The world turns. The planets move in the Sacred Dance, each stepping to a singular rhythm. The stars turn in their courses, looking down on the Earth with stern and pitiless gazes, glittering like ice crystals in the dark.
They slip into alignment, a glancing touch there and gone like a child's kiss, and the World falls silent in fear as it changes beneath them.
The first card Zolzaya Dubrovna flipped over was Death.
Her client’s eyes widened. Zolzaya herself winced a little, and had a couple of thoughts that used language unbecoming of a Wise Woman From Bulgaria, and a vocabulary much more consistent with the kind she’d used up until six months ago, when she had been Caroline Loeffler From Oxnard. With an effort, she forced her face into a passable impression of calm insight. She gave a gentle and knowing smile to the client, a worried-looking forty-something named Bonnie, and patted her hand, making her many bracelets jingle.
"Don’t worry, my dear," Zolzaya said. "The meaning of Death in the Tarot usually doesn’t mean actual, physical death."
"Usually?" Bonnie squeaked.
"I should amend that to 'almost never.' It means change. The abandonment of old ways of doing things. Sometimes the card Death isn't even negative, despite the imagery. It signifies a shift toward a better life, catalyzed by abandoning something that was holding you back."
Bonnie seemed to relax a little. "Is there a card that does mean death?" she asked. "Like real death? Like dead?"
"Yes, there is," Zolzaya said. "In certain configurations, the Nine of Swords can mean death."
"Oh," Bonnie said. "Okay."
The next card Zolzaya turned over was the Nine of Swords. "Shit," she said under her breath.
Zolzaya hated it when the cards came up bad. It made the clients anxious, and almost certainly guaranteed that she wouldn’t receive a tip. Sometimes it was possible simply to lie about what the cards said; very few of the clients knew anything about the meaning of the Tarot, and even those who did could be bamboozled by a little fast talking about what the cards meant in certain circumstances, in certain positions, or in relation to other cards.
It was hard to see what she could do to redeem this one, though. It was her own fault, opening up her big mouth about the Nine of Swords. And there it sat, big as life, with its terrifying image of a person sitting up in bed with his hands over his face, and behind his figure a jet-black background with a row of nine swords.
"Does this mean that I'm going to die?" Bonnie said, her voice tremulous.
"No, no," Zolzaya said. "I said the Nine of Swords can mean death. Together with the Death card, it… it doesn’t mean death."
Bonnie’s expression began a gradual shift from horrified to doubtful. "That doesn’t make any sense."
"You cannot take literally the message of the Tarot. The reading of the Major and Minor Arcana means more than simply reading a list of interpretations from a book. One has to see the big picture, put together the message that the cards are developing via the mystical connection between the client, the reader, and the universe, and then verbalize that."
"So you're saying that the Nine of Swords means death except when you say it doesn't."
"Now, I wouldn't say it that way, I mean that the cards…"
"In other words, you’re making it all up."
Zolzaya bristled a little, not because the woman was wrong, but because not to would have looked like acquiescence.
"Not at all. Different practitioners form different bonds with the cards and the client, and shed light on different facets of their lives. You can’t expect consistency from something that is, at its heart, a spiritual process."
"That sounds silly," Bonnie said, picking up her purse from the floor, and standing up. "I think you’re an awful person, setting up these cards so as to scare me. It’s not… not nice." She shoved the chair in toward the table, jerking the neatly laid-out cards askew.
"My dear," Zolzaya said, instead of what she would have liked to say, which ended with "… and the horse you rode in on."
But Bonnie snapped at her, "I’m not your dear. And I hope you’re not thinking I’m going to pay you anything for this… this foolishness."
"You should at least make that decision once you’ve had a complete reading. You shouldn’t make a judgment about me, or anything, on the basis of two cards."
"First, you give me the Death card, then you say the Death card isn’t a death card, but another one is, and you give me that one, and then start babbling about how it doesn't mean what you say it means unless you say it means that. I think you set me up to get your jollies. And I’m not falling for it. Good bye."
Bonnie turned and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind her, and making the bell that was attached to it jangle cheerfully.
"Fuck," Zolzaya said.
