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The General's Mistress -- Sibyl

I was having an interesting conversation with a reader about how difficult it must be for Gull, with her oracular abilities, to live in the 18th century where at best no one believes in them. I thought I'd share a snippet from the upcoming book The General's Mistress, in which our girl has fallen on hard times and gotten a job as a fake sibyl in a confidence game! A man named Lebrun is running fake seances for which the participants pay well, with a pretty girl to ham it up. However, it doesn't go as he expects when he hires a real oracle....


In a few minutes Lebrun came dashing upstairs. He closed the door carefully and then spoke quickly. “Clemence isn’t coming. She’s drunk. Anybody want to be our Sibyl tonight? You’ll have to wing it.”

“I will,” I said, and was startled to hear myself speak.

Lebrun turned quickly, smiling. “Ah good! Let me take you aside then. Give that paper to Lisette". He led me over by the window. “At first don’t say a lot,” he said. “Just mumble and drop in some nice Classical references if you can. Then when we get to the body of it, I’ll try to keep it short. Villiers is going to want to know about his investments. Tell him in vague terms that he’ll prosper, but don’t get off on any particular stocks. Too easy for him to check. Noirtier will ask about the army. Just prophesy victory after long struggle. That’s easy. Again, no specifics. You’re not a damn almanac.”

I laughed.

“Anything else, they’re lucky in love and will meet a fascinating woman. You can go on about dark or fair, but don’t give them anything about a particular person. Got it?”

I nodded.

“Good girl.” Lebrun patted my arm. “And you can ham it up a bit. Moan. Roll your eyes. Don’t make it look easy!”

“I’ll do it,” I said.

Lebrun stepped away. “All right, places ladies! I’m going to go down and get our guests.”

Adele stood by the censer. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went and knelt by the little table. I didn’t touch the mirror. In the darkened room the faint shadows of people moving reflected oddly off the silvered glass. I looked down at my hands instead. Breathe, I thought. My heart was beating very fast.

We are all Doves, my mother had said. We see things in mirrors. Elzelina would have been able to hear….

The gentlemen came in. I did not look at them. I knelt quietly and did not raise my head.

Adele said the lines that had been mine. The incense filled the room. Frankincense and myrrh. The scent of time. My eyes closed, and I heard the lines around me as from far away.

“…for I am the Spirit of Fire, the breath of life. I am the summer sun, the golden orb of heaven….”

In my minds’ eye the sun glanced through stained glass windows. An angel with a sword of fire glowed bright, a red cloak billowing behind him, a white tabard over his silver armor, red device on white. The window split apart in unbearable brilliance before his glory.

“…for I am the Spirit of Water, the depths of the ocean.” I knew it was Lisette’s voice, but it seemed very far away and strange. “I am the movement of mists, the rains of heaven….”

Water beneath a leaping keel, the sound of the endless depths. Blue silence, and an octopus moving among submerged stones.

“…the dark places of the Earth, cold stones and lost caves….”

Sunrise, and a cold morning, a standing stone twice my height at my elbow, watching the sun rising out of the cold North Sea. Far overhead the faint honking of geese, great flocks of them, the children of the sun, the children of this endless day when there would be hardly any night, just the sun dipping low for an hour or two. Out across the windswept straits a ship was coming, her prow curved upwards like a swan or a dragon, a ship to bring a prince home.

“Oh great Sibyl!” Lebrun said at my elbow. “Will you not speak to us? Will you not look into the depths of time and tell us what you see? Speak! We entreat you!”

I remembered what I was supposed to be doing and opened my eyes. The blackened mirror reflected the vague shape of my face.

“Speak,” Lebrun said dramatically to a man out of my line of sight. “Ask your question, my friend!”

“Shall my investments in the banking house of Ouvrard prosper?” he asked.

I moaned. “Ah, ah, ah!” I said.

“Please tell me,” he said, and I could hear the note of excitement in his voice.

