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Foretold III - Prophecy Ruiner

               “Whose carriage is that?”

               “Haven’t you heard?”

               “No, I haven’t. Whose is it?”

               “I thought you would have heard.”

               “I haven’t.”

               “I haven’t either.”

               “I wonder who has.”

               “You wonder who’s heard whose carriage that is?”


               “Wouldn’t you rather just wonder whose carriage that is?”

               “Well, I supposed I could wonder both. I could wonder who’s heard whose carriage it is and I could wonder whose carriage it is at the same time. Or go back and forth, like, wondering one and then the other.”

               Exasperated by her carriage’s lack of progress through the city streets, and then further exasperated by the inane conversation of this pair of fools gawking at her stationary carriage, Brandy pulled the curtain open, poked her head out the carriage window, and said, “I’m the Prophecy Ruiner.”

               The foolish pair – a foolish man and a foolish woman – jolted as if encountering a puppet show jump scare, then scuttled away into the crowd, their footprints in the muddy slush soon obliterated by different feet, cart wheels, hooves of animals.

               Revealing her true identity to strangers had been a reckless thing for Brandy to do, but she and lowborn peasants did not travel in the same circles. Even if they’d understood the words she’d said, they’d have no context in which to situate them, they’d probably never grasp them enough to even think to repeat them to their fellow impoverished citizens, much less anyone who would care to capitalize on the knowledge that the Prophecy Ruiner was in the city.

               “Polt,” Brandy called up to the carriage driver’s seat. “Why are we not moving?”

               “Flies,” Polt, the driver, called back.

               “A few of them,” said Rin, the armed guard seated next to Polt.

               Brandy didn’t see how flies, even “a few of them,” could entirely halt the progress of a carriage pulled by four of the most finely-bred horses money could buy, but she knew the explanation would only deepen her weariness, so she sat back on her plush seat and let the curtain swing closed again. Linaea, her handmaiden, slept with her mouth gaping open on the seat across from her. Brandy rolled her shoulders within the depths of her heavy fur coat. Wasn’t it too cold for flies? Brandy thought freezing temperatures killed all the flies. But she supposed they couldn’t kill all the flies, because where would the flies in warmer weather come from, then? Unless some flies traveled up from warmer climates to repopulate areas where winter had-

               The carriage’s resumption of forward movement jarred Brandy from this unprofitable train of thought. Now was not the time to think about where flies came from, or anything about flies at all. She needed to prepare herself to meet King Boris. Her ability to intuit what individual kings and queens expected from a Prophecy Ruiner and then present herself as exactly that was a major factor in Brandy’s success. Ruining the prophecies was usually easy; convincing royalty to pay her outrageous prices was the tricky part. And Brandy had heard that King Boris was a difficult man. She needed to be in the right frame of mind when she met him. And that frame of mind could not include speculation about fly reproduction.


               There was nothing for Brandy to do while she waited in the throne room antechamber for her audience with King Boris except fume and look at one or the other of the giant tapestries hanging on opposite walls. Both tapestries depicted forest scenes, busy with detail, dripping with tasteless virtuosity. Looking at either of them made Brandy’s head open up to the possibility of aching. Linaea was not allowed to join Brandy in the antechamber, which seemed like a petty restriction, but Brandy had not wanted to start her visit on an argumentative note. Instead, she simply noted the pettiness to herself and continued to project wisdom and serenity.

               For a while, anyway. But she’d been waiting to see King Boris for close to four hours now, and she doubted she was capable of projecting anything except weary irritation at this point. Was this a deliberate tactic from King Boris? Was he annoying her in order to gain a negotiation advantage?

               A soft knock at the door leading to the hallway preceded the entrance of a servant carrying a tray with bread, a bread knife, a pitcher of water, and a cup on it. He was a chubby little man with a pointed beard. He wore a floppy purple hat of a kind Brandy had seen no other servant wearing. She assumed the hat denoted something – special favor or special disfavor? Brandy didn’t know which.

               “Lady Measling,” said the servant. “Some refreshments while you wait.”

               Brandy said nothing. She didn’t trust herself to be civil, and it was never a good idea to earn the resentment of the servants, especially as a guest without the power to punish or dismiss them. And it was always a challenge to know if the bad service was the result of incompetence or specific directives from higher up.

“If you need anything else,” said the servant. It seemed like there should have been more to the sentence, but there was not. He backed out of the room as he finished speaking and closed the door as an audible punctuation mark, more conclusive than a bolded period, even.

               Brandy had scarcely had a chance to cut herself a slice of bread and pour water from the pitcher to the cup when a soft knock at the door leading to the throne room preceded the entrance of the same purple-hatted servant who had just departed the antechamber via the other door. The reddish hue of his face, a poorly-disguised shortness of breath, and a cobweb stuck to his eyebrow hinted at a desperate scramble through hidden passages, diminishing somewhat the uncanny effect. “His Majesty will see you now, Lady Measling.” He stepped aside and motioned her through the doorway.

               King Boris leaned casually against a wooden throne stained near-black, polished to a low gleam, and positioned in the center of a hexagonal dais. He wore his crown with a rakish tilt, a recent trend among kings in their 20s. King Boris was 31. Identical gray and gold tile in an identical pattern covered the floor and the low ceiling, no doubt intended to be disorienting, to make one briefly unsure as to whether one was standing upon the floor or the ceiling, but Brandy was not disoriented because why and how would she be standing on the ceiling? She wouldn’t be. Fires burned in three of the throne room’s four large hearths. A cluster of servants stood around the fourth hearth hissing at each other and snatching fire-starting materials out of each other’s hands.

