She heard the Carnival before she saw it – the gentle murmur of a throng, the upbeat tune of a calliope, mixed in with the cries of strange animals, cheers and applause. Beneath it all, cresting the edge of her hearing there was a hum, a low buzz that saturated everything, making everything more dreamlike, a bit less fundamentally real.
They were moving towards the noise, through a series of literature-lined passageways that folded over and around each other in a warren of words, when she smelt the Carnival too. A melange of spices, strange and familiar alike, run through with darker undertones, metallic blood and meat, a sickly sweetness of rot blending with something more like candyfloss.
“That’s good,” said Alan conversationally, “we’re downwind of it, the Carnival won’t be able to smell us coming.”
Alice started to form an incredulous question about how a carnival, even one with a capital C in Carnival, could possibly ‘smell’ them coming – but she cut her thought short when they rounded a corner, bringing the Carnival into view. It squatted in the middle of a clearing in the warrens, a plain covered in odd spiralling patterns of knee-high bookshelves, a riot of colour in the midst of the greys, greens and browns of the Library at large. Streamers and pennants flapped in different directions from the tips of the giant striped tents, each feeling a separate breeze, along with the coiling trails of coloured smoke that circled lazily above the Carnival like vultures. With a start she realised that there was grass, the first she’d seen in nearly a week, between the tents and coating the ground within the long fence that surrounded the Carnival.
As they approached, she noticed that the air around the edges of the Carnival was blurry, swimming as if in a heat haze. The bookshelves near to it seemed to be bending around it, distorted like putty.
She pointed it out. “What’s up with those?”
“The Carnival expands from a single point, and displaces what used to be there, extruding a small bubble of reality into the Realms it arrives at,” Nik said, attempting (and failing) to illustrate the concept with hand gestures.
“Expands from a single point?”
Nik shrugged. “Yeah, it’s how it gets between Realms.”
“It sort of, er,” Alan began, “folds up? And then burrows between the Realms, from each place that it manifests.”
The fortune teller scoffed. “That’s a terrible analogy. Guess I can’t blame you, though – you’re a fleshy meat creature from Materia.”
“How,” Alan retorted, “are you not a ‘fleshy meat creature’, frogman?”
“I get up early in the morning and practice.”
– – –
The gates of the Carnival were tall, built from wrought iron and strung with ribbons, set in a very spiky looking fence that marked the edge of the space distortion around the Carnival.
“Hello! Welcome! Welcome to the Carnival Carnivora, the Greatest Show in All The Realms!” burbled the person sitting in the ticket booth. They were, on the surface, a clown – facepaint, wiry-haired wig, red nose and all – but almost definitely weren’t human. They moved with a disconcerting looseness as they took the strange plastic tokens Alan fished out of a pocket, and handed back a small sheaf of tickets, which Alan handed out.
“Now, Liz, don’t you and your brother go getting into any trouble,” he said as he handed her a few tickets.
“I make no promises.”
“Okaaaaay.” She took Ed’s hand, and they set off, towards one of the larger tents.
“Hey now, young lady. Take an adult with you. No more biting clowns.”
[I Will Look After Them, If You Wish.]
“Oh cool,” said Alan, “thanks, Twelfth.”
“Heck yes,” said Liz excitedly, “c’mon, Twelfth, let’s go cheese the Test Your Strength machine.” She and her brother looked tiny next to the towering Bookbinder as they set off into the Carnival, towards the sideshows and arcades.
“Liz bit a clown?” Alice asked.
“Oh yeah!” Alan sounded proud and mortified simultaneously. “That was fun. Don’t tell Liz I said that, though. I’m not sure I want to encourage her down that particular path. Now, Alice, what do you want to do at the Carnival?”
“Er, take in the sights?”
“I know! We could have her future read!”
“Aren’t you a fortune teller?” she asked incredulously.
Nik’s brother smiled sweetly. “I’m willing to concede that the oracle of which I speak is better at the long term than I am, and we can pool our resources on untangling your very interesting destiny.”
It was Nik’s turn to smirk. “Wait. Waaaait. Is that who I think it is?”
