She knew him only as the Soothsayer, recommended by her aristocratic friends to cast a prediction, assure her that her choice of a wealthy husband had been wise. She had presented Medardo de Vale with crimson wine and rich foods in a lavish boudoir, all of which he'd accepted with courtly etiquette.
Her intentions, however, went far beyond an interest in prophecy. She meant to seduce him. He would allow her to do so.
"What will happen?" she asked softly.
Like all those before her, she'd asked the wrong question. She shouldn't have asked what will happen, but what could happen. Fate's path was not etched in stone. It flowed like a slim silvery stream, winding past obstacles and taking the path of least resistance. She was not to know this, and the Soothsayer, Medardo de Vale, was far too wearied by the philosophies of life to explain.
He removed the Cards from his jewelled gold casket, spreading out those that revealed her choice of husband had not been wise and foretold the strife that would soon befall those who wallowed in opulence and power. She, too, would suffer its consequence. Escape was possible but not probable. As she watched him with glistening blue eyes he lied about her impending fate as not to frighten on these, her last days of life. "You will reap what is owed," he said. "Your every desire will be fulfilled."
Her toe rubbed against his leg beneath the table. Painted lips curled to a wicked smile. "I desire you, monsieur."
He had told her not what was true but what she wanted to hear. And now she would reward him. For one night, he would be her lover. If there was peril involved in such an indiscretion, Medardo de Vale was not concerned. He was unlike other men. Nearly three centuries of anguish had taught him to be fearless. No blade could sever his life from his body. No poison could afflict his blood. Age could not cripple him. Immortality and its twin eternal loneliness were his curse.
He graciously accepted her offer of an illicit tryst. For its duration he might be released from the pain that infected his timeless soul. Even if only temporarily.
Their first kiss was the last. He went to her bed, took pleasure from her pale flesh, but did not offer what wasn't there to give--love.
The one woman he had loved was dust now. He was condemned to eternity without her. Fate had been unkind because he had learned far too late that he was arrogant man. The road he now followed was endless and barren. He had given the Dragon--the Beast--his soul in exchange for eternal life. The pain of endless life without love was excruciating. All joy had forsaken him. His Cup was empty. It was a cruel punishment, yet likely a justified one. Still, he could forget his trespasses while in a woman's arms, while buried into the heat of an attentive body. There were only two avenues of pleasure left for Medardo--the passions of the flesh and inhaling the Dragon's smoke. This night was for flesh. This night he would forget his curse.
In the predawn hour, he gently rose from her bed and dressed.
"Soothsayer," she whispered. "Must you go so soon?"
He felt sympathy for the future he had seen in her Cards. The city was on the verge of vile upheaval, the barrier between opulence and paucity too vast. In the distance beyond the open shutters, he already heard angry voices, poverty's cry, boiling into an inevitable revolution. He sat on the edge of her bed, stroked the shadowed line on her throat where the executioner's blade would fall.
"I must," he said softly. "Go back to sleep."
She sighed and turned, returning to her dreams.
He watched her, refusing to judge the morality of either an individual or the society in which they lived. He had drifted through Europe, venturing far, always on the move. He had seen much, the evil in mans' heart as well as the virtues. But he was not one who could judge any of what he witnessed. He could judge only himself and his own pitiful weaknesses.
This day he would pass from the city, travel farther north to obey an unspoken urge to seek out London. Evil lurked in those streets as well, but if he kept moving, kept hiding, it would not touch him. Only that within him could. That dark void he could never escape.
He fastened his hair behind his head and shrugged into his velvet coat.
Soundlessly, he crept to the table where he picked up the small gold casket that housed his precious Cards. Clutching it to his chest, he closed his eyes. If he inhaled the Dragon's breath, rapture would open his mind. With the smoke, he could venture inside the Tarot's mystical domain, sit with the Queen of Chalices and stare at her beauty while listening to her words of wisdom.
Since learning to unlock the door to the Card's royal realm, he had always been welcomed and given the freedom to move amongst each picture, conversing with every character, great and small. They were his friends. Of late, however, he was too despondent to seek out any, including royalty. Yet by holding the Cards he sensed the Queen's presence.
Loneliness was at its deepest during the hour before the dawn.
"Forgive me," he prayed.
"Dardi, my precious Prince."
He squeezed the box as though clinging to the last fraying threads of hope. "My Queen, I am not worthy of a royal title. Close your Chalice for I am but a pauper in this world. I am less in yours."
"Lips that are dry more so need the sweet kiss of wine."
His breath caught. Her poetry had always touched his heart. She presented an ancient wisdom simply, beautifully and eloquently. He had been an eager student of the unseen long before he discovered the path inside the Tarot. He had sought alchemists, teachers, philosophers, sorcerers, and he had walked a dangerous path with the collection of knowledge gained from each. He understood that secrecy was of the utmost importance and that his charm and good looks opened many doors. As a dedicated student he had heard much, even what was unsaid, and quickly combined all he had learned into powerful concoctions. He had discovered that by chasing the Dragon his mind opened even further, guiding him to the feet of the greatest teacher of all--the embodiment of virtue--his Queen. He had vowed to her then that he was her faithful servant. She had accepted his offer. And she had taught him ancient wisdoms in a voice both musical and pure. Her poetry had filled his spirit and swelled in his heart.
But it could not do so now.
Time had darkened that first purity of enthusiasm. Time and, the greatest burden of all, travelling through each day without his one true love.
He bowed his head in mourning. "Dames de Coeur, la foyer est perdue."
"No, Dardi. Faith is not lost. And Hope is a cherished friend."
A streak of anger slashed through his breast. "I have no hope," he protested. "Love lies buried in a Venetian crypt, and I wish to lie there, as well! I am condemned without her!"
"Love never dies. Its echo goes on."
"I cannot hold an echo! I cannot kiss an echo! I can no longer trust what is beyond my eyes!"
"Faith does not have eyes."
"Leave me," he whispered. He was doomed. Surely she saw his plight.
Instantly a white dove fluttered onto the window's casement. Its pure colour glowed against the darkness of the dimming night.
"Then open your eyes."
His anger melted. Yet the stain of anguish remained. Through his tears, he watched the dove. "What does this mean?"
"Peace is at hand."
"Death has found a way to take me?"
"No, Dardi. The River of Life can only flow in one direction. It may dip beneath the Earth, for a time, far from the eye's reach, but it surfaces again farther along its course."
"I have no patience for riddles. I have no strength for answers."
"A new day begins. Go, precious Prince. Your heart has been reborn. You still have much to learn."
The dove spread its wings and vanished.
"My Queen, I can no longer believe," Dardi whispered, slipping the casket into his velvet coat's pocket. "Forgive me."
With that, Medardo de Vale stole silently into the night.