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Fortune's Wheel

A reader says, "I enjoyed The Ravens of Falkenau a lot, just like I enjoyed Hand of Isis and Black Ships, and I'm excited you've sold a new book! Can you tell us a little more about it?"

I'm tremendously excited too! I've been working on Elza's story since 1992, and it's absolutely amazing to be able to share her story with you. She's always been the most vivid version of this main character, the touchstone for all the others. Who is she like? All of them, actually, since she is Gull and Lydias and Charmian and the rest. I think she's closest to a cross between Charmian and Georg, which is pretty scary when you think about it!

Needless to say there will be edits and changes before you see the book next summer, but I'll delightedly share a snippet from toward the beginning with you now. The year is 1794, and Elza is the eighteen year old wife of a Dutch financier, the mother of two little boys. She's traveled to Baden to a spa with her ailing mother and her cousin Louisa, who is about forty, so that her mother can take the waters. Louisa, however, has brought an unusual parlor game....

Louisa rang for a collation in her rooms, and we sat beside a comfortable fire that took the chill out of the evening, munching on bread and cheese and tiny sausages wrapped in pastry. There was a box of cards on the side table and I suggested a hand.

Louisa laughed. “You can’t play cards with those! Well, I suppose you could, but someone would die!”

Seeing my confusion, she took out the box. “It’s an Italian deck for fortune telling. A friend of mine gave them to me. Parlor tricks, but fun. Will I marry a handsome man? That sort of thing.”

“I thought you already did,” I said. Her husband Ernst was fifty and as wide as he was tall, but he and Louisa seemed to get along.

She laughed again. “Very well, then. Will you find a handsome lover?” She looked at me and raised both plucked eyebrows.

“Now that’s something I’d like to find out,” I said. “I’ll play.”

Louisa lit more candles so we could see better, and I opened the box, spreading the cards out in the light. Round gold coins. Swords interlocked in intricate patterns, printed in blue and green and gold and red. Knights and kings holding the globe in their hands.

“You’re supposed to lay them out like this,” Louisa said. “You ask a question, and then you shuffle and cut three times, then lay out three piles. The first one is what, the second one is how, and the third one is why. I can never make them work at all, not even enough to be funny.”

I shrugged. They were beautiful. I ran my fingers over them, feeling them warm in my hands, creamy paper flowing like water. Chalices and staves, pages and queens. I pulled one out. “What’s this one?” I asked.

A woman sat enthroned, her blue robe flowing. Roses surrounded her, and behind her were two pillars and a veil between. She wore a crown surmounted by the horned moon, and her face was serene. “La Papesse?”

Louisa glanced over. “The female Pope? That doesn’t seem right.”

I knew where I had seen that pose before, the pillars and veil. It was in the engraving that opened the Golden Ass. “I think it’s Isis,” I said.

Louisa squinted at it. “That’s nice. So are you going to see about a lover or not?”

I cut the card back into the deck and shuffled, my hands enjoying the familiar feel of the cards. If there was one thing I had learned from my father, it was how to shuffle. “Tell me then,” I said to them. “Tell me because I want to know. Will I find a lover whom I truly love?” The cards flashed, colors bright and gleaming. “Tell me what will happen,” I said, bending my whole will toward them. “Who will I find, and how, and why?”

I cut them and laid them out in three, then turned the first one over.

The King of Chalices looked up at me, his red hair garish on the printed paper, a golden cup in his hand. Behind him was the sea, and in his other hand was a sword ornamented with pearls.

“A red haired man,” Louisa said.

“Quick in emotion, in anger or love,” I said. “That’s what the waves mean. Generous and dangerous too.”

I flipped the second card over. “The Fortune's Wheel,” I said. “See, Louisa? How the poor souls bound to the wheel go up to fame and riches and then tumble down to the grave, only to go around again?

“That doesn’t look very nice,” Louisa said. “Do you think your fortunes will tumble? Does Jan have any risky financial transactions? Bad investments?”

I shrugged again. “Not that I know of. But with the revolution in France and all, even kings are going to the guillotine. And peasants are coming up.” My eyes ran over the wheel. Up, up, up on the wheel of fortune, to the dizzying pinnacle, and then suddenly tumbling over. Over and over, up and down, cradle to grave.

“Elzelina?” Louisa touched my shoulder. “Are you all right?”

“Fine,” I said. I felt odd, like the pictures could draw me into them, unnaturally bright. I smiled at Louisa reassuringly. “I’m fine.” I turned the last card over.

An emperor rode in triumph in a chariot, his hair wreathed in victory, his arms extended holding the reins. One black horse and one white horse drew the chariot, fine, prancing steeds, but they pulled in different directions, the black one stamping at the ground. His strength kept them yoked together. Behind him the artist had suggested the slave at his shoulder, the one whose task it was to whisper that all glory is fleeting.

“The Chariot,” I said. “That’s why. The wind through the world. It’s starting again. It’s already started.”

“What are you talking about?” Louisa said.

Oracles and princes, flame leaping from a funeral pyre, fire dying in a brazier, a walled city lit by Greek fire like a vision from hell, cards flying like leaves in the wind, pieces of paper torn from an illuminated book, all shifting so quickly I couldn’t see them. A cathedral window cracking open like ice before an angel with a sword of fire, a desert falcon spiraling up into the faience blue sky, an arrow shooting far wide of the mark.

Louisa’s hand on my wrist. “Elzelina? Are you all right? I think we’d better put the cards away.”

I focused on her face. It was real and close, skin a little blotchy along her chin, concerned blue eyes. “Yes,” I said. “I think we’d better. I’m sorry, Louisa. I just felt a little faint there for a moment.”

I'd love to hear what you think!

Also, if you're curious for more Elza, she appears briefly in two stories in The Ravens of Falkenau, in Small Victories and Winter's Child.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2011 11:34 am (UTC)
Wow I love these scenes, this has sold me instantly. You truly are a brilliant writer, Jo!
May. 26th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC)
Thank you so very much! Elza is dangerous, in her own way.
May. 26th, 2011 12:32 pm (UTC)
Ooh, very very nice! I love the slave at the Emperor's shoulder to remind him all glory is fleeting, and the way that Elza remembers all even this early but knows not what to do with it - that she means to ask a frivolous question and instead gets that.
May. 26th, 2011 04:26 pm (UTC)
Thank you! She's still an oracle, and when she pushes she gets answers -- ones that are bigger than she ever expected.
May. 26th, 2011 07:42 pm (UTC)
Of course she's not going to find a little message about some lover in the cards. Not Gull, not Charmian, not Lydias. If she asks the gods a question, by the gods, she'll get an answer.
May. 27th, 2011 03:06 pm (UTC)
Nope! No little messages for our girl! She's got the big, truthful answer. Of course she has no idea what it means....
May. 27th, 2011 01:19 am (UTC)
So, uh, I have to confess that as much as I love you (and you in your other persona) I haven't actually read any of your yet. I have Black Ships (and gave it to my mother to read, as she likes historical fantasy more than I do and generally has a smaller TBR at any given time than I do), but just haven't gotten around to it.

So...is it bad that I suddenly am SUPER SUPER INTERESTED? Because I have got to have more of Elza. Right now. She has grabbed me and won't let go.
May. 27th, 2011 03:12 pm (UTC)
No, it's super, super good! That makes me very happy! I'm hoping that Elza will grab people and suck them right in!
May. 28th, 2011 12:28 am (UTC)
I'm hooked! A character who has been swimming in the ethers since 1992, playing in the Numinous World, who combines all the soul-level lessons of Gull, Lydias, Charmian, and all the others in The Ravens of Falkenau?? Oh, yes!
Jun. 1st, 2011 02:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you like the sound of it! I think Elza is my favorite of all of them.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )