roiling within its depths. The socket around his eye was clear, with glimpses of pink muscle shrouded by fog beneath translucent skin. The effect ran almost to his ear, a window into endless skies, into which I could feel some part of myself falling even as I leaned away, arms trembling as I pushed back from the table.

“Walking in circles,” he hissed again as he shook his cup once more, “chasing and chasing, briefly caught but never held.” His tobacco-stained breath filled the space between us as he murmured to himself. “This is the universe,” he said with a gesture to a circle of stained leather on the table before him. “All that falls within can be seen, as written in the stars and motes of dust.” Then his leathery hands were on mine, cold and damp as they pressed the wooden cup into my trembling fingers.

For a few seconds, I sat transfixed, held in place by the weight of the wooden cup in my hands and the gaze of his stormy eye. The bench on which I’d been sitting, once exposed to Beryllos’ late spring sun, was now shrouded in shade from a passing cloud. I tore my gaze away from the old man’s, then looked down into the cup. Inside were six well-worn knucklebones, each one carved on its faces with different letters. “How do this work?” I asked. “What do the letters—”

“The pen!” the old man squawked, cutting me off as he jammed one hand over the opening of the cup. “Carved into the flesh of the the universe. Beginnings and endings. Letters and numbers, a secret code. Everything is there, from highest to lowest. Cast from outside to inside. Ask and be told.”

As his hand moved away from the opening of the cup, I shook it cautiously, then drew back to throw the bones into the cracked leather circle. As I moved, though, a fresh flare of pain flashed up my leg, and the toss went wide. Only three of the dice landed on the leather, the others tumbling to the ground. I looked down to see my mentor trying off a complex knot around the sole of my foot, bound with a series of colored strands of twine to one around my calf. “Don’t mind me,” she said as she worked. “I’m almost done.”

I reached down to retrieve one of the bones that had fallen, but the old man snatched the cup from my hand. “Half outside, inauspicious. Half lost, beyond sight.” He squinted at the bones on the circle. “Rho, epsilon, iota, four-hundred-fifteen.” He pulled back, turning again to present his stormy eye. The wisdom, the pegasus’ home, a gift from the unknown. See!” He picked up one of the bones, two of which had fallen flat and one of which had landed on its side. “Each side has hidden meaning. Four and four and six is fourteen, success after many trials. A lifelong struggle, escaping at the end.” He held out his other hand to me, his fingertips glassy and smooth. “Two drachma.”

A pair of coins fell into his hands. “Enough,” my mentor said as she stepped back. “You’re scaring her. Chloe, rise. How’s your leg?”

I stood, carefully, and tested my weight on the injured leg; despite the twist I’d given it, it didn’t hurt even when I put my full weight on it. “It seems okay.” I knelt and scooped the three bones that had fallen under the table, dropping them beside the universe. “I’m sorry about the bad throw.”

The old man dropped the bronze coins into a purse hanging from a thong at his waist, then swept the bones, cast and uncast alike, back into his cup. “Seen and unseen come together. Hidden visible, visible hidden. Thirteenth step, thirteenth sign.” His glassy eye grew clear for only a moment, and a smile crossed his face. “You saved me once. Thank you.” Then, a moment later, the clarity was gone, and he turned back to the throngs in the market. “Fortunes! Seen and unseen! All within the circle, all outside! Two drachma!”

Nephtet was quiet for some time afterwards. The sun had almost completely fallen behind the hills by the time we had made it back to her estate. “Leave those knots overnight,” she said as we crossed the threshold into her main room. “You should be well by morning.”

I paused a moment, then let fly one of the two questions I’d been holding back all afternoon. “Teacher, did he really have the plague?”

My mentor paused on the stairs. “He did, once.”

I tilted my head to the side. “I thought we had a mission to help the sick.”

“I did help him, Chloe.” Nephtet’s words came haltingly, as if picked one by one from a pile. “That he only lost the one eye was because of me. I did the best I could for him, and it wasn’t enough.”

“Then why did he thank me?”

Nephtet shrugged. “It was a long time ago; he was much younger. He probably confused us. I told you he was touched.”

“Oh.” I waited again, then let fly the other. “Do you think he could see the future?”

My mentor was silent for longer this time. “I don’t know,” she admitted, her shoulders sagging. “The plague breaks people. I don’t understand it. I’ve studied it for years, and the more I learn, the less I’m sure I know. Maybe he can, but even if he could, I couldn’t make sense of it. If it’s divination you want, I’ll show you the tools I use to help me make sense of the world.”

My eyes went wide at the thought. “You will?”

“I will, but not tonight.” Nephtet yawned and stretched her arms. “Tonight, I have much to prepare, and you have much to study. Read up on Hayyan’s second volume of foundational element theory and make sure you understand it. Prepare questions for me by sundown Areos. Before I let you put your head in the clouds, I want to know your feet are firmly planted on the ground. Good night.”