The carnival was a whirl of torchlight and laughter. Peanut shells crunched beneath Raven’s boot-formed feet, the breeze ruffled her skin-cravat, and a group of grimy children ran squealing past. A one-man band wandered by from the other direction, filling the air with the sound of drums, cymbals, and some manner of horn; she started, then grinned, to realize he played with two sets of arms.
Raven had not been to a carnival since her early childhood, and memory had not prepared her for the overwhelming spectacle of it. For some time she simply wandered, gazing about with fascination and delight. The carnival had a carousel, and a tiny steam-powered train on a circular track. On every side men called out their offerings.
“Which cup holds the nut? Find the nut, win a penny!”
“Fresh roasted peanuts! Fresh hot cinnamon buns!”
“Pick a card, gov’nor, any card you like!”
“The Disappearing Devil! He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere! Come one, come all, you won’t believe your eyes!”
She followed a party of other young men into the tent housing the Disappearing Devil, but was distracted on the way by a sideshow. A dark-haired boy stood surrounded by streams of fire, directing them with his hands in a complex dance. His face held an expression of such transported absorption and joy, Raven doubted he was aware of his audience at all. The rather singed sign overhead read The Amazing Pyromaniac.
She watched a long time, thrilled by the rush and roar of the flames, bitterly jealous of the boy’s freedom to display his Gift. So very powerful a Gift! On either side of her, Mundanes cheered and applauded, tossed coins, and moved on to the next attraction. How foolish people could be! They thought of this boy’s Gift as – how had Erik put it – a parlor trick, when he could just as easily use it to kill them, every one of them. Taking their money was all very well, but this boy could as easily demand their worship as their pennies. How could they not see that?
At length, Raven tore herself away from The Amazing Pyromaniac, and turned to see the rest of the performers. The Disappearing Devil who was, indeed, here and there and everywhere, and frightened the Mundanes witless; The Toad-Man with his astonishing tongue and acrobatic leaps; Madam Psylocke the Mind-Reader, who held her attention a good while as she tried to catalog the differences between her Gift and Charles’s.
We could do this, you and I, she pictured herself saying to Charles. ‘Hazard your will against the Astonishing Doctor – no, Professor – Xavier, who knows your thoughts before you do! Gape in awe at Mystique, spirit from the beyond, descended to the mortal plane to take human form – ANY human form!’ You may even bring your friend if you like, Charles – ‘Quail before Magneto, Master of Magnetism!’
Charles would likely have her bundled off to a hospital for even suggesting it, convinced she was fevered if not mad.
Even that reflection could not sour her spirits entirely. She could hardly believe how light and free she felt here, safe from judgment behind a false face in a crowd of strangers – free to win a shilling at the hammer-bell, and spend it on a mug of ale; free to laugh and shout and be unladylike. Free to wink at a red-haired girl who stumbled over her foot, and receive her answering blush like a precious stone too awkward to wear, too beautiful to let drop.
That encounter left her feeling giddy and wrong-footed and strange, enough that she sought shelter from the crowd by ducking into the House of Mirrors.
Her effervescent mood dimmed immediately. On every side a glass, and none of them reflecting Raven. In every direction lay distortion – but none of it a more false image than the one she already wore.
She was quite alone. Laughter and voices rebounded through the maze of mirrors, but no one stood within sight. And if someone should catch a glimpse of her, why, this was a carnival! She would be taken for one of the attractions.
With a smile of relief, Raven let the doe-eyed ginger boy melt away, and spun to watch her dozen blue reflections twist and ripple and swirl.
“I thought it must be so.”
Raven gasped, snapping back into her most familiar form – blonde Miss Darkholme, complete with muslin gown. Oh, foolish move, now her indiscretion could be traced to its owner, her true identity exposed and shamed – but the speaker did not look eager to shame her. She looked amused, and satisfied, but not in the predatory way of the blackmailer. Or so Raven hoped.
“Madam Psylocke!” she said, and the woman smiled, tossing long black hair over her shoulder and curtsying.
“Indeed. But you may call me Miss Braddock. I knew your mind did not match your face, that you must surely be one of us.”
“I am. You may call me M-Miss Teak.”