               “Approach, approach,” called King Boris, waving Brandy toward him. “And don’t kneel or anything when you get here, you’ve waited long enough.” His grin turned his eyes to kindly slits.

               So this was how he was going to play it. Work Brandy into a confrontational mood, then make that mood seem unreasonable by acting magnanimous, leaving her off-balance. Brandy crossed the throne room and stopped a few strides short of the dais.

               King Boris eyed Brandy for a moment, and then said, “Actually, maybe you should kneel. To set a good example for the servants. And just because it’ll feel like something was left undone if you don’t. It’ll be hanging over our heads.”

               Brandy knelt and bowed her head in time, she hoped, to keep King Boris from seeing the expression she could not prevent her face from making.

               “All right, good,” said King Boris. “Now, rise, rise, rise on up and let’s ruin a prophecy, shall we?” He chuckled.

               “Of course, Your Highness,” said Brandy as she stood.

               “I prefer ‘Your Majesty,’” said King Boris. “That’s the only one I like. ‘Your Grace’ is the worst, but ‘Your Highness’ is also bad. What are some of the other ones? Well, I don’t know, but I don’t like any of them. Even ‘Your Majesty’ isn’t great, but we have to use something. I can’t just have people calling me ‘King Boris’ to my face, much as I might like to.”

               “Of course, Your Majesty,” said Brandy, silently cursing the multiple people who had assured her that King Boris preferred to be addressed as “Your Highness.” How could they have all been wrong?

               “I hope your wait was not uncomfortable,” said King Boris.

               “Your servant brought food and drink,” said Brandy. “But not until a few minutes ago. I didn’t have a chance to partake.” She tried not to sound bitter; she didn’t want the king to know how much his little games were getting to her.

               “Ira?” asked King Boris.


               “That’s who brought you the food and drink?”

               “I don’t know,” said Brandy. “I don’t know his name. He was wearing a purple hat.”

               “He better not have been,” said King Boris. “That’s Slauson’s hat!”

               “It was the same servant who brought me in here,” said Brandy. She looked over both shoulders, right then left, for the servant, but he didn’t seem to be in the throne room anymore.

               “Oh, yeah, that was Slauson,” said King Boris. “Yeah, he’s supposed to be wearing that hat. You had me worried for a second, I thought Ira was wearing Slauson’s hat! Do you mind if I sit down? I wanted to be standing when you came in since there’s no chair for you. So I thought if I was standing too, you’d be made to feel more at ease, but now that that’s accomplished – you feel at ease, right? – I’d prefer to sit down.” He lowered himself onto the seat of his throne like he was entering a hot bath. His posture was not kingly. Or rather, it reminded Brandy of a few of the child kings she’d had the displeasure of meeting. Child queens tended to sit a throne better than their male counterparts.

               “So you know why I asked you to come here, of course,” said King Boris.

               “Yes, Your Majesty,” said Brandy. “Not specifically, but in a general sense, yes. Your seer – or another seer, perhaps – has prophesied something that you would like me to prevent from coming to pass.”

               “Yes,” said King Boris. “There’s a prophecy I want you to ruin. I’ll send Joseph – that’s my seer – to your chambers to discuss the specific details of the process. I’m not much interested in the specific details of the process. But before I do, I understand that you expect payment up front? Before there’s any proof that the prophecy has in fact been ruined?”

               “That’s true,” said Brandy. “Sometimes people want me to ruin prophesied events or occurrences years, decades, even centuries into the future. I may not – and in some cases, certainly will not – be alive to collect my fee by the time those prophecies are shown to be ruined. So it’s easier for everyone if I collect my fee up front. I have scrolls of testimonials from satisfied clients all over the land if you’d like to peruse them, Your Majesty, each of them authenticated with wax seals, each of them expressing gratitude and relief that whatever prophesy they feared did not come to pass, some of them written years after they had paid me for my services.”

               “Well, how about this,” said King Boris. “I won’t pay you up front. But! The prophecy I want you to ruin concerns tomorrow night. So if you successfully ruin the prophecy, we won’t have to wait long to find out, will we? And then I’ll pay your fee.”

               “You want to test me,” said Brandy.

               “You’re upset,” said King Boris.

               “I’ve already been tested,” said Brandy. “Many times. I have scrolls of testimonials-”

               “Don’t tell me about testimonials again,” said King Boris. “I couldn’t care less about those testimonials. I have nothing but contempt for the other people who can afford to be your clients, so why would I be impressed if you managed to trick them? I’ve never tested you, and that’s the only kind of test that will satisfy me.”

               “Very well, Your Majesty,” said Brandy, her voice as chilly as she dared allow while speaking to someone who could order her immediate execution if the whim struck him. “Then I must refuse your terms. I cannot set a precedent where I must prove myself over and over to each new client. Those days are behind me. I don’t need your business, there are many others who are willing to pay my fee up front. In fact, I had to delay meetings with several of them in order to come here since you said your need was so urgent. I will leave tomorrow. If you would prefer that we not stay the night here in the palace, we will depart for an inn in the city as soon as this audience has concluded.”

               King Boris smirked. “What if I pay nothing up front, but double your fee if and when the prophecy is shown to be ruined? Would that change your tune?”

               Brandy hesitated. “Triple,” she said.

               “Sure,” said King Boris. “How about quadruple your fee? What do I care?”

               “Is that your real offer, Your Majesty?” asked Brandy. “Quadruple my usual fee if I prevent the prophecy about tomorrow night from coming true?”

               “Fine,” said King Boris. “Quintuple your usual fee. That’s five times, right? Quintuple means five times whatever?”

               “Yes,” said Brandy. “I think so.” She knew so, but she suddenly felt more compelled to act deferential. Was it the immense amount of money King Boris was so casually offering her? Yes. It was. Which was also setting off warning bells somewhere deep within the reasoning centers of her brain, but she really, really wanted the offer to be legitimate.

               “So are we agreed, then?” asked King Boris. “Six times your usual fee if you ruin the prophecy about tomorrow night?” He winked at Brandy.

               She tried to swallow, couldn’t, coughed. “Yes,” she said, her voice an ugly croak.

               King Boris laughed. “All right, then. As I said, Joseph will discuss the details with you. It was a pleasure to meet you, Lady Measling.” The king rose from the throne, descended the dais, and walked right past Brandy on his way to a secret door that had opened in the wall without Brandy noticing. The door closed behind him with a quiet click and Brandy was alone in the throne room. The servants were gone. They had not succeeded in starting a fire in the fourth hearth, but the other three cheerily crackled.

               Brandy was sure she could find her own way back to her room, but she intended to pause in the throne room antechamber again to enjoy the slice of bread she’d cut but hadn’t had time to eat. She needed a drink, too, her throat was parched. But when she returned to the antechamber, all that remained of the bread was a scattering of crumbs on the tray. More crumbs clung to the knife blade. There were crumbs floating on the surface of the water in the cup and in the pitcher. Brandy felt irritation rising again, but it was blunted by the generosity of King Boris’s offer, and the playful manner in which he had made it. This was just how he was, apparently, and she could take the bad with the good when the good was so good. She would request wine and food – something better than bread – when she got back to her room. And then she would have Linaea read testimonials from her satisfied clients aloud while Brandy dreamed of ways to spend the financial windfall blowing her way and awaited Joseph the seer’s knock at her door.


                The knock, when it came, came as a relief to Brandy. Linaea was not reading the testimonials well – she said it was because she was tired – and the way she kept stumbling over words and ignoring the intentions of the writers in favor of attempting to read everything exactly as written, errors and all, interfered with Brandy’s windfall-spending dreams rather than providing a pleasant ambiance in which they could flourish.

               Joseph didn’t look like any other royal seer Brandy had ever seen, and she’d seen a lot of them. He was younger than the king, for one thing, and he wore pants and a coat instead of robes. Brandy had never seen a seer wear anything except robes, even the young ones. He also wore tan boots. Brandy had never seen a seer in boots. It seemed almost impossible. She tried to recall if she’d ever even seen a seer out of doors.

               “Sit down anywhere,” said Brandy. “I’d offer you some cheese or wine or something, but no one’s come back from the kitchen since we put our order in some time ago.”

               Joseph crossed the room to one of two chairs near the frost-covered window and settled in, crossing one leg over the other. Brandy had been avoiding those chairs because it was cold next to the window, but she didn’t object to Joseph’s choice. Rather, she took a shawl from her luggage, wrapped it around herself, and sat down in the chair opposite the seer.

               Joseph cleared his throat. “So how does this work?” He didn’t seem petulant, which was refreshing. Seers were a moody bunch in general, but they were especially touchy about someone ruining one of their prophecies, even when whatever it was they had prophesied was bad. Most seers were more interested in being correct than avoiding calamity. If they had prophesied calamity, they wanted to see calamity whether they admitted it or not. And they never admitted it. But Brandy knew, she could tell, she could read them.

               “You give me the details of the prophecy the king would like me to ruin,” said Brandy.

               “That’s it?” asked Joseph.

               “Yes,” said Brandy. “That’s it. All I need to know is what’s been prophesied. I’ll take care of making sure it doesn’t come to pass on my own.”

               “Do you need to know how I prophesied it?” asked Joseph. “The style I practice, I mean? Because it’s kind of interesting. It’s not exactly lucid-style, but it’s not exactly trance-style, it’s more of-”

               “No,” said Brandy. “I don’t need to know anything about that.” There were few things Brandy found more tiresome than a seer going on and on about his or her “craft.” Brandy had endured many such monologues in the early days of her trade when she was still building her reputation and felt she needed to give the seers the impression that she respected them. After all, without them there would be no prophecies to ruin. Brandy’s livelihood depended on many seers continuing to prophesy death, destruction, and tragedy. But the truth was that she did not respect the seers and did not respect their craft. And now that her reputation was well established, she didn’t need to pretend anymore.

               “I must confess,” said Joseph, “that although you may not be interested in my methods, I’m certainly interested in yours.”

               “Everyone is,” said Brandy.

               “A trade secret?” asked Joseph. “Well, never mind. The truth is that I’m less interested in how you do it and more curious as to whether you’ve ever encountered someone else with your talent. Did you learn from someone? Are you training someone else to carry on your profession when you die?”

               Brandy flashed a hostile smile. “Maybe you should just tell me the prophecy so I can get on with ruining it. This is the shortest amount of time I’ve ever had to ruin one and I’d rather not waste any more of it.”

               Joseph shrugged, shifted in his chair, shifted back to his original position. “Fine with me,” he said. “A few days ago, I prophesied that His Majesty King Boris would, tomorrow night at dinner, read one of his poems out loud for the assembled guests.”

               “One of his poems?” asked Brandy.

               “One that he wrote,” said Joseph.

               Brandy took a moment to assess the situation, to make sense of it. The moment wasn’t enough. “King Boris is paying me six times my usual fee to ruin a prophecy that he’s going to read a poem he wrote aloud at dinner tomorrow night?”

               “I don’t know the details of your deal,” said Joseph.

               “But he doesn’t want to read the poem?” asked Brandy. “That’s what he wants me to prevent?”

               Joseph rolled his head from side to side, eliciting two cracking sounds from his neck. “That’s the prophecy that he wants you to keep from coming to pass.”

               “If he doesn’t want to read the poem,” said Brandy, “then why doesn’t he just not read the poem?”

               Joseph smirked. “Brilliant,” he said. “I can see why you’re such a hot commodity. I would have thought there would be more to ruining a prophecy than that, but you’re the expert.”

               “There’s certainly more to ruining a prophecy than that,” said Brandy. “Or rather, there’s more to ruining a true prophecy than that. But many prophecies, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, turn out to be rather untrue.”

               Joseph’s smirk soured. “Oh, I’ve noticed,” he said. “And I can’t help but wonder to what extent we should attribute your renown to the tendency toward falseness that characterizes the prophecies of so many of my peers?”

               “That’s what literally every seer says,” said Brandy. “Sometimes in language even more flowery than yours. But as soon as I ruin one of their prophecies, their tunes change. Suddenly, they’re astounded at the extent of my power.”

               Joseph pouted, perhaps trying to think of something to say that Brandy would not say was a common thing for seers in his position to say. It didn’t appear to be going well.

               “Anyway,” said Brandy, rising from the chair with the shawl still hanging from her shoulders, “I think you’ve given me enough to work with. Are you invited to dinner with the king tomorrow night?”

               “I am,” said Joseph, standing.

               “I don’t know if I’ll be invited or not,” said Brandy. “But don’t get your hopes too high for some poetry with your meal.”


               With Rin outside in the hall guarding the door, Linaea helped Brandy hang heavy, dark drapes over the windows even though the sun was now setting, then left the room to occupy herself elsewhere in the palace while Brandy worked. With all candles in the room snuffed out and the fire in the hearth extinguished, Brandy knew it would soon get cold, but even with the fulfillment of the prophecy just over 24 hours away, she didn’t think it would take her long to ruin it. The prophesied event was so minor that Brandy couldn’t imagine it was very deeply rooted.

Was Joseph’s prophecy about King Boris’s poetry reading the most trivial prophecy Brandy had ever ruined? Even including the early days when she was just beginning to discover and experiment with her talent, she thought it probably was. Seers tended to keep low-stakes prophecies to themselves since their greatest desires in life were to be taken seriously and to have their importance to world events acknowledged by others, so it was rare to even hear about a prophecy so inconsequential, much less be paid to prevent it from occurring. Which made this whole situation even more fishy, didn’t it? But she couldn’t see the angle for King Boris. Unless there was another prophecy – something more substantial and further into the future – that he wanted her to ruin and this was an audition.

But this speculation was a distraction. Whatever King Boris was planning, Brandy was unlikely to find out unless she completed her end of the deal. And it was already getting cold in the room. Brandy felt her way to the bed and crawled in under the covers. All that she required was comfort – or lack of discomfort, really – and darkness. She lay back so that her head rested on the pillow and looked up into the darkness where she knew the canopy stretched over the bed. As long as she didn’t nod off, this would work fine.

Although Brandy never discussed her methods for ruining a prophecy with anyone, not even the few seers that she sort of liked, her reasoning had less to do with unfriendliness and more to do with her inability to describe her methods. On the few occasions when she’d tried, she’d had no success at all, trailing off into feeble stuttering as she the eyes of her listeners grew glassy with incomprehension. She would have welcomed competition in the prophecy-ruining field if only for the possibility of discussing her work with someone who actually understood it, even if that discussion was primarily adversarial.

Ruining a prophecy felt like poking around. That’s how Brandy thought about it, although she would not have described it like that to anyone else for fear of sounding dumb. But it felt like poking around, just kind of looking and prodding and, well, poking around. Not physically, of course, but neither was it confined to the boundaries of her own mind. But it wasn’t so grandiose as projecting her consciousness onto another plane or her spirit into another realm. It was just, yeah, poking around until she found something familiar, something she recognized from the description of the prophecy she’d been given, although the things she found didn’t look like anything, really. They certainly weren’t literal depictions of the prophesied events, nor symbolic depictions, nor depictions at all. They were just familiar, Brandy could tell when they were the prophecies she was looking for, and she’d get rid of them. She thought of this stage of the process as uprooting a plant, but it didn’t feel like uprooting a plant. Although it could be a struggle, sometimes lasting a day or more if the prophesied event was considerable enough, there was never a satisfying moment of release when the prophecy finally succumbed and tore loose. Instead, it was just there for a while as she tried to get rid of it, and then it would go away. And that was it. The prophecy would be ruined.

Of course, Joseph was also right that much of the time the prophecies were not true, and Brandy would spend a long time poking around, realize the prophecy wasn’t “there,” and call it a day. She’d collect her fee anyway, of course, to compensate for making the trip and giving it a shot. She didn’t think this bit of dishonesty did any harm. The thing her clients didn’t want to happen didn’t happen, and no one needed to know that it wouldn’t have happened regardless of Brandy’s intervention. Brandy got paid and the clients were happy. The one downside was that bad seers didn’t get exposed, but Joseph was right about that too: bad seers made Brandy’s life easier.

In this particular case, Brandy didn’t have to poke around for long until she found what she was looking for, and it popped out of place after only a few minutes of resistance. It was Brandy’s easiest job ever, not what she would have expected from a deal worth six times her normal fee. She did have to give credit to Joseph, though. Not that she would necessarily say so. But the prophecy was true, and given the specificity, that was solid work on his part.

Rin was surprised when Brandy opened the door. “You’re already done?”

“Yes,” said Brandy. “If you see any servants, tell them I need them to get my fire going again, I need them to tell Linaea to come back to my chambers, and that I’m still waiting on the wine and cheese I asked for.”

“I’ve only seen one since you started working,” said Rin. “And he just left. But he said to tell you that you’re invited to dine with the king tomorrow evening.”

“If you see him again, tell him I accept the invitation,” said Brandy.

“Oh,” said Rin. “OK.”

“You already told him that I accepted, didn’t you,” said Brandy.

“Well, why wouldn’t you?” asked Rin. “I knew you would. And anyway, you just proved me right. That’s one prophecy you didn’t ruin.” And as Brandy closed the door, he was still chuckling at this slight variation on a joke he’d made dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times.


Dinner with King Boris was a smaller affair than Brandy expected, attended by a handful of his inner circle plus herself. Joseph was the only other guest Brandy recognized. The dining room was plain, almost austere, but for a huge painting of a woman in silver armor astride a red horse and brandishing a fiery whip. The tip of the whip had set ablaze a violet-colored flower, its petals beginning to singe black. The painting hung on the wall above King Boris’s seat at the head of the long table.

As Brandy ate the first course of the meal, a thin-but-flavorful soup, she tried to decide if she should ask King Boris the identity of the woman in the painting. But something in his posture, the way he passed his spoon back and forth between his right and left hands as he ate his soup, made Brandy think that he wanted her to ask, that he had already planned his answer, and that it was intended to knock her off balance.

At the moment, King Boris was discussing an idea he had for a new kind of horseshoe. The idea was clearly impractical, and it was equally clear that King Boris was aware of that fact, but it was also clear that he enjoyed that the nobleman to whom he spoke felt obligated to treat the idea as legitimate, nodding and making noises of thoughtful consideration. Around the table, the other guests engaged in their own stilted conversations, but no one spoke to Brandy.

“And how have you found your stay since we last spoke?” The king was looking at Brandy and, she then realized, speaking to her.

“Pleasant,” said Brandy. “I’m from the northern part of my home kingdom, so I’m used to winter weather.” She hesitated. “If you don’t mind my asking, Your Majesty, who is the woman in the painting?”

“Which?” asked King Boris, his confusion far too innocent-sounding.

“That one,” said Brandy, gesturing with her spoon. “Behind you.”

“Oh,” said King Boris without looking. He ate two more swallows of soup. Then he said, “Joseph, let’s just open the box now.”

Now it was Joseph’s turn to look confused, although his confusion was evidently sincere. “Yes, Your Majesty,” he said. “Only, well, it’s not yet…um…it hasn’t been proven or disproven…the night isn’t…”

“I know, I know,” said King Boris. “But why wait, really? Right? Either she can do it or she can’t. It shouldn’t be dependent on other factors. If it is, then that means she can’t do it, not really.” He turned to Brandy. “Right, Lady Measling?”

“I…don’t quite follow the question, Your Majesty.” She could tell by the expressions on the faces of the other guests that they didn’t understand what was happening either. Brandy wondered if they even knew who she was. No one had asked, but given the traps King Boris seemed to delight in setting, she didn’t blame them for being reluctant. How could they be sure Brandy hadn’t been invited just to entice them to ask who she was so that King Boris could then somehow embarrass them?

“Joseph made a prophecy about tonight,” said King Boris. “Something about this very meal. I don’t know what it is, but I asked him to write it on a piece of parchment and lock it in a jewelry box. Then I asked him to ask you, Lady Measling the famous “Prophecy Ruiner,” to prevent it from coming true. And at the end of the night, we were going to open the box and see if the prophecy came true or not. If it did, you’d get nothing and be sent on your way. If it didn’t, then I’d pay you seven times your usual fee, maybe even eight times if I was feeling generous. But now I’m thinking, why wait? Why not just see what the prophecy is now?”

“I see,” said Brandy. Some of Joseph’s reactions to her follow-up questions at their first meeting made more sense given this context.

“Do you have any objection?” asked King Boris. “You’re not worried that if I see the prophecy, I might go out of my way to ensure that it comes true, embarrassing you in front of these esteemed guests, spoiling your hard-earned reputation, paying you nothing?”

“No,” said Brandy. “Go ahead.”

King Boris seemed taken aback at her calm. She could tell he’d expected pushback. But she truly wasn’t worried. She had ruined the prophecy. It wasn’t going to come true no matter what King Boris knew or didn’t know.

“Uh, all right then,” said King Boris. “Joseph, where’s the jewelry box with the prophecy in it?”

“Here, Your Majesty” said Joseph. He reached under his chair and produced a small wooden box stained the same dark color as King Boris’s throne.

“Bring it here,” said King Boris. “And the key!” he added with surprising heat. He seemed displeased at how events were progressing. Brandy noted with some satisfaction that she had thrown the king off balance without meaning to. He seemed, like many kings, much more adept at dishing it out than taking it in.

Joseph carried the box around the table to King Boris and handed it to him along with a key he extracted from a pocket within his coat. King Boris waved Joseph away, pushed his plate, bowl, and silverware aside, and set the box on the tablecloth in front of him. He stuffed the key into the lock and turned it harder than necessary, eliciting the acquiescent click. Then, opening the box, he withdrew a piece of parchment and frowned as he read it. “This is it?” he asked Joseph, who was back in his seat and watching the king uneasily.

“Yes,” said Joseph.

“Do you want me to read it aloud?” asked King Boris.

When Joseph didn’t reply, Brandy realized the king was again addressing her, although he was looking at the prophecy. “If you wish,” said Brandy, her voice as steady as she could have desired. “Although you don’t need to, Your Majesty. I already know the substance. Unless Joseph misled me, although I can’t see how that would benefit anyone.”

“I didn’t mislead you,” said Joseph.

“What do you think it says?” asked King Boris.

“The prophecy I was asked to prevent was that you would read one of your poems – as in a poem you’d written – aloud to your guests at dinner tonight.”

King Boris tossed the parchment onto the table beyond the box. “Yep,” he said. “That’s what it says.”

A general pause descended on the dinner. Everyone waited to see what would happen now. King Boris swallowed audibly. “So what’s going to happen, then? I’m going to read my poem, but I’m going to finish slightly after midnight so I won’t have read the whole thing ‘tonight?’ Or maybe we’ll discover that one line was mistakenly plagiarized from a poem I’d forgotten I read years ago, so the poem can’t really be said to be entirely my own? Or I’m going to look up now and again while I read, so you’ll say, well, you didn’t read all of it because you recited some of it from memory?”

“No,” said Brandy. “I don’t deal in those kinds of cheap technicalities. When I ruin prophecies, they’re definitively ruined. No one can doubt that they have failed to come to pass.”

“So I’m going to stand up to read my poem,” said King Boris, “and, what, fall down dead?”

“I don’t know,” said Brandy. “I hope not. I doubt it. In all previous cases the means of the prophecies’ ruinations have been more subtle than that.”

King Boris pondered this for another long, quiet period. “All right, so you let my fear of falling down dead before I can read the poem prevent me from reading the poem instead?”

“I don’t ‘let’ anything happen or not happen now,” said Brandy. “My work is done. I have no idea what will happen, I only know what won’t happen. Besides, you wouldn’t be afraid at all if you hadn’t opened the box, and that was your idea.”

King Boris scowled. Servants appeared carrying trays laden with the meal’s second course, but he shouted, “No! Get out!” and they scurried back through the swinging door from which they’d emerged. “This stinks to high heaven,” said King Boris. “That’s it. I’m reading my poem now.” He reached into the pocket of his rich, burgundy robe and pulled out another folded piece of parchment, this one substantially larger than the scrap bearing Joseph’s prophecy. “I’m not going to stand,” said King Boris as he unfolded the parchment. “That way if I do fall dead, no one will get splashed with soup.” He waited for a laugh, which arrived a full two beats too late. Brandy could see his mood declining in real time.

King Boris, with the expression of a man experiencing a wave of nausea, cleared his throat, licked his lips, blinked hard twice. “Forget it,” he finally said. He stood abruptly, tearing the poem into tiny pieces. “Barley,” he said, startling a man clad all in green and staring into the depths of an empty goblet. “Pay Lady Measling what I owe her, whatever I said last.”

“I…I don’t recall what you said last,” said Barley.

“Nine times her normal fee,” said King Boris. “Or ten times. Something like that.” He stalked out of the dining room and slammed the door behind him.

Barley glanced at the kitchen door, hoping for that second course to return. “What’s your usual fee, then, Lady, uh…”

“Measling,” said Brandy. She told him her usual fee and not a jaw in the room, save Brandy’s own, remained un-dropped.


Back in her room, Brandy sat at a small table near the fire and emptied her new bag of coins onto it as Linaea hovered nearby clapping giddily. “What a fortune, My Lady!”

Brandy shared her handmaiden’s delight but felt it would be unseemly to display it. “I’m not even sure how much it ended up being,” she said. “The king raised the amount every time he mentioned it. I’m going to count it to see where we stand.”

When she’d finished counting and revealed the total to Linaea, Brandy allowed herself a little frolic around the room, laughing until she was out of breath, falling back onto the bed to calm herself before turning in for the night.

“Is this real?” asked Linaea.

“What do you mean?” asked Brandy, propping herself up on her elbows.

“I mean, are we sure there isn’t a catch?”

“No,” said Brandy. “We aren’t sure. We shouldn’t relax until we’re well on our way out of this kingdom, and maybe not even then.”

It was dark in the room but for the fire in the hearth when Brandy woke from vague dreams with a dry mouth. As she tried to decide if it was worth it to get out from under the covers to get a glass of water or if she should instead call out for Linaea, asleep on a cot across the room, to fetch one for her, Brandy heard a soft sliding sound from somewhere in the shadows. Moving nothing except her eyes, Brandy watched as a figure with a vaguely familiar silhouette crept along the edge of the room toward her bed, firelight glinting off of something metallic in its hand.

Brandy could call for Rin, who was stationed in the hall, but she knew he would at best arrive in time to immediately avenge her death. At best. Linaea would be useless. Calling for her would just result in two deaths instead of one, and Brandy didn’t believe handmaidens should be expected to die on behalf of the ladies they served. So it fell to Brandy to make an attempt at saving her own life.

As the figure approached the far side of the bed, Brandy rolled off of the mattress and onto the floor as swiftly and smoothly as she could, landing on her stomach and scrambling under the bed toward the figure’s feet, frozen in midstep as whoever they belonged to tried to discern what had just happened. Brandy reached out like an eel striking from within a cave, grabbed the back of the nearest heel with both hands, and yanked it toward the bed. The assassin’s shin struck the bottom edge of the bedframe and acted as a fulcrum, propelling the upper body back and down. The figure twisted as it fell, landing facedown on the rug with a sharp gasp followed by a moan followed by a gurgle followed by the long sigh of a life departing.

Brandy stayed under the bed for a minute longer waiting for something else to happen, but when nothing did – Linaea didn’t even wake up – she crawled out and went to the door to fetch Rin. A few minutes later, Brandy, Rin, and Linaea gathered around the fresh corpse to see if they could identify it as Rin held a candle near its face.

“It’s that servant,” said Brandy. She pointed to the floppy purple hat on the floor a few inches from his dead head. “That’s his hat. I think the hat means something, but I don’t know what. Slauson! That’s his name.”