“Brother dearest, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Anyway, let’s go! Cut to us arriving!”
– – –
Nik’s brother led Alice, Nik, Alan and both A Librarians to a small purple tent amidst the chaos of the Carnival at large. Multiple people with identical sounding names remained confusing.
“This is the place. Madame Pythia’s House of Mysterious Futures And Also Bargains To Die For.”
“Bro,” Nik said, “I understand that you and Pythia are, ahem, friends, but do you have to do the whole ‘full advertisement’ thing?”
“Mmmmaybe? It’s possible that I might have lost a bet a few years ago to the owner of this house of,” he said, before breathing in deeply, “MASSIVE DEALS!”
“Is that some sort of compulsion?” Alice asked, struggling to keep from giggling.
“I’d have you know that this wondrous home of all savings takes advantage of some custom-built backdoors in my psychology to bring us the best prices and also renders it an Euclid-class psycho-memetic effector on certain individuals. Madame Pythia considers it a form of outreach and revenge.”
She couldn’t help herself. She burst out laughing.
“Surely you could get the curse lifted?” asked A Librarian, arm-in-arm with… well, Alice didn’t want to presume, but Alan seemed like he was her husband.
“Yeah, but where’s the fun in that?” he said, pushing through the beaded curtain, the entry to the House of Mysterious Futures (And Also Bargains To Die For).
The inside of the tent was, almost surprisingly, approximately the same size on the inside as on the outside. A wide, round table sat in the centre of the space, an intricately patterned tablecloth covering it. A smaller coffee table, complete with crystal ball, stood on the other side of the tent on its own velvet tablecloth. From the ceiling, numerous crystal spheres hung, dangling on the end of long thin cords. Each glowed with its own colour, dappling the room with multi-hued light.
“Having a nap, eh, Madame?” Nik’s brother said, apparently to the empty room.
A hollow chuckle. “I’d hoped to get some peace and quiet, spawn of Nursiir.”
The table at the opposite edge of the room slowly started to rise as a figure unfolded beneath it – the crystal ball acting as its head. Two long-sleeved arms issued from beneath the tablecloth, now like a shawl around the ‘shoulders’ of the long-skirted figure.
“Greetings, honoured seekers of fortune.” Madame Pythia sounded like someone speaking into a glass jar, slightly echoey, and had a chiming undertone. “I’m sure you know that I’m Madame Pythia. Greetings, Alice, Nik, A Librarian, A Librarian, Alan and you.” Her ‘head’, the smooth crystal ball, seemed to show emotion with the swirling clouds within, and responded to Nik’s brother by swirling faster, coiling and spiralling like some kind of typhoon.
“Pythia,” one fortune teller said to the other, dipping his head in a little bow, “it is, as always, an absolute pleasure to see you. My travelling companion here is having trouble finding her way back home, to Materia. I don’t think my information or contacts have any information that can help her, so I wish to draw upon yours.”
“I’m your second choice? Oh, you charmer.” Pythia’s hands – which Alice had just noticed were made of hewn wood – were moving quickly, picking up an array of implements from shelves that Alice hadn’t seen before and placing them down on the table. She saw crystals, strange tuning forks and something an awful lot like some kind of brass kettle. “I’ll see what I can manage with a surface reading, and go from there. Want it on your tab?”
“What do you see in your future, Madame Pythia?” Nik’s brother asked, “Dinner? A nice restaurant in Foyer? I’ve heard good things about The Ethereal Grill, and I’ve heard that the Arts Department at the University has a new play on, and I’m fairly certain I can get tickets. What doth your future hold, I wonder?”
“Mmm. I hardly need to peel back the veil of fate to see that you’ve done your research. I’ll meet you outside the Grill an hour pre-Gloaming on a day of your choosing, and consider this reading paid for.” Pythia’s voice was steady, but the slightest pink flush of the swirling mass within her face betrayed… something.
“Are you two done?” Nik asked, clearly fed up with the proceedings.
“Well, we’ll be done after the makeo-”
“Certainly.” Madame Pythia gestured towards the velvet-lined chairs around the table. “Please take a seat, Miss Alice, and we can have a look into your present and future.”