“Jupiter rules a man of power,” I said, trying to be both suitably poetic and obscure. “Power and prosperity is yours. Bright Jupiter ascends the heavens, and gold flows into the laps of the worthy.”

There were some small delighted sounds.

“Let M. Noirtier have his turn,” Lebrun said. I assumed he was directing traffic around the Sibyl. I did not move my eyes from the mirror. The candle flame’s reflection wavered.

A different voice. “How shall fare Bonaparte’s expedition in Egypt?”

This time I did not have to seek for the words. They were there as if they always had been. “He who would conquer Egypt must prepare to be conquered by it.” The arching sky looked back at me in the mirror, clear as faience, blue as dreams. My voice ran on, my will somewhere behind it. “There is a ship with an eagle spread upon its sail, great oars moving in unison. Caesar has come in relentless pursuit of his enemy, to conquer and to be conquered. The Black Land does not give up her secrets easily, for we are older than time. We were old when he last came here, golden warrior, son of the gods.”

There was a swift intake of breath behind me. Noirtier knelt down. “Can you tell me more?”

The light blurred, streaked like fire on water. “There will be fire on the deep, and Orient’s loss will blind the eagle,” I said. “It is not the sea that answers to his hand, but the deep buried mysteries of the land. He has come to Alexandria now as once he came to Siwah, seeking truths that only the Black Land can show him, and there he must find his destiny, in the place where he chose it once before, when he turned away from the rest that was offered. It is easy to descend to the underworld, but returning is the difficulty.”


I'd love to hear what you think!

Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
shezan
Nov. 10th, 2011 02:01 pm (UTC)
I LOVE IT! Alexander, Ceasar, Bonaparte!
jo_graham
Nov. 10th, 2011 02:15 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad it works for you!
shezan
Nov. 10th, 2011 02:02 pm (UTC)
It is not the sea that answers to his hand, but the deep buried mysteries of the land.

And nice forebodings of Aboukir...
jo_graham
Nov. 10th, 2011 02:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you! "Orient's loss will blind the eagle..." It will certainly come back that L'Orient is the flagship destroyed at Aboukir, because Elza could not possibly have known that!
(Deleted comment)
jo_graham
Nov. 10th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you like it!
tyches_echo
Nov. 10th, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
I love this! I was also wondering how you would work her oracular abilities in, and this is perfect.
jo_graham
Nov. 10th, 2011 03:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you! At this point in the story she doesn't even believe that the things she sees are real. Something which is about to change!
jenncatt
Nov. 10th, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)
Heh, reading that literally just gave me goosebumps...!
very effective stuff :o)
jo_graham
Nov. 10th, 2011 10:24 pm (UTC)
Oh thank you! I'm glad it gives you goosebumps!
_illumina_
Nov. 10th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
Now that _really_ gave me shivers. Wonderful.
jo_graham
Nov. 10th, 2011 10:25 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! She's still able to do what she used to be able to, but now she has no words for it.
aishabintjamil
Nov. 11th, 2011 01:36 am (UTC)
This is marvelous. It feel like it *should* be real, somewhere. I love the imagery of what she sees too, and the way the descriptions feel like they're almost poetry.
jo_graham
Nov. 11th, 2011 12:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you! She doesn't yet understand what she sees or think it's real, but she will!
linneasr
Nov. 13th, 2011 02:20 pm (UTC)
Very nice! I'm very much looking forward to its release.
jo_graham
Nov. 15th, 2011 08:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you! Believe me, so am I! :)
chiliarch
Nov. 15th, 2011 11:01 am (UTC)
I love how you get all the threads together. They are all one and at the same time you manage to say so much about the different people in the different periods of time.

And the son of a god................you have my hair standing on end!
jo_graham
Nov. 15th, 2011 09:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much! It is like braiding threads. They're all separate and yet make one thing. OH you will like my Napoleon!
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )