Part 1

The Soothsayer's Legacy

If you've come upon these pages by chance, let me warn you that my story is not a happy one. It is a beautiful story, true, and it means a lot to me, but if you're the type who prefers an evening at the commedia dell'arte, it's not for you.

To the rest of you, I bid you a courteous welcome. My name is Raímon and at present I am a man of years too numerous to be counted. Enough to say that Father Time has had his eye on me for some time, and every so often I feel the breeze as his scythe cuts past me.

As yet, he has not succeeded. But soon he will and, before I go, I wish to pay a tribute. Not to myself. But to someone I once knew. Someone beautiful and intoxicating, who came into my life when I was a young man and left it just as quickly a decade or so later. This story is dedicated to their memory, and you will recognise them when you meet them. So, please, allow me to begin.

* * *

When I was a child, a soothsayer came to the little village where we lived. My mother, who had always been somewhat superstitious, spirited me off to have my fortune read, whilst my father – who, it must be said, bore a certain contempt for all things which had not yet happened – was busy at his work.

The old man screwed up his pinched face to get a better look at me in the darkness of the room and grabbed at my wrist with his gnarled talons. I think I screamed, but once my mother had quietened me down, and the old man had my hand palm-upwards on his rickety table, I was pronounced as a lucky and fortuitous child.

"But will he be rich?" my mother demanded, always one for material concerns.

"Not in wealth," the old man said, peering lopsidedly at my suspicious face, "but in something far more precious. This line here," and one sharp fingernail danced across my palm, "tells that he will be lucky in love. He will love to the extent of giving up his world, love to the extent which drives a man mad and takes the colour from his world. He will love, and be reciprocated."

In my prepubescent mind, this future sounded dismal; a life being a slave to love? Why couldn't my future have involved sweetmeats and fairs? I would rather have been predicted an existence as a humble organ grinder than as the greatest and most immortal of lovers. My mother was similarly unimpressed.

"But will he be rich?" she repeated, casting a disappointed glance at me. The old man saw this, smiled at me, drew a sticky sweet from somewhere inside his robes and pressed it into my palm. I stared at it for a moment, then crammed it into my mouth. It tasted of liquorice.

"If you would take some advice about your son," the old man said then, "I would find an occupation for him other than following his father into the blacksmith's trade. That's no way to tempt Fate. If you wish Lady Luck to be interested in your son, put him into a romantic profession. Something that draws her close and tantalises her. Not like the blacksmith's forge, which drives her back with iron in her nostrils".

He took my hand again and laid it flat, running his nail over my long, slender fingers. "These hands are too delicate for a smith's. Put him to be an artist".

* * *

So my mother did. At the age of thirteen, having been educated enough to write my name and count to ten (which, in my mother's mind, passed as a suitable schooling), I was packed up and sent away from home for the first time, to the nearest city – Ababwh.

This was a sprawling metropolis of some several thousand people, crammed on top of each other in little twisting streets, populated by swindlers, thieves, prostitutes, magistrates, notaries and artists. I was put to apprenticeship with a gentle old man named Pablo, who had little talent and pretended to even less.

He sold barely enough pictures to buy his bread, and those he did sell were shoddy half-copied works for poor churches in the provinces, garish altarpieces peopled by glaring-eyed saints and gold-haloed Madonnas clutching badly-proportioned babies.

My job being mainly to sweep out the shop and keep out from under his feet, I didn't think it was my place to complain, but once I got my avaricious little hands on a paintbrush, I proved to him exactly how poor he was. He took a look at my first set of figures, frowned, thumbed his beard, and sent me onto someone else.

It continued in that vein for a while, each new master disliking my talent and passing me on until it seemed I was a fearful disease that everyone had caught. At long last I grew fed up, decided I had learned enough, and set out on my own.

I fell in with a group of young artists who knew everything there was to know, and through shamelessly bragging of my unmatchable talent, began to get jobs and, eventually, to make money. Before long, my name was known across the city in church and society circles and – much to my surprise and distrust – I found myself being something near to a celebrity.

Looking back now, I don't think I was half as good as I thought I was, or half as bad as my friends told me I was, but that's immaterial. Somewhere in those mad few years, I managed to get a young woman of dubious reputation pregnant. She abruptly rediscovered her honour, told her father, and demanded that I marry her. At the age of twenty, I ceased to be a bachelor.

To be fair, I thought I loved my wife – my Marissa. After the first child, I got another on her. Both turned out to be healthy, sweet-tempered boys and I was a good father to them. I bought them good clothes and shoes, whittled wooden toys for them in my spare time and did everything I was expected to. But a little way along the line – some seven years – something went wrong.

I think Marissa objected to my being out with my friends so often. I think I told her it was my right. She shouted at me, made to throw something, then I tried to restrain her and… to cut a long story short, she went home to her parents with the boys and told them that I had beaten her in a drunken frenzy.

At twenty-seven, my wife and children deserted me. They moved away from the city shortly afterwards. I supposed that I would never see them again. For months I found myself languishing in a deep depression, but by and by it passed. Marissa's father was of reasonable means and would be able to keep the boys well. I had my friends to lighten my spirits and before long, with their encouragement, I returned to being the Raímon of my youth.

I worked hard, earning more money than I could have dreamed for in that distant village of my childhood, and drank harder still. My search for stronger and richer wine led me away from the normal thoroughfares of the city into the darker, shabbier streets behind the cathedral and it was here, one summer's afternoon, that I met with destiny.

Why mince words? Destiny can hardly begin to explain the dramatic turn my life took after that day. It was a few days after my thirtieth birthday, and as I walked back to my quarters from a cheap tavern in the bad area of town, I met the person who had been foreseen by that old man all those years ago. I met Him.