“Well, Miss Teak,” Madam Psylocke said, with such arch emphasis that Raven knew she was not deceived, “there is one of our number who greatly desires to speak with you.”
Raven frowned. “With me? Do I know this person?”
Madam Psylocke’s smile deepened. “No, not at all. But she knows you. Come.” She turned and began leading the way out of the House of Mirrors.
Raven swallowed, settled her young man’s disguise back into place, and followed.
On the edge of the carnival, a bit separated from the noise and light, was a tent of deep purple cloth, and a sign reading Lady Destiny, Blind Seer and Prophetess.
“Enter, Miss Teak,” Madam Psylocke said. “Believe me, you are expected.”
Raven swallowed, and walked through the curtain into the tent.
The room was dim, lit by a single candle-sconce. The walls were heavy with colorful drapery. Lace covered a table, on which sat a deck of cards and a clear glass ball the size of Raven’s head – but both these things were pushed to the side, and the middle of the table was mostly occupied by the hands of the woman who sat behind it. They were delicate, graceful hands, twisting around each other with eagerness or anxiety, and Raven stared at them a moment before she dared raise her eyes to their owner’s face.
She was perhaps a year or three Raven’s senior, her face as pretty and pale as her hands, with dark hair disarrayed as if she had just pulled it down – or perhaps relieved it of a fortuneteller’s turban. She wore golden hoops in her ears, and layers of opulent shawls. All this Raven noticed only after tearing her gaze away from the milky sheen of the woman’s sightless eyes.
“Hello, Raven,” the woman said, her voice warm and gentle, and bearing a tremulous edge of the excitement that kept her hands in motion. “My name is Irene Adler, and I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
For all his hurry to get to bed, Erik found no rest there. He stared into the coals in the grate, then at the dark ceiling, alternately kicking his blankets off and pulling them back on again. His sleeplessness was irritating, but not surprising; the truth was that he had not excused himself early because he was tired. In fact, he might as well admit to himself that he had fled out of fear. Not fear of Charles, but… well, but therein lay the problem. Charles surely posed a greater threat to the people around him than anything short of the angel of death, if he chose to use his Gift to its fullest. And yet Erik felt at home, at peace, in his presence in a way that he had not thought he could ever feel again. He did not trust the feeling. It was possible Charles was causing it, manipulating him deliberately, or even unconsciously. It was just as possible that it was simply Erik’s own weakness, the same weakness that had let him be lulled by safety and peace until he was too soft to protect his family.
Either way, the draw he felt towards Charles Xavier, the desire to be near him and earn his approval, could only be harmful. The intimate sensation of Charles inside his mind was a false and unnatural comfort, and he had been right to distance himself from it as quickly as possible.
None of which he intended as a condemnation of Charles as a person. Charles had earned Erik’s gratitude by his actions, and Erik’s affection by his manner, and it was no use and no virtue to pretend otherwise. Their acquaintance was yet in its infancy, but Erik dared, quietly, to hope that it would prove a lasting friendship, a mutual support that could survive all the trials of passing years and growing families—
And there Erik had to laugh at himself, for surely his own future held no hope of family, not anymore. Charles, of course, would marry, and fill this great echoing house with beautiful blue-eyed children. Why was he not married already? He had returned from the war only six months ago, he’d said, but that was time enough for many a soldier to find a pretty young thing and embark on domestic bliss. Why not Charles?
Was it his injury that prevented it? Did women scorn him now, because he could not walk? Erik’s skin warmed with anger at the thought. Any woman in the world should count herself blessed to receive the attentions of a man like Charles Xavier – generous, kind, brave and intelligent. He had charm, wealth, good looks – surely the wealth alone would win most women’s hearts, though that idea, too, was repulsive – Charles yoked for life to a fortune-hunter who cared nothing for his happiness. He made a note to do whatever proved necessary to prevent such a fate for Charles.
His next breath dispelled all such thoughts, all thoughts whatsoever, as it filled his lungs with the stench of burning meat.
“Papa. Papa, help me.” The words were nearly swallowed by the chewing roar of a fire that gave no light to the room. “Papa, please.”
Erik flung off the blankets and stood, looking about frantically. “Anya? Where are you?”
“I’m here, Papa.”
