Spirits rising, Adam Farland, the sixth Duke of Azureford, returned his gaze to the view outside his carriage window. There went the smithy, which meant at any moment, they’d be passing Adam’s cottage… Aha! There it was. Warm red brick, wide windows, a welcoming stone path to the front door.
Although there was just one road up the mountain to the castle, shops and cottages lined a half dozen narrow off-shoots. In no time at all, the cozy little homes vanished as the coach rolled to a stop before Marlow Castle’s imposing front doors.
“Shall I accompany you, Your Grace?”
“Stay with the coach, please.” Adam leapt to the ground. “I’ll only be a moment.”
Inside was an immediate assault to the senses—in the pleasantest way possible. Crackling fires, smiling faces, rows of biscuits, the low roar of conversation spiked with laughter, the sweet scent of cinnamon and nutmeg in the air. He could do this. He just needed to find someone to explain his donation to.
The only other time he’d walked through these doors had been on his first visit, just before he purchased his cottage. The welcome in the great hall was as he remembered it, but the castle was enormous. Adam knew how to find the circulating library, and that was about it.
As he glanced around, he noticed a woman just as alone as he was. She sat at a small table in the far corner beneath a sign simply reading:
No one queued up, or even looked in the fortune-teller’s direction. Adam’s stomach twisted in empathy. He didn’t believe in psychic nonsense, but he knew what it felt like to be alone in a crowd, unable to fit in.
Striking up a conversation with a turbaned fortune teller would be the perfect way to ease into being New Adam. Nothing hinged on the outcome. She would move on and he would never see her again. The meaningless exchange would be a forgettable, but important, first attempt at practicing his social skills.
Besides, how hard could it be? He’d give her a shilling, she’d give him some twaddle about luck crossing his path, and that would be that.
“No half-measures,” he reminded himself. He was New Adam. This would be easy. He rolled back his shoulders and strode straight to her table.
Her turban slipped sideways as she glanced up from her glass ball.
“Sit.” One long fingernail pointed at a bronze basin. “One bob for fortune.”
She stared at him without comment.
He dropped a shilling in the bronze basin.
The wrinkled, gray-haired woman continued to stare without blinking.
He shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden chair. “Er… aren’t you supposed to say something like ‘love and luck will find me, thanks to the moon?’”
“Dukes, actually. Thank them.”
She tapped a fingernail on the glass ball. It didn’t change.
Adam refrained from informing her that she was talking to a duke at this very moment. There was no point. She likely gave the same nonsensical fortune to everyone foolish enough to hand over a shilling.
She placed both hands on the glass ball and widened her eyes dramatically. “Follow the five golden rings. They lead to your heart.”
His brow furrowed. “What does that even mean?”
She covered the glass ball with a square of black silk. “It is up to you to find out.”
He couldn’t believe it. “I thought a fortune teller’s job was to tell fortunes.”
“Your job is to listen, which you are not doing,” she scolded.
“Five golden rings. My heart. Dukes, actually,” he parroted politely. “None of that makes sense.”
“Does anything make sense? You surround yourself with fictional companions because you are afraid to make real friends.”
He reeled back. “I’m not afraid! I—”
“You are comfortable before a podium because it is easier to speak to hundreds of your peers than to converse alone with just one person.”
“That’s not a ‘fortune,’” he spluttered. “That’s my current life. I didn’t give you a shilling to tell me things I already know.”
“Didn’t you?” She inspected her fingernails. “Tell me, why did you invite your pretty neighbor to your party and then do nothing but stare, because your tongue is useless as wet towel?”
He stared at her in disbelief. “Do I know you?”
She straightened her turban. “Have you been to the old country?”
“What country are you from?”
“This one. I was born in Essex.” Her accent disappeared. “If you were in search of science, you should have attended the Royal Society of Gentlemen Geologists’ symposium.”
He blinked. “Is there a Royal Society of Gentlemen Geologists symposium?”
“You want another fortune?” She pointed at the brass basin. “Two bob.”
“What happened to one bob?”
“Economic instability.” She tapped the basin. “Take that up with your committee when Parliament reconvenes.”
“How did you know I—”
“Madame Edna knows all.” She rubbed her palms over the glass sphere. “You don’t wish to be seen as aloof. You are lonely. You seek the missing piece.”
He dropped coins into the basin. “Two bob more. Now, how do I do it?”
Madame Edna leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Share your balls.”
“Share my what?”
“And your table.” She placed the glass sphere inside a wooden box and removed her turban. “The rest will become clear.”
“Where are you going?” He placed his hands on the table. “I thought you were going to tell my fortune.”
“I did.” She tugged down her sign. “The rest is up to you.”