Authors: Amber Darke
The Oracle's Secret
by Amber Darke
His hands glide slowly down my body, his fingers leaving trails of goosebumps where they skim across my thighs. I shiver in anticipation, arching my body towards him. My breath is coming faster, matching the beating of my heart, the pulsing of my blood. He leans closer and I can smell the musky, earthy scent of him. It fills my head, makes me dizzy with desire. I trace my fingers around the interlocking lines of his tattoo, a stylised knot pattern on his chest, to the side, just beneath his collarbone. He sighs at my touch and pulls me closer to kiss me and our mouths meet, warm and soft, then urgent, hungry. I wrap my arms around him so that we’re skin to skin, a thousand tiny sparks igniting at every place where we touch. I want more. I whisper to him and he shifts position and I pull away for just a moment to look at his face, to see if he’s smiling at me the way I’m smiling at him...
An alarm blares, loud and jarring. I wake, fumble at the snooze button.
I’m in my own crappy camp bed in my crappy room in my crappy flat in what is, to be honest, a pretty crappy part of London. And I’m alone. And frustrated, for more reasons that one.
Why do I never see his face? I’ve been having visions of this same guy for months now, but I never get to see his face. I know the shape of his tattoo, I know the breadth of his shoulders, the tautness of his stomach, the feel of his hands on me and his legs wrapped around mine and his... well, let’s just say I know him pretty intimately for someone I almost definitely haven’t met yet.
A lot of people think being the Oracle must be really glamorous. I suppose it does sound that way. Plucked from obscurity to become one of the most famous figures in the magical world, given every luxury I could possibly want - and all just because I happen to see the future. That’s the one magical skill that can’t be passed down family lines, the only one that could manifest anywhere, in anyone. The trouble is, it only does once a generation, maybe even less. I don’t know how many other Oracles are around apart from me - I’m the only one I know of.
All of this makes me sound pretty special, I know, but the truth is it’s a lot less impressive. There are ways I can enhance my powers if I really need to, but the visions themselves are usually pretty random. On a typical day I’ll probably have five or six brief flashes of the future, and most of them will be about what I’m going to have for dinner, or what some obnoxious customer is going to do at work.
The dreams, though - they’re different. I’ve never had the same vision so many times before, and I’ve never known a vision be so intense. Every time it feels like I’m really there. No matter how many times I tell myself it’s not real, I always get caught up. But I still never see his face.
The alarm goes off again while I’m fuming, and I turn it off properly this time and force myself out of bed and towards the shower. While the lukewarm water flows over me (my flatmate Abigail always uses all the hot water) I think about what my mother would think if she knew where I was right now. I know she’d be shocked. I can picture her horrified expression to the last detail - how she’d wrinkle her nose at the patch of damp spreading down my bedroom wall, how she’d sigh at the kitchen so small you can’t have something on the stove and open the fridge at the same time. If she saw the grimy alley that leads to my front door she’d probably faint.
Cherry would be nicer. Cherry would try hard to find something to appreciate. Like how convenient it is having a room small enough that all of your stuff is in reach of your bed. Not that I have a lot of stuff anyway.
Cherry’s my best friend.
I mean, Cherry
my best friend. I hope she still is. I don’t know when I’ll see her again, but then I don’t know much else after the next rent payment these days. Ironic that a girl who can see the future has no idea where her life is going.
I wasn’t really thinking about that when I ran away. I wasn’t thinking about anything except how badly I wanted to get away from all that, from being the Oracle, all the politics and expectations and people trying to get in with me to get closer to the Prince. Since they found me when I was five, my future was set in stone - I’d become an important advisor to the Prince, helping him to foresee threats to his court and his territory. Since I was tiny I was taken care of and protected. Trapped.
I’d barely even left the Prince’s apartments, and only ever with guards. The day I ran away was the first time since they found me that I’d ever even left Salisbury. How pathetic is that? Twenty-one years old and I’d never escaped the confines of that one small town.
London was the only place I could think of to go. After living in the tiny community that surrounds the Prince, I thought somewhere as huge and anonymous as London would be the perfect place to hide. Nobody pays any attention to me here. Nobody knows what I am. And magic is weaker in London because the ley lines don’t touch it. I thought it would be harder for them to find me here.
And I was right, I’ve been here for almost five months now and nobody’s found me yet. And I’m doing pretty ok. I mean, my flat is damp enough that it might as well be a swamp, I’m living on instant noodles and energy drinks (they don’t really teach you to cook or budget when you’re an Oracle, funnily enough), and I make barely any money at my below-minimum-wage waitressing job, especially since I’m terrible at it so I never get any tips. But I’m independent, I’m living my own life, making my own choices.
