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Stravaganza: City of Masks

Prologue: Reading the Future

In a room at the top of a tall house overlooking a canal, a man sat dealing cards out on to a desk covered in black silk. He made a circle of twelve cards, face up, methodically moving widdershins, placed a thirteenth in the middle of the circle, then leaned back and contemplated the pattern.

?Strange,? he murmured.

The card in the middle — the most important one — was the Sword, signifying danger. Rodolfo was used to that symbol setting the tone of his readings. It was no surprise either to see the Queen of Fishes as the seventh card, to the right of the Sword. Danger often appeared close to the most important woman in Bellezza and the water queen was obviously the Duchessa. But the Princess of Fishes was the first card, to the left of the Sword, and he had no idea what she could signify.

It was the oddest reading he had ever seen. The only number cards to appear were fours, all four of them, one from each suit — Fishes, Birds, Salamanders and Serpents. They were ranged like guards on either side of the Princess and the Queen. All the other cards were major trumps — the Lovers, the Magician, the Goddess, the Tower, the Spring Maiden and, most disturbingly, Death.

Rodolfo looked at the array for a long time before sweeping the cards up, shuffling them thoroughly and setting them out again. Princess of Fishes, Four of Serpents, the Lovers, the Magician ? By the time he set the Sword down in the middle, Rodolfo?s hands were shaking. He had dealt exactly the same pattern.

Hastily, he swept the cards up again and wrapped them in their black silk. He stowed them in a drawer of the carved desk and removed from another a velvet bag containing glass stones. Closing his eyes, he put a hand in the bag and drew out a handful of the stones, which he cast lightly on the desk top, where they glittered in the candlelight.

Each nugget of shining glass had a silver emblem embedded in the middle. Wonderingly, Rodolfo identified a crown, a leaf, a mask, the number 16, a lock of hair, a book— He started when he saw the book.

Then he stood up. ?Silvia again,? he murmured, holding the piece of smooth purple glass containing the silver crown. He walked to the window and looked out over his roof-garden. Lanterns swung gently between the trees, illuminating the flowers and leaves, bleached of their vivid daytime colours. In the distance a peacock screamed.

He walked back to the desk and took a pair of twelve-sided dice from a drawer. Six and ten he threw, eight and eight, seven and nine — wherever he looked tonight the number sixteen kept coming up. That and the symbols of a young girl and danger. Whatever it meant, it was linked with the Duchessa and he would have to tell her about it. Knowing Silvia, she would not tell him whatever significance his divinations had for her, but at least she could prepare herself for whatever new danger was approaching.

Sighing, Rodolfo put away his means of divination and prepared to visit the Duchessa.