“He must have come in through a secret passage,” said Rin.

“That would make sense,” said Brandy. “Based on my previous experience with him. He came from somewhere over there.” She waved in the direction from which she’d heard what she now believed had been the sound of a hidden door sliding closed.

“This is because of the money,” said Linaea. “Or the prophecy you ruined, My Lady. Isn’t it? This is the catch?”

Rin began to walk along the wall, tapping at the stones with the point of his sword, look for tiny creases, artificial indentations, anything even a little un-wall-like.

A knock at the door gave Brandy, Rin, and Linaea just enough time to exchange an alarmed look before they heard the sound of jangling keys and the door swung open to admit three men in the uniforms of palace guards. It did not seem like a preposterous leap in logic to take them for palace guards.

The squattest of the three, his beard angled leftward as if blown by a private wind, said, “We’ve a report of a killing. Where is the body?”

“How would you already know?” asked Brandy. “It only happened a few minutes ago and no one’s left the room since it happened.”

The other two guards trundled past her and around the bed where they knelt to examine the body. “It’s Slauson, sir,” said one. “Stabbed in the chest with a common kitchen knife, the kind one might accept any servant potentially involved in food service to carry, and certainly not the tool of one intending murder.”

“Not good, Lady Measling,” said the leader of the guards. “The king’s favorite servant. That’s what the purple hat meant. A symbol of highest honor, perhaps even a symbol of love – a kind of love, anyway. And you killed him. Perhaps emboldened by the delivery of your exorbitant fee, you called Slauson here in the middle of the night to make some unreasonable request of him, and when he failed to meet your impossible standard – maybe you again thought he was too slow with your wine and cheese – you flew into a rage and stabbed him with the nearest instrument of death you could lay your hand to.”

“So it’s a setup, then,” said Brandy. She felt both sick and amused, but more sick than amused. “But it’s probably a sloppy, improvised setup since Slauson failed to kill me.”

“No,” said the leader of the guards. “The evidence is all against you.”

“Just take the money back,” said Brandy. “If it means that much to him, take it. I never really let myself fully believe he’d let me have it anyway. All this extra drama isn’t necessary.”

“You’ll be held in the dungeon until the king decides what to do with you,” said the leader as the other guards stepped up on either side of Brandy and took hold of her elbows.

Rin stepped forward with his sword raised but Brandy shook her head. “Rin,” she said. “Get real.”


King Boris’s dungeon was like all the others Brandy had seen, and she’d seen a lot of them. Kings and Queens were usually more excited to show off their dungeons than any of the great, beautiful, or otherwise desirable aspects of their kingdoms, so Brandy had feigned interest during quite a few unpleasant tours. So, having witnessed many dungeon-bound prisoners huddled in their cells, she knew the appropriate posture and went right to it, sitting against the wall in the back corner with her knees against her chest, her forehead resting on her knees, and her arms wrapped around her head.

Why was this happening? Was it just because of the amount of money King Boris had paid her? Because that had been entirely his doing, he had been the one who kept raising the price. Was he bitter because he’d been unable to read his poem? Was he just being a sore loser? Brandy supposed it was possible. As a group, monarchs were not known for the reasonableness of their reactions. In that regard, and many others, she had always classified them with toddlers.

“Hello, there.”

Brandy looked up to see a hunched old man, dimly visible in the light from torches hung in intermittent wall sconces, looking at her through the bars of her cell. He wore torn and filthy robes, though Brandy could tell they had once been quite fine, and most of his gnarled toes protruded through splits in his slippers. There was no possible way his beard wasn’t among the most lice-infested to ever exist.

“You’re new,” the old man continued. “You’re the Prophecy Ruiner, yes?”

Brandy didn’t figure there was any point in concealing it now. “Yes, I am.”

“Oh, how interesting,” said the old man. “Then we should have lots to talk about before they execute you.”

“I’m pretty sure that’ll be soon,” said Brandy. “Why would you think we’d have lots to talk about?”

“I’m a seer,” said the old man. “Well, I used to be. I guess it depends on whether or not ‘seer’ is the official title you hold while employed or a term for anyone with the talent. What do you think?”

“Why are you down here?” asked Brandy.

“Replaced! Maybe you met my successor?”

“Joseph?” asked Brandy.

“That’s the one!” The old man looked like someone who would cough a lot, but he hadn’t coughed once. He sounded remarkably healthy given his awful appearance.

Brandy wasn’t surprised that King Boris had confined his previous seer to the dungeon. Royalty tended to be uncomfortable at the idea of someone so privy to their secret machinations wandering free. Brandy was more surprised that King Boris hadn’t killed him right off. “How are you out of your cell?” she asked. “Do you have a key?”

“I do,” said the seer. “But only to my cell. One of the advantages of being a seer. Months before I was replaced, I had a very detailed prophecy of everything that was going to happen to me. That another seer would arise, that he’d make a big, favorable prophecy for King Boris, that King Boris would be so pleased at that prophecy that he’d replace me with the new seer, and that he’d send me to the dungeon to await execution. The prophecy even included which cell I’d be held in. No one else knew about the prophecy – I practice a very lucid style of prophecy and I was alone in my tower when the prophecy came to me – so I had plenty of time to make preparations, to make a copy of the cell key, to hide it in my cell, to-”

“Why aren’t you dead?” asked Brandy.