If only I knew what the hell I wanted to do next.
Early on a Tuesday morning isn’t the kind of time to have these deep thoughts. Time to get out of the shower - it’s running almost cold now anyway - get dressed and go to work. Now that I’m out on my own, there’s plenty of time to figure out my next step. Today’s priorities are a bit simpler - find a work shirt that isn’t stained or gross, work out where my shoes landed when I kicked them off after getting back from last night’s shift, dry my long, dark hair and tie it back in a style that won’t make people complain about finding hairs in their food. I have absolutely no desire to be yelled at again by the teenage boy who started work a month before me and seems to think that makes him my boss. Even less desire to be yelled at by my
boss. If I can get through the whole of today without messing anything up, I’m calling it a win and buying a Chinese takeaway on my way home.
Shoes found, hair done, clothes on - I’m ready to head out when the doorbell rings. I ignore it. It won’t be for me, nobody knows I’m here. I haven’t had a single visitor or letter since I got here. I hear Abigail slam out of her room and run down the corridor to get it - she’s always waiting for a parcel. I think she might be addicted to online shopping. I ignore the murmur of conversation as she opens the door and concentrate on making sure I have my oyster card to get on the tube.
‘Livya!’ Abigail calls. ‘It’s for you!’
I freeze. Frantic, I try to think of anything this could be, anything ordinary and innocent. Anything but the Prince’s men coming to drag me back home. But there’s nothing.
‘Livya!’ she yells again, impatient.
‘Just a second!’ I call.
My heart pounds. I need to get out of here. I look at the window - it leads straight out to a five-storey drop, even if I could squeeze myself through it. There’s no way out of the flat except past them. I think briefly about trying a spell but discard the idea as hopeless - even in Salisbury where the ley lines enhance magic, my powers were never that impressive aside from my visions. I definitely don’t know any spells that would let me evade skilled magic users like the Prince’s guards, and that’s who must be out there.
So this is it. They’ve found me, they’ve got me. The only choice now is whether to make them drag me kicking and screaming, or to go quietly.
I think about it for a second, imagining barricading the door of my room with the few sticks of furniture I have in here. Making them really work for it. Sitting in here waiting as they slam against the door, maybe even fighting them off. But they’re only doing their jobs. Nobody says no to the Prince. This isn’t their fault.
I make my choice.
‘Livya?’ Abigail calls, and there’s a note of worry in her voice now.
‘I’m coming!’ I reply.
I take a deep breath to steady myself and open the bedroom door. The walk down the corridor feels like the longest walk of my life. The little world I’ve made for myself is crashing down around my shoulders.
Abigail looks uncomfortable. She’s holding the door most of the way closed.
‘Livya, do you know these guys?’ she asks.
I peer through the gap to look and find myself eye to eye with Steele, the chief of the Prince’s guard. He looks just the same as I remember - tall, muscular, blue-eyed, square-jawed, glaring daggers at me. We’ve hated each other for as long as I can remember. I’m almost flattered that the Prince sent someone so senior to find me. Behind Steele are four more guards, all looking just as out of place on this grubby London street. Behind those four, though, is another man. He’s standing a little way back, an enigmatic look on his face as he watches me. I examine him - solidly built, dark eyes with an intense gaze that tugs at something within me, dark, tousled hair around his face - I can’t place him. It’s nobody I know from the Prince’s court.
‘Oracle,’ Steele greets me.
‘It’s Livya,’ I say, glaring.
He shrugs. ‘He sent us to retrieve you.’
‘Livya, what’s going on?’ Abigail whispers. ‘Do you need me to call the police or anything?’
I shake my head. ‘No. It’s ok. I knew this would happen eventually. I just hoped... I don’t know. Um... I’m leaving, Abigail.’
She stares. ‘Just like that?’
I nod. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘What about your stuff?’
‘She won’t need it any more,’ Steele says. ‘Someone will take it away.’
‘Honestly, it’s all right,’ I reassure her. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be ok.’
I hug her and step through the door, leaving everything about my new life behind.
‘Time to go home, Oracle,’ says Steele.
I glare, but I let him lead me away.
Steele and his men bundle me into a shiny black jeep like they think they’re secret agents or something. It looks conspicuous parked on the side of my road next to the bashed, scuffed cars of my neighbours. I scramble into the back and do up my seatbelt while Steele performs a holding charm to keep me there.
‘I’m not going to try anything,’ I sigh. ‘What, you think I want to jump out of a moving car on a busy London road? What do you take me for?’
‘You were stupid enough to run away from the Prince,’ he says. ‘Who knows what else you’d be stupid enough to do? You, sit in the back with her.’
This last bit is directed at the last guy, the one I didn’t recognise. He slides in beside me and gives me a look that seems almost apologetic. I can’t work him out. While the guards are piling into the other seats I study him. His brown eyes are soft, and when he sees me looking at him he offers a little smile that makes them crinkle in the corners. His nose is a little crooked and his smile makes a dimple just on one side. It gives his strong jawline a much friendlier look. I almost smile back, but then I remember that he’s here with the people who’re taking me back and instead I turn away and look out of the window, ignoring all of them as they finish getting organised and drive away.
I watch my street disappear behind us and feel a pang of misery. It wasn’t much of a home, but it was the one I found and chose for myself, and it hurts to leave it.
I get a malicious pleasure from watching Steele and the driver get lost in the warren of little one-way streets as they try to find the way back out to the motorway. They get lost four or five times, and Steele is getting more and more frustrated. I snort, and he turns in his seat to glare at me. Then he catches sight of the stranger next to me.
‘You,’ he says. ‘Shouldn’t you know the way?’
The stranger shrugs. Points. ‘Down this one, third on the right, fourth on the left. All you had to do was ask.’
Steele swears at him under his breath but follows his instructions.
The stranger’s accent is lilting, and his voice is deep and rich. Welsh, I think. It makes sense. Our Prince’s territory - the Southern Territory, ruled by the Prince from the Southern Court - extends all the way west to east across Britain, in a thick band that starts at Stonehenge and reaches as far north as Sherwood Forest. The whole of Wales is included and there have always been a few Welsh people at the court.
I’m just thinking about this when I get my first waking vision of the day. Waking visions are normally worse than dream ones since they interrupt whatever I’m doing, even if that’s carrying plates of hot soup or in the middle of giving someone their change. This time it matters less since I’m in the car anyway, but it still always takes my breath away.
As usual it’s a pretty mundane vision - my eyes cloud, my ears start to ring, and in the gloom I can see glimpses of something... something light brown, small... I’m holding it in my hand in the vision... it’s soft... a little greasy... something dark oozes from it...
There’s a moment when everything seems to come into focus and I see it clearly. It’s a pastry. It’s filled with chocolate. My future. Wow. Terrific.
The vision ends and I snap back to reality with a gasp, my pulse thudding. All of that for a pain au chocolat that I’ll probably eat in a few hours and then totally forget about for the rest of my life. Wow, what a magical and wondrous superpower.
‘Are you ok?’ the stranger asks.
He’s leaned over a bit in his seat and is looking at me, his eyebrows drawing together in worry.
‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘Just... you know... a vision.’
‘Ah,’ he says, looking impressed.
‘It’s not that big a deal,’ I find myself saying. ‘I just have a slightly better idea now of what snacks are in my near future.’
He laughs. It’s a nice sound. ‘I never thought of that,’ he says. ‘I always assumed your visions would be... I don’t know, more majestic than that. Mysterious.’
I shrug. ‘Sometimes they are. Mostly not.’
‘We heard so many stories about you growing up,’ he says. ‘The Oracle, the only one of her generation... it didn’t occur to me what it might be like...’
I’m uncomfortable with my fame, so I try to direct the conversation to him. ‘What branch of magic do your family practice?’ I ask.
He looks at me sadly, and I swear he turns a little red. ‘We’re Finders,’ he says.
I turn cold. I can’t believe I was almost starting to like him. Of course he’s a Finder. Why else would he be here? I glare at him and turn away to look out of the window again. He sighs but doesn’t say anything.
The landscape flashes past and I think about it. Being a Finder is pretty rare - there are only two or three families of them in the whole territory - but it’s not considered an important skill. It’s rare that the Prince actually needs to find something - mostly he commands people to bring him what he wants, and they do it. Not much in the territory is hidden from him if he wants to see it. I’m actually a bit proud of myself that I hid so long and so successfully that he went to the trouble of sending a Finder after me. Although I’m starting to dread what’s going to happen to me when we get back to the court.
The nearer we get to Salisbury, the more nervous I get. By the time we drive past Stonehenge I’m sitting on my hands to keep them from shaking. Nobody disobeys the Prince. I’d managed to almost forget while I was away how much power he has, but now that we’re close to where the ley lines converge and I can feel the magic filling me up again, it reminds me of just how easy it would be for him to make my life hell.