The voice came from behind him; he spun, and there on the foot of the bed, sitting with knees drawn to her chest as she had been wont to do, was the flame-limned shadow of his little girl. As Erik watched, the sound of fire faded, and the flames around her died away to only an occasional flicker, leaving her features as clear and solid as any child’s. Magda’s wide dark eyes, his own thin lips and high cheekbones, the scatter of freckles that were all her own.
“Anya.” He fell to his knees beside the bed, reached out – left his hand only an inch from her foot, not daring to touch. “Why are you here?”
“Don’t you want me here?”
Erik blinked away tears. “Of course I do, love. But you’re… You should be at peace. I avenged you, you should be at peace.”
“But you’re so sad. How can I be at peace when you’re so sad?” Flames flickered in her hair.
She was not real, Erik reminded himself. She was neither a real child nor the ghost of one, only his own memory. There was surely no point in arguing with her.
He argued anyway, through the growing tightness of his throat. “Anya, it doesn’t matter if I’m sad. It is not your place to take care of me, but mine to care for you.”
“I know. I remember. Papa takes care of Mama and Baby.” She inched her foot forward, toward his hand. He could feel the radiant heat of it. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real. “I miss Mama,” she said, her voice cracking.
That was more than he could bear. He stood and crossed the room to lean against the mantel, staring down into the dying coals.
But there was no escaping; he could feel her standing at his side before she spoke. “Don’t you miss Mama? Don’t you miss us?”
“Yes.” Somehow the word was both a shout and a whisper. “Yes, schatzi, I miss you more than anything.”
Anya put her arms around his waist, and her touch burned, felt just like fire against his skin. He knelt and pulled her close, buried his face in her hair even as sparks drifted through it.
“Don’t be sad, Papa. I still love you.”
“I love you, too, schatzi.”
She pulled back and pressed a burning kiss to his skin – three kisses, just as she always had at bedtime – one to his forehead and one to either cheek, and waited for him to return the favor. He did, the tears on his face hissing against the heat of her skin.
She was gone as quickly as she’d come, and with her the pain of burning; his skin was unmarked.
He did not sleep until nearly dawn.
“We have never met, Miss Adler,” Raven said, and could not muster an ounce of the affront this woman’s familiarity should provoke.
“No, we have not. But I’m sure you have gathered the nature of my Gift. I have known for many years that you would come here.”
“And do what?”
Irene Adler’s smile quirked wistfully. “As to that, there are too many possibilities to say for certain.”
Raven raised an eyebrow. “This from the prophetess.”
“The future is never certain, Raven, only probable. Particularly where it hinges on the decisions of one so… protean as yourself.” Her voice was rich with affection, and despite her nervous unease, Raven felt warmed. She had no idea what she could have done to earn the affection of this beautiful woman, so glamorous and elegant and yet with such a sweetness to her manner – but whatever it was, she would gladly do it again.
“Won’t you have a seat?” Irene asked, and Raven sank into the chair without protest.
“Pray forgive the liberty, my stranger-friend,” Irene said, “but I would dearly like to see your face.” She raised her hands, diffidently, and after an uncertain moment Raven sat forward, and let the delicate fingers sweep over her cheeks. “No, no,” Irene said instantly. “Your face, Raven.”
Raven swallowed, and let her skin ripple back into its natural state, keeping the form of a white dress over it.
“There you are.” Irene’s voice was nearly a croon. Raven closed her eyes and let Irene’s warm fingers follow every dip and curve of her cheeks and nose and forehead, eyes and lips and the edges of her hair. She tried to remember if anyone had ever touched her like this before, as if she were something precious and beautiful.
“Sweet Raven,” Irene murmured. “Would you have me tell your fortune?”
Raven opened her eyes, and did not answer immediately, letting her gaze roam Irene’s face as Irene’s hands had roamed hers. “Before asking my fortune,” she said, “I would ask one who knows, whether she has found that knowing events beforehand brings her joy.”
“You are wise,” Irene chuckled, settling her hands in her lap. “And the answer is that it has brought me the greatest joys of my life. And the greatest sorrows. But I will not read your future now; you would not believe what I told you. Once the cushion of a long sleep and your familiar home sits between us, you would remember that I gave you no proof of my Gift, that I could as easily be a charlatan with strange taste in victims. The first thing I will do, then, is point out that I have neither asked for, nor will I accept, a single coin from your hand tonight.”