“Because King Boris thinks I am,” said the seer. “The day before my planned execution, I let the jailer find my cell empty. Knowing he’d be executed himself for letting me escape, he told the king I’d died and that he’d disposed of my body. The King, unable to conceive of someone as lowly as the jailer tricking him, believed it. Then, when the jailer found me back in my cell, he knew that if he told the king I wasn’t actually dead, he’d be executed for lying the first time, and he’s afraid to kill me for real because I faked a trance-style conditional prophecy in front of him where I said if he harmed me my spirit would torment him forever, and then I pretended to snap out of it, like, ‘Oh, what was that? Did I faint? What’s going on?’ And he didn’t say anything, he just scurried off, but now he looks the other way when I wander around down here. And I get more food than the others, too.”

“But why don’t you just leave?” asked Brandy. “The king thinks you’re dead. Why live your life in a dungeon?”

“Because,” said the seer with a smile. “I had to wait for you.”

Brandy stood, her back and legs stiff as timbers, and walked to the bars. “Because I was in your prophecy, too,” she said.

The seer nodded, his grin revealing bad teeth that looked a lot like his toes, or maybe seeing his bad teeth made Brandy realize how much his toes looked like bad teeth.

“And,” said Brandy, “because you know the ‘big, favorable’ prophecy Joseph made for King Boris that convinced him to replace you.”

The seer kept nodding and his smile kept widening as if one caused the other.

Brandy reflected on all that had happened to her since she had arrived at King Boris’s palace. Most of it, at last, made sense. King Boris was sitting on a prophecy he really, really wanted to play out as prophesied. And he was scared that someone might pay Brandy to ruin it, probably the person prophesied to be on the losing end of the prophecy, the queen whose kingdom King Boris was to conquer, maybe, or the king whose wife was to fall in love with King Boris. But before he got rid of Brandy, potentially angering the many powerful people she had previously helped, King Boris wanted to see if she could really do it, if she could really ruin a prophecy. Once she proved she could by ruining his prophesied poetry reading, she had to go. If Slauson had succeeded in killing her, people would have been suspicious, but with the identity of the assassin a secret, King Boris could have feigned outrage, feigned sorrow, morosely blamed himself for not having better security in place for his honored guests, and ultimately most people would have believed him. Because without knowing about Joseph’s secret prophecy, King Boris wouldn’t appear to have any motive for having Brandy killed, especially if he insisted on Rin and Linaea delivering the money he’d paid her to Brandy’s sister back home. And even if people didn’t believe him, well, that was still better than living in constant dread of Brandy nullifying the prophecy he was counting on.

“I have one question,” said Brandy.

The seer stopped his nod, allowing his smile to recede a few notches.

“In your prophecy, what happens to me after I ruin Joseph’s secret prophecy?”

“I don’t know,” said the seer. “My prophecy stopped right at the moment of our meeting.”

But he was lying, Brandy could tell. She could read seers, she knew how their brains worked. The seer knew something was up, Brandy saw the crafty retreat play out on his face.

 “I’m still going to be executed,” she said. “Right? Even if I ruin this prophecy King Boris doesn’t want me to ruin? Come on, tell me the end of your prophecy.”

“I did,” said the seer.

Brandy tried to think this through. She had never before encountered a prophecy about her ruining a prophecy. She was surprised such a thing was possible. It seemed self-contradictory, in a way. If the seer had correctly prophesied that she was going to ruin Joseph’s secret prophecy for King Boris, then she was definitely going to do so unless she ruined this seer’s prophecy about ruining the other prophecy, but she couldn’t reliably ruin the prophecy without knowing enough details to recognize it when she went poking around after it. Where did that leave her? “All right,” she said. “Tell me the details of Joseph’s prophecy that King Boris doesn’t want me to ruin, then bring me the most comfortable blanket you can get your hands on and snuff out the torches near my cell.”

The seer added a gleeful rubbing of his hands to the nodding and smiling, which had returned at full force.


As Brandy lay wrapped in the thick, scratchy blanket on the floor of her pitch-dark cell, she tried to ignore the complaints, grunts, and mutterings of the other prisoners echoing through the dungeon. She had to concentrate as well as she could given the conditions. She didn’t know how much time she had until the executioner came for her. Even if she were focused entirely on ruining Joseph’s secret prophecy, it was substantial enough that she suspected the effort of ruining it might take a full day, maybe two. But that wasn’t Brandy’s plan. Her plan was to spend as much time as she could manage hunting down and ruining prophecies that she didn’t recognize at random in hopes of ruining the prophecy that she would ruin Joseph’s secret prophecy and then be executed. If she succeeded, Joseph’s secret prophecy for King Boris would come true, but she would survive. If she failed, then she would somehow ruin Joseph’s secret prophecy for King Boris on accident and then she would die, thereby fulfilling the old seer’s prophecy. But who knew? Maybe, in the indiscriminate elimination of many prophecies, she’d ruin both of them.

Maybe she’d ruin the whole seer profession, maybe she’d ruin the practice of prophecy, maybe she’d ruin fate itself. Maybe she’d unmake reality, ruining everything.

She closed her eyes, poked around, found a prophecy that could have been anything, and, despite its imposing size, within seconds, with an ease that surprised her, Brandy sent it to oblivion with a cold smile invisible to all.

Discussion Questions

  • If you could make a living by ruining something, what would you like to ruin and why?

  • To what extent does your livelihood depend on people for whom you hold contempt?

  • To what extent does your reputation depend on technicalities?

  • This story, which is over 9000 words long, used to have a whole subplot where Brandy’s driver and her guard are imprisoned for breaking a ridiculous law. I ended up deleting it, which set me back even further, but knowing nothing else about it, do you think the story would have been better with that part left intact?

  • If cold weather kills all the flies in the winter, how do they come back in the spring? If the answer is unknowable, then don’t be afraid to say so.