"Yo, Carrie," a familiar voice drawled from a back room. "You done already?"
"Client got pissed and walked out," she said. "And don’t call me Carrie, Vincent."
A tall, gangly blond man, with curly hair in need of a haircut, came in through the beaded curtain that separated the sitting room from the rest of the house. "Well, I’m sure as hell not calling you Ziola," he said.
"Whatever. It sounds ridiculous. You’re not Romanian."
"It’s right there on the sign, Vincent. Right there on the sign. Bulgaria."
"The sign also says you’re wise. But anyway. I wondered if you wanted some dinner."
"What’s for dinner?"
"Soup. I’ll put in an extra can if you want. Chicken noodle."
"Okay. I guess. If I’d gotten one more paying client, we’d have been able to order in pizza."
"Too bad," Vincent said. "How’d you chase away this one?"
"She got two cards she didn’t like." Zolzaya gestured at the Death and the Nine of Swords, still lying upright on the table.
"Couldn’t you have told her they were good cards? That they meant she was gonna get written into a will, or something?"
"Didn’t think fast enough." Zolzaya rubbed her eyes, smearing mascara and purple eye-shadow sideways across her temple. "I’m getting sick of doing this. Every day it’s the same thing. People wanting their significant others back, people trying to find a way to get rich, horny guys trying to find out their likelihood of getting a woman. And then you get these neurotic types who freak out and walk when they don’t get the fortune they were counting on."
She reached out, and absently turned over the next card. It was The Moon.
"Good thing she left when she did," Vincent observed.
Zolzaya nodded. The Moon was the card of dark secrets, evil dealings, betrayal, black magic. Better that Bonnie hadn’t seen this one.
"What do the others say?" Vincent said. "Maybe they'd have gotten better as you went along."
"Couldn't have gotten worse."
One by one, Zolzaya flipped over the cards, and as she did so, she at first frowned, then looked baffled, then looked horrified.
Justice. Retribution, revenge, the due penalties of evil.
The Ten of Swords. Heading toward disaster, a downward cycle in life.
The Devil. Change, violence, brutality.
The Three of Swords. Heartbreak, an emotional blow, loss.
The Hanged Man. Martyrdom, surrender.
"I’m afraid to look at the last one," Zolzaya said, looking up at her boyfriend.
"I didn’t think you believed all of this horse shit."
"I don’t. But still."
"Oh, come on," Vincent said. He reached over, and flipped the final card, the one that was supposed to tell the reader about the client’s future.
And on the final card, they saw the Falling Tower, showing a lightning bolt striking a castle, and two bodies cast headlong from its windows. The card of upheaval and destruction.
"Wonder if she was some kind of some kind of gang member about to go on a shooting spree?" Vincent said.
"Her? She looked like a mouse."
"Looks can fool you."
"Pfft. Please. Not in this case." She looked back down at the table again. "I’ve never seen such a bad set of cards. It’s like I picked out all of the worst ones, deliberately."
"I’ll bet she thought you did. I’ll go put the soup on. You got another half-hour till you close, maybe someone else will come in, and give Zolia the Wise a chance to redeem herself."
"Zolzaya, Vincent," she said, with a harsh sigh. "Zolzaya."
Vincent walked out of the room, setting the beaded curtain swinging again. Zolzaya, still staring at Bonnie's horrific cards, said under her breath, "But I didn’t do it deliberately. Why would I do that?" She pulled the cards together and shuffled them thoroughly, making sure that they were mixed back in at random. She had even worked her way back into a passable semblance of Mystical Oneness With The Universe by the time another client walked in, fifteen minutes later, this time an eager-looking college student being trailed by two buddies who were laughing behind their hands at him, and most likely at her as well.
Maybe she’d get a great reaction from this one, she thought, and his friends would be so impressed that they'd want readings, too. Sixty bucks would pay for a large pizza and some left over. She shuffled the cards again, just to be sure, and had him cut them, laid out the nine cards in the shape of a cross on her table. Let me center myself, remember the books I’ve read, prepare myself to dispense the Wisdom of the Ancients.
But when the first card she turned over was Death, she found that she couldn’t think of a single thing to say.