“And what is the second thing you will do?”
“Tell you your present,” Irene said, “which was the future only hours ago, and which may, seen through another’s eyes, give you more guidance than a dozen futures.” She placed her hands on the table once more, palms up.
Raven hesitated only a moment before laying her own hands in them. “Very well, then, Lady Destiny,” she said, hardly knowing if she meant it as jocularity or sarcasm. “Tell me what you see.”
“I see a young woman who has yet to realize that she stands at a crossroads. Who needs without knowing what she needs. You have the love of people who do not understand you, and you have – or will soon have – the understanding of a man who does not love you. You can be as beautiful as a fairy queen, and yet feel that in truth the plainest farm-girl outshines you. You yearn for the approving eyes of men, and yearn just as strongly to stand before their disapproval unmoved. You can create yourself in any image, wear any face you choose, except the real one.” She smiled softly. “And tonight a girl’s blush moved you more than a kiss from Mr. McCoy ever could.”
Though she had not worn true clothes all night, Raven only now began to feel naked. She drew trembling hands gently away from Irene’s. “What do you know about Mr. McCoy?” She had not seen Hank since her departure to Brighton, but they had exchanged letters, and there was talk of his visiting later in the week.
“Mr. McCoy is one branch at the crossroad, Raven. He is a dear boy, you are not deceived in his character – though your knowledge of his faults is incomplete.”
“What do you mean by that?” Raven licked her lips nervously. “Will he ask for my hand?”
Irene’s smile quirked. “Yes. But that is nothing you do not already know.”
“Should I accept him?”
“You stand at a crossroads,” Irene repeated. “Which path you should choose depends entirely on which destination you wish to reach.”
Raven pressed her hands against her eyes, trying to smother sudden tears. She felt very tired. “And what destination do I wish to reach?”
“That is hard for me to know, when you have not yet decided. I do know that if life were a wagon, you would load yours heavy, on the roughest path, and pull it alone. You would treasure every scar that path won you, and consider your strength at the end of the road to be worth every pain.”
Again Raven felt the tuning fork inside her sing to the note that matched it, and her tears came thicker. “Do you see me finding it? This heavy, painful, purposeful life?”
“No,” Irene said, “for it is not something you find. It is something you make, forged in the deepest parts of your own fire. Oh, dearest.” She cupped one hand around Raven’s cheek, stroking away tears. “You are not a raven at all, you know, but a tiger, and you will have no weak and watery life, whatever path you choose.”
Raven shuddered with a swell of hope and relief, as if those words had opened a gate, swept away a blockage. Stumbling, she left her seat, and found herself kneeling at Irene’s feet, head pillowed on her lap, while Irene stroked her hair.
Their tableau held for a long, dreamlike while, Raven lost in the comfort of Irene’s hands, the warmth of the lap beneath her cheek, the sweet scent of her loose hair that fell over Raven like a protective curtain. Irene sang to her, soft snatches of tune that seemed both meaningless and desperately important, and bent forward to press a kiss to Raven’s hair and rest her own cheek against Raven’s, arms warm around her.
Then Raven started at sudden noise from outside the tent, a high whistle followed by a boom not unlike Charles’s cannons.
“That is the fireworks,” Irene said serenely. “They mark the end of the carnival for tonight, but we do not travel again until Monday.” She tipped Raven’s chin up. “Can I impose on you to guide a blind woman outside for the show?”
Raven bit her tongue on the obvious question, eyeing the gentle amusement in Irene’s face. She stood and linked their arms to lead her out of the tent.
Bursts of red and gold and silver flared and glittered overhead, and Raven smiled at them with the simple joy of a child. No, when had she ever felt this pure, trembling joy in her childhood? This was something entirely new. Irene’s arm was around her waist now, and when Raven hesitantly reciprocated the gesture, the reward was not only the sweet fascination of a curving hip under her hand, but Irene’s smile as she shifted even closer, resting her head against Raven’s shoulder.
Raven did not dare try to name what she was feeling, chose defiantly not to remember how little she knew of this woman, or that she ought already to have been at home. She let herself know only that she was, for this moment, more perfectly happy than she had ever been in her life.