We reach the Southern Court. Its permanent home is a large house a little way outside the centre of Salisbury. The Prince’s private apartments are here, plus apartments for a few dozen of his attendants, including me. Then there are offices and administrative areas and all that kind of stuff - running a magical kingdom is actually 90% admin and only 10% phenomenal cosmic power.
I wish I’d have a vision of what the Prince is going to say, but I only had yet another pastry vision on the way. Bloody useless. When we pull into the large pebbly driveway Steele takes the holding charm off me and I feel a little shock as the magic lets go. Steele opens the door and drags me out of the car and up to the door, his fingers tight on my elbow.
‘Livya,’ says the stranger behind me.
I turn to see him looking at me with a pained expression. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I... the Prince... I’m sorry.’
I know he probably had no choice, but I don’t care. I ignore him and let Steele lead me into the house.
We walk through the semi-public foyer, full of petitioners waiting to see the Prince, and people who have business in the minor offices on the ground floor. Someone must recognise me because suddenly I hear whispering, and people start to stare. Steele nudges me through to one of the private areas and up a staircase into a little room. I recognise it as one of the waiting rooms outside the Prince’s main audience chamber.
‘Wait here until you’re summoned,’ Steele says. He grins and his sea-blue eyes glint with pleasure. It could almost be attractive if he wasn’t such a total jerk. ‘It’ll probably be hours. The Prince has much more important things to do than deal with childish runaways.’
On that charming note he slams the door and I’m alone in the room. I sigh and sit down. At least it’s comfortable in here. There’s a soft couch to sit on, and in the corner there’s a little magically-created fountain for drinking water, and a marble table with carved wooden cups. I help myself to some and then sit down, feeling sick. I hope I’m not waiting all day. I think of being cooped up in here for hours, not knowing when anyone will come for me, and I want to cry.
Instead I drink some water and get up to see if the door is definitely locked.
It is. So is the window, but at least it looks out onto Stonehenge. I still love looking at it, even though I’m sick of so many other things about this place.
I’m not seriously thinking about escaping - there are too many wards and spells on this place - but I feel better doing something, not just sitting there waiting for my fate. I wonder if I can pick the lock with something.
Behind me there’s a pop, a flash of bright light, a strange smell like off fruit.
‘Cherry!’ I say, whirling to see her.
She’s there, in reach, my best friend, and I realise all at once how much I’ve missed her.
‘Liv!’ she cries.
She puts down the plate she’s carrying and flings her arms around me to hug me. I squeeze her tightly back, and for a second I don’t regret that they found me.
‘Where have you been?’ she asks. ‘Are you all right? Nobody would tell me anything! It took me five tries to find the right room! I flashed in on two petitioners getting frisky while they waited, yuck...’
I laugh. Cherry comes from a family of teleporters, and she’s one of the best. Her father is one of the Prince’s chief advisors, so Cherry’s been flashing in and out of the rooms at court since we were both little.
‘Here,’ she says. ‘I yoinked you something from the kitchen in case you hadn’t had anything to eat.’
She shows me a plate. It’s full of pastries. I laugh.
‘What?’ she asks.
I shake my head. ‘Never mind.’
We sit down. ‘So tell me everything!’ she says. ‘I mean... if you want to. You don’t have to. I know you might not want to talk about it.’
I tell her about how I first arrived in London, with only the clothes on my back. I didn’t have a clue where to start, but selling some of the jewellery I was wearing (mostly gifts from the Prince or from people who wanted my help to get on his good side) gave me enough money to get me started. Looking back, they probably ripped me off. I had no idea how much anything was supposed to cost. I muddled my way through finding a flat and a job. A child could have done better.
‘You’re so brave!’ breathes Cherry. ‘I can’t imagine going out on my own like that... was it scary?’
I nod. ‘Honestly... yeah, it was really scary. I’ve been scared pretty much every minute since then.’
‘Oh, Livya,’ she hugs me again. ‘I’m sorry they caught you, but I’m so glad to see you! I missed you so much.’
‘I missed you too!’
‘Nothing was the same without you,’ she says. ‘Have you seen your mother yet?’
I shake my head. ‘Is she angry with me?’
Cherry grimaces. ‘I’d be more concerned about her than the Prince, if I were you. I think he’s just going to be glad you’re finally...’
We hear the sound of a spell unlocking the door, and Cherry flashes away, leaving me alone. Steele’s back, looking grumpy.
‘The Prince will see you now,’ he says.
My stomach lurches. I stand up and follow him out of the room and into the